1800-1859 | Battlefield butchery | Executions | Sri Lanka



Lord Torrington (Vanity Fair via Wikimedia) and Sir James Tennent (via Wikimedia.)
Lord Torrington (Vanity Fair via Wikimedia) and Sir James Tennent (via Wikimedia.)

[ 29 July 1848 ]

On 29 July 1848, Lord Torrington, the governor of Ceylon, declared a state of emergency after several thousand peasants abandoned work on the plantations, dared to elect their own king and marched on the ancient central town and administrative centre of Kandy. Their motives were well understood, with one London newspaper observing  ‘that the rash and inconsiderate introduction of new and unheard of modes of taxation precipitated the outbreak, there can be no doubt.’1

The new taxes were not levied on the wealthy merchants and plantation owners, who had petitioned Sir James Tennent, the Colonial Secretary in Colombo, to slash the duties they paid on coffee and cinnamon exports. He had forwarded the request to Earl Grey, the Colonial Secretary in London,  who agreed, providing that new taxes could be levied instead directly on the general population. The Ceylon government then declared its intention to impose what the British press admitted were ‘obnoxious taxes’ on licenses for shops, carts, gun ownership and dogs, together with a demand that every farmer surrender himself to six days hard labour. Lord Torrington was promptly dispatched to Ceylon to oversee the new measures, which were introduced on 1 July 1848.  Six days later, according to the Morning Post, came ‘the first sign of discontent’ and by 29 July news reached Colombo that ‘the natives of the central provinces… had seized Matelle (Matale), a village about sixteen miles from Kandy.’2

According to the same newspaper, the governor, on hearing the news, ‘decided very wisely that the most vigorous measures should be taken immediately to crush the rebellion’.3 He immediately sent troops who did not hesitate to open fire when the rebellious peasants refused to disperse.  As the weekly John Bull put it, the troops ‘are described as having acted admirably, but as far as mercy is concerned, they are said to have shown  none.’4   So, while not a single European was killed in the uprising, about two hundred Ceylonese were either shot by British led troops of hung after summary proceedings before a military court.5 The bodies of those strung up were, in several instances, left on display for several days as a warning to the population.6


  1. ‘A London liberal newspaper’ cited in ‘Ceylon’, the Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser, 28 November 1848 p. 4 accessed online in the British Newspaper Archive on 30 November 2018
  2. ‘Ceylon’, the Morning Post, 28 Septmber 1848, p. 6 accessed online in the British Newspaper Archive on 30 November 2018
  3. Ibid
  4. Piers Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997, Jonathan Cape, London, p439
  5. ‘Ceylon’, John Bull, 27 November 1848, p. 7.
  6. ‘Insurrectionary Movement in Ceylon,’ John Bull, 2 October 1848, p. 4.

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