Brief History

The story of Britain's acquisition of Ceylon, one of the strangest in the history of imperial expansion is a classic example of how intrigue can be at times more effective than force in achieving a national objective. Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1795 was in the hands of the Dutch, who had ruled it for about 15O years since throwing out the island's first European masters, the Portuguese. Britain, at war with the French, who had seized Holland and might at any time seize Dutch overseas possessions, realized that the island - particularly its grand harbour of Trincomalee in which an entire fleet could ride safely at anchor was vital to the protection of the sea routes to Bengal, the Orient and the Pacific.

To conquer Ceylon could be a costly and bloody business. The Dutch Governor at Colombo had a strong garrison of Swiss mercenary soldiers with which to defend it. The British therefore decided to employ an agent, a 34-year-old Scotsman named Hugh Cleghorn, who posed as a professor from St. Andrews University.

The troops in Ceylon were only under contract to the Dutch: they actually constituted a private army owned by a Swiss nobleman, Count Charles de Meuron of Neuchatel. Cleghorn made a secret journey to Switzerland and persuaded the Count to withdraw his troops from Dutch service by the simple but effective method of offering him more money than the Dutch were paying.

There remained the problem of smuggling the Count's instructions past the Dutch guards to his brother, who commanded the mercenaries in Ceylon. Ever resourceful, Cleghorn hid the Count's signed order in a cheese - appropriately enough - a Dutch Edam.

The message got through. The Swiss garrison deserted the Dutch Governor, who capitulated to a British force with scarcely a struggle in February, 1796. The British paid Cleghorn 5,000 pounds for his work and duly added Ceylon, with its fine natural harbour at Trincomalee to its growing Empire.

The island was turned over to the East India Company, but after just two years, during which the Company's attempts to impose Indian style taxation provoked rioting among the inhabitants, a dual system of rule was established. The Company controlled Ceylon's commerce while law and administration were in the hands of a Governor answerable to both the Company and the British government.

The first Governor was Frederick North, the brilliant but erratic son of Lord North, who had been George Ill's Prime Minister. North, 32 years old when he appointed, was a bachelor who enjoyed living in style on his handsome salary of 10,000 pounds a year and used to thunder round Trincomalee in a coach-and-six.

North was not a mere figurehead and resented the interference of the East India Company. He was able to use his influence back in Britain to get the government to end the dual system and declare Ceylon a Crown Colony in 1802, when by the Peace of Amiens, Holland formally ceded the island to Britain. He created a civil service, the first under the Crown in the East, with postal, survey, audit, education and medical departments. A remarkable linguist - he spoke French, Spanish, German, Russian, Italian and Greek - he made proficiency in the local language a pre-requisite to promotion.

Unfortunately, his impulsiveness and ambition led him into trouble. Britain occupied only the coastal areas of Ceylon; in the interior highlands the ancient Kingdom of Kandy still maintained the independence it had enjoyed during Portuguese and Dutch rule. Although the British government was only interested in Ceylon's maritime provinces and had no obvious use for Kandy at the moment, North decided to bring the Kandyans under British control. He began to intrigue with Pilima Talauva, their Chief Minister, or adigar, against the King of Kandy. "I am not sure whether I have acted like a good politician," he wrote, "or like a great nincompoop." His self-doubt was well-placed. In 1803 he sent 3,400 men into Kandy to avenge the theft of a 300 pound shipment of betel-nuts. After a tortuous series of political shuffles, during which North put a puppet King on the throne, under the direction of Talauva, the adigar. After this, the main British force returned to Colombo, leaving 300 Europeans and 700 British Malays to show the flag in the new vassal state.

This garrison soon found itself surrounded by the troops of the treacherous adigar, who was quite happy to turn on his supposed allies, the British, in his determination to assert power for himself. Promised their lives, the British surrendered. Only one of them, a corporal named George Barnsley, survived to tell how the Kandyan warriors then grabbed the British soldiers by pairs, "knocked them down with the butt-end of their pieces, and beat their brains out." When the Kandyans found that Barnsley was still alive, he was twice hanged, but both times the rope broke. He eventually crawled away in the darkness, was tended by a villager and ultimately rescued. The marauding Kandyans went on to invade British territory and actually came within a few miles of Colombo before reinforcements rushed from India forced them back. The Kandyan War of 1803, said a British officer, was conducted "by both parties, Christian and Heathen, with savage barbarity." Questions were asked in Parliament, both because the war was "rank and impolitic in its origin and commencement," and because the government failed to mount a punitive expedition to avenge the massacre. The reinforcements needed for such an action could not be spared as long as the British were heavily engaged in their life-and-death struggle with Napoleon.

Through the years of uneasy peace which followed, British officials in Ceylon continued to dabble secretly in Kandyan politics. The King, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, successfully countered the intrigues of the ambitious adigar, beheaded him. He went on to generate an awesome reputation for barbarism hideous enough to ensure that there would be at least some support for Britain should another invasion occur in the future.

The adigar's replacement, heedless of his predecessor's fate, was caught intriguing with the British with messages written on dried palm leaves - and fled to Colombo, leaving his family behind. His children were publicly beheaded, and his wife, under threat of being raped before an audience, was compelled to pound their severed heads with a pestle. She was then drowned in a lake.

In 1814 a group of Moorish merchants, British subjects, were seized in Kandy and had their ears, noses and hands cut off. Seven were killed and the three who survived were driven towards Colombo "with the severed members tied to their necks." Soon, with the ending of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, troops were made available to pacify this unruly interior. Sir Robert Brownrigg, then Governor of Ceylon, personally led an expedition to Kandy.

Many Kandyan nobles and peasants welcomed the British troops as liberators from the King's despotism. Not a single British soldier was killed. The King was captured and exiled, and the chiefs signed a document which became known as the Kandyan Convention of 1815.

Kandy became part of the British Empire, the chiefs retained the "rights, privileges and powers of their respective offices," and civil and religious liberty was guaranteed. This attempt at a form of indirect rule, did not entirely work. It allowed for free trade to the coast which contravened some of the rights and privileges traditionally assumed by the chiefs. It also said that civil and criminal cases involving Kandyans were to be tried as was customary, but it abolished torture and mutilation, which were customary punishments. Before long, the chiefs began to realize that they ranked no higher than the commonest British soldier in their forts scattered throughout Kandy. Buyer's remorse turned many former Kandyan enthusiasts against British rule.

Discontent exploded into rebellion in 1817 when a priest named Wilbawe claimed the throne of Kandy. A British Assistant Resident sent to capture him was killed. Soon all but one of the chiefs of Kandy had joined the revolt, which received an additional boost when the Sacred Tooth of Buddha - Kandyans believed that whoever held the Sacred Tooth ruled the country - was stolen from its shrine and delivered to the rebels.

Reinforced from India, Brownrigg reacted with a severity that a British commission of inquiry later found "difficult to justify." His troops methodically burned villages and destroyed cattle and crops. "Much care was taken," wrote a British officer, "to sweep the country bare of everything, for the purpose of denying the inhabitants the means of subsistence." None the less, it was only when a new pretender to the throne appeared and the rebels began fighting among themselves that Brownrigg managed to subdue them; in all 10,000 Kandyans and 1,000 British were killed in the course of putting down the rebellion.

Mainly under the direction of Sir Edward Barnes, who was made Governor in 1824, the British consolidated their hold on all of Ceylon. Barnes, a great autocrat who had fought with distinction at Waterloo, drank excessively and built mansions for himself throughout the island. "The business of all the merry party at government house," wrote a visitor, "was pleasure." But he also oversaw the building of roads which linked Kandy to Colombo, Trincomalee, Matale and Kurunegala. He instituted a regular, island-wide mail coach service and helped promote the cultivation of coffee as an export crop by granting special tax concessions - from which he was one of the first to benefit. He opened his own coffee estate in 1825.

Despite this progress, the Colonial Office was increasingly uneasy about the way the colony was run. All power, legislative and administrative, was concentrated in the Governor. He had an advisory council - appointed by himself - but he was not obliged to take its advice. The otherwise admirable road-building, like other public works in Ceylon, was accomplished by the use of forced labour under a system of conscription inherited from old Sinhalese regimes.

The Governor's cinnamon monopoly, then the only major export crop, was called into question in Parliament. There were also complaints about the fact that "one of the finest colonies in the world," with a revenue of 350,000 pounds a year, could not - because of a large military establishment and high salaries for its administrators - pay its own way.

A commission led by Sir William Colebrooke and Charles Cameron, after thoroughly studying Ceylon's problems, in 1832 published a report which, although it was many years being implemented, established a whole new pattern for governing the colony. Colebrooke called for an end to compulsory labour and government monopolies. He recommended that the civil service be open to all, regardless of race or caste, and that education be improved for natives so they could attain "some of the higher appointments."

He suggested a legislative council which could send its proposed laws, if they were vetoed by the Governor, directly to the Secretary of State in London - and even advocated native participation on the council. A report on the judiciary proposed a system of courts removed from the Governor's control and giving equal treatment to natives and Europeans.

Sir Edward Barnes condemned the Colebrooke reforms on the grounds that they "must ultimately lead to a separation of the island from British control," which, ultimately, they did, although much, much later. Barnes resigned in protest.

His successor, Sir Robert WilmotHorton, while a more liberal-minded man, also thought Colebrooke had gone too far and resisted instituting some of the recommendations, many of which, in any case, were difficult to implement. As late as the end of the Victorian era, J. R. Weinman, a Ceylonese writer from one of the old Dutch burgher families, could still say that "the Governor is the Government. He is all-powerful. He wields more power within his domain than the Kaiser or the President of the United States. He not only reigns, but rules. He has the last word, and [because he need not reveal to his council what he tells London] what his last word is nobody knows." Even so, the piecemeal implementation of the reforms kept Ceylon on the road towards self-government far in advance of other British colonies inhabited by non-Europeans.

That the reforms, however slow, were important to the people of Ceylon was dramatically demonstrated in 1848. The colony was in economic trouble. Its coffee growing industry, which had been booming ever since Barnes had given it top concessions, 'suddenly slumped in 1845. The prices paid in London for coffee dropped by almost four-fifths. Estates which had been bought for 15,000 pounds were being sold for less than 500 pounds. Ceylon had a new Governor, Viscount Torrington, whose only qualification for ' the job, said his political enemy Benjamin Disraeli, was that he had once been a director of a railway company. Torrington was so tactless and contemptuous of others that he even managed to alienate many of the European residents. He was hardly the man to handle the imposition of stringent new measures to end Ceylon's budget deficit. These included a revival of forced labour (six days annually on a road gang for anyone who could not afford to buy his way out) and taxes the Ceylonese on guns, which they needed to hunt food for their families, and on dogs, which abounded in every village but which did not actually belong to anyone. The result in July, 1848, was an outbreak of rioting that Torrington crushed within four days. He then executed 18 of the captive rebels, sentenced 28 to transportation, and flogged and imprisoned 66 more.

There was protest in London, especially over the public whipping of a pretender to the Kandy throne and the execution of a Buddhist monk while dressed in his canonical robes. A select committee investigated. Torrington was recalled in 1850. It was the last civil disturbance Ceylon was to experience during the 19th Century.

Ceylon was to suffer, however, a much more severe and far reaching disturbance - in the form of an agricultural upheaval. Coffee, which had long replaced cinnamon as Ceylon's chief export, became a bigger and bigger business after recovery from the 1845 slump. In 1836, there had been only 4,000 acres planted in coffee; by 1845 there were 37,000 acres; and by 1878, coffee estates covered 275,000 acres. Tamil labourers to work the plantations were imported at a rate of up to 70,000 a year. In 1867 a railway was built from Kandy to Colombo just to carry coffee

World War Two

In 1869, at the glorious height of Ceylon's coffee prosperity, the island received an unwelcome visitation in the form of Hemileia vastatrix, soon all too commonly known as "coffee rust." At first the planters refused to believe this leaf blight could be their undoing, and continued to buy and plant more acres with coffee bushes. But within 20 years coffee rust virtually demolished the industry.

That the island's economy was not completely laid waste was the doing of one man, a Scot named J ames Taylor. Four years before coffee rust made its appearance, Taylor, assistant superintendant of a coffee plantation, planted 19 acres of tea as an experiment. He had no equipment. His labourers rolled the tea-leaves by hand on his veranda and dried them in clay ovens over charcoal fires. For a small-scale operation, it was successful. In 1872 he built a proper teahouse with Ceylon's first rolling machine. Coffee-planters, beginning to despair about the spread of leaf blight, came from all over the island to study Taylor's methods of tea production.

In 1875, there were 1,100 acres planted to tea. By 1890, there were 220,000 acres. At the turn of the century, there were 384,000. A whole new industry had been born out of the disaster of an old one. By 1900, the planters, spearheaded by the dynamic marketing techniques of the multi-millionaire Sir Thomas Lipton, were exporting 150 million pounds of tea annually.

The tea business was almost entirely a British monopoly. Neither the Sinhalese nor the Tamils of Ceylon had the capital necessary to start plantations. Almost all of Ceylon's wealth, in fact, was in the hands of Europeans, who constituted less than one per cent of the total population of the island.

Besides the wide gulf between the British and the non-European Ceylonese, the Ceylonese themselves were divided against each other into three main groups: the coastal Sinhalese, the inland Kandyans, and the Tamils - both those brought in from India by the British and those who had been in the island for centuries. In 1915 communal rioting broke out. The disturbances, which began when Muslims objected to Buddhist processions passing near their mosques, were actually rather minor. But Governor Sir Robert Chalmers insisted that the riots were a "foreign plot" to embarrass England during the war. He declared martial law in five of Ceylon's provinces. Hundreds of people, including Don Stephen Senanayake who was to become independent Ceylon's first Prime Minister, were imprisoned and charged with sedition. Some were killed, although just how many is not known.

An English observer told the Colonial Secretary that Chalmers and his advisers were "suffering from so acute an attack of treasonitis that nothing short of a complete change of venue from Ceylon to England"could put matters aright. Chalmers, protesting that "a revolt had been put down with rose water," was called home. A new Governor, Sir John Anderson, released 800 prisoners and appointed a commission to investigate the disturbances.

Ceylon calmed down, but the indiscriminate brutality of the repression in 1915 served as an enormous stimulus to the nationalist movement, which began to take shape in the form of parties and associations dedicated to political reform. Although independence was still a long way off, Ceylon's rulers had conferred almost 70 years of peace and prosperity on the island and its peoples. "I trust," wrote a certain Robert Fellows back in 1817, "that Great Britain will make her sovereignty of Ceylon contribute to the increase of civilization, to the encouragement of knowledge, the diffusion of Christian benevolence, and the consequent augmentation of the general happiness." It may have been paternalistic and condescending but Britain's rule did provide concrete economic and infrastructural investment which helped propel Ceylon far further than many other her colonies.

Imperial Flag
map of Ceylon
Maps of Colonial Ceylon
Historical ceylon
Images of Ceylon
National Archive Ceylon Images
Administrators of Ceylon
1796 - 1948
Significant Individuals
1796 - 1948
Operation Blowfish
N P Hadow gives an account of one of the stranger experiments conducted by the Fisheries Department in Ceylon to see if they could tell if fish caught by the illegal use of explosives could be differentiated from legally caught fish.

Saneepa Kohomada
P.C. 49 recalls the pitfalls for prison officers working in Ceylon's largest prison when it came to demonstrating linguistic proficiency. These linguistic examinations could throw up some unexpected information from interviewed prisoners!

Ceylon's Contribution to the War Effort and to the Development of the New Commonwealth
John O'Regan details how the authorities in Ceylon prepared for radical constitutional reform in the late 1930s and early 1940s. However, he also explains how the Second World War influenced those preparations as the Japanese threat loomed unexpectedly large.

Sinhalese Speakeasy
John Kitching recalls the difficulties in having to prepare and pass the necessary language exams in Ceylon that helped open up promotion and pay increases for the colonial bureaucrats, experts and administrators.

Sigiriya: The Most Remarkable Fortress in the World
Percy L. Parker writes about the Archaeological excavation of Sigiriya in the 1890s.

Roy Hawes' Memorobilia
Roy Hawes was posted to Ceylon with the RAF during World War Two. Here you can see some of his photographs, documents and menus from his time of service there.
Military Expeditions
1796 - 1818
Links about Ceylon
Ceylon; an Account of the Island Physical, Historical, and Topographical with Notices of Its Natural History, Antiquities and Productions
An 1860 book about the island's history and geography.
Further Reading
H.C.P. Bell; Archaeologist of Ceylon and the Maldives
by Heather and Bethia Bell

Clifford: Imperial Proconsul
by Harry A. Gailey

Woolf in Ceylon - An Imperial Journey in the Shadow of Leonard Woolf-1904-1911
by Christopher Ondaatje

The Village in the Jungle
by Leonard Woolf

Leonard Woolf
by Victoria Glendinning

Pearls, Palms and Riots
by Mirabel Hawkes

Refuge from Civilisation, and Other Trifles
by R Jones-Bateman

A Political Legacy Of The British Empire: Power And The Parliamentary System In Post-Colonial India And Sri Lanka
by Harshan Kumarasingham

Woolf in Ceylon: An Imperial Journey in the Shadow of Leonard Woolf 1904-1911
by Christopher Ondaatje

Running in the Family
by Michael Ondaatje

Sir Bernard Bourdillon: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Colonialist
by Robert Pearce

Sowing: An Autobiography of the Years 1880-1904
by Leonard Woolf

Growing: An Autobiography of the Years 1904-1911
by Leonard Woolf

Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the Years 1911-1918
by Leonard Woolf

Downhill All the Way: An Autobiography of the Years 1919-1939
by Leonard Woolf

The Journey Not the Arrival Matters: An Autobiography of the Years 1939-1969
by Leonard Woolf

The Village in the Jungle
by Leonard Woolf

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