Photo: A stone memorial “The rebels were dispersed here” stands on the Matale-Kandy road till this day. Credit: Matale Rebellion, Ceylon. - Photo: 2018

Sri Lanka’s Heroic Freedom Struggles of 1818 and 1848 – Part 4

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 3 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, Part 2 and Part 3.

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 re-establish 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

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 July 1, 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 July 26, 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 July 29, 1848 in Kandy and on July 31 in Kurunegala.

Puran Appu was taken prisoner by the British troops and was executed on August 8. Gongalegoda Banda and his elder brother Dines escaped and went into hiding in Elkaduwa, near Matale. On September 21, 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 January 1, 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. [IDN-InDepthNews – 09 December 2018]

Photo: A stone memorial “The rebels were dispersed here” stands on the Matale-Kandy road till this day. Credit: Matale Rebellion, Ceylon.

IDN is the flagship of International Press Syndicate. –

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