Photo source: The Island Daily, Sri Lanka. - Photo: 2018

Sri Lanka’s Heroic Freedom Struggles of 1818 and 1848 – Part 2

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 2 of the text of his keynote address delivered at Sri Lanka’s University of Peradeniya, Kandy, on 26 November 2018. – Click here for Part 1.

COLOMBO (IDN-INPS) – 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 holdout 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 pretence 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. [IDN-InDepthNews – 06 December 2018]

Photo source: The Island Daily, Sri Lanka.

IDN is the flagship of International Press Syndicate. –

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