Doomed, Deposed and Exiled
Repeated incursions into the Kandyan territories by the Portuguese and the Dutch were effectively thwarted by the Kandyan rulers who had faith in their sense of invincibility. Their kingdom was mostly surrounded by inhospitable terrain comprising of thick jungles with no apparent paths or tracks, sheer cliffs, and ravines with rivers and streams that flooded after incessant tropical rains. However, the Kandyan rulers had no doubts about the military prowess of the invading armies with sophisticated weaponry and trained soldiers. In the early parts of the British occupation of the maritime areas of the island, they had no ambitions of acquiring the control of the whole island although they were well aware of the role played by the Kandyans in encouraging and provoking the low country Sinhalese to rise against the English in the maritime areas. The British settlements on the island were under the Madras Presidency governed by the East India Company through military governors.
The first Governor of British Ceylon – Fredrick North was appointed in late 1798, the same year the youthful eighteen-year-old Sri Vickrama Rajasingha was consecrated as the king of the Tri Sinhale. The part played by the then powerful First Adigar Pilimatalawa in crowning Sri Vikrama in place of Muddusami, Rajadhi Rajasimha’s brother in law is extensively chronicled.
By the year 1800, the king considered to be a puppet in the hands of Pilimatalawa was showing obvious signs of independence punishing chiefs who ill-treated ordinary people and transferring Adigars and Dissaves from their original areas of administration. The debacle at the Watapuluwa ferry close to Mavilmada where the surrendered English soldiers were massacred and the capture of major Davie followed by the execution of Muddusami in 1803 was still fresh in the minds of the imperial forces. Although the English and the Kandyans were not at war in 1815 frenzied conspiracies were going on behind the scene with D’Oyly and Brownrigg on one hand and Ehelepola, Pilimatalawa and other aristocrats who had forsaken their ruler on the other.
The incursion of the English army into Kandy in February 1815 was marked by the fleeing of the king and his family and what happened on the 18th of February 1815 at Gallehewatta, Medamahanuwara is well known. The last king of the island of Lanka thus became a captive of a foreign usurper, forsaken by his own Adigars and Dissaves. The king, his four wives, mother, were conveyed with due dignity by a devious route via Negombo to the fort city of Colombo reaching it on the 6th of March 1815.
It is important to note that the king’s subjects were oblivious to these happenings exposing the fallacy of Davy’s account (1816) – “Disgusted and terrified by the conduct of the King the chiefs and people were ripe for revolt and only waited for the approach of a British force to throw off their allegiance”. Gananath Obeysekere quoting William Dalrymple says that, “any ill-treatment of Sri Vikrama and the political ramifications of such an action would have been disastrous to British interests because the king was a consecrated Buddhist sovereign and popular with the ordinary people outside of areas in which British influence prevailed and even within those areas was support for the king.
It is possible that D’Oyly had a more realistic view of the possible future of the king and it is the council and his advice that possibly resulted in the exile to Vellore which was after all a form of somewhat benign imprisonment perhaps of the sort imposed much later on Napoleon in St. Helena. Despite brandishing Sri Vikrama as a cruel, tyrannical despot particularly for the consumption of the British Colonial officers and Anglophiles, he was never treated as an ordinary prisoner. The Ex-king himself behaved with dignity throughout his capture. He and his family were provided with a comfortable house in the fort of Colombo before he was banished to Vellore, almost a year later. Granville who was in charge of the deposed king on the voyage to South India testifies to the ex-king’s insistence to follow royal etiquette when he was being taken out. The ex-king’s carriage had to pass an arch on which a crowd had gathered when he was being conveyed to the barge docked in the harbour. Granville says that the ex-king insisted that those above him should be cleared of people because he could not pass the gateway while any individual was above him. He said the same when he entered the city as a prisoner in the first instance as well. Throughout the sea voyage, Granville addressed him as “Your Majesty’. While he was at the Vellore Fort, the ex-king made numerous requests for money, jewellery, food items for numerous feasts, horses and palanquins. The Madras administration reluctantly agreed to most of these demands.
The sorry plight of the Kandyan pensioners – kith and kin and the descendants of Rajadhi Rajasingha and Sri Vikrama is not any different to the descendants of Tipu Sultan and the last Mughal Emperor – Bahadur Shah II who to this day live in abject poverty forsaken by their people, governments and the British Colonial Officers who started the tragedy.
The British with their superior military might and sea power had already started its expansion ambitions and strategies early in the nineteenth century by dethroning and exiling reigning monarchs. They deposed and exiled the French Emperor Napoleon to the island of Elba. Napoleon escaped back to France in the early eighteen fifteen and was able to organize a grand army once again. However, he received a crushing defeat at Waterloo and was exiled once again to the island of St. Helena off the coast of Africa. Within a few months of the first exile of Napoleon, the British dethroned Sri Vikrama and a year later exiled him to Vellore. The British and the French colonizers are on record for dethroning and exile of nearly three dozens of legitimate rulers from 1815 to 1950s.
The month of February marks an indelible historical record of both the capture of our last king by the British and the establishment of sovereignty by Ceylon on gaining independence from the British.
Two hundred and six years after the last king of Lanka was taken prisoner by the British, on the anniversary falling on the 18th of February 2020, it is heartening to see the modern historians re-writing the story of Sri Vikrama Rajasimha, who unfortunately received a ‘bad press’.