The Independence Day signifies the end of foreign dominance since 1505 when the Portuguese took control of the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka. The Dutch took over from the Portuguese in 1656 and ruled the island for 140 years followed by the British who took control of the coastal regions and later the Kandyan kingdom. The British having faced bloody defeat in the invasion of Kandyan Provinces in 1803 and 1804 then resorted to provocations of an internal revolt by the aristocracy against the last Kandyan King. The loss of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty was marked with the capture of the final Sinhalese King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe in 1815 in the second Kandyan war.
The struggle against colonial power began in 1817 with the Uva Rebellion. The aristocracy which deposed the Sinahala monarch now attempted to restore Sri Lanka to its rightful leaders in a rebellion formed together with the peasants of the island, which only met defeat. A second rebellion in 1830 then saw the peasants stripped off their cultivation lands by the Wasteland Ordinance claiming tragedy of the commons.
Rebels and rebellions
The British brought in troops and workers from India to subdue rebellions in some Lankan provinces in the late 1940s. A series of unjust taxes imposed like the cart and boat tax, stamp tax, gun tax, personal tax, road tax and the dog tax saw further agitation from the people. A young man from the coastal town of Moratuwa sought to lead the rebellion against the unjust British rule in what was later known as the Matale Rebellion of 1848. The young man named Veerahennedige Francisco Fernando – better known as Veera Puran Appu declared himself King before a 4000 member audience in Matale, and led an attack against colonial administrative buildings in Matale along with Gongalegoda Banda. Puran Appu was executed by British troops and Gongalegoda Banda deported instilling a fear of rebellions among the peasants of Sri Lanka. However the Matale Rebellion is deemed as the transition from a feudal form of anti-colonial revolt to modern independence struggles.
The masses were left without leaders in rebellion against the colonial rule in a time where the British attempted to establish Christian education for the now commercial classes of Sri Lanka. Having realised the futility of attempts to fight a strong foreign army, national leaders began to campaign on different platforms, concentrating on campaigning for national resurgence, promotion of traditional values and securing Buddhism. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera – orator, debater, and scholar led the movement for the revival of Buddhist education in the country ushering in national renaissance. His writings attracted Colonel Henry Steele Olcott and Madam Blavatsky to Sri Lanka in search of Buddhism who were pioneers of the national revivalist movement and the establishment of Buddhist educational institutions.
Anagarika Dharmapala a leading figure of Buddhism was one of the primary contributors to the Buddhist revival of the 19th century that led to the creation of Buddhist institutions to match those of the missionaries and to the independence movement of the 20th century.
By 1915 commercial-ethnic rivalry erupted into a riot in Colombo with the British reacting heavy-handedly, as the riot was also directed against them. Several key figures of the riot perished during this period under a notorious Inspector General of Police Herbert Dowbiggin. Hundreds of Ceylonese were arrested by the British colonial government during the Riots of 1915. Those imprisoned without charges included future leaders of the independence movement; F.R. Senanayake, D. S. Senanayake, Anagarika Dharmapala, Dr C A Hewavitarne, Arthur V Dias, H. M. Amarasuriya, Dr. W. A. de Silva, Baron Jayatilaka, Edwin Wijeyeratne, A. E. Goonesinghe, John Silva, Piyadasa Sirisena and others.
The Secret Memorandum
Sir James Peiris initiated and drafted a secret memorandum with the support of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan and E. W. Perera braved mine and submarine-infested seas to carry it in the soles of his shoes to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, pleading for the repeal of martial law and describing the atrocities committed by the Police led by Dowbiggin. The British government ordered the release of the leaders who were in detentionAnd a new Governor, Sir John Anderson was sent to replace Sir Robert Chalmers with instructions to inquire and report to His Majesty’s Government.
In 1919 the Ceylon National Congress was founded to agitate for greater autonomy. It did not seek independence, however, representing the comprador elite which opposed Dharmapala. This same elite vigorously opposed the grant of universal suffrage or the right of women to vote by the Donoughmore Constitutional Commission.
The Youth Leagues and the struggle for independence
The young people who stepped into the shoes of Dharmapala organized themselves into Youth Leagues, seeking independence and justice for Sri Lanka. The first moves came from the Tamil youth of Jaffna. In 1924 the Jaffna Youth Congress was founded influenced by the Indian Independence movement. In 1927, the JYC invited Indian independence movement leader Gandhi to visit Jaffna and led a successful boycott of the first State Council elections in Jaffna. Similar Youth Leagues were formed in the South, around a core of intellectuals who had returned from education in Britain, influenced by leftist ideals. The Ministers of the CNC petitioned the colonial government to increase their powers, instead of demanding independence, or even dominion status. They were forced to withdraw their ‘Ministers’ Memorandum’ after a vigorous campaign by the Youth Leagues.
Onset of Second World War
In 1935 the Marxist Lanka Sama Samaja Party was formed out of the Youth Leagues, and was the first party to demand independence highlighting the abolition of inequalities of race, caste, creed or gender. Amidst a wave of strike action on British owned plantations, the formation of the Ceylon became a front-line British base against the Japanese. On 5 April 1942, The Japanese Navy bombed Colombo and Public opposition to British colonial rule continued to grow and popular pressure for independence intensified. The constitutionalists led by D. S. Senanayake succeeded in winning independence. The constitution drafted by Senanayake’s board of ministers in 1944 came to life as the Soulbury Commission. The promise of Dominion status, and independence itself, was granted by the Colonial office.
On February 4, 1948 the country won its independence as the Commonwealth of Ceylon. Don Stephen Senanayake became the first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. The first President of Sri Lanka was William Gopallawa in 1972 replacing the Governor’s role when Ceylon was a Commonwealth realm with Queen Elizabeth II as the head of state and Queen of Ceylon. In 1972, the country became a republic within the Commonwealth, and the name was changed to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has witnessed the tenures of 14 Prime Ministers since independence. Sirimavo Bandaranaike took office as the world’s first woman Prime Minister in July 21, 1960. Dudley Senanayake and current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe served as Prime Ministers on three separate occasions. Sri Lanka has also witnessed 6 executive presidencies beginning from J R Jayawardena to the current president Maithripala Sirisena.