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59th Independence Day Celebrations

The long struggle for freedom

Looking back: The foreign invasion

Today we celebrate 59 years of independence. It was on February 4, 1948 that Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) became a free and independent country. Until then, for 133 year, our country was a Crown Colony of the British Empire.

For 2360 years, Sri Lanka was a free and independent country, with her own king. In 1815 however, that long line of kings came to an end, when Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe was taken prisoner by the British. He and his family were exiled to South India.

After that, the British got the chiefs of the Sinhala Kingdom to come to a settlement with them and the two parties, the Sinhala chiefs and the representative of the British Government, signed an Act of Settlement or Convention, surrendering (giving up) the Sinhala kingdom to the British Crown (the government), on March 2, 1815.

That day marked the turning point in our history when we lost our freedom, our independence and our sovereignty (complete freedom to rule).

The Portuguese, the first Europeans to come to the East, landed in Colombo 1505. From then on for 310 years, the Sinhala kings fought numerous battles with them and the Dutch and the British who followed, to safeguard the kingdom.

The Europeans captured, settled down, and began to rule parts of the Low Country, but the Sinhala Kingdom remained, though reduced in extent, and confined to the hill-country and parts of the coast.

Now, the British had full control of the whole island, and all the people were subjects of the King of England George IV, and they had to obey the orders of the king's representative, the Governor.Let us go back in time, to those 133 years between March 2, 1815 and February 4, 1948, when we were subjects of the monarchs of England.

A vast crowd had gathered on March 2 outside the Magul Maduwa (Audience Hall) opposite the Dalada Maligawa, where the Convention was signed. They watched in sorrow and some in anger, the white man in uniform hoist the British national flag, to show that the country now belonged to Britain.

Suddenly from the crowd, emerged a bhikkhu, who dashed to the flag-post and pulled down the flag. He was Wariyapola Sumangala Thera, a true patriot. This act of his was the first bold step to show that we did not want to be under a foreign ruler.

He heads the list of national heroes who tried to regain our freedom and independence. It is often said that we got our freedom from foreign rule and independence, without any bloodshed. This isn't quite correct, as you will see, when we go back in time to the early years of British rule. There were riots and killings during the early years.

After the signing of the convention, the people were getting about their day-to-day work and the land seemed peaceful. But underneath, there was deep unrest. The traditional society was indisorder.

The chiefs had lost their place. Earlier, only the king was superior to them. Now every British soldier was superior. The people were disappointed because the British paid little attention to their bhikkhus and temples. The prestige of the monks was reduced. A Moor was appointed a headman in Wellassa, an entirely Sinhala area.

Famous 1818 and 1848 rebellions

The 1818 Rebellion

Two and a half years had passed by since the British invaded our land. In October 1817, the Assistant Resident at Badulla, Douglas Wilson was informed that a member of the exiled royal family had come to claim the throne and was in Wellassa with a band of bhikkhus.

Wilson sent the Muslim headman to investigate, he was taken prisoner by men armed with bows and arrows. Then the Assistant Resident, Wilson himself, went out with a few soldiers. He was shot and soon, there were riots.

The British sent Keppetipola Disawa to restore order. He joined the rebels and became their leader. The insurrection (attempts to overthrow the government) spread from Wellassa to Bintenna, Ulapana, Hewaheta, Kotmale and Dumbara. Chiefs like Pilimatalawa and Madugalla and others also encouraged the people in their divisions, to rebel.

The British troops were no match for the Sinhala people. So the British rulers began to terrorise the people, burning their houses and crops, cutting down trees and burning their lands. Some fled to Paanama Pathu in the east coast.

Those who took refuge in the jungles died of hunger and disease. Troops were got down from Madras. Keppitipola Disawa was taken captive and beheaded; so were Madugalla and many other chiefs. Only Molligoda Disawa sided with the British and so the "Thun Korala" and "Hatara Korala" (present Kegalle district) were spared devastation.

When the insurrection ended in November 1818, after one whole year, nearly ten thousand people of the former Kandyan Kingdom had lost their lives, either killed while fighting, executed or had died of starvation. This was the first attempt to regain our freedom and independence.

The 1848 Rebellion

The next attempt to overthrow the foreign ruler and regain our independence was in 1848.

In the 30 years between the first rebellion of 1818 and this, there were many changes in the country. In 1833, the whole island was brought under one administration.

Until then the Kandyan territory and the low country which the British ruled from 1796 were two separate units. The island was divided into five provinces - Northern, Southern, Eastern, Western and Central - for easy administration.

Young men from England and Scotland came over to plant coffee. Uncultivated land and those to which the peasants had no claim, were taken by the Government and sold at very low prices to these planters.

To increase the Colony's revenue, the people had to pay various taxes - grain tax, cart tax, boat tax and gun tax. Every male between 18 and 55 years had to work six days a week on road construction or pay three shillings. The people didn't have that much cash. Even the bhikkhus who had no income had to pay this tax.

All this made the people angry and they wanted to get rid of these white rulers. This time, the lead was given by a bhikkhu, Kudahapola Hamuduruwo. (His personal name is forgotten). Kudahapola is a village near Kuliyapitiya in the North Western (Wayamba) Province.

Two others in the forefront were Puran Appu and Gongalegoda Banda, both from the low country.The uprising that started in Matale spread to Kandy and Kurunegala. Governor Lord Torrington and his councillors panicked. Troops were sent to arrest rebels.

He summoned aid from India and imposed Martial Law in Matale, Kandy, Dambulla and Kurunegala. The military occupied Matale and arrested those supposed to be rebels, confiscated property and shot men without a proper trial. But only one European was killed.

Puran Appu and Gongalegoda Banda were arrested and shot. Kudahapola Hamuduruwo was tried by court martial, and shot in robes in his own temple, Kahalla Vihara.

The chief and the blackest charge against the Government was that a monk had been shot in his robes, in spite of the Chief Justice recommending that he be given a mild punishment.

The uprising was put down sooner than the Wellassa rebellion of 1818, but the aftermath was more serious. The Governor Lord Torrington was removed from office, even though he was a cousin of the Prime Minister, Lord Russel.

Peaceful times after the uprising...

The second half of the 19th century was free of uprisings. Enterprising men from the low country went to the hill country to plant coffee and became very rich. Roads were built to transport produce from the plantations to the port and to take provisions to the plantations. This led to a new rich class of suppliers of goods, traders and transport agents (then owners of carts). The island was peaceful and prosperous.

First the Government and then the missionaries opened schools to educate the young generation in English. On leaving school, they joined Government service or business houses as clerks. Those educated in mission ary schools usually became Christians, and started imitating the rulers in dress and lifestyle.

Soon the Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims saw the damage that was being down to their religion and culture and they began to react. In the 1860s, there were a number of public debates on religion which culminated in the Panadura Vaada of 1871 at which Miggettuwatte Gunanada Thera defeated all the arguments of the Christians.

A report of this debate published in America, brought Col. Henry Olcott to Ceylon in 1880. He along with Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera and other prominent monks and laymen started English schools for Buddhist boys, Ananda, Mahinda and Dharmaraja.

Young David Hewavitharane, who changed his name to Dharmapala and later became Anagarika, joined Olcott. Later he set out on his own to awaken the Sinhala Buddhists and inculcate in them a love and pride in their culture and devotion in their religion.

What Dharmapala did for Sinhala nationalism and Buddhism, Arumuga Navalar did for Hinduism and Tamil culture. M.C. Siddi Lebbe was a pioneer in education for Muslims. He was a founder of Zahira College, Colombo in 1882.

Newspapers like Sarasavi Sandaressa, Gnanapradeepam and the journal The Buddhist fanned the flames of patriotism and nationalism and directed public attention to the vices being slowly and unnoticeably being introduced by the Government. The Government introduced arrack to the Colony. First it was given free and later it was sold. Many locals became rich selling arrack and other alcholic drinks.

In 1911, the Government, to increase revenue, encouraged the opening of more and more liquor shops. Seeing the harmful effect on the people national leaders of all religions started a Temperance Movement to stop people drinking. Temperance societies (amdyapa samiti) were formed in small towns too.

The National Temperance Society became part of the move for National Freedom, after the riots of 1915, which hastened our march to freedom and independence.

The 1915 Riots

One hundred years had passed since the signing of the Convention in Kandy, when the riots began. It all started with an order issued in 1912 to the Gampola temple that was preparing for the Esala perahera, not to beat drums or play any musical instrument within 100 yards of the new mosque in the town. The trustees challenged this order in courts.

They believed that the perahera with all the customs and rituals, was a privilege allowed by the Convention signed in 1815. The court case went on for three years.

The District Court gave a judgement in favour of the Trustees in June 1914, but in the appeal, the Supreme Court reversed that judgement in 1915. The Buddhists appealed to the Privy Council. Some went about calling on Buddhists to make a public show of their resentment to the Muslims, but nothing happened until....

Vesak night May 25, 1915 The perahera in Kandy was passing the mosque when something unfortunate happened. About 25 men were arrested for rioting. Next night, when pilgrims to the Dalada Maligawa were still in the town, riots broke out again and continued the next day too.

Rioting spread to the Kegalle district and then to Colombo and Kurunegala districts.Martial Law was proclaimed. Punjabi troops were brought in and patrols were sent out to the districts. These patrols terrorised the people, shooting them at random.

The Government thought it was an uprising against the Government. Prominent men especially those in the Temperance Movement like D.B. Jayatilaka, D.S. Senanayake, Hewavitarna brothers (Simon and Dr. C.A.), E.W. Perera, Piyadasa Sirisena, the writer, John de Silva the play producer, A.E. Goonesinghe and many others were also arrested and jailed.

One Christian wrote, "during the period of martial law the authorities behaved towards the Buddhist Sinhalese in a manner absolutely unworthy of civilised men."

The elected member of the Legislative Council, Ponnambalam Ramanathan had asked for an interview with the Governor Robert Chalmers on June 3, but had to wait until July 6.

A public meeting was held and a resolution was passed to inform the Secretary of State for Colonies in England, of the injustices and demand a Commission of Inquiry.

The Governor refused to forward the resolution to the Secretary. So D.B. Jayatilaka and E.W. Perera went to England to meet the Secretary and agitate for a Commission of Inquiry. E.W. Perera hid the official document in his shoe to prevent it being seen and confiscated at the jetty by officials. (They travelled by ship).

The people under the leadership of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan and James Peiris (he was not Knighted then) were determined to make it impossible for such things to happen again.

For that, men of Ceylon, not foreigners, should be responsible for the government of the country. By then there were enough educated men who could take that responsibility.

The leaders formed the Ceylon National Congress. They asked for a council with the majority of members elected to represent different parts of the country - territorial representation. The new Legislative Council that met in June 1921 had for the first time, more elected members. But they had no real power. The Governor had all the powers.

The members wanted more changes. The Council was dissolved and another reformed council met in October 1924. The new Council consisted of the Legislative Council and Executive Council. But there was no link between the two. The Legislative Council passed the laws but was not responsible for executing them; that was the responsibility of the Executive Council. Again agitation for reforms.

The Council of 1924 was only another step in the long road to self-government.

Donoughmore Commission and self-governance

In November 1927, a Commission led by Lord Donoughmore came to Ceylon to report on the working of the two councils and recommend reforms. They reported that Ceylon was not yet ready for full self government. They recommended a State

Ceromonial opening of the Dominion parliament

 Council of 50 elected members, eight nominated by the Governor and three government officials.

The State Council was elected in June 1931 by universal franchise. For the first time, men and women over 21 years voted and the Council met on July 10, 1931. The members, except the officials, divided themselves in seven committees and selected a chairman and were responsible for various departments viz agriculture, education, health, public works, home affairs, local government and communications.

But the three officials - Chief Secretary of the island, the Legal Secretary and Finance Secretary were in charge of the three very important departments viz Public Service, Law and Finance.

E.W. Perera, member for Horana referred to them as 'three policemen in plain clothes.'

This system of Government was not satisfactory. There was no uniform policy and no collective responsibility. Each committee had its own policy. Again agitations for reforms. Then in September 1939 , Britain went to war with Germany.

Another Commission led by Lord Soulbury was sent to Ceylon in 1944 to study proposals for reform and report. The

The lion flag being unfurled by the Prime Minister after the opening of the Dominion parliament

commission submitted the report in July 1945, recommending full responsible government. On July 18, the Governor summoned a meeting of the State Council and announced that "His Majesty's Government in Britain had decided to make Ceylon a Dominion."

The State Council met for the last time on July 1, 1947 and a long chapter in the history of the

Lord Donoughmore

 island was closed.Elections for the new Parliament were held in August and D.S. Senanayake was appointed Prime Minister.The inaugural meeting of the Parliament was held on November 25.

Before that on November 21, the Ceylon Independence Act was passed unanimously in the House of Commons (Parliament) in Britain and this was announced by D.S. Senanayake. The Independence Act was passed in our Parliament on December 3, 1947. With that, the long struggle for independence was over.

The free and independent Dominion of Ceylon was born on February 4, 1948 and the Parliament of Independent Ceylon was opened on February 10, 1947 with the Duke of Glouster representing the King of England, George VI, formally handing over power of governing the country to the Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake.

But, the King, and later Queen of England were Head of State until May 22, 1972 when Parliament passed the new constitution and Ceylon became a truly free and sovereign state, the Republic of Sri Lanka.

The British regime in a nutshell

* The Dutch governor, Fun Engelbech signed an agreement giving the administration of the coastal areas to the British and the first British governor of Ceylon Sir Fredrick North assumed duties in 1798.

* North made a lot of efforts to conquer the kingdoms in the hill country, and he launched an attack against the King of Kandy in 1803. * Under North's regime, the Surveying Department and Postal Department were established.

* The next governor, Sir Thomas Maitland resumed duties from 1805 and he was a better governor than North. He travelled throughout the country, and tried to come up with a system which suited the country, and was more concerned in solving issues through discussions.

* The Jury system was introduced to Ceylon in 1810.

* Robert Brownrig became the third governor in 1812 after Maitland.

* During this period, King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe had lost the respect of the people due to the brutal punishments he gave to those who went against him and Brownrig identified this as an opportunity to overthrow him.

* In January, 1815 Kandy was attacked by the British with very little restriction from the locals since they were fed up with the king. The king was captured within forty days.

* On March 2, 1815, Robert Brownrig signed the agreement with the Sinhalese officials which brought the Sinhala regime to an end. But, the British promised that they would protect Buddhism and maintain the administration as it was up to then.

* The British identified the importance of proper roadways, and many roads were constructed. Major Skinner and Captain Dawson are key figures in this respect.

* As the demand for cinnamon dropped in England during the 1830s, coffee plantation was started and it became very profitable by the 1940s. It was followed by cocoa, cinchona and tea.

* In the second half of the 19th century, the British focused on developing irrigation schemes. The Governor, Henry Ward (1855-1860) repaired some reservoirs in the east and southern parts of the country.

* Henry Ward pioneered the railway system in the country to provide proper transportation to the plantations.

* William Gregory, Governor from 1872 to 1877, focused on the irrigation schemes in the North Central part of the country.

* The Irrigation Department was established in 1900 by Governor, West Ridgeway.

* The Department of Agriculture was established in 1912.

* As a result of the untiring efforts of our national heroes, Sri Lanka gained total independence from the British regime. But, we must not forget that we are still benefiting from a lot of systems introduced by the colonialists.


Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
Kapruka -

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