Execution of a Hero
By Ama H.Vannniarachchy
“A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his Government.”
– Edward Abbey
The Great Rebellion 1818
In the year 1815, the long legacy of the Sinhala monarchy came to an end. In March 1815 the entire country was surrendered to the British and a treaty was signed in Kandy, known as the Kandyan Convention. This was the first time ever in known history that Sri Lanka was entirely surrendered to a foreign power, that too without winning a battle, but through careful planning, strategic approaches, and with the help of shrewd cunning spies.
Although the British promised to prioritise Buddhism as the State religion and take good care of the Tooth Relic and the Temple of the Tooth Kandy, they failed to do so. It was rather a deliberate act of neglectance. The British Governor of this time was Robert Brownrigg. He was known to be ruthless and insensitive towards the locals. Also, the Kandyan chieftains who supported the British to defeat the Kandyan King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe were now disappointed by the acts of the British rulers. They understood that they were trapped and deceived by the British.
Two years as a colony, things were heating up. Day by day people and the Kandyan chieftains were feeling depressed and regretful towards the British. It was during this time that the Uva Wellassa rebellion or the Great Rebellion of Sri Lanka also known as the Udarata Maha Karalla, happened.
Known as a ruthless person, Major Sylvester Douglas Wilson who was the Assistant Resident in Badulla was killed by Meegahapitiya Rate Rala and was decapitated. This very incident shows the regret and hatred the locals had towards the British. Meanwhile, Wilbawe who some claim to be a relative of the former Kandyan king was crowned as the King by the Sinhalese. Some historians say that he was a Govigama and that was one reason some of the Kandyan chieftains such as Eklanigoda and Molligoda disliked the idea of a Govigama being crowned as a king. However, the Great Rebellion started like this.
Keppetipola joins the natives
Gradually it spread all over Uva - Wellassa and Brownrigg was horrified. The Battle was successful. This was in 1817. The British sent Keppetipola Dissawa to suppress the battle as he was the dissawa of the Uva province. Keppetipola had 500 men with him and the latest British weapons. If Kappetipola obeyed the British, the rebellion would have ended there and Keppetipola would not have been executed.
Instead of doing so, he chose to support his own people. He joined the Sinhala rebels. He sent back the men and weapons of the British and joined the rebels, giving them more promising leadership. This act made Brownrigg horrified and the British were almost defeated.
This is one reason Keppetipola is considered a rare kind of hero and a patriot. However, his heroic and patriotic acts were actually visible a few years ago. When he signed the Kandyan Convention, he is known to be the only one to sign it in Sinhala while other Kandyan chieftains signed it in Tamil. Historians say that this is a sign that even though he signed it, he was not actually willing to bring Sri Lanka under the British crown.
The battle was betrayed...
With the new leadership of Keppetipola, the rebellion was successful. But, the British were able to defeat the Sinhalese, once again not actually through battle, but thanks to local traitors. It is reported that Eknaligoda and Molligoda betrayed the battle. The rebellion was brutally crushed.
Rebel leaders were caught and many were executed. Some of the leaders and rebellions were sent as prisoners to Mauritius Island. Women were raped and children were killed. Property, paddies, and cattle were burnt and destroyed. It is a known fact that Uva- Wellassa was a fertile land since the early Anuradhpaur times and the term Wellassa means a hundred thousand paddy fields. After the brutal crushing of the Great Rebellion, this land turned out to be abandoned and barren for centuries.
Herbert White, a British agent in Badulla writes in the Journal of Uva, “It is doubtful whether Uva has at least now recovered from the catastrophe.”
It is also said that the burning of the villages continued for days and there had been dead bodies hanging from the trees for days. Families of the leaders such as Keppetipola and Madugalle and of the rebels were brutally killed and the remaining fled their villages and have lived in exile for centuries. In contrast, families of those who were loyal to the British such as Molligoda, Eknaligoda and Ratwatte received all honours.
Keppetipola to be beheaded...
The wrath of the British towards Keppetipola was enormous. He was declared a traitor and decided to be executed. The date was decided. It was on 25 November 1818.
Dr. Thennakoon Wimalananda in The Great Rebellion 1818 writes, “Brownrigg poured out his venom against Keppetipola because of his own failure to apprehend him and the chief’s great ability to elude the numerous detachments which were sent after him. He was fearfully alarmed when he heard that Keppetipola had succeeded very ingeniously in removing the Sacred Tooth of the Buddha from under the very nose of himself and the British soldiers.”
Execution of a hero
The execution of Keppetipola is recorded in old British records. This is actually heartbreaking to go through. It is said that Keppetipola’s last wish was that he might be born on the mountains of Himalaya as a deity and finally obtain Nirvana. Keppetipola had requested Sawers, one of his close friends to accompany him to the place of execution, which was kindly and respectfully declined as Sawers did not want to witness the death of his dear friend. Dr. Henry Marshall too refused to go to the location of execution. He was also known to be a close and dear friend of Keppetipola.
Keppetipola and Madugalle were then taken to the place of execution which was near the Bogambara tank. After performing religious rituals, he gave the small bana potha (a Dhammapada) to a native official who was present there, requesting him to deliver it to Sawers.
Keppetipola continued to repeat some Pali verses and while he was doing so, the executioner struck him on the back of his neck with a sharp sword. At that moment he breathed out the word Arahan. A second stroke ended the life of Keppetipola.
‘Keppetipola was a rare kind of hero’, say the British...
The British have compared Keppetipola to Sir William Wallace, the beloved champion of Schotland; of whose exertions and suffering for the independence of his country are still cherished.
After his death, Keppetipola’s head was sent to Britain and then to a research centre at Edinburgh in Scotland following the advice of Dr.Henry Marshall. After conducting a study, it was said that the owner of this skull displayed the rare characteristics of a great heroic warrior.
Later the skull was placed in the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh where skulls of great men are kept preserved in honour of the dead. In 1954 the skull was returned back to Sri Lanka. It is today entombed in the Keppetipola memorial in Kandy.
“Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the President or any other public official.”
– Theodore Roosevelt