Midweek Review
Book review
Revisting British oppression

The wars of National Liberation in the Nineteenth Century H N. S. Karunatilake, (Centre for Demographic and Socio-Economic Studies, 1999.)

By Dr. Sinharaja Tammita-Delgoda.

The Bhikkus were the motivators, the great designers who spearheaded the conspiracies and the rebellions.

- Governor Brownrigg

Neville Karunatilake clearly written and accessible account of the repeated attempts to overthrow British rule between 1815-1848 fulfils two purposes. It highlights the political role played by the Sangha in leading and organizing the resistance against British domination during the early part of the nineteenth century. The events of this period very clearly show that it was the Buddhist clergy who led the struggle, often at the cost of their lives. By highlighting its role in the past, Karunatilaka is pointing very clearly to the present and perhaps to the future. In today’s political landscape the Sangha is are being denounced for its involvement in politics, which we are always being add is totally and utterly against Buddhist tradition. Karunatilaka’s work refutes these allegations and convinces us in no uncertain terms of the vital role played by the Sangha during the 19A country. Religion politics have always be" interwoven in the cultural fabric of this country it is a point the author sets out to prove and prove it he certainly does. The implication is that the Sangha still has an important part to play in the future of this country.

This work who seeks to redress the cultural wide deft by the abandonment of history. As the author remarks in his preface, Ceylon history has been taught in our schools for more than 125 years, even the British permitted us to learn about our history in their schools. What the British had permitted, was discontinued in the 1970s by the self proclaimed Sinhala Buddhist government of Mrs. Bandaranaike, who replaced it with "a miscellaneous hatch pitch called Social Stifles." The result has had very grave repercussions for our society, depriving it of the cultural identity which’ every civilization needs as its foundation: "Today many school children are growing up without any knowledge of our culture, traditional values and heritage". What accounts we do have are mostly scholarly tomes, which are not really suitable for the general public. There is a crying need for clear, accessible, non specialist works on Sri Lanka’s past, to provide us with the knowledge and consciousness which we are so desperately in need of. It is this void that Karunatilaka’s work tries to fold.

In amply written and very readable prow the author recounts the various rebellions, conspiracies and plots against the British which two place between the first great uprising in 1817-18 and the last uprising in 1848. The first four chapters paint a content picture of seething dicontent and wasteland resentment of British domination, erupting into a major uprising almost every six years. To quote James Emerson Tennent in his evidence before the Select Committee in 1850:

"There was open rebellion in !817, 1823 and in 1848. There were three conspiracies detected before their explosion in 1820, 1834 and 1843, and those are independent of the treasonable plots which were detected and arrests which took place in 1816 1819, 1824, 1830 and 1842."

In the context of these events the author scans all too justified in his assertion that the 1848 uprising must not be seen as an isolated eruption. Until now this has been the mew put forward by leading contemporary historical Professor Kingsley de Silva for example. Has desconded the revolt of 1848 as breaking "the stillness which had settled on Ceylon since the great Rebellion". Karunatilaka’s evidence dumb suggests that the uprising was merely the symptom of the enduring hatred of British rule which had always remained summering under the surface, yet another "link in a chain of events which have developed over thirty years"

In the last two chapters the author attempts to synthesize and analyse the material he has introduced and the issues he has raised. The fifth and penultimate chapter tries to draw the threads together and identity the common elements and features which characterized the whale struggle. The sixth and final chapter assesses the effects of the British occupation and ones to discuss the factors behind the failure of Kandyan resistance, seeking to understand why it evaporated after 1848.

As its the suggested, this is a highly political work of hydro, history written with an eye to the present. It is the history of an important and little known period, written by a non specialist but based nonetheless on historical sources, which are by and large we researched, documented and imitated. Although it is largely based on the reinterpretation of well known English sources like Brownrigg, Davg, and Tennent, there is no faulting, the author questioning and critical evaluation of his material. However it is disappointing that the author makes no mention at all of Sir Paul E. Pieries’ masterpiece on the 1817-1818 rebellion, Sinhala and the Patriots. This remains one of the most authoritative historical studies of the 19th century, comprehensively researched and heavily annotated, it is dill an invaluable source of information and should be used by every student of this period. This omission perhaps explains the author’s rather surprising assertion that there has been no serious study of the uprisings between 1815-1818.

The author’s personal style is always forceful and pugnacious. At times however, his enthusiasm and indignation gets the better of him and on occasion his language becomes quite intemperate and polemical.

‘The role played by Mahawalatenne in 1834 was similar to that of Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, grandfather of the present President, Chandrika Kumaratunga when he was Maha Mudaliyar in 1915 to governor Robert Chalmers. Sir Soloman did not attempt to intervene on behalf of the Sinhala leaders who had been incarcerated without any reason or to raise a voice of dissent against the atrocities committed by the British in suppressing the riots of 1915. "

None of us, not even the President, can help our ancestors. However much he may agree with Dr. Karunatilaka’s sentiments, this reviewer feels that parallels of this nature may not appear entirely seemly in this kind of work. Verging as it does on personal invective, it is both unnecessary and inappropriate.

Another criticism concerns the occasional misconception or misinterpretation at important facts. At times the author gives the impression that the Nayakkar kings were cruel, despotic rulers who were hated by their people: "Discontent was rampant among the common people and they surreptitiously sought the help of the British to get rid of their cruel and despotic King. " This was not the case. The common people were in fact great supporters of the Nayakkar dynasty, who had endeared themselves to them by their patronage and protection of Sinhala Buddhist culture. Sri Vikrama Raja Simha, the last King was in fact no more or no less cruel than any of his Sinhala predeccessors. The great Raja Sinha of Sitawaka and his namesake, King Raja Simha II of Kandy, were no less oppressive or tyrannical when faced with the threat of rebellion.

In the final analysis it was the Sinhala nobility and not the ordinary people who were discontented, it was they who found the King despotic and it was they who secretly sought the help of the British. In this respect history seems to have come a full circle. It is at this point that Dr. Karunatilaka’s message comes.