British Crimes in the enactment and implementation of waste lands laws during  colonial rule  in Sri Lanka (1796 – 1948)
Posted on April 18th, 2016

by Senaka Weeraratna Attorney – at – Law

British injustice in the enactment of waste land laws

Kandyan peasants were made landless. They were reduced to a landless state by the take over of their lands for the plantation industry (initially coffee, then tea) by the British colonial government under a series of waste land laws commencing with the Crown Lands (Encroachments) Ordinance, No. 12 of 1840 which stipulated that ‘ all forest, waste, unoccupied or uncultivated land was to be presumed to be the property of the Crown until the contrary is proved’. By this one stroke of legislation, “bread” was taken out of the poor cultivator’s mouth and enormous hardship imposed on the Kandyan peasantry.

Lack of educational facilities in the Kandyan areas also contributed to the creation of a large functionally illiterate adult population. The Report of the Kandyan Peasantry Commission (1951) highlighted a peasant’s response to this issue as follows “No land, no money; no money, no education; no education, no jobs; no jobs, no money for education or for the purchase of cultivable land”

British employ genocidal warfare in crushing Kandyan resistance to colonial rule (1818) – Retardation of development of Kandyan Province especially Uva

With the advent of British rule in the Kandyan areas in 1815 there arose a set of new ideas of political organisation, of land utilization and of commerce.

At the same time there arose growing opposition from the Kandyan chiefs, the monks and the people to further continuation of British rule in the Kanda Uda Rata as they felt that the British were steadily moving away from honouring the commitments given to the Kandyan signatories under the Kandyan Convention of 1815.

In 1818 a rebellion broke out in Uwa and Wellassa and rapidly spread to  the rest of the Kandyan Provinces. It was brutally crushed by the British using methods that today fall under the definitions of genocide, mass murder and crimes against humanity.

The harsh methods adopted by the British contributed in no small measure to the retarding of development of the Kandyan Province, particularly that of Uva. There was great loss of life where the total destruction of irrigation works and the decimation of cattle combined to impoverish the people and depopulate the area.

Coffee Plantations

Kandyan Sinhalese peasantry were the pioneer coffee growers in Sri Lanka. They were engaged in coffee cultivation decades before British owned plantations were established. Between 1800 and 1804 during the rule of the last King of Kandy the average peasant coffee exports were 1, 116 cwts. While between 1822 and 1825 coffee exports had grown to 10, 246 cwts. The scale of production grew heavily in the 1830s and reached a peak of 148, 000 to 218, 000 cwts. in the period 1865 – 1869.

It was the early success of the Kandyan Sinhalese coffee growers and the discovery after 1815 that the wet zone areas of the Kandyan Province were ideally suited for the cultivation of coffee that pushed the British colonial administration to embark on large scale coffee production on estates.

Unfortunately Kandyan peasant small holders lacked the funds and the influence required to compete with British planters in purchasing crown land.

The colonial govt. itself took to the planting of coffee. But there were very many difficulties particularly in getting adequate labour. The Govt. utilized the rajakariya system in working its plantations. But the private planters found it difficult to find paid labour.  Kandyan Sinhala village organisation was based on service and agricultural labour on the basis of pay was something unheard of, strange and even considered degrading.

Governor Barnes took many steps to encourage the plantation of coffee and other cash crops.

Early British coffee planters received large land grants from the colonial state free of payment in freehold (sinnakara). Major George Bird and Governor Barnes received large tracts of land close to Kandy for coffee growing. After 1833 crown land was sold at a nominal rate free of land tax. Road were opened connecting the coffee plantations with Colombo.

Land grants known as ‘British Grants’ were also made to Native chiefs who were loyal to the British during the Kandyan rebellion of 1818. But they were not given specific land grants in the interior for purpose of commercial agriculture per se.

The Government abolished the rajakariya system in 1833 pursuant to the recommendations of the Colebrooke Cameron Commission Report to solve the labour problem. But it did not bring in the desired results.

British planters then made use of Indian Tamil labourers which were available in great numbers.

British crown treated itself as successor to the Kandyan Kingdom and claimed the ownership of considerable extents of lands in the Kandyan Province. It then commenced on the basis of ‘ownership’ of the Kandyan land to make grants to coffee planters not only of remote forests but also of what are called communal village forests.

British entrepreneurs rushed to the Kandyan hills, resulting in forests and even chenas being sold without reference to the communal rights and the communal needs of the villages adjacent to them.

Crown Lands Ordinance of 1840  

(To prevent Encroachments upon Crown Lands)

The British Govt. next took a daring step in enacting the ‘ Crown Lands (Encroachments) Ordinance ‘ No.  12 of 1840. It is also called the Crown Lands Ordinance or Waste Lands Ordinance. Its Chief Architect was George Turnour .

George Turnour, CCS (1799–1843) was a British civil servant, scholar and a historian. He was member of the Ceylon Civil Service. He is known for his translation of the Mahavamsa, which was published in 1837. Along with James Prinsep and Captain Edward Smith, he began to decipher the inscriptions on the first discovered Pillar of Ashoka. The Turnour Prize at Royal College, Colombo is named after him.

Under this law it was declared (in Section 6 ) that :

  1.        a) all forest, waste, unoccupied or uncultivated land was to be presumed to be the property of the Crown until the contrary is proved,
  2. b)  in the Kandyan Provinces  ( wherein no Thombu registers have hereto been established ) land which can only be cultivated after an interval of several years, shall be deemed to belong to the Crown and not to be the property of any private person claiming same against the Crown, except upon proof of a sannas, or grant or of such customary taxes, dues, or services having been rendered within twenty years for same, as having been rendered within such period for similar lands being the property of private proprietors in the same districts,
  3. c)  in the low  – country chenas and other lands which can only be cultivated after intervals of several years, shall be deemed to be forest or waste lands i.e. shall be presumed to be property of the Crown until the contrary be proved.

Adverse effects of the Crown Lands Ordinance

In demanding proof of ownership to a category of land which has been customarily treated as communal village land the Crown Land Ordinance effectively abolished the user’s rights to high lands.

In the pre-colonial Kandyan Kingdom a peasant had the right to engage in chena cultivation, which was a private right not founded on sannas or royal grant. It was a right to cultivate and not a right to the soil cultivated.

Most peasants who had only users’ rights were not able to produce title deeds to prove ownership to ‘their’ lands

The British abolished this peasant’s private right to cultivate on Crown land. This was a huge blow to their subsistence and well being.

The British policy makers were conscious of this adverse economic effect on the peasantry who were largely dependent on chena cultivation for their livelihood. But since the colonial aim was to make profit through cash crops planted on crown land given away to private investors they were quite ready to dispense with the protests of the badly affected peasantry.

Registration of Temple Lands Ordinance
No. 10 of 1856

More accretions of land to the Crown resulted from the operation of the Registration of Temple Lands Ordinance, No. 10 of 1856.

This Ordinance required all land claimed by Temples to be surveyed for the preparation of a Register of Temple Lands, partly of the expense of the Temple and partly of the Government. A number of Temples that owned large extents of land were forced to omit making claims to large tracts of their temporalities so as to avoid paying the heavy survey charges. These unclaimed Temple lands which were underdeveloped forest and waste lands were subsequently vested in the Crown.

Waste Lands Ordinance, No. 1 of 1897

This Ordinance gave the facility to the Crown to declare vast tracts of land in the country as Crown land.

Whenever it so appeared to the Govt. Agent of the Province or AGA of the District that any land situate within his Province or District is or are forest or chena waste or unoccupied ”, he was empowered by issue of a notice to compel any claimant to appear before and prove his title, in default of which the land would be declared the property of the Crown.

Section 24 of this Ordinance re-echoed Section 6 of the Crown Lands Ordinance of 1846 in stating that ‘all chenas and other lands which can only be cultivated after intervals of years shall be presumed to be the property of the Crown until the contrary be proved’.

Comments of the Kandyan Peasantry Commission–

These laws failed to take cognizance  or make provision for the communal rights of user in forests which the neighbouring villages enjoyed”

its greatest evil was that in practice it degenerated into an instrument for grabbing village forest and chena to be disposed of to the planters”.

Enclosure’ policies in England

There is some resemblance of the waste land laws in Sri Lanka to legislation enacted by the British in their own country in the 18th and early part of the 19th century which deprived the English peasantry of millions of acres of ‘common’ land which was utilized for purposes of large scale sheep rearing and farming. It was called the process of ‘enclosure’ which created a large mass of landless agricultural labourers  who drifted gradually to the new industrial districts and in turn providing an abundant supply of cheap labour to the rapidly developing factories, mines and shipyards”.

In contrast in Sri Lanka the British Planters used cheap Indian Tamil labour in their tea and coffee plantations. This resulted in the Kandyan peasantry becoming virtually imprisoned in their villages that had been shorn of their forests and chenas.   

Grain Tax Ordinance of 1878

This is another piece of draconian colonial legislation which contributed towards the passing of village land into the hands of outsiders. It imposed a tax on owners of paddy land which required them to pay to the Government a tax which was assessed on the basis of the income of the fields that were owned by the respective individuals.

Many Sinhalese paddy land owners found it difficult to pay this tax because the rate was too high and the assessment not in proportion to the return from the fields.

The unpopularity if this legislation led to its repeal in 1890 but not before much damage had been done to paddy land owners who had to dispose of large tracts of their paddy lands to outsiders, to pay the tax or whose paddy lands were sold for non – payment of the tax.

The Kandyan Peasantry Commission says as follows:

The operation of this law directly affected the nucleus on which the village was built and deprived the peasant of the paddy field which was the main source of his food”.

University of Peradeniya Debates in the 1960s

This had happened in the early 1960s at the University of Peradeniya. The two protagonists were Dr. Michael Roberts and Prof. Buddhadasa Hewavitharana. The debate was centred around the impact of the Waste Lands Ordinance.

Dr. Roberts had contended that the Waste Lands Ordinance did not create acute problems for the peasantry. He had brought land use maps and superimposed these maps on the geography of the areas affected to support his case.

Professor Buddhadasa Hewavitharana did not buy into this argument. He had adopted a different approach. He had submitted that the takeover of the land by the Crown under waste lands laws had enormous adverse effects on the peasantry who were basically farmers. They needed extensive land for both chena and cultivation and cattle keeping. They cultivated crops and required cattle for ploughing.  A form of farm power. They needed extra land for pasture ( grass covered land for grazing cattle).

With the take over of the land enormous problems emerged. Cattle in restricted land areas began to trespass. This led to prosecution of cattle owners. Cattle were shot. The traditional method of living of the Kandyan peasantry was affected badly. They suffered. They had no voice to plead their suffering.

Dr. Lal Jayawardena joined hands with Dr. Michael Roberts in challenging the popular view among Sri Lankans that the colonial land legislation resulted in large scale expropriation of the lands of the Kandyan peasantry. He argued instead that colonial land policies created a class of high land peasant proprietors which did not previously exist. He further contended that the colonial state played a paternalistic role vis a vis the peasantry in ‘conserving’ the peasantry who were threatened by market forces.

Dr. Asoka Bandarage in her seminal work ‘ Colonialism in Sri Lanka’ says that Dr. Jayawardena neglects to

  1. a) mention that it was colonial legislation that unleashed those threatening market forces by converting the land into a commodity, and he
  2. b) fails to recognise that while a very large amount of the high lands to which peasants had customary users’ rights were expropriated by the state only a very small portion was resold to the peasantry in freehold.

Destruction of the Fauna and Flora in the Kandyan Provinces

Today various issues are being raised by the London-based World Animal Protection (WAP) and like organisations towards stopping tourists from traveling to Sri Lanka because of alleged cruelty to elephants in elephant rides and cultural practices in Sri Lanka.

As much as the Human Rights Discourse has become highly unconvincing and in fact been turned into a huge joke not for any other reason but for the fact that the biggest proponents of Human Rights in the international arena are the very countries that have blood of the innocents on their hands in waging aggressive wars in many parts of the world according to their whim and fancy and which are not sanctioned by the UN Charter, the subject of animal rights may also encounter cynicism and skepticism if the proponents use animal rights to pursue hidden agendas against countries that have a pre-dominance of Eastern Dharmic religions.

The British public and foreign funded NGOs are the least eligible to raise a moral cry over the plight of elephants in Sri Lanka given the close involvement of their forbears and the British Colonial Government in the deliberate and planned extermination of the wild elephants in Sri Lanka during the colonial era. The evidence for the destruction of the elephant wealth of Sri Lanka by the British is overwhelming. It is available in public records of the colonial government and the unrepentant memoirs of the perpetrators of such mindless killing of innocent animals.

During British colonial rule, vast swathes of mountainous forests were cleared to make way for tea growing plantations. This decrease in habitat contributed significantly to wild elephant populations being pushed into areas inhabited by humans leading to the first elephant human conflict which has grown into virtually an insurmountable problem in Sri Lanka today.

The British Colonial Government has a lot to account for the crisis it created by destroying the natural habitats of the wild elephants as well as the habitats of the Kandyan peasantry in its greed to establish Tea and Coffee plantations in the Up country by enacting the Waste Lands Ordinance (1840) that led to the dispossession of the traditional homelands of the Kandyans.

One Account says as follows:

” Until 1830, elephants were so plentiful (in Ceylon) that their destruction was encouraged by the (British Colonial) government, and rewards were paid for any that was killed. In the first half of the 19th century, forests in the montane zone were cleared large-scale for the planting of coffee, and afterwards tea. The elephant population in the mountains was extirpated.

During the British rule, many bull elephants were killed by trophy hunters. One of the army majors is credited with having shot over 1,500 elephants, and two others are reputed to have shot half that number each. Many other so-called sportsmen have shot about 250-300 animals during this time. Between 1829 and 1855 alone, more than 6,000 elephants were captured and shot.”

No apology nor any compensation has been paid by any of the Western colonial Governments e.g. Portugal, Netherlands and Britain, to Sri Lanka for the destruction of both man – made as well as the natural foundations of life in Sri Lanka over a period of nearly 450 years (1505 – 1948).

Accountability for crimes cannot be made into a one way street. It will bring both International Law and United Nations into disrepute and give rise to credibility issues.

The vastness of the British Empire including the jungles of Sri Lanka was made into a hunting ground for Big Game on the part of members of British military families.  They hunted not only for pleasure but also as part of their training for battle and display of their manhood and masculinity. It was the Fauna and Flora of Sri Lanka that paid a huge price for this training which brought out a new genre – hunting narratives.

The material available in public records and other sources including the Internet, reveals huge British Govt. complicity in the liquidation of a good part of Sri Lanka’s natural forests in the Kandyan areas and the priceless elephant wealth which was until then greatly protected by Sri Lanka’s Animal Friendly Cultural Heritage which is based on Buddhist values and reverence for the sanctity of life of all living beings.

British cruelty to Elephants

British sadism was such that killing elephants became a sport. Within a matter of few years over 3500 elephants had been shot dead. Major Rogers had killed 1200, Captain Galway had killed 600. Elephants were one time part of the Elephant Brigade of the Kings army. By 2000 there were said to be less than 1500 elephants in Sri Lanka in a country that had over 10,000 elephants before the British seized the Kandyan Kingdom in 1815.

The sadistic and unrepentant English hunter Samuel Baker upon returning to England in 1855 after a stay of 6 years in Ceylon had no qualms of conscience to publish a book titled, “The Rifle and Hound in Ceylon” where he describes the wanton destruction of Sri Lanka’s elephant population by him illustrating with captivating drawings his own personal involvement in the mass murder of elephants.

A day’s success at hunting was measured by the number of animals killed in one day not sparing even an orphaned destitute baby elephant that strode behind hugging the mother’s heel. Sometimes this figure reached thirty or forty in number. In his narrative Samuel Baker shamelessly admits that when a lactating she elephant was killed he and his brother did not fail to enjoy the spilling milk from the mother’s udder sucking the nipples with their mouths as it was deemed wholesome.

We read regularly in the western dominated international newspapers and even in our spineless local press of the atrocities committed by the Axis powers e.g. Nazi Germans against Jews and other subject people, but in respect to the crimes committed against both humans and animals during the colonial era all over the world by the western colonial powers, there is a deafening silence.

Accountability and Atonement are important even in respect to dead animals.

In the memory of 6000 dead elephants and hundreds of thousands of innocent animals killed by British Colonialists for fun and sports at a time when local people were helpless to protect them we the people of Sri Lanka today have a moral obligation to try to achieve justice for these dead elephants by remembering them and see what compensation can be obtained from the very nation i.e., Britain, which encouraged British settlers to kill elephants and depopulate the Kandyan Kingdom by bringing the Waste Lands Ordinance (1840) and thereby rendering the Kandyan people landless and destitute.

Those who benefited from these crimes against elephants and humans e.g. both Kandyan and local people, are accountable for the crimes.

Historical injustices by the colonial powers must be rectified. They cannot be swept under the carpet any longer.

Apology and Reparations are very much on the Cards today.

They cannot be wished away however much the British Govt., and their local acolytes try to do.

Viewpoint: Britain must pay reparations to India

Ask the Jews to forget the past e.g. Holocaust and see how they react?

If it is in order to commit crimes then accountability must surely follow. If you act wrongfully then you cannot blame another for pointing the finger at you and others who have benefited from your wrong(s) including your descendants and saying ‘you did a wrong ’. That is what we are doing. Our ancestors and forebears were powerless then to undo the wrong(s). The fetters that tied them no longer tie us of the present generation.

There is a measure of justice in remembering the past and innocent victims both humans and non – human animals.

There is no statute of limitations for crimes against humanity nor even genocide of animals.

Those who care for elephants must keep the memory of the dead elephants alive to ensure that such monstrous crimes are not allowed to be repeated on this soil again.

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana).

It is time that Sri Lanka makes an unequivocal demand for financial compensation from Britain for atrocities committed on Sri Lanka’s elephant population during the colonial era, among other just claims e.g. dispossession of the Kandyan Peasantry, for the purpose of setting up a sizeable monetary Fund to address elephant related issues in the country.


Massacre of elephants in Sri Lanka

by Godwin Witane

The Unspeakable in Pursuit of the Uneatable

How the British Exploited Sri Lanka

By J.B. Müller


In conclusion, let me quote the words of the Kandyan Peasantry Commission:

Most of the land legislation during the British times tended to impoverish the village and to strengthen the hands of the speculators in land. The old Kandyan law which gave the seller of any land and his descendants the right to re-purchase the land at any time was abolished by proclamation in 1821. These new land laws made village lands alienable; the partitioning of land was made easy; the abolition of rajakariya loosened the bonds which held together the village unit. All these combined to impoverish the villager and destroy the economy of villages and the co –operative social life of its inhabitants”.

Senaka Weeraratna 

3 Responses to “British Crimes in the enactment and implementation of waste lands laws during  colonial rule  in Sri Lanka (1796 – 1948)”

  1. Fran Diaz Says:

    A very valuable article by Senaka Weeraratna for which we thank him.

    When we were school children, none of these facts were told to us. We learn of the facts about Colonisation in our old age !

    No wonder Sri Lanka had two insurrections by the rural youth of the country put down mercilessly without talks being held. Many generations of rural people of Lanka have suffered untold misery under Colonists. The entire country is still paying dearly through the ‘divide & rule’ set off by the British rulers especially.

    We fully understand the problems that face the masses only now …..

    Sri Lankans and Indians must resist all forms of Colonisation if they are to survive. Brings up the question of the Yahap UNP proposal to lease out 5,000 acre lots for 99 yr leases – a virtual re-sale of the country to Colonists ?
    Also, teh proposal to join up Lanka with Tamil Nadu through the sea tunnel – seems like a suicidal wish ?

  2. Christie Says:

    Thanks Senaka.

    In 1840 three Ordinances were brought in. waste lands, gun ownership and trade registration.

    This destroyed the Sinhala people making them landless, unarmed and no trading.

    Indian colonial parasites were given land owned by the absentee land lord the British, armed the Indian colonial parasites and trade was given to Indian colonial parasites.

    When Banda came to power and later his family continued with similar laws empowering the Indian colonial parasites, thanks to Indian imperialists.

  3. Fran Diaz Says:

    Christie, you are quite right and I would add that the masses of Sinhala people were made destitute and uneducated, whilst the Tamil leadership was encouraged to convert to Christianity and become English literate and educated.

    The ‘divide & rule’ flourished high during the British times.


    The new Land Ordinance from abroad is the 5,000 acre lots of land to be leased to foreigners for 99 yrs ! This is a ‘Parampara idam kuliya’ extending to several generations, isn’t it ?

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