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For 450 years the island of Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka) was the prey of successive naval powers. Colonial conquest of the island was predicated on superior sea power and arms, military organization, political strength, and economic wealth. Popular history has generally differentiated between Portuguese rule (1505–1658), Dutch rule (1658–1796), and British rule (1796–1948) in the guise of first the East India Company and then the British Crown. The "rule" in Ceylon of these three powers was sometimes nothing more than a presence that grew, spread, or declined in space and time.


In the early sixteenth century, there were three native centers of political power in Ceylon: two Sinhalese kingdoms in Kotte and Kandy and a Tamil kingdom in Jaffna. When the king of Kotte died in 1597, he bequeathed his territories to the king of Portugal, and the Portuguese became de jure sovereigns over the lowlands of Ceylon. The Portuguese annexed the north of the island in 1619. Their attempts to invade the kingdom in the mountains in the center of the island met with resounding defeat in 1592 to 1594 and on many subsequent occasions.

The Dutch commercial company, the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC, or Dutch United East India Company), entered the Sri Lankan scene at the beginning of the seventeenth century under the pretext of helping the king of Kandy wage war against the Portuguese. When the Dutch took possession of the island's Low Country, King Rajasinghe II (1635–1687) of Kandy organized a resistance that combined guerilla warfare, negotiation, and attempts at alliances with France and England. After his death, the VOC resorted to force against the Kandyans when they did not cease from inciting the Low Country Sinhalese to revolt against colonial rule.

In 1766 colonial rule in Ceylon was given written sanction when the Kandyan king was obliged to sign a treaty that gave the Dutch sovereignty over the entire coastline of the island up to a depth of one Sinhalese mile (5.6 kilometers; 3.5 miles). From then on, the kingdom of Kandy was a landlocked entity. The British took over the Dutch-controlled territory of Ceylon in 1796, and with an 1815 treaty known as the Kandyan Convention, brought the Kandyan provinces under British sovereignty.


In the colonial system, the economy was tied to the export of tropical goods and the import of food products such as rice. In the sixteenth century, the Portuguese were intent on building a system of trading and military outposts connected by sea lanes and on gaining control of spice production. In Ceylon they found cinnamon, which they developed by relying on the Salagama people, who were relatively recent migrants from South India, to provide their counters with supplies. The Dutch continued this practice in a more systematic way with the creation of the first cinnamon plantations. The canals they built permitted spices to be transported efficiently and shipped overseas.

Under the British, export trade turned successively to coffee (ca. 1840), tea and coconut (ca. 1880), and rubber (ca. 1900). The island became one of the principal plantation colonies of the British Empire with the main areas of production and extraction increasingly located within the territories of the Kandyan kingdom. British production techniques were modeled on those of the plantations in the Caribbean. The demands of the plantation industry required a network of roads linking the interior of the island with the coasts, thus marking the beginning of a modern transportation system. Another ethnic element was added with the arrival of immigrant plantation labor from South India.

There was little interest on the part of the European colonizers for peasant agriculture, although some reservoirs in the dry zone were repaired in the late nineteenth century. On the whole, state policy was inimical to peasant agriculture in two specific areas: the levying of taxes and colonial policy in relation to shifting agriculture, a system in which farmers move from site to site. Under this system, forest land is brought into cultivation by the slash and burn method and farmed until its productivity falls. Peasant agriculture in Ceylon failed to achieve the dynamic growth of the plantation sector during this same period, while methods of cultivation remained unchanged.


Portuguese colonialism did not lead to substantial changes in the native administrative system. When the Catholic Church arrived in Sri Lanka, however, it functioned as the ideological apparatus of the Portuguese colonialists. The arrival of the church therefore marked the beginning of a dark age for the Buddhists and Hindus of the island. Many converted to Catholicism or intermarried with the colonizers, spawning new social formations, such as Catholic Sinhalese or Tamils, as well as people of mixed descent. Converts were exempted from various taxes and generally given preferential treatment.

Portuguese rule also created conditions of differentiation between Kandyans and Low Country Sinhalese—the latter bearing the mark of the foreign presence in their legislation, land structures, and customs. Another significant change came with the upward mobility of certain castes associated with colonial power, especially the Salagamas (cinnamon peelers).

During Dutch rule, a number of natives converted to Protestantism, while interracial marriages created the Burgher community. The Dutch contributed to the evolution of the judicial system of the island as indigenous laws and customs that did not conflict with Dutch-Roman jurisprudence were codified. This was the case of the Tamil legal code of Jaffna (the Thesavalamai) and Muslim law. In the Low Country, courts applied Roman Dutch law, thus modifying traditional notions of property and affecting family structures.

The rapid expansion of plantation agriculture in the mid-nineteenth century was the major catalyst of social change in Sri Lanka. The growth of services to support the needs of the plantations and their workers stimulated the development of the Kandyan highlands and the city of Colombo. A class of local capitalists emerged, especially in the mining and export of graphite and in the coconut plantations. The island's traditional elite landowners, the Mudaliyars, were soon challenged by a new Englisheducated elite derived from all ethnic groups and castes.


The British transferred power in 1948 to a conservative multiethnic elite that had spearheaded a mild nationalist movement. The British felt that this group would offer the best resistance to the forces of cultural nationalism and Marxism then gaining momentum in the country. The westernized elites had on the whole been willing partners of the British. What resistance there had been occurred in the first two decades of the century when the temperance movement rallied Sinhalese Buddhists against the imposition of Christian values. Paradoxically, it was only in 1956 that a powerful nationalist movement would emerge to shake off the remnants of the colonial state.

see also Empire, Dutch.


Abeyasinghe, Tikiri. Portuguese Rule in Ceylon, 1594–1612. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Lake House Investments, 1966.

Abeyasinghe, Tikiri. "Princes and Merchants: Relations between the Kings and the Dutch East India Company in Sri Lanka, 1688–1740." Journal of the Sri Lanka National Archives 2 (1984): 35-60.

Arasaratnam, Sinnappah. Dutch Power in Ceylon. 1658–1687. Amsterdam: Djambatan, 1958.

De Silva, Kingsley M., ed. A History of Ceylon, Vol. 3. Peradeniya, Sri Lanka: University of Ceylon, 1973.

De Silva, Kingsley M., ed. A History of Sri Lanka, Vol. 2. Peradeniya, Sri Lanka: University of Peradeniya, 1995.

Dewaraja, Lorna. The Kandyan Kingdom of Sri Lanka, 1707–1782. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Lake House Investment, 1988.

Gombrich, Richard, and Obeysekere Gananath. Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press: 1988.

Gunawardana, Leslie. "The People of the Lion: The Sinhala Identity and Ideology in History and Historiography." Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities 5 (1979): 1-36.

Jayawardena, Kumari. Nobodies to Somebodies: The Rise of the Colonial Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Social Scientists Association, 2000.

Malalgoda, Kithsiri. Buddhism in Sinhalese Society, 1750–1900: A Study of Religious Revival and Change. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Wickramasinghe, Nira. "Divide and Rule in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) During the Period of Transfer of Power." Special Issue: Tikiri Abeyasinghe Commemoration. University of Colombo Review 10 (1991): 75-92.

Wickramasinghe, Nira. Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History of Contested Identities. London: C. Hurst, 2006.

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CEYLON (Sri Lanka) , island, south of India, now an independent state. Legend and tradition, Islamic and Samaritan in origin, connect Ceylon with biblical personalities and events. Adam is said to have descended on the island after his expulsion from Paradise, and Noah's Ark allegedly rested on the mountains of Serandib, which tradition equates with Mount Ararat. The presence of Jews in Ceylon is alluded to by the 9th-century Muslim traveler Abu Za'id al-Ḥasan Sirāfī and the 12th-century Muslim geographer al-Idrīsī. According to the latter, four of the Council of 16 appointed by the king of Ceylon were Jews. The number of Jews living there cannot be ascertained, though an obscure and doubtful passage in *Benjamin of Tudela (mid-12th century) reads either 3,000 or 23,000. When the Dutch East India Company established its foothold in Ceylon, Jews from the Malabar coast may have gone there for the purpose of trade. From 1758 to 1760, Leopold I.J. van Dort, a former Jew born in Holland, was professor of Hebrew at the Christian Theological Seminary in Colombo. In 1809, while Ceylon was under British rule, the chief justice Sir Alexander Johnston was seriously interested in a large-scale immigration of Jews to Ceylon and submitted his project to the government; however no further action was taken. According to the traveler J. *Saphir a small group of European Jews led by the brothers Wormser established a coffee estate in the hills above Kandy in 1841. No Jewish communal organization appears to have existed in any part of Ceylon.

[Walter Joseph Fischel]

Ceylon-Israel Relations

Diplomatic relations between Israel and Ceylon were established only in 1957. In Ceylon, which gained its independence in 1948 and always maintained a pro-Arab policy, opinions were divided with regard to Israel. The Moslem minority there, numbering around 1,000,000 people, has religious, cultural, and historic ties with the Arab world and exerts consistent pressure on its government to support the Arabs against Israel. An additional factor is that the Arab states buy a significant amount of Ceylonese tea, which is the major export item, and threaten to cut off these purchases if Ceylon were to improve its relations with Israel. The policy of the government of India also influences its Ceylonese neighbor. Several Jewish women of European origin, who are married to Ceylonese, are now living on this island, and they constitute its total Jewish population. Despite Israel's efforts, two major political parties in Ceylon continue to support the Arabs. Throughout the years of the relations between Israel and Ceylon, from 1957 until 1970, each Ceylonese government continued, more or less, the policy of its predecessor in supporting the Arab states. The government of Mrs. Bandaranaike, which was elected in 1970, resolved (under Arab and Communist influence) to take a more extreme approach than any previous government and suspended relations with Israel. In announcing this policy, the Ceylonese government declared that it was suspending relations until Israel's retreat from the territories occupied in the Six-Day War (1967) or until an agreement had been reached to the satisfaction of the Arabs. This policy resulted in the closing of Israel's legation in Colombo in August 1970. Low-level relations were resumed in the early 1980s but broken off again in 1990. In 2000, diplomatic relations were fully restored. Israel has supplied Sri Lanka with arms.

[Yitzhak Navon]


J.E. Tennent, Ceylon, 2 (Eng., 1860), 250ff.; J. Saphir, Even Sappir, 2 (1874), 95; D.W. Marks and A. Loewy, Memoir of Sir Francis Henry Goldsmid, bart. (18822); Reissner, in: Ceylon Historical Journal, 3 (1953), 136–44, 228–33.

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Ceylon Former name of Sri Lanka

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Ceylon. See Sri Lanka.

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Ceylon: see Sri Lanka.