Photo: The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, one of the most holy sites in Sri Lanka reputed to contain an actual tooth of the Buddha on his 2nd visit to the Island over 2000 years ago. CC BY 2.0 - Photo: 2018

Sri Lanka’s Heroic Freedom Struggles of 1818 and 1848 – Part 1

By Dr. Palitha Kohona

The author is former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, and former Foreign Secretary. The following is Part 1 of the text of his keynote address delivered at Sri Lanka’s University of Peradeniya, Kandy, on 26 November 2018.

COLOMBO (IDN-INPS) – 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, an occupier who, by this time, was much more solidly entrenched in the country quelled the uprising much more rapidly. 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 defences, 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 Treaty of Tordesillas

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. [IDN-InDepthNews – 05 December 2018]

Photo: The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, one of the most holy sites in Sri Lanka reputed to contain an actual tooth of the Buddha on his 2nd visit to the Island over 2000 years ago. CC BY 2.0

IDN is the flagship of International Press Syndicate. –

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