In Sri Lanka as in every other colonial outpost, resistance to foreign domination predated Western intervention by more than two centuries. Surviving several waves of South Indian conquest, the Anuradhapura kingdom gave way to the Polonnaruwa kingdom in the 11th century AD. The latter’s demise 200 years later led to a shift from the country’s north to the north-west, and from there to the south-west. It was in the south-west that the Sinhalese first confronted European colonialism, a confrontation that pushed the Kotte and the Sitava kingdoms to the last bastion of Sinhalese rule, Kandy.
The shift to Kandy coincided with the commencement of Portuguese rule in the island. Both Portuguese and Dutch officials emphasised, and sharpened, the line between the Maritime Provinces and the kanda uda rata. The Sitavaka rulers, in particular Rajasinghe I, had fought both Portuguese suzerainty and Kotte domination. These encounters more or less breathed new life into the country’s long history of resistance to foreign rule.
The Kandyan kings inherited and imbibed this legacy. But under them resistance to colonial subjugation acquired a new logic and a fresh vigour. That was to define the island’s struggle against imperialism for well more than three centuries.
Sri Lanka’s confrontations with European colonialism took place in the early part of what historians call the modern period. The social, political, and economic transformations inherent in this period had a considerable impact on the trajectory of European imperialism and anti-imperialism. Any examination of Sri Lanka’s fight against colonial rule and its eventual independence must evaluate these historical trends.
The period between British annexation of the island and declaration of independence (1815–1948) unfolded in four successive but interrelated stages. In the first stage, between 1815 and 1848, British colonialism was compelled to reckon with an unending series of peasant uprisings, beginning in Uva-Wellassa in 1817 and culminating in Matale three decades later. In keeping with similar insurrections in other colonial societies, these were Janus-faced: on the one hand, they sought liberation for a repressed group, the Kandyan peasantry, while on the other they envisaged a return to a pre-colonial polity. Yet, whatever their motives, they wanted to free the country of foreign rule.
The British government realised, too late, the folly of assuming that its political hold over the island would weaken, and prevail over, peasant resistance. Since the annexation of 1815, the colonial government had drawn and redrawn the country’s borders, breaking up the former Kandyan kingdom into Central and North-Western provinces and separating it from its Sabaragamuwa and Wayamba peripheries. With this, K. M. de Silva notes, officials hoped “to weaken the national feeling of the Kandyans.”
However, for obvious reasons, none of these reforms could quell the spirit of resistance among the peasantry. The Kandyan peasantry never accepted the notion of Sri Lanka as a unitary and united administration overseen by a colonial government. Indeed, when the subject of constitutional reform came up in the 1920s, the Kandyan delegation demanded federal autonomy, predating Tamil nationalist claims for a separate homeland by three decades. This showed very clearly that the British policy of amalgamating the Kandyan provinces with the rest of the country had not really worked out.
To complicate matters further, while dealing with peasant rebellions colonial officials had to put up with the growth of an assertive, and often radical, middle-class. To give one example, the Matala Uprising was never limited to Matale and Kurunegala: it erupted in Colombo as well, where Sinhalese, Tamil, and Burgher middle-classes protested the government’s tax policies. K. M. de Silva observes that attempts by the middle-class to influence Kandyan agitation “achieved little impact.” Yet that such an attempt was made at all showed that the colonial government had to reckon with two distinct dissenting groups.
The middle-classes may not have been revolutionaries, but as their interventions during the Matale Uprising showed, they could combine their dissatisfaction at the way things were with popular hatred of the government, to make their own demands. As a way of resolving this issue, between 1848 and 1870 — the second of the four periods pertinent to this essay — the colonial government began hiring and empowering a subservient elite, drawn from “the second echelon of the Kandyan nobility” as well as a low country bourgeoisie.
Newton Gunasinghe has noted the paradox underlying these reforms. While putting an end to the monopoly of the Kandyan aristocracy, the British government reactivated the very social relations that had undergirded traditional Kandyan society. By reviving rajakariya in modified form, feudal production relations in temple lands, and a network of gamsabhas, authorities grafted archaic social customs and practices on what was, essentially, a capitalist mode of production. This had the effect of building up a class of subservient elites, and reducing the revolutionary potential of the peasantry.
For a while, the strategy worked. However, while it kept the Kandyan peasantry in check and in control, it backfired when the same intermediate elite the government had employed to the bureaucracy began demanding further reforms.
Here it’s important to clarify exactly what these elites wanted. In rebelling against the government, neither the newly co-opted aristocracy nor the middle-classes promoted the overthrow of the British government. They did not want a radical transformation of colonial society, largely because by then they had grown too dependent on that society to envisage, or desire, a Ceylon falling outside the British orbit.
This is why, while clamouring for greater representation for themselves, these elites very carefully, and consistently, opposed the extension of the franchise. As Regi Siriwardena has noted, none of those celebrated as national heroes today — with the important exception of A. E. Goonesinha — wanted universal suffrage vis-à-vis the Donoughmore Commission. Such reforms had to be imposed on them.
In that sense, the British government’s policy of engaging with local elites worked fairly well. Colonial officials now had local emissaries through whom they could mediate potential popular uprisings. Yet the policy necessitated the retention of archaic and quasi-feudal social relations, which in the long term stunted capitalist development. On the other hand, it also paved the way for the revival of various art forms, most prominently ves natum. As scholars like Senake Bandaranayake have noted, the government defined the parameters and the contours of traditional customs, cultural artefacts, and objets d’art, ensuring that they were in line with the broader aim of legitimising colonial rule.
All this led, in the third period (1870–1915), to a Buddhist revival whose exponents alternated between opposing and cooperating with colonial officials. These two lines were promoted, respectively, by the two Buddhist institutions of higher learning established in the late 19th century, Vidyalankara and Vidyodaya. While it’s difficult to draw a line between these two universities and their representatives, it is true, as H. L. Seneviratne suggests in The Work of Kings, that significant disagreements prevailed within the Buddhist clergy over the issue of British domination.
From their side, colonial authorities, especially governors like Henry Ward, William Gregory, and Arthur Gordon, sought closer cooperation with a conservative Buddhist bourgeoisie, legitimising British rule while implementing cultural and political reforms. Very often these reforms antagonised groups like Evangelical missionaries. Yet officials ignored their concerns; endearing themselves to revivalists, orientalists, and moderate nationalists to maintain the colonial administrative structure became the bigger priority.
These developments eventually turned the Buddhist elite to the forefront of the reforms being supported by the British government. Towards the end of this period, the bourgeoisie, who were too entrenched economically in colonial rule to advocate radical change, yet too underrepresented politically to be content with the way things were, began to take the lead in such reforms through the Temperance Movement.
The Temperance Movement provided an impetus for a number of other organisations. K. M. de Silva has argued that none of them — not even the ambitious Ceylon National Association — fulfilled the aims for which they had been set up. Ranging from communal outfits like the Dutch Burgher Union to commercial groups like the Plumbago Merchants Union, these organisations, for the most, preferred gradual to radical change, dispensing with the sort of agitation politics that would come to define the Indian National Congress.
Moreover, Hector Abhayavardhana has noted that the bulk of the Sinhalese elite leadership consisted of “small men with narrow vision” who wanted to bring religion into politics. Any hopes for a multicultural alliance faded away with the establishment of Mahajana Sabhas, which campaigned for Buddhist candidates. However highly one may have thought of outfits like the Jaffna Youth Congress, the lack of enthusiasm for such groups, among the colonial bourgeoisie, paved the way for their inevitable and tragic demise.
Meanwhile, the colonial bourgeoisie faced a more formidable foe, or competitor, in the form of nationalist firebrands like Anagarika Dharmapala. In a bid to blunt the fervour of such individuals, whom they viewed with much distaste, the Sinhalese bourgeoisie toed the Vidyodaya line, promoting change within the framework of a plantation economy while seeking more representation for themselves. This was necessitated by expedience: by the early 20th century a working class movement had begun to emerge in the country, as the Carters’ strike of 1906 showed, and though it lacked proper leadership, it nevertheless worried the bourgeoisie. Their rather ambivalent response to these developments had the unfortunate effect of stunting the rise of a mass struggle in the country.
The comprador bourgeoisie shot to fame, so to speak, with the 1915 riots. A point often forgotten in contemporary reconstructions of the riots is that none of the elites arrested by the British government posed a direct threat to colonial rule. As Kumari Jayawardena has pointed out, it was a case of official overreaction to the faintest threat of an anti-colonial uprising. Much like the J. R. Jayewardene government proscribing the Left after the 1983 riots, there was no link between the riots and the causes attributed to it, be it the supposed agitation of Buddhist elites or the politics of the Temperance Movement.
Kumari Jayawardena and K. M. de Silva point out that the period after the 1915 riots — the fourth period relevant to our discussion — witnessed the dulling down and fading away of the Buddhist revival. This is indeed what happened. In the person of Anagarika Dharmapala, the revival had brought together both reformist and radical currents. Yet Sinhalese elites, obviously cooperating with British authorities, marginalised him to the extent of excluding him from practically all political activity.
Dharmapala’s departure from the island, and from the island’s politics, gave rise to newer parties and forms of struggle, many of them inspired by his vision. Among these, the most prominent was the Labour Party, founded in 1928 by A. E. Goonesinha.
Naturally enough, working class unrest dominated much of the post-1915 period, leading to the formation of a broad, radical Left. The newly formed Left identified the limitations of Goonesinha’s politics and sought to transcend them. To this end the establishment of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), in 1935, marked a pivotal turning point in the country’s lunge towards independent statehood. Envisioning a complete, radical transformation of society, its representatives and ideologues broke with the dominant political outfit of the day, the Ceylon National Congress, charting their own course.
The LSSP’s original objectives, as radical in their time as in ours, included the socialisation of the means of production, the attainment of complete independence, and the abolition of all forms of inequality, including caste. Given the state of the economy at the time — it was a plantation enclave heavily dependent on a few sectors — no other programme would have sufficed for an organisation calling for a mass struggle against colonial rule.
In the meantime, the colonial bourgeoisie managed to turn the Ceylon National Congress into a pale echo of what it had once aspired to. With the departure of Ponnambalam Arunachalam in 1921, there came an end to an era where, as K. M. de Silva and Hector Abhayavardhana have observed, Sinhala and Tamil communities constituted in unison the majority of the country. In the hands of a predominantly Sinhalese bourgeoisie the Congress became little more than a communal organisation, a point reinforced by the decision of its leaders to disenfranchise estate Tamils. In this they were occupied more than anything else with the preservation of their economic interests.
All these developments led to a situation where the Left could claim, very validly, that the ruling elite had not won independence, but had secured it on a platter from Whitehall. The elite themselves were not unaware of the inadequacy of their campaign for freedom: when the masses reacted against the cosmetic reforms they had obtained from the British government, the Congress bourgeoisie quickly went back and pressed for what was being demanded. Yet tied to three agreements which made the defence, foreign policy, and civil service planks of the government subservient to British interests, Ceylon could become free only through a radical transformation of its political structures.
In breaking off all remaining ties with the colonial government, the 1972 Constitution sought to give effect to such a transformation. By then even the Sinhalese bourgeoisie had come to realise the folly of maintaining the status quo and the inevitability of change: whereas John Kotelawala could advocate Ceylon remaining a Dominion, Dudley Senanayake could a decade later support it becoming a Republic within the Commonwealth.
We need a new account of our country’s emergence as an independent state. The accounts we have at present, barring very few, glorify one set of leaders over all others, marginalising if not excluding everyone else. Conventional narratives depict the colonial elite as national heroes. This was not always the case, though important differences did exist within the bourgeoisie. What we learn about our own independence, in that regard, is inadequate to the task of helping us understand our past. We badly need a new history.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org