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How the Wily British took the Kandyan chiefs for a ride

by Godwin Witane

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Keppitipola the warrior whose head was taken to the museum of Phrenological society of Edinburgh and was returned to Sri Lanka in 1955.

The Kandyan kingdom comprising the highlands of Lanka was ruled by a native king throughout its long period beginning from the Sinhalese dynasty namely from 543 BC up to 1815 AD exactly 2358 years. However when the reigning Sinhalese Kings married women from outside the country as queens, the country thus linking with the Malabar race of Nayakkars of South Indian origin, the kingship devolved on Nayakkars when the King died without issue.

What paved the way for the fall of the Kandyan Kingdom which appeared indestructible to forces outside was the death of King Rajadhi Rajasinghe in 1798 leaving no heir. However, the Kandyans being very patriotic never approved the deviation from the ancient tradition of appointing only Sinhala royalty to succeed the Throne of Lanka. When the Nayakkar Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe ascended the throne and became despotic and cruel the Kandyan Chiefs were helpless in getting rid of him as the King had employed hundreds of mercenary Palace Guards consisting of Kaffirs and Malays for his protection.

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John D'oyly and Ehelapola in conference

The Maritime Provinces of Lanka were conquered by the Portuguese in 1505. Subsequently the Dutch defeated the Portuguese and each of them jointly ruled for 300 years. Although both these conquerors waged guerrilla warfare on several occasions to subjugate the Kadyans and annex the Hill Country they never succeeded.

On 15th February 1796 the British conquered the Maritime Provinces from the Dutch, who conceded power without much fighting. The people of the Maritime provinces having been under foreign rule for three centuries were amenable to the British. The British having enjoyed this great advantage became ambitious of acquiring the Kandyan Hill Country too to bring the whole island under their suzerainty. In pursuance of this policy the British from time to time made inroads into the hill country by sending ambassadors and failing which sent contingents to capture the kingdom.

On March 12, 1803 McDowell was sent as ambassador with a letter and presents to the King. After wearisome negotiations a visit to the King was permitted. He was conducted from the border of the Kingdom by heavily armed guards and taken along tortuous roads. When he was brought before the King at the Audience Hall under much irritation for the roads leading to the interior from the border were very narrow where two people could not walk abreast. Besides there were spring traps laid on the roads and deep pits cunningly camouflaged over with leaves. At the bottom were laid spikes and thorns to impale the victim. At the Audience Hall he had to fall on his knees three times in the presence of the King as was the custom before a formal conversation but the negotiations brought no results. It was a dismal failure, a fruitless visit.

On September, 20 1804 Capt. Johnston set out from Batticaloa with a military column of 200 troops and reached Kandy on 6th Oct. 1804. There he burned the Palace of Kundasale built by King Wira Parakrama Narendrasinghe, the last King of the Sinhalese race. Being harassed and ambushed by the Kandyans he returned to Trincomalee on October 19, 1804 having lost 38 soldiers. Governor North realised that although the British were well organised and well trained in the art of war the Kandyans were well fortified by their natural defences. The Kingdom was a country of forests, high mountains, rocks and rivers which barred attempts at invasion of the Kandyan Kingdom for centuries.

The methods of warfare which the Kandyans engaged in were primitive. Their weapons were lances, swords and bows and arrows. The jealousies and rivalries among Sinhalese Chiefs kept the Nayakkars in power. Pilimatalauwe, the most powerful Chief plotted against the cruel and despotic King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe and brought about a war between the British and the Kandyan Kingdom. The opportunity to declare war against the Kandyan Kingdom arose when a number of Muslim Traders from the Maritime provinces who had come to barter their ware were brutally treated as spies, beaten up and mutilated before they were sent back empty handed. At the same time Kandyan villagers had set fire to a village under the British.

Reason to declare war

These acts were sufficient cause for the British Governor Brownrigge to declare was against Kandy. When the British army marched against Kandy on January 11, 1815 three was no opposition from the Kandyans because more and more were ill disposed towards the tyrant King and sought his dethronement. The King was captured by his own Chief and handed over the King and the Kingdom to the British on a Treaty or Convention. The Convention was signed by a group of Adigars headed by Ehelepola and the British Governor Brownrigge. The treaty was first read in English by Mr. Southerland, the Deputy Secretary to the Government and in Sinhalese by Gate Mudliyar Abraham de Sarasi to all the Mohottalas, downwards to Vidanas who were assembled outside the Audience Hall.

Thereafter the British flag was raised by some English soldiers. Ehelepola did not expect office under the British but only expected to be designated as the friend of the British. One chief clause of the Convention was that 'The Dominion of the Kandyan Provinces is vested in the Sovereign of the British Empire under King George III and to being exercised through the Governors of Ceylon for the time being and their agents saving of the Adigars, Disaves, Mohottalas, Korales, Vidanes and all other senior and sub ordinate native headmen lawfully appointed by authority of the British Government, the rights and previledges and powers of the respective offices and to all other classes of people, the safety of their persons and property with their civil rights and immunities according to the laws Institutions and Customs established and in force among them.'

The other most important clause was "The Religion of the BOO DOO professed by the Chiefs and inhabitants of these Provinces is declared inviolable and its rights, ministers and places of worship are to be maintained and protected". The fall of the Kandyan Kingdom on the signing of the Convention on 2nd March 1815 completely erased the last lingering vestiges of Sinhalese Sovereignty which the Kandyan chiefs never dreamt of taking place. The wily British on the other hand considered the Convention only as a stepping stone to establish the control over whole of the island by introducing various innovations and rules as conveniently suited them. Ceylon for them became one Political Unite.

The British acquired Ceylon to rule, convert the people, educate them as tools in governance, but the main purpose being to make money. The Chiefs considered the British as protectors on equal terms and felt greatly relieved by the arrival of the British Governor Brownrigge and the army as they believed that thereby Kandyans have been rescued from the tyranny of the cruel and despotic King.

However their hopes were short lived. The pride of the British began to reflect on the attitude and scant respect paid to the Kandyan chiefs. the chiefs believed that the regard and respect they enjoyed at the hands of the natives would be extended to them from the suave British. But in no time their powers were usurped and transferred to British officials. The British condemned the Buddhist monks as agents of the prince of darkness. The Buddhist monks did not receive the same patronage which they had received from their King. Their temples were neglected and deprived of their rights and privileges. The promised upkeep of the temples was discontinued. The Kandyan Chiefs soon regretted the step they had taken.

The Chiefs and the people knew that their freedom had been bartered. The Kandyan Hill Kingdom had never been submitted to alien rule. The Sinhalese felt the absence of a King. A King was essential for them to see and prostrate before him and ask him to redress their grievances. The physical presence of a King to ordinary people was lost. They lost the splendour of the Court and the Palace. The Buddhist monks joined the people in demanding a King of Their own. However some of the chiefs reconciled themselves to British rule. In 1817 the Muslims of Wellassa in Uva began agitating for a position of a Muhandiram for one of their clan. The British whose motto was to divide and rule readily granted this request by appointing one Hadjee as Muhandiram.

The elated Muhandiram thereafter began to harass the Sinhalese villagers by forcibly requisitioning their grain, cattle and temple properties causing a racial and cultural clash. Meanwhile there appeared a pretender to the Kandyan throne known as Wilbawe or Doraisamy who proclaimed himself as King claiming relationship to King Rajadhi Rajasinghe. This was reason enough for the people to rise against the British. S.D. Wilson, the Asst. Agent of Badulla immediately despatched a small force under the command of the Muslim Muhandiram to investigate and report but whom the rebels captured and killed along with the guards. The bewildered Wilson proceeded himself with a larger contingent but he too was killed. This caused great anxiety to the British that Martial Law was declared in the whole of the Kandyan Kingdom.

In 1818 the whole of the Kandyan Kingdom except a part of Sabaragamuwa had risen against the British. The British then sent Keppitipola Disawe with a squad of English soldiers to stem the onward march of the liberating forces and restore peace, but at the pleading of the Kandyan rebels Keppitipola willingly joined them. Before taking up the position of the Commander in chief of the belligerent forces Keppitipola dismissed his foreign soldiers and sent back the ammunition and guns of the British saying that it is unbecoming for the whole Sinhalese nation to use the British guns and ammunition against the British themselves.

The rebellion flared up under Keppitipola and lasted for over an year. With the advent of foreign reinforcements the British captured the Chiefs one by one. Their properties were confiscated and once proud families were left paupers. Isolated groups of villagers fought without any coordination or plan using their native weapons such as swords, spears, bows and arrows against a well trained and formidable army in possession of modern firearms. They crushed the rebellion resorting to severe repressive measures both ruthless and brutal. The British in sheer desperation ordered their men to destroy everything belonging to the inhabitants of Uva Wellassa. The people were shot at sight. The soldiers entered the villages and completely destroyed their houses by setting them on fire, cutting down their fruit trees, jak, bread fruit and coconut and destroyed their harvest having killed or robbed their cattle. The villagers were annihilated not by guns and murder alone but by forced starvation in destroying their crops. The breaching of the tanks left no water for cultivation causing a famine and people destitute. The chiefs of all the neighbouring Provinces joined the insurrection and the Government on November 6, 1817 issued proclamation offering huge rewards for their capture, the largest being 2000 rix dollars for the capture of Keppitipola.

The British bled torrents of Kandyan blood to impose their might and establish their military strength. Monarawela Keppitipola voluntarily gave himself up to the British forces on November 13, 1818 along with Madugalle. Thereby the first struggle of the Sinhalese against the British came to an end. They both were executed by decapitation at the Bogambara Esplanade opposite the Sri Dalada Maligawa November 25, 1818. Keppitipola's head was taken to the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh by Dr. Henry Marshall and it was returned to Sri Lanka in 1955. There are stirring tales of patriotism shown by Kandyans both high and low in time of great danger to their homeland that speaks with pride of true Sinhalese blood. The name of Keppitipola brings pride to all true born Sinhalese.