By D. C. Ranatunga
He was always Veera (Hero) Keppetipola to the Sinhalese. To the then administrators, the British, he and 18 others were traitors. So declared a proclamation issued by Governor Sir Robert Brownrigg through the Government Gazette No 851 on 10 January 1818. After 198 years the proclamation has been annulled.
Why were they condemned as traitors? For fighting to make the country free from the invaders. There was dissatisfaction among both the people as well as the chieftains that the British administrators were not keeping up to their promises made in the Kandyan Convention on 2 March 1815 after the Kandyan kingdom was formally surrendered to them. The result was the rebellion in Uva and Wellassa two-and-a-half-years later.
Traitors to warriors
To officially revoke Brownrigg’s announcement and declare the 19 persons as national heroes, a proclamation was issued by President Maithripala Senanayake 10 days ago – on 8 December. After listing the names of 19 leaders, who were identified as “those alleged to have rebelled against the British”, President Sirisena’s proclamation stated: “Further, I declare these Sinhalese leaders who fought for an independent Sri Lanka as warriors.”
As provincial chieftain in charge of Uva ‘disavani’, Keppetipola Nilame was virtually the ruler of the remote sparsely populated area collecting revenue, exacting the labour service due to the king and having judicial powers. As the names of the others indicate they too were linked to the administrative set-up.
Of those who have been cleared nine were from Uva, three from Walapane and seven from Vellassa – the key areas of the rebellion. Those from Uva were Keppetipola Disave, Godagedara Rate Adhikaram, Ketakala Mohottale, Maha Bethme Rate Rala (Kataragama), Kuda Bethme Rate Rala (Kataragama), Palangolle Mohottala, Wattekaale Mohottala, Polgahagedara Rehehenaraale and Poserewatte Vidane.
The three from Walapane were Kiwulegedara Mohottale, Kalugamuwe Mohottale and Udumadura Mohottale.
The seven from Vellassa were Kohukumbure Walauwe Raterala, Kohukumbura Walauwe Mohottala, Butewe Rate Rala, Bhaginigahawela Rate Rala, Maha Badulle Gammane Rate Rala, Bulupitiye Mohottala and Palle Malheyaye Gamathirala.
Background to the rebellion
In a detailed account of the background to the rebellion, Simon de Silva in ‘Lanka Kathawa’ states that the commoners were waiting to drive away the British and no sooner the people of Vellasa gave a start they all got ready to fight.
People of Vellassa were backward compared to those in other areas. There were Moors trading in the area. They brought salt and other groceries from Batticaloa and sold. They paid a tax to the chieftains who sometimes took groceries without paying. The traders complained to the governor that they were being harassed and wanted a separate headman from their clan appointed. Acceding to their request the Governor appointed one Hadji as Muhandiram. Thereafter the Moors stopped paying taxes to the Sinhalese chieftains. This led to a rift between the two parties.
It was October 1917. Having heard about a ‘stranger’ (pretender named Vilbave claiming to be a descendent of the Nayakkar royalty calling himself Doraiswamy) hovering around Vellassa, the deputy resident (British representative) in Badulla, Major Wilson wanted Hadji to capture him When he left with some men, the Sinhalese caught Hadji on the way. His men fled to Badulla.
Hearing of the mishap Wilson set out with Lieutenant Newton and a contingent towards Vellassa. He found the said village Vanavella deserted. Two Moors met Wilson and told him that Hadji Muhandiram was taken before the ‘deviyo’ (referring to the pretender) who ordered him to be killed. Wilson spent the night in a village called Botale and set off for Badulla on a different route the following day. The Sinhalese began shouting and abusing them from mountain tops and when Wilson stopped at a stream to quench his thirst, he was hit by an arrow and was killed. Lieutenant Newton who was going ion front with his soldiers was informed and when he came back to remove Wilson’s body he couldn’t find it.
The British Resident in Kandy then set off for Badulla. On the way he got to know that three soldiers who were sent with mail from Badulla were killed by the Sinhalese at Walapane. Keppetipola Disave was sent to Vellassa with British forces to bring the situation under control. Seeing the patriotic mood of the Sinhalese he himself decided to join the rebels and became their leader. The rebellion extended to other parts by February 1818 spreading to the provinces closer to Kandy. Madugalle Disava too joined the rebels strengthening the rebel movement.
A “truly national uprising”
Describing the rebellion as a “truly national uprising”, Professor K.M. de Silva records that the threat posed to the British by this traditional ‘nationalism’ in the Kandyan areas sprang from the tremendous reserve of spontaneous support it evoked from all strata of the Kandyan people.
“In the Kandyan provinces only the Moors, a small minority group, remained staunchly loyal to the British. The rebellion was spasmodic, irregular and local, and the scanty British forces were spread too thin to cope with it successfully. The only answer to the guerrilla tactics adopted so successfully by the Kandyans was to starve into submission those villages which harboured guerrilla bands, and to terrorise the population in the hope of cutting off support for the guerrillas.”
The British got reinforcements from India. By mid-1818 the tide turned against the Kandyans and by September Uva and Vellassa were subdued. The rebellion was then confined to Matale, Dumbara and Nuvarakalaviya. With more troops from India the British were able to bring those under their control. Keppetipola and Madugalle Disaves were beheaded at Bogambara on 25November 1818.
It is on record that when Keppetipola and Madugalle were taken to the execution grounds Keppetipola told the executioner to behead him with a single stroke of the sword. He tied up his hair over his head to avoid it falling on to his neck and bent to receive the sword stroke uttering some verses from the Dhammapada.
Professor de Silva identifies the great rebellion is “the most formidable insurrection during the whole period of British rule in Sri Lanka”.
Rajapaksa Wickramasekera Mudiyanselage Bandaranayake Monarawila Keppetipola remained the hero of the rebellion.