2 March 1815: The darkest day of Sri Lankan history
Monday, 2 March 2015 00:00
Exactly 200 years ago, on 2 March 1815, entire Sri Lanka became totally a colony of another country. Sri Lanka was ruled by several kings as an independent nation for nearly 2,350 years. Certain areas were under foreign power for some period but not the entire country.
Since colonisation, especially the hill country introduced as Kandyan Kingdom was administered independently even during the reign of Portuguese and the Dutch. The attempts of Portuguese and Dutch to capture upcountry became a total failure.
In 1796, Britain took over the power of coastal area of Sri Lanka ruled by the Dutch. With the capture of coastal area, British rulers made every effort to capture the Kingdom of Kandy. In 1802 British forces invaded the Kandyan Kingdom, but failed. Geographical location, lack of support from local folks and the people’s faith in the King were the main causes behind the failure of the British to capture the Kandyan Kingdom.
However this scenario gradually changed in the early 1800s due to subsequent changes occurred in social and political arena of Kandyan Kingdom.
Fall of the Kandyan Kingdom
The power-hungry Kandyan leaders, supported by the British Colonial rulers conspired to topple the brutal rule of King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe. In 1815 despite the uproar of the people, British forces strategically conquered Kandyan Kingdom with King Sri Wicrkrama Rajasinghe taken as a prisoner. With the fall of the Kandyan Kingdom on 2 March 1815 the entire Sri Lanka became a colony under British rule. The day 2 March 1815 was recorded in the history of Sri Lanka as the darkest day like a letter indelibly carved on a rock.
Kandyan local leaders, British Governor and the British Commanding officers gathered on 2 March 1815 at the Audience Hall or Magul Maduwa of the Palace to finalise the establishment of administration in Kandyan Kingdom through an agreement. After several discussions between local leaders and the British colonial rulers before and subsequent to invasion, the Kandyan Convention Agreement was drafted.
John D’Oyly, the Official translator and the future Government Agent of Kandy, played the major role in drafting the Convention on annexation of the Kandyan Kingdom.
According to historians, initially it was planned to sign the Kandyan Convention on 2 March 1815 but due to disagreement of Kandyan leaders on certain chapters, signing occasion of the Agreement was postponed. At that time the British Government had silenced the powers of Kandyan leaders but on 3 March 1815, the British rulers restored the power of placing their signatures.
The Gazette notification issued on 2 March 1815 by J.A.S. Sutherland, the Deputy Secretary on behalf of the Governor and news articles appeared in London Times disclosed a picture of the incident occurred on the day of 2 March 1815.
According to these sources, a simple convention was held on 2 March 1815 at the Audience Hall or Magul Maduwa of the Palace in Kandy with participation of Governor Robert Brownrigg, Senior British Officers on behalf of the British Empire and Adigars, Disawes, other Chiefs of the Province on behalf of the people. Also Mohottalas, Koralas, Vidanas and other subordinate headmen of the Province attended together with the people.
In terms of conditions reached upon before, a Declaration of the Agreement was read in English by J.A.S. Sutherland, the British Deputy Secretary and in Sinhala by the Mudliyar of King’s Gate, Abraham de Saram. The entire audience attended by the Chiefs and leaders of the Province paid their attention to the document.
After reading the document, the British Flag was hosted by the British Army with cannon gun fire in jubilation over their victory of capturing Sri Lanka as a British Colony.
However, as clearly declared in the Agreement, the clauses were agreed upon and established at the Convention of 2 March 1815 by the British rulers and Kandyan Chiefs.
There were 12 clauses stipulated in the Kandyan Convention. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Clauses stated on the brutal rule of King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, barring members of the Malabar Family claiming right to the throne. As far as British administration was concerned the 4th Clause was important to them. It emphasises that domination of the Kandyan Kingdom was vested with Sovereignty of the British Empire protecting local customs and institutions. The 6th and 7th Clauses – Uncivilised executions were abolished and capital punishment was legalised with Governor’s approval in writing. The 8th Clause – Powers were vested with Kandyan Chief for administration of civil and criminal justice subject to conditions. The 9th Clause – Criminal cases against the ethnic groups ordered to be conducted by a Judicial Officer appointed by the British Government.
No particular kind of law had been enforced to deal with a situation involved over public unrest by Clause 10. British Government Agents were empowered to collect Revenue and Royal dues by Clause 11. Improvement of Commercial Activities was enforced by Clause 12.
The most important clause was the 5th Clause. It was a justifiable pledge given to protect Buddhism practiced by the Chiefs and the people. Religious rights of the people were honoured and places of worship were well maintained and declared as most sacred. This clause came into effect through pressure and protest by Buddhist monks and some Chiefs refusing to sign the Agreement without inclusion of this religious right.
Signatories were Governor Brownrigg, Ehelepola and Dissawas Molligoda, Pilimatalawe the elder, Pilimatalawa Junior, Monerawila, Molligoda the younger, Dullewe, Ratwatte, Millawa, Galagama and Galagoda. The signatures were witnessed by John D’Oyly, British resident in Kandy and Deputy Secretary James Sutherland.
Dissatisfaction of the people
According to the Convention and some British sources, the Declaration was made on 2 March 1815 in the presence of British rulers, Local leaders and the general public. But the eyewitness of this Convention, Dr. Hendry Marshall who was the surgeon and Chief Medical Officer of Kandy, gives a different picture. Dr. Hendry Marshall states in his book ‘Ceylon. A general Description of the Island and Its Inhabitants with A Historical sketch of Conquest of the Colony by the English’ that the general public did not join the ceremony and people were more involved with their housework and paid no attention even to watch the Army parade. He further stated that the transfer of power of kingdom ruled by Eastern Royal family to a European Royal family was borne with patience. This is a special factor that it indicated the dissatisfaction of the people.
Hoisting of the flag
It is important to recall the historical incident occurred at the ceremony of hoisting the British Flag. Even before singing the convention, British soldiers pulled the Kandyan Flag down and replaced the Union Jack. Ven.Wariyapola Sri Sumangala Thero, the patriotic Buddhist monk replaced the English Flag with the Kandyan Flag, protesting Sri Lanka was not a British Colony.
Some soldiers lost their temper with the monk. But fortunately, John Doyly and some Kandyan leaders who were standing nearby quickly intervened and settled the incident peacefully. The valiant act of patriotism by Sri Sumangala Thero exactly 200 years ago appears writ in letters of gold in the history of Sri Lanka.
Cheated by the rulers
The local chiefs thought if the brutal king was removed from the throne with support of British power they could establish their own power and administration of the Kandyan Kingdom after Convention was signed. Shortly afterwards, they realised that they were cheated by the British rulers and strategically manoeuvre the capture of the motherland.
Later all Sri Lankans realised the agony of becoming a colony under British Empire. They feared that national sovereignty would be lost by the iron shoe of imperialism. During the 19th century there were several uprisings but all struggles became a fiasco because they were disorganised and unsupported upheavals.
Struggle for independence
The world has been moving at a greater speed during the 20th Century with vast developmental changes. Sri Lankans of the elite society went to Europe for higher studies and returned with experience gained from Western way of living. They realised the supreme value of Independence and the tendencies of new global changes. Also they developed interconnection with other countries on their struggle for independence. As a result various organisations were formed in support of their right of winning independence from foreign colonialism.
The Second World War mainly affected the independence of the Colonies captured by the Western powers. Even though there were independent movements in the Colonies, the imperial powers always maintained their prowess strategically controlling will of the common people. But after the Second World War, the Western powers were compelled to grant Independence since they could not carry on their colonial rule any further. This paved the way clear for Sri Lanka to gain Independence in 1948 followed by other Asian nations.
However, with the Korean War, the newly-independent nations thought that they might possibly be under foreign rule again in future. Therefore some independent nations in Asia and Africa joined together as a precautionary measure in order to safeguard their own national rights. The Bandung Conference was the first-ever held organisation participated by a few Independent nations in Asia and Africa from 18 to 24 April 1955.
Sri Lanka played a huge role in collaboration with Indonesia, India, Myanmar and Pakistan to make the Conference organised in Bandung, Indonesia a great success. The main objective of the Conference was to oppose colonialism or neo-colonialism of foreign powers. This struggle for security of their nations spread through other countries and later Non-Aligned Movement was formed strengthening the unity of all the independence nations.
Colonial powers influenced their domination over their colonies even after granting Independence by forming various organisations and strategies under constitutional framework favourable to them with King and Queen as head of nations.
Queen Elizabeth was the Head of State for Sri Lanka until 1972 and British Privy Council was the highest Court of Justice. But thoughtful constitutional changes made in 1972 made Sri Lanka become free of foreign domination. All the nations ruled by the British were requested to join the Commonwealth Organisation but Myanmar (Burma) remained independent without joining the Commonwealth after independence.
Unity is power
Foreign pressure was considered liable to arise over Sri Lanka as a tiny nation under the current political environment around the globe. At this moment we should not forget that it was the failure of unity why we lost our freedom. No opportunity was available in the 1800s to maintain relationship with other desired nations for support in their struggle.
The greed of the Kandyan Chiefs for power damaged unity, possibly dividing the nation. All Sri Lankan citizens should value the supremacy of independence and build up fraternal unity to secure the hard-earned independence for the well-being of the people. If the entire nation stands united as one, no power on earth can destroy our independence.
(The writer is the retired former Head of Corporate Affairs and Communications – Sri Lanka Export Development Board and Ex-Director of Sri Lanka Trade Centre in Maldives. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)