Sri Lanka: The Untold Story, Chapter 2

Beginnings of British Rule

[This history series by K T Rajasingham is no longer available on the Asia Times website, so the links provided at are no longer active.  As time permits, we will be re-posting this series, along with that by T. Sabaratnam, which has some chapters missing.  Sachi Sri Kantha’s biographical series is available at — Editor]

by K T Rajasingham, ‘Asia Times, Singapore, 2001

Chapter 1

In 1796 the British completed the capture of Ceylon’s maritime regions and drove the Dutch out of the country. Initially, the captured region was administered by the British East India Company. Lord Hobart, the governor of Madras, had ordered the troops of the East India Company to undertake the campaign.

After the capture, East India Company authorities were in no hurry to set up a formal administration because there was every reason to expect that soon Holland and Britain would make peace in Europe and that the land they now occupied would be restored to the Dutch. Colonel James Stewart (1795-96), the officer commanding the British troops in Ceylon, headed the civil authorities. He was succeeded by Welbore Ellis Doyle (1796-97), who on his sudden death was followed by Brigadier-General Pierre Frederic de Meuron (1797-98), who became the military governor.

With the view to recovering expenses incurred during the Ceylon expedition, the East India Company set up a temporary administration to collect revenue. On September 1, 1796, it imposed a tax of one silver fanam per annum on each coconut tree in the maritime regions of the country. But even the enumeration of trees for this purpose was opposed, and the collection had to be effected “at the point of a bayonet” the governor commented. Doyle suspended the collections in March 1797.

Lord Hobart then appointed a committee on June 9 to investigate the state of the revenues and other matters connected with the administration of the country. It consisted of Meuron, who had lived in Ceylon during the Dutch rule and was acquainted with the Dutch system of administration and the customs of the natives, as chairman, with a Major Agnew and Robert Andrews as members.

While the committee was still investigating, the British government decided to withdraw the administration of Ceylon from the East India Company. Its first proposal was to take over the Ceylon government completely under the secretary of state, and Frederic North was appointed as the first king’s governor with Hugh Cleghorn, a Scottish professor, as secretary.

Meanwhile, the committee recommended the abolition of the coconut tax, the banishment of coastal natives, the re-establishment of mudaliyars (headmen) and a “mild and upright administration”.

Cleghorn, who had been present at the time of the siege and capture of Colombo, subsequently toured the island and returned to England to report. The king’s commission, under the seal dated March 26, 1798, declared that the sovereignty and government of the settlement in Ceylon were vested in the Crown and that until further provision was made, North was to be the king’s representative on the island. However, he was to act under the direction of the East India Company, especially on matters of trade and commerce.

The ultimate disposal of the settlement of Ceylon was discussed preceding the peace treaty with the Dutch. According to the Treaty of Amiens of 1802, the littoral regions of Ceylon was ceded to the British. The British government decided to transfer the maritime provinces of Ceylon completely from the East India Company and place them under the control of the Crown, and thus on January 1, 1802, Ceylon became a British Crown Colony.

In a map published in England on January 1, 1803, in connection with the Treaty of Amiens, in conjunction with the famous minutes of Cleghorn and Sir Robert Browrigg (1812-20), the first colonial secretary and the subsequent governor of Ceylon respectively, the area that constituted the traditional homeland of the Tamils is unmistakably shown to extend from Chilaw northward and eastward to a point near Madawchchi; south of Padavil Kulam extending to the Trincomalee district; and the Batticaloa district down to the mouth of the Walawa Ganga in the south.

Up to 1815, the Kandyan kingdom existed, but Sinhalese chiefs under the leadership of Ehelepola – the disava (district governor) of Sabaragamuva – plotted against Sri Vikrama Rajasingha (1798-1815), the king of Kandy, who was a Tamil from the Nayakar dynasty of Madurai in south India. This brought British troops into Kandy and a brief war they ended the suzerainty of the king. The king went into hiding, but was discovered with his two wives by Ehelepola’s supporters on February 18, 1815.

K M de Silva and Howard Wriggins remind us of the capture of Sri Vikrama Rajasingha in their J R Jeyawardene of Sri Lanka – A Political Biography,Volume 1, pages 21-24:

“Don Adrian was present at the capture of the Kandyan King Sri Vikrama Rajasingha at Bomure near Hanguranketa … he is the paternal ancestor of the subject of this biography [J R Jayewardene, president of Sri Lanka from 1978-89] about whom there is a record. He was descended from the family of the Chetty community, a community of traders, which had emigrated from the Coromandel Coast in India in the early years of the Dutch rule in the midst of the 17th Century and settled in the vicinity of Colombo. Two or three generations before the birth of Don Adrian, a male of his family had married a Sinhalese by the name of Jayewardene from the village of Welgama near Hanvalla some 20 miles from Colombo and from that time took on the name of Jayewardene.

“Don Adrian’s early service as an intelligence agent employed by the VOC, the Dutch East India Company or Vereenidge Oost-Indische Compagine to give its full name. Our first sight of Don Adrian is an intelligent agent for the Dutch who, in 1795, faced alarming prospects of an imminent British invasion of Colombo and its environs. It was while engaged in this activity that he was captured by the British and was on the verge of suffering the fate – a swift and unceremonious execution – which armies normally reserve for person of this sort, when thanks to a glib tongue, some quick thinking and, as the records have it, a stubborn refusal to reveal any information about the Dutch, his life was spared.

“The British themselves had gauged their man exceedingly well, for with the elimination of the Dutch, Don Adrian’s services became available to them. At each successive critical occasion that confronted the British as they moved to consolidate their hold on the maritime regions they had conquered, and to expand their authority over the whole island by subjugating the Kandyan kingdom, Don Adrian distinguish himself by his dedication to their cause.

“A major rebellion that broke out in the maritime regions in 1797 just a year after the British had established themselves in control of the territories of the V O C in Sri Lanka offered an early opportunity for the British to test Don Adrian’s loyalties. That he had proved himself is evident from his presence in the entourage of General Hay McDowell during the latter’s embassy to the Kandyan kingdom in 1800. Next he was in the advance guard of the disastrous British expedition to Kandy in 1803. By the time the Kandyan campaign of 1815 came along Don Adrian was the tombi mudaliyar or guide headman, the man in charge of the intelligence agents and one of the trusted aides of Sir John D’Oyly who masterminded the subversion of the Kandyan kingdom by winning the backing of disgruntled chiefs.”

This account shows how the Jayewardenes, who were originally Tamils, descended from south India and gradually became assimilated as Sinhalese, by faith initially Hindus, later Christians to please their Dutch and British overlords and subsequently converted to Buddhism to lead the Sinhalese masses, and worked hand in glove with the colonial rulers to bring an end to the sovereignty of the last Sinhalese kingdom – the Kandyan kingdom, although its king was of Tamil origins.

After the capture of this last independent kingdom, the whole country came under British occupation. The Kandyan Convention of March 2, 1815, commented, “Led 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 and complete success. The ruler of the interior provinces has fallen into their hands and the government remains at the disposal of His Majesty’s representative.”

Thus the Sinhalese chiefs claiming to act on behalf of the inhabitants irrevocably surrendered the sovereign rights of the last politically independent remnant of the Sinhalese people to the English crown. The Kandyan Convention was signed by 10 prominent Sinhalese chiefs, one of whom was Ratwatte, the maternal great grandfather of the present Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunge.

After the annexation of the Kandyan kingdom, the British justified their action by proclaiming that they had acted on the pressing and unanimous desire of the people of the kingdom. “Led by the invitation of the chiefs, and welcomed by the acclamation of the people” is a common line of rhetoric used by the ambitious conquerors. Unfortunately, the Sinhalese chiefs surrendered the kingdom to the British by falsely claiming to act on behalf of the inhabitants of the kingdom. The proclamation had 12 clauses: The first two said that King Sri Vikrama Rajasingha had forfeited the throne and he was declared fallen and disposed. Clause 3 stated that all male relatives of the king were enemies of the government and banished from the Island, “and all male persons of the Malabar caste [Tamils], now expelled from the said provinces, are under the same penalties from returning, except with permission before mentioned”. Clause 5 said that the religion of the Buddha was inviolable.

Clause 3 was a cleverly crafted ploy by the Sinhalese chiefs to rid the Kandyan region of Tamils. The British connivance with the chiefs to do this was the beginning of their aiding and abetting the anti-Tamil program of the Sinhalese leaders.

Subsequently, though, the chiefs of Kandy were disappointed with British rule, which they sought to do away with. The British blamed Ehelepola for the revolt of 1817-18 and he was arrested, taken to Colombo and exiled to Mauritius, where he died in 1829.

In April 1829, King George IV appointed a Royal Commission headed by Major W M G Colebrooke to examine “all laws, regulations and usages of the settlements in the island and into every other matter in any way connected with the administration of the civil government”. He was followed by Charles Hay Cameron, who was commissioned to report on the judiciary.

The commissioners presented their recommendations in 1832, suggesting the creation of one government with one centralized, unitary form of administration under a governor in Colombo. The British did this without the consent of the people, and in doing so ended the hopes for a Tamil nation as a distinct political entity, something that no conqueror had managed to do – to stifle the flame of an independent existence.

The Colebrooke commissioners also recommended that the Island should be divided into five provinces – Colombo, Kandy, Galle, Jaffna and Trincomalee. They further recommended the establishment of Executive and Legislative Councils.

This uniform administrative structure and the idea of a “united Ceylon” spelt doom for the Tamils’ distinctiveness, again, something the Sinhalese rulers had failed to achieve. Thus the British gave credence to a united Ceylon in 1833, ignoring the historical realities that existed by misinterpreting the history of the Tamils and Ceylon. Based on their ignorance, they legitimized their formation of a unified country by wrongly believing that the Sinhalese kings had earlier ruled the entire of Ceylon. The introduction of a unitary form of government was a tragic step in the wrong direction which led to the Sinhalese hegemony over the Tamils, followed by the bloody ethnic conflict that today ravages the country.

On the recommendation of the Royal Commissioners, the constitution of Ceylon was modified with the introduction of the Legislative and Executive Councils, by an Order-in-Council in 1833. The Legislative Council included six “unofficial” appointed natives. In the selection of these, Sir Robert Horton (1831-37) the British governor, took into consideration the national ethnic division that existed in the country. Thus he nominated J P Panditaratne, a Low Country Sinhalese, Arumuganathar Pillai Coomarasamy (1783-1836), a Tamil and J G Hillebrandt, a white settler, and three English planters. Until 1889, the interests of the Kandyan Sinhalese, Tamils of Indian origin, who were mainly laborers in tea plantations, and those of the Tamil-speaking Muslims were looked after by the single Tamil member in the council.

Coomarasamy had been chief Interpreter to the government. It was he who waited upon the deposed last king of Kandy, Sri Vikrama Rajasingha, and served him until the monarch and all his relatives were deported to Vellore in south India, where he died in 1832 at the age of 52.

Coomaraswamy died on November 7, 1936, and an erudite scholar from Puttalam, Mudaliyar Simon Cassie Chitty (1807- 1860) was appointed on June 29, 1838, by James Mackenzie (1837-1841) the British governor. He found time to continue with his prolific writings that included The Ceylon Gazetteer, Tamil Plutarch,The History of Jaffna,The Outline of the Tamil System of Natural History. He wrote and read numerous articles at the Royal Asiatic Society of Ceylon.

In one article, he wrote of the origins of the Sinhalese and, quoting from Lord Valentia’s Travels and from an article of Joinville which was published by the Royal Asiatic Society of Ceylon, he penned, “The Singhalese, though forming a distinct nation, and differing in their religion, language and manners from Tamuls [Tamils], had no kings of their own race, but of the latter, and according to Lord Valentia and Joinville ‘a Singhalese cannot be a king of Ceylon; that is every person born of a Singhalese father or mother is excluded from the throne’.” In 1845, Mudaliyar Simon Cassie Chitty resigned his membership in the Legislative Council to join the Ceylon judiciary.

Mudaliyar Edirmannasingham (1846-61), the brother-in-law of Coomarasamy, succeeded him, who in turn was succeeded in 1862 by Sir Muthucoomaraswamy (1833-79), the son of Coomarasamy. He was the first non-Christian or non-Jew to be registered in the rolls of the Inns Court and called to English Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in Victorian England. He married Elizabeth Beeby, a young English lady and they had one son, Ananda Coomaraswamy, who was a director at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and a fine exponent of Indian art, religion and culture.

Sir Muthucoomaraswamy was held in high esteem by Queen Victoria, who often invited him to the palace for broad-ranging discussions. Queen Victoria made him a Knight of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George – the first Asian to be so honored. Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Beaconsfield accompanied Muthucoomaraswamy to the palace for the ceremony. Disraeli, the great Conservative statesman, then urged Sir Muthucoomaraswamy to settle permanently in Britain and assured him of a seat in the House of Commons, but he declined. He died on May 4, 1879 at the age of 45.

Sir Ponnampalam Ramanathan (1851-1930), nominated to the Legislative Council in 1879, was the grandson of A Coomarasamy and the nephew of Sir Muthucoomaraswamy. The Legislative Council during his days was not a parliament, but an advisory body. The governor presided over meetings and he had the power to override the council and the official majority enabled him to carry out his plans even in matters of legislation.

Traditionally, the unofficial members nominated by the governor faithfully followed the government’s wishes. Sir Ponnampalam recalled that he and his colleagues had always sought to cooperate. “I remember in 1879,” he continued, “when I became the member of the Legislative Council, Mr George Vane, the Treasurer of Ceylon, congratulated me upon my position as one of Her Majesty’s opposition. I was quite young then, and I replied: ‘No, Mr Vane, you are mistaking my position. If you think I am going to constitute myself as one of the opposition. No, I am part of the government, and I have come to help them with my criticism, to cooperate with them as much as possible.'”

He proved himself a worthy servant during his 19 years in the council, beginning in 1879. In 1892 he relinquished his seat to take up the office of the solicitor-general. His eldest brother, Mudaliyar Ponnampalam Coomaraswamy (1849-1906), a lawyer, who was a member of the Colombo Municipal Council for 20 years, succeeded him.

On February 10, 1890, Sir Ponnampalam Ramanathan, who was then representing the Tamil community in the council, addressed a memorandum to Queen Victoria on the reform of the Ceylon constitution. In his capacity as the president of the Ceylon National Association, he urged that official members of the Legislative Council be given freedom of speech and voting rights in the council; that the unofficial members be appointed for a term of at least seven years; that members of the council be prevented from proposing any ordinance, vote resolution or question that created a charge on revenue matters, without the express leave of the governor.

In December 1908, James Peiris submitted a memorandum to the British under-secretary of state outlining his scheme for the reform of the Legislative Council. He was a Sinhalese leader and he initiated the argument for ending the equal representation of all ethnic communities in Ceylon. He called for the introduction of an elective principle.

The British parliament at that time was not convinced that the demand of the political leaders represented the consensus of the entire people of the country. However, the colonial rulers were unable to brush aside the leaders’ demand. The outcome was a compromise.

Governor Henry McCallum (1907-13) wrote to the secretary of state that “any attempt that may be made to represent the people of Ceylon as forming a single entity welded together by common interests to an extent to nullify these differences is in the last degree misleading”. Accordingly, it was proposed to add an additional Low Country Sinhalese representative and an elected member for “educated Ceylonese”, and to raise the number of officials to 11 to maintain the official majority.

Accordingly, by Ordinance No 13 of 1910, an educated Ceylonese member seat was added and the European and Burgher seats were turned into elected seats. In 1912, the election for the educated Ceylonese seat was held, which Sir P Ramanathan and Sir Marcus Fernando, a Sinhalese leader from the karava (fishermen) caste contested.

The Island-wide single electorate had 2,938 voters, of whom Sinhalese numbered 1,659 or 56.4 percent and Tamils 1,072 or 36.4 percent of the voters. Sir P Ramanathan was elected with an overwhelming vote of 1,645 votes to 981, despite the electorate being predominantly Sinhalese. The reformed Legislative Council now consisted of 10 unofficial members who included two elected Europeans, one elected Burgher and one elected member to represent educated Ceylonese, two Low Country Sinhalese, one Kandyan Sinhalese, two Tamils and one Muslim member.

Chapter 3: Muslim riots and communal rumblings


Posted .

Filed under History.

Comments are disabled on this page.