The British had been visiting Ceylon long before they arrived as rulers. In the 17th century, they had used Kottiyar harbour in Trincomalee for trade, ship repairs and shelter from the monsoon. Rajasinha II (1655-87) imprisoned the crews of two of these English ships. That is how Robert Knox came here. From 1746 to 1795, [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

The British arrive in Ceylon


The British had been visiting Ceylon long before they arrived as rulers. In the 17th century, they had used Kottiyar harbour in Trincomalee for trade, ship repairs and shelter from the monsoon. Rajasinha II (1655-87) imprisoned the crews of two of these English ships. That is how Robert Knox came here.

From 1746 to 1795, British ships from the East Indies Company visited Trincomalee harbour regularly in an arrangement with the Dutch who were then ruling in the Maritime Provinces. The Dutch and British were allies at that time in Europe. The harbour was used during intermonsoon weather of October and April and also for refitting and provisions. The British had built a wharf there and in 1762 had made a chart of the whole harbour. In 1760 the Udarata king had obtained guns and ammunitions from passing English ships for their war against the Dutch.

A Kandyan chieftain- Pic courtesy Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon

Kirti Sri Rajasinha, like the earlier Sinhala kings wanted to expel the Dutch. He first approached the south Indian principalities of Tanjore and Madura, who refused to help. He then sent an envoy to the East India Company at Madras in 1762 hoping to obtain English assistance to get rid of the Dutch. The East Indies Company was at that time ruling over large areas of India in Bengal and Madras and was steadily overtaking the Dutch in Asia. The Company sent Pybus, a senior officer of the Company. Pybus refused to enter into a treaty and also created a bad impression He had been sent on a spying mission to obtain information on Ceylon, not to agree to a treaty. He had been given a specific list of the items he was to observe and inquire into. Udarata felt let down by Britain and did not forget it.

In 1780 Britain and Holland started, for the fourth time, to fight each other in Europe and the Dutch had stopped the British coming to Trincomalee. Britain captured Trincomalee in 1781, lost it to the French in 1782 and got it back in 1783. They wanted to obtain permanent rights over Trincomalee and sent Hugh Boyd in 1782 to arrange a treaty with Udarata. King Rajadhi Rajasinghe was suspicious and said he was not prepared to enter into a treaty on Boyd’s terms. He said that the request to establish diplomatic relations must come directly from the British king, under his signature, not from the East India Company in Madras. He pointed out that when they needed British assistance, at the time of Pybus, the British did not help. ‘They come now to further their own interest, because they are against the Dutch,’ he said. When Boyd arrived the Dutch also rushed to Kandy. Rajadhi, wooed by both British and Dutch adopted a middle line, neither accepting nor rejecting Boyd’s terms. There were two factions in the Kandy court, pro-Dutch and anti-Dutch and the pro-Dutch faction was in the lead, reported Boyd.

Rajadhi tried to establish a link with the French who were in South India at Pondicherry.

But this did not happen and Udarata was without foreign support when the East India Company at Madras appointed Robert Andrews as British ambassador to the Udarata kingdom in 1795. Andrews received a warm welcome and a preliminary treaty of alliance and friendship was signed in which Udarata promised to assist the British to expel the Dutch. This was to be followed by another treaty in 1796, in which the British would undertake to hand the Dutch possessions back to the Sinhala king. This second treaty was never signed, because, in the meantime, another route into Sri Lanka, totally independent of the Udarata, had opened up for Britain.

In 1795 France invaded the Netherlands and the Dutch ruler, William of Orange fled to London. He gave the Dutch possessions in Asia to Britain for ‘safekeeping’, fearing that the French would get them. (‘Kew letters’) Britain seized the opportunity, sent in an army and militarily took over Trincomalee, Jaffna, Batticaloa, Vanni, Mannar, Negombo and Chilaw. Then they came to Colombo. The Dutch authorities in Ceylon, accepting the situation, capitulated and without any more fighting, handed over Colombo and the remaining Dutch settlements of Kalutara, Galle and Matara to the British in 1796. Without a doubt, the British had acquired the Dutch possessions in Sri Lanka through direct conquest. In 1802, these territories were permanently ceded to Britain at the Treaty of Amiens. The maritime provinces of Sri Lanka had now come under the rule of the most formidable European nation of the time

After the Treaty of Amiens was concluded in 1802, the British were told by the Dutch about the Udarata-Dutch treaty of 1776 where the Dutch were given a mile of land all along the coast of Sri Lanka. The British rulers declared that they were now rulers over the full coastline of Sri Lanka. They were in possession of an ‘uninterrupted belt which follows the entire circumference of the coast and encircles and hems in the entire kingdom of Kandy and places it under our control.’

The Udarata kingdom was angry and disappointed. They had enthusiastically prepared to help the British with the hope of getting the Dutch possessions back. They had sent a general with a force of 5000 men and provisions to Negombo to meet the British army there. This combined force then went to Colombo, to Grandpass where the British general had his headquarters. But since Colombo had been handed over without a fight, they were not needed and they were told to go back to Udarata. A separate Udarata army had gone and taken over Matara. The British sent them away too.

The Udarata did not take this lying down. In 1797, there was a rebellion in the Hewaheta, Salpiti, Siyane and Raigam korales. Rajadhi supported the rebellion. The disave of Sabaragamuwa had met the rebels at Sitawaka. Then the leader of the rebels, ‘Sinno Appu’ and his team had been received in court in Udarata. Sinno had been appointed ‘disave of the nine korales’, meaning Colombo, and ordered to go and establish order and govern in the name of the Udarata King. Sinno Appu returned to Sabaragamuwa and announced his appointment. When Colonel de Meuron who was in charge of the administration of the British provinces protested to court, Rajadhi said he knew nothing about it and that the rebels were using his name without his authority. But de Meuron had seen emissaries of the first Adigar and the rebels speaking to each other. The rebellion was crushed and Sinno Appu fled back to Udarata.

The writings of S. Arasaratnam, Colvin R. de Silva, K.M. de Silva, L.S. Dewaraja D.A.Kotelawele, V.L.B. Mendis, A. Schrikker and S. Tammita-Delgoda were used for this essay.

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