British Ceylon

Last updated

British Settlements and Territories in the Island of Ceylon with its Dependencies
Island of Ceylon and its Territories and Dependencies
Island of Ceylon and its Dependencies
Anthem:  God Save the King/Queen
Sri Lanka (orthographic projection).svg
Ceylon (ca 1914).jpg
British Ceylon map, published in Leipzig, c.1914
Capital Colombo
Common languages
George III (first)
George IV
William IV
Edward VII
George V
Edward VIII
George VI (last)
Frederick North (first)
Sir Henry Monck-Mason Moore (last)
Prime Minister  
Don Stephen Senanayake
Historical era British Ceylon period
5 March 1796
 Establishment of dual administration
12 October 1798
25 March 1802
2 March 1815
4 February 1948
1946 [1] 65,993 km2 (25,480 sq mi)
 1827 [2]
889,584 [lower-alpha 3]
 1901 [2]
 1946 [2]
Preceded by
Succeeded by
King of Kandy.svg Kingdom of Kandy
Flag of the Dutch East India Company.svg Dutch Ceylon
Flag of Pandara Vanniyan.PNG Vanni chieftaincies
Dominion of Ceylon Flag of Ceylon.svg
Today part of Sri Lanka

British Ceylon (Sinhala : බ්‍රිතාන්‍ය ලංකාව, romanized: Britānya Laṃkāva; Tamil : பிரித்தானிய இலங்கை, romanized: Biritthāṉiya Ilaṅkai), officially British Settlements and Territories in the Island of Ceylon with its Dependencies from 1802 to 1833, [3] then the Island of Ceylon and its Territories and Dependencies from 1833 to 1931 [4] and finally the Island of Ceylon and its Dependencies from 1931 to 1948, [5] was the British Crown colony of present-day Sri Lanka between 1796 and 4 February 1948. Initially, the area it covered did not include the Kingdom of Kandy, which was a protectorate, but from 1817 to 1948 the British possessions included the whole island of Ceylon, now the nation of Sri Lanka.




Before the beginning of the Dutch governance, the island of Ceylon was divided between the Portuguese Empire and the Kingdom of Kandy, who were in the midst of a war for control of the island as a whole. The island attracted the attention of the newly formed Dutch Republic when they were invited by the Sinhalese King to fight the Portuguese. Dutch rule over much of the island was soon imposed.

In the late 18th century the Dutch, weakened by their wars against Great Britain, were conquered by Napoleonic France, and their leaders became refugees in London. No longer able to govern their part of the island effectively, the Dutch transferred the rule of it to the British, although this was against the wishes of the Dutch residing there. The capture of the island immediately yielded £300,000 of money in goods, as well as the acquisition of the cinnamon plantations, making this a valuable venture. [6]

Kandyan Wars

As soon as Great Britain gained the European-controlled parts of Ceylon from the Dutch, they wanted to expand their new sphere of influence by making the native Kingdom of Kandy a protectorate, an offer initially refused by the King of Kandy. Although the previous Dutch administration had not been powerful enough to threaten the reign of the Kandyan Kings, the British were much more powerful. The Kandyan refusal to accept a protectorate led eventually to war, which ended with the capitulation of the Kandyans.

Kandyan Convention

The rule of King Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe was not favoured by his chieftains. The king, who was of South Indian ancestry, faced powerful chieftains and sought cruel measures to repress their popularity with the people. A successful coup was organised by the Sinhala chiefs in which they accepted the British Crown as their new sovereign. This ended the line of the kingdom of Kandy and King Rajasinghe was taken as a prisoner, ending his hope that the British would allow him to retain power. The Kandyan treaty which was signed in 1815 was called the Kandyan Convention and stated the terms under which the Kandyans would live as a British protectorate. The Buddhist religion was to be given protection by the Crown, and Christianity would not be imposed on the population, as had happened during Portuguese and Dutch rule. The Kandyan Convention is an important legal document because it specifies the conditions which the British promised for the Kandyan territory.

The Uva Rebellion

It took the ruling families of Kandy less than two years to realise that the authority of the British government was a fundamentally different one to that of the (deposed) Nayakkar dynasty. Soon the Kandyans rebelled against the British and waged a guerrilla war. Discontent with British activities soon boiled over into open rebellion, commencing in the duchy of Uva in 1817, so-called the Uva Rebellion, also known as the Third Kandyan War. The main cause of the rebellion was the British authorities' failure to protect and uphold the customary Buddhist traditions, which were viewed by the islanders as an integral part of their lives. [7] [8] [9] [10] [11]

The rebellion, which soon developed into a guerrilla war of the kind the Kandyans had fought against European powers for centuries, was centred on the Kandyan nobility and their unhappiness with developments under British rule since 1815. However it was the last uprising of this kind and in the Uva Province a scorched earth policy was pursued, and all males between 15 and 60 years were driven out, exiled or killed. The British Crown annexed the Kingdom of Kandy to British Ceylon in 1817. [12] [13]


Sivasundaram argues, reinforcing the analysis first made by famed local historian, G.C. Mendis in his book, Ceylon Under the British, that the British used geographical knowledge to defeat the Kandyan holdouts in the mountainous and jungle areas in the centre of Ceylon. They used local informants and British surveyors to map the island, and then built a network of roads to open the central region. This made possible export production of plantation agriculture, as well as tighter military control. [14]

With its trading ports of Trincomalee and Colombo, the colony was one of the very few sources of cinnamon in the world. The spice was extremely valuable, and the British East India Company began to cultivate it in 1767, but Ceylon remained the main producer until the end of the 18th century [15]

The laying of the railway was carried out during the Governorship of Sir Henry Ward. Other major works of the British include road-building projects and the establishment of coffee and tea plantations, hospitals, and maternity homes.


Historical population
1871 2,400,380    
1881 2,759,700+15.0%
1891 3,007,800+9.0%
1901 3,566,000+18.6%
1911 4,106,400+15.2%
1921 4,498,600+9.6%
1931 5,306,000+17.9%
1946 6,657,300+25.5%
Source: Department of Census and Statistics Sri Lanka

The multiracial population of Ceylon was numerous enough to support the European colonists; the Portuguese and the Dutch offspring of the past 440 odd years of colonial history was large enough to run a stable government. Unlike the previous rulers, the British embarked on a plantation programme which initially brought coffee plantations to the island. These were later wiped out by coffee rust. Coffee plants were replaced by tea and rubber plantations. This made Ceylon one of the richest countries in Asia.

The British also brought Tamils from British India and made them indentured labourers in the Hill Country. This was in addition to the several hundred thousand Tamils already living in the Maritime provinces and another 30,000 Tamil Muslims. The linguistically bipolar island needed a link language and English became universal in Ceylon. [16]

Censuses in Ceylon began in 1871 and continued every ten years. The 1881 census shows a total population of 2.8 million, consisting of 1.8 million Sinhalese; 687,000 Ceylon and Indian Tamils; 185,000 Moors; as well as 4,800 Europeans; 17,900 Burghers and Eurasians; 8,900 Malays; 2,200 Veddhas; and 7,500 other. [17]

The Censuses of 1871, 1881, 1891 and 1901 had shown Ceylon Tamils and Indian Tamils of Sri Lanka grouped together. By 1911 Indian Tamils were shown as a separate category. The population statistics reveal that by 1911, Indian Tamils constituted 12.9%, whereas Sri Lankan Tamils formed 12.8% of the population of 4,106,400; in 1921, 13.4% and 11.5%; in 1931, 15.2% and 11.3%, and in 1946, 11.7% and 11.0% respectively. The censuses show that during a large period of time in the history of Ceylon, Indian Tamils outnumbered Ceylon Tamils until between 1971 and 1981 when more than 50 per cent of the Indian Tamil population were repatriated as Indian citizens back to India. However, many Indian Tamils were also granted Sri Lankan citizenship whereupon declared themselves as Sri Lankan Tamils. [18]

Government and military

British Governors of Ceylon

Between 1796 and 1948, Ceylon was a British Crown colony. Although the British monarch was the head of state, in practice his or her functions were exercised in the colony by the colonial Governor, who acted on instructions from the British government in London.

On the approach to self-government and independence, the Donoughmore Commission recommended the Donoughmore Constitution of 1931–1947, one of a series of attempts to create a workable solution that would allow for inter-communal differences. This was replaced by the Soulbury Commission proposals that led to the Dominion of Ceylon of 1948–1972, after which the Free, Sovereign and the Independent Republic of Sri Lanka was established.

Armed forces

The Ceylon Defence Force (CDF) was the military of British Ceylon. Established in 1881 as the Ceylon Volunteers, as the military reserve in the British Crown colony of Ceylon, by 1910 it grew into the Ceylon Defence Force, a regular force responsible for the defence of Ceylon. The CDF was under the command of the General Officer Commanding, Ceylon, of the British Army in Ceylon if mobilised. However, mobilisation could be carried out only under orders from the Governor. The Ceylon Defence Force has seen action in a number of wars such as the Second Boer War and both World Wars. It is the predecessor to the Ceylon Army. [19]

Trincomalee Harbour was an important strategic base for the British Royal Navy until 1948, primarily to control the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of Sri Lanka</span>

The history of Sri Lanka is unique because the relevance and richness of it extends beyond the areas of South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. The early human remains which were found on the island of Sri Lanka date back to about 38,000 years ago.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kandy</span> Administrative capital city in Central Province, Sri Lanka

Kandy is a major city in Sri Lanka located in the Central Province. It was the last capital of the ancient kings' era of Sri Lanka. The city is situated in the midst of hills in the Kandy plateau, which crosses an area of tropical plantations, mainly tea. Kandy is both an administrative and religious city and is also the capital of the Central Province. Kandy is the home of the Temple of the Tooth Relic, one of the most sacred places of worship in the Buddhist world. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988. Historically the local Buddhist rulers resisted Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonial expansion and occupation.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kandyan Wars</span> British Army expeditionary campaigns

The Kandyan Wars refers generally to the period of warfare between the British colonial forces and the Kingdom of Kandy, on the island of what is now Sri Lanka, between 1796 and 1818. More specifically it is used to describe the expeditionary campaigns of the British Army in the Kingdom of Kandy in 1803 and 1815.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Uva Province</span> Province of Sri Lanka

The Uva Province is one of the nine provinces of Sri Lanka. The province has an area of 8,500 km2 and a population of 1,266,463, making it the 2nd least populated province. The provincial capital is Badulla.

Great Rebellion of 1817–1818, also known as the 1818 Uva–Wellassa Rebellion , was the third Kandyan War in the Uva and Wellassa provinces of the former Kingdom of Kandy, which is today the Uva province of Sri Lanka. The rebellion started against the British colonial government under Governor Robert Brownrigg, three years after the Kandyan Convention ceded Kingdom of Kandy to the British Crown.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sri Lankan independence movement</span> 20th-century movement for the independence of Sri Lanka (British Ceylon) from the British Empire

The Sri Lankan independence movement was a peaceful political movement which was aimed at achieving independence and self-rule for the country of Sri Lanka, then British Ceylon, from the British Empire. The switch of powers was generally known as peaceful transfer of power from the British administration to Ceylon representatives, a phrase that implies considerable continuity with a colonial era that lasted 400 years. It was initiated around the turn of the 20th century and led mostly by the educated middle class. It succeeded when, on 4 February 1948, Ceylon was granted independence as the Dominion of Ceylon. Dominion status within the British Commonwealth was retained for the next 24 years until 22 May 1972 when it became a republic and was renamed the Republic of Sri Lanka.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Matale rebellion</span> 1848 rebellion in British Ceylon

The Matale rebellion, also known as the Rebellion of 1848, took place in Matale city, Ceylon against the British colonial government under Governor George Byng, 7th Viscount Torrington. It marked a transition from the classic feudal form of anti-colonial revolt to modern independence struggles. It was fundamentally a peasant revolt.

The caste systems in Sri Lanka are social stratification systems found among the ethnic groups of the island since ancient times. The models are similar to those found in Continental India, but are less extensive and important for various reasons, although the caste systems still play an important and at least symbolic role in religion and politics. Sri Lanka is often considered to be a casteless or caste-blind society by Indians.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dutch Ceylon</span> Former colony in Sri Lanka (1640–1796)

Dutch Ceylon was a governorate established in present-day Sri Lanka by the Dutch East India Company. Although the Dutch managed to capture most of the coastal areas in Sri Lanka, they were never able to control the Kingdom of Kandy located in the interior of the island. Dutch Ceylon existed from 1640 until 1796.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nayaks of Kandy</span> Rulers in Sri Lanka, 1739 to 1815

The Nayaks of Kandy were the rulers of the Kingdom of Kandy between 1739 and 1815, and the last dynasty to rule on the island. The term Nayak is derived from the Sanskrit word Nāyaka. Their rise to power came about as a result of the death of Vira Narendrasinha, who left no legitimate heir- the throne passed to his brother-in-law, who was crowned as Sri Vijaya Rajasinha in 1739. They were of Telugu Balija origin, spoke Telugu and Tamil, and used Sinhala and Tamil as their court languages. They are also credited for building various Vishnu temples in Sri Lanka dedicated to their clan deity Vishnu, known as Upulvan in Sinhala. A prominent one of them was the Kandy Vishnu Temple established at their capital Kandy. A cadet branch of the Madurai Nayak dynasty, the Kandyan Nayaks were related to the Thanjavur Nayaks as well. Both Madurai and Thanjavur nayaks belonged to Balija caste.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kingdom of Kandy</span> Kingdom on the island of Sri Lanka from 1469 to 1815

The Kingdom of Kandy was a monarchy on the island of Sri Lanka, located in the central and eastern portion of the island. It was founded in the late 15th century and endured until the early 19th century.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Legislative Council of Ceylon</span> Legislative body of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka)

The Legislative Council of Ceylon was the legislative body of Ceylon established in 1833, along with the Executive Council of Ceylon, on the recommendations of the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission. It was the first form of representative government in the island. The 1931 Donoughmore Constitution replaced the Legislative Council with the State Council of Ceylon.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">British Ceylon period</span> History of Sri Lanka between 1815 and 1948

The British Ceylon period is the history of Sri Lanka between 1815 and 1948. It follows the fall of the Kandyan Kingdom into the hands of the British Empire. It ended over 2300 years of Sinhalese monarchy rule on the island. The British rule on the island lasted until 1948 when the country regained independence following the Sri Lankan independence movement.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Portuguese Ceylon</span> Portuguese-controlled kingdom in Asia, 16th–17th century

Portuguese Ceylon is the name given to the territory on Ceylon, modern-day Sri Lanka, controlled by the Portuguese Empire between 1597 and 1658.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kandyan Convention</span> 1815 treaty incorporating the Kandyan Kingdom into the British Empire

In the history of Sri Lanka, the Kandyan Convention was a treaty signed on 2 March 1815 between the British governor of Ceylon, Sir Robert Brownrigg, and the chiefs of the Kandyan Kingdom, British Ceylon, for the deposition of King Sri Vikrama Rajasinha and ceding of the kingdom's territory to the British Crown. It was signed in the Magul Maduwa of the Royal Palace of Kandy.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Maha Dissava</span> Sri Lankan title

The Mahâ Dissâvas was a Great Officer in the Amātya Mandalaya, or Sinhalese Council of State, in the Sinhalese Kingdoms of monarchical Sri Lanka. Like many of the existing high offices at the time it had combined legislative and judicial powers and functioned primarily equivalent to that of a Provincial governor. The office of Dissava was retained under the successive European colonial powers, namely the Portuguese Empire, the Dutch East India Company and the British Empire. A Dissava was the governor a province known as a Disavanies. With his province, the Dissava held both executive and judicial authority.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sinhalese–Portuguese conflicts</span> 1527–1658 conflict in Sri Lanka

Sinhalese–Portuguese conflicts refers to the series of armed engagements that took place from 1518 to 1658 in Sri Lanka between the native Sinhalese kingdoms and the Portuguese Empire. It spanned from the Transitional to the Kandyan periods of Sri Lankan history. A combination of political and military moves gained the Portuguese control over most of the island, but their invasion of the final independent kingdom was a disaster, leading to a stalemate in the wider war and a truce from 1621. In 1638 the war restarted when the Dutch East India Company intervened in the conflict, initially as an ally of the Sinhalese against the Portuguese, but later as an enemy of both sides. The war concluded in 1658, with the Dutch in control of about half the island, the Kingdom of Kandy the other half, and the Portuguese expelled.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sri Lanka–United Kingdom relations</span> Bilateral relations

Sri Lanka–United Kingdom relations, or British-Sri Lankan relations, are foreign relations between Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bibliography of Sri Lanka</span>

This is a bibliography of works on Sri Lanka.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kandyan period</span> Period of Sri Lankan history from 1597 to 1815

The Kandyan period covers the history of Sri Lanka from 1597–1815. After the fall of the Kingdom of Kotte, the Kandyan Kingdom was the last Independent monarchy of Sri Lanka. The Kingdom played a major role throughout the history of Sri Lanka. It was founded in 1476. The kingdom located in the central part of Sri Lanka managed to remain independent from both the Portuguese and Dutch rule who controlled coastal parts of Sri Lanka; however, it was colonised by the British in 1815.



  1. Administration based in India; a jurisdiction distinct from India
  2. Administration based in India; a jurisdiction distinct from India
  3. Non scientific census of the whole island.


  1. "The British Empire in 1924". The British Empire. Retrieved 7 November 2017.
  2. 1 2 3 The Population of Sri Lanka (PDF). Population Growth: C.I.C.R.E.D. Series. 1974. pp. 3–4. Archived (PDF) from the original on 1 July 2014. Retrieved 2 August 2014.
  3. "Sri Lanka". Retrieved 17 January 2023.
  4. "Sri Lanka". Retrieved 17 January 2023.
  5. "Sri Lanka". Retrieved 17 January 2023.
  6. Christie, Nikki (2016). Britain: losing and gaining an empire, 1763–1914. Pearson. p. 53.
  7. Lessons on British 'decency' Archived 17 May 2022 at the Wayback Machine , The Nation
  8. Keppetipola and the Uva The Great Liberation War Virtual Library Sri Lanka. Retrieved 2007-10-01.
  9. "Uva Wellassa The Great Liberation War: 1817–1818" . Retrieved 23 October 2014.
  10. "Wellassa riots in 1818". Archived from the original on 7 November 2017. Retrieved 4 August 2009.
  11. "Torture tree of the British Army" . Retrieved 23 October 2014.
  12. Müller, J. B. (6 November 2010). "Anglophiles, Eurocentric arrogance and Reality". The Island .
  13. Keerthisinghe, Lakshman I. (2013). "The British duplicity in protecting human rights in Sri Lanka". Daily Mirror . Archived from the original on 21 October 2013. Retrieved 21 October 2013.
  14. Sujit Sivasundaram, "Tales of the Land: British Geography and Kandyan Resistance in Sri Lanka, c.1803–1850", Modern Asian Studies (2007) 41#5 pp. 925–965.
  15. Christie, Nikki (2016). Britain: losing and gaining an empire, 1763–1914. Pearson.
  16. "THE POPULATION I OF SRI LANKA" (PDF). CI.CR.É.D. Series. Retrieved 31 January 2012.
  17. "THE POPULATION I OF SRI LANKA" (PDF). CI.CR.É.D. Series. Retrieved 31 January 2012.
  18. SURYANARAYAN, V. "In search of a new identity". Frontline. Archived from the original on 29 May 2008. Retrieved 31 January 2012.
  19. van Langenberg, Cyril. "The Volunteer Force". The Ceylon Army Journal Volume. Retrieved 31 January 2012.


7°N80°E / 7°N 80°E / 7; 80