The British took over Sri Lanka in 1798 after Napoleon overran the Netherlands, forcing the Dutch to pull out of some of their overseas possessions. The British renamed island Ceylon. They took full control of the island in 1815 after it brought down the kingdom based in Kandy. The British established a plantation economy and maintained a colony in Sri Lanka until 1948.

According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”: “The Kandyan kings searched for allies to oust the Dutch from Sri Lanka and approached the British in the late 1700s. However, the British and Kandyans argued over the terms of their alliance, and the British managed to expel the Dutch relatively quickly with little assistance from the Kandyans. In 1815, with the aid of Sinhalese rebels, the British conquered Kandy and gained sovereignty over the entire island. [Source: Robert T. Francoeur, Victor C. de Munck, Ph.D., Patricia Weerakoon, Ph.D., “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”, 2002]

The British left behind tea plantations, an interests in cricket and an English-educated elite and the English language. They built some railways and bridges and colonial buildings but they didn’t leave behind the extensive infrastructure like they did in India. Winston Churchill celebrated his 80th birthday on November 30, 1954 in Sri Lanka. After a visit, the English writer George Bernard Shaw wrote, "I was convinced that Ceylon is the cradle of the human race because everybody there looks an original. All other nations are obviously mass produced.”

How the British Won Control Over Sri Lanka

In 1766 the Dutch had forced the Kingdom based in Kandy to sign a treaty, which the Kandyans later considered so harsh that they immediately began searching for foreign assistance in expelling their foes. They approached the British in 1762, 1782, and 1795. The first Kandyan missions failed, but in 1795, British emissaries offered a draft treaty that would extend military aid in return for control of the seacoast and a monopoly of the cinnamon trade. The Kandyan king unsuccessfully sought better terms, and the British managed to oust the Dutch without significant help in 1796. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988]

The Kandyans' search for foreign assistance against the Dutch was a mistake because they simply replaced a relatively weak master with a powerful one. Britain was emerging as the unchallenged leader in the new age of the Industrial Revolution, a time of technological invention, economic innovations, and imperialist expansion. The nations that had launched the first phase of European imperialism in Asia — the Portuguese and the Dutch — had already exhausted themselves. *

Part of the 1815 documents used to take power from the Kanyan kings reads: “the cruelties and oppression of the Malabar ruler, in the arbitrary and unjust infliction of bodily tortures and pains of death without trial, and sometimes without accusation or the possibility of a crime, and in the general contempt and contravention of all civil rights, have become flagrant, enormous and intolerable.” The last Kandyan king, Sri Wickrama Rajasinha was declared “By the habitual violation of the chief and most sacred duties of the sovereign” to be :fallen and deposed from the office of king” and “dominion of the Kanyan provinces” was “vested in the sovereign of the British Empire.”

British Arrive in Sri Lanka

In 1592 an English privateer attacked the Portuguese off the southwestern port of Galle. This action was England's first recorded contact with Sri Lanka. A decade later, Ralph Fitch, traveling from India, became the first known English visitor to Sri Lanka. The English did not record their first in-depth impressions of the island until the mid-seventeenth century, when Robert Knox, a sailor, was captured when his ship docked for repairs near Trincomalee. The Kandyans kept him prisoner between 1660 and 1680. After his escape, Knox wrote a popular book entitled An Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon in which he described his years among his "decadent" captors. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

By the mid-eighteenth century, it was apparent that the Mughal Empire (1526-1757) in India faced imminent collapse, and the major European powers were positioning themselves to fill the power vacuum in the subcontinent. Dutch holdings on Sri Lanka were challenged in time by the British, who had an interest in the excellent harbor at Trincomalee. The British interest in procuring an all-weather port was whetted when they almost lost the Indian port of Madras to the French in 1758. The Dutch refused to grant the British permission to dock ships at Trincomalee (after The Netherlands's decision to support the French in the American War of Independence), goading the British into action. After skirmishing with both the Dutch and French, the British took Trincomalee in 1796 and proceeded to expel the Dutch from the island. *

While peace negotiations were under way in Europe in 1796, the British assumed Sri Lanka would eventually be restored to the Dutch. By 1797 however, London had decided to retain the island as a British possession. The government compelled the British East India Company to share in the administration of the island and guaranteed the company a monopoly of trade, especially the moderately profitable — but no longer robust — cinnamon trade. The governor of the island was responsible for law and order, but financial and commercial matters were under the control of the director of the East India Company. This system of "dual control" lasted from 1798 to 1802. After the Dutch formally ceded the island to the British in the 1801 Peace of Amiens, Sri Lanka became Britain's first crown colony. Following Lord Nelson's naval victory over the French at Trafalgar in 1805, British superiority on the seas was unchallenged and provided new security for the British colonies in Asia. *

Dutch Driven Out of Sri Lanka by Events in Europe

The Dutch were ultimately forced out of Sri Lanka by events in Europe. In 1799, the Dutch India Company was liquidated and the Dutch government took control of its possessions. A similar move occurred with the British in India around the same time. The Dutch India Company had been on the decline since the mid 18th century and was deeply hurt by the ending their monopoly on the spice trade with the Treaty of Paris in 1780. At that time the British were moving into China and had established themselves in India and the major trading goods had switches from spices to things like Chinese silk, Japanese copper, tea, opium and sugar.

In the early 1780s, the last in a series of wars with the British cost the Netherlands, including the VOC and its far-flung interests, dearly. Nearly half the company’s ships were lost, and much of their valuable cargoes; enormous debts accumulated, which, despite state loans, could not be repaid. While the company certainly was burdened with other fiscal and administrative problems, among them a high level of corruption among its employees, the British war seems to have been the critical factor in its fiscal collapse.

The Netherlands was occupied by French troops in 1795, and a French protectorate established. The new government abolished the VOC by allowing its charter to lapse. In 1796 the VOC was placed under the direction of a national committee until the end of 1799, when the charter lapsed and it was liquidated, its debts and possessions absorbed by the Dutch government. VOC territories became the property of the Dutch government. [Source: Library of Congress]

The British took over Sri Lanka in 1798 after Napoleon overran the Netherlands, forcing the Dutch to pull out of some of their overseas possessions. The British renamed island Ceylon. They brought down the kingdom based in Kandy in 1815, and after that maintained a colony in Sri Lanka until 1948.

Conflict Between the Dutch and British

Once the British had established themselves in Sri Lanka, they aggressively expanded their territorial possessions by a combination of annexation and intervention, a policy that paralleled the approach pursued by Lord Wellesley in India in the early nineteenth century. This strategy directly threatened the continued existence of the Kingdom of Kandy. Unrest at the Kandyan court between a ruling dynasty of alien, southern Indian antecedents and powerful, indigenous Sinhalese chieftains provided opportunities for British interference. The intrigue of the king's chief minister precipitated the first Kandyan war (1803). [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

With the minister's knowledge, a British force marched on Kandy, but the force was ill prepared for such an ambitious venture and its leaders were misinformed of the extent of the king's unpopularity. The British expedition was at first successful, but on the return march, it was plagued by disease, and the garrison left behind was decimated. During the next decade, no concerted attempt was made to take Kandy. But in 1815 the British had another opportunity. The king had antagonized local Sinhalese chiefs and further alienated the Sinhalese people by actions against Buddhist monks and temple property. In 1815, the Kandyan rebels invited the British to intervene. The governor quickly responded by sending a well-prepared force to Kandy; the king fled with hardly a shot fired. *

Kandyan headmen and the British signed a treaty known as the Kandyan Convention in March 1815. The treaty decreed that the Kandyan provinces be brought under British sovereignty and that all the traditional privileges of the chiefs be maintained. The Kingdom of Kandy was also to be governed according to its customary Buddhist laws and institutions but would be under the administration of a British "resident" at Kandy, who would, in all but name, take the place of the monarch. *

Harsh and Cruel British Rule in Ceylon

The British could be harsh and cruel particularly in the early years after they took over Ceylon. Durand Appuhamy wrote: “The colonial army officers carried out governor’s determination with ruthless efficiency. A few examples will suffice to prove my point. Maj MacDonald was the first to resort to arson in the Badulla district. In revenge for Govt. Agent Wilson’s death, he burnt down to the ground all the peaceful villages near Hausanvella. It was their fault that those villages happened to be located near the place where Wilson died. He plundered and destroyed their cattle, grain and other property. He then informed his Governor " this act of severity, I trust, will not be disapproved of" (CO 54/56 7th Nov. 1817). It was, in fact, approved and praised by the governor and was held out as an example for others to imitate. This scorching of the earth soon became the main method of oppression.

“Lt. J. Maclaine of 73rd Regiment was a notorious sadist. Before the House of Commons Committee on Ceylon 1849/50, Col. Braybrooke reported that Maclaine hung the Kandyan prisoners without any trial, and particularly relished having them hung up outside his quarters, while he had his breakfast. Capt. Fraser, Brownrigg’s aide-de-camp, one night killed nineteen and took ten prisoners. Seven of the latter were executed without any trial, and the other three were forced into service as his guides. His men hung up the bodies in the roadside ambalama (a wayfarers’ rest) at Godamunne. The blood from the corpses polluted the nearby river and made it unusable by them the next morning. Col. Hook was another monster. In May 1818, he burnt down all the villages between Kadulova, where his garrison was posted, and Yatavatta Pass in the Matale district. In his frenzy he also executed Mavatagama Nileme (a Kandyan Chief), the brother of the High priest at Asgiriya Temple in Kandy. In this instance, the Governor apologized for the outrage, and made restitution to the family.

This terror and wanton manslaughter visited every nook and corner of the Kandyan kingdom with monotonous regularity. Wherever any sign of hostility was reported, troops were let loose on measures of repression; houses were burnt, stores looted, women and children seized, any men captured were executed. "There was seldom a day passed but we had parties out scouting the country for distance around burning all they came across and shooting they could not take prisoners" wrote sergeant Calladine. Small detachments were authorized to put to death anyone who opposed the British, reported by Dr. Davy. The pillage, plunder and cold-blooded murder were so common that Dr. Davy was moved to write " such system of warfare as this, of which I have partially sketched in outline, had better not be given in detail". Even London Times on the 7 of Oct. 1818 declared Brownrigg’s brutal "method of conflagration" (a term used by his Gazette) as "dreadful measures".

Madulla Massacre

The Madulla Massacre by the British on December 9, 1817 was particularly nasty. That day, Durand Appuhamy wrote, “a few Kandyans armed with bows and arrows waylaid a convoy of provisions escorted by Malay soldiers in the forest near Tibbottugoda. In the ensuing melee the British lost both their provisions and their soldiers. Andavala Mohotalla who lived nearby, was the chief suspect for this raid. His property was destroyed, other buildings in the neighbourhood were all burnt, fruit trees were cut down, all stores were also plundered. Madulla was the next village. The people there feared the worst when five men were executed, and the houses of six headmen were also burnt down.

“Driven by fear, the villagers scaled the nearby rock and hid themselves in the cave there. What then happened was described by governor Brownrigg himself (General Report issued on 6th Jan. 1818); "having got information of the hiding place of the villagers, it was decided to surprise and seize them the same night. The rebels, as is supposed, to the number of fifty men were in the cave — which being silently approached by our detachment, small divisions, under Lt. L. and sergeant Murray, of 73 regiment were posted in the pathways at each end of the cave, while Capt.C. proceeded with the remainder of his brave soldiers, for the front. The alarm being given within, the inhabitants set up a hideous yell and rushed from the cavern.

“Twenty of them were killed by our troops and the remainder precipitated themselves down the deep declivity of the mountain, by which they must have severely suffered. In the darkness that prevailed, one woman and child were also killed". The original intention was to seize the villagers. Instead, the trigger-happy soldiers simply shot them on sight as they came out of the cave.

British Rule in Ceylon

The British governed Ceylon separately from India. They often maintained control in their colonies using divide and rule tactics in which they pitted the ethnic groups in the colonies against each other to protect them from unifying against them. The British adopted sweeping property laws that allowed them to gain control of large tracts of land and establish coffee, cinnamon, rubber and coconut plantations. Initially coffee was the primary crop but after a coffee blight in the 1870s many plantation owners switched to tea. See Agriculture. At one time there were 2,000 British landowners managing tea and rubber plantations. The last ones left when the government nationalized the plantations.

The British built a network of roads and railways with the primary aim being to support the economy. English was adopted as an official language and the language of commerce. In general, the old system was allowed to continue, but its future was bleak because of the great incongruity between the principles on which the British administration was based and the principles of the Kandyan hierarchy. Because the changes under the treaty tended to diminish the power and influence of the chiefs, the British introduced the new procedures with great caution. The monks, in particular, resented the virtual disappearance of the monarchy, which was their traditional source of support. They also resented the monarchy's replacement by a foreign and impartial government. Troubled by the corresponding decline in their status, the monks began to stir up political and religious discontent among the Kandyans almost immediately following the British annexation. The popular and widespread rebellion that followed was suppressed with great severity. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

When hostilities ended in 1818, the British issued a proclamation that brought the Kandyan provinces under closer control. British agents usurped the powers and privileges of the chiefs and became the arbitrators of provincial authority. Finally, the British reduced the institutional privileges accorded Buddhism, in effect placing the religion on an equal footing with other religions. With the final British consolidation over Kandy, the country fell under the control of a single power — for the first time since the twelfth-century rule of Parakramabahu I and Nissankamalla.

Modernization and Reform

According to Sri Lankan historian Zeylanicus, each of the three epochs of European rule on the island lasted roughly 150 years, but rather than being assessed separately, these epochs should be thought of collectively as a "mighty cantilever of time with the Pax Britannica as the central pillar." Many British institutions have survived and currently have a direct and lasting influence on cultural and political events. Historian E.F.C. Ludowyck concurs, stating that whatever the Portuguese and Dutch did, the British improved upon. He attributed this accomplishment to British grounding in liberalism, a belief in the emancipation of slaves, the absence of religious persecution, and conscious attempts to maintain good relations between the rulers and the ruled. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

When the British first conquered the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka, the indigenous population of the island was estimated at only 800,000. When the British left a century and a half later, the population had grown to more than 7 million. Over a relatively short period, the island had developed an economy capable of supporting the burgeoning population. Roads, railways, schools, hospitals, hydroelectric projects, and large welloperated agricultural plantations provided the infrastructure for a viable national economy.*

In the early years of British colonization, Sri Lanka was not considered a great economic asset but was viewed instead almost exclusively in terms of its strategic value. By the 1820s, however, this perception was changing. As governor, Sir Edward Barnes was responsible for consolidating British military control over the Kandyan provinces through a program of vigorous road construction. He also began experimenting with a variety of commercial crops, such as coffee. These experiments provided the foundation of the plantation system that was launched a decade later. In administrative matters, the British were initially careful not to change the existing social order too quickly and were not inclined to mingle socially. A sharp distinction was made between the rulers and the ruled, but in time the distinction became less defined. The governor, who held all executive and legislative power, had an advisory council made up of colonial officials with top posts filled by members of a civil service recruited in Britain. The governor was under the director of the Colonial Office in London but was given whatever discretionary powers he needed to balance the colony's budget and to make sure that the colony brought in enough revenue to cover its military and administrative expenses.*

By the early 1830s, the British had almost finished consolidating their position in Sri Lanka and began to take more of an interest in securing the island's political stability and economic profitability. A new wave of thought, influenced by the reformist political ideology articulated by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, promised to change fundamentally Britain's relationship to its colonies. Known as utilitarianism, and later as philosophical radicalism, it promoted the idea of democracy and individual liberty. This philosophy sponsored the idea of the trusteeship, i.e., that new territories would be considered trusts and would receive all the benefits of British liberalism. These philosophical abstractions were put into practical use with the recommendations of a commission led by W.M.G. Colebrooke and C.H. Cameron. Their Colebrooke Report (1831-32) was an important document in the history of the island. G.C. Mendis, considered by many to be the doyen of modern Sri Lankan history, considers the Colebrooke-Cameron reforms to be the dividing line between the past and present in Sri Lanka.*

Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms

In 1829 the British Colonial Office sent a Royal Commission of Eastern Inquiry — the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission — to assess the administration of the island. The legal and economic proposals made by the commission in 1833 were innovative and radical. The proposed reforms opposed mercantilism, state monopolies, discriminatory administrative regulations, and, in general, any interference in the economy. Many of the proposals were adopted and helped set a pattern of administrative, economic, judicial, and educational development that continued into the next century. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The commission worked to end the protested administrative division of the country along ethnic and cultural lines into lowcountry Sinhalese, Kandyan Sinhalese, and Tamil areas. The commission proposed instead that the country be put under one uniform administrative system, which was to be divided into five provinces. Colebrooke believed that in the past, separate administrative systems had encouraged social and cultural divisions, and that the first step toward the creation of a modern nation was the administrative unification of the country. Cameron applied the same principle to the judicial system, which he proposed be unified into one system and be extended to all classes of people, offering everyone equal rights in the eyes of the law. His recommendations were adopted and enforced under the Charter of Justice in 1833.*

The commissioners also favored the decentralization of executive power in the government. They stripped away many of the autocratic powers vested in the governor, replacing his advisory council with an Executive Council, which included both official and unofficial nominees. The Executive Council appointed the members of the Legislative Council, which functioned as a forum for discussion of legislative matters. The Legislative Council placed special emphasis on Sri Lankan membership, and in 1833 three of the fifteen members were Sri Lankans. The governor nominated them to represent low-country Sinhalese, Burghers, and Tamils, respectively. The commissioners also voted to change the exclusively British character of the administrative services and recommended that the civil service include local citizens. These proposed constitutional reforms were revolutionary — far more liberal than the legal systems of any other European colony.*

The opening of the Ceylon Civil Service to Sri Lankans required that a new emphasis be placed on English education. In time, the opening contributed to the creation of a Westernized elite, whose members would spearhead the drive for independence in the twentieth century. The Colebrooke-Cameron Commission emphasized the standardization of educational curriculum and advocated the substitution of English for local languages. Local English schools were established, and the missionary schools that had previously taught in the vernacular also adopted English.*

Economic Innovations by the British in Ceylon

The Colebrooke-Cameron reforms had an immediate impact on the economic development of the island. Many features of the economic structure the reforms helped put into place still exist. The commission advocated a laissez-faire economy. To encourage free trade, the government monopolies over cinnamon cultivation and trade were abolished. Traditional institutions, such as land tenure by accommodessan (the granting of land for cultivation, as opposed to its outright sale), was abolished, as was the rajakariya system. Rajakariya was opposed not only on moral grounds but also because it slowed the growth of private enterprise, impeded the creation of a land market, and interfered with the free movement of labor. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”: “Sri Lanka was seen as a minor outpost in the British Empire until the British began to plant coffee and other plantation crops in the mid 1830s. As these crops became extremely profitable, Indian Tamils were recruited as cheap labor to work the coffee, and later, tea, coconut, and rubber plantations. After a leaf blight that decimated the coffee plant, tea became the dominant export crop. Tea plantations dominated the hillsides of Sri Lanka and required a permanent labor force, mostly of Indian Tamils. By 1911, there were 500,000 Indian Tamils (12 percent of the population) working in Sri Lanka. [Source: Robert T. Francoeur, Victor C. de Munck, Ph.D., Patricia Weerakoon, Ph.D., “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”, 2002]

In the mid-1830s, the British began to experiment with a variety of plantation crops in Sri Lanka, using many of the technological innovations developed earlier from their experience in Jamaica. The plantation system dominated the economy in Sri Lanka to such an extent that one observer described the government as an "appendage of the estates (plantations)." Worldwide depression in 1846 temporarily checked the rapid development of the plantation system.

Falling commodity prices for the crops produced, namely coffee and tea, caused financial disruption, aggravating the friction that had been developing between the static traditional feudal economy and modernized commercial agriculture. In order to make up for lost revenue, the government imposed a series of new taxes on firearms, dogs, shops, boats, carriages, and bullock carts. All of these taxes affected Sinhalese farmers. Other measures that further alienated the Kandyans included a land tax and a road ordinance in 1848 that reintroduced a form of rajakariya by requiring six days' free labor on roads or the payment of a cash equivalent. But the measure that most antagonized the Kandyans (especially those associated with the Buddhist sangha) was the alienation of temple lands for coffee plantations.*

British troops so severely repressed a rebellion that broke out among the Kandyans in 1848 that the House of Commons in London commissioned an investigation to look into the matter. The governor and his chief secretary were subsequently dismissed, and all new taxes, except the road ordinance, were repealed. The government adopted a new policy toward Buddhism after the rebellion, recognizing the importance of Buddhist monks as leaders of Kandyan public opinion.*

The plantation era transformed the island's economy. This was most evident in the growth of the export sector at the expense of the traditional agricultural sector. The colonial predilection for growing commercial instead of subsistence crops later was considered by Sri Lankan nationalists to be one of the unfortunate legacies of European domination. Late nineteenth- century official documents that recorded famines and chronic rural poverty support the nationalists' argument. Other issues, notably the British policy of selling state land to planters for conversion into plantations, are equally controversial, even though some members of the indigenous population participated in all stages of plantation agriculture. Sri Lankans, for example, controlled over one-third of the area under coffee cultivation and most of the land in coconut production. They also owned significant interests in rubber.*

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, experimentation in crop diversification, on a moderate level in the years before the collapse of the coffee market, became of greater importance. Responding to international market trends, planters attempted to diversify the crops they produced to insulate their revenues from world price fluctuations. Not all their experiments were successful. The first sugar plantation was established in 1837, but sugar cultivation was not well-suited to the island and has never been very successful. Cocoa was also tried for a time and has continued as one of the lesser exports. Rubber, which was introduced in 1837, became a major export during the slump in the tea export market in the 1900s. The rubber export trade exceeded that of tea during World War I. But after suffering severe losses during the depression of the 1930s, rubber exports never again regained their preeminent position.*

Plantation Agriculture in Sri Lanka

James L. A. Webb Jr. Wrote in History of World Trade Since 1450": ““The British took control of the island littoral from the Dutch in 1796 during the course of the Napoleonic Wars. After their conquest of the mountainous kingdom of Kandy in 1815, the British carved roads into the highlands, breaching the dense rainforest barrier. From the 1830s, following the abolition of African slavery in the British Caribbean, British capitalists established coffee plantations in Sri Lanka, but it was not until the 1840s that British coffee plantations began to spring up in number and to produce more coffee for export than did the Kandyan farmers. Large numbers of Tamil laborers from southern India traveled annually to the Sri Lankan highlands to find employment on the plantations. Many of these laborers eventually remained resident on the plantations, constituting a separate population from the Tamils who inhabit principally the northern and eastern reaches of the island. [Source: James L. A. Webb Jr. “History of World Trade Since 1450", Thomson Gale, 2006]

“The coffee industry struggled with an expanding fungal blight from 1869 until the late 1880s, when the coffee industry spiraled into its final decline. In the late 1870s plantations of cinchona trees, from the bark of which the antimalarial medicine quinine could be isolated, began to be set out in the highlands. In the 1880s these cinchona plantations met ruin, owing to inadequate subsoil drainage and to overproduction. In the 1880s plantation owners and some Kandyan farmers turned their efforts to growing tea, and the highlands were soon carpeted in the leafy green shrub. Tea's late-nineteenth-century rise to predominance was spectacularly rapid, and it proved durable. In the early twenty-first century tea remains the island's principal agricultural export.

“Other tropical crops also played important roles. In the first half of the twentieth century Singhalese owners expanded their plantations of coconuts in the lowlands for both domestic and overseas markets, and British planters took up the production of rubber. Both developed as significant exports through the twentieth century.

British Coffee Plantations in Ceylon

Initially, coffee became such a successful plantation crop that it transformed the island's economy from reliance upon subsistence crops to plantation agriculture. The first coffee plantation was opened in the Kandyan hill region in 1827, but it was not until the mid-1830s that a number of favorable factors combined to make the widespread cultivation of the crop a highly profitable enterprise. Governor Edward Barnes (1824-31) foresaw the possibilities of coffee cultivation and introduced various incentives for its cultivation, particularly the lifting of coffee export duties and exemption from the land produce tax. When slavery was abolished in the West Indies and coffee production there declined, Sri Lankan coffee exports soared, filling the gap in the world market. The problem of limited availability of land for coffee estates was solved when the British government sold lands that it had acquired from the Kandyan kings. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The coffee plantation system faced a serious labor shortage. Among the Sinhalese, a peasant cultivator of paddy land held a much higher status than a landless laborer. In addition, the low wages paid to hired workers failed to attract the Kandyan peasant, and the peak season for harvesting plantation coffee usually coincided with the peasant's own harvest. Moreover, population pressure and underemployment were not acute until the twentieth century. To compensate for this scarcity of native workers, an inexpensive and almost inexhaustible supply of labor was found among the Tamils in southern India. They were recruited for the coffee-harvesting season and migrated to and from Sri Lanka, often amid great hardships. The immigration of these Indian Tamils began as a trickle in the 1830s and became a regular flow a decade later, when the government of India removed all restrictions on the migration of labor to Sri Lanka.*

British civilian and military officials resident in Kandy provided initial capital for coffee cultivation, provoking contemporary observations in the 1840s that they behaved more like coffee planters than government employees. This private capitalization led to serious abuses, however, culminating in an 1840 ordinance that made it virtually impossible for a Kandyan peasant to prove that his land was not truly crown land and thus subject to expropriation and resale to coffee interests. In this period, more than 80,000 hectares of Kandyan land were appropriated and sold as crown lands.*

Between 1830 and 1850, coffee held the preeminent place in the economy and became a catalyst for the island's modernization. The greater availability of capital and the increase in export trade brought the rudiments of capitalist organization to the country. The Ceylon Bank opened in 1841 to finance the rapid expansion of coffee plantations. Since the main center of coffee production was in the Kandyan provinces, the expansion of coffee and the network of roads and railroads ended the isolation of the old Kandyan kingdom. The coffee plantation system had served as the economic foundation for the unification of the island while reinforcing the administrative and judicial reforms of the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission.*

In 1869 a devastating leaf disease — hemleia vastratrix struck the coffee plantations and spread quickly throughout the plantation district, destroying the coffee industry within fifteen years. Planters desperately searched for a substitute crop. One crop that showed promise was chinchona (quinine). After an initial appearance of success, however, the market price of the crop fell and never fully recovered. Cinnamon, which had suffered a setback in the beginning of the century, was revived at this time, but only to become an important minor crop.*

British Tea Plantations in Ceylon

Among all of the crops experimented with during the decline of coffee, only tea showed any real promise of success. A decline in the demand for Chinese tea in Britain opened up possibilities for Indian tea, especially the fine variety indigenous to Assam. Climatic conditions for the cultivation of tea were excellent in Sri Lanka, especially in the hill country. By the end of the century, tea production on the island had risen enormously. Because of the inelasticity of the market, however, British outlets soon became saturated. Attempts to develop other markets, especially in the United States, were largely unsuccessful, and a glut emerged after World War II. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The tea estates needed a completely different type of labor force than had been required during the coffee era. Tea was harvested throughout the year and required a permanent labor force. Waves of Indian Tamil immigrants settled on the estates and eventually became a large and permanent underclass that endured abominable working conditions and squalid housing. The census of 1911 recorded the number of Indian laborers in Sri Lanka at about 500,000 — about 12 percent of the island's total population. In the 1980s, the Indian Tamils made up almost 6 percent of the island's population.*

The Tamil laborers emigrated to Sri Lanka from India not as individuals but as part of family units or groups of interrelated families. Thus, they tended to maintain their native cultural patterns on the estates where they settled. Although the Indian Tamils spoke the same language as the Sri Lankan Tamils, were Hindus, and traced their cultural origins to southern India, they considered themselves to be culturally distinct from the Sri Lankan Tamils. Their distinctiveness as a group and their cultural differences from the Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan Tamils were recognized in the constitutional reforms of 1924, when two members of the Indian Tamil community were nominated to the Legislative Council.*

British, Tamils and Sinhalese

Under the British, a new elite of English-speaking, largely lowland Sinhalese emerged. They became a dominant force in trade, small-scale industry and coconut and rubber plantation agriculture. The British granted the Tamils religious freedom and ended slavery there in 1844. This had little impact on the Palla slaves other than making them extremely low paid labor rather than slaves.

The British imported Tamil-speaking laborers from southern India to work their tea, coffee and rubber plantations because the Sinhalese were unwilling to do the work. Between 1870 and 1930 roughly 200,000 Tamils migrated from India to Sri Lanka.

The Tamils prospered under British rule. They had learned English from American missionaries beginning in the 19th century, studied hard at colonial and missionary schools, gravitated towards professional fields such engineering, medicine and law and were given bureaucratic posts and positions of power to keep them from allying with the Sinhalese majority. By 1947, an educated class of Tamils had been created that held 60 percent of the high profile government jobs. The Sinhalese resented this.

The British attempted to create some harmony, or least reduce resentment between the Sinhalese and Tamils. In British-run schools everyone was required to learn English and Sinhalese were required to study Tamil and Tamils were required to study Sinhalese. But the fact the Tamils prospered in the British meritocracy angered many Sinhalese.

Rising Tensions Between Sinhalese and Tamils Under the British

Jon Lee Anderson wrote in The New Yorker: “In 1914, Leonard Woolf’s younger sister, Bella Sidney Woolf, published an illustrated guidebook titled “How to See Ceylon.” Leonard, who had not yet married the novelist Virginia Stephen, worked in Ceylon as a colonial administrator, and Bella went to visit him before settling there herself. It was the Edwardian era of languorous travel by rail and rickshaw, croquet clubs, and afternoon teas attended by servants. Woolf wrote, “The stranger, looking down on the motley throng that threads the streets of Ceylon, is bewildered, puzzled. How is he to distinguish between all these people?” She ventured a brief comparison of the island’s two main ethnicities: “The Tamil cooly, it must be conferred, is a much more law abiding, peaceful person than the Sinhalese. Apart from the hot temper which leads to the flashing out of a knife and murder, there is an undercurrent of malice in village life.” [Source: Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, January 17, 2011]

“Under the British, tensions festered between the Sinhalese, who make up seventy-five per cent of the population, and the Tamils, with seventeen per cent. (There was also friction with other ethnicities; in 1915, Sinhalese mobs attacked the island’s Muslim minority.) The Tamils were seen as having unfairly benefitted from colonial rule; they held a disproportionately high number of civil-service jobs and university enrollments, and more of them were fluent in English. After Ceylon gained its independence, in 1948, Sinhalese nationalists grew increasingly insistent that the Tamils were “invaders,” whose presence threatened the very existence of the Sinhalese culture.

“The Sinhalese have traditionally lived in the south, with its lush land and ancient reservoir-fed rice paddies. The Tamils lived in the arid scrublands of the north, known as the Vanni, and the lowland jungles of the east, areas their ancestors had occupied two thousand years ago, during wars of conquest waged by Hindu kings from Tamil Nadu, the southernmost state of India. Sinhalese nationalists trace their lineage to Aryan tribes of northern India, despite the lack of evidence to support the idea. Although intermarriage across language barriers was fairly common, especially among the upper castes, Sinhalese politics by the early twentieth century had become infused with racialist theories on “Aryanism” then being promulgated in Europe. Anagarika Dharmapala, the leader of the Sinhalese Buddhist revival movement that began under British colonial rule, said, in a frequently quoted speech, “This bright, beautiful island was made into a Paradise by the Aryan Sinhalese before its destruction was brought about by the barbaric vandals. . . . This ancient, historic, refined people, under the diabolism of vicious paganism, introduced by the British administrators, are now declining and slowly dying away.” The “vandals” Dharmapala referred to were the Tamils, of course, and the “vicious paganism” their Hindu faith. By the time of independence, the seeds of sectarian hatred had taken root. “

Rise of the Sri Lankan Middle Class

By the nineteenth century, a new society was emerging — a product of East and West. It was a society with strict rules separating the rulers from the ruled, and most social association between the British and Sri Lankans was taboo. The British community was largely a microcosm of English society with all its class divisions. At the top of the social pyramid were the British officials of the Ceylon Civil Service. Elaborate social conventions regulated the conduct of the service's members and served to distinguish them as an exclusive caste. This situation, however, changed slowly in the latter part of the nineteenth century and quite rapidly in the next century. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

In Sri Lanka as in India, the British created an educated class to provide administrative and professional services in the colony. By the late nineteenth century, most members of this emerging class were associated directly or indirectly with the government. Increased Sri Lankan participation in government affairs demanded the creation of a legal profession; the need for state health services required a corps of medical professionals; and the spread of education provided an impetus to develop the teaching profession. In addition, the expansion of commercial plantations created a legion of new trades and occupations: landowners, planters, transport agents, contractors, and businessmen. Certain Sinhalese caste groups, such as the fishermen (Karava) and cinnamon peelers (Salagama), benefited from the emerging new economic order, to the detriment of the traditional ruling cultivators (Goyigama).*

The development of a capitalist economy forced the traditional elite — the chiefs and headmen among the low-country Sinhalese and the Kandyan aristocracy — to compete with new groups for the favors of the British. These upwardly mobile, primarily urban, professionals formed a new class that transcended divisions of race and caste. This class, particularly its uppermost strata, was steeped in Western culture and ideology. This anglicized elite generally had conservative political leanings, was loyal to the government, and resembled the British so much in outlook and social customs that its members were sometimes called brown sahibs. At the apex of this new class was a handful of Sri Lankans who had been able to join the exclusive ranks of the civil service in the nineteenth century. The first Sri Lankan entered by competitive examination in 1840. At that time, entrance examinations were held only in London and required an English education, so only a few members of the native middle class could aspire to such an elitist career. Consequently, in spite of the liberal policies that Colebrooke and Cameron recommended, the British held virtually all high posts in the colonial administration.*

Burghers Under British Rule

At the time of the British conquest, in 1796, there were about 900 families of Dutch Burghers residing in Ceylon, concentrated in Colombo, Galle, Matara and Jaffna. During the British times the Burghers were employed in the Colonial administration like clerks, lawyers, soldiers, physicians, and were a privileged class on the island. [Source: Marco Ramerini, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

The Dutch Burghers, now under the British, quickly abandoned the use of the Dutch language and adopted English as their own language. By 1860, the use of Dutch among the Dutch Burghers had disappeared. In 1908, only six or eight Dutch Burghers could make any pretence to knowledge of the Dutch language.

The Creole Portuguese continued to be used amongst the Dutch Burghers families as the colloquial language until the end of 19th century. In 1899 the Dutch Burgher community formed the "De Hollandsche Vereeninging" and later, in 1907, they founded the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon.

The Dutch Burgher community had its own journal from 31 March 1908 to 1968 (58 numbers), the Journal of the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon. No volumes were published between 1968 and 1981, mostly due to the exodus of the Dutch Burghers, now the Journal continues to be published annually. By the end of the British rule the Dutch Burgher community had lost its influence and privileges, and many Burghers emigrated to Australia and to Canada, especially after the declaration of Sinhala as the official language (1961) of the country by Solomon Bandaranaike.

In spite of this, the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon is still in existence in Colombo to this day. The Dutch Reformed Church is now called Presbytery of Ceylon, at present the membership are 5,000, in the whole island are 24 the congregrations and 18 the ministry workers. During the last 40 years the Church has lost much of her leadership and membership due to the mass emigration of the Dutch Burgher community.

Buddhist Revival and Rise of Social Reform in Ceylon

Missionaries were very active under the British. They converted large numbers of Tamils in northern Sri Lanka. They converted a fairly large number of Buddhists too. Beginning around the middle of the nineteenth century, the Buddhist clergy attempted to reform the sangha (religious community), particularly as a reaction against Christian missionary activities. Walisinghe Harschandra is regarded as a great Sri Lankan hero. In the 19th century he worked hard to help Sri Lankans develop pride in their culture and heritage and not blindly imitate the West. He is considered the father of the Dharmapala movement, which itself is named after Anagarika Dharmapala.

In the 1870s, Buddhist activists enlisted the help of an American, Colonel Henry Steele Olcott. An ardent abolitionist in the years leading up to the American Civil War, Olcott cofounded and later became president of the Theosophical Movement, which was organized on a worldwide basis to promote goodwill and to champion the rights of the underprivileged. Shortly after his arrival in Sri Lanka, Olcott organized a Buddhist campaign against British officials and British missionaries. His Buddhist Theosophical Society of Ceylon went on to establish three institutions of higher learning: Ananda College, Mahinda College, and Dharmaraja College. Olcott's society founded these and some 200 lower schools to impart Buddhist education with a strong nationalist bias. Olcott and his society took a special interest in the historical past of the Sinhalese Buddhist kingdoms on the island and managed to persuade the British governor to make Vesak, the chief Buddhist festival, a public holiday. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The rediscovery of old Buddhist texts rekindled a popular interest in Sri Lanka's ancient civilization. The study of the past became an important aspect of the new drive for education. Archaeologists began work at Anuradhapura and at Polonnaruwa, and their finds contributed to the resurgent national pride. In the 1880s, a Buddhist-inspired temperance movement was also initiated to fight drunkenness, and the Ceylon Social Reform Society was founded in 1905 to combat other temptations associated with Westernization. Encouraged by the free reign of expression that the government extended to these reformists, a growing number of communal and regional political associations began to press for constitutional reform in the closing years of the nineteenth century. The colonial government was petitioned for permission to have Sri Lankan representation in the Executive Council and expanded regional representation in the Legislative Council. In response, the colonial government permitted a modest experiment in 1910, allowing a small electorate of Sri Lankans to send one of their members to the Legislative Council. Other seats held by Sri Lankans retained the old practice of communal representation.*

World War I Period in Ceylon

World War I had only a minimal military impact on Sri Lanka, which entered the war as part of the British Empire. The closest fighting took place in the Bay of Bengal, where an Australian warship sank a German cruiser. But the war had an important influence on the growth of nationalism. The Allies' wartime propaganda extolled the virtues of freedom and self-determination of nations, and the message was heard and duly noted by Sri Lankan nationalists. There was, however, an event, only indirectly related to the war, that served as the immediate spark for the growth of nationalism. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

In 1915 communal rioting broke out between the Sinhalese and Muslims on the west coast. The British panicked, misconstruing the disturbances as part of an antigovernment conspiracy; they blamed the majority ethnic group and indiscriminately arrested many Sinhalese, including D.S. Senanayake — the future first prime minister of Sri Lanka — who had actually tried to use his influence to curb the riots. The British put down the unrest with excessive zeal and brutality, which shocked British and Sri Lankan observers alike. Some sympathetic accounts of the unrest take into consideration that the judgment of the governor of the time, Sir Robert Chalmers (1913-16), may have been clouded by the loss of his two sons on the Western Front in Europe. At any rate, his actions insured that 1915 was a turning point in the nationalist movement. From then on, activists mobilized for coordinated action against the British.*

The nationalist movement in India served as a model to nationalists in Sri Lanka. In 1917 the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League mended their differences and issued a joint declaration for the "progressive realization" of responsible government in India. Nationalists in Sri Lanka learned from their Indian counterparts that they had to become more national and less partisan in their push for constitutional reform. In 1919 the major Sinhalese and Tamil political organizations united to form the Ceylon National Congress. One of the first actions of the congress was to submit a proposal for a new constitution that would increase local control over the Executive Council and the budget. These demands were not met, but they led to the promulgation of a new constitution in 1920. Amendments to the constitution in 1924 increased Sri Lankan representation. Although the nationalists' demand for representation in the Executive Council was not granted, the Legislative Council was expanded to include a majority of elected Sri Lankan unofficial members, bringing the island closer to representative government. Yet the franchise remained restrictive and included only about 4 percent of the island's population.*

Donoughmore Commission

In 1927 a royal commission under the Earl of Donoughmore visited Sri Lanka to ascertain why representative government as chartered by the 1924 constitution had not succeeded and to suggest constitutional changes necessary for the island's eventual self-rule. The commission declared that the constitution had authorized a government characterized by the "divorce of power from responsibility," which at times seemed "rather like holy matrimony at its worst." The 1924 constitution, considered by the commission to be "an unqualified failure," failed to provide a strong, credible executive body of representatives. To remedy these shortcomings, the commission proposed universal adult franchise and an experimental system of government to be run by executive committees. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The resulting Donoughmore Constitution, promulgated in 1931 to accommodate these new proposals in government, was a unique document that provided Sri Lankans with training for self-government. The document, however, reserved the highest level of responsibility for the British governor, whose assent was necessary for all legislation. The legislative branch of the government — the State Council — functioned in both an executive and legislative capacity. Seven committees performed executive duties. Each committee consisted of designated members of the State Council and was chaired by an elected Sri Lankan, who was addressed as minister. Three British officers of ministerial rank, along with the seven Sri Lankan ministers, formed a board of ministers. The British ministers collectively handled responsibility for defense, external affairs, finance, and judicial matters.*

The Donoughmore Constitution ushered in a period of experimentation in participatory democracy but contemporary political scientists have criticized it for not having provided an atmosphere conducive to the growth of a healthy party system. The system of executive committees did not lead to the development of national political parties. Instead, a number of splinter political groups evolved around influential personalities who usually followed a vision too limited or an agenda too communally partisan to have an impact on national politics.*

Among the Sinhalese, a form of nationalism arose that sought once again to restore Buddhism to its former glory. The Great Council of the Sinhalese (Sinhala Maha Sabha), which was founded by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1937, was the strongest proponent of this resurgent ideology. Other groups followed suit, also organizing on communal grounds. These groups included the Burgher Political Association in 1938, the Ceylon Indian Congress in 1939, and the All Ceylon Tamil Congress in 1944.*

Growth of Leftist Parties in Ceylon

During the Donoughmore period of political experimentation, several leftist parties were formed. Unlike most other Sri Lankan parties, these leftist parties were noncommunal in membership. Working-class activism, especially trade unionism, became an important political factor during the sustained economic slump between the world wars. The first important leftist party was the Labour Party, founded in 1931 by A.E. Goonesimha. Three Marxistoriented parties — the Ceylon Equal Society Party (Lanka Sama Samaja Party — LSSP), the Bolshevik-Leninist Party, and the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL) — represented the far left. All three were divided on both ideological and personal grounds. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The Soviet Union's expulsion of Leon Trotsky from the Communist Party after Lenin's death in 1924 and Stalin's subsequent decision to enter World War II on the Allied side exacerbated these differences, dividing the Communists into Trotskyites and Stalinists. The LSSP, formed in 1935 and the oldest of the Sri Lankan Marxist parties, took a stance independent of the Soviet Union, becoming affiliated with the Trotskyite Fourth International, which was a rival of the Comintern. Most LSSP leaders were arrested during World War II for their opposition to what they considered to be an "imperial war." Although in more recent years, the LSSP has been considered a politically spent force, gaining, for example less than 1 percent of the vote in the 1982 presidential elections, it has nevertheless been touted as the world's only successful Trotskyite party.*

The CPSL, which began as a Stalinist faction of the LSSP that was later expelled, formed its own party in 1943, remaining faithful to the dictates of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The Bolshevik-Leninist Party was formed in 1945 as another breakaway group of the LSSP. The leftist parties represented the numerically small urban working class. Partly because these parties operated through the medium of trade unionism, they lacked the wider mass appeal needed at the national level to provide an effective extraparliamentary challenge to the central government. Nonetheless, because the leftists occasionally formed temporary political coalitions before national elections, they posed more than just a mere "parliamentary nuisance factor."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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