A short essay on the British period in Sri Lanka
In the late 18th century the Dutch, who were weakened by their wars against Britain, were conquered by Napoleonic France. As they were no longer able to govern their part of the island effectively, the Dutch handed their rule to the British, although this was against the wishes of the Dutch residing there.
As soon as Great Britain gained the European-controlled parts of Ceylon from the Dutch, they wanted to expand their new sphere of influence by making the native Kingdom of Kandy a protectorate, an offer initially refused by the King of Kandy. Although the previous Dutch administration had not been powerful enough to threaten the reign of the Kandyan Kings, the British were much more powerful. The Kandyan refusal to accept a protectorate led eventually to war in 1803, which ended with the capitulation of the Kandyans.
The rule of the island, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, was not favoured by his chieftains. The king, who was of South Indian ancestry, faced powerful chieftains and sought cruel measures to repress their popularity with the people. A successful coup was organised by the Sinhala chiefs to overthrow King Rajasinhe who was taken as a prisoner. This ended his hopes that the British would allow him to retain power. Instead, the coup ended the line of the kingdom of Kandy and the Sinhalese chiefs accepted the British crown as their new sovereign. The Kandyan treaty, signed in 1815, also called the Kandyan Convention, stated the terms under which Kandyans would live in a British protectorate. The Buddhist religion was to be given protection by the Crown and Christianity would not be imposed on the population, contrary to what happened during Portuguese and Dutch rule. For economic and strategic reasons the British then annexed British Ceylon to the Madras Presidency of British India.
The Uva Rebellion
It took the ruling families of Kandy less than two years to realise that the authority of the British government was a fundamentally different one to that of the deposed Nayakkar dynasty. Another cause of discontent was the British authorities’ failure to protect and uphold the customary Buddhist traditions, which were viewed by the islanders as an integral part of their lives. Soon the Kandyans rebelled against the British and waged a guerrilla war. Discontent with British activities soon boiled over into open rebellion, in Uva province in 1817 that is referred to as The Uva Rebellion or the Third Kandyan War.
The rebellion was quickly crushed by the British who capitalized on the lack of planning and discord among the chiefs. Britain’s brutal response, notably the beheading of Keppetipola Maha Disawa in 1818, was to serve as a warning to the rest of the Sri Lankan community.
Unlike the previous rulers, the British embarked on a plantation programme that initially brought coffee plantations to the island. These were later wiped out by coffee rust. When coffee plants were replaced by tea and rubber plantations, Ceylon became one of the richest regions in Asia.
The British also brought a million Tamils from British India and made them indentured labourers in the Hill Country. This was in addition to Tamils already living in the Maritime provinces. The linguistically bipolar island needed a link language and English became universal in Ceylon.