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Dynamics of national struggles (1815-1848)


It is the 2nd of March exactly 200 years ago this month in 1815. That was the day on which the Kandyan Kingdom, the last bastion of Sinhale fell into the hands of the British when the Kandyan Chieftians who had a running hostility with their King who became cruel. They conspired to get the British to capture King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe and handed them governance of this country on a signed agreement called the Kandyan Convention. We suffered and were humiliated by them till 1948 when the British decided to give back our independence, after many a struggle. The discussion below focuses what happend to us interim.

Interview with Prof. Anura Manatunga

Anura Manatunga is a Professor of Archeology in the University of Kelaniya. He is also the Director of Center for Asian Studies in the university. A widely-respected scholar, Manatunga has written widely on archeology and history.

Q: Before entering the phase after the Kandyan Convention, can you briefly describe what made the British conquest of Kandy possible? Was it caused by real issues or was it created by the British?
A: It is both. There were real issues. There is no doubt that the last king was a tyrannical ruler. Of course, this tyranny is partly created. However, it was partly real. Every ruler, then and now, fears their subjects. The last king, Sri Wikrema Rajasinghe, did not allow people of certain regions to marry people of other regions. He feared some regions were against him. His paranoia was so much that he went to the extent of separating such families. Furthermore, the king’s relatives behaved badly, which did not go well with the subjects. The king became alcoholic and it was the British who presented him alcohol. The British also created dissent and encouraged divisions. But, the responsibility lies with the local rulers as well.

Q: What about the role of John D’oyly?
A: D’oyly was a good man. He was educated in Cambridge. He learned local language and customs. He respected the people and the nobles. It was he who rescued the king from the mob of Eknaligoda on February 18, 1815. But he did his job. He was assigned to keep contacts with Kandy and as time went on, he used the contacts to topple the kingdom. He communicated with both Ehelepola and his rival Molligoda. He was doing politics, nothing else.

Q: There is speculation that he may have forged the signatures in the Kandyan Convention. Could that be true?
A: One cannot really say. The Kandyan Convention was presented on March 2 and most of the nobles signed it on March 10. However, Ehelepola did not sign until March 18. He did not come, giving various excuses. It is said that D’oyly sent the document to his mansion to get it signed. However, it is unclear whether he did it himself.

The speculation has arisen due to the slight differences in the signatures in the copies. There are five copies of the Convention. There are differences in the signatures in these. It is clear that all nobles, perhaps with the exception of Ehelepola, signed at least one copy. Perhaps someone might have copied their signatures in the other four copies. However, Ehelepola might not have signed any of the copies.

Ehelepola actually wanted to be the king. He expected that the British would hand over the kingdom after chasing the tyrannical rule of Sri Wickrema. However, the British had other plans and decided to pay Ehelepola in money. Ehelepola threw away this monetary gift when it was sent to him.

Q: There are various claims on the fact that many nobles signed in Tamil?
A: That was the language of the king at the time. Also it was the language of the traders and the wealthy, who had come from South India. Basically, it was the language of the government. If you compare, how many leaders sign in Sinhalese these days? Even some of those who claim to be staunch nationalists sign in English. So, it is no surprise that it happened then. Of course, there were exceptions, including Keppetipola, who signed in Sinhalese.

Q: What happened after the Convention? Were there any attempts to chase the British from Kandy even before the Great Freedom Struggle of Uva?
A: Of course. Within two weeks, the Kandyans had decided to chase the British out at the earliest moment possible. It is obvious by the fact that the Sinhalese did not handover the Ceremonial Golden Sword of the king and the Tooth Relic. Obviously they were hidden with the motive of using them at the right moment to start a battle against the British.

Q: Who were the leaders or masterminds of these plans?
A: One cannot really say. It cannot be only Ehelepola. It cannot be said to a certainty as many nobles wanted the British out. One of the earliest attempts was in 1816 and was led by Ihagama Rathanapala Thera and Madugalle Udagabadamudali. However, this conspiracy was revealed, by none other than Eknaligoda. Ihagama Unnanse was arrested but he escaped. Madugalle Udagabadamudali was sent to prison for six months. This was the only known substantial attempt before the Uva-Wellassa freedom struggle started.

However, the intention was there. There is knowledge that Thaldena Mohottala in Badulla collected arms in his home. So did Kivulegedara Mohottala in Wellassa. He has once said that his warehouses are full of gunpowder. Why would someone stock gunpowder if not to fight? They must have prepared from the days of the collapse of Kandy.

One issue we had was that we never really had a local person who could be kings. It is not because on the differences between nobles. The simple reason was that all nobles were radala, but not of royal stock. Our society, whether rightly or wrongly, was caste based. Kingship should go to king’s caste. There was no one locally. Therefore, there was an attempt to bring a prince from Burma in these early days.

Even during the Uva-Wellassa struggle, people joined it because a king appeared. It was said that Wilbawe was a prince named Doresami. When it was revealed that this was not the case, the support to the struggle broke down. Perhaps Kappetipola may have known that Wilbawe was a pretender. But many people did not know. When the truth was revealed, some nobles including Pilimathalawe and Madugalle actually blamed Kappetipola for hiding the truth and planned to bring in a foreign prince once again. The struggle just collapsed thereafter.

Q: How was the secret revealed?
A: It could have been several ways. D’oyly had his spies who collected information. Meanwhile, there is a story of one monk who had recognized the person as a monk who had been with them at the temple by his voice. Besides, Wilbawe appeared in a group of eight. How can one keep a secret with eight people? It is simply impossible. Obviously the news spread slowly but it did.

Q: What made the struggle of Uva-Wellassa possible?
A: The immediate reason was the appointment of Hajji Muhandiram, replacing Kohukumbure Rate Rala and Butawe Rate Rala in Wellassa. The two nobles were in charge of the transport sector at that time. This was an important role. However, the British decided to replace them with a Muslim. Until then Muslims had been traders. But this new situation enraged the Sinhalese. At the same time, a king appeared. This was vital in the struggle.

Another interesting aspect was the role of the Veddahs. They were more numerous than now, and were friends of the Sinhalese people. Initially when Wilbawe emerged it was the Veddahs who joined the new king. This role of the Veddahs has been researched by a few scholars such as Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere.

Even Kappetipola was persuaded to join the struggle by the fact that there was a king. In October 1817, when fighting broke out, Wellasse Dissawe was Millewa. He was old and therefore he could not defeat an uprising. Therefore, Kappetipola of Uva was sent in. On November 1, 1917, the defining moment in the struggle occurred at Alupotha.

A group of Wellassa fighters led by Kotamberala leaped on to the path, blocking Kappetipola’s way. “We have a great king now. You can join us. Or else, we know how to take you to the king,” Kotamberala told Kappetipola. This was an obvious threat that if he was not going to join the fighters, he was going to be killed and his head will be presented to the king. We cannot really say if it is a pre-planned event. Perhaps Kappatipola knew that Kotamberala was going to intercept him. But Kappetipola decided to join the fighters. What is great is that Kappetipola sent the army and the weapons back. Whether preplanned or not, this was a great moment in war history.

Q: The Uva-Wellassa struggle was crushed severely. Can we describe it as a Genocide?
A: I’m not exactly sure. Some people do that these days. There was an order to kill anyone over 14 years of age in some of the areas. They burned the Wellassa area. In a way it was Genocide. But, people did not always succumb to that. Many managed to escape.

Q: What happened thereafter?
A: Many leaders died during the fighting. More than 40 were executed after being captured. Twenty-four others including Ehelepola and Pilimatalawe were exiled to Mauritius. Furthermore, many important families were exiled to other parts of the country. Meanwhile, some young people in those families were given Western education and a group of loyal supporters


Another thing the British did was to introduce alcohol to the upcountry. Many people of the families of even the high classes got used to heavy drinking. Also, there was no education except for a few Christian schools in the upcountry. So, there could hardly be a national leadership.

Nevertheless, until 1848, there were several attempts to overthrow the British. At that time, the opposition came from the upcountry. The low country people had reconciled with the colonial rule as they had been under it for nearly 400 years. However, the Sinhalese never reconciled with losing Kandy, which was actually called ‘Sinhale’ at the time. There were several attempts in 1820, 1823, 1824 and so on. Even in 1842-43, there were disturbances. After 1818, there were one anti-British attempt every five years or so.

However, little by little the leadership was removed from the region. Even in 1848, it was two people from low country who led the Matale Struggle.

Q: How could people of low country lead an uprising in up country?
A: Sometimes leaders emerge overnight. Even today, it is the same. Who would have heard of Arvind Kejriwal two three years ago? Today he is a Chief Minister in India. This is how it is. In 1848, it was a protest against taxation which developed into a rebellion. Puran Appu and Gongalegodabanda gave leadership. They were obviously brave. That is why they emerged as leaders. People did not mind who gave them leadership.

Q: Why were there no struggles in up country after 1848?
A: One reason was, there were no suitable people to lead them. They had either been exiled or had become allies of the British or were wasting their times with alcohol. There could be no national leadership. Meanwhile. the society changed after estates were introduced. The demographics changed in the central highlands. Furthermore, the Buddhist Temporalities Act became a huge fiasco. This made monks engage in land disputes among themselves as land was awarded to temples in a haphazard manner. Perhaps this was done intentionally. At any rate, monks started wasting their time on legal affairs. They could not think of a national struggle. On top of it, education was practically nil in the upcountry, except for the few Christian schools. It was only after the Buddhist renewal in the lower country that education reached there.

Q: After 1848, the anti-colonial struggle shifted to the low country. But you said that the low country people had reconciled with being under colonial rule. How did the changes happen?
A: There were many reasons. The role of the Buddhist priests was essential. A new, more radical group of Buddhist monks came up from the coastal belt from Colombo to the South. They did not belong to the Asgiri or Malwatta chapters. Their leadership was extremely important. They saw how Buddhists were treated in countries like Burma and compared with what was happening in Ceylon. It was obvious that they needed change.

Meanwhile, education expanded. English language knowledge improved. Then people could read of happenings abroad. Meanwhile the effect the Irish community had was also important. The Irish had a grudge with the English and their version of the British imperialism seeped through to local educated class. Meanwhile the press became an important asset in dissemination of knowledge. Sinhalese newspapers were being printed by 1860s. These developments changed the whole outlook of the leaders of the low country. This transformed the epicenter of the anti-colonial struggle from the highlands to the coastal belt in the southwest

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