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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.