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The driving force of Colonial Ceylon’s temperance movement

FR Senanayake

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In all Colonial Administrations of the world, none has proved to be more harmful than the introduction of the evils of alcoholism. The damage done by ‘Fire Water’ in the Americas and ‘Kaffir Beer’ in Africa was only the tip of the iceberg

Buddhism and Hinduism, the only religions of Sri Lanka at that time totally prohibited the use of alcohol. It was the arrival the Portuguese in Lanka that brought the use of alcohol to the coastal belt and to areas occupied by them

F.R. Senanayake who returned to the Island after graduation from the Cambridge University in England as an Attorney took a leading role in organizing and conducting these meetings. As a student he had conceived an idea of forming peoples’ organizations to educate the masses of political awareness. These organizations he created were called (LANKA MAHAJANA SABHAS’ and were in existence throughout the Country, when the new liquor policy was introduced. Their effort to educate the masses the evils of alcoholism became a total success as liquor sales started dwindling rapidly

 

A nation that conquers another is never motivated by the love for the vanquished, but rather by the profitability for the victor. The march of Colonialism may have brought about benefits to a subjugated nation, but they are not deliberately done for the love of the masses, but are results of the scraps that fall from the table of the Colonial masters in their pursuit of economic advancement. 

 

Nevertheless, greatness lies not in total rejection of the actions of a Colonial administration but acceptance of the beneficial and the rejection of the harmful. 


In all Colonial Administrations of the world, none has proved to be more harmful than the introduction of the evils of alcoholism. The damage done by ‘Fire Water’ in the Americas and ‘Kaffir Beer’ in Africa was only the tip of the iceberg. In Sri Lanka the consumption of intoxicating drinks was in existence from time immemorial. But it was always looked down upon and its consumption always received Royal punishment. Only a very small minority was engaged in it secretly. Furthermore, Buddhism and Hinduism, the only religions of Sri Lanka at that time totally prohibited the use of alcohol. It was the arrival the Portuguese in Lanka that brought the use of alcohol to the coastal belt and to areas occupied by them. However, the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505 and throughout their occupation, the total occupation period of the Dutch and up to 1815 when Sri Lanka totally came under British control, the Lankans were not affected by alcoholism. It was only after 1815 that the British Colonial Government systematically introduced alcohol to the masses even against opposition from some of their own ranks. 


In 1801, even before Ceylon (Sri Lanka) became a British Colony, Mr. George Gregory, who was the revenue officer of the British administrative areas recommended to the British Government to effectively spread the use of arrack to increase revenue. His recommendations were forwarded by a letter addressed to Mr. William Boyd, the Deputy Secretary of the Colonial Government. However, the proposed spread of alcohol was handicapped as the British Government as at that time was at war with the Kandyan Kingdom. 


In 1815, with the historic Kandyan Convention, Sri Lanka became a British Colony and a change started taking shape. Firstly, with the establishment of British troops in the interior of the country liquor started spreading to these areas for their consumption, initially through illicit liquor manufacture and then by the deliberate action of the Colonial Government. This position is amply demonstrated by the Governor’s letter, Dispatch 144 of 1816, to the Secretary of Crown Colonies where reference was made to an involvement of an Army officer named Simon Soyers who established a liquor distillery in the Kandyan region in order to counter the illicit liquor trade and to provide liquor to British troops. 


On the advice of a letter dated 25th October 1818 addressed to the Up Country Administrative Board by Lt. Col. Hook, the Colonial Government acceded to the policy of using liquor as a revenue earner and went on to establish taverns for this purpose. Lt. Col. Hook who dismissed the idea that it is a harmful influence, went on to say that the encouragement of the locals to partake in liquor will in addition enable the government to obtain the knowledge of the suspected secret manipulations of the Sinhalese people. 


By 1850, the danger of the Liquor menace had spread throughout the country creating absolute havoc. Major Thomas Skinner who was alarmed at this turn of events, made the following observation in his autobiography ‘Fifty years in Ceylon’. 


He wrote,“That the view of intemperance has become an enormous evil, and that is rapidly gaining ground, there is left-no room for doubt. A revenue of between 50,000 pounds 60,000 pounds a year derived from the sale of arrack farms. Renters purchase from Government the monopoly of the taverns of a district; the conditions requiring the renter not to sell his spirits under 4s. a gallon, he purchases it from the distillers at average ls.2d a gallon. The competition for these arrack farms is so great that they are seldom sold much under their value. It is of course, the object of the renter to sub-let as many of these taverns as possible; they are established in every district, almost in every village of any size throughout the interior, often to the great annoyance of the inhabitants, and in opposition to the headmen. To give the people a taste for the use of spirits, it is often, at first, necessary to distribute it gratuitously, the tavern-keepers well knowing that with the use, the abuse of indulgence follows as a certainty. I have known districts, of the population of which, some years ago, not one in a hundred could be induced to take spirits, where drunkenness now prevails to such an extent that the villagers have known to have to pawn their crops upon the ground to tavern-keepers for arrack. We know the train of evils which are the inevitable consequences of intemperance in the most highly civilized societies; but deprive the poor uncivilized, uneducated native of his great redeeming virtue of sobriety, and you cast him adrift at once, an unresisting victim to all the vices of humanity.” 


Sir William Henry Gregory, the Governor of Ceylon from 1872 to 1877, while addressing the Legislative Council in 1872, informed the Councilors that he was in receipt of many petitions by the Clergy of all religions as well from Europeans, Sinhalese and Tamils protesting against propagation of Liquor in the Island. He said, there is one subject more on which I cannot be silent, and that is, the extension of drunkenness throughout the Island. English rule has given to Ceylon many blessings, which the inhabitants are ever ready to acknowledge - security of life and property, equality before the law, and just tribunals, the abolition of serfdom, excellent roads to promote and facilitate the conveyance of produce; but we have at the same time extended a curse throughout the Island, which weighs heavily in the other scale, namely, drunkenness. Some years ago, as I am informed, a drunken Kandyan would have been disgraced in the eyes of his fellows. Now the occurrence is so common, that the disgrace has passed away; drunkenness is extending itself gradually into villages where it was before unheard of, and even women are accustomed themselves to intoxicating drink. I have had some remarkable petitions on this subject: - the first from the Roman Catholics of Jaffna and other parts of the Northern Province, numerously signed by Europeans and Natives alike. Another petition was recently presented to me by the Rev. Scott, signed by no less than 32,396 persons - 7,382 English, 16,419 Sinhalese, 8,595 Tamils. These petitions I am glad to inform you are characterized by moderation and good sense. They do not go to the length of advocating the total prohibition of the sale of spirituous liquors. The petitioners are aware that such an attempt would be impossible. But they say ‘Restrict the places of sale, and thus discourage intoxication, and diminish the great moral and social evils which flow from it.’ 


With the blessing of the Governor, the Legislative Council adopted the policy of reduction of taverns. This of course came with the reduction of revenue to the government. However, it was the contention of the Governor that the reduction of revenue would be offset by reduction of the expenditure incurred for the remedies that have become necessary because of liquor. The Governor went on to state, 


“In these recommendations I warmly concur. In restricting the sale of intoxicating liquors some diminution of revenue must be expected, but, in the words of the petitioners, any decrease under that head would be more than compensated by an improvement in the general well-being of the community, and in the reduced cost of establishments for the suppression and punishment of crime. 


In corroboration of this argument, I may mention that in the majority of cases where the sentence of capital punishment has been pronounced, and which have been referred to me, arrack has been connected with the crime. It is my intention, with the assent of the Executive Council, to issue a circular to the Government Agents to contract as far as possible, at the commencement of the year, the sale of intoxicating liquors, and to prevent its extension into rural districts. “ 


This liquor policy was not acceptable to Sir Henry McCallum, who became the Governor of Ceylon in 1907. To reverse the revenue loss, he presented a new liquor policy on 15th April 1912 to the Legislative Council which resulted in the escalation of taverns throughout the country. Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, who was the representative of the Tamil Community, opposed this motion. But the low-country Sinhalese representative Sir Christopher Obeyesekere supported the Ordinance much to the annoyance of Sinhala leaders such as Srimath Anagarika Dharmapala, F.R. Senanayake etc. This new liquor policy of the colonial government gave birth to the Temperance Movement in the Island. Angered by the rise of this new spirit of nationalism, Sir Christopher went on to castigate this movement as an attempt by ‘nobodies’ trying to be ‘somebodies’. 


Agitation against the liquor policy of the government commenced with a meeting held on 25th May 1912 at the Ananda Maha Vidyalaya. This meeting was attended by many Nayaka (Chief) Monks and Buddhist leaders.

Encouraged by the outcome a public meeting was held three days later at the Vidyodaya Privena in Colombo and was attended by both Buddhists and Christians. This well attended meeting was addressed by Anagarika Dharmapala, Walisinha Harischandra and Don Spater Senanayake, the father of F.R. Senanayake. It was resolved at this meeting to represent matters against the liquor policy of the colonial Government to the Government of the United Kingdom, through a delegation led by Sir D.B. Jayatilaka. F.R. Senanayake accepted to fund most of the expenses. 


Presided by Don Spater Senanayake the Temperance Movement was inaugurated at Ananda Maha Vidyalaya in Colombo on 14th July 1912. A meeting held on 23rd July 1912 to further the cause of temperance. At this meeting, it was resolved to adopt the following resolutions. 


The installation and opening of toddy and arrack taverns decided by the government should be postponed; 
Regulations should be initiated to obtain the consent of the local residents in opening toddy and arrack taverns as well as in renewing their licenses annually; 


An order should be promulgated to prohibit women and children from drinking liquor and being sold liquor. 
A memorandum was prepared to this effect and was sent to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the British Government signed by Messrs F.R. Senanayake, W.A. de Silva, C. Batuwantudawe and Edmund Hewawitharana. The British Government took up the position that taverns were established only where requests were made for liquor. The Anti-Liquor Society knew that was not the case and requested a survey to be conducted to prove their allegation. Since no survey was conducted, the Temperance Society disappointed by the attitude adopted by the government continued with their agitation. They held meetings throughout the country to boycott the liquor menace. F.R. Senanayake who returned to the Island after graduation from the Cambridge University in England as an Attorney took a leading role in organising and conducting these meetings. As a student he had conceived an idea of forming peoples’ organisations to educate the masses of political awareness. These organisations he created were called (LANKA MAHAJANA SABHAS’ and were in existence throughout the Country, when the new liquor policy was introduced. Their effort to educate the masses the evils of alcoholism became a total success as the liquor sales started dwindling rapidly. 


Hapitigam Korale the home of F.R. Senanayake the Temperance movement recorded unpresented success. F.R. co-opted his younger brother D.S.Senanayake to propagate Temperance work at Hapitigam Korale. It is believed that it was here that D.S. really showed his capabilities. A memorandum dated 31st January 1914 addressed to the Government Agent of Western Province by the Mudaliyar of Hapitigam Korale clearly indicates the unprecedented success enjoyed by the Temperance Movement. Under the heading (Toddy Taverns)’, the Mudaliyar informed the Government Agent that owing to the presence of the strong Temperance Movement not a single tavern has been opened in his division and that in his opinion all taverns may cease to exist for the period 1914-15. 


The Temperance Movement had become a thorn in the sensitive flesh of the colonial government. Angered by the successes of the Temperance movement, the colonial government looked for ways and means to discredit them. The opportunity the colonial government was looking for presented itself with the emergence of the Sinhala-Muslim riots in Kandy. Though the Temperance Society in general and its Buddhist leaders in particular had nothing to do with the riots, the Colonial Government went ahead and arrested and incarcerated almost all the Buddhist leaders of the Temperance Movement. They took particular care not to arrest the Christian leaders of the Movement in order to create a division among the Buddhists and the Christians. As the riots sparked off with the result of the stoning of the Esala Perahara (Procession of the Temple of the Tooth) by some Muslims living in Kandy, a deliberate attempt was made by the colonial government to show that it was a complete Buddhist affair backed by the Buddhist leaders of the movement. However, indiscriminate arrests and horrors of Martial Law unleashed by the Colonial Government against the Buddhists failed miserably and the Colonial Office recalled the Governor, released the Sinhala Buddhist leaders from imprisonment and informed the Temperance Society on 24th December 1915, that they have accepted the position of opening of taverns only after receiving the consent of the people of the area. Having accepted this position, the Government did everything possible to obstruct the work of the Temperance Society. 


Recalling the obstacles, they had to face, F.R.’s brother D.S. Senanayake told the Legislative Council on 18th June 1925, 


“If you know, Sir, how Government worked against temperance workers at the beginning you will sympathize with them more …..We had a local poll at Mirigama, and we had to poll for nine taverns at one place. We had to get people from distances of ten and twelve miles to that spot to vote, and at the time allotted to us was so short that we had to record at the rate of 400 votes an hour. It may thus be imagined with what difficulty we had to work on that occasion. The lists of all villagers included in the areas were given by the Government Agent, but when I went there the Government Agent said that he had altered the list. I told him that he had given a different list some time ago. He repudiated it as it was given by his assistant. Well, we did work and succeed to such a large extent by evening that the Government Agent could not raise his neck, because he had to record all the votes, and he wanted a few minutes’ rest. The same Government Agent, when a voter requested him to permit him to record his vote early as his child had died, said ‘No, wait till your turn comes’! I remember telling the man, ‘You go home and bury your dead child’. But the man turned around and said ‘My child is dead; he will not come back to life. I shall do my service to my country and go.’ For people to come here and speak against temperance workers merely because they are fond of the bottle, I say, is not right. I am sorry, Sir, I made that remark, but I could not help making it.” 


With all the obstacles placed in its way, the Temperance Movement still achieved remarkable success in its activities. In 1918, the Toddy taverns and the arrack taverns stood at 736 and 669 respectively. But by 1928, the Toddy taverns were reduced to 229 and Arrack taverns were reduced to 148. This success story severely dented the revenue earned by the colonial government. 


Temperance Movement was never geared to derail the Colonial Government or to achieve Independence to Sri Lanka. It was created to safeguard an age old custom enshrined in our culture. As a result, Buddhist and Christian leaders joined hands in opposing the liquor menace that was engulfing the country. However, the Colonial Government had other thoughts, they did everything possible to destroy the Temperance Movement. The Sinhala Buddhist leaders were arrested on a false accusation of organising the Sinhala - Muslim riots. Martial Law was declared and many Sinhala Buddhists were killed and their lands were confiscated. Horrors of Martial Law witnessed the arrest of F.R. Senanayake, his elder brother D.C. Senanayake and his younger brother D.S. Senanayake and a number of other Buddhist leaders. They were kept in incarceration without trial with the threat of execution. During this period, an officer namely Edward Henry Pedris who was in charge of Colombo Town Guard were arrested for shooting and injuring Muslims and inciting the Sinhalese. Though the evidence presented were of highly dubious nature, the Military Court condemned him to death. Captain Pedris was arrested on 1st July 1915, and executed by firing squad on 7th July 1915. Within a period of seven days he was executed in spite of appeals to the Governor and even to King George V. 


Captain Henry Pedris may have been murdered to settle old scores and to instill fear, but what they did not bargain for was that this despicable act would spark off the freedom struggle in Sri Lanka. Angered by this heinous crime, F.R. Senanayake spent lavishly to free the condemned prisoners by sponsoring agitation in the British Parliament and in influential sectors, It was the life sacrificed and blood spilled by this great man Captain Henry Pedris that motivated the Sri Lankan patriots to demand freedom and attain Independence for this Land. 
SENANAYAKE FOUNDATION 


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