by Tyronne Fernando: DN 2004
President's Counsel and former Foreign Minister
The 8th August marks the 156th anniversary of the death of a valiant hero who died a martyr in the cause of national freedom. Known to history as Puran Appu, he was the principal leader of the Matale Rebellion of 1848 - the last of a long line of liberation struggles in the heroic and turbulent annals of Sri Lanka.
Born of a well-to-do family at Uyana in Moratuwa in 1812, Puran Appu (or to give his real name, Weerahennedige Francisco Fernando) from his boyhood displayed a restless, rebellious and adventurous spirit coupled with a generous nature.
His outstanding characteristic was the readiness he displayed at all times to champion the cause of the poor, the weak and the oppressed. Wherever injustice reared its head, he would rise against it as its uncompromising foe.
Thus it came to pass that he clashed with the village headman of Lakshapathiya, a petty tyrant and a typically rapacious official cum bully, Francisco thrashed this man on one occasion and stoned him on another.
Having thus fallen foul of authority, he wisely decided to leave his home town, and betook himself to the hill country where a number of his kinsmen were engaged in business and other pursuits in such places as Badulla, Ratnapura, Kandy and Matale. His charitable nature and sympathy for the common man soon attracted a number of friends and admirers.
It was not long when this born defender of lost causes came into his second conflict with authority; and this time it was against the foreign rulers. He appealed on behalf of a poor villager to a Police Magistrate called Dawson who, however, rejected his petition.
In indignant retaliation, Puran Appu organized the sacking of Dawson's house and was consequently jailed. But he made a sensational escape releasing the other prisoners. Arrested and re-imprisoned he staged another dramatic escape. And so the British Government branded him an "escaped convict" and proclaimed him an "outlaw".
It was at this stage of his career that he headed a band of outlaws and initiated a reign of terror against European planters and officials in Uva, much to the delight of the people. His daring exploits against the white men soon made him a legendary hero in the tradition of Robin Hood.
He was now convinced of the necessity of driving away the British from the country in order to emancipate the people from the hardships and humiliations they suffered under the foreign yoke.
With this end in view, he conferred with the Sangha of Mahiyangana and Muthiyangana who pledged him their support. This was in 1845. About this time the handsome six-footer of fine physique encountered romance and lost his heart to a highland lass, Bandara Menike of Harispattuwa whom he married in 1847. She bore him a daughter. Francisco was now called Purancisco or Puran Appo. (Puran Appu).
Meanwhile much water had flowed down the Mahaweli since the fall of the Kandyan Kingdom in 1815. Constitutional reform, administrative changes, construction of roads and opening up of coffee plantations had only succeeded in creating an illusion of superficial progress.
But the mass of the population eked a miserable existence and secretly nursed the desire for freedom and the expulsion of their imperialist exploiters.
Then dawned that fateful year of 1848 - the year that stands out in World History as the "Year of Revolutions".
All was not well with the Colonial Government which was faced with successive Budget deficits in 1846 & 1847, subsequent to a depression in coffee prices in the world market.
In 1848, the new and inexperienced Governor, Lord Torrington was rash enough to impose seven new taxes in order to replenish a dwindling treasury vis, the dog tax, Verandah tax, shop tax, gun tax, cart tax, boat tax and the most hated of all, the road or poll tax. Even Buddhist monks were not exempted from the road tax.
These vexations and iniquitous taxes fell hard on an already impoverished people and thus the smouldering members of mass discontent flared up into a blaze of angry resentment. The time was now ripe for revolt. Puran Appu's date with history was at hand.
He toured the Kurunegala, Dambulla and Matale regions and everywhere he was well received and assured of support from the peasants and the priests. His popularity was great and riding a tremendous wave of popular enthusiasm.
Declaring British rule at end, Puran Appu marched southwards with his army and on 28th July succeeded in capturing the British Fort at Matale where in another demonstration of popular fervour, he was proclaimed King of Kandy. (Fr. S. G. Perera, 'History of Ceylon')
His success, however, was short-lived. An ill-trained army, equipped with primitive weapons was no match for the superior arms and organisation of the British Half-way between Matale and Kandy, the Sinhala forces, depleted by desertions and their movements betrayed by traitors, were intercepted by British troops and Puran Appu himself was captured and taken to Kandy. With his capture, the Rebellion fizzled out.
Brought to trial before a Court Martial, he was found guilty of having waged war against H.M. Queen Victoria and condemned to be shot.
On August 8, 1848, on the banks of the Bogambara Wewa which had witnessed many a stirring episode in the history of our land, Veera Puran Appu bravely faced a British rifle-squad and breathing defiance to the last, paid the supreme sacrifice for his country and his people.