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Revisiting Sri Lanka’s Colonial Past

Updated: Jan 4, 2023

Sri Lanka in essence, is a country that brims with a wealth of natural beauty, historical attractions and vibrant culture. From its magnificent beaches to its awe-inspiring mountain ranges and endless tea plantations, Sri Lanka is really paradise on earth, but that’s not all, Sri Lanka is also known for its rich history which unravels the fact that this little island remained a western colony for 518 years.

A Brief History

1686 Mallet map of Sri Lanka (Taprobane), Wikipedia

The foundation for Western colonization was laid with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505 when military leader and explorer, Lorenzo de Almeida understood the importance of the island with its extensive coastal borders, lucrative spices and rubber. During this time, Ceylon was split into divisions and each division had its own ruler. The Portuguese started to build a fort along the western coastline in 1517 and occupied all the coastal areas in the country. In 1594, following the famous Battle of Danthure , the Portuguese attempted to invade the kingdom of Kandy but failed due to the strong guerilla warfare tactics displayed by King Vimaladharmasuriya I . The Portuguese continued to occupy the coasts making massive profits out of cinnamon, areca nuts and pepper.

During this time, the Dutch started sailing into Ceylonese ports and formed an alliance with the Kandyan King by agreeing to provide military aid to drive the Portuguese out of Ceylon. They decided to launch a joint attack against the Portuguese which was unsuccessful due to the lack of sea power. In 1635, the Dutch started to occupy Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Negombo, this was when they started to realize the immense value of Sri Lankan resources. Following a series of battles that took place between Kandyans, the Dutch and the Portuguese, the Portuguese surrendered and left the city of Colombo to the Dutch in 1656.

The Dutch slowly started to expand their territory and colonized the southern, western, south western and eastern coasts of Sri Lanka by 1665. They brought down workforce from South India to grow cinnamon, betel, tobacco, coffee and spices and also made enormous profits out of gemstones and pearl collections from the ocean. Among their famous exports were coconut oil, elephant cowrie and lacquer and owned the monopoly of cinnamon. Another potent aspect of the Dutch colonization was religion, since protestants were extremely common among the Dutch many people were forced to convert to their faith. The Dutch also forced their people to marry Sri Lankan locals which led to the evolution of a new community, the Dutch-Burgher in Sri Lanka.

1796, it was now the turn of the British to set foot on Ceylonese shores. Ceylon was declared a crown colony in 1802 the kingdom of Kandy was captured in 1815 with the imprisonment of the Kandyan King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe . This made the British period a climactic point in the colonization of Sri Lanka, following this, Ceylon underwent many changes.

Impacts of Western Colonization of Ceylon

The British strengthened Ceylonese agriculture as they promoted tea, rubber and coconut as their main crops. They tested the fertility of the soil in the highlands and realized that it was the best place to grow tea. Lands were sold in the highlands at reasonable rates to grow tea and labor was brought from India. The tea industry continues to be an important part in modern Sri Lanka accounting for approximately 11% of its exports. Cinnamon, pepper, sugarcane and cotton production flourished and a network of roads and railways were built to facilitate the transport of goods. A series of reforms were enacted in 1833, the British adopted a unitary administrative judicial system and declared English as the language used for discussing state matters and of instruction in schools. The said reforms reduced the autocratic powers of the governor and established legislative councils to share the tasks of government. Road systems and railways were built and harbors were expanded to facilitate exports, this also opened up avenues of employment., Muslims in Portuguese Sri Lanka (1505-1658)

The major impact of the Portuguese invasion of Sri Lanka was religion where many people were forced to convert to their faith. The ones who did convert from Buddhism to Christianity adopted Portuguese surnames and passed them on for generations. Christian missionary activity became intensive during the British period. Sri Lanka which was predominantly a Buddhist country for thousands of years now consists of 4 main religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. They also had a significant impact on language as some of the Sinhalese words used today have a Dutch origin. The British too had a notable influence on language, English has become an official language and is taught in schools alongside local languages. Further, some of the spectacular architecture currently present in Sri Lanka (i.e. The Dutch Hospital in Colombo, Galle fort and Wolvendaal Church) were built by the Dutch and attract a significant number of tourists each year.

The 518 year long western colonization of Sri Lanka ended with the country experiencing multiple changes with regards to administration, the economy and culture. Although Sri Lanka gained independence from the British in 1948, it remained a dominion of the British empire until 1972 until its name was officially changed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka. Even today, a visit to Sri Lanka can help discover the traces of western colonization left behind, from the architecture to the street names and even the language spoken by the people.

(Battle of Danthure : Also known as the Danthure campaign, which comprised a series of encounters between the Portuguese and the Kingdom of Kandy in 1594, as part of the Sinhalese-Portuguese war. It was considered a turning point in indigenous resistance to Portuguese expansion.)

(King Vimaladharmasuriya I : The Kandyan King from 1590 to 1604, who successfully repulsed 2 major Portuguese offensives on Kandy: The Battle of Danthure in 1594 and the Battle of Balana in 1602.)

(King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe : The last King to rule the last Sinhalese monarchy of the Kingdom of Kandy in Sri Lanka. The King was eventually deposed by the British Government under the terms of the Kandyan Convention in 1815 and succeeded by George III, as a monarch of British Ceylon.)

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