How British robbed our royal treasure
Two hundred and one years ago this month, a collection of priceless jewellery and ornaments was sold by auction at 38, King Street, Covent Garden, London. The date was June 13, 1820 and the jewels were descried as “presented by His Majesty to his captors.”
In fact they were not presented by His Majesty (Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe) but seized by his captors – the British. The jewellery and ornaments formed part of the regalia of the last King of Kandy. The full regalia comprised the crown, the throne and foot stool and the sword used by Kings of the Kandyan Kingdom for 122 years. The crown’s eight-cornered diadems surmounted with the Royal malgaha (tree of flowers). On the eight-corners are blue and pink plumes and is ornate with diamonds, emeralds, rubies and pearls. Kandyan kings used the throne from 1693 and the crown from 1737 until the fall of the kingdom in 1815.
The velvet cushioned throne, which incorporated traditional Sinhala designs, was presented to King Wimaladharmasuriya II by Dutch Governor Van Rhee. The frame is made of wood and entirely covered with thin gold sheeting and gracefully studded with 243 precious stones. Five feet long and two feet two inches wide, its most prominent feature is a pair of golden lions, forming the arms of the throne. Their heads are turned outward in a peculiar graceful manner, with eyes formed of amethysts. Inside the back is a large golden sun.
The foot stool, also with a velvet top, is an object worked with gold and studded with 49 precious stones. Two feet and 1 ½ feet long and 10 ½ inches wide, it has a moulding out crystal running about its sides. The handle of the sword is of a peculiar design showing a cobra. The sword and the sceptre are studded with a number of small rubies.
The catalogue for the June 13 sale in London, described the jewellery and ornaments thus: “The whole of the purest massive gold comprising he crown, a complete suit of embossed armour, a great variety of armlets, bracelets, breast ornaments called padakkams, plumes of jewels for the head, chains for the neck, particularly one 23 ½ feet in lengthy, a magnificent dagger and various other costly articles of regal decoration.
All of them are of elaborate workmanship and richly studded with diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires, pearls etc. many of which are of extraordinary size and beauty; a cats eye of matchless grandeur, an immense mass of ruby in the rough,…”
There were 93 items on the catalogue and some of the more elaborate articles, the crown included, were to be broken up and sold by the ounce. Fortunately in the case of the crown, this did not happen.
An official memorandum, which the British Headquarters at Kandy drafted after King Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe’s capture, records that on March 13, 1815 , the controversial Adigar (Minister) Ehelepola, who had earlier defected to the British, had sought a private audience with British Governor Robert Brownrigg. During the audience, on a signal given by Ehelepola, his servants brought three bundles containing part of the priceless collection and presented to the governor.
But there was no sign of the crown and the Sword of the State for well over a year. They were of particular importance to the British, because a Kandyan
Chieftain, Millewe Dissawe of Wellassa told Brownrigg, “the chiefs and people would never believe that the government was transferred to the British until the regalia was recovered.”
Suspicion lay heavily on Ehelepola and a dispatch from Sri Lanka dated November 5, 1816, records that pressure was brought on Ehelepola who finally surrendered the missing treasures, which were hidden in a forest between Uva and Kotmale..
The treasures included the two missing items – the crown and the Sword of the State. The golden hilt of the sword was studded with small red stones and a diamond at the end. The sheath was made of wood carved with velvet and very much worn, with some gold work. It had a red velvet band with gold embroidery and three pieces of cloth enfolding it. A gold four-cornered cap[ or crown with carved work at the top. The four faces and four corners studded with stones, principally red, few emeralds and blue sapphires.
Two years later, when Ehelepola had finally fallen out of favour with the British the latter found in the ex-Adigar’s possession a number of items identified as jewels of the Queen of Kandy.
Eleven years afterwards on February 4, 1829, the British Revenue Commissioner recorded a sworn testimony by Welegedera Appuhamy Sittambi who said that he had been a household servant of the last king of Kandy (Sittambis were a class of most trusted palace servants). According to the testimony, Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe’s personal jewellery and ornaments were kept in a room adjoining the king’s chamber. When the palace was informed that the invading British troops had crossed the Sitawaka boundary, Appuhamy (witness) and three others Pahalawela Deva Nilame, Thalagune Wannaku Nilame an Aiyagalu Unnanse had packed the valuables into two boxes and sealed them. When the king fled to Meda Mahanuwara before the oncoming enemy, he had taken four boxes full of valuables and expensive clothes.
At the time of the king’s capture at Teldeniya he had in his possession only a sword and a box full of gold coins. The boxes of valuables had been handed to different people loyal to the king. They had been entrusted with the task of concealing the boxes. The throne had been handed over to village chieftains of Pothdulgoda.
About six days after the king’s capture, Ehelepola had sought Appuhamy’s assistance in seizing the king’s jewels and smuggling them to the Adigar’s residence. That night, states Appuhamy: “I was called to the inner room…the hippos (boxes) etc. were opened and the articles examined. The Adigar put on the golden hat and jacket himself. I noticed to him the impropriety of the act. He replied that in a few days I should hear him proclaimed King by the British Authorities.”
But that was never to be. Ehelepola died a broken man in Mauritius to where he was banished after the British crushed the 1817-1818 Uva rebellion. The British had never the intention of Ehelepola king, much though they encouraged his treason towards Sri Wickrema Rajasingha, the last Sri Lankan ruler of the Nayakkar Dynasty. (The former king passed away in Vellore, South India , to where he was exiled along with his mother, four wives and the rest of the family and relatives).
The most important of the royal items the British seized was the Kandyan throne. Nothing was heard of it after the British shipped it to England in 1815. In fact the throne was taken to Windsor castle where it was placed in the castle’s treasury room along with the rest of the valuables seized in Kandy. Also in the room were the crown jewels seized from Tippu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore State, India .
In England , the British sovereign reportedly sat on it during two convocations of the Most Noble Order of the Garter – an English religious and military fraternity comprising 25 knights and members of royal families – at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor.
It was more than a century later that the Sri Lankan people came to know of the whereabouts of the Kandyan throne. In 1933, British Governor Sir Edward Stubbs referred to the throne during the course of his address at the opening of an art exhibition in Colombo. In September 1934 the Duke of Glouster – son of King George V – visited Sri Lanka, bringing back with him the throne and regalia of the King of Kandy. This was in response to fervent requests several prominent Sri Lankans made.
But over 90 priceless royal ornaments the British had seized in 1815 never came back. They were the items that were sold by auction in London.
Sources: National Gem and Jewellery Authority,
Rasavahini March 1964, Silumina (July 11, 1965)
Times of Ceylon (June 10, 1962 and Nov. 4, 1962)