In 2016, the Government of Sri Lanka pardoned posthumously, those who rose up to regain the independence of the country two hundred years ago and who had been branded as traitors to the British crown. 101 names appear on that incomplete honour role
“Recognizing that the key strength of Kandyan Kingdom lay in the unity of the people, the chiefs, the monks and the King, the British set about demonising the King and gradually splitting him from the chiefs, his people and the monks. These were the three traditional pillars on which power of the King and the integrity of the kingdom rested. Then they craftily exploited the differences among the chiefs. The parallels of these events 200 years ago with events unfolding today are difficult to ignore”.
On March 2nd, we recall a momentous event that occurred 200 years ago, that resulted in the loss of Lanka’s sovereignty to the mightiest empire, the empire on which the sun never set, that the world had known up to that time. Lanka had remained unbowed for over 2300 years. Although we rose up in rebellion three years later, it was a heroic but unequal struggle with a much more powerful and vengeful colonial power which had also through unscrupulous manipulation succeeded in fracturing the unity of the Kandyan people, encouraged factions suspicious of each other and diluted the centuries old bonds that held the Kingdom together.
Having gained access to the mountain fastness of the Kingdom, it had also cleverly positioned itself and the boundless resources of its vast empire to snuff out any effort to regain our freedom which we had lost in 1815. The Kandyan uprising may have had some hope of success at certain times but the odds were weighted too unequally and the desperate struggle of our ancestors ended in failure. In the words of Tibetan, Mahinda Thera, “The Independent Crown Which Was Ours for Two Thousand Years, Was Now No Longer Ours”. Britain, which had through devious strategies taken over the control of the Kandyan Kingdom, and as it demonstrated time and again in different parts of the world, perfidiously breached the solemn commitments that it undertook by treaty, causing the sparks that inflamed the Kandyan highlands and proceeded to entrench itself in Lanka for 133 years before leaving following the debilitation experienced in the Second World War.
In 2016, the Government of Sri Lanka pardoned posthumously, those who rose up to regain the independence of the country two hundred years ago and who had been branded as traitors to the British crown. 101 names appear on that incomplete honour role. In reality, 778 rebel leaders were either executed, imprisoned or banished from the country, for challenging the British crown. Their ancestral lands were confiscated and the owners were debarred from returning to them in perpetuity forcing them to seek refuge in distant and inaccessible parts of the Kingdom. The villagers who had worked on those lands suffered summary evictions and were forced to labour on military road building projects. The vast acreages were later given to those who chose pliantly to serve the colonial master or to British plantation companies.
Even the records left by the colonial administrators themselves indicate that during the uprising, thousands were slaughtered by the British forces, houses and crops were torched, women raped, children orphaned, temples looted and most of the Kandyan countryside devastated. Britain was to repeat this ignominious performance many times in other parts of the world before it belatedly discovered human rights.
The many circumstances that led to the great Kandyan uprising of 1817/1818 need to be analysed carefully to separate myth from reality, truth from convenient propaganda, including cheap and uninformed political sloganeering
The people rose up again in 1848 against the colonial power. But on that occasion, the uprising was quelled much more rapidly by an occupier who, by this time, was much more solidly entrenched in the country. Though smaller uprisings occurred in 1820, 1823, 1824, and 1828, none of them seriously threatened the British control of the highlands.
The many circumstances that led to the great Kandyan uprising of 1817/1818 need to be analysed carefully to separate myth from reality, truth from convenient propaganda, including cheap and uninformed political sloganeering and to understand why the Kandyan masses, led by their chiefs, rose up against the British in 1817 and why the British were successful in suppressing them.
First, a comment on the factors that contributed to the fall of the Kandyan Kingdom. Despite the many assertions made to explain the fall of the Kingdom to the British in 1815, there are a number of incontrovertible facts that tend to get blurred in the search for catchy slogans and easy analyses. It is a fact that Kandy valiantly withstood the efforts of two contemporary world powers to conquer it for over two centuries and paid a massive price in men, resources and social coherence. By the early 19th century, it was an utterly exhausted kingdom, a fruit ready to be plucked by a strong empire. The Kandyan aristocracy, which tends to be conveniently vilified through ignorance or for political advantage, provided the leadership to the people against the foreign invaders on all those occasions, without exception. They led the village militias in building the defences, armed them, provided the leadership and protected the King and religion. On occasion, it was the Kandyan leaders who ventured to the foreign dominated lowlands to harry the occupiers and even to negotiate with them.
While the Kingdom of Kotte in the western coastal lowlands, and Jaffna in the north of Lanka fell under the domination of the Portuguese during the 16th century, and the populations were quickly subjugated, in particular through proselytization, Kandy emerged as the proud bastion of Sinhala independence. Sitawaka collapsed totally after the death of warrior king Tikiri Bandara Rajasinha in 1592. There was not much resistance in the lowlands to the foreign occupiers after that.
The Kandyan Kingdom, commonly referred as the “Sinhale”, since the first attempt of the Portuguese to control it in 1591, valiantly resisted repeated attempts of the Portuguese, the Dutch and initially the British, to conquer it, at great cost to itself and even greater cost to the invaders. The Europeans were, all, in their day, the super powers of the world.
Portuguese ambitions to completely subjugate Sri Lanka were comprehensively thwarted by a Kandyan prince in 1591. The Portuguese, who were well established in the Kotte Kingdom by this time sought to consolidate their power over the whole country by invading Kandy to enthrone their protégé, Yamasingha Bandara, baptized as Dom Philipe, the heir of the dispossessed ruler of Kandy, the late Karaliayadde Bandara. The invading force was accompanied by a Sinhala nobleman, Konnappu Bandara, who had spent much of his youth in Goa under Portuguese protection and acquired western skills. Konnappu Bandara, baptized as Dom Joao de Austria, dressed in Portuguese attire, (A contemporary wood cut of his meeting with Joris van Spielberg aan in 1602 is on display in the Reijks Museum, Amsterdam), spoke Portuguese, had acquired Western military skills and demonstrated more than a passing familiarity with Western culture, having been influenced by the missionaries. Dom Philipe was installed as king by the Portuguese but died under suspicious circumstances, and Konnappu Bandara, to their surprise, enthroned himself with the assistance of the Kandyan chiefs who were searching for a Sinhala royal to take over the throne, adopting the regal name of Vimala Dharma Surya. Many times in the ensuing two centuries, the chiefs coordinated among themselves to install men with royal blood on the Kandyan throne and this desire was evident even when they decided to depose the last king, a Nayakkar from South India whom they had come to despise. Subsequently, in 1594, the Portuguese invaded again and attempted to crown Karaliyadde Bandara’s daughter, Kusumasana Devi, baptized as Dona Catherina after Queen Catherine of Austria, as the empress of Kandy and were soundly beaten by Wimaladarmasuriya’s forces. They had even planned to marry her to a nephew of the Portuguese Conquistador in Sri Lanka, Captain-General Pedro Lopes de Sousa.
Wimaladarmasuriya, whose forces had captured Dona Catharina, married her to consolidate his power.
He also reverted to the traditional faith of the people, Buddhism. He resuscitated Buddhism in the Kandyan Kingdom by inviting learned monks from Burma who re-established the ordination ceremony. Many commentators believe that had he not done so, Buddhism would probably have disappeared from Lanka due to relentless Christian missionary activity.
While the Portuguese were brutally persecuting the Buddhists and destroying their temples in the lowlands, under the Kandyan kings non Buddhist religions were treated with respect. It is likely that Dona Catherina remained a Catholic till her death.
The Muslims, ruthlessly persecuted by the Portuguese, sought refuge under the King of Kandy. Kandyan villages such as Akurana, Gampola, Ruwanwella and Batticaloa are still Muslim dominated as a result. Later when the Catholics faced persecution under the Dutch, the King granted them protection. Waha Kotte is still a Catholic dominated village near Monerawila, Pallepola and Ehelepola in a sea of Buddhists.
A prolonged period of warfare with the Portuguese, lasting over 70 years, ensued with the Portuguese persisting in their efforts to conquer Kandy and the Kandyans routing the invader repeatedly.
In the face of the colonial assaults, successive kings, the chiefs and the people of the Kandyan Kingdom were forced to defend their highland home time and time again for the next 215 years. A task which they accomplished with incredible success despite not having a large standing army, being a small population and possessing relatively meagre resources. They used the mountainous terrain of their kingdom to maximum advantage, perfected military tactics that were unfamiliar to the European invaders and even copied and mastered the weapons that the Europeans had introduced. Their audacious endurance and commitment, ingrained by a fierce sense of national pride and identity, surprised the invaders.
In 1841, British Lieutenant De Butts noted that the ‘physiognomy of the mountaineers is influenced by the bold scenery amid which they reside, and which is supposed to impart somewhat of hardiesse to their manners and aspect.’ This physiognomic difference was said to map on to a divergence in character, evident in the ‘servility’ and ‘effeminate’ nature of the lowlanders, which contrasted with the elevated manliness of the highlanders. Trying to find a reason for the 1803 defeat, Robert Percival observed that the inaccessibility of the interior rendered the lines of Kandyan character more bold and prominent in contrast with the subjection and tranquillity of the lowlanders.
But the incessant warfare and Portuguese depredations decimated the population, especially the male population, damaged the system of agriculture and disrupted the social fabric. As contemporary writings suggest, poverty and deprivation were common in the Kandyan Kingdom but this did not prevent the average villager from picking up his arms and bravely advancing at the behest of their king and chiefs to confront the European invaders time and time again. On occasion, Kandyan victories were nothing but spectacular. The surprising thing is not that the Kandyans held out but that they managed to do so with astounding success for over two hundred years. One could attribute this in large measure to a fierce sense of national pride couple with loyalty to the King, their land, their religion and their chiefs.
A period of fending off the Dutch who had succeeded the Portuguese ensued. Although, the Dutch who were more interested in trade rather than territorial acquisitions and religious conversions, were lesser marauders than the Portuguese.
The British ousted the Dutch from Lanka. They had recently defeated Napoleon’s navy in the Battle of the Nile and were beginning to control vast areas of India. Supremely confident of their own superiority, they sought to ensure that the entire Island of Ceylon was firmly under their control mainly for strategic reasons. This became a clear policy goal of Britain’s expanding empire. The existence of a small independent kingdom in the middle of the country was causing them additional expenses and could be exploited by a competing power at some point. It was an irritant that had to be snuffed out.
Before long, they began to do what their European predecessors had been doing unsuccessfully for 200 years. Governor North even suggested the creation of a protectorate with a British regiment stationed in Kandy, but this proposal was rejected by the Kandyan chiefs who remained loyal to their King. The first major British invasion of Kandy suffered the same fate as those of the Portuguese and the Dutch. The King commanded the loyalty of the chiefs, the people and the monks and the invaders were massacred at Le Wella (Bloody Beach) but the world’s only superpower at the time did not take this defeat lying down. A follow-up incursion suffered defeat also.
Despite the success against the first British invasion, there is little doubt that the Kandyan Kingdom was in a state of acute fatigue and the inevitable challenge to its independence from the British Empire would be impossible to resist.