British Ceylon

Ceylon (Sinhala: බ්‍රිතාන්‍ය ලංකාව, Brithānya Laṃkāva; Tamil: பிரித்தானிய இலங்கை, Birithaniya Ilangai) was a British Crown colony between 1815 and 1948. Initially the area it covered did not include the Kingdom of Kandy, which was a protectorate from 1815, but from 1817 to 1948 the British possessions included the whole island of Ceylon, now the nation of Sri Lanka.


Anthem: God Save the King (1815–37; 1901–48)
God Save the Queen (1837–1901)
Sri Lanka (orthographic projection)
StatusBritish colony
Common languagesEnglish (Official),
Sinhala and Tamil
• 1815–20
George III (first)
• 1936–48
George VI (last)
• 1798–1805
Frederick North (first)
• 1944–48
Henry Monck-Mason Moore (last)
Prime Minister 
• 1947–48
Don Stephen Senanayake
LegislatureLegislative Council of Ceylon (1833–1931)
State Council of Ceylon (1931–47)
Parliament of Ceylon (1947—48)
Historical eraNew Imperialism
5 March 1815
4 February 1948
188165,610 km2 (25,330 sq mi)
189165,610 km2 (25,330 sq mi)
190165,610 km2 (25,330 sq mi)
192465,992 km2 (25,480 sq mi)
194665,610 km2 (25,330 sq mi)
• 1881
• 1891
• 1901
• 1924
• 1946
CurrencyCeylonese rixdollar (1815–28)
British pound (1825–71)
Ceylonese rupee (1872—1948)
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Kandyan Kingdom
Dutch Ceylon
Dominion of Ceylon
Today part of Sri Lanka
Source for 1924 area and population: [1]



Before the beginning of the Dutch governance, the island of Ceylon was divided between the Portuguese Empire and the Kingdom of Kandy, who were in the midst of a war for control of the island as a whole. The island attracted the attention of the newly formed Dutch Republic when they were invited by the Sinhalese King to fight the Portuguese. Dutch rule over much of the island was soon imposed.

In the late 18th century the Dutch, weakened by their wars against Great Britain, were conquered by Napoleonic France, and their leaders became refugees in London. No longer able to govern their part of the island effectively, the Dutch transferred the rule of it to the British, although this was against the wishes of the Dutch residing there.

Kandyan Wars

As soon as Great Britain gained the European-controlled parts of Ceylon from the Dutch, they wanted to expand their new sphere of influence by making the native Kingdom of Kandy a protectorate, an offer initially refused by the King of Kandy. Although the previous Dutch administration had not been powerful enough to threaten the reign of the Kandyan Kings, the British were much more powerful. The Kandyan refusal to accept a protectorate led eventually to war, which ended with the capitulation of the Kandyans.

Kandyan Convention

The rule of the king Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe was not favoured by his chieftains. The king, who was of South Indian ancestry, faced powerful chieftains and sought cruel measures to repress their popularity with the people. A successful coup was organised by the Sinhala chiefs in which they accepted the British Crown as their new sovereign. This ended the line of the kingdom of Kandy and King Rajasinghe was taken as a prisoner, ending his hope that the British would allow him to retain power. The Kandyan treaty which was signed in 1815 was called the Kandyan Convention and stated the terms under which the Kandyans would live as a British protectorate. The Buddhist religion was to be given protection by the Crown, and Christianity would not be imposed on the population, as had happened during Portuguese and Dutch rule. The Kandyan Convention is an important legal document because it specifies the conditions which the British promised for the Kandyan territory.

The Uva Rebellion

It took the ruling families of Kandy less than two years to realise that the authority of the British government was a fundamentally different one to that of the (deposed) Nayakkar dynasty. Soon the Kandyans rebelled against the British and waged a guerrilla war. Discontent with British activities soon boiled over into open rebellion, commencing in the duchy of Uva in 1817, so called the Uva Rebellion, also known as the Third Kandyan War, when, according to a dissertation written by J. B. Müller, the British rulers killed everyone from the Uva-Wellassa region.[2][3] The main cause of the rebellion was the British authorities' failure to protect and uphold the customary Buddhist traditions, which were viewed by the islanders as an integral part of their lives.

The rebellion, which soon developed into a guerrilla war of the kind the Kandyans had fought against European powers for centuries, was centred on the Kandyan nobility and their unhappiness with developments under British rule since 1815. However it was the last uprising of this kind and Britain's brutal response massacred the rebels, as a warning to the rest of the Sri Lankan community and annexed the Kingdom of Kandy to British Ceylon in 1817.


Ceylon (ca 1914)
British Ceylon, ca 1914

Sivasundaram argues that the British used geographical knowledge to defeat the Kandyan holdouts in the mountainous and jungle areas in the center of Ceylon. They used local informants and British surveyors to map the island, then built a network of roads to open the central region. This made possible export production of plantation agriculture, as well as tighter military control.[4]

The laying of the railway was carried out during the Governorship of Sir Henry Ward. The opening of coffee and tea plantations, road development schemes, establishment of hospitals and maternity homes throughout the island, were just some of the major works undertaken by the British who ruled Sri Lanka.


Historical population
1871 2,400,380—    
1881 2,759,700+15.0%
1891 3,007,800+9.0%
1901 3,566,000+18.6%
1911 4,106,400+15.2%
1921 4,498,600+9.6%
1931 5,306,000+17.9%
1946 6,657,300+25.5%
Source: Department of Census and Statistics Sri Lanka

The multiracial population of Ceylon was numerous enough to support the European colonists; the Portuguese and the Dutch offspring of the past 440 odd years of colonial history was large enough to run a stable government. Unlike the previous rulers, the British embarked on a plantation programme which initially brought coffee plantations to the island. These were later wiped out by coffee rust. Coffee plants were replaced by tea and rubber plantations. This made Ceylon one of the richest countries in Asia.

The British also brought Tamils from British India and made them indentured labourers in the Hill Country. This was in addition to the several hundred thousand Tamils already living in the Maritime provinces and another 30,000 Tamil Muslims. The linguistically bipolar island needed a link language and English became universal in Ceylon.[5]

Censuses in Ceylon began in 1871 and continued every ten years. The 1881 census shows a total population of 2.8 million, constituting of 1.8 million Sinhalese; 687,000 Ceylon and Indian Tamils; 185,000 Moors; as well as 4,800 Europeans; 17,900 Burghers and Eurasians; 8,900 Malays; 2,200 Veddhas; and 7,500 other.[6]

The Censuses of 1871, 1881, 1891 and 1901 had shown Ceylon Tamils and Indian Tamils of Sri Lanka grouped together. By 1911 Indian Tamils were shown as a separate category. The population statistics reveal that by 1911, Indian Tamils constituted 12.9%, whereas Sri Lankan Tamils formed 12.8% of the population of 4,106,400; in 1921, 13.4% and 11.5%; in 1931, 15.2% and 11.3%, and in 1946, 11.7% and 11.0% respectively. The censuses show that during a large period of time in the history of Ceylon, Indian Tamils outnumbered Ceylon Tamils until between 1971 and 1981 where more than 50 per cent of the Indian Tamil population were repatriated as Indian citizens back to India. However, many Indian Tamils were also granted Sri Lankan citizenship where upon declared themselves as Sri Lankan Tamils.[7]

Government and military

British Governors of Ceylon

Between 1796 and 1948, Ceylon was a British Crown colony. Although the British monarch was the head of state, in practice his or her functions were exercised in the colony by the colonial Governor, who acted on instructions from the British government in London.

Armed forces

The Ceylon Defence Force (CDF) was the military of British Ceylon. Established in 1881 as the Ceylon Volunteers, as the military reserve in the British Crown colony of Ceylon, by 1910 it grew into the Ceylon Defence Force, a regular force responsible for the defence of Ceylon. The CDF was under the command of the General Officer Commanding, Ceylon, of the British Army in Ceylon if mobilised. However mobilisation could be carried out only under orders from the Governor. The Ceylon Defence Force has seen action in a number of wars such as the Second Boer War and both World Wars. It is the predecessor to the Ceylon Army.[8]

See also


  1. ^ "The British Empire in 1924". The British Empire. Retrieved 7 November 2017.
  2. ^ Müller, J. B. (6 November 2010). "Anglophiles, Eurocentric arrogance and Reality". The Island.
  3. ^ Keerthisinghe, Lakshman I. (2013). "The British duplicity in protecting human rights in Sri Lanka". Daily Mirror. Retrieved 21 October 2013.
  4. ^ Sujit Sivasundaram, "Tales of the Land: British Geography and Kandyan Resistance in Sri Lanka, c. 1803–1850," Modern Asian Studies (2007) 41#5 pp 925–965.
  5. ^ "THE POPULATION I OF SRI LANKA" (PDF). CI.CR.É.D. Series. Retrieved 31 January 2012.
  6. ^ "THE POPULATION I OF SRI LANKA" (PDF). CI.CR.É.D. Series. Retrieved 31 January 2012.
  7. ^ SURYANARAYAN, V. "In search of a new identity". Frontline. Archived from the original on 29 May 2008. Retrieved 31 January 2012.
  8. ^ van Langenberg, Cyril. "The Volunteer Force". The Ceylon Army Journal Volume. Retrieved 31 January 2012.

Further reading

External links

Coordinates: 6°55′00″N 79°50′00″E / 6.9167°N 79.8333°E

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Alexander Johnston (1775–1849)

Sir Alexander Johnston, PC, FRS (25 April 1775 – 6 March 1849), was a British colonial official who served as third Chief Justice of Ceylon and second Advocate Fiscal of Ceylon. He introduced a range of administrative reforms in Sri Lanka, introducing numerous liberal ideas and supporting the rights of natives. He was also an orientalist and along with Henry Thomas Colebrooke and others he was a founding member of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

Alfred Lascelles

Sir Alfred George Lascelles KC (12 October 1857 - 9 February 1952) was the 20th Chief Justice of Ceylon. He was appointed on 1 May 1911 succeeding Joseph Turner Hutchinson and was Chief Justice until 1914. He was succeeded by Alexander Wood Renton.Alfred George Lascelles was the son of Hon. George Edwin Lascelles (a son of the 3rd Earl of Harewood) and his wife Lady Louisa Nina Murray (daughter of the 4th Earl of Mansfield), and was born at Moor Hill, Harewood on 12 October 1857. He graduated from University College, Oxford, with a Bachelor of Arts and was admitted to Inner Temple in 1885 entitled to practice as a barrister.Lascelles served as Crown Advocate of Cyprus from 1898 until 1902. In May 1902 he was appointed Attorney General of Ceylon, in which he acted as Chief Justice of Ceylon from 12 March to 31 October 1906. He was Chief Justice of Ceylon from 1911 to 1914.On 26 October 1911 he married Isabel Carteret Thynne. He died at Terrington on 9 February 1952 at age 94. Lascelles had three daughters and a son, his son Wing Commander Francis Alfred George Lascelles DFC died in 1941 serving with the Royal Air Force.

Ambrose Hardinge Giffard

Sir Ambrose Hardinge Giffard (1771–1827) was chief justice of British Ceylon.

Anton Bertram

Sir Thomas Anton Bertram KC (8 February 1869 - 17 September 1937) was an English Barrister and the 22nd Chief Justice of Ceylon. He was appointed on 26 July 1918 succeeding Alexander Wood Renton and was Chief Justice until 1925. He was succeeded by Charles Ernest St. John Branch.

Bruce Burnside

Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart Burnside (26 July 1833 – 10 August 1909) was the 16th Chief Justice of Ceylon and 25th Queen's Advocate of Ceylon.

He served as the Speaker of the House of Assembly of the Bahamas from November 1866 to February 1867.

He was appointed on 21 May 1883 succeeding Jacobus de Wet and was Chief Justice until 1889. He was succeeded by John Winfield Bonser.Harry Dias Bandaranaike acted as Chief Justice from 9 January to 6 June 1888 when Burnside and Lovell Clarence went on leave. Clarence acted from November 1890 to February 1891 when Burnside and Bandaranaike retired.Burnside was born to John and Mary Burnside. His son Robert Bruce Burnside was a judge on the Supreme Court of Western Australia.

Charles Justin MacCarthy

Sir Charles Justin MacCarthy (1811–1864) was the 12th Governor of British Ceylon and the 12th Accountant General and Controller of Revenue. He was appointed on 22 October 1860 and was Governor until 1 December 1863. He also served as acting governor on two separate occasions. He was first appointed in 1850.

Charles Layard

Sir Charles Peter Layard (5 December 1849 – 8 June 1916) was the 18th Chief Justice of Ceylon from 1902 to 1906.

Charles Peter Layard was born on 5 December 1849 in Colombo, the youngest of nine children, to Charles Peter Layard (1806 - 1893) and Louisa Anne née Edwards (1809 - 1886), who hailed from a distinguished family, whose earlier relatives migrated to Ceylon. His father was a civil servant and first Mayor of Colombo.Layard was appointed Chief Justice on 21 March 1902, upon the retirement of John Winfield Bonser, and took up the position on 26 April 1902. He was one of the first Chief Justices produced by the local bar, and served until he was succeeded by Joseph Turner Hutchinson in June 1906.

Colvin R. de Silva

Colvin Reginald de Silva (1907– 27 February 1989; commonly known as Colvin R. de Silva) was a former Cabinet Minister of Plantation Industries and Constitutional Affairs, prominent member of parliament, Trotskyist leader and lawyer in Sri Lanka. He was one of the founders of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party – the first Marxist party in Sri Lanka.

E. A. Nugawela

E. A. Nugawela (21 September 1898 – 5 July 1972) was a Sri Lankan politician.

Flag of Sri Lanka

The flag of Sri Lanka (Sinhalese: ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ ජාතික කොඩිය, translit. Śrī Laṃkāvē jāthika kodiya; Tamil: இலங்கையின் தேசியக்கொடி, translit. Ilankaiyin teciyakkoṭi, Kannada: ಶ್ರೀಲಂಕದ ಬಾವುಟ) also called the Lion Flag or Sinha Flag, consists of a gold lion holding a kastane sword in its right fore-paw in a maroon background with four gold bo leaves in each corner. This is bordered by gold, and to its left are two vertical stripes of equal size in green and orange, with the orange stripe closest to the lion. The lion and the maroon background represent the Sinhalese, while the saffron border and four Bo leaves represent Buddhism and the four Buddhist concepts of Mettā, Karuṇā, Muditā and Upeskhā respectively. The stripes represent the two main minorities: the orange representing the Sri Lankan Tamils and the green representing Muslims.

It was adopted in 1950 following the recommendations of a committee appointed by the 1st Prime Minister of Ceylon, D.S. Senanayake.

Governors of British Ceylon

The Governor of Ceylon was the representative in Ceylon of the British Crown from 1795 to 1948. In this capacity, the governor was president of the Executive Council and Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces in Ceylon. The governor was the head of the British colonial administration in Ceylon, reporting to the Colonial Office.

With Ceylon gaining self-rule and dominion status with the creation of Dominion of Ceylon in 1948, this office was replaced by the Governor-General, who represented the British monarch as the head of state. The office of Governor-General was itself abolished in 1972 and replaced by the post of President when Sri Lanka became a republic.

History of British Ceylon

Kandyan Kingdom falling into the hands of the British Empire and deposing of king Sri Wickrama Rajasingha started the history of British Ceylon It ended over 2300 years of Sinhalese monarchy rule on the island. The British rule on the island lasted until 1948 when the country gained independence.

Reggie Perera

Reggie Perera was Sri Lankan Trotskyist politician. He was member of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party and was elected to the first parliament in 1947 and from 1959 to 1971 he was a member of the Senate of Ceylon. In 1971, he was appointed as Ceylon's Ambassador to Egypt.

During World War II, he was imprisoned by the British for undermining the war effort along with Colvin R de Silva and N.M. Perera.

Richard Morgan (Ceylonese judge)

Sir Richard F. Morgan was a Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) lawyer, who served as the 13th Queen's Advocate of Ceylon and acting Chief Justice of Ceylon. He was the first Asian in the British Empire to receive a Knighthood and first Ceylonese to be a member of the Governor's Executive Council and was an unofficial (Burgher) member of the Legislative Council of Ceylon. He was the Crown Advocate that prosecuted famed bandit Saradiel.Sir Richard was educated at the Colombo Academy.

Morgan was knighted in 1874, before being made acting Chief Justice of Ceylon, after E. S. Creasy had returned to England on sick leave.

Terence O'Brien (colonial governor)

Major General Sir John Terence Nicholls O'Brien (23 April 1830 – 28 February 1903) was a surveyor, engineer and colonial governor, born in Manchester, England and died in London, England.

He studied at Elizabeth College, Guernsey, and then attended the Royal Military College, Sandhurst.

O'Brien, a British Army officer, received a medal of honour for his service in the Indian Mutiny War. He was appointed acting Governor of British Ceylon in 1863 and held the office for two years, succeeding Charles Justin MacCarthy.In 1881 he was appointed governor of Heligoland, knighted in 1888 and became governor of Newfoundland in 1889.

O'Brien as governor of Newfoundland helped precipitate the 1894 bank crash by his many dispatches to London noting that Newfoundland politicians under Premier William Whiteway's Liberal Government were uniquely corrupt and incompetent. He resigned from office in 1895 and returned to London.

The Newfoundland community of Terenceville was so named in his honour. O'Brien's son, Sir Charles O'Brien, also became a colonial governor.

William Norris (judge)

Sir William Norris (died 1859) was the seventh Chief Justice of Ceylon and seventh Advocate Fiscal of Ceylon.

He was born the son of William Norris, who was President of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1824. He studied law at the Middle Temple and was called to the bar in 1827. He moved to India in 1829 to practice there.

He was knighted by letters patent in 1835 and appointed a puisne judge in Ceylon. He was promoted to Chief Justice of Ceylon on 27 April 1836, succeeding Charles Marshall, holding the post until 1837. He was succeeded by Anthony Oliphant. Norris was appointed despite William Rough having served on the bench since 1831, as acting puisne justice, senior puisne justice and as acting chief justice.His son was the author William Edward Norris. His daughter Anne Grace Norris married the future Governor Arthur Havelock.

William Ogle Carr

Sir William Ogle Carr (13 November 1802 – 24 April 1856) was the ninth Chief Justice of Ceylon and eighth King's Advocate of Ceylon. He was appointed on 17 April 1854, succeeding Anthony Oliphant, and was Chief Justice until 1856. He was succeeded by William Carpenter Rowe.Carr took J. G. Hildebrand on the bench. In the following year he functioned as Senior Puisne Justice before being confirmed in the post. When Chief Justice Oliphant retired in 1854 Carr took the middle seat.

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