At Sri Lanka’s Independence: Revisiting the crimes and communal disharmony created by the British

By Shenali D Waduge

The British ruled parts of Sri Lanka from 1796 and the whole of Sri Lanka from 1815 to 1948. Sri Lanka marks 4 February 1948 as its day of Independence. When our history is related by the very nations that occupied us or by twisted versions from their local clones the true history is often wiped under the carpet for the embarrassing nature of crimes and the dirty tactics adopted. A 1904 British newspaper pokes fun at the Sinhala elite Ceylon is Our Happy Possession, while other colony’s make noise for more reforms, Ceylon makes Money”.Old practices die hard and the very nations that colonized nations and destroyed ancient cultures and native governance systems are on course to continuing their destructive nature. We look at some of these crimes that attempted to divide the people and continue to destable the nation in spite of being independent.

British colonial murders – killing of unarmed civilians

  • 1803  – Raid and Destroy Policy. Kandy invaded in 2 batches from Colombo & Trincomalee. They were virtually destroyed and their reaction was to take out their frustration on the innocent civilians by indiscriminate killing.
  • 1817 – Lt. Maclaine given authority to kill anyone without trial. Assist Commissioner of Badulla (Braybrooke) notes reveal the manner natives were killed. Lt. Maclaine is infamously known for having breakfast while watching Sinhalese men being hung!
  • British sadism further illustrated in Col. Hook ordering Sinhalese to be hung without trial. Mawatagama Nilama a close relation of the Mahanayake of Asgiriya was also hung.
  • Davey British Army surgeon They had the paths we walked lined with snares, spring-guns, string bows, deep pits lightly covered and armed with thorns and spikes. When they attacked they were ferocious and showed no fear or mercy. They were totally dedicated fighters. Over 20% of our troops died in sickness in these jungles. Over 1000 British troops died in this war. We didn’t manage to kill the enemy. But we killed a lot of villagers. We must have killed at least 10,000 men in the villagers.”
  • MacDonald destroys village of Wilbawe killing cattle and every man over 14 years and raped Sinhalese women, scorched houses and destroyed food crops.
  • Campbells’ memo Soldiers wonder about the value of what they destroyed……..! We were under orders to destroy all coconut trees, all fruit trees and paddy fields. We were also ordered to destroy the bunds of the water reservoirs. This water was essential to them for cultivation. We wondered how long it must have taken for them to build these giant reservoirs and how long it would take them now, without having any engineers or the equipment, to rebuild or repair them.”
  • 1818 Major Forbes memo We met so many military patrols who had been dispatched for burning the villages and their property. They were not looking for the enemy. The natives who survived our fire would definitely get perished in sickness and in famine as we had destroyed all their cultivation, lakes and villages.”
  • 1818 diary of Sergeant Calladine Not a single day passed without burning a village and killing the Chingalese men. We didn’t take prisoners.”
  • British captured wives and children of patriots and held them as ransom until patriots surrendered. These same dirty tactics continue to be repeated.
  • Children of patriots were killed – Dr. John Davey of British Army declares that by 1821 there were no children of patriotic families in the hill country/Uva-Wellassa.
  • John Davey estimated at least 7% of the population in the entire Central province was killed by the British

British effort to break Buddhist hold on Sri Lanka and convert to Christianity

  • Realized Buddhism was the key and singular obstacle to taking complete control of Sri Lanka.
  • Christian missionary schools set up with the intent to educate children to respect the history and culture of the invader and to be loyal to the West. Children were taught that Christianity was better than Buddhism or Hinduism and true history of the country was kept from them. Thus the origins of the kalu suddas.
  • They studied the Buddhist Temple Education system and then destroyed it.
  • 1807 Governor Maitland’s letter to GA Matara use this carefully and secretly, reliance of Buddhism and philosophy of Matara Buddhists must be destroyed. In Matara, Bhikkus are more powerful than village chiefs, make sure all chiefs are Christian”. Now look at the 2015 cabinet of Ministers.
  • Locals are sent to UK in 1811 to be trained in Christianity.
  • Baptist missionaries introduced in 1812 with the objective of Christianizing the population. Christian missionaries set up in minority dense areas. These schools created a powerful group of Tamil intellectuals who would later take up the eelam struggle.
  • British sort to give education and employment to minorities while the Sinhala Buddhists were defending the nation fighting invaders and losing lives.
  • Missionaries influence British to cancel Kandy Convention pledge to protect Buddhism and Christian missionary schools set up in 1818.
  • 1807 Rev. James Cordiner’s report testifying at the Colebrooke Commission that Buddhist children were not taught to read and write Sinhala in his parish school.
  • Employment in British Government service was given to only English educated thus automatically denying Sinhala Buddhists employment. With 1/3 of schools run by Missionaries in Jaffna the Jaffna elite secured all state jobs. Sinhala Buddhists wanting to be employed had to denounce Buddhism and convert to Christianity.
  • British conspiracy against Buddhism is proved in a pamphlet distributed by R. Spence Hardy a Wesleyan missionary demanding British action against Buddhism citing that it was against the teaching of God.
  • 1913 the Catholic Church and elite oppose the proposal for a Public University. Letter signed by the Archbishop to Governor Chalmers We cannot agree to the compulsory requirement of our Catholic boys and girls to enter this university for their higher studies” and delayed setting up a university for 29years. Lanka’s 1st university was established on 1st July, 1942
  • A Tamil quoted as saying to the Morning Star of 9 Oct 1931. History Should NOT be taught in schools” Sinhala people alone can boast of an uninterrupted sway over the island for some thousands of years. Since the South Indians living in Lanka had no such history, history should not be taught in schools as it could belittle and humiliate the South Indians.” said a Tamil gentleman in the Morning Star of 9th October, 1931.
1811 300 out of 819 Christian missionary schools in Jaffna peninsula
1818 American Missionaries set up in Jaffna
1833 90 American missionary schools in Jaffna
1869 140 missionary schools and close to 9000 students (British were not too happy because they didn’t want too many elites)
1885 300 out of 819 schools were in Jaffna peninsula. Less than 10% of population receive over 45% of education grants.1% of Christians given 99% of Govt funds while only 8 Buddhist schools received grants.  
1920 919 Government schools / 2122 Christian schools in Sri Lanka1% of Christians, 36 years later became 8.8%
1930 2122 Government schools / 2502 Christian schools and less than 20 Buddhist schools struggling to survive
  • 1878 Report by Director Public Instruction confirms Buddhists were forced to attend Christian classes
  • Sir Henry Olcott arrived in 1875 and championed the Buddhist cause. He campaigned for a public holiday on vesak and helped design the Buddhist flag in 1885. He reprimanded the British for their disassociation from Buddhism and established the Buddhist Theosophical society in 1875.
  • British dividing the Sinhalese and creating Christians/Catholics led to the 1883 religious riot in Kotahena when Catholics who outnumbered Buddhists rioted against the celebration of vesak despite Buddhists never objecting to ceremonies of the Church – an example of how minorities treat the majority.
  • Destruction of Buddhism begins
    • 1898 demolishing of temples in Anuradhapura. Monks buy rubble.
    • 1898 British GA (C S Vaughen) in Anuradhapura demolishes Gonameriyava temple and declares that the Sannasa issued by the last King to the temple for 2000 acres was invalid.
    • 1905 ‘Bo-Maluwa is not a religious area’ –British GA and Police walk inside sacred temple with shoes. 

British stealing of Sri Lanka’s wealth / biased economic policies and attempts to destroy livelihoods

  • Britain bled the nation of its wealth covering all state revenues from Sri Lanka itself. Not a penny was invested from Britain.
  • Local collaborators were given decreased taxes and taxes were increased for patriots.
  • 10% paddy tax on agriculture introduced while districts loyal to British paid only 7%. Families connected to patriots had to pay 20% tax.
  • Rajakariya tactic used to build roads – using high caste administrative officials to get low-caste people to work without payment.
  • Plantations producing export commodities (coffee, cotton, sugar, silk, opium) were exempted from tax. This jeopardized rice and agriculture produce of natives.
  • Europeans given 5 year interest free loan and tax holiday for 10 years.
  • Scorched Earth Tactic used in 1817 to destroy Uva irrigation complexes and starve people to death (a Geneva violation)
  • By 1830 British made 3200% profits from Lankan products.
  • Crown Land Encroachment Ordinance 1840 – 90% land taken by British. By 1920, 2.5million acres of land robbed from Sinhalese farmers and sold to European merchants.
  • 1847 – Road Tax every male between the ages 18 and 55 had to do 6 days of labour per year on building roads. The British, local collaborators and Indian plantation workers were exempted.
  • 1877 – Grain Tax – British earned 25% from revenues.
  • Wasteland Ordinance 1897 more lands confiscated from Sinhalese – deeds written in sannasas by kings to temples were not accepted.
  • Sinhala peasantry could not afford surveyors and lawyers and lost their lands. Temples lost over 80,000 acres of land while British took over 250,000 acres of land belonging to Sinhala farmers.
  • P D Miller a coffee planter records that the Sinhala farmers had bewailed ‘pass over our dead bodies before you measure and sell our land’.
  • The European landowners did not wish to incur expenses to fence their land. When cattle belonging to Sinhala farmers walked into European owned lands they would shoot them dead
  • 1907 Sinhalese were pauperized by the British seen by the manner they could not even collect funds to build a pilgrims rest in Anuradhapura when the British asked them to collect money for it

British Divide and Rule policy – Favoring the Minorities over the Majority

  • British created agents out of locals and an elite that comprised the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians/Catholics, Hindus, Islam who would at all times ensure their common goal to stay in power would come before the nation or its people. These make up todays political families who are best of friends amongst each other and sworn enemies on political stages only!
  • Governor Brownrigg’s memo to London in 1817 They don’t face us in combat. Instead they follow us through the jungle. They wait until bad weather arrives. They wait until we become tired or sick. They wait until we finish our supplies. Any European would not be able to destroy them in this country alone without the help of their own countrymen”. Thus the reason to increase collaborators from the minorities and buying over some from the majority through devious methods.
  • Favoring Muslims: Muslims were used as soldiers, traders and officials with intent to create tensions. In turn Muslims asked for Islamic schools/mosques which were all given knowing it would create tensions with time. They were however denied a seat at the Legislative Council. Arrogance of Muslims seen in 1912 to oppose a 800 year annual tradition in Gampola when Muslims prohibit noise within 100 yards of mosque which started the 1st Sinhala-Muslim riot. 1915 Sinhalese make a human shield around Dalada medura as Muslim extremists attempt to attack it – another example of Muslim provocation ignited by the British. Henry Pedris who refused to shoot Sinhala civilians was arrested, imprisoned and shot dead.
  • ‘Buddhist Extremist’ nomenclature as propaganda to denigrate Buddhists started in 1907 when Governor lied about the meat stall near the Sacred Bo Tree. When genuine grievances were raised by Buddhists it became easy to shut them down and transfer attention to ‘Buddhist extremism’ and thus evade acknowledging fault or taking remedial action.
  • Favoring Malabars (Tamils) : By 1904 Tamil elite outnumbered the Sinhala elite in Colombo.
  • We don’t need British troops in Ceylon as long as Moor soldiers are there”- Major Hardy. British stops recruiting Sinhalese and instead begin recruiting Muslims.
  • British create 2 local army regiments – one with Malays the other with Sinhala sepoys.
  • 6 January 1818 – Battle of Madulla. Muslim collaborators used to attack Sinhala camp. Brownrigg had to write to the Viceroy in India on 20 April 1818 to seek reinforcements and 7000 were sent from India. Had it not been for these reinforcements Sri Lanka’s patriots would have defeated the British.
  • Patriots were punished by confiscating their property. Informants and collaborators were gifted.
  • Caste-tactic to divide communities : Firstly to stop liberation struggles. The 2 largest castes were given jobs and made to be dependent and loyal to the British. British made Govigama feels the highest caste and with time they nurtured the Karawe and then pitted them against each other. Buddhist monks too were divided by castes so much so that low caste monks were barred from receiving upasampada.
  • Governor Sir George Anderson As long as they were at each other’s throats, they wouldn’t have time to worry about the British rule”. Karawe caste, being predominantly Catholics, were an ideal candidate to clash with the Govigama caste as it would bring the Buddhists into conflict with the Christians.
  • The Legislative Council created in 1833 was biased – Sinhalese with 80% of population had 1 seat, Tamils with less than 7% of population had 1 seat and the Burghers had 1 seat. Sinhalese and Tamils were chosen from same families of those faithful to the British. The Sinhalese representative was a Catholic from 1833 to 1889.

British records – break present day myths

  • The Kandyan Convention (Udarata Givisum) signed between chiefs representing the Sinhale nation and the British. 6 Kandyan chiefs signed in Sinhala, one signed in Tamil. He was the great grandfather of JRJ. The British promised to look after the interests of the Sinhalese and continue to provide patronage to Buddhism.
  • 1805 / Capt. Robert Percival’s book ‘An Account of the island of Ceylon’ mentions Moors (wearing little white round cap on their shaven heads) being the majority in Jaffna peninsula and the 2nd largest community as Malabars (Tamils) who had migrated to Lanka after the Portuguese period from the Coromandel coast of South India. He says that ‘these foreigners’ (Malabars) came to grow tobacco. Capt. Percival mentions the Sinhalese as the 3rd largest community in Jaffna (inspite of the Sinhalese being massacred in 1478AD). The other community were the South Indians who arrived as merchants and invaders.
  • Davy’s book shows that even in 1805 the British did not mention Tamils by name but referred to them as Malabars from Tamil Nadu coast.
  • Davy records the sad plight of the Sinhalese and mentions how they were killed or made to die of sickness and famine. His book notes Sinhalese as proud farmers. He regretted the genocide being done to the Sinhalese We destroyed their cattle, stores of grain, villages, houses, crops, irrigation, cultivations, paddyfields, and fruit trees. When we consider that damage we should regret we ever entered their interior. The evil arising from our entering, exceeded any benefits we conferred on the natives.”
  • British Administrative Report of 1878 by 3 British engineers confirms that the Sinhalese were the majority populace in Kantale area in 1833 but by 1855 the ‘Malabars’ had taken over and the Sinhalese had moved elsewhere resulting in Malabars and Muslims taking over Sinhala villages. True to form, the Sinhalese elite did not come to assist the Sinhala villagers preferring to enjoy the good life among the British in Colombo. Not far different from present status quo.
1814 §  23,000 Tamil speaking people in Batticoloa(East Sri Lanka)§  Tamils were known as Malabars.

§  23,000 were living in 12 out of 139 villages. While the rest were Sinhalese villages.

  • Official British Census 1921 reports all Tamil settlements in East confined to East Coast and did not spread 10miles interior.
  • S G Canagaratnam, Chief Mudiliar of Easter Province wrote in official memo that Batticola belonged to Kandy Kingdom until British grabbed the region. He also noted the diminishing Sinhala population and mentioned many Sinhala ruins in West and South of Batticoloa.
  • 1928 Donoughmore Commission exposes difference between Sinhalese majority and minorities. The Report admits the artificial heights the minorities had been afforded at the expense of the Sinhala masses. It highlighted how the Sinhalese wished to share while the minorities wished to divide for themselves only.
  • 1943 British report reveals discrimination on Sinhalese workers.

British responsible for gradual and incremental breakdown of Sinhala culture and the Sinhale nation

  • Missionary schools achieved their objective – they created a submissive class of natives willing to be ruled by the British and willing to serve them.
  • Lawlessness and peace broke down when taverns, foreign cultures conflicted with their simple upbringing.
  • Buddhism was ridiculed and denigrated and very few Buddhists rose to object.
  • British denied small pox vaccine in 1819 creating an epidemic
  • Alcohol was introduced to intoxicate and make addicts out of the Sinhalese thereby weakening their resistence.
  • Taverns were set up in all villages, licenses were given to collaborators. Alcohol was initially given free and when addicted sold at a price leaving some selling their lands to pay for liquor and families destroyed in the process.
  • In 1872 Governor Gregory admitted before the Legislative Council that the British were responsible for making the Sinhalese into drunkards. Alcohol became a sterling pound 60,000 a year business
  • Sinhalese had just 2 choices – to collaborate or resist and face starvation. Alcohol became an outlet for their frustration and landed them into total ruin. The first adigar Molligoda and his son died of alcoholism. It was because of the alcoholic last King that the chieftans thought the British were better and ceded the nation!
  • Skinner a rare British who felt sorry for the Sinhalese implored the British to ban alcoholism because it was destroying the unique culture of the Sinhalese The vice of intemperance has become an enormous evil. It is rapidly gaining ground. There is no doubt”.  
  • J Forbes, District Judge diary notes speak of 133 taverns in an area covering 200,000 residents I entirely sympathise with the Buddhist monks who resist the establishment of the taverns. They practice a religion that forbid them to drink alcohol, but a Christian government is forcing them to do so. This will not only increase the revenue for the government, but also increase robbery, murder, gambling and drunkenness.”  
  • In 1833 the British purposely established an office in Anuradhapura to disrespect the Sinhala Buddhists by putting up taverns, meat stalls, kovils and churches and giving ownership to Muslims who began complaining about the temple drummings and Buddhist pirith chanting leading to British imposing regulations on Buddhists. Buildings were built purposely on top of Buddhist heritage sites.

British responsible for Tamilization of Sinhale

  • When Britain took governance of Sinhale the population had hardly 7% ‘Malabars’ – that too established as not indigenous but coming from South India by the British themselves.
  • By 1839 British brought Tamil labor from Tamil Nadu to work on plantations.


1824 851,940 population
1846 42,318 Tamil Nadu Indians working on plantations.
1850 1.73million population
1870 123,000 Tamil Nadu Indians working on plantations
1881 195,000 Tamil Nadu Indians working on plantations
1891 250,000 Tamil Nadu Indians working on plantations
1931 670,000 Tamil Nadu Indians – Soulbury Commission
1945 900,000 Tamil Nadu Indians and only 700,000 Ceylon Tamils
1901 3.56million populationBuddhists – 2,141,404

Hindus 826,826

Christians 349,239 (Catholics 287,119 / Anglicans 32,514 / Presbyterians 3337 / Wesleyan Methodists 14,991 / Baptists 3309 / Congregationalists 2446

Mohammedans 246,188

Others 2367


1903 Population of Colombo 6000
1921 4,106,300 population
1931 5.31million
  • British Report on Indian Tamil coolies in 21.4.1877 revealed British wanted to permanently settle Indians in Sri Lanka first around Anuradhapura but settled later to the central province.

British cruelty to animal

The British sadism was such that killing elephants became a sport. In two years ocer 3500 elephants had been shot dead. Major Rogers had killed 1200, Captain Galway had killed 600. Elephants were one time part of the Elephant Brigade of the Kings army. By 2000 there were said to be less than 1500 elephants in Sri Lanka in a country that had over 10,000.

At independence we can but wonder if any of our post-independence leaders can measure upto the bravery of those that fought to defend the nation. The Sinhalese that braved invaders, battled against Muslim, Tamil and even Sinhalese who betrayed their nation and people to rub shoulders with the enemy. We humbly pay gratitude to heroes like Keppetipola, Madugalle, Kobbekaduwa, Kahawatte thero, Kadahapola thero, Puran Appu all captured because British paid local agents Arachchi’s, Vidane and Muhandirams were happy to hand them over for a pat from the whites. Some of these paid agents even gave their wives and children to the British to enjoy! Puran Appu died saying ‘if only I had ten more like me’.

Having studied the natives the British mastered the art of ruling over the natives. The problem then and now continues to be the Buddhist unity factor. The British managed to create a faithful bloc comprising elites from Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, from among Buddhists, Christians/Catholics, Hindus, Islam who were western educated and who would put the sustenance of their power base above national concerns. It was to these that post-independence governance was given. National leaders were neutralized by varying ways including marriage to non-Buddhists who were able to influence nationalist leaders from different quarters.

Sadly we must also take stock of how Sri Lanka’s unity becomes denied because of Sinhalese themselves. In 1885 the only person to object to the vesak poya holiday was H L Alwis a relation of the Bandaranaike’s when the British Governor and Sir Ponnambalam voted in favour. The Temperance Society started by D S Senanayake’s father in 1903 failed because the Sinhala Buddhists did not support it. In 1912 JRJ’s uncle went to India to invite Ponnambalam Ramanthan to contest the educated Ceylonese post to prevent a Sinhalese from winning it which Sir Ponnambalam did win. While in 1912 Christopher Obeysekera grandfather of SWRD remained silent when the Alcohol Act was passed and taverns and meat stalls set up around Buddhist sacred sites.

The British have no moral standing to be preaching. The conflicts the British planted continue to branch out and are a result of calamities that prevail and the British as envoys continue to fan these flames.

Sri Lankans need to realize what is at risk. They need to be aware of their history to be able to appreciate it. Those that pay lipservice to cultures and values do so because they do not have a culture or values to be proud of. These are the proponents of the liberal multicultural slogans. We have a heritage and history to preserve and those that are proud of it will be inspired to defend the nation whatever the odds.

Sri Lanka appears to have once again been cornered. It was in 1899 that Srimath Anagarika Dharmapala said We may not succeed, But we must try, and ten years later we might get what we try to achieve” and this should inspire all those that carry the eternal candle of the ancestors in defending the nation from all enemies.

Srimath Anagarika also wrote from his prison cell Sinhalese will rather die than living without Buddhism, You may kill as many Sinhalese as you can now, but they will never forget this injustice.”   




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