Kandy, Colonial Powers' Relations with the Kingdom of

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Kandy, Colonial Powers' Relations with the Kingdom of

In the early sixteenth century, when the Portuguese arrived at the shores of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the Sinhalese kingdom of Kandy was still under the domination of the neighboring Kotte kingdom—though the foundations for independence had already been laid. The kings of Kandy were attempting to establish themselves as autonomous rulers in the central mountains by wresting control of the region from the powerful Kotte rulers of the western lowlands. As the Kotte kingdom fell into a state of disarray, due mainly to the protracted succession crises of the early sixteenth century, Kandyan rulers began to establish their autonomy.

In 1521, with the support of the Kandyan king, the three sons of the Kotte king, Wijayabahu IV, engineered a coup, then executed their father and proceeded to divide up the Kotte kingdom. Mayadunne, the middle son, who established himself in Sitawaka, to the east of Kotte, enlarged his portion of the kingdom by annexing his younger brother's share, following the brother's death. Buvanekabahu, the eldest, who received the prime areas of the kingdom—including Kotte, the seat of the kingdom—sought the help of Kandyan kings in his struggle against Mayadunne, who was a potential threat for both, as Sitawaka was located adjoining to the Kandyan region. In 1582 Mayadunne's son Rajasinghe I defeated Karaliyedda, the Kandyan ruler, and annexed Kandy to Sitawaka.

It was following the fall of Sitawaka after the death of Rajasinghe in 1592 and the total subjugation of Kotte to the Portuguese in 1597 that Kandy emerged again as an important historical player. Konappu Bandara, son of a chief of Kandy, ascended to the throne of Kandy in 1592. He defeated the Portuguese plan to enthrone Karaliyedda's daughter, Kusumasana Devi (Dona Katerina), as the puppet queen of Kandy, and married her in order to secure a legitimate right to the Kandyan throne.


When the Portuguese annexed the Jaffna kingdom, which controlled the Jaffna Peninsula and parts of the northern tip of the island in 1621, Kandy emerged as the sole native kingdom that could claim to represent the continuance of precolonial traditions, including religious and social rituals. This enabled the Kandyan kings to occasionally call upon the support of natives in other regions outside of Kandy.

Portuguese attempts to occupy Kandy proved disastrous in the face of the guerrilla tactics of the Kandyans, who skillfully made use of the virtually inaccessible mountains that formed their kingdom's frontier. Kandyan kings even toyed with the idea of expanding their frontier at the expense of the Portuguese. In 1602 Wimaladharmasuriya I tried to obtain the support of the Dutch when he received General Spilbergen, the leader of a Dutch East India Company fleet, but met with no success. Rajasinghe II, however, managed to conclude the Westervolt treaty with the Dutch in 1638, as a result of which the Portuguese were expelled from the island in 1658.


Relations between Rajasinghe II and the Dutch were not cordial for long, however: things soured after the Dutch captured the fortified city of Galle on the southern coast of the island in 1640. In defiance of Rajasinghe's wishes, the Dutch were aiming to establish themselves as the successors to Portuguese possessions. The relationship turned into an open confrontation when Governor Van Goens captured Kalpitiya Harbor, which was Kandy's main access to the sea from the western coast. The Dutch then followed a policy of territorial expansion, although the Batavian administration of the Dutch East India Trading Company did not fully comply with this policy. From the point of view of Kandy, this was an open violation of the treaty of 1638, which precluded the Dutch from holding any territory against the wishes of the king. Dutch authorities, however, justified their claim on two grounds. First, they interpreted the treaty in a different manner by, apparently, deleting one important clause. Second, and mainly because the first claim was not convincing, they argued that they had the right to hold onto the territory they captured until the debt owed the Dutch for helping Kandy expel the Portuguese was fully paid. Estimated unilaterally by the Dutch, this debt was by no means affordable for Kandy. Thus, the Dutch were able to justify holding onto various territories for a long time.

Following the death of Rajasinghe II, Kandy's attitude toward the Dutch became more conciliatory. The Dutch also became less aggressive, as their economic interests demanded a peaceful atmosphere. Peaceful coexistence basically prevailed until the Kandy-Dutch war of 1761 to 1766. Dutch governors made a conscious effort to please the king. For example, they helped Kandy to bring Buddhist monks from Burma and Siam to perform higher ordination for Buddhist novices. They also accepted, at least nominally, the sovereign rights of the king even in Dutch territories. The Dutch, in turn, received permission to peel cinnamon free of any remuneration in Kandyan lands.

There were, however, occasions when this peaceful coexistence was tested. Repeated demands from Kandy to take part in the overseas trade and occasional unrest among the inhabitants of the Dutch territory caused problems. The Dutch stood firm against Kandy's wish to take part in trade. Nayakkars from South India, who constituted a significant group in the Kandyan court (because Kandyan kings frequently selected Nayakkar wives for the royal family), had a great interest in the trade between the two opposite coasts. Moreover, Kandyan chiefs either instigated or supported various rebellions in the Dutch territory, most significantly those involving cinnamon peelers. These issues lay the ground for the open confrontation that culminated in the war of 1761 to 1766.

When a Siamese prince was handed over to the Dutch to be deported following a conspiracy in the Kandyan court, a rumor spread that the Dutch were planning to enthrone the prince. Kandy then invaded the Dutch territory in 1761 under the pretext of responding to the grievances of inhabitants who had complained to the king.

War and the treaty that followed greatly weakened Kandy. Its access to the sea was completely denied after it lost the coastal portions of its territory. It also lost more territories in the interior, and was forced to recognize the sovereign rights of the Dutch over their possessions. The treaty in general was humiliating to Kandy, and as a result the kingdom did everything to baulk at its implementation.


The English East India Company got hold of the Dutch possessions in Ceylon in 1796, benefiting from Napoleon's invasion of Holland. In place of the Dutch, the internally weakened Kandy now had to deal with agents of the ever more powerful British Empire. When the English occupied the Maritime regions, a bitter rivalry broke out among the court chiefs of Kandy, who divided themselves into two rival factions. A succession crisis after the death of King Rajadhi Rajasinghe, who left no son, added more fuel to this rivalry. While Nayakkars tried to enthrone the son of the brother of one of the queens, a move that was supported by a section of the court chiefs, Mahaadigar (prime minister) Pilimatalauve, the most powerful chief, planned successfully to enthrone an eighteen-year-old named Konnasami, the son of a sister of one of the queens-dowager.

The crisis in the court was extremely beneficial for the English, as each rival party tried to win their support. Pilimatalauve soon broke from the king and approached the English on his own. In 1803, hoping to exploit the situation, the British governor of Ceylon, Frederick North, mounted an expedition to occupy Kandy, which proved to be disastrous. The failure of the English adversely affected the career of Pilimatalauve. In 1810 he was executed following an aborted revolt, after which his nephew Ahelepola succeeded him. He too followed his uncle's path by revolting against the king. The execution of Ahelepola's family widened the gap between the two parties and gave the opportunity for the English to intervene. The intervention was masterminded by John D'Oyly, an expert on Kandyan affairs, who had built an efficient intelligence network and was in communication with the chiefs who had defected. The war against Kandy, proclaimed in January 1815, was strongly supported by Ahelepola. It was over in forty days, without any notable military engagements. The king was captured and the Kandyan Convention was signed, ceding the Kandyan kingdom to the British, but maintaining many of the rights of the chiefs.

However, the honeymoon between the British and the rebel Kandyan chiefs did not last long. Although the Convention has made provisions to safeguard the ancien regime, administrative measures that were taken to consolidate British rule greatly diminished the influence of the chiefs. While Britain planned to extend its rule from maritime areas to the Kandyan interior, the chiefs were unwilling to sacrifice their power and privileges. A rebellion in 1818 was the inevitable outcome of dissatisfaction among the chiefs and on the part of the principal Buddhist monks, who formed another significant element of the Kandyan polity.

Following their ruthless crushing of the rebellion, the British issued a proclamation in 1818 that effectively put an end to the erstwhile organization of the Kandyan kingdom. Unlike the Convention of 1815, this proclamation greatly curtailed the power and privileges of the Kandyan chiefs. It is fair to say, therefore, that the proclamation concluded the integration of the Kandyan kingdom into the British colonial sphere, by bringing an end to Kandy as a separate political formation.

see also Ceylon; Empire, British; Empire, Dutch; Empire, Portuguese.


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De Silva, Chandra R. The Portuguese in Ceylon, 1617–1638. Colombo, Sri Lanka: H. W. Cave, 1972.

De Silva, Colvin R. Ceylon under the British Occupation 1795–1833, Vol. 1. New Delhi: Navrang, 1995. (First published in 1941.)

Dewaraja, L. S. The Kandyan Kingdom of Ceylon, 1707–1760. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Lake House, 1972.

University of Ceylon History of Ceylon, Vol. 3. Edited by K. M. de Silva. Colombo, Sri Lanka: University of Ceylon Press, 1973.

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