Sunday, January 6, 2008



- A true national hero

Nov. 26 will the 189th anniversary of the execution at Bogambara, Kandy of patriot and national hero Monarawila Keppettipola, who led the 1817-18 Uva rebellion against the British two years after the fall of the Kandyan Kingdom.
The British in fact never conquered the kingdom but seized it through craft and deceit taking advantage of the public opposition to Sri Wickrema 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 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 two thousand years of self-rule and the whole island became part of the British Empire, paying homage to an English monarch who was the tutelary head of the Anglican Church. In 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 bhikkus joined the people in demanding the King of their own to protect Sinhala way of life and to uphold age-old Buddhist religious traditions.
The British – in accordance with their divide-and-rule policy - appointed a Muslim, 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 a racial 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 Dumabara 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 harvest having killed or robbed their cattle.
Sinhala peasants were subjected to horrible deaths – by execution, hunger and disease. The British laid waste to the entire area of Wellassa (meaning hundred thousand paddy lands). 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 the British 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.''
Generations of poverty-stricken peasants of Wellassa have been paying the price of the havoc wrought by British troops. Nearly 50,000 Sinhala villagers have been suffering from malaria – a direct result of the British destroying thousands of acres of paddy land, irrigation works, many reservoirs and water ways to starve the population to death. The water that spilled into the surrounding areas turned Wellassa into a large mosquito breeding ground. Gradually, the jungle claimed the once-flourishing Wellassa, following over a century of neglect. The devastation was such that it was virtually impossible to restore the place to what it was before.

Justice Lawrie, Senior Puisne Judge in colonial Ceylon in A Gazetteer of the Central Province of Ceylon wrote: ``… The story of 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 privations 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, Ihagama, were banished from the country. Ihagama, once a bhikku, was the guiding force behind the rebellion 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 Marshall (a Scotsman) Keppettipola was like the Scottish Freedom Fighter, Sir William Wallace, whom the English executed in 1306 for `treason' after he rebelled against King Edward I.
Marshall was so impressed by the Kandyan Chief's bravery and intellect that he took possession of the rebel leader's skull after the execution 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 statue of him stands on the Nuwara-Eliya-Badulla road backing the Uva hills where he fought for his motherland.
A very fair British historian, Marshall's 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 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 HR situations in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the crisis-ridden Third World.
After the Uva rebellion 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 price of one shilling per acre. There is no record of the number of Kandyan peasants rendered landless and homeless by this inhuman act perpetrated between 1833 and 1886.
Six years ago the Uva Provincial Council decided to explore the possibility of seeking compensation from the UK Government for the mindless destruction the British colonialists caused to Wellassa. The then Uva Chief Minister Samaraweera Weerawanni, UNP Parliamentarians W.J.M. Lokubandara (present Speaker) and Dharmadasa Banda were among those who mooted the idea.
The failure of the 1818 rebellion was the beginning of the end of Sri Lanka's dignity as a nation. As Justice Lawrie noted: ``The descendants of the higher classes of the Kandyan times rapidly died out, the lower classes became ignorant and apathetic.'' Today a considerable segment of Sri Lankan society has no sense of history, culture or national pride. And once again foreign powers and their proxies are dictating terms to us and telling us how to run our crisis-ridden country.