“In Memory of the Heroic Freedom Struggles of 1818 and 1848” 
Posted on November 28th, 2018

Key-note address delivered at the University, Peradeniya, Kandy By Dr. Palitha Kohona, Former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, Former Foreign Secretary 

26 November 2018

Today we look back on a heroic struggle that our ancestors waged 200 years ago   against the mightiest empire that the world had known up to that time, to regain their freedom and that of a nation that had remained unbowed for over 2300 years. Unfortunately, it was a heroic but unequal struggle with a much more powerful and vengeful colonial power which had also through unscrupulous  manipulation succeeded in splitting the Kandyan people  in to factions suspicious of each other and diluted the centuries old bonds that bound the nation together. Having gained access to the mountain fastness of the Kandyan 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 two years earlier. There may have been some hope of success at certain points of the uprising but the odds were weighted too unequally and the desperate struggle of our ancestors ended with failure. In the words of Tibetan, Mahinda Thero, 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 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, branded as traitors to the British crown. Their lands were confiscated and the owners were debarred from returning to their ancestral lands in perpetuity. The villagers who had worked on those lands suffered summary evictions. The land was later given to those who chose to serve the colonial master or to British plantation companies. Many in this audience will breathe a sad sigh at this thought.

During the uprising, thousands were slaughtered by the British forces, houses and crops were burned, women raped, children orphaned 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 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, and 1824, none of them seriously threatened the British control of the highlands.

We need to take a step back and examine the circumstances that led to the great Kandyan uprising of 1817/1818 to attempt to separate myth from reality, truth from convenient propaganda, including cheap political sloganeering and to understand why the Kandyan masses, led by their chiefs, rose up against the British in 1817 and later in 1848 and why the British were successful in suppressing them.

First, a comment on the fall of the Kandyan Kingdom. Despite the many assertions made to explain the fall of the Kandyan 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 criticized mainly for political correctness, provided the leadership to the people against the foreign invaders on all those occasions, without exception. They led the village militias in building defenses, 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 bastion of Sinhala independence. There was not much resistance in the lowlands to the foreign occupiers once the Kotte and Sitawaka Kingdoms were subjugated.

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. It is important to note that in a supreme act of arrogance, the Portuguese and the Spanish had even divided up the newly discovered lands of the world to which their ships had sailed under the Treaty of Tordesillas, (June 7, 1494), which had the blessings of the Spanish-born Pope Alexander VI .

Portuguese ambitions in Sri Lanka were comprehensively thwarted by a Kandyan prince in 1591. The Portuguese, who were well established in the Kotte Kingdom by this time, invaded Kandy to enthrone their protégé, Dom Philip, an heir of the dispossessed ruler of Kandy, Karaliayadde Bandara. They were accompanied by a Sinhala nobleman, Konnappu Bandara, who had spent much of his childhood and youth in Goa under Portuguese protection and acquired western skills. Dom Philip was installed as king but died under suspicious circumstances, and Konnappu Bandara enthroned himself with the assistance of the chiefs, and taking the regal name of Vimala Dharma Surya. He also reverted to the traditional faith of the people, Buddhism. Many commentators believe that had he not done so, Buddhism would probably have disappeared from Lanka due to relentless Christian missionary activity. The demise of Sitawake Kingdom after the death of Rajasinha I, left Kandy the only independent Sinhala kingdom.

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.

The 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 standing army, being a small population and possessing relatively of meager 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 surprised the invaders. In 1841, 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.

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 rushing forward at the behest of their king and chiefs to confront the European invaders time and time again. On occasion, Kandyan victories over the Portuguese were nothing but spectacular. The surprising thing is not that the Kandayans held out but that they managed to hold out for over two hundred years. One could attribute this in large measure to a fierce sense of national pride and loyalty to the King, their land and their chiefs.

Another 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. 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 erased.

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. 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 just massacred at Le Wella (Bloody Beach) but the world’s only superpower at the time did not take this defeat lying down.

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.

Britain’s agents astutely examined the reasons for Kandy’s success in the past and worked towards methodically neutralising them. Their strategy was successful and the result was that the second invasion in 1815 was an easy success and Kandy, the last hold-out of the Sinhala people, fell without much resistance.

First, the British set about demonising the King and splitting the King from the  chiefs, the people and the monks, the three traditional pillars on which power of the King rested. The King himself was probably an unwitting accessory to this devious plan and undertook actions that lost the confidence of the chiefs and the people. It has been suggested that he became an addict to alcohol. He attempted to take in to custody First Adigar Ehelepola, failing that, he executed 47 chiefs from Sabaragamuwa and put to death Ehelepola’s entire family in gruesome ways.

This was an incident that the British exploited to the hilt and publicized to maximum effect. The gruesome deaths shocked the Kandyan aristocracy whose loyalty could no longer be taken for granted and the people now revolted openly, only to be suppressed cruelly.

John D’Oyly Esqr, (later Sir John D’Oyly), a dedicated genius on his majesty’s civil service to some, but  a supremely devious manipulator to others, had inveigled himself in to the confidence of a number of senior Kandyan chiefs. He correctly advised Governor Brownrigg that Kandy’s nobles were ready to cooperate with any British attempt at dislodging their despised King, Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe. D’Oyly appeared to possess the key to the conquest that had so far eluded previous European invaders – a profound insight into the soul of the Kandyans, possibly facilitated by his fluency in Sinhala. Circumstance after circumstance ensured that the cherished freedom of the Sinhala people would be snuffed out by the global super power, Britain.

The King’s troops, providing the excuse, crossed the British-Kandyan border seeking Ehelepola, and attacked the British garrison at Sitawaka – of itself enough provocation for Brownrigg to dispatch a force to Kandy. The situation was aggravated by the return of a group of Muslim traders, British subjects, mutilated on the orders of Sri Vikrama Rajasingha at Hanguranketha.

With the King having antagonized the Kandyan chieftains, the monks disenchanted with the monarch, the people loathing their royal lord and the citizen militia not being ready to man the passes as usual, the background for the capture of the kingdom and the King was well orchestrated. D’Oyley had arranged for the chiefs to not oppose the invading British forces, who, after all, were only purporting to replace a detested King. The British, advancing in a number of columns, met scant resistance and entered Kandy on the 10th of February, 1815, accompanied by John d’Oyly.

A jubilant Brownrigg informed the Admiralty Let by the invitation of the chiefs and welcomed by the acclamations of the people, the forces of His Britannic Majesty, have entered the Kandyan territory and penetrated to the capital. Divine Providence has blessed their efforts with uniform success and complete victory. The ruler of the interior provinces has fallen into their hands and the government remains at the disposal of His Majesty’s Representative”. Later Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe was captured. The deposed King was exiled with his harem, to Vellore Fort in India, where he died 17 years later. His son, and potential heir, died childless in 1842.

The British proceeded to sign the, the much discussed, Kandyan Convention with the chiefs. In the absence of the King, the chiefs had to be party to the Convention as they now represented the remaining power base in the Kandyan Kingdom. Had they not been party to the Convention, the Kingdom could have been vested with the British crown with not even the pretense of the safeguards incorporated in the Convention.

The Convention was agreed to in March 1815 after negotiations between John d’Oyly and the nobles of Kandy. The essential points of the agreement were:

  1. ‘Sri Wickrema Rajasinha’, the ‘Malabari‘ king, would forfeit all claims to the throne of Kandy.
  2. The dominion is vested in the sovereign of the British Empire, to be exercised through colonial governors, except in the case of the Adikarams, Disavas, Mohottalas, Korales, Vidanes and other subordinate officers reserving the rights, privileges and powers within their respective ranks.
  3. The religion of the Buddha was declared inviolable and its rights were to be maintained and protected.
  4. All civil and criminal justice over the Kandyan territory was to be administered according to the established norms and customs of the country, the government reserving to itself the rights of interposition when and where necessary.

The King having fallen in to British hands and the British troops well established in strategic locations, one wonders why there was even a need for the Convention. There is no doubt that the British required the guarantee of the Convention to reassure the Chiefs whom they believed could disturb their relatively easy acquisition. The Chiefs for their part extracted much more safeguards from the British than would have been possible in the event of an outright military defeat. It is to their credit that they managed to negotiate such an outcome with the undoubted super power of the world that could have imposed its will on the occupied kingdom.

The Convention is also unique in many ways. It represents the voluntary transferal of authority in Kandy to George III of Britain, and indeed later events showed that the Kandyan nobility did hope that they were simply replacing one malleable master (the Nayakkar) with another from far away (George III). The British intentions and the Kandyan aspirations were not the same and Britain did not reveal its hand until after the kingdom was well under their control. Indeed, Ehelepola appears to have hoped that the new master would not be the British at all, but himself, a Sinhala with a genuine claim to the throne.


The Chiefs and the Buddhist hierarchy were adamant that the Kandyan Convention afforded exceptional protection to Buddhism, one of the key pillars of the Sinhala people. (But less than fifty years later the British had constructed a church within the sacred precinct of the Temple of the Tooth Relic). Curiously, George III, the defender of the faith (Christian) committed himself to protect the religion of the Buddha. Later in 1815 the heads of the Buddhist monasteries at Malwatte and Asgiriya both met Governor Brownrigg and extracted guarantees that Buddhism would not be compromised. This included a ban on proselytizing and mission schools. The Convention also committed the British to protect norms and customs of the country, thereby ensuring the continuance of the customs and practices of the people. These were more the clauses of a treaty between equals than a victor’s conditions imposed on a vanquished.

As to whether Kandy could have managed to hold the British at bay for much longer or extract much more from the British in the negotiations at that point in history is highly debatable. My view is that for a leadership which was not much familiar with the momentous events shaping the future of the world and Britain emerging the undisputed super power of the world, the chiefs did remarkably well. They knew what they wanted and had it reflected in the Convention while accepting the need for ridding the country of the detested Nayakkar king, who in their perception had become a tyrant, and replacing him with another foreigner from a distant land.

The British who concluded similar agreements elsewhere (Waitangi in New Zealand, in Bechanaland, etc), very quickly and perfidiously breached their solemn commitments. The breach of the Waitangi Treaty of 1840 was to result in the Maori Wars in 1845 which lasted till 1870. The results were roughly the same as those that followed the Kandyan uprising. Thousands of Maoris were killed and dispossessed and over 16,000 square kilometers of their land confiscated. The story in the Southern African highlands was not too dissimilar and the struggle to recover the lands illegally possessed by the colonialists continues. The more recent gory history of the Kenyan highlands is no different and a sad indictment of the British.

Dissatisfaction with the British began to simmer almost immediately. The chiefs who signed the Convention in their enthusiasm to rid themselves of the Nayakkar King, and some to advance their own personal interests, began to entertain doubts about the wisdom of what they had done. As records of their actual feelings are not available, it is difficult to gauge what they were actually going through. Perhaps self doubt would have crept into their thinking. The proud history of resistance so easily sacrificed may have begun to torture their souls. The British very quickly began to display their disregard for the Convention and the people’s expectations and this irked the leaders and the people even more. The people were used to being ruled by a king who moved with them at various social, cultural and religious occasions. Hence, resentment grew as they felt that they were being neglected and unwanted in the course of day to day administration and governance by the strangers from distant Europe. But the troops of the Empire were now well established at strategic locations of the Kandyan Kingdom and the dissension that D’Oyly so carefully nurtured among the chiefs festered.

The aristocracy and the Buddhist priests were accustomed to receiving respect from persons who interacted with them. However, since the British rule, even a common British soldier would pass by a Kandyan chief paying hardly any attention as he would to anybody else. The disrespect demonstrated by the British annoyed the chiefs.

The people of Uwa were the first to raise the flag of defiance. It was a spontaneous uprising but the pent up emotions quickly fuelled a widespread conflagration. The chiefs provided the leadership.

The first act of rebellion occurred in June 1816 when Madugalle Uda Gabada Nilame, secretly proposed to the chief priest the possible removal of the Sacred Tooth Relic from Kandy, thus removing one of the key symbols of power from British control.

Madugalle Nilame was dismissed from office and summarily dispatched to Colombo and then to Jaffna without being given the opportunity to even bid farewell to his family. His walauwa was publicly torched on the governor’s orders, and his other possessions were confiscated and sold. Adding insult to injury, the sale proceeds went toward the establishment of a pension fund for British officers!

The immediate spark that set off the uprising was the appointment a Moor, Haji Marikkar, as Travala Madige Muhandiram of Wellassa, being rewarded for his services to the British, thereby undermining the authority of Millewa Dissawa of Uwa.

Malabaris were prohibited from entering the Kandyan provinces without obtaining prior permission, but when a pretender to the throne, Wilbawe, emerged, Sylvester Wilson, the Government Agent of Badulla, immediately sent the recently elevated Haji Mohandiram with a detachment to investigate. Haji Mohandiram was captured by Bootawe Rate Rala at Wellassa and, on Wilbawe’s orders, put to death.

Sylvester Wilson then proceeded from Badulla on 16.10.1817 to investigate with an armed escort of twenty-four Malay and Javanese soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Newman met with a similar fate.

The British Resident in Kandy John D’Oyly, dispatched Monarawila Keppetipola, the Dissawe of Uva, who was in Kandy, to Badulla with instructions to crush the rebels. But he went up to Alupotha and, following discussions, joined the rebels and was immediately recognized as its leader. His presence inflamed the rebellion. Keppitipola, displaying a dash of misplaced chivalry in the face of an insidious foe, returned all the arms and ammunition of the British.

As news spread of Kappetipola’s defection, Wariyapola Sumangala Thero of Asgiriya fled to Hanguranketa with the relic casket from the Sacred Temple of the Tooth which resulted in the rebellion taking a more vigorous turn. There was a belief among the Sinhalese that whoever claimed the right to rule Sri Lanka must control the Tooth Relic. Now the Sacred Relic was with the rebels.

Reflecting the deep seated feelings of the people and the chiefs, the rebellion began spilling rapidly into other dissawes.

But, unfortunately for the uprising, the chiefs, Molligoda, Ekneligoda, Mahawalatenne and Dolosvala did not lend their support. Perhaps, a critical factor in its eventual failure. Eknaligoda had already benefitted from the British crown for his role in capturing the King.

The spreading rebellion alarmed Brownrigg. He informed Earl Bathurst in London, that British prestige was at stake and that, if Britain lost, it would have far-reaching consequences for the Empire in India. Accordingly, he requested the British Governor of Madras for reinforcements, which the Madras Government dispatched in the form of two battalions, one of European infantry and the other Sepoys of the Madras Native Infantry. The resources that could be drawn by the Empire to crush the rebellion were limitless. The tactics they employed were brutal, relentless and totally indiscriminate. The British Empire demonstrated that it would not tolerate rebellion.

Governor Brownrigg declared Marshall Law and issued a Proclamation on 01.01.1818 that seventeen leaders engaged in promoting rebellion and war against His Majesty’s Forces, were “Rebels, Outlaws and Enemies to the British.” Their lands and properties were confiscated by the Crown. The peasant farmers of these lands suffered as well.

The British forces then launched a campaign of unprecedented ferocity and brutality, employing all the power and technology at their disposal and proceeded to crush the uprising. The word scorched earth policy was invented in more recent times but the British, who would later preach human rights to the world, proceeded to implement this military approach without remorse. Burning, including rice crops, pillaging, destroying houses, fruit trees and domestic animals, devastating villages and killing and raping, they decimated the countryside. Lieutenant J. MaClaine of the 73rd Regiment, was in the habit of hanging captured prisoners whilst he took breakfast. For him, justice followed when the Kandyans shot him in an ambush. Lieutenant Colonel Hook used to hang anyone whom he suspected of being a rebel or a collaborator and anyone who appeared to be an adult male. Lieutenants Colonel Hook and Hardy concentrated their military activities in Wallapane and Badulla. Lieutenant Colonel  Kelly and Major Macdonald engaged the rebels in Uva/Wellassa.

First Adigar Molligoda, for reasons that need to be discussed elsewhere, assisted the British and was handsomely rewarded by them.

In April 1818, Native Lieutenant Annan of the Ceylon Rifle Regiment (CRR) and twenty-nine of his men having penetrated into the rebel dominated countryside trapped Kohukumbure Rate Rala, (the 11th on the governor’s Wanted List) by pretending to desert to the rebels. By September 1818, Ellepola Adikaram surrendered to the British. Ellepola, the Dissawa of Viyaluwa, was beheaded at Bogambara on 27 October 1818.

September 1818 saw the British gaining the upper hand whilst the rebel leaders showed signs of wavering. Governor. Brownrigg sensing an opportunity, promised leniency to the rebels and their leaders if they surrendered before the deadline of 20.09.1818. The rice fields had been left fallow for several seasons and the villages had been devastated. There was widespread hardship amongst the villagers who had fled to the jungles and hills. One by one, the rebel chiefs and their men began surrendering with their weapons to take advantage of the amnesty offered by the governor.

With the rebellion collapsing, the valiant Keppetipola fled to Anuradhapura but was captured together with Pilama Talawa II on 28.10.1818 by Lieutenent O’Neil assisted by Native Lieutenent Cader-Boyet of the CRR. Madugalle escaped. However, five days later, on 02.11.1818,  Ensign Shootbraid captured Madugalle in the jungles of Elahera.

On the same day, the Sacred Tooth Relic fell into the hands of Shootbraid. “Its recovery had a manifest effect on all classes and its having fallen into British hands again by accident, demonstrated to the superstitious people of this country that it was the destiny of the British Nation to govern the Kandyan Kingdom,” wrote Governor Brownrigg to Earl Bathurst, in a triumphant dispatch.

Ehelepola Maha Nilame whose role in the uprising has received various interpretations over the years, but who was in British custody, was banished with several other chiefs to Mauritius by Brownrigg. It transpired later that Ehelepola was secretly providing guidance to the rebels.

Both Keppetipola and Madugalle were tried and sentenced to death. They were executed in Bogambara thus snuffing out the last flames of resistance of the Great Uprising. Keppetipola faced death in a manner that would inspire the nation for centuries to come.

Reasons for the Failure of the Uprising

Many reasons can be given for the failure of the uprising.

First and foremost were the immense power and enormous resources of the rising British empire at the time. A small nation, and its chiefs, though demonstrating exceptional valour and purpose, had little chance of defeating Britain which was also basking in the glow of having recently defeated Napoleon and the French empire and was exuding supreme confidence.

The Kandyans did fight hard and Governor Brownrigg appears to have even entertained the possibility of losing the Kandyan territory for a while. The powerful and well organized forces of the empire were more than a match for the ill organized and un coordinated, poorly equipped and provisioned Kandyan militia.

The Kandyan forces were not trained and disciplined like the British military. Even the King did not have a large standing army and always relied on the local militia and the loyalty of the chiefs. Though fiercely committed to regaining their independence, they were at best a village militia and not led by ruthless Europeans  determined to kill, rape and devastate in order to reestablish their authority.

The uprising had individuals who inspired and set the imagination of the nation aflame but on the whole they could not match the disciplined forces of the British Empire and their ferocity.

The rebels were also not well coordinated. Sparks of rebellions glowed in separate parts of the Kandyan territory but eventually faded as there was no coordinated push. The lack of formal communication channels and the inability to move against the British in a coordinated manner, severely disadvantaged the rebels. In the past, especially during the times of Vimala Dharmasuriya and Rajasingha II, the king coordinated attacks against the invading Portuguese and the Dutch and deployed his forces in a strategic manner. The absence of a central authority was severely felt during the uprising.

The ferocious and persistent scorched earth policy of the British was a major factor in sapping the morale of the freedom fighters. As the uprising lasted, a severe shortage of food and manpower became an issue for the rebels. The British may have slaughtered over 10,000, perhaps many more, in Uwa Wellassa alone, including young boys. The region became devastated and was to remain so to this day due to the depredations of the British forces.

Added to this, was the dispossession caused by the confiscation of land. While the rebel chiefs had their extensive land holdings confiscated, the villagers who also rose up in rebellion, suffered when the land was taken over by the Crown. They were now forced to eke out a living on the fringes of the large holdings which had provided them with their livelihood in the past. The British crown acquired and subsequently allocated these lands to European plantation companies. This would set the stage for the second uprising, the Matale uprising, 30 years later.

A major factor in the failure of the Uwa-Wellassa uprising was the total uninvolvement in the uprising of a few chiefs occupying territory along key access routes to the Kandyan Kingdom. The absence of support from the Tun Korele and Hathara Korele were significant. Not only did they not rise up, but in some instances actively supported the British for which they were handsomely rewarded. There was no uprising in the coastal lowlands either. An insurrection in the coastal low lands would have contributed effectively to weakening the British effort to regain control of the highlands. But the people there had been subjugated both physically and psychologically for over two hundred years.

A serious consequence of the crushing of the 1817/1818 uprising was the deliberate effort of the British to change the boundaries of the Kandyan Kingdon so that it would not rise up as one unit again. Following the Colebrook-Cameron Recommendations of 1833, considerable parts of the east of the kingdom were hived off and annexed to the newly created administrative unit of the Eastern Province. Let us not forget that Ehelepola Disawe was also the Dissawe of Batticaloa. Previously, Etipola Dissawa had constructed a fort at Trincomallee. King Senerath had earlier destroyed the forts that the Portuguese had built in Batticaloe and Tricomallee when abandoned after their conquest by the Dutch clearly demonstrating who the overlord of these areas was. Similarly large segments of the north of the kingdom were annexed to a new province, subsequently called the Northern Province.

The Matale Uprising of 1848.

The next significant challenge to the British crown occurred in 1848, commonly known as the Matale uprising led by Gongale Goda Banda and Puran Appu.

In addition to the land confiscated after the Uwa-Wellassa uprising, under the Waste Lands Ordinance 1840, the British, expropriated all land to which no proper title could be demonstrated. Its chief architect was George Turnour, a British civil servant, scholar and a historian. He is also known for his translation of the Mahavamsa, which was published in 1837.The peasantry suffered immensely as the local forms of land title were not recognized by the British authorities. Their lands were occupied and cleared by British planters for planting coffee, a crop which was already flourishing in the highlands. In parallel, thousands of elephants were slaughtered to make the newly cleared highlands safe for the planters.

The dispossessed, but proud Kandyan peasantry, whom the colonial occupants had hoped to employ on the plantations as labourers, refused to oblige. They just refused to become wage-workers on the land that was theirs to use in the past and in the nightmarish conditions that prevailed on the new plantations. The British therefore began to recruit from their vast pool of labour in India, for the new plantations in Ceylon creating a lasting problem. An infamous system of contract labour (indentured labour) was established, and hundreds of thousands of Tamilcoolies‘ were brought from southern India into Sri Lanka for the coffee estates creating another threat for the Kandyan peasants. These Tamils labourers died in tens of thousands both on the journey itself as well as on the terrible conditions prevailing in the plantations.

At the same time, the government, strapped for funds, decided to abolish the export duty on coffee and reduce the export duty on cinnamon leaving a deficit of £40,000 Sterling which was to be met by direct taxes on the people. The new Governor, 35-year-old Lord Torrington, a cousin of Prime Minister Lord Russell, who was dispatched to Colombo by Queen Victoria to carry out these economic reforms, imposed on 1 July 1848, license fees on guns, dogs, carts, shops and labour was made compulsory on plantation roads, unless a special tax was paid. These taxes in addition to imposing a heavy burden on the Kandyan peasants, also disregarded their traditions. A mass movement against the oppressive taxes developed. The masses were, however, without the leadership of their King or their chiefs (either crushed after the Uwa-Wellassa uprising or collaborating with the colonial power). The leadership of the disenchanted people in the Kandyan provinces passed for the first time into the hands of the common people.

On 26 July 1848, the leaders and their supporters gathered at the historic Dambulla Vihara and at 11.30 a.m., Gongalegoda Banda, from a family that had migrated from the coast, was consecrated by the head monk of Dambulla, Ven. Giranegama Thera. As had always been the case, the Buddhist clergy was at the forefront of encouraging resistance to the foreign occupier and the protection of the Buddhist religion was the inspiration to raise the banner of rebellion. On the same day Dines, his brother, was declared the sub-king and Dingirala as the uncrowned king of the Sat Korale. Puran Appu was appointed prime minister and the sword bearer to Gongalegoda Banda and attended his consecration ceremony with 4000 others.

After his proclamation as king, Gongale Goda Banda, with his followers, left Dambulla via Matale to capture Kandy from the British. They attacked government buildings including the Matale Kachcheri and destroyed some of the tax records. Simultaneously, Dingirirala instigated attacks in Kurunegala, where eight people were shot dead by the British. Governor Torrington immediately declared Martial Law on 29 July 1848 in Kandy and on 31 July in Kurunegala.

Puran Appu was taken prisoner by the British troops and was executed on 8 August. Gongalegoda Banda and his elder brother Dines escaped and went into hiding in Elkaduwa, near Matale. On 21 September, he was arrested by Malay soldiers — although he offered resistance before his arrest – and was brought from Matale to Kandy where he was kept a prisoner.

Gongalegoda Banda was charged with high treason for claiming to be King of Kandy and waging war against the British. He declared that he was guilty of all the charges. The Supreme Court condemned him to be hanged on 1 January 1849. Subsequently, a proclamation was issued to amend the death sentence to flogging 100 times and deportation to Malacca.

Thus ended the second uprising in the Kandyan territory which lasted barely two months. The Matale uprising could not have lasted. It lacked the support of the bulk of the highland populace which had been thoroughly crushed only thirty years previously, was not properly organized, lacked any significant weaponry and seemed to have had little leadership from the remaining chiefs. The Kandyan peasantry which was already dire straits following the failure of the 1817-1818 uprising and the dispossession suffered afterwards, especially following the enactment of the Waste Lands Ordinance, were really not prepared for another mammoth struggle.

Dr Palitha Kohona

One Response to ““In Memory of the Heroic Freedom Struggles of 1818 and 1848” ”

  1. Nimal Says:

    Here we go again rurning down the only rulers who put the first public toilerts,schools,court house, Kachcheris where the humble people enjoyed and they will not shun it for the sake of thuggish and roughish leaders that once supressed them.They were trying to get back to power using the thug a like Puran Appu who may have come from the coastal area.I am glad he was executed and we had 100 years of glorious time and peace in the island and we were all equal under their laws but we have gone back to the horrible old days where some are more equal than others,type of divide and rule.
    Those Malay soldiers must be the same lot that protected the people from the same lot who tried to stop the humble people participating in the first Kandy perahara in 1824.
    Today the same thing happening where the roughs in parliament is fighting among themselves showing no regards for us and the rule of law.Hope we have the benefit of 1815 intervention.

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