Midweek Review
The British owe an apology to Kandyans

By Durand Appuhamy
The final unequal combat for freedom from vassalage under the British Rule began in earnest in Matale in 1848. The Kandyans had been swindled out of their heritage by the colonial British since 1815. Their Buddhist religion had been the state religion enjoying the patronage and daily tangible support of the monarch and his people. Now they found it degraded to demon worship and abandoned by the British so that "the Buddhists would fall before us like dew before the sun" (Rev. Hardy’s Booklet on "Idolatry of Ceylon" 1839). Their customs and traditions were trampled on and discarded. Their lands were expropriated for the benefit of the colonial planters, and foreign Indian labourers were planted on those lands to complete the dispossession of lands of the Kandyans. On almost all issues of political, social and of economic nature, the Kandyans and their interests were ignored. Instead, oppression and opprobrium were heaped on them for nearly a century. Thus the Kandyan peasants are, even today, the landless, jobless and the most deprived of our society. They have yet to recover from the persecution and exploitation they were subjected to by the colonial British.

Some of them did protest and paid for it with their lives. The first Kandyan bid for freedom in 1817/18 was a gory and bloody affair. The Kandyans were mercilessly massacred and slaughtered by the then colonial British Government. As I have already referred to those unpardonable colonial pogroms in my previous representations, I shall here confine myself to events after 1817/18.

All protests by the Kandyans were ruthlessly suppressed. Any protest against the British was a treasonable offence. After a nominal court hearing, the protesters were condemned as "Rebels" and executed. In 1823 two were hanged in Matale. In 1833 three were hanged in Kandy and two in Bintenne. In 1843 an anti British movement to eject the illegitimate usurpers of power gathered strength in Badulla. Major Rogers used all military resources available to him to brutally suppress this spontaneous revolt. He captured a Buddhist monk named Seelawansa Saranakara, had him tried before Capt. Kelson. The monk was, true to form, found guilty of treasonable offences and sentenced to death by hanging. Later, the evidence was found to be unreliably porous and circumstantial. He should have been set free, instead, the sentence was commuted to imprisonment with hard labour for fourteen years. That was British imperial justice then! In this brief description of events, I have left out the many Kandyans who were deported and left to rot in jails both in Sri Lanka and abroad. They too were martyrs in the cause of the freedom of their country.

The colonial British government doggedly pursued a programme to completely demolish and dismember the former Kingdom of Kandy. This, the British did accomplish within a few years. They correctly preceived that the Buddhist religion was the lynchpin binding the Kandyan society together. Therefore, via the British missionaries, a concentrated attack was launched on Buddhism. This was immediately supported by the James Stepben, the Permanent Under-Secretary, at the Colonial Office in London. Steps were taken to demote Buddhism and to degrade the status of the Buddhist monks in their society by withdrawing government support and patronage to Buddhism. Then the colonial government set upon the Kandyan elites. They were subjected to "show trials" for conspiracy against the British. On the pretext that they were conspirators against the Crown, all the privileges of the Kandyan Chiefs were abolished, and they were reduced to subordinate paid servants of the Crown, and made dependent on government handouts. British law, British administration and British taxes were vigorously enforced in the Kandyan Kingdom. Virgin forests were vandalized, and the Kandyan lands were expropriated on a vast scale by colonial planters. British Governors and colonial civil servants were also guilty of this plunder. Finally, the geographically defined Kandyan Kingdom was dismembered by apportioning it among the newly created British Administrative Districts. The Kandyans did address a Memorial to the Crown in 1834, pleading to "save their country from dismemberment and from being incorporated with the maritime districts, so that it may continue to subsist in its ancient integrity as the Kingdom of Kandy and retain its celebrated name of Sinhale" (CO/54/137). The colonial government was stone-deaf to such pleadings. Today we are paying dearly for this colonial policy, as it has been hoisted on the nation by the separatist terrorists in their bogus claim for exclusive Tamil Homeland.

When Governor Torrington’s government imposed a variety of oppressive taxes, and surrendered out and out the support for Buddhism, contrary to the pledges given in 1815, the Kandyans rose in rebellion in Matale and Kurunegala in 1848. The massacre of Kandyans among the coffee bushes of the Wariapola coffee estate in Matale was enacted with ruthless efficiency at the very initial stages of this struggle for freedom in July 1848.

Troops under Capt. Lillie marched to Matale from Kandy. He established contact with a group of rebels and parleyed with them "without being molested". When he tried to surround them, they fled. Many a fleeing Kandyan was shot down. There were some still hidden in the nearby coffee bushes and the forest. The Rifles under Capt. Watson was ordered to capture them. He and his Rifles slaughtered every Kandyan they could lay their filthy hands on. Capt. Lillie reported that six were killed, several wounded and eight were taken prisoners (CO/54/250, 31.7.1848). This was a blatant lie. Governor Torrington later admitted to Grey that "it has since been ascertained that the total number killed and wounded amounted to little less than two hundred" (CO/54/250, 14.8.1848). A massacre indeed by any standard.

Lt. Henderson was an eye-witness soldier who took part in his expedition. His version of the events, in his book, (The History of Rebellion in Ceylon), at Wariapola estate contradicts the official version. According to him the rebels at Wariapola estate were at the point of surrender to superior force and arms, when they were mowed down by the Rifles, and in the bushes, the surrounded Kandyans were disarmed and simply slaughtered with daggers, bayonets and bill-hooks. Hence the Governor had to revise upwards the casualty figures. This none-combat butchery was also the evidence why there were no casualties, not even a scratch on British soldiers, even though Capt. Watson maintained before the House of Commons Committee, that a hand-to-hand fight took place in the bushes and the forests. This Committee Report abounds with evidence of many atrocities committed under an unnecessarily prolonged Martial Law by the British both in Matale and Kurunegala. For brevity’s sake I do not propose to enlarge on them here.

Capt. Watson was a blood-thirsty marauding soldier. He plundered and set fire to Kandyan property, He issued blood-curdling proclamations, shot dead suspected Kandyans on sight and nailed death-notices on the trees of Matale. He was found guilty of all these depredations by two independent judges from the Madras Presidency. He was not punished for his proven monstrosities. Governor Torrington’s excuse was that "the zeal displayed by Capt. Watson in the active discharge of public duties, induce me to think his case is deserving of the utmost consideration and indulgence" (CO/54/260, 14.9.1849). That was Torrington’s appalling sense of justice! Mr. Hume MP, in the House of Commons, however, condemned Capt. Watson’s behaviour towards the Kandyans as "acts of atrocity more suitable for the destruction of mad dogs than becoming proceedings which involve the lives of human beings".

The Kandyans have not given up hope that a proper Crown apology will be issued for all the dastardly crimes committed against them by the colonial British. In a Petition to Queen Victoria in 1846, they pleaded that the "infringements of the promises and engagements, amicably made and entered into are contrary to British Law, are in opposition to British Equity, Justice and Impartiality of the British Government, and discreditable to its good faith". The present-day Labour government of Great Britain has the opportunity to sort out this long-standing grievance, and enhance its reputation by taking the necessary steps to tender the Crown apology due to the long-suffering Kandyans.