Betwixt Isles: The Story of the Kandyan Prisoners in Mauritius

Raja C. Bandaranayake

A combination of cunning interlopers, scheming aliens and factious in-fighting among the nobility brought about the downfall of the KandyanKingdom at the hands of the British, on 14th February 1815, after an uninterrupted history of over three centuries. The sense of bewilderment and resignation of the Kandyan peasantry soon gave way to one of frustration, as they observed their traditions being gradually eroded by the conquerors, and the lack of respect shown to their religious leaders and erstwhile chiefs. The time was ripe for the some of the nobility to assert their authority. The British lost no time in crushing the resulting rebellion of 1817-1818. Their troops ruthlessly and unashamedly devastated Kandyan villages. Rebel leaders were captured or surrendered. While many were executed, some had their sentences commuted to banishment.

The first batch of exiles set sail for Mauritius in February, 1819. Ehelapola Maha Nilame, the self-styled “Friend of the British”, was himself taken captive in Kandy in March, 1818, incarcerated in Colombo for seven long years without trial before being exiled to Mauritius in May, 1825. In spite of a lack of proof of his involvement in the rebellion, Brownrigg concocted a flimsy excuse to justify the imprisonment of a man who had treated him as a father and had led him to conquer the Kingdom of Kandy.

The Kandyan prisoners’ stay in Mauritius spanned a period of thirteen and a half years, as the last, Pilimatalauve Junior, was sent back to Ceylon in September 1832. Many prisoners died in exile; others returned to Ceylon after varying periods. This book details the lives of the prisoners in Mauritius, including the manner in which they were clothed, fed and housed. Facts pertaining to the Maha Nilame hitherto uncovered, such as the house in which he lived, the scandal associated with the doctor who cared for him as he lay dying in Mauritius and the circumstances of his death and last rites are included. The roles played by the caring supervisor, Henry Bates, the faithful interpreter, Don Bastian, and a succession of medical officers who made the prisoners’ lives tolerable are examined. A fascinating series of events, which for long have been buried in historical myth, inaccuracy and lethargy, is reconstructed, mainly from the correspondence at the time between the islands of Ceylon and Mauritius.

TABLE of  CONTENTS

Prelude

Introduction: Interlopers and Aliens

Chapter 1: Serendipitous Beginnings

Chapter 2: The Maha Nilame

Chapter 3: Rebels With a Cause

Chapter 4: In His Father’s Footsteps

Chapter 5: The Trailblazers

Chapter 6: The Reluctant Leader

Chapter 7: The Aging Noble

Chapter 8: The Wily Ones

Chapter 9: Rebellious Clans

Chapter 10: The Smaller Fry

Chapter 11: Follow the Leaders

Chapter 12: Creature Comforts

Chapter 13: Tuppotti and Toppi

Chapter 14: The Abode of the Prisoners

Chapter 15: The Maha Nilame Arrives

Chapter 16: The House in Pamplemousses

Chapter 17: A “Prince” in Exile

Chapter 18: Table Wants

Chapter 19: In Medical Charge

Chapter 20: The Health of the Prisoners

Chapter 21: ‘The Prince’ at Peace

Chapter 22: Obsequies and Wills

Chapter 23: Interpreter Mudaliyar

Chapter 24: Superintendents

Chapter 25: The Commission of Enquiry

Epilogue

References

Index

About the Author:  Born in Sri Lanka and educated at St Thomas College, Mt Lavinia and the Colombo Medical School, the author obtained his PhD from the University of London (Guy’s Hospital Medical School), and a Master’s degree from the University of Southern California. A Professor of Anatomy and an international consultant in Medical Education, he now lives in Sydney, Australia. While he has several publications in the field of medicine, this is his first venture into the realms of history.

A Note: The two illustrations are taken from Michael Roberts, Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, 1590s-1815,  Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2004. Though we today have adopted the habit of referring to the “Kandyan Kingdom” in the English language, it is a msinomer. It was called Sīhalē or Sīhala among Sinhala speakers and could either refer to the whole island or, in specific contexts, to the area commanded directly by the Kings of Sīhalē. However,the rulers of Sīhalē considered themselves to be the kings of the whole island,  Sīhaladvīpa, and this was accepted by many a Dutch practice acknowledging the overlordship residing in the cakravarti figure seated at the Mahāvasala in Senkadagala or Mahanuvara. Sinhala Consciousness bears the ISBN 955-8095-53-2 in hardback and 955-8095-1-1 in pbk; and can be purschased on credit card from  www.vijithayapa.com for 40$ and 28$ respectively.

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Filed under authoritarian regimes, British imperialism, heritage, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, life stories, sri lankan society, world events & processes

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