Patriots were ‘traitors’ even after 1948!
“191st Death anniversary of Veera Monarawila Keppetipola Disawe – a Sri Lankan National hero who led the 1st Independent struggle in 1818 against the British Govt. falls today.”
By Janaka Perera
Monarawila Keppetipola Disawe
“For 57 years after Sri Lanka’s independence the Uva heroes remained officially on the traitors’ list. Until President Mahinda Rajapaksa came to power no attempt was made by any elected government to revoke the gazette notification the British Colonial regime issued on January 1, 1818 after Keppettipola Dissawe (Provincial Chief) of Uva and other Kandyan Chieftains turned against the English rulers and joined the freedom struggle that had commenced the previous year.”
Thursday November 26th marks the 191st anniversary of the execution at Bogambara, Kandy of Monarawila Keppettipola, who led Sri Lanka’s first independence struggle (1817-18) in the Uva Province. It is a fitting occasion to examine the track record of the ancestors of some of today’s international ‘human rights’ champions and democracy advocates.
For 57 years after Sri Lanka’s independence the Uva heroes remained officially on the traitors’ list. Until President Mahinda Rajapaksa came to power no attempt was made by any elected government to revoke the gazette notification the British Colonial regime issued on January 1, 1818 after Keppettipola Dissawe (Provincial Chief) of Uva and other Kandyan Chieftains turned against the English rulers and joined the freedom struggle that had commenced the previous year.
The descendants of these heroes too were helpless in officially dealing with this grave injustice until the present regime revoked the notification two years ago. Under this notification, which is in the National Archives, the Colonial Government confiscated all the assets of these of the rebel chieftains.
As we know the British in fact never really conquered the Kandyan kingdom but seized it through craft and deceit taking advantage of the public opposition to Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe’s tyrannical rule and the divisions and intrigue among the Sinhala aristocracy.
No English soldier was killed or wounded in the process although they had suffered many casualties in an earlier unsuccessful attempt in 1803 to capture the kingdom by armed force. The alien occupation of the kingdom in March 1815 signaled the end of over 2000 years of self-rule and the whole island became part of the British Empire, paying homage to the English monarch. It should be noted here that the former Nayakkar Kings of Kandy – though their ancestral religion was Hinduism – ruled according to Sinhala customs and recognized Buddhism as the State religion. Before long the Kandyan Chiefs and the people realized their freedom had been bartered.
The Maha Sangha too joined the people in demanding the King of their own to protect Sinhala way of life. They never reconciled to the British Government – an alien rule that threatened hallowed Buddhist traditions.
The British – in accordance with their divide-and-rule policy – appointed one Hadjee as Muhandiram of Wellassa in Uva. Elated by his power the muhandiram began to harass Sinhala villagers by forcibly requisitioning their grain, cattle and temple property causing an ethnic and cultural conflict. In the midst of this there appeared a pretender to the Kandyan Throne, known as Wilbawe alias Doraisamy who proclaimed himself king claiming relationship to the late King Rajadhi Rajasinghe (1782-1798). This gave the people a good reason to rise against the British in 1817.
The then Assistant Government Agent, Badulla, S.D. Wilson immediately dispatched a small force under the Muhandiram Hadjee’s command to investigate and report. But the rebels captured and killed him along with the guards. Bewildered, Wilson himself led a larger contingent of troops but he too was killed. This prompted the British to declare Martial Law in the entire Kandyan Kingdom. By 1818 the entire hill country – except part of Sabaragamuwa – had risen against the British. The colonial rulers then sent Monarawila Keppettipola Dissawe with a squad of English soldiers to suppress the rebellion. However the pleadings of his fellow countrymen very much disturbed his conscience. Keppettipola decided to join the patriots and before taking over their command, dismissed his foreign troops, asking them to take back with them their ammunition and guns. In doing so he declared that it was unbecoming of the Sinhala nation to use the enemy’s weapons against the enemy. The rebellion flared up under Keppettipola and spread through Wellassa, Bintenne, Ulapane, Hewaheta, Kotmale and Dumbara and continued for a year (October 1817 – October 1818). But the rebel force was no match for the superiorly armed British who, with the arrival of foreign reinforcements, eventually captured top rebels – all Kandyan Chieftains – one by one.
The rebels fought more in spirit than in might. In an act of revenge against the Sinhala peasants for daring to rise against the King of England, the British ordered their troops to destroy all property belonging to the peasants. Soldiers entered villages and completely destroyed houses by setting them on fire, cutting down their fruit trees, jak, bread fruit and coconut. The marauders destroyed the harvest having killed or robbed their cattle. Sinhala peasants were subjected to horrible deaths – by execution, hunger and disease. They laid waste to the entire area of Wellassa. Many a Sinhala noble and bhikku linked to the rebellion were beheaded to terrorize the population. No Sri Lankan Government will be able to totally undo the damage that they did to the Uva Province socially, economically and culturally, in the course of brutally crushing the uprising. The repercussions of this genocidal scorched earth policy are felt to this day in the region, where entire villages were wiped out and crops and livestock destroyed. The London Times of October 7, 1818, reported: “the plan of destroying all the grain and fruit trees in the neighbourhood of Badulla seems to have been completely carried into effect, a dreadful measure.”
Justice Lawrie, Senior Puisne Judge in Colonial Ceylon wrote:
“The story of the English rule in the Kandyan country during 1817 and 1818 cannot be related without shame. In 1819 hardly a member of the leading families, the heads of the people remained alive; those whom the sword and the gun had spared, cholera and small pox and privation had slain by the hundred.” (Revolt in the Temple)
Keppettipola was arrested at Nuwara Kalaviya, Anuradhapura in October 1818. Following his arrest and that of his lieutenant Madugalle, both were tried by a Court Martial on November 13 and sentenced to death on November 26, 1818. Both of them were beheaded.
Altogether the death penalty was imposed on 29 rebel leaders while 27 others including, Pilimathalawe and Ihagama were banished from the country. Ihagama, once a bhikku, was the guiding force behind the uprising that Keppettipola led.
The then British Deputy Inspector General of Hospitals in Sri Lanka, Henry Marshall was sympathetic to Keppettipola and visited him in prison on several occasions. To Marshal (a Scotsman) Keppettipola was like the Scottish Freedom Fighter, Sir William Wallace whom the English executed in 1306 for ‘treason’ after he rose against King Edward I.
Marshall was so impressed by the Kandyan Chief’s bravery and intellect that he took possession of the hero’s skull and presented it to the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh. Returned to Sri Lanka in 1955, the skull now rests in a monument in the Kandy esplanade.
A very fair British historian, Marshall believed that “had the insurrection been successful he would have been honoured and characterized as a patriot instead of being stigmatized and punished as a traitor.”
To this day, tiny villages are found in the Uva Province – up in the mountains and deep down in the valleys. In these huts scattered in the most inaccessible areas live the descendants of the few survivors who escaped the wrath of the British troops and hid in remote hamlets.
There were no international human rights organizations in that era to condemn British barbarism in Uva whereas today they are the very people – among others – who periodically pontificate on Sri Lanka’s human rights issues.
After the Uva uprising was crushed the British Colonial Government embarked on a policy of appropriating on one pretext or another millions of acres of land belonging to peasants in the Kandyan provinces and sold them to British capitalists at the nominal rice of one shilling per acre. There is no record of the number of peasants rendered landless and homeless by this inhuman act perpetrated between 1833 and 1886.
The failure of the 1818 freedom struggle was the beginning of the end of Sri Lanka’s dignity as a nation. British colonial rule saw the birth of a hybrid class of half-educated Anglicized natives who would look down upon their own language, culture and history. Although it is now 61 years since the British left our shores, the negative impact of their cultural genocide continues to plague this island in varying degrees. And once again foreign powers and their proxies are dictating terms to us and telling us how to run our country.