The rebellion of Sri Lanka in 1848

The rebellion of Sri Lanka in 1848

In July 1848, a large crowd of people gathered before the government agent of Kandy to protest against the newly formed gun-tax. Emerson Tennent, the colonial secretary, arrived at Kandy and addressed a concourse of chiefs and headmen on the subject of taxes, after which the people dispersed.

A few days later a still larger crowd assembled in Colombo and was marching to the Fort to remonstrate with the governor, when Dr Christopher Elliot of the observer appealed to them to disperse, promising to make representations in the proper form.

They dispersed, but disturbances of a similar nature took place all over the country in the low lands as well as in the highlands. At Matale, the crowds became unruly and burnt and sacked some houses and proclaimed a low-country man, Purang Appo, king of Kandy. Another pretender, named Gongalgoda Banda, appeared at Dambulla and was likewise acclaimed. Viscount Torrington thereupon lost his head, called out the military, summoned aid from India and placed the whole of Matale, Kandy, Dambulla and Kurunegala under martial law.


The troops marching from Kandy to Matale encountered some armed men at Variapola and forty were shot down without any loss to the troops. The military then occupied Matale, issued proclamation, seized alleged rebels, confiscated property and shot men without ceremony after a drum-head court-martial. It was apparent to all that the movement was not a dangerous one.

Beyond the gatherings of one or two hundred men at a time and the robbing of one or two planters’ bungalows, nothing of importance had occurred. No chief was concerned, not a single European life was lost; yet Torrinton, listening to his panicky councillors, continued martial law for a long period, and from first to last about hundred alleged ‘rebels’  were shot or hanged while others were publicly flogged and imprisoned. The governor looked at Dr Elliot and A.M Ferguson as the instigator and the former even received a hint not to show himself within the martial law.

Public resentment

There was, however, such a current opinion against the proceedings of the governor that he thought it best invokes the action of the civil tribunals and a few acres of Kandy were exempted from martial law to enable the chief justice to try some of the rebels for high treason. This was a confession of weakness either the country was too disturbed for civil courts to sit or it was sufficiently peaceable to render courts-martial unnecessary. As it was, while the judge was sitting in one part of Kandy, from another part were heard the reverberations of a volley which terminated the existence of a man who had been tried the same day for the crime by a court-martial.

Thirty-four men stood their trial before the Supreme Court, ad seventeen were convicted. At a second eighteen more received sentence. But the chief justice, Sir Anthony Oliphant, recommended the prisoners as fit subjects for the governor’s clemency, adding “when it is considered that no European has been put to death, that only one soldier has been wounded by the rebels that no persons have appeared in warlike array against the troops since the outbreak at Matale and Kurunegala, the blood which has been already spilt is sufficient for all purposes, whether of vindication of the law or for example.” This rebuff irritated the governor, in the chief justice’s opinion was public and the governor dared not go against the expressed recommendation of the head of the judiciary.

A monk shot

Meanwhile, Purang Appu and Gongallagoda Banda were taken and shot and a monk Kudapoilla Unnanse was tried by the court-martial for failing to give information which might lead to the arrest of a rebel. On this curious charge, he was and sentenced to be shot.

The queen’s advocate, H.C Selby, considered the evidence insufficient for a conviction, let alone for the sentence, and begged the governor for a reprieve; but Torrington refused it in strong language, which he afterwards regretted, and the monk was shot. The indignation aroused by these severities of the governor was intense. It was reported that the chief justice threatened to resign if one man more were shot.


Dr Elliot, A. M. Ferguson, Richard Morgen, Lawrence Oliphant, son and private of the chief justice, led an agitation in the island and communicated with friends in England who placed the matter before members of parliament. T. J. McChristie, an English barrister, who had been in Ceylon, became the London agent of the agitation, and Joseph Hume and Henry Baillie championed the cause appointed to inquire, and Baillie, Sir Robert Peel, Gladstone and Disraeli were among the committeemen.

They requested the House to order home for examination some of the principal complaints, the queen’s advocate, Selby, his brother, John Selby, the chief justice, Colonel Braybrook and Lieutenant Henderson, along with the principal offenders, Captain Watson, who enforced martial-law in Matale and Lt. Col. Drought, commandant of Kandy. Tennent and Woodhouse also went to represent the case for the government, and in order to clear themselves, they produced some private letters of Torrington.


The chief charge and the blackest was that a Buddhist monk had been shot in robes of the intercession of the chief law officer of the crown. Captain Watson endeavoured to deny the authenticity of certain proclamations issued by him and now produced before the committee. The latter thereupon sent two commissioners, Morehead and Rhode. To Ceylon to investigate on the spot, and they declared for the genuineness of the proclamations.

McChristie was now bent on procuring the impeachment of Torrington and the trial of Col. Drought. But Torrington was the cousin of the premier, and great effort was made to save him. In fact, it was not he who was to blame, but his councillors.

Unfortunately, the committee could not conclude its labours before the end of the session, and the motion praying for the appointment of a royal commission was defeated by a narrow majority, the government undertaking to recall Torrington if the matter were not pressed. The unpopularity of these measures led to the fall of the cabinet of Lord Russel.

Recall of Torrington

Meanwhile, Torrington sent in his resignation as soon as he learnt from the newspapers that his private letters had been produced before the committee. But before his resignation reached London, Earl Grey communicated to the governor that her Majesty had been pleased to direct him to be relieved of the government of Ceylon and that Sir George Anderson of Mauritius was appointed to the same.

Tennent and Woodhouse also were informed that their services were not required in Ceylon. Captain Watson was afterwards tried by order of the Duke of Wellington but acquitted. The suppression of the rebellion cost a good sum of the money which the government had to raise from a local bank. And an ordinance was quickly passed indemnifying the governor and all persons for acts done during the existence of the martial law.  Thus ended the last and least of the rebellion.