The British East India Company’s conquest of Sri Lanka, which the British called Ceylon, occurred during the wars of the French Revolution (1792–1801). When the Netherlands came under French control, the British began to move into Sri Lanka from India. The Dutch, after a halfhearted resistance, surrendered the island in 1796. The British had thought the conquest temporary and administered the island from Madras (Chennai) in southern India. The war with France revealed Sri Lanka’s strategic value, however, and the British consequently decided to make their hold on the island permanent. In 1802 Ceylon was made a crown colony, and, by the Treaty of Amiens with France, British possession of maritime Ceylon was confirmed.
Control of Kandy
Not long after their arrival in 1796, the British established contact with the king of Kandy and contracted to replace the Dutch as protectors of the kingdom. As they began to organize the administration, the British realized that the continuing independence of Kandy posed problems: the frontier with Kandy had to be guarded at much expense; trade with the highlands was hampered by customs posts and political insecurity; and land communications between west and east would be quicker if roads could be built through the centre of the island. The advantages of political unification were obvious to the British, but the Kandyans remained deeply suspicious of all foreigners.
The first attempt by the British to capture the kingdom, in 1803, ended in failure; the king was popular with the nobility, who united behind him to rout the British forces. Subsequently, though, growing dissensions within the kingdom gave the British an opportunity to interfere in Kandyan affairs. With the help of local Kandyan chiefs whose relations with the king had been deteriorating, the British succeeded in taking over the kingdom in 1815. Soon after the acquisition the British guaranteed Kandyans their privileges and rights, as well as the preservation of customary laws, institutions, and religion. Initially, Kandy was administered separately, without any abrupt change from traditional patterns. However, the trend toward reducing the status of the nobility and of the Buddhist faith was unmistakable; this led to a popular rebellion against British control in 1818. After it was suppressed, the Kandyan provinces were integrated with the rest of the country.
Social and administrative reforms
Though reluctant to upset traditional Sinhalese institutions, the British quickly began a reform process. They abolished slavery, an institution that existed primarily as a consequence of unpaid debt (although in Jaffna, it was part of the caste system), relieved native officials of judicial authority, paid salaries in cash, and relaxed the system of compulsory service tenure. Agriculture was encouraged, and production of cinnamon, pepper, sugarcane, cotton, and coffee flourished. Internal communications were extended. Restrictions on European ownership of land were lifted, and Christian missionary activity became intensive.
The early changes under British rule were systematized by a series of reforms enacted in 1833, which laid the foundation for the subsequent political and economic structure of Ceylon. Steps were taken to adopt a unitary administrative and judicial system for the whole island. The reforms reduced the autocratic powers of the governor and set up Executive and Legislative councils to share in the task of government; unofficial members (not officials of the government) were gradually appointed to the Legislative Council. English became the language of government and the medium of instruction in schools.
Emergence of capitalist agriculture
The British eliminated restrictions on Ceylon’s economy by abolishing all state monopolies and eliminating compulsory labour service. They also promoted the liberation of the economy, which led to new economic enterprises. Land belonging to the British crown was sold cheaply to cultivators to encourage plantation agriculture, and the enterprise proved lucrative. Coffee plantations were particularly profitable.From about 1830 through the mid-19th century coffee production spearheaded Ceylon’s economic development. Acreage under coffee cultivation expanded, and roads were constructed to fulfill the needs of coffee planters. Because of a labour shortage on the plantations, indentured workers came from southern India in large numbers beginning in the 1840s. In the 1870s, however, coffee was destroyed by a leaf disease. Experiments with tea as a plantation crop in the 1880s were immediately successful, and tea spread along the upper and lower slopes of the hill country. About the same time, rubber and coconuts also were cultivated as plantation crops.
Tea and rubber attracted extensive capital investment, and the growth of large-scale industries created a demand for a permanent workforce. Steps were taken to settle Indian labour on the plantations. Ancillary services soon arose in response to these developments. Increasing export trade led to the expansion of the harbour at Colombo and to railway and road construction. Opportunities were created for Ceylonese entrepreneurs, and for the English-educated, employment was readily available. Capitalist enterprise introduced changes in agricultural practices and horticultural techniques, but these developments were essentially restricted to the urban areas and the plantation country. The rest of the country continued with subsistence farming, using traditional methods. However, roads and railways helped to reduce the isolation of the villages, and increased trade gradually pulled the rural population into the monetary economy.