The Uva Rebellion of 1818

It is 194 years since the Rebellion of Uva or the Kandyan Uva Rebellion of 1818, to free the country from the British, occurred. It broke out on November 26. The Rebellion was brought under control after 778 rebels were either executed, imprisoned or banished from the country.

Their lands were confiscated and their dependents were debarred from enjoying any returns from their ancestral wealth. This article is in memory of these 778 national heroes declared traitors in the Government Gazette No. 896 of Saturday 21, 1818. What we handed over to the British on March 2, 1815, under the famous Kandyan Convention was the “Sinhale Rata”, together with 5/8 of the land area of 15,800 square miles, then known as the Kandyan Kingdom.

By this Convention the maritime provinces already ruled by the British from 16.02.1796 were amalgamated into one territory under them. But what the British handed over to us under the pretext of Independence on February 4, 1948 was Ceylon and the Ceylonese who were hitherto known as Sinhalese.

This misinterpretation was the cause of the ethnic and divisive problems in the country created by the British. No leader was able to correct this mistake although we have adopted Various constitutions at different times.

John De Oyly, designated as the Resident Representative, became the ruler of our kingdom. His second in command was James Gray and the next in line was Simon Sawers. The western area was under P.E. Woodhouse, as the Agent of the government in Colombo, overlooking the central area, who was also the acting Colonial Secretary.

Later George Turnor succeeded as the Agent of the government and functioned as Colonial Secretary as well. With these changes the Sinhalese were placed under an alien administration . They were used to a rule by a king who moved with them at various social cultural and religious ceremonies held on different occasions. Hence, they felt that they were neglected and unwanted in the course of day to day administration and governance.

John De Oyly was Legal Commissioner while the Revenue Commissioner was Simon Sawers, John Kelley was the Chief of the Armed Forces. This powerful trio, with James Sutherland as the Head, Administering the Kandyan Kingdom and subordinate agents assisting, the country was placed under Assistant Agents for the purpose of revenue collection in Uva, Sabaragamuwa Thun Korale and Hatarakorale.

The Sinhale consisted of 21 divisions, of which twelve were Disawas and nine “ratas”. This composition continued till 1818 with John De Oyly in Kandy, Simon Sawers in Badulla and Henry White in Kandy to assist. Besides, there were Additional Agents of the government in some places. They had a few Sinhala clerks who could speak English. The Britishers who were not aware of the Sinhale social set up and aspirations of the masses and the role of the subordinate stake holders, such as Korales, Mohottalas, Vidanes, etc. in the process of governance, gradually distanced themselves from the administration, thereby creating disgust and distrust in British rule. The key players like the Adikarams and Dissawes too were unhappy, when they gradually lost their powers and source of income they derived from the entrance gates or ‘Kadawat’ to the Kandyan areas.

This situation was developing within a short span of 32 months after signing the convention. The British may have had memories of bitter experiences they gained in their Kandyan Wars in 1801, 1802, 1803, etc. and how they could take revenge from these village martyrs. They wanted to enforce the system of administration practised in the maritime provinces. The pride they had due to their white skin coupled with the experiences of slave trade that was spreading in the world and having seen how the blacks and Red Indians were treated in the slave market, the British probably thought that the Sinhale people also could be treated like slaves. They seem to have taken a period of over hundred years to realize that we have a history of thousands of years of a civilized culture, long before the Englishmen were hunting in the wilds naked in Northern Europe. They started violating the conditions of the convention and with the blessings of the military appointed a Muslim as a Muhandiram to Wellassa. It should be noted that the English too were a nation of traders like moors. The Englishmen started bartering textiles and ornamental items in exchange to our ivory and spices. Later they became interested in coffee, cocoa and tea and acquired vast stretches of lands under the Waste Lands Ordinance, Crown Land Ordinance, etc, thus becoming land owners and planters. The Sinhalese were reduced to the status of gypsies. In terms of clause 12 of the Convention, we had to facilitate the export of their merchandise while the English in return promised to supply the Sinhalese with clothes, salt and cash for our services.

Rebellion launched

By October the Resident at Badulla Sylvester Douglas received information that a relation of the exiled King with the support of Wilbawe and some members of the clergy, accompanied by their supporters, were planning to start a rebellion against British rule. But by that time the Kandyan chiefs and holders of other subordinate positions under the British had not got together and discussed their plans and strategies to overthrow the British regime. When Wilson heard about the disturbances in Wellassa, he sent the newly appointed Muhandiram to investigate into the situation and report to him the ground realities. The disgruntled people caught Hadji and killed him. When Wilson received this information he himself set off from Badulla to inquire into the incident at Wellassa. While returning to Badulla, Wilson was shot and his team of soldiers were caught and detained by the rebels. The place where this incident occurred is today known as Wilson Plains.

In the meantime three soldiers who were on their way to Badulla carrying a message from Fort Macdowell in Matale were also caught by the rebels and killed. Even their corpses could not be found by the English troops. When De Oyly received information about these incidents he ordered Symon Sawers to go with Ehelepola to Wellassa and settle the issues with the rebels. But the historians are of the view that instead of Ehelepola if Molligoda, who was the first Adigar at the time, was sent the situation would have been brought under control.

Ehelepola went to Matale and met his kinsman Ratwatte and discussed with him and proceeded to Nalanda to meet Governor Brownrigg and Lady Brownrigg returning from Anuradhapura. There he requested Brownrigg to remove Millawa who was aged from Uva and appoint Keppetipola as Disawa of Uva. As stated earlier, since the Chiefs did not discuss their plans and strategies, Keppetipola by now had joined the rebels, to lead them.

In addition to Uva Wellassa, the rebels by now were active in Bintenna, Walapane, Kotmale, Hewaheta and Dumbara. The British deployed Malay and Sipoy troops but they could not cross Kelani ganga as it was flooded. By January 1818 (01.01.1818) the government issued a gazette notification naming Keppetipola, Kiulegedara, Butawe, Kohukumbure and twelve others as traitors and confiscated their lands and properties.

By March 1818, Madugalle Uda Gabada Nilame, Ehelepola Maha Nilame, Pilimatalawa, Kobbekaduwa Disawa and Rate Mahattaya, joined the rebels to lead the struggle. Troops were brought from Bengal and Madras to reinforce the British troops. They burnt villages, looted properties, killed more than 10,000 natives, while thousand of their fighters too lost their lives in the battle. Unfortunately, there were three main reasons that led to the failure of the independence struggle.

End of the Rebellion

There was no prior planning and consensus among the leaders. One of the Chiefs did not join due to a personal grudge he had with Ehelepola. The chiefs’ areas, Tunkorale and Hatarakorale people, kept away from struggle. When Madugalle had a difference of opinion with Keppetipola, he too started a lone battle. By now Martial Law was declared and the English forces were strengthened. Governor Brownrigg who planned a retreat to the maritime provinces, who had already sent his wife to Colombo, changed his plans. Simultaneously, the rebel leaders fell one after the other. Ellepola Nilame was beheaded after a military trial. Madugalle, Pilimatalawe, Keppetipola were captured. Some rebel leaders were exiled to Mauritius. The Tooth Relic which was removed from Kandy during the rebellion was recovered from a forest in the possession of Madugalle and two other priests by Col. Kelley and brought back to Kandy. It was deposited in the relic chamber of the Maligawa and the keys of the relic casket and the chamber were retained by the Agent in Kandy.

The Rebellion was contained and the hero of the Rebellion Keppetipola Maha Disawa was beheaded on November 26, 1818. There is a memorial hall built and a Bodhi planted in memory of the National Hero by the Keppetipola Memorial Society of Senkadagala which commemorates this event annually.

By S.B. Karalliyadda

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