Kandyan Convention of 1815 – A Convention violated and dishonoured

By Senaka Weeraratna

(This is an edited version of a paper read out at a Public Seminar on the ‘ Kandyan Convention of 1815’ held at the University of Peradeniya, Arts Theatre, on March 09, 2019)

The Kandyan Convention (‘Ingrisy – Sinhale Givisuma’) must be examined in the context of British colonial policy seeking British supremacy all over world. The British developed ingenious ways of grabbing other people’s lands under various pretexts. The Kandyan Convention is a classic example of this ploy. In India, under its policy of Subsidiary Alliance the British used Treaties to make Indian States, subordinate to British Colonial administration. The British agenda under the Kandyan Convention, whatever the wording in the provisions was not very different.

Kingdom of Kandy was never conquered. It was ceded to the British retaining several provisions favourable to the Kandyan Sinhalese. Articles 4, 5, 6 and 7 of the Kandyan Convention were meant to protect the Kandyan Sinhalese and allow them to govern the Kingdom as they did under their deposed King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe. Nevertheless, once the British had obtained full control of the land they began to interpret the provisions in an insincere self – serving manner that was highly prejudicial to the interests of the Kandyans, who had foolishly trusted the British.

Evidence of Viscount Torrington

This was clearly explained by Viscount Torrington who was the Governor of Ceylon from 1847 – 1850 in his evidence before the Select Committee of the British Parliament (1848 – 1850). He said Sir R. Brownrigg acted too hastily in making that treaty… The treaty was understood in different senses by the two parties. The chiefs thought they would still continue to govern the country, and that we were simply to have the regality of the territory. We, on the other hand, when we undertook all the duties appertaining to the King of the Kandyans, never intended that the chiefs should govern the country at all; but on the contrary, we considered it essential to appoint our own administrators. I believe that this misunderstanding was the original cause of the rebellion in 1818, as well as of all the disturbances which have broken out since”.

Torrington further says The Kandyans have ever, in fact, been dissatisfied with our rule. They have seen their power, their position, their religion declining. They have ever looked for an opportunity of freeing themselves.”

Juliette – novel by Marquis de Sade

The biggest casualty was the status accorded to Buddhism in Article 5 of the Convention. Despite agreeing to the inviolability of Buddhism being the national religion, missionaries who had by then entered the country with diabolical plans lobbied the British Govt. to remove this Article or dishonor it in violation of the Convention, and they seemingly relied on the advice proffered by Sade to the imperialist in De Juliette “take their god from the people that you wish to subjugate, then demoralize it; so long as they worship no other god than you, and has no other morals than your morals, you will always be their master” (Juliette was a novel written by the Marquis de Sade and published in 1797 – 1801) p324.

Gary Brecher’s views

An English Writer Gary Brecher, author of the book War Nerd” has written a long article on British crimes in Sri Lanka to a web site called  Exiled on Line” under the title When Pigs Fly-and Scold: Brits Lecturing Sri Lanka”.

He says that destroying Buddhism was a big part of Brit policy. The Buddhist routine, the temples, begging monks, long boring prayers–it was the glue that kept Kandy together. So the Brits decided to destroy it. They even said so, in private memos to each other. They weren’t shy in those days. Here’s the Brit governor in 1807: Reliance on Buddhism must be destroyed. Make sure all [village] chiefs are Christian”.

Governor Robert Browning in a letter dated Nov. 5, 1816 to Earl Bathurst (Secretary of State) says that it was his intention to establish a Seminary in Kandy, and adds that as a first step towards spreading Christianity in Kandy I have reason to believe that this Nilame (Ekniliagodde Nilame) would have no objection to have his son and nephew brought up in the Christian religion, but I dare not in this early stage of our Government, venture the éclat which such an event would infallibly produce”.

Gary Brecher, in a scathing attack, accuses the British establishment of destroying the Sinhalese people completely. Completely and deliberately, sadistically. Stole their land, humiliated and massacred their government, made it Imperial policy to erase every shred of self-respect the Sinhalese had left.  He says You can talk about the Nazis all day long, but nothing they did was as gross as what you find out when you actually look into the history of British-Sinhalese relations. If you can even call them relations”; I guess a murder-rape is a relation, sort of ” .

Making a comparison between Nazi and British atrocities he says that the British were great masters at grabbing some paradise island in the tropics, then using the British Royal Navy to wall it off separating the island from the rest of the world, and crushing the local tribe without any qualms of conscience. If the locals put up a resistance, the Brits would take measures to starve them to death, shoot them down, infect them with smallpox or get them addicted to opium (as in China) –whatever they had to do to gang-rape the locals so bad that they the victims would thereby lose the will to resist.

Brecher further points out that the Nazis governed for only one decade but the Brits were able to quietly carry out their extermination programs for three hundred years, and to this day they have no remorse nor have any guilty feeling about it.

He further says that by all accounts, the Sinhala / Kandyans were harmless people, who didn’t need or want much from the outside world. All they asked was for people to leave them alone up on their big rocky highlands to indulge in their Buddhist way of life. Unfortunately that wasn’t British policy. It irked the red coats that Kandy still had a king, an army, all this impudent baggage that went with independence. The British decided to break the Sinhalese completely and crush the whole society”

By this time, i.e. the early 1800s, the Brits had perfected their techniques in little experiments all over the world. Those Clockwork Orange shrinks were amateurs compared to the Imperial Civil Service. The British Empire knew dozens of ways of undermining and suppressing native kingdoms.

Masters of ‘Divide and Rule’ policy 

European powers like Spain and Portugal depended on bloody conquest and massacres in colonial expansion, especially in South America. Britain was not far behind, given what the British did to Australian Aborgines in Tasmania and mainland Australia. The British were the masters of the game of ‘ Divide and Rule’. The ethnic and religious tensions in the post – independence period of Sri Lanka  are very much a legacy of colonial rule. If the target country had many ethnic groups or tribes like in India, North America, Fiji, Malaysia, or Sri Lanka, the British first looked for any potential allies that have distinctive differences from other groups, particularly the majority. Then the British undermine the authority of the majority by promoting unfairly selected members of a minority community with a view to creating tension and conflict between various groups. The appointment of Haji Marikar (Muslim) as the Muhandiram to be in charge of roadways in Wellassa is a case in point. This appointment was resented by the Sinhalese as it undermined the authority of Dissawa Mellewa. This was the spark that led to the 1818 uprising.

British intrigue in Kandy under the directions of successive Governors, namely, North, Maitland and Brownrigg was also intended to achieve British supremacy in Ceylon as in India, by subduing the Kingdom of Kandy through a vicious campaign of propaganda and character assassination directed against the ruler of the Kandyan Kingdom, King Sri Vikrama Rajasinha. He was demonized. He was accused of being a tyrant. Killer of women and children (of persons who had committed treason). A common punishment for treason in most countries including imperial Britain.  A drunkard. And as he was of Indian origin the British discredited his Malabar ancestry as a ploy to alienate him from his Adigars, his chiefs and rejected his right to the throne.

In fairness it must be said that as a young King, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha was popular among the people of his Kingdom. He took charge of the administration which was fair and efficient. He displayed aesthetic sensibility regularly listening to music and commissioned the Royal Architect and Master Craftsman, Devendra Mulachari to design and build the Paththripuwa (1802) and the Kandy Lake (1807), among other novel creations. The King supervised the artists who enlarged and decorated the Kandy City.

Today, the West preaches human rights, demands accountability and upholding of universally accepted standards on human rights. The British Govt. points accusing fingers at Sri Lanka in Geneva on fabricated evidence.  Yet, a detailed scrutiny of colonial rule in British occupied Ceylon (1796 – 1948) reveals a sad saga of human rights violation of a gross kind such as tyranny, plunder, divide and rule, and a vicious policy of violence and discrimination directed mainly against Kandyan Sinhala Buddhists and confiscation of their precious inherited lands.

The rectification of Historical Injustices is a prime duty of any self – respecting nation. Independence is never complete without meting out Justice to those who were wronged by an unjust colonial system.  21st century international legal doctrines need to be availed of by modern day Sri Lanka to present a case for compensation from the current British Government for genocide and mass murder of people of Uva – Wellassa, among other crimes.

Sri Lanka must consider joining former colonies of the British Empire such as in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia to strengthen the quest for adequate compensation from Britain. A preliminary International Conference between affected countries to map out a common strategy for claiming compensation is worthy of consideration.

Australian High Court Ruling on Compensation to Aborigines 

Recently the Australian Aborgines won a landmark case in the High Court of Australia. It was a ground breaking case that can pave the way for billions of dollars in compensation claims for colonial land loss, as well as loss of spiritual connection.

The High Court of Australia ruled in favor of the Ngaliwurru and Nungali groups from the Northern Territory in the biggest ‘native title’ ruling on indigenous rights to traditional land and water in decades. It said that the Northern Territory government was to pay $2.53mn in damages to the Ngaliwurru and Nungali groups for an earlier federal court ruling which found the NT government had extinguished” the native title rights of Aborigines when the Govt. had built infrastructure on their land in the 80s and 90s.

Around $1.3 million of the damages was awarded for spiritual or cultural harm.  Though the court gave an award calculated mainly on the basis of economic  loss, it is the court ruling on spiritual loss that makes this case interesting not only for Aborigines but also for people in other former British colonies. It is also the first time that the Australian High Court has set out the principles for compensation by taking into consideration the monetary value of the removal of land rights, including economic loss and loss of spiritual connection.

As much as the land of the Australian Aborigines were unjustly compulsorily acquired by Governments, the Kandyan Sinhalese people were likewise dispossessed of their native lands by the British colonial rulers under unjust waste lands laws, and in a manner not dissimilar to what the white settlers did to the Aborgines in Australia, native people of North and South America, and Africa. This judgment is also relevant to Sri Lanka in another sense i.e. to claim compensation from the colonial rulers for the great harm they caused to the practice and sustenance of the national religion of the country, namely Buddhism.

Some of the Western countries that champion human rights in the modern era, are the very same countries that had in the past systematically violated the human rights of the subject people in European colonies in Asia and Africa, and are now shamelessly evasive when it comes to accountability for the crimes committed by colonial rulers in European colonies.

Proposals for future action:

1)      Conduct of Re – Trials to exonerate national heroes convicted of treason by British ‘Kangaroo’ Courts

2)      Establishment of a National Museum to preserve the historical memory of the darkest chapter of Sri Lanka’s history i.e. colonial period from 1505 – 1948

3)      Production of a Film documentary entitled ‘British Crimes in Ceylon (Sri Lanka)(1796 – 1948) – the case for Accountability and Reparation’

4)      Seek compensation separately for destruction of the livelihood of the Kandyan Sinhala peasantry under rapacious Waste Land laws

5)      Seek compensation for extermination of over 10, 000 elephants in the hill country b the British Raj

6)      Prepare a list of items (artifacts) which belong to Sri Lanka but taken away unlawfully by the British and are kept in various British Museums and other institutions.

7)      Re- print the Report of the Kandyan Peasantry Commission

8)       Re- print books related to British Colonial Crimes in Ceylon like ‘Revolt in the Temple’ by D.C. Wijewardena and ‘Colonialism in Sri Lanka: The Political Economy of the Kandyan Highlands, 1833-1886’ by Asoka Bandarage.


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