Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Fall of Kandy

Dhanesh Wisumperuma

The Nation (Lens) 2015-03-01


March 2, 1815 is a significant day of the history of Sri Lanka. The British, who subjugated the Kandyan Kingdom, announced a convention between the British and the Kandyans on that day, exactly 200 years ago. The sole independent realm of the Island was this kingdom, and hence this event marked the entire island of Sri Lanka being conquered by foreign power. This not only ended the monarchial rule and also the independence of the country that existed for 23 centuries.

Established in the 15th century, first as a provincial kingdom, Kandy became the capital of the country in 1594, under King Vimaladharmasurya I. The kingdom consisted of a mountain terrain and covered with dense natural forests defenses, making it difficult to access through the few gaps such as Balana, which were heavily guarded. With these natural defenses and the battle strategy used by the Kandyan administration; they were able to thwart several invasion attempts by the Portuguese and the Dutch. The British experienced the bitter truth in 1803, when they invaded the Kandyan Kingdom. As Gaston Perera mentioned in his Kandy fights the Portuguese – A military history of Kandyan resistance, Kandy was thus never subjugated militarily and the British did it by other means. It was a long-planned plot by the British, to obtain the support of the Kandyan chiefs to overthrow the King of Kandy, thus ending the rule of King Sri Wikrema Rajasinghe.

The conspiracy

With the experience of the 1803 invasion, in which the British troops were massacred by the Kandyans, the British employed a different tactic to capture the Kandyan Kingdom. John D’Oyly, the British Civil Servant, who was fluent not only the Sinhala language, but also of the Kandyan affairs, managed to operate a network of spies and others, and was able to negotiate and coordinate with the chiefs under the King of Kandy.

The situation that prevailed in Kandy made this British attempt was a successful endeavor, in their view. On the eve of 1814, there were several internal issues and disputes between the King and the chiefs of the Kandyan Kingdom. The powers and benefits enjoyed by the Kandyan chiefs were reduced by King Sri Wikrema Rajasinghe. A coup to kill the king was implemented by Pilimatalawwe, the Chief Adigar, and he was beheaded in 1811. This was an act that made the other chiefs unhappy about the king. Ehelepola was appointed as the new first Adigar, and he became the most powerful Sinhalese chief under the king. However, the British were able to obtain the support of Ehelepola and he was an ally with the British by 1814. As a result of his, he raised a failed revolt in Sabaragamuwa against the king in March 1814 and fled to the British. However, his family members were taken prisoners and were brutally killed making the king more unpopular among the chiefs and people.

There are other issues that made the king’s action tougher. Meanwhile the king, who was pressurized from internal problems, was addicted towards liquor, thus making his decisions more unconvinced. There is evidence to suggest that foreign liquor were occasionally sent by the British officials as gifts. This could be a part of the same coup.

With this backdrop, the British were ready to invade the Kandyan Kingdom at any time by 1814. However, there was a need of a trigger event and two such events took place in late that year. The first was the brutal mutilation of a team of ten merchants who went for trade in the Kandyan Kingdom, from Mahara, situated in the British territory. They were taken prisoners by the Kandyans suspecting for being spies and mutilated and sent back. Seven of these men died and three survived, which the British described as ‘atrocious barbarity’. Describing this event by a proclamation dated November 9, 1814; the British government mentioned although such a thing happened in Kandy, Kandyan inhabitants can enter the British territories for peaceful purposes, without such hindrance. It is shown that although Robert Brownrigg, the governor of the British territories of Sri Lanka, was in an idea to invade Kandyan Kingdom after this event.

The decisive event was not far away. It was the chasing away of few insurgents from Kandyan Kingdom to the British territory through the borders of Sabaragamuwa. Brownrigg considered this as an invasion of the British territory and taken as a sufficient cause for the war against the Kandyans. A proclamation was issued on January 10, 1815 by which the British justified their invasion, mentioning of both above events. It hints that the invasion was to be conducted ‘not against the Kandyan nation and the arms of His Majesty [The British] are directed against that tyrannical power [the king] alone, who has provoked by aggravated outrages and indignities vested out at the British Nation, which has cut off the most ancient and noblest families of in his Kingdom,’ etc. It also states that the ‘inhabitants of five extensive provinces of the Kandyan kingdom has raised against the tyranny and oppression of their ruled and implored the protection of British’, and the invasion was aimed to ‘subversion of that Malabar Dominion, which during three generations has terrorized over the country.’ The chiefs and people of Kandy are also addressed by this document by requesting inhabitants “to remain without fear in their dwellings, and regard armed forces who pass through villages as protectors and friends”. By the same proclamation they promise that the chiefs the continuance of their respective ranks and dignities. This proclamation is often correctly described as a “clever if self-righteousness and magniloquent piece of propaganda”.

Invasion of Kandy

British forces that left Colombo included Ehelepola, John D’oyly and Don Adrian Wijesinghe Jayewardane (Tombi Mudali) accompanied the troops as the guide. There was no major opposition to them as the Kandyans made little resistance. It is mentioned that the shown semblance of opposition was maintained till Molligoda crossed over to the British, which he did once his family was secure from King’s wrath. Molligoda, the first Adigar, was also in communication with the British.

Taking over the other Kandyan provinces as they march, the British entered the city of Kandy, a deserted city, which was burnt as some reports suggest, by February 12. The king and his family had fled away. Within 40 days since the commencement of war, the entire kingdom was under British, without any notable damages to the British.

The king and his two wives were captured by the troops who went with Ekneligoda and accompanied by Don William Adrian Dias Bandaranayake, the translator. They were able to capture the king on February 18, 1815 at the house of Udupitiya Arachchi, at Bomure. Some other females of the King’s family including his mother were captured few days earlier near Hanguranketha. The king was sent to Colombo on March 6, and later deported to Madras in 1816, where he lived in exile until his death.


After the capture of the king and the territory, a convention between the British and the Kandyans was announced on March 2 at the Magul Maduwa (the Hall of Audience) situated adjoining the Palace premises. The British were represented by the Governor and senior British officers and Adigars, Dissaves and other principal chiefs were there on behalf of the inhabitants of the kingdom. There were mohottales, coraals, vidaans and other subordinate headmen from several provinces and of the people the and there assembled, as mentioned in a Gazette notification.

Although some consider that the Kandyan Convention, as this agreement is known at present, was signed on March 2, it was just the announcement and explanation of its articles that took place on that day. The agreement was drafted by D’Oyly, as he explains in his diary, and was read in English by James Sutherland, Deputy Secretary to Government, and in Sinhala by Abraham de Saram, Modiliar under the British Government.

As pointed out by Dr. KDG Wimalaratne in his Lankawe britanya adipathyaya (British rule in Lanka) the convention was not signed not on that day. The Kandyan chiefs were appointed to various positions on March 5 and later. After this event and after explaining the article on the protection of Buddhism to the head priests (monks), the convention was signed by the Governor and some of the chiefs on March 10. Some other chiefs including Ehelepola signed it few days later.

This convention has 12 clauses - The first three on the ousted Kandyan dynasty and the fourth article mentioned that the Kandyan territory becomes under the King of the Great Britain. The British also agreed to preserve the powers and privileges of the chiefs, to preserve the laws and the customs and institutions of the country (clause 4) and most importantly to maintain and protect Buddhist religion, rites, ministers and the places of worship, (clause 5). This latter was shown to obtain the adherence of the Buddhist monks and chiefs, when there was an issue on that in the officials of the Britain.

As we all know, the British didn’t adhere to the Kandyan Convention in full, and it lead to certain issues between the Kandyans and the British. The result was the uprising against the British in 1817-1818 in the Kandyan Kingdom, which is known as the Uva Rebellion. This struggle for freedom uprising was brutally suppressed by the British. Some of the above mentioned chiefs who allied with the British to overthrow the king in 1815 were sentenced to prison or banished from Sri Lanka. The British engineered coup, which obtained the support of the chiefs of Kandy, some of whom wanted a personal revenge, ended the independence of a country for the next one and half century, which changed the entire country.


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