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REAPPROPRIATION, RESISTANCE, AND BRITISH AUTOCRACY IN SRI LANKA, 1820–1850*

  • JAMES WILSON (a1)

Abstract

Sri Lanka's kingdom of Kandy fell to the British in 1815 and a rebellion in its name was defeated two years later. Across the next three decades, islanders took up religious ceremonies, legal concepts, and regal traditions formerly linked to Kandy's king and his court. These reappropriations were responses to efforts by the state to control Sri Lanka: expressions of kingship reassembled in particular ways to resist specific British incursions. Critically, islanders situated these activities in historical, colonial, and global contexts, manipulating transoceanic and imperial networks. Although they invariably failed, episodes of reappropriation bemused colonists with their complexities and globalisms and gradually subverted British autocracy, the form of imperial governance in Sri Lanka. Autocracy then gave way to more regularized modes of rule. Bringing together three separate examples, this article disputes an important argument about Sri Lanka's insurgent national character and reveals islanders’ elaborate responses to the incursions of imperialism. More broadly, it suggests that such episodes should be viewed as creative instances of resistance that deployed networks, practices, and ideas and became enmeshed with the development of the state through their influence over colonial governance. This locates aspects of imperial change within the Indian Ocean world.

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Corresponding author

Sidney Sussex College, Sidney Street, Cambridge, cb2 3hu jdw58@cam.ac.uk

Footnotes

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*

I would like to thank Sujit Sivasundaram, John Rogers, Jagjeet Lally, Emma Hunter, and the two anonymous reviewers for their insightful and invaluable comments on various drafts of this article. I am also grateful for the feedback of the various groups and workshops in Cambridge who read and listened to it. Thanks are also due to the staff of the Asian and African studies reading room at the British Library, who located the map used below.

Footnotes

References

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1 These details and those of the following story, unless otherwise noted, are found in the statement of Ambalambe Unnanse, Aug. 1848, The National Archives, UK (TNA), Colonial Office (CO) 54/250, pp. 214–31.

2 In present-day Sri Lanka, ‘Sinhalese’ refers to the island's Sinhala-speaking people, who are predominantly Buddhist or Christian. In the nineteenth-century context, Michael Roberts describes the existence of a heterogeneous ‘Sinhala consciousness’ that associated with Buddhism and the kingdom of Kandy but was necessarily all-encompassing, open to adoption by various lineages, migrants, and islanders while integrating gods from across the region. See Roberts, Michael, Sinhala consciousness in the Kandyan period, 1590s to 1815 (Colombo, 2003), p. 15 .

3 Dewaraja, Lorna, The Kandyan kingdom of Ceylon, 1707–1760 (Colombo, 1972), p. 123 ; see pp. 119–49 for more on religion in the Kandyan kingdom.

4 For more on Banda, see Jayawardena, Kumari, Perpetual ferment: popular revolts in Sri Lanka in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Colombo, 2010), p. 145 .

5 Extracts from a Sinhalese letter, 30 July 1848, TNA, CO 54/250, pp. 231–2.

6 ‘Reappropriation’ is a historical descriptor that refers to the repurposing or reclaiming of something for a particular purpose, through its recreation, reproduction, or reuse.

7 Ceylon: rebellion report, 1849, TNA, CO 882/1, p. 62.

8 For more on the British and Buddhism, see De Silva, K. M., A history of Sri Lanka (New Delhi, 2005), pp. 340–2.

9 Tapiti Roy has recast aspects of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 as a positive attempt to offer an alternative government to the British. This article builds on Roy's work by stressing the importance of reappropriation as a distinct form of resistance. See Roy, Tapiti, ‘Visions of the rebels: a study of 1857 in Bundelkhand’, Modern Asian Studies, 27 (1993), pp. 205–28.

10 Gongalegoda Banda was from the maritime provinces, see Jayawardena, Perpetual ferment, p. 128.

11 For pre-colonial examples of pretendership, see Dewaraja, Kandyan kingdom, pp. 96–7, 108–18. For an earlier history of kingship in sixteenth-century Lanka, see Alan Strathern, Kingship and conversion in sixteenth-century Sri Lanka: Portuguese imperialism in a Buddhist land (Cambridge, 2007).

12 Wright to Brownrigg, 16 Jan. 1820, TNA, CO 54/76, pp. 64–8; Campbell to Bathurst, 21 July 1820, TNA, CO 54/77, pp. 133–5; Campbell to Bathurst, 16 Mar. 1823, TNA, CO 54/84, pp. 154–6; Wilmot-Horton to Stanley, 15 Sept. 1834, TNA, CO 54/137, pp. 22–9; Campbell to Stanley, 9 May 1842, TNA, CO 54/197, pp. 30–1; Campbell to Stanley, 21 Oct. 1843, TNA, CO 54/205, pp. 183–4.

13 For more on the rebellion of 1848, see Taylor, Miles, ‘The 1848 revolutions and the British empire’, Past and Present, 166 (2000), pp. 146–80; De Silva, History, pp. 354–9; De Silva, K. M., ed., Letters on Ceylon, 1846–1850: the administration of Viscount Torrington and the ‘rebellion’ of 1848 (Colombo, 1965).

14 De Silva, History, pp. 354–9.

15 Ceylon: rebellion, TNA, CO 882/1, p. 62.

16 De Silva, History, pp. 287–300, Kandyan Convention at pp. 300–1.

17 This paragraph picks up on Michael Roberts's argument that the kingdom was governed through a form of ‘tributary overlordship’ centred on the city of Kandy. To an extent, the maritime provinces were included in this arrangement, as Kandy lay claim to the whole of Lanka, they occasionally looked towards the king for aid, and the boundary between the maritime provinces and Kandy was somewhat porous. See Roberts, Sinhala consciousness, pp. 69–84; Sivasundaram, Sujit, Islanded: Britain, Sri Lanka and the bounds of an Indian Ocean colony (Chicago, IL, 2013), p. 41 .

18 Pieris, Ralph, Sinhalese social organization: the Kandyan period (Colombo, 1956), pp. 23–5. For more on Kandy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, see Dewaraja, Kandyan kingdom, pp. 20–221; Duncan, James S., The city as text: the politics of landscape interpretation in the Kandyan kingdom (Cambridge, 1990), pp. 5984 ; Roberts, Sinhala consciousness, pp. 39–52.

19 See De Silva, K. M., ‘The Kandyan kingdom and the British – the last phase, 1796 to 1818’, in De Silva, K. M., ed., University of Ceylon: history of Ceylon (3 vols., Colombo, 1959–73), iii, pp. 1233 ; Vimalananda, Tennakoon, The great rebellion of 1818: the story of the first war of independence and the betrayal of the nation (Colombo, 1970); Powell, Geoffrey, The Kandyan wars: the British army in Ceylon 1803–1818 (London, 1973).

20 De Silva, History, pp. 301–6; Davy, John, An account of the interior of Ceylon, and of its inhabitants (London, 1821), pp. 320–3, 331–2; Marshall, Henry, Ceylon: a general description of the island and its inhabitants, with an historical sketch of the conquest of the colony by the English (London, 1846), pp. 1922 .

21 Sivasundaram, Sujit, ‘Buddhist kingship, British archaeology and historical narratives in Sri Lanka c.1750–1850’, Past and Present, 197 (2007), pp. 111–42, at p. 130.

22 The 1848 rebellion has been understood as arising out of global economic problems and a general dissatisfaction with British policy, but it is also often simultaneously described as evidence of nationalism. For nationalism, see De Silva, History, pp. 354–9. Otherwise, see Taylor, ‘The 1848 revolutions’, pp. 164–5. These analyses contrast with the more nuanced understandings of resistance at other times in Sri Lanka's history. See Wickramasinghe, Nira, ‘Many little revolts or one rebellion? The maritime provinces of Ceylon/Sri Lanka between 1796 and 1800’, South Asia, 32 (2009), pp. 170–88.

23 K. M. De Silva, ‘Nineteenth-century origins of nationalism in Ceylon’, in De Silva, ed., University of Ceylon, iii, pp. 249–61, at pp. 249, 251.

24 Jayawardena, Perpetual ferment, p. 145.

25 Ibid., pp. 6–14; Gramsci, A., Selections from political writings, 1921–1926 (London, 1978), p. 454 .

26 As in Scott, David, ‘Colonial governmentality’, Social Text, 43 (1995), pp. 191220 .

27 Cohn, Bernard S., Colonialism and its forms of knowledge: the British in India (Princeton, NJ, 1996), pp. 1675 .

28 For India, see Bayly, C. A., Empire and information: intelligence gathering and social communication in India, 1780–1870 (Cambridge, 1996); Wilson, John E., The domination of strangers: modern governance in eastern India, 1780–1835 (Cambridge, 2010). For Sri Lanka, see Wickramasinghe, ‘Many little revolts’, pp. 170–88; Schrikker, Alicia, British and Dutch colonial intervention in Sri Lanka, 1780–1815: expansion and reform (Leiden, 2007), pp. 194, 211–16; Sivasundaram, Sujit, ‘Tales of the land: British geography and Kandyan resistance in Sri Lanka, c. 1803–1850’, Modern Asian Studies, 41 (2007), pp. 925–65.

29 Campbell to Stanley, 9 May 1842, TNA, CO 54/197, pp. 30–1; Wright to Brownrigg, TNA, CO 54/76, pp. 64–8.

30 ‘Cattle trespass’, Examiner, 10 May 1848; ‘The “Observer” on cattle trespass’, Ceylon Times, 14 July 1848.

31 As an example, see ‘Robbery of government money’, 8 July 1848, TNA, CO 54/249, pp. 281–322. For more on crime in colonial Sri Lanka, see Rogers, John D., Crime, justice and society in colonial Sri Lanka (London, 1987).

32 Bayly, C. A., The birth of the modern world, 1780–1914: global connections and comparisons (Oxford, 2003), pp. 86120 ; Armitage, David and Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, eds., The age of revolutions in global context, c.1760–1840 (Basingstoke, 2010), pp. xiixxxii ; Robert Travers, ‘Imperial revolutions and global repercussions: South Asia and the world, c. 1750–1850’, in Armitage and Subrahmanyam, eds., Age of revolutions, pp. 144–66; Bayly, C. A., ‘“The revolutionary age” in the wider world’, in Bessel, Richard, Guyatt, Nicholas, and Rendall, Jane, eds., War, empire and slavery, 1770–1830 (Basingstoke, 2010), pp. 2143 .

33 Roberts, Sinhala consciousness, pp. 82–4; Sivasundaram, Islanded, pp. 6–7; Sujit Sivasundaram, ‘Cosmopolitanism and indigeneity in four violent years: the fall of the kingdom of Kandy and the great rebellion revisited’, in Alan Strathern and Zoltán Biedermann, eds., Cosmopolitan island: Sri Lanka at the crossroads of history (forthcoming).

34 Jayawardena, Perpetual ferment, p. 128; Wright to Brownrigg, TNA, CO 54/76, pp. 64–8.

35 Statement of Embolmegamma Unnanse, 4 May 1834, TNA, CO 54/137, p. 53.

36 Sujit Sivasundaram describes ‘islanding’ as the process whereby Sri Lanka, historically a site of connection in the Indian Ocean, ‘was repositioned…as an island’, through the partitioning of Lanka from the Indian mainland. The British emphasized what they saw as Kandy's isolation and strove to create ‘a distinct idea of space’. See Islanded, pp. 3–17, at pp. 15–16. For more on Sri Lanka's global history, see, for example, Blackburn, Anne M., ‘Buddhist connections in the Indian Ocean: changes in monastic mobility, 1000–1500’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 58 (2015), pp. 237–66; Strathern, Alan, ‘Sri Lanka in the long early modern period: its place in a comparative theory of second millennium Eurasian history’, Modern Asian Studies, 43 (2009), pp. 815–69.

37 See De Silva, ‘Nineteenth-century origins of nationalism’; Wickramasinghe, Nira, Sri Lanka in the modern age: a history of contested identities (London, 2006), p. 42 .

38 Sivasundaram, Islanded, pp. 35–6; Dewaraja, Kandyan kingdom, pp. 108–18. For letters sent between Kandy, the nawab of Arcot, and the French in Pondicherry, see Rasanyagam, C., ‘Tamil documents in the government archives’, Bulletin of the Historical Manuscripts Commission, Ceylon, 3 (1937), pp. 728 .

39 Historians are often concerned with the appropriation of particular ideologies, like liberalism, or the ideas that emanated from specific events. See Bayly, C. A., Recovering liberties: Indian thought in the age of liberalism and empire (Cambridge, 2011); Bayly, ‘“The revolutionary age”’.

40 For British efforts to stress Lanka's isolation, see Sivasundaram, Islanded, p. 5, as well as the ‘islanding’ process, pp. 15–16.

41 The rebellion's global aftermaths have been noted widely, see Kapila, S., ‘Race matters: orientalism and religion, India and beyond c. 1770–1880’, Modern Asian Studies, 41 (2007), pp. 471513 ; Carter, M. and Bates, C., ‘Empire and locality: a global dimension to the 1857 Indian uprising’, Journal of Global History, 5 (2010), pp. 5173 . Clare Anderson has explored the global lives of convicts before, during, and after 1857, see Anderson, C., Subaltern lives: biographies of colonialism in the Indian Ocean world, 1790–1920 (Cambridge, 2012), pp. 124–56.

42 Bayly, C. A., Imperial meridian: the British empire and the world, 1780–1830 (London, 1989), pp. 810 .

43 Ibid., p. 214.

44 Bayly, Empire and information, pp. 56–96, 315–37.

45 Sivasundaram, ‘Tales of the land’, pp. 925–65; Schrikker, Colonial intervention, pp. 46–7, 178, 191.

46 For more on D'Oyly, see Gooneratne, B. and Gooneratne, Y., This inscrutable Englishman: Sir John D'Oyly, baronet, 1774–1824 (London, 1999); Sivasundaram, Islanded, pp. 122–9. For the advocate, see the statement of Ambalambe Unnanse, TNA, CO 54/250, pp. 214–31.

47 Information collected in 1833 and 1834 was used in this way. Note the volume of dispatches on the Kandyan ‘conspiracy’, 1833–5, TNA, CO 54/137, and the references to arrests, in Wilmot-Horton to Stanley, 23 July 1834, TNA, CO 54/137, pp. 7–8.

48 Sivasundaram, ‘Tales of the land’, p. 952; De Silva, History, p. 314.

49 De Silva, History, p. 333.

50 Wright to Brownrigg, TNA, CO 54/76, p. 66; the local disava of Bintenna is described as aligned to the British, see Brownrigg to Bathurst, 22 Jan. 1820, TNA, CO 54/76, pp. 58–60.

51 Stewart to Lusignan, 18 Mar. 1818, TNA, CO 54/76, p. 70.

52 Jayawardena, Perpetual ferment, p. 84.

53 Wright to Brownrigg, TNA, CO 54/76, p. 65.

54 Ibid., pp. 66–7.

55 Dewaraja, Kandyan kingdom, pp. 196–7.

56 For more on the symbolism of lakes, see Duncan, City as text, pp. 97–101.

57 Jayawardena, Perpetual ferment, p. 84.

58 Translation of an ola, 22 Jan. 1820, TNA, CO 54/76, p. 63.

59 Brownrigg to Bathurst, TNA, CO 54/76, pp. 58–9.

60 Ibid., pp. 58–60.

61 Ibid., pp. 58–9. Presumably the final claim arises from other reports, because there is no suggestion of it in this dispatch.

62 Ibid., p. 60.

63 Sivasundaram, Islanded, pp. 286–7.

64 Ibid., p. 287; Scott, ‘Colonial governmentality’, p. 213.

65 Statement of Ratnapale Unnanse, 24 Apr. 1834, TNA, CO 54/137, p. 49.

66 Statement of Mahalle Unanse, 24 Apr. 1834, TNA, CO 54/137, p. 41.

67 Record of a conversation between the Lekam and Mahawalatenne, 4 Apr. 1834, TNA, CO 54/137, p. 38.

68 Statement of a priest, 6 July 1834, TNA, CO 54/137, p. 63.

69 Sivasundaram, Islanded, p. 306.

70 Statement of Mahalle Unnanse, TNA, CO 54/137, p. 48.

71 Statement of Ratnapale Unnanse, TNA, CO 54/137, p. 48.

72 Statement of Mahalle Unnanse, TNA, CO 54/137, pp. 41, 43, 45.

73 Campbell to Bathurst, 16 Aug. 1823, TNA, CO 54/85, pp. 341–3.

74 Forbes to Turnour, 31 May 1834, TNA, CO 54/137, p. 92.

75 Statement of Mulligama, 1834, TNA, CO 54/137, p. 43.

76 Statement of Molligodde, 6 July 1834, TNA, CO 54/137, pp. 75–6.

77 Statement of Ratnapale Unnanse, TNA, CO 54/137, p. 48.

78 Statement of Mahalle Unnanse, TNA, CO 54/137, p. 41.

79 Statement of Embolmegamma Unnanse, 4 May 1834, TNA, CO 54/137, p. 53.

80 Statement of Molligodde, TNA, CO 54/137, p. 74.

81 Statement of Weyadapola, 1 June 1834, TNA, CO 54/137, p. 96.

82 Unknown to Stanley, 15 Aug. 1834, TNA, CO 54/137, pp. 19–20.

83 Minute of the governor, July 1834, TNA, CO 54/137, pp. 15–16; Wilmot-Horton to Stanley, TNA, CO 54/137, pp. 7–8.

84 See documents relating to the Kandyan conspiracy, TNA, CO 54/137.

85 Kandyan state trial pamphlet, 1835, TNA, CO 54/137, p. 520.

86 Ibid., p. 540.

87 Ibid., pp. 496, 507.

88 Taylor, ‘The 1848 revolutions’, pp. 164–5.

89 Torrington to Grey, 4 May 1848, in De Silva, ed., Letters on Ceylon, p. 82.

90 Translation of an ola, 14 Aug. 1848, TNA, CO 54/250, p. 234.

91 De Silva, History, pp. 340–2.

92 Extracts from the letter of ‘a native’, 28 July 1848, TNA, CO 54/250, p. 233.

93 Statement of Ambalambe Unnanse, TNA, CO 54/250, p. 227.

94 Extracts from a Sinhalese letter, TNA, CO 54/250, p. 231.

95 Statement of Ambalambe Unnanse, TNA, CO 54/250, p. 230.

96 Duncan, City as text, p. 122.

97 Translation of an ola, TNA, CO 54/250, p. 234; extracts from a Sinhalese letter, TNA, CO 54/250, p. 231.

98 Duncan, City as text, p. 122.

99 Ibid., pp. 34, 122, 123.

100 Taylor, ‘The 1848 revolutions’, pp. 164–5.

101 Grey to Torrington, 21 Feb. 1849, in De Silva, ed., Letters on Ceylon, p. 132.

102 ‘The late insurrection in Ceylon’, in Illustrated London News, 17 Aug. 1850, pp. 160–1.

103 ‘The insurrection in Ceylon’, in Illustrated London News, 7 June 1851, p. 516; Taylor, ‘The 1848 revolutions’, p. 175; De Silva, ed., Letters on Ceylon, p. 30.

104 Katherine Prior, ‘Anderson, Sir George William (1791–1857)’, Oxford dictionary of national biography.

105 Torrington to Grey, 11 Aug. 1848, in De Silva, ed., Letters on Ceylon, pp. 95–9.

106 Torrington to Grey, 17 Apr. 1849, in De Silva, ed., Letters on Ceylon, p. 144.

107 Ceylon: rebellion report, TNA, CO 882/1, p. 70.

108 Ibid., p. 70; trial pamphlet, TNA, CO 54/137, p. 520.

109 Torrington to Grey, 14 Aug. 1848, TNA, CO 54/250, p. 216.

110 Sivasundaram, Islanded, pp. 5–6.

111 Dewaraja, Kandyan kingdom, pp. 96–7, 108–18.

112 Sivasundaram, Islanded, pp. 11–12.

113 Edward Said, Orientalism (London, 1978), pp. 1–28; Cohn, Colonialism, pp. 76–105. Bayly argues that historians like Cohn place too great an emphasis on the state and official records, leading to unrepresentative histories. See Bayly, Birth of the modern world, pp. 249–52.

114 Sources are most frequently cited from a volume by Vimalananda, Tennakoon, The British intrigue in the kingdom of Ceylon (Colombo, 1973).

115 See Jayawardena, Perpetual ferment, pp. 147–51.

116 This occurred in Colombo, at least. See Frost, M., ‘“Wider opportunities”: religious revival, nationalist awakening and the global dimension in Colombo, 1870–1920’, Modern Asian Studies, 4 (2002), pp. 937–67.

* I would like to thank Sujit Sivasundaram, John Rogers, Jagjeet Lally, Emma Hunter, and the two anonymous reviewers for their insightful and invaluable comments on various drafts of this article. I am also grateful for the feedback of the various groups and workshops in Cambridge who read and listened to it. Thanks are also due to the staff of the Asian and African studies reading room at the British Library, who located the map used below.

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