1900-1919 | Civilians slaughtered | Executions | Flogging | Martial law | Sri Lanka

Martial law in Ceylon, hundreds shot on sight, thousands arrested

2 June 1915

On 2 June 1915, Sir Robert Chalmers, the governor of Ceylon, on the pretext that ethnic rioting between Muslims and Sinhalese Buddhists had been provoked by German agents, declared martial law. There was, however, no evidence to suggest any German involvement.  Bonar Law, Secretary of State for the Colonies, admitted a month later when asked by an M.P. whether ‘there was any sign of German agency in this matter’,  that ‘though I have received voluminous accounts there is no indication in them of what my honourable friend suggests.’1

Despite the lack of any reasonable grounds for suspecting a conspiracy, white settler vigilantes were dispatched ‘to deal with desperadoes in the manner depicted in kinema shows and dime novels of the Wild West.’2  The behaviour of uniformed soldiers was no better.  Brigadier General Henry Malcolm, commanding British forces in the colony, instructed his men to execute anyone they deemed a rioter without any trial and they duly shot on sight anyone discovered outside their homes after sunset.

Hundreds of peasants were gunned down, many of them merely for sleeping on their verandas. Thousands more were arrested, sometimes entire villages whenever stolen property was found, and the inhabitants held without possibility of bail.  83 of those convicted of rioting before military courts were sentenced to death, 34 of which were carried out. 248 others were sentenced to penal servitude, many of them life sentences and hundreds more were flogged. At the same time, many women were detained without charge as hostages to force male suspects to surrender.3

In 1916, Bonar Law set up a commission of inquiry into the riots which reported that ‘there was good ground for the widespread and genuine impression among sections of the Ceylonese not in any way concerned in the riots, and in fact deploring them, that a considerable number of the people convicted and sentenced by the courts-martial were innocent’4 and that there had been ‘no legal justification’ for the shooting on sight of people in the streets, but that nevertheless the extra-judicial executions had been justified in order to protect the ‘good order’ of the colony.5  Hundreds had been murdered to preserve the Empire’s hold on Ceylon and with the population now pacified,  the War Office transferred Brigadier General Malcolm, who had ordered the massacres, to France. A few months later he was made a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George in recognition of his distinguished military service.


  1. Sir. J. Rees and Bonar Law cited in the Liverpool Daily Post, 7 July 1915, p. 3.
  2. Report cited in Piers Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, Jonathan Cape, London, p. 444.
  3. ‘Death Sentences’, The Birmingham Daily Gazette, 4 February 1916, p. 5 and ‘The Disturbances in Ceylon,’ The Daily Herald, 17 June 1916, p. 2.
  4. The Birmingham Daily Post, 11 September 1916, p. 4.
  5. Haris de Silva reviewing A.C. Dep, Ceylon Police and Sinhala-Moslem Riots, in Midweek Review accessed online at http://www.island.lk/2002/11/06/midwee07.html 

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