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Regime Change in Ceylon: 1815


17 June 2017 12:43 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


“The West won the world, not by the superiority of its ideas, values or religion but, rather, by its superiority in applying organised violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-westerners never do” -- Samuel R Huntington

 History matters. Obeyesekere relates events, two centuries after they had occurred and a century after the Russian Revolution. Yet they are all so contemporary! Confused by memories, living in a very unpredictable past and troubled by Fukuyama’s statement that all had ended, Obeyesekere has given a fillip to re-interrogating the relevance of history. Both Hegel and Marx considered History to be teleology, moving to a purpose. The impact of Portugal and Holland on Sri Lanka was akin to the placid non-movement in a cemetery: 1815 regime change, headed by the leading country of the Industrial Revolution, promised traction to a stalled Hegel and Marx.   

 It is desirable to learn history, but, it is more enchanting to make it. Needed societal change- the making of history- takes place, not by pensively contemplating the navel or delivering profound statements from pulpits or their equivalents, but through actions which necessarily entail violence and pain. History making without violence is like having rice without a spicy curry. Force is the midwife for every old decaying society pregnant with the new. It is a birthing of history.   

 A regime change was introduced by the British in 1815, in the governance arrangements of the Kandyan Provinces of Ceylon (Sri Lanka, since 1971). Obeyesekere is the recorder of the 1815 birth event. Obeyesekere claims that the 1815 regime change in Sri Lanka is, “probably the most momentous event in Sri Lankan history”. The British, pushing democratic slogans and expressing concerns for the People, were specialists at inducing violent regime change round the world, all the while preaching morality.In 1952, the elected prime minister of Iran- Mossadeg- was removed by Britain, claiming popular demand. He was replaced by the reviled ex-Shah, booted out earlier to huge acclaim by the People. (Iran is yet paying the price for this British atrocity). Today, Britain is in Afghanistan fighting to introduce democracy, despite being booted out of that country on four occasions.   

 The 1815 regime change is a 9/11 event. A 9/11 event is not an individual’s biography writ large, a great man’s involvement in making history; history is not biography. A 9/11 event is a fulcrum point, giving the future a possibility, like the seething promise offered in 1917, which begat the Bolshevik revolution. A successful 9/11 event leads to all encompassing systemic changes, a full blown rehash of all aspects of the prevailing political economy of a society- politics, power relations, economics, social relations and culture. It could be progressive or retrogressive, depending on the value system of the viewer. History is tenacious, more than Fukuyama would care to know. 9/11 is a noun, a verb, an adjective and an adverb. Unfortunately, Obeyesekere’s study restricts itself to the input- the mechanics of take-over of territory but not the stabilisation of take-over- for example, the inhuman crushing of the reaction to 1815, or, the output- long term exploitation of the resources taken over. If not for the regime change of 1815, today’s Sri Lanka would be a Nepal.   

 Prior to 1505, Sri Lanka’s migrant streams were sourced from within the Indian sub-continent. From 1505, this migrant catchment widened, to cover the European continent. After 1505, the Portuguese and the Dutch ruled the Maritime Provinces of Sri Lanka, for periods of 150 years. In 1796, the British East India Company took over the Maritime Provinces from the Dutch, under a diplomatic deal called the Treaty of Amiens, and incorporated them as part of the Madras Presidency, a commercial company exercising sovereignty! (It is a supreme irony that this company, is, today, fully owned by an Indian citizen). This bastardly governance arrangement could not last: in 1802, this brand was re-imagined and nationalised. The Maritime Provinces were then placed under the British colonial secretary. There were now two polities in Sri Lanka, the Maritime Provinces under the British and an independent Kandyan Kingdom, under her own King. (The map on page 24 presents the cartography).   
 Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, (SVR) (1798-1815), the King of the Kandyan Provinces and Frederick North (1798-1805), the Governor appointed by the British authorities to head of the newly acquired Maritime Provinces, assumed their positions of responsibility in 1798. SVR and North (sequentially succeeded by Maitland (1805-1811) and Brownrigg (1812-1820)), were the dramatis personae in this gripping prose drama written by Obeyesekere. From the beginning, the only objective of the British was to make the Kandyan Kingdom a subordinate political entity to the British crown, mostly for international reasons, and prevent the Kandyan King from breaking out of her landlocked geography. This was Britain’s dedicated imperial project. The objective of the Kandyan Kingdom was the opposite. It was a zero-sum game. The fall of redoubtable Tipu Sultan of Mysore in 1799, further whetted North’s appetite for Kandyan conquest.   

 The British tried many soft approaches to gain her objective, primarily using the talent of a Cambridge educated intelligence chief, John D’Oyly, working under Maitland and later Brownrigg. Without suffering any moral anguish, he cynically catered to the whimsical self-development objectives of leading Kandyan nobles. He suborned personalities and dissatisfied Kandyan upper strata, which included Pilimatalawe- the first Adigar-, and later Ehelepola, his successor. The British sponsored pretenders to the Kandyan throne- Muttuswami was one of them, pushed one-sided draft treaties, supported anti-Tamil programs in the Kandyan areas. There were demonising psychological warfare campaigns- psycho-ops- to induce mass sentiment change against the King. Using a copious flow of alternative facts, SVR was painted a foreigner, an unacceptable Tamil. There was an active disinformation drive. When everything failed, the British opted for the hard approach of war.   

The first, the 1803-1804 war, was a humiliating defeat for the British, North having to declare martial law in his own Maritime Provinces. The British partially burnt down the Dalada Maligawa, a precursor to the ashing of the Jaffna Library. Obeyesekere records these hard and soft strategies in meticulous detail. Eventually, persistent British efforts bore fruit, SVR falling victim to multiple dark arts of subversion. The ethic of the playing fields of Eton were not too evident in these strategies. The deck was stacked too heavily against the King. The British declared war again in 1815 on trumped up charges. It ended shortly and swiftly.   

 After SVR’s defeat, he departed to Vellore, drummed into exile by the British, supported by a bunch of undercutting and collaborating Kandyan aristocracy, Ekneligoda being the despicable worst. A Shakesperean dramatist could have written an entrancing play of this period, portraying the interplay of intrigue, violence, power, ambition, betrayal, treachery and sheer bloody-mindedness. As Obeyesekere drily remarks, “the European world at that time, and in our own times, was a world of violence and bloodshed, and it needed a great deal of self-deception to say that the British of 1815 was the exemplar of tolerance and humanity, as the British like to represent themselves”. With SVR’s departure, the long and distinguished history of Sri Lanka as an independent country was over, ended with her evisceration by Kandy’s brightest and the best.   

 From all accounts, SVR was a popular king devoted to infrastructure development, “a compulsive builder of dams, ponds, and irrigation works”. He rebuilt the Dalada Maligava, partially burnt by British forces in the 1803-04 war. He built the Octogon and the Kandy Lake. He had a spacious vision for a Cosmic City of Kandy, like the vision the government has for today’s Colombo city. He had a reputation for sensuality, indulgence, depravity, brutality and evil which could partly be a labelling effect, produced by propaganda spurning any sense of objectivity. He had his enemies, who were determined to bring him down and replace him with one of their kind, if they could decide who that person was to be. SVR was the Premadasa of his age, the latter surviving a deposition by impeachment. An example offered of SVR’s evil, was the “Pounding Episode”, the cruel punishment imposed on Kumarihamy, the wife of first Adigar, Ehelapola.   

 Kumarihamy’s family tragedy occupies significant space in Obeyesekere’s narrative, as it should. It is an example of the building of a myth model. According to Obeyesekere, “myth models are those forms of life with an event from a powerful story or a ‘myth’ which is then employed in a variety of contexts. Myth is sometimes equated with falsehood but in Obeyesekere’s specific usage, it deals with profound or symbolic truths that nevertheless operate in everyday life------Thus a myth model occurs when some powerful event from the past is replicated in the present, the latter becoming a myth model based on the former”.   

 The “Pounding Episode” is an example of the visceral simplicity of myth formation. Kumarihamy, was the wife of the first Adigar (Chief Minister) Ehelapola. Ehelapola succeeded Pilimatalawa, against whom there was a proven case of traitorous relationships with the British. Pilimatalawa was unmasked, tried and executed, after which Ehelapola was appointed to the post. With the British, whose unremitting endeavour was the deposition of SVR, Kandy became the intrigue capital of Sri Lanka. Hot- house Kandy was the equivalent of Vienna of post WWII intrigue- depicted well in Orson Welles’s black and white film, “The Third Man” or Berlin of the cold war- depicted in Le Carre’s “The Man Who Came In from The Cold”. Rumour and counter-rumour swirled, many of them centering round the unsated ambitions of Ehelapola. Eventually, these rumours were confirmed. Before the King could take action, Ehelapola fled to Colombo, without obtaining the King’s approval to leave Kandy, which he was obliged to do. In such a situation, the law was that the family could be incarcerated as hostages, pending the return of the fugitive or suffer the same penalties as a traitor.

Ehelapola did not return and the rule of law was applied. Obeyesekere quotes Thoen, a Dutch gunner who reported that, “ four children of Ehelapola Adigar had their heads cut off, the youngest being torn from their mother’s breast for the purpose. Their bodies were dragged through the streets of Kandy and the heads put into a mortar, the pestle of which was forced into the mother’s hand, and she was obliged to pound the mangled bodies of her own children. (It was said later that she had agreed to do so under duress. If she had not complied, she was threatened with ravishment by a Rodiya, an unheard of indignity). She, with three more women relations of the Adigar, were then led to the brink of a large tank, by some female slaves of the palace, their hands and feet being bound a stone tied round the neck of each. They were thrown into the lake, where their bodies still remain.”

Obeyesekere, in the best traditions of a critical academic, casts doubt on the pounding episode. Thoen was not an eye witness to render this vivid account, as he was the prisoner of the King, incarcerated in distant Uva. Father Ehelapola, did not refer to the pounding nor did D’Oyly, though, if the story were true, they would have been the first to give it widespread publicity. Neither Brownrigg nor Thoen made any attempt to spread this story among the people. The children’s beheading did take place but the pounding is untethered by fact.   

 Obeyesekere attributes the behaviour of some of the Kandyan nobles, like Ekneligoda, to being suffused with Ressentiment. Ressentiment is not a fancy French noun to depict resentment. Obeyesekere’s glossary clarifies, Ressentiment as “an important term invented by Friedrich Nietzsche, to denote extreme and unrepentant malevolence”. In page 306-307, Obeyesekere writes, “Ekneligoda is an Iago or Richard III typecharacter and exemplifies what Nietzche brilliantly diagnosed as ressentiment, a man who carries a deep grudge or a sense of indubitable wrong done to him, a person with a ‘venomous’ eye”. This characterisation is partially correct but misleading. Re-sentiment is the psychology of a superfluous person, educated into a sense of hope and entitlement (in Sri Lanka free education) but rendered adrift by his limited circumstances and abandonment, and, thereby, open to feelings of weakness, inferiority and envy, which could ferment into malevolence. He is spiritually unmoored. He could be a member of the JVP, never the Kandyan nobility.   

 Obeyesekere should be congratulated on his presentation of the complex events of this period and with fidelity. His book should be read not only for the minute of the details of the regime change of 1815, but also for the alerts it provides. If history’s lessons were not heeded, Mankind is surely destined to consumed by them.   

Jolly Somasundram graduated in Modern History (1960), from the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya. 

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