Posted on January 26th, 2019


Jaffna was a part of the Sinhala kingdom up to the 12th century .  Around    1247 or so, a Malay (Javaka) ruler, called Chandrabanu from the Buddhist kingdom of Ligor (now Nakon Sri Thammarat in Thailand)  invaded the Dambadeniya kingdom. He was defeated by Parakrama Bahu II (1236-70). There is reason to believe that Chandrabanu  did not return to Malaya but ended up in Jaffna. Chandrabanu’s coins have been  found in the north and there are place names such as Chavakaccheri in Jaffna peninsula .

Around 1258,   Jatavarman Sundara Pandya from the  neighboring Tamil kingdom  attacked Chandrabanu  and levied tribute. Then in 1263, Jatavarman Vira Pandya invaded, killed Chandrabanu and placed Chandrabanu’s son as a vassal ruler in Jaffna.  P.A.T Gunasinghe, researching into this period, said that there is little doubt that a ruler other than the Ariyachakravarti ruled in Jaffna before the last two decades of the 13th century. Gunasinghe also suggested that the Chandrabanu period could be considered a period of Buddhist rule in Jaffna.

In 1286, the Pandyas invaded again and placed the first of the ‘Ariyachakravarti’ rulers in charge in Jaffna. The first Ariyachakravarti was believed to be a leader in the Pandya king’s army. Gunasinghe pointed out that unlike most kings, the Ariyachakravarti rulers left no inscriptions. The tradition of leaving inscriptions was there at the time. There was one in Kegalle, but none in Jaffna.

The Kegalle inscription indicated that this kingdom was not an independent one but was a part of the   Pandya kingdom. Jaffna became, according to Vernon Mendis a Pandyan principality”.  The Pandya kingdom in  India  was weakened by Malik Kafur’s  Muslim invasion in 1310. Jaffna may also have been affected. In 1344, Ibn Batuta, arriving in the island, was told that Ariyachakravarti of Jaffna was an ally of a Muslim power in south India. The coins of Ariyachakravarti exhibit on one side the bull and on the other the crescent.

I think that the Pandyas were merely using Jaffna as a base from which to annex the Sinhala kingdom.  Ariyachakravarti successfully attacked Vikramabahu III (1359-74) and exacted tribute. Vickramabahu’s powerful minister, Nissanka Alagakkonara defeated Ariyachakravarti and the tribute ended. Historians are definite that the Sinhala kingdom did not go under Jaffna rule during this period. Ariyachakravarti invaded again in the reign of Buvanekabahu V (1374-1408) and was defeated.


Around 1364, the Tamil kingdom in South India was conquered by the Vijayanagara kingdom of Karnataka. Jaffna also, as a Pandya principality was made to pay tribute and when it tried to rebel, Prince Virupaksha invaded and brought Jaffna under Vijayanagara control. This is indicated in his inscription dated 1365. Even in 1507, Jaffna it appears was yet under Vijayanagara. There was a Vijayanagara invasion into the Gampola kingdom,    which apparently was repelled. There is no record of the Gampola kingdom ever coming under Vijayanagara rule.

Jaffna went under Sinhala rule for a brief period. Parakrama bahu VI (1412-1467) sent Sapumal Kumaraya to conquer the peninsula. Jaffna became once again a part of the Sinhala kingdom. G.V.P. Somaratne says there were Sinhalese in Jaffna when Sapumal entered. Sapumal kumaraya ruled in Jaffna for 14 years from 1450.  Sapumal when he became king as Buvaneka Bahu VI (1469-77) was not interested in retaining Jaffna and Jaffna reverted to its earlier state.

Jaffna was the weakest and poorest of the   political units in the island in the 16th century, said K.M. de Silva. It was defended by mercenaries from south India . C.R. de Silva said that both Vijayanagara (Karnataka) and Travancore were claiming Jaffna at this time, and it is possible that Jaffna accepted the nominal over lordship of Vijayanagara. All transactions, whether salaries or trade was in cash, said Abeysinghe..  According to a 17 century Portuguese document, its revenue was about one fourth that of Kotte.

The Portuguese wanted Jaffna only because Jaffna could be used to control the sea route between India and Sri Lanka. In 1560, they forced a treaty on Jaffna ruler Cankili I (1519-61).  P.E.Pieris says the treaty was signed in Sinhala and Portuguese. In the same year they also took over Mannar Island. Cankili was deposed by his son, Puviraja Pandaram, who was deposed by another, who was over thrown by a third.  Puviraja regained the throne in 1582. He opposed the Portuguese, so the Portuguese replaced him with Ethirimanna Cinkam (1591-1616).

Ethirimanna was succeeded by Cankili II who tilted towards the kingdom of Tanjore. Tanjore was a small, weak kingdom inside the former Tamil kingdom of South India.  In 1619, the Portuguese packed Cankili off to Goa and took over Jaffna.   The ruler of Tanjore tried to push the Portuguese out in 1620, but failed.

Unlike Sitavaka and Udarata who resisted the Portuguese fiercely, Jaffna succumbed to Portuguese rule without much opposition. Jaffna had converted readily to Catholicism  and the proportion of Catholics in Jaffna was eventually far greater than in the rest of Sri Lanka.

The Portuguese churches selected for inclusion in ‘The architecture of an island’, (1998) are from Jaffna and Mannar. They are located at Chankanai, Myladdi, Vadukoddai, Paisala and Mannar. Jaffna Catholics supported the Portuguese throughout their period of conquest. They prevented Cankili from getting aid from Tanjore. The Portuguese never had such support from Catholics in Udarata.

The Portuguese transferred the Jaffna capital from Nallur to Jaffna in 1621. It was easier to defend Jaffna than Nallur. Work on the Jaffna fort started in 1625 and was still continuing in 1637. Kayts also had a fort. Both forts were by the sea.

The Udarata king, Senerat invaded Jaffna in 1628. The Udarata army entered Jaffna unopposed and set fire to the churches there. 30 churches were destroyed  together with other external symbols of Christianity, such as crosses. The Portuguese regained Jaffna in 1629. Pieris notes that the Portuguese and Dutch never had a good word for the people of Jaffna, unlike for the Sinhalese.  D.G.B.  de Silva says Jaffna had more foreigners than locals.

Jaffna and Mannar went under the Dutch in 1658. The Dutch said that Jaffna, Mannar and Vanni had come to them as a direct conquest from Portuguese, who had taken these from the independent ruler of Jaffna. The islands     around Jaffna got Dutch names, Karaitivu was Amsterdam, and Neduntivu was Delft.

Pieris says that the Dutch missionary Baldeus created a name for Mannar, from two Tamil words signifying sand and river. Dutch got down Tamils from South India for tobacco and indigo cultivation in Jaffna.  Portuguese officers were replaced by Tamil mudaliyars.

The public have been told that there was an indigenous kingdom in Jaffna known as the ‘Kingdom of Jaffna.’ Jaffna has no historical records which confirm the existence of such a kingdom. S. Pathmanathan in his ‘Kingdom of Jaffna’ says that the local Tamil chronicles don’t give a clear account of the beginning of the kingdom or its rulers. The main historical source for this bogus ‘kingdom’ is the ‘Yalapana Vaipava Malai’ written in 1736 at the request of the Dutch governor. Pathmanathan says that this document is defective in chronology and genealogy. No specific contributions any king is recorded in it.

Of the ten kings who are said to have ruled till 1450, only 4 are known in sources other than in Yalpana Vaipava Malai.  K.M. de Silva gives a list of 17 ‘Kings of Jaffna’ in his History of Ceylon.  He is able to give dates only for the last six starting from 1478 but says even these dates are uncertain. He says it is difficult if not impossible to work out who ruled in Jaffna. That is not surprising. Because instead of turning into a ‘kingdom,’ Jaffna had became a vassal state of the Pandya kings of south India.

Jaffna went under the British in 1796, together with other Dutch possessions. The whole island came under the control of Britain with the takeover of the Udarata kingdom in 1815. In 1829, Britain set up the Colebrook-Cameron Commission to advise on the administration of the island.  The Commission recommended in 1833 that  the Island be divided into five provinces, with Colombo Galle, Jaffna, Trincomalee and Kandy as the main administration centers.

Long before that however, Jaffna was administered by a Government Agent who belonged to the British Civil Service.   The British administration made it a point not to keep a British civil servant too long in any district and the officers also had no desire to stay too long in any particular district.

But Jaffna was the exception to the rule. In the period 1829-1896, a period of 70 years, Jaffna has had  only two government agents, Percival Acland Dyke and William Twynam. Dyke was Government agent from 1829-1867 and Twynam was government agent from 1869 -1896. Dyke and Twynam both lived and died in Jaffna.  Their  careers were spent entirely in the Northern Province.

The name of Percival Acland Dyke and his period of office as the British pro- consul in northern Sri Lanka has become legendary among the Tamils in northern Ceylon,’ said Dyke’s biographer, historian Bertram Bastianpillai.

The older folk continued to recall reminiscences of Dyke  that were transmitted from generation to generation through oral tradition while the younger generation keeps gathering bits of information ·through conversations with older people. Dyke died in 1867, but his name, anecdotes about him, and tales about his administration have lingered enshrined in folk-memory although in recent years new developments have tended to eclipse these tales of old times, said Bastianpillai.

Dyke began his career as a midshipman in the British navy. He seems to have given up a naval career on arriving in Sri Lanka. From 1824 he held various administrative appointments in Jaffna, and from 1829-1867 he was Government Agent in the Northern Province. Dyke  ruled dictatorially for over   40 years in Jaffna. Such a long tenure of service in one province is unique in the history of British colonial provincial administration.

Dyke was called ‘the Rajah of the North’ said Puisne judge Joseph Grenier, who had lived in Jaffna. It is doubted, if there is or ever has been a Government Agent so thoroughly feared,  he said.   Grenier had seen respected local inhabitants slipping hastily into the wide drains in a painfully obsequious manner as the ‘Rajah’ drove through the streets of Jaffna town.

A visit to an outlying part of the province was to be dreaded,  though appreciated and long remembered.    Dyke travelled through the Vanni, on circuit, visiting districts and divisions. like an eastern potentate in pomp with a retinue of horses, bullocks, carts, palanquins, tents, luggage, carters, coolies, cooks, butlers, torches, messengers and writers.

Dyke could have risen in the service. Dyke was selected, together with Colonial Secretary, Anstruther, to make a report to the Governor on the decline in the Civil service and suggest measures for improvement. But Dyke did not want to be transferred from Jaffna. “1 was and continue to be so much attached to the Northern Province, said Dyke.

The people of Jaffna did not object to Dyke, otherwise he could not have carried on there for decades. They felt they were safe in his care, and liked him even though his actions as a disciplinarian shocked them and made them regard him with awe, said Bastianpillai.

Governor Ward (1855-60) found that ‘the civil servants who most impressed the local inhabitants as public figures were martinets such as Dyke’. He found that the inhabitants of the Northern Province were warmly grateful for the benefits they enjoyed under British rule. Governor Sir William Gregory (1872-77) referred to Dyke as ‘this unusual government agent,’ describing his tenure of service as a long and patriarchal administration.

Dyke could exercise untrammeled power within his province because of the remoteness of Jaffna from Colombo.   Distance prevented effective supervision from Colombo and Dyke could do what he liked.  It is interesting to speculate whether any other province of Sri Lanka would have tolerated such a person. It also indicates that the British were thankful to see Jaffna, so far away safely under the control of a Britisher who wanted to stay there forever.

Dyke tended to be conservative, was suspicious of innovations and seldom encouraged sudden or radical change within his province .  Dyke    did not want the introduction of village councils into the Tamil areas. It would have affected his powers.    He quarreled with the Postmaster General and the Commissioner of roads whenever their actions impinged on his authority as provincial deputy postmaster general or as chairman of the provincial and district road committees.  But his superiors tolerated him. Thomas Skinner, with whom Dyke kept fighting, said he was an efficient officer.

Dyke’s authoritarianism was tolerated for more than one reason, said Bastianpillai. Dyke devoted his remarkable abilities to the task of increasing the prosperity of his province with commendable success. He was strictly conscientious, travelling on circuit twice a year through all parts of the province, and prided himself on the tents in which he lived while working on such tours. “I have an establishment of tents and I believe I am the only Agent that has.

Dyke developed the economy of the province in regard to agriculture. He stimulated industry in regard to salt production and in addition initiated social improvements. Dyke tried hard to break the tobacco monopoly of Travancore and obtain better terms for Jaffna tobacco.

Dyke went on home leave only once, in 1860, and returned to Jaffna long before his leave expired.   He made sure that no one else could take his position in his absence. He  arranged for  J. L. Flanderka, a Burgher and Ceylonese to act for him and the authorities agreed. This was the first time that a non-Britisher functioned in a province as an acting government agent. This created an unusual precedent, appointing a Ceylonese to what was then regarded to be an exclusively European seat of authority.

Dyke died in harness during a circuit to Kopay. Dyke bequeathed his lavishly built private residence along with its well provided park, known even today as “Old Park”, to his successors in office to be occupied free of rent. The Government Agent, Jaffna, lives even today free of rent in an old-world-style mansion on the benevolence of Dyke, said Bastianpillai.

Dyke was succeeded by William Twynam. Twynam had  got stranded as a midshipman in Colombo. Dyke offered Twynam a civil service position in Jaffna and trained him to be his successor .  When Dyke died, William Twynam   took over as government agent for Northern Province from 1869 -1896.  Twynam is yet another British pro-consul of whom the Tamil inhabitants of northern Ceylon still continue to speak of said Bastianpillai. He seems to have followed Dyke’s style of administration. But he had wider interests.  Twynam  studied  marine life and  had a crustacean named after him . He was very interested in the welfare of St John’s College, Jaffna and gifted his collection of the arts and crafts of  the north to St John’s.

Twynam, on retirement, bought a house in Jaffna and lived there till he died in 1822. Leonard Woolf   sent to Jaffna as a Civil Service cadet in 1905  had met Twynam.  The new civil servants routinely paid a visit to Twynam. Twynam was ‘holding court’ when Woolf visited him. Twynam was ‘holding a kind of small durbar of chief headmen. He was still a king of underground power in Jaffna.  He was a formidable old man.’

During his tenure as GA,  a petition   was sent asking that Twynam be removed and another GA appointed. Governor Havelock (1890-6) informed Secretary of State, I think that the system of benevolent despotism which Dyke and Twynam had established in the North is admirably well suited to the Tamil of the North.”

I believe the system is popular among the natives. Twynam’s firmness, shrewdness and fearlessness are appreciated  by the natives.  Jaffna Tamils are a scheming intriguing race prompt to take advantage of weakness or vacillation. [They are] much given to slander and chicanery and suspicions of one another. They naturally respect a ruler who is not easy to deceive, cajole or frighten and  is tough. The vast majority value the security which they enjoy under this.  The Northern Province under Dyke and Twynam has been a good despotism.”

Dyke and Twynam seem to have set the pattern for the Government Agent of Jaffna. Neville Jayaweera going to Jaffna as Government Agent in 1963, found that a a ‘sternly authoritarian culture went with the job.’ He also found, to his surprise, that when the Indian High Commissioner wanted to visit Jaffna he had to  obtain permission from the GA, Jaffna.

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