From colony to republic


Sri Lanka’s political situation went through some drastic changes during the last few weeks; a new Prime Minister was appointed and a new Cabinet was appointed. The appointment of the new Prime Minister, according to some, is a promising start in addressing the political crises in the country. During his speeches, he made promises to the public that he will do his best to help Sri Lanka come out of the economic crisis and urged the public to support the Government’s decisions. However, the protesters are of the view that this is another political stunt of the Rajapaksa regime to stay in power.

 The need of the hour is to politically stabilise the country, attend to the public’s essential needs, and prepare the country for the predicted food shortage.

 Are we ready for this and is there anything in the past from which we can learn?

Last week we looked at the political situation of the country up until the year 1935. It is reported that in 1935 Malaria spread across the island, and the following year, King Gorge V of England passed away.

Now let us take a look at the country’s economic, social, cultural, and religious background of the previous century before we move forward to the next chapter of Sri Lanka’s politics.

By the end of the 19th century

It is reported that by the end of the 19th century Sri Lanka was much prosperous, economically. By this time, Sri Lanka or Ceylon was divided into nine provinces for convenience. There were officers in charge of each province to maintain the income. Most of the Government departments that we know today were established during this time.

Tea, cocoa, and novel commercial crops were succeeding, resulting in a booming economy.

Another interesting fact is that by the end of the 19th century, in order to change the Roman-Dutch Law that was in use in Ceylon, a new penal code was drafted following the Indian Penal Code.

The education

The education system we have in Sri Lanka was established during this time. The Buddhist and Hindu schools were established as an attempt to save the Buddhist and Hindu children being converted by missionary schools.

The Government too continued to open Christian schools and patronage those schools.

The free education that we talk about a lot these days was suggested by C.W.W. Kannangara in 1945 and was approved.


Sri Lanka officially became a Buddhist State in the 3rd century BCE. Since then the rulers gave priority to Buddhism, Buddhist practices, and traditions. This has been the ritual for centuries. The British, although promised to honour and follow Buddhist traditions in the Kandyan Treaty they signed in March 1815, broke it off. It is reported that Government-sponsored missionary groups and churches and schools were established all over the country and in the disguise of educating the children, Buddhist and Hindu children were converted to Christianity.

 It is also reported that these missionary schools, instead of educating the children, brainwashed them into a state where they eventually rejected and condemned the local culture, beliefs, and ways. This created great disgust and disheartened the local communities, especially the Buddhist and Hindu clergy.

As s result, Buddhist monks came forward and started Pirivena education. This was the beginning of Sri Lanka’s modern local education system, which was later followed by Buddhist and Hindu schools and then universities. Some of these prominent pirivenas later developed into universities and one great example is the Peliyagoda Vidyalankara Pirivena which paved the path for the University of Kelaniya.

During this time, there had been great debates between Buddhists and Christians, which are known as the Pancha Maha Vada. These gained great public attention and were later printed and published. As a result of some of these printed books that were even famous in America, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott arrived in Sri Lanka and uplifted the ongoing Buddhist revival. This happened in 1880.

Sri Lanka’s newspaper industry also took an interesting development during this time as Buddhist monks and businessmen started Buddhist newspapers and one such is The Buddhist English newspaper.

The rise of patriots such as Anagarika Dhammapala and Walisingha Harishchandra took place during this time.

The Temperance movement also gathered some momentum during this time. This happened especially after the 1912 Excise Act. It is recorded that the Government General Secretary Sir Hugh Clifford was against this act and spoke for about two hours in the Parliament presenting the many negative impacts of this Act. Local leaders, Buddhist monks, and Christian priests joined hands together against this Act.

Also, in 1915 the unfortunate Sinhala–Muslim conflict happened, which we will discuss in our next segment.

Revival of Ayurveda, local medicinal practice

In 1925 an important decision was made at the Legislative Council when the ministers suggested allocating money for developing Ayurveda in Sri Lanka by establishing an Ayurveda medical college and hospital. Accordingly, a teaching college and hospital were established in Borella. It is reported that the British Government did not give their due attention and patronage to improve Ayurveda in Sri Lanka. However, local doctors such as Pothuwila, Nandungamuwe, Neelammahara, Mawalla, Kiribathgoda, Madapatha, and Akaragama were great pillars of support of Ayurveda.

During the same time, panditha G.P. Wickramarachchi who was a local doctor established the Gampaha Siddhayurveda College. He is a descendant of the well-known Nandungamuwe family.

In retrospect

These changes that occurred during the 19th and 20th centuries set the stage for us who are in the 21st century. Ceylon entered the 21st century with so many unsettled matters that occurred in the 20th century such as the Penal Code issues, the Sinhala-Muslim conflict, not fully localised education, the demand for a separate Tamil speaking State by Tamil politicians, massive deforestation and wildlife destruction (elephant hunting), mass commercial agriculture in the hill country, demographic changes, negligence towards Ayurveda, the messed up language policy, and many more.

What we believe is that although Ceylon was doing politically and economically well during the 19th century and during the first half of the 20th century, the British political and economic policies did not fully suit the local system and the mismatch resulted in a collapse. Also, the social, cultural, and religious background based in Colombo during the 19th century never contributed to creating a sustainable society.

In 1948 when Ceylon gained independence from the British, the systems introduced by them continued. Political, economical, and social reforms should have happened at that time. In 1972 Ceylon became a republic but the shadows of the British colonial rule did not leave the island. Adding to this, during the 1940s and onwards, racism burnt this island.

If the time between the 19th century to the first half of the 20th century set strong laid strong foundation stones in all three aspects (political, economic, and social), Sri Lanka would have been free from half of the problems we are facing today. Also, the social and national identity crisis we are going through now can be identified as a result of the muddled social and cultural background that was based in Colombo.

Next week;

  • – Bringing back the Sinhala Throne and other royal belongings from London
  • – Colombo bombing during World War II
  • – Agrarian projects and the revival of agriculture
  • – The dream of a separate Tamil speaking State
  • – Deforestation of the hill country

To be continued…

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy