SIR ROBERT BROWNRIGG - Conqueror of Kandy
@ Book: "British Governors of Ceylon" by H.A.J. Hulugalle
Sir Robert Brownrigg was the Governor under whose personal command the Kandyan kingdom, which had lasted for over two thousand years, was reduced by British forces and its territory annexed to the coastal area of Ceylon which was already ruled from London. He succeeded where North had failed, benefiting by the patient work of reorganization and consolidation carried out by his predcessor, Sir Thomas Maitland. In England Brownrigg was hailed as “the conqueror of the kingdom of Kandy”, and the King (George III) allowed him to bear the crown, sceptre and banner of the King of Kandy in his arms.
He was a stubborn, if unimaginative, soldier, and when he had to deal with a civil uprising in the newly-conquered territory, he was guilty of errors which caused unnecessary bloodshed. His Chief Justice, Sir Harding Giffard, wrote sarcastically during the troubles of 1818: “Our Agamemnon is busy in Kandy collecting his new forces about him with which he proposes to perform many things. The old gentleman, I hear, is quite bewildered-he will see no one, but being lifted in the morning from his bed to his chair, he continues fixed for the rest of the day writing himself to death about every trifle and nonsense that come to his brain.” He was fifty three when he was appointed Governor of Ceylon and sixty-one when he retired.
Robert Brownrigg was born in 1759, the second son of Henry Brownrigg of Rockingham, in County Wicklow, Ireland. He was gazetted an ensign in the 14th Regiment in 1775 and joined it in America. In 1780-81 he served as a marine on board the fleet and from 1781 to 1784 was stationed in Jamaica. His family was not rich and he had only himself to depend on in his profession. At the age of twenty-five he was promoted Captain in the 100th Regiment and nine years later he was promoted Lieutenant-Colonel of the 88th Regiment, joining the army in the Netherlands as Deputy Quartermaster-General. He served through the campaign of 1794 and in the disastrous retreat to Bremen.
Brownrigg was a protege of the Duke of York and became his Military Secretary when the Duke was appointed Commander-in-chief in February 1795. He accompanied him in the expedition to the Helder in 1799 and in the same year was appointed Colonel Commandant of the 60th Regiment. He was promoted Major General in 1802, and in 1803 exchanged the appointment of Military Secretary at the Horse Guards for that of Quartermaster-General. His conduct of the latter office received the approbation of the Duke of Wellington and in 1808 Brownrigg was promoted Lieutenant General and served as Quartermaster-General of the Walcheren expedition in 1809.
In October 1811, Brownrigg was appointed Governor of Ceylon. He had not had any experience of civil administration and no previous contact with an oriental people. His appointment as Governor in a colony where recently His Majesty’s forces had been engaged in warfare against the levies of the local ruler had clear implications. When he arrived in Ceylon in 1812, the stage was indeed set for another embroilment with the Kandyan kingdom. It remained for a fighting General like Brownrigg to bring the whole island under British influence if not British control. It does not seem to have been the intention of the British to annex the Kandyan kingdom though their policy inevitably led to it.
During the peaceful tenure of Maitland, the King of Kandy had strengthened his hold on his subjects. The once powerful Prime Minister, Pilame Talavve, who had led Governor North such a merry dance, had fallen from grace. Suspected of designs on the throne, charges of maladministration were brought against him and he was deprived of office and dignity. In his frustration Pilame Talavve conspired to assassinate the king. The plot failed and he and his accomplices were summarily executed. He was succeeded by Ehelepola, his nephew.
The British Government in Colombo took pains to keep itself informed of what went on in the Kandyan kingdom. One of its brightest officers, John D’Oyly, who had mastered the Sinhalese language to become a scholar, was in correspondence with certain Kandyan chiefs, receiving their letters which were inscribed on dried palm leaves. He was one of six who were appointed by Dundas in 1802 to the Ceylon Civil Service, with salaries of £1,000 and upwards. D’Oyly had been educated at Westminster school and Corpus Christi, Cambridge, where he took his degree as Senior Optime in 1796, and was second for the Chancellor’s medal.
So rapid was D’Oyly’s progress in acquiring a knowledge of the Sinhalese language that three years after his arrival in Ceylon he was appointed Chief Translator to the Government. In this capacity he was entrusted with all the negotiations with the court of Kandy. A valuable record of his work is to be found in his Diary, which was discovered in the Kandy kachcheri and published in 1917 with an introduction by Mr. H. W. Codrington, the author of the well known history of Ceylon.
It was soon apparent that Pilame Talavve’s nephew and successor too had fallen out of favour with the king. The king’s distrust of Ehelepola derived from a suspicion that he was party to Pilame Talavve’s conspiracy. When the Minister was discourteously treated by the king, and charges brought against him, Ehelepola sent an emissary to D’Oyly proposing that the British should occupy Kandy. He said in a letter: “If you have a desire for our country, it is good that anything which is done be done without delay” Although D’Oyly declined to commit the British, “he intentionally couched his reply in terms that might not altogether discourage”. After an abortive attempt at rebellion, Ehelepola fled to British territory. Fear and suspicion led the king to take extreme steps and brought out the savage in him. Ehelepola’s wife and children, his brother and family, were put to death in the most revolting circumstances.
Stricken by grief and despair, the errant and wayward Minister was received by Sir Robert and Lady Brownrigg at their country house at Mount Lavinia. The king gradually forfeited all popular support in his kingdom, and blinded by wrath he groped from one blunder to another. Ten villagers from Mahara, in British territory not far from Colombo, who were trading in Kandy, were falsely accused of being British spies. They were mutilated, the nose, right ear and right arm of each being cut off. The victims were sent back to Colombo with the severed members tied round their necks, seven dying on the road.
Brownrigg regarded this “wanton, arbitrary and barbarous piece of cruelty” inflicted on British subjects as sufficient justification for war. By the end of 1814 all preparations were completed for an invasion. On January l0th, 1815, he incurred the sole responsibility for commencing hostilities in opposition to the advice of his Council. The invasion began under the personal command of the Governor. Apart from a few skirmishes there was no fighting. Indeed, the campaign was in the nature of a triumphal procession, chief after chief joining the British as they advanced.
Kandy was occupied on February 14th, 1815, and the king himself was taken prisoner on February 18th at Gallehewatte, in Dumbara. The total strength of the British army was 3,744, of whom none was killed in action. The Act of Settlement, read at the Convention or March 2nd, expressed the principles on which the future government under the British Crown was to be based. It was prepared by D’Oyly and had a preamble which sought to justify the seizure of the Kandyan kingdom. “Led by the invitation of the chiefs, and welcomed by the acclamations of the people”, it said, “the forces of His Britannic Majesty have entered the Kandyan territory and penetrated to the capital. Divine Providence has blessed their efforts with uniform and complete success. The ruler of the interior provinces has fallen into their hands, and the government remains at the disposal of His Majesty’s representative.”
Thus ended Sinhalese independence after 2,357 years. General Brownrigg was made a G.C.B. in January 1815 and given a Baronetcy in the following year. D’Oyly was appointed Resident of Kandy with two assistants. To this board was entrusted the government of the Kandyan provinces. They were administered as of old, through the dissavas and ratemahatmayas. The king, Sri Vikrania Rajasinha was meanwhile removed to Colombo and thence to Vellore in South India with his mother, four wives, mother-in-law, and his retinue. The ex-king died in 1832 and his only son, born to him in exile died in 1843. Sri Vikrama is supposed to have said to the British: “Beware of Ehelepola and Molligoda. They deceived me and they will deceive you.”
On August 1st, 1815 there were great doings in Colombo. A ball was given by the officers and staff to the Governor and his wife to celebrate the success of the operations against Kandy. The decorations were elaborate and appropriate to the occasion. Landscapes in colour of Kandy and its environs from sketches made on the spot by Captain Stace were the main theme. There was a picture of the lake constructed by the last king and of the pavilion in its centre where his refractory wives had been kept in retreat. The ball was opened by Colonel Kerr with Lady Brownrigg.
The annexation of Kandy was followed by three years of peace. But an undercurrent of uneasiness ran through the Governor’s despatches to London. He knew that, despite a genuine effort by D’Oyly to conciliate the chiefs and the Buddhist priesthood, British rule was neither popular nor understood. There was a revolt in 1818 which assumed somewhat serious proportions. News of trouble in Uva, the Kandyan province in the south-east of the island, reached Brownrigg one day after he had with Lady Brownrigg set out for Kandy from Trincomalee, whither he had gone on tour. Five days later he reached Kandy and took charge of the direction of operations. Travelling in Ceylon in those days was not without its perils.
“Brownrigg’s procession”, says a writer, “was led by tusked elephants with swinging bells and an escort of mounted dragoons; he and his wife were borne on tom-johns-comfortable arm chairs with hoods, each with four bearers; these were much cooler than the heavy palanquins, which were impossible on the track, with the further advantage that the passenger could observe the surrounding country by drawing back the front and side curtains.”
Brownrigg was now seriously worried by the “rebellion”. He learned that there was a Pretender about, a Tamil stranger by the name of Duraiswamy, a brother-in-law of king Rajadhi Rajasinha. On October 1817, Sylvester Douglas Wilson, Assistant Resident at Badulla, had received information about him. The Muslim headman whom Wilson had despatched to investigate what went on, had been captured by a band of men armed with bows and arrows. Wilson himself was shot down as he was returning to Badulla from a tour of inspection. Meanwhile Brownrigg had been misled by Ehelepola about the activities of his fellow chiefs. Keppitipola, his brother-in-law, had already thrown in his lot with the rebels.
The Governor was now convinced that the chiefs were “without exception treacherous”. He also knew that they were jealous of each other and would betray one another when it suited their ends. “But these faithless politicians”, he wrote, “are influenced by discordant motives, and however they may agree in their ambitions and desire for power and honours, they widely differ in their view of the means to acquire, and the manner to divide, the prize. They are broken into parties which will never unite to resist a government of any energy or strength.”
Every chief of importance, with the exception of Molligoda, had either joined the rebellion or was in custody. At the start Brownrigg was not able to move his forces due to bad weather and the guerilla tactics of the rebels. “The rebels are not get-at-able,” he wrote, “so we are reduced to burning and laying waste the property of the headmen and leaders.” Ehelepola was suddenly arrested at the Audience Hall on March 2nd 1818, and sent to Colombo.The rebels had claimed that he was their secret supporter. He had refused to accept office under the British and his aloofness had caused suspicion. He was kept in easy confinement first in Colombo and later in the island of Mauritius where he died of dysentery in 1829.
With the arrival of reinforcements from India, the back of the rebellion was broken. The Kandyans were ill provisioned and armed with only primitive weapons. Davy estimates their losses at not less than ten thousand.
The rapid collapse of the rebellion was as much the outcome of disunity among the leaders as of military operations. It emerged that the Pretender was but a puppet of Keppitipola and no relation of the deposed king. He was in fact an ex-Buddhist priest named Vilbava. Keppitipola along with Madugalle was tried by court martial and beheaded. A man of courage and fine presence he went to his death bravely.
The reinforcements from India began to return in December. But it was not until 1920 that the entire auxiliary force left the shores of Ceylon. They had cost the Ceylon Treasury £ 232,675. D’Oyly’s influence was of great value during and after the disturbances. The swing back of the villagers was hastened by the Proclamation of' August 1st, drawn up by him which promised a pardon to all who, submitted before September 21st. D’Oyly was rewarded for his services with a Baronetcy. He died in Kandy in 1824 of a fever. He had lived an austere life-all work and no play. Sir James Mackintosh after a visit to Kandy wrote that “D’Oyly had almost become a native in his habits of life. He lives on a plantain, invites nobody to his house, and does not dine abroad, and seems, an amiable though uncouth recluse. When I saw him come into dinner at Mr. Wood’s I was struck with the change of a Cambridge boy into a Cingalese hermit.”
Lady Brownrigg, who often accompanied her husband on his official journeys, was a woman of courage and good sense. There are many stories told of her kindness and consideration to others. Lieutenant Skinner, who joined the Ceylon Rifles at the age of fourteen, and later became Ceylon’s greatest road-maker, was invited to dinner at Queen’s House soon after his arrival in the Island. In his autobiography he writes: “My sword, an ordinary regulation one, was a serious inconvenience, being out of all proportion, in point of size and weight to the wearer. I had had a heavy day’s drill and felt knocked up. Lady Brownrigg had most kindly reserved a seat for me next to her at dinner but, directly it was over, my head dropped, and I fell asleep at the table! When the ladies retired, she most kindly took me to her room, disencumbered me of my military paraphernalia, and laid me on her bed, where I slept until my commanding officer was ready to take me home again. This is a sad story to the prejudice of my fitness for the service, but an instance of her motherly kindheartedness which I can never forget. I never went to sleep at the Governor’s table again although frequently invited to it.”
At her own expense Lady Brownrigg constructed a rest house for weary travellers who climbed Adam’s Peak, the sacred mountain of the Island. Dr. Hoffmeister, who accompanied the Prince Waldemar of Prussia during a visit to Ceylon, writes: “I regard her in her pedestrian activity with far higher esteem than Countess X who was dragged up the Pyramids by her arms: the ascent here is in many parts no less steep and far more slippery.”
Lady Brownrigg’s brother, the Rev. George Bisset, was the Governor’s private secretary. An ex-Buddhist priest who was employed by the British as “a zealous agent” against the Kandyans, was converted to Christianity by him and given the name of George Nadoris. In his letters to Bisset, George Nadoris “frequently expressed his anxiety that their contents should be communicated to Lady Brownrigg, who treated his sycophancy with amused condescension.”
Lady Brownrigg entertained lavishly. It is recorded that she gave a ‘Rout’ at Government House on January 18th, 1813. She took a keen interest in the Government Botanical Gardens at Slave Island, Colombo, and attended an al fresco ball and supper given by “the bachelors of the 4th Ceylon Regiment”.
On February 1st, 1820, Sir Robert Brownrigg left Ceylon after an eventiful period of office. The journey back is described by James Steuart, the captain of the ship who later founded the well known Colombo business of George Steuart & Co. In his interesting account of how Governors and elephants travelled in those days, he writes:
“We sailed from Madras on the 24th and anchored in the harbour of Trincomalee on the 27th where we embarked the headquarters of H. M. 45th Regiment, commanded by Colonel Stackpoole, for conveyance to Colombo, and landed them at the port on the 10th December.
“From this time to the end of January 1820, we were employed receiving cargo for Colombo. In this somewhat protracted interval, I was present at all the public functions given to Sir Robert and Lady Brownrigg previous to their departure for England. For this purpose, spacious temporary bungalows were erected on the Parade Ground in the Fort, and splendidly decorated with appropriate emblems also beautifully adorned with palm leaves and flowers in the simple yet elegant style peculiar to the Sinhalese. It was at this time I became acquainted with Sir Edward Barnes who as Lieutenant-Governor, succeeded Sir Robert Brownrigg in the Government of Ceylon, and the command of the army.
“On Tuesday the 1st of February, 1820, we sailed from Colombo having on board General Sir Robert Brownrigg, Lady Brownrigg, Colonel Hardy, Captain King, Dr. Davy and Captain Page in command of thirty invalid soldiers from the Regiment serving in Ceylon.
"On the 21st when we reached l3o South latitude, the sea became so rough as to indicate the existence of stormy weather that the ship could bear very little sail, and notwithstanding the top gallant masts were struck and everything that could be removed brought on deck, she laboured heavily and leaked considerably. This tempestuous weather continued for nearly two whole days, during which the larger of the two young elephants we had on board kept on its feet. From its collar a chain was fastened to a ring in the gangway stanchion sufficiently long to allow the animal to stand athwart ship with its haunches against the bulwark, so that as the ship rolled one way its haunches were supported by the bulwark, and when she rolled the other way the animal placed its feet against the deck battens, and assisted by its collar being attached by its chain to the ring in the gangway stanchion, it kept its feet through the gale, and when fine weather returned its hide was quite white with the salt that dried on it.
“This half grown animal was so tame that young children were pleased to play with it. On one occasion when we were at dinner, a little fellow, the son of an officer, was heard to call out lustily for help. I reached the deck in time to see the old corporal who had charge of the elephant running to take the child from between its legs. The animal had in play caught up the child with its trunk and laid him on the deck. One stamp with its foot and the boy might have been killed, but he was only frightened and made more cautious for the future in playing with the animal in the absence of its keeper.
“On the 5th May as we were anchoring at St. Helena, the Governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, accompanied by Sir Thomas Read, came on board to pay his respects to Sir Robert Brownrigg. From them we heard of the decease of George III, and of the Duke of Kent, the assassination of the Duc de Berri, and the capture of Thistlewood. While we were refilling our empty water casks and receiving fresh vegetables, three of the passengers rode out to Longwood, the residence of the great Napoleon Buonaparte, who they were told, refused to receive visitors, but amused himself in his flower garden, and gave his guards no trouble...
“Soon after our arrival in London the ship was advertised to proceed to the Mauritius and Ceylon, and the Hon. Sir Edward Paget, on the recommendation of Sir Robert Brownrigg, applied for the Eclipse to convey himself, his family and suite to Colombo to assume the Government of Ceylon.”
It is interesting to recall that in the years 1825-30 Sir Hudson Lowe commanded the forces in Ceylon.
Sir Robert Brownrigg was Governor of Landguard Fort from 1823 till his death at Helston, near Monmouth, on May 27th, 1833.