ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday May 11, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 50

The Butcher of Matale

Tracking down an elusive grave site opens a blood-spattered page of colonial history

By Vaduge

Finding a grave-site in the yellowed pages of the old register at the Mahaiyawa Cemetery Office, in Kandy District, proved easier than finding the real thing.

The cemetery office curator Sarath spent close to two months looking for a certain Albert Watson’s grave, and when he did, it was quite by accident: an ordinary-looking grave with a simple granite cross in the Anglican section of the old Mahaiyawa Cemetery.

The inscription at the grave read:

Loving Memory
Lieut. Col. Albert Watson
Late of the 58th, 83rd and Ceylon Rifle Regiments
Born 9th June 1803
Died 12th Nov. 1896
When he was reviled, he reviled not again
He giveth his beloved sleep.
And of
Emily Laughlin
Who died May 21st 1906
Aged 74 years
Father in thy Gracious keeping
Leave we now thy servant sleeping
Lord all pitying Jesus blest
Grant them Thyne Eternal Rest.

A lone mango tree stands next to the grave of the controversial man who came to be known as the “Butcher of Matale”. This was no ordinary British colonial army officer. He was the officer who was given the job of suppressing the rebellion in Matale District in August 1848.

The grave site

Captain Albert Watson of the Ceylon Rifle Regiment (CRR) left Kandy with his company of Malay soldiers on July 28, 1848, along with the 19th Regiment under Captain Henderson, commanded by Captain Lillie of the CRR.

After launching an assault on Wariyapola Estate and massacring peasants there on the morning of the 29th, Lillie and his 217 men recaptured and occupied Matale’s burnt-down administrative centre. Lillie left the following day, leaving Matale in the hands of Watson and his company of 109 Malay soldiers. What followed is history.

Watson and four subalterns rounded up a number of rebels in and around Matale. Among them were such charismatic leaders as Kudapola Unnanse or Kudapola Sri Rahula Thero, Puranappu, Gongalegoda Banda and Hanguranketha Dingi Rala. Many lesser known fighters were captured, tortured for intelligence and lynched on Watson’s orders.

Some leaders were court-martialled in Matale itself and faced the firing squad. Others were brought before the Kandy courts and convicted for waging war against the Queen. These were all mock trials for public consumption.

Many local grandees covertly or overtly supported the agents of Buller, the Government Agent of the Central Province. Some petty village chiefs proved even more colonial-minded than Watson and tracked down poor peasants, beyond the call of their duty.

No British soldiers died in the Matale Rebellion. One member of the 19th Regiment was slightly wounded at Wariyapola Estate. The confrontation was a one-sided affair, and the rebel leaders Puran Appu and Gongalegoda Banda had to withdraw after paying a heavy price in human lives. At Wariyapola, they were betrayed by fifth columnists for the sake of piffling perks offered by Buller, in echoes of the Kandyan Convention of 1815.

Shortly after, the spotlight fell on Watson, Secretary Tennent and Governor Torrington for their roles in the handling of the uprising. Following press revelations of his brutality, Watson was sent to Colombo.Torrington, a staunch ally of Watson, was called back prematurely.

Torrington was probably the only British Governor who owed his appointment to influence; he was a cousin of Lord John Russell, who was the British prime minister from 1846 to 1852. Torrington was only 35 when he took up his role as governor of Ceylon. He proved arrogant, hot-tempered and tactless, and had no political or administrative experience.

Watson was the eldest son of Lt. General Alexander Watson of the Royal Artillery and was commissioned as an ensign on August 25, 1820 in the 83rd Regiment. He was later transferred to the 58th Regiment, from which he was commissioned captain in the Ceylon Rifle Regiment. His conduct during the rebellion was the subject of a Royal Commission of Inquiry. The commission’s findings were unfavourable to Watson, who was brought before a court-martial but was acquitted, to the great disappointment of the press and the Liberals.

Anglican Chapel at Mahaiyawa Cemetery

Watson’s conduct was also discussed by special committees in Parliament in London. Capt. Henderson, who took part in the ambush at Wariyapola, along with Captains Lillie and Watson, later wrote a book on the Matale Rebellion. The unofficial account, published in 1868, was a severe indictment of Watson, Tennent and Torrington. Despite the adverse publicity, Watson was sent to Colombo and promoted as a major in 1851 and a staff officer in July, 1854. He was later appointed as Police Superintendent of the Southern Province, in Galle.

The epitaph on Watson’s tombstone alludes to the controversies surrounding his name. Albert Watson was a colourful personality in many ways. He, along with Capt. William Fisher, is credited with discovering Horton Plains on March 28, 1834, while out elk hunting. His second marriage, at age 45, was to Emily, 16, youngest daughter of J. J. Staples, in 1848. He retired as a lieutenant colonel of the Ceylon Rifle Regiment and lived in Kandy until his death.

Emily had a hard time securing space at the Mahaiyawa Cemetery, as the governor had by then barred new burials at the Kandy Garrison Cemetery. Ten years later she too was buried at the Garrison Cemetery.

It was no easy task putting together the material and field evidence required for this article. Kandy Garrison Cemetery’s Charles Carmichael is happy to assist anyone interested in browsing through the Cemetery Archives. The archives building, incidentally, was a chapel in the first half of the 19th century.

Even 160 years later, no effort has been made to collect for a decent burial the bones of the rebel patriots that lie scattered across Matale and Kurunegala.

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