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Independence: Lost and regained

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By D.C. Ranatunga

Temple and church bells started ringing. Ships berthed in Colombo harbour blew their sirens. It happened 70 years ago at sharp 12 midnight on 4 February 1948 to mark the dawn of Independence to Ceylon, as the country was then known, after being a Crown Colony of the British Empire for 150 years. 

The next morning people throughout the country joined in religious observances in Buddhist temples, Hindu kovils, Christian churches and Muslim mosques. It was a sign of solidarity irrespective of race or religion.

The heralding of the Lion Flag was a significant event of the day although the official hoisting of the flag of the last kingdom of Kandy in place of the British Flag took place on 10 February after the ceremonial opening of Parliament at the Independence Hall.

Arrival of the Portuguese 

The first signs of Sri Lanka losing its sovereignty can be traced back to the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505 when a storm drove Lourenco de Almeida, son of the Portuguese ‘Viceroy of India’, to the shores of Ceylon. 

A treaty was soon concluded in terms of which the Sinhalese undertook to give the Portuguese 400 bahars (744 Dutch pounds) of cinnamon each year in return for which the Portuguese undertook to defend the country against external aggression. 

It has been recorded that the King of Portugal announced to the Pope of Rome the discovery of Taprobane, thus marking the first continued association between Sri Lanka and a European power which was destined to last 150 years.

The Portuguese domination of the coastal areas where they set up several forts ended with the Dutch capturing the areas occupied by them with Colombo being captured in 1656. With the capitulation of Mannar and Jaffna in 1658, the power of the Portuguese was totally extinguished.

The Dutch had to maintain cordial relations with the King of Kandy, Raja Sinha II who was the ruling monarch at the time. With commerce being the prime concern of the Dutch as much as the Portuguese, they realised the need for peace.

Relationship between the Dutch and the king

A.G. (later Sir Arthur) Ranasinha, Superintendent of Census touching on the history of Sri Lanka in the Census Report 1946 refers to the relationship between the Dutch and the king:

“Raja Sinha was addressed with the grossest flattery. Insults and humiliations at his hands were borne with the greatest patience. Knowing his fondness for animals, they sought and despatched to him the rarest and finest they could find. Raja Sinha on his part kept himself disdainfully aloof, receiving his envoys and keeping them about his court but not giving them safe conduct back. He did not indeed want war, but he had no desire for the continuance of friendly relations with allies who had broken faith with him. The negative attitude of the Sinhalese king, however, enabled the Dutch to conduct the affairs of their territory with some benefit to inhabitants and much profit to themselves. Agriculture was fostered, especially the growing of rice which was undertaken with such energy that it was possible to build up an export trade in it. Irrigation works were constructed or repaired. Cattle were imported from India. The cultivation of cotton and tobacco was promoted and protected. Even silk worm was introduced. The trade in cinnamon, arecanut and elephants, besides specific taxes and the takings of the pearl fishery, swelled the revenue, and the Dutch East India Company was able to pay every year a handsome dividend to ‘lay the foundation of a great many private fortunes in Holland’.” 

As the years moved on, the Dutch consolidated their position by a fresh treaty signed in February 1766 with King Kirti Sri Rajasinha when the claim to sovereignty of the Sinhalese king over certain territory occupied by the Dutch was abandoned while the king ceded to them the whole of the seaboard which had been undisputedly his, up to a width of about two miles, in return for an annual payment of the revenue that might be collected from there.

The Dutch secured authority to peel cinnamon in the king’s territory. The king’s subjects were given free access to the salt pans in Dutch territory. The Dutch promoted rice cultivation to the hilt, even the large tract of fields at Muthurajawela near Colombo were reclaimed and cultivated. An attempt to cultivate cinnamon in Colombo was also made.

Dutch ousted

King Kirti Sri died on 2 January 1782 and two days later a British fleet under Sir Edward Hughes anchored off Trincomalee. It arrived as part of a planned campaign in the conduct of the war that had broken out between Holland and Britain. The plan was to capture Colombo and cut off the cinnamon trade of the Dutch. 

After capturing Trincomalee and Fort Ostenburg, an ambassador was sent to meet the new king of Kandy, Rajadhi Rajasingha, with proposals for a treaty of alliance. However, it did not materialise. In the midst of the war, the British demanded the transfer of Dutch settlements in Ceylon and when the Dutch hesitated, started forcibly taking them over. Dutch Governor van Angelbeek capitulated to the British on 16 February 1796.

Meanwhile, the last two Sinhalese kings in Kandy, Wimaladharmasuriya II (1687-1707) and his son, Narendrasinha (1707-39) had married Nayakkar queens from South India. On the latter’s death, Sri Vijaya Rajasinha (1739-47), a brother of his Nayakkar queen, succeeded him in the absence of son. That started the Nayakkar dynasty of Kandyan kings. 

Sri Vijaya was succeeded by Kirti Sri Rajaisingha (1747-82) followed by Rajadhi Rajasingha (1782-98). When the latter died without a clear successor, Sri Vickrama Rajasiingha, the son of a sister of one of the queens, was placed on the throne by the Maha Adigar (Chief Minister), Pilima Talauwe, who had the intention of using the king as his tool. His efforts failed and then he started intriguing with the British to dethrone the king. Getting to know of his plans, the king stripped him of his powers when he tried to organise a revolt against the king which failed. The king had him executed in 1810.

A.G. Ranasinha records the events thereafter: “In his place as first adigar, with ill grace the king accepted his (Pilima Talauwe’s) nephew Ehelepola who was the next leading chieftain in the realm. The history of the few remaining years of Sinhalese independence revolves around this ill-starred personality. An alleged failure to give worthy gifts on the occasion of the king’s nuptials was made an excuse for banishing Ehelepola from the King’s immediate presence, and sometime later he was summoned as his uncle had been, to answer charges of unjust exactions and maladministration. But Ehelepola refused to obey the summons and raised the standard of revolt. The King deprived him of his offices, seized his family as hostages, and appointed his personal enemy Molligoda as first adigar, and dispatched him to suppress the revolt. Ehelepola made frantic appeals to the British for aid, but the Governor, Brownrigg, while inclined to give him secret assistance, was not prepared actively to intervene. The revolt fizzled out and Ehelepola found himself seeking an asylum in British territory.

“The fury of Sri Vickrema Raja Sinha knew no bounds. He wreaked a terrible vengeance on the unhappy hostages in his hands. He alienated the Buddhist hierarchy by seizing temple property, imprisoning several priests and executing one who was suspected of complicity in the revolt. He prepared for was with the British but the calls to arms found poor response among his subjects. Migrations into British territory took place and the time seemed ripe for Britain to offer to the Sinhalese king’s subjects ‘the benign protection of the British Government’. An occasion for war alone was wanting, but an occasion was soon found. The King had caused some Sinhalese traders, subjects of the British, to be seized as spies and sent back to British territory with their persons mutilated. Brownrigg seized upon this incident with avidity.”

British takeover

The king’s relationship with the chieftains deteriorated and he antagonised the masses as well. This led to intrigues among the chiefs who welcomed the takeover of the kingdom by the British. Acting closely on advice by Ehelepola himself, Governor Brownrigg ordered his troops to march on Kandy. The king fled from the capital. Ehelepola soon found his hiding place and he was taken prisoner and brought to Colombo. He was later deported to Vellore.

The British thus annexed the Kandyan kingdom. On 2 March 1815 a Convention was signed with the Kandyan chieftains and the sovereignty of the kingdom was vested in the British Crown to be exercised through the Governors of Ceylon. It marked the end of the country’s independence.

Amidst the happenings in the hill country, the British had consolidated their presence in the other areas. Ceylon was declared a Crown Colony and a Governor was appointed in 1802 to head the administration. After capturing the Kandyan kingdom, the Governor exercised his authority through a Resident Agent (John d’Oyly, reputed Sinhala scholar) and a three-member Board of Commissioners.

Rebellions against the British

There were two rebellions against the British after the takeover of the upcountry kingdom. One was in 1817-18 termed the Great Rebellion. Starting from Uva and Vellassa it spread to other parts as well. Started by the people, several chiefs joined with Keppetipola Dissawa of Uva, taking over the leadership supported by Madugalle. The British found it hard to subdue it until troops were brought form India. 

Keppetipola was captured in October 1818 and court-martialled along with Madugalle and beheaded. Though Ehelepola did not join the rebellion, on suspicion he too was arrested in M1rch 1818 and kept in Colombo. He was later exiled to Mauritius where he died in 1829.

The second rebellion was in 1848 against the imposition of new taxes, including taxes on shops, carriages, bullock carts, firearms and dogs. All adult men were asked to work six days a year on building roads or pay a levy. Protests against the Government’s excessive use of force including shooting at least 40 men at Wariyapola, and the declaration of martial law which was found to be unnecessary, resulted in the Governor being recalled along with the Colonial Secretary and a Government Agent.

Towards self-government

As the years went by a few Un-official members being selected from landed proprietors and principal merchants. Among them there were only three locals – one each for the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Burghers. In 1889 two more were added – one Muslim and one Kandyan. The numbers kept increasing and in the 1912 Legislative Council sat the first elected representative representing the ‘Educated Ceylonese’ – Ponnambalam Ramanathan who defeated Dr. Marcus Fernando. The numbers of the Council gradually increased but the local members did not get much of a hearing. 

A State Council with 58 unofficial members was elected in 1931 on the recommendation of the Donoughmore Commission which also introduced universal adult franchise giving everyone over 21 the right to vote. By then the National Congress, the Liberal Party and the Labour Party had been formed and agitation for political reforms started gathering momentum. 

The creation of the Executive Committee system and the appointment of a Board of Ministers paved the way for the local leaders to accept responsibility in running the government. Leaders capable of arguing before the British administration in London began to emerge and they took up the issue of self-government with the Colonial Office.

The appointment of the Soulbury Commission (1944) was the result of continuous agitation. The Commission recommended the setting up of a parliamentary system of government. Its report was published on 9 October 1945. 

The Leader of the State Council, D.S. Senanayake was invited to London for consultations by the Secretary of State for the Colonies who had with him various representations by leaders of minorities. On his return he placed a ‘Note’ before the Board of Ministers which said: 

“The State Council’s resolution of 1942 (demanding Dominion Status) was inspired by the offer made to India by Sir Stafford Crips in that year. The reasons which would justify the conferment of Dominion Status on India would apply with even greater force in Ceylon. We have had partial self-government based on adult franchise for fourteen years; Ceylonese ministers have had the sole responsibility for finance and have held seven of the ten portfolios of Government during a period which included a major depression and a Great War.; we had taken our full share of defence of the Island in circumstances of danger as acute as that which threatened Great Britain.”

A new constitution based on the recommendations of the Soulbury Commission was enacted by Order in Council in May 1946. A year later an announcement was made in the British Parliament by the Secretary of State that when the elections were over and a new government had been formed, steps would be taken to confer upon Ceylon “fully responsible status within the British Commonwealth of Nations”.

Parliament met on 14 October 1947. The Leader of the United National Party, D.S. Senanayake, as the Prime Minister under the new Constitution, had by then formed a Cabinet of 14 members. In November 1947 the British Parliament passed the Ceylon Independence Act. The Act came into force on 4 February 1948.

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