The English in Ceylon

BRITISH policy, or that system which the British Government has for ages systematically pursued, and by which it has acquired its vast colonial empire, is hut very imperfectly understood by the mass of the American people. Deriving our knowledge of English affairs, for the most part, from English sources, we are too apt to he dazzled by the contemplation of an empire upon which the sun never sets, and to ascribe to Divine destiny, that which, in reality, is the result of a system, more fiendish, and more detestable, because more extending and more extended in its operation, than that of Machiavelli. The conquests of old Rome were attended, at least, with glory; and, in modern times, those of our own country were laden with fruits, not alone of glory and renown to the conquerors, but better far, of freedom, of happiness, and of civilization to the conquered. England alone, of all the nations, ancient or modern, is the only one whose sword, while entwined with wreaths of cypress for the vanquished, has failed to reap one pure laurel to deck the victor’s brow. Survey her colonial empire ; glance your eye athwart those boundless plains made fruitful by the young embraces of the god of day and point, if you can, to one rood of territory, whose acquisition was not conceived in selfishness and iniquity, and consummated in treachery, in perfidy and fraud. As the subject, however, of England’s colonial empire is one which could not properly be treated within the limits of a review article, we shall confine ourselves, for the present, to a condensed expose of certain occurrences of which the island of Ceylon has recently been the theatre and which have startled the propriety even of that most fastidious assembly, the British House of Commons.

Placed at the western entrance of the Bay of Bengal, Ceylon is separated by a narrow strait from the mainland of Hindostan. In size, it is nearly as large as Ireland; and it possesses a population of about a million and a half of souls, made up of various tribes of native Cingalese, Malabars, Mahometans, Coolies, Dutch and English, and their mongrel descendants. Once the abode of civilization, as is evidenced by the ruins of ancient cities, canals, bridges, aqueducts, &c., in which the interior of the island abounds, its geographical position, and natural advantages of soil and climate, should make of Ceylon, in our day, the chief mart of Eastern commerce. That it does not occupy this position, can only be attributed to that system, as short-sighted as vicious, by which the island has, for half a century, been governed, for the immediate profit of the mother country. In 1796, Ceylon was taken possession of by the English, and the Dutch expelled from its shores. From that period, down to so late as 1819, the native chiefs boldly resisted the usurped authority of the invaders, and were finally reduced to subjection only after a desperate struggle, and by such agencies as England alone is skilled to employ for the accomplishment of her darling objects. Since 1819, the government of the colony has been administered by a Governor, appointed by the Colonial Secretary, for the time being, at home, assisted by a council composed entirely of European civil and military servants, who are described by MeCulloch as being, from their tenure of office, totally subservient to the will of the Governor. The religion of the island is that of Buddha, as established by the following clause of the treaty of the 2nd of March, 1815, between the British government and the native chiefs The religion of Buddha, professed by the chiefs and inhabitants of these provinces, is declared inviolable; and its rites, ministers and places of worship, are to be maintained and protected. The period embraced between the years 1819 and 1846, was not remarkable for any extraordinary occurrences in Ceylon; suffice it to say, that the history of the island during this interval, is made up of patient suffering and distress on the part of the natives, and of heartless tyranny and exaction on the part of their foreign rulers.

In 1846. Lord Torrington was appointed by Earl Grey, Whig Colonial Secretary, to the lucrative office of Governor of Ceylon. Arrived at the seat of government, his lordship is surprised to find the financial affairs of the colony in an embarrassed condition; and, accordingly, in virtue of the wide discretionary powers vested in him, proceeds to meet the difficulty off-hand by the imposition of severe new taxes of his own invention. These taxes, though decidedly original in their way, were yet of that character, that any one at all acquainted with the colony might have foreseen that they could never by any possibility be collected. The most obnoxious of them were, a road-tax, a shop-tax, a gun-tax, and a dog-tax. The first ordained, that every male resident in the island, between the ages of fifteen and fifty-five, should either labor for six days in each year on the public roads, or pay three shillings sterling, in lieu of such personal service. The second enacted, that every occupant of a shop, the rental of which amounted to £ 5, should take out a yearly license on a £ 1 stamp. The third directed, that on a certain day in each year, the Cingalese should repair to the chief towns, armed, and apply for licenses for their fire-arms, at a cost of 2s. 6d. for each gun. The fourth, imposed a tax of ir. on every dog kept in the island, and sentenced to death all puppies above three months old whose proprietors could not produce the protecting shilling. Now, it is necessary to understand that in Ceylon, as in all countries subject to the British flag, the bulk of the population are extremely poor; hence, the payment of these taxes was to them an impossibility. Those, moreover, upon dogs and guns, were imposed upon what were to them absolute necessaries of life. Besides, the road-tax was a direct outrage upon that religion which, as we have shown above, the English had bound themselves by treaty to protect, since the native priests are restricted by it, both from labor and from touching money. The promulgation of the decree announcing these new taxes naturally created great excitement throughout the island. Petitions, memorials, remonstrances, from all classes of the inhabitants, were laid before the Governor. They were disregarded.

By any means, Lord Torrington was resolved to carry out his object. The assembling of the people in large masses was encouraged by the government agents, in the hopes that a collision between them and the British troops would occur. It did occur. A British soldier is slightly wounded, whether by any of the native inhabitants or not, does not appear from the evidence taken before the Parliamentary Committee, which is the only authority which we shall quote. But the collision, so anxiously sought for by Lord Torrington, had taken place; and martial law is at once proclaimed. Proclamations are issued, confiscating the lands and properties of all those who, terrified at the atrocities they had before seen committed under martial law, had fled into the jungles. Courts martial, composed of subaltern officers, ignorant of the language of the country, tried, convicted, sentenced, and put to instant death, hundreds of the innocent inhabitants; and this, not only in violation of all law, human and divine, but in utter contempt of the 7th article of the treaty, to which we have already referred, which stipulates that No sentence of death can be carried into execution against any inhabitant, except by the written warrant of the British Governor or Lieutenant Governor for the time being. But what cares Lord Torrington for treaties, or for the laws of humanity ? Must he not govern ? And what means government in the vocabulary of a British aristocrat, but confiscation and murder ?

Much has been said of the magnanimity of the British soldier. Let the following letters, addressed by the commandant of Kandy, to the presiding officer of one of the courts martial, hounding him on in his bloody career, serve as a specimen


My dear Watson:
You are getting on swimmingly. Impress on the court that there is no necessity for taking down the evidence in detail; so they are satisfied with the guilt or innocence of the individual, that is sufficient for them to find and sentence.

This is the law and the mode.



Col. Commanding.

August 16, 1848.


Well were these magnanimous instructions obeyed. For a period of nigh three months, confiscations, burnings, massacres, were the order of the day in Ceylon: and this, be it remembered, notwithstanding that subsequent to the imposition of martial law, not a single offense was pretended ever to have been committed by the inhabitants. Amongst those who suffered during this period, was one whose execution is thus mentioned by Lord Torrington in a dispatch to Earl Gray___” An influential priest who was convicted of administering treasonable oaths, was shot at Kandy in full robes. This priests trial took place at Kandy, and he was arraigned–

First, For having directly or indirectly held correspondence with rebels, and Cur not giving all the information in his power which might lead to the apprehension of a proclaimed rebel, Kaddapolla Unanse, professing to know his place of concealment on or about 17th August, 1848. Second, For administering, or conniving at the administration (!) of a treasonable oath to one Kerr Bande, on or about the 17th August, 1848.

On these absurd and unintelligible charges the poor Buddhist priest was dragged before a military tribunal; tried by military judges, not one of whom understood the language in which the evidence against him was given; convicted and shot! Several attorneys who were present at the trial; and who did understand the language, felt satisfied that the witnesses for the prosecution had perjured themselves for the purpose of currying favor with the Governor, and that the priest was innocent. Under this impression they besought the Governor to postpone the execution. In vain Lord Torringtons answer was By G, sir, if all the lawyers in Ceylon said that the priest was innocent, he should be shot tomorrow morning. And shot he was. More, Earl Grey, in answer to Lord Torringtons dispatch announcing the execution, pronounced the death of the Buddhist priest to be highly satisfactory! Again, in a subsequent dispatch, Earl Grey, in the name of the Queen, complimented Lord Torrington, and declared his complete approval of his decision, promptitude, and judgment. Thus sustained by the Home Government, and having triumphed over the refractory inhabitants of Ceylon, surely Lord Torrington must feel proud and happy! But no: after all the massacres, pillages, burnings and confiscations after he had made a desert, and called it peace.

Lord Torrington discovered that his severe taxes were inapplicable to the island, and could not be collected. They were accordingly every one repealed!

These proceedings had now begun to attract popular attention in England, and in the session of 1849, a parliamentary committee was appointed to investigate then-i. Upon the evidence taken before that committee, we have based our statements. Their authenticity, therefore, cannot be impeached. And this is England. England of the World’s Fair, and the Peace Congress ; England of George Thompson, and the Abolition Societies! What matters it, that a few men, Cobden and Bright, and their associates, should denounce these atrocities, and that the London Quarterly Review should stigmatise them as a disgrace to the English name they have been sanctioned by the British government, and are the consequences of the policy by which, in its foreign and colonial relations, that government has invariably been directed. The history of Lord Torringtons administration in Ceylon affords an epitome of English rule, wherever throughout the world, by force, or fraud, or violence, she has succeeded in planting her guilty flag. The horrors perpetrated during 1848 in the island-gem of the East, are the counterpart of those of which, from time to time, during a period of seven centuries, the green isle of the West has been the victim.

We have reproduced this Ceylon tragedy, because it contains a moral upon which it behooves the Democracy of America, at the present moment, seriously to reflect. The flag which sanctioned the massacres of the Cingalese, and has witnessed the devastation of Celtic Ireland; the flag which, usurping every advantageous commercial and political position throughout the globe, has been the harbinger everywhere of desolation and death this flag, which in two wars, our fathers levelled in the dust, now flaunts us in the face on the southern portion of this our continent ; out-spreads its crimson folds over republican soil, insulting our manhood, blighting our commercial prospects, and dimming the lustre of the stars and stripes. Shall Central America share the fate of Ceylon ? Shall our sister Republics on this continent, whose independence, hy every principle of honor, of interest, and of duty, we are bound to protect, be consigned to the tender mercies of a Torrington ? Shall the island of Ruatan become the Ceylon of the Western Hemisphere, and the Isthmus of Central America be made, on a smaller scale, a second Hindostan ? We submit these questions, in all earnestness, to the consideration of the Democracy of America, confident that they will be answered in a manner worthy of those, xv hose pride it is, that they inherit the principles of a Jefferson, a Madison, a Monroe, a Jackson and a Polk.

May 1851.


(Courtesy: The United States Magazine and Democratic Review (1851))  

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