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Colonial Administration in British Ceylon.

In the 1832 Report of the Colebrooke Commission, Mr. C.H. Cameron outlined his view that Ceylon represented: “the fittest spot in our Eastern Dominions in which to plant the germ of European Civilization”. Ceylon had been unified under British control between 1796 and 1815, and remained relatively stable throughout its occupation, bar the Kandyan rebellions of 1817-1818 and 1848. Unlike India and the rebellion of 1857, maintenance of British control of Ceylon did not pose a significant headache for the Colonial Office beyond the initial invasion of Kandy. The later instability of 1848 was quickly remedied and provided important lessons for the administration of Ceylon. However, the administrative apparatus of the Island was largely in place by the first decade of the 19th century and further reforms were carried on through the 1830s to the 1840s, remaining the purview of the Ceylon Civil Service throughout British Occupation. Though expanded in the late 1830s, the Ceylon Civil Service remained a small organization with limited representatives in each district. From this datum, the stability of Ceylon is difficult to explain. Two useful documents that pertain to the administration of Ceylon, the 1848 Reports on the finance and commerce of the island of Ceylon, and correspondence relative thereto and Leonard Woolf’s Diaries in Ceylon 1908-1911, lend to our understanding of its relative stability. In the Ceylon Civil Service, it was required of high-ranking civil servants that they catalogue their daily activities. Leonard Woolf’s official diaries composed while serving as assistant government agent in the Hambantota district, between 1908 and 1911 provide insight into the day to day aspects of colonial administration. While, from the metropolitan core of the British Empire, a 1848 House of Common’s report on the finance and commerce of the island, place the administration of Ceylon in its broader political and economic context. Thus, both sources provide the basis for a dual perspective on British rule in Ceylon.

The House of Commons’ 1848 report, Ceylon: Reports on the finance and commerce of the island of Ceylon, and correspondence relative thereto, was intended to inform the metropolitan polity of the proposed course of action to be pursued by the colonial administration for improving the fiscal position of Ceylon. Prior to the Victorian era, the primary importance of British Ceylon was its strategic location and use by the navy during the Napoleonic period. Despite the prominence of cinnamon trade, the colony had maintained consistent deficits. Once Ceylon’s strategic value waned, the Colonial office could not ignore this state of affairs and the Royal Commission of Eastern Enquiry was established to redress the problem. Simultaneously, the first British attempts to develop a plantation economy modelled on the West Indies plantation systems. Control of Kandy provided entrepreneurs and would-be plantation owner’s access to suitable lands for the cultivation of coffee and tea. Whilst efforts to develop cotton and other crops failed, the original multiple crop models collapsed into monoculture. Plantations would eventual transform Ceylon’s economic, cultural and ethnic landscape. Prior to these developments, the reforms of 1833 represent an important turning point in the administration of British Ceylon.

The reforms of 1833 were centred on transforming Ceylon’s economy from the mercantilist structures developed under the Dutch occupation and continued with the East India Company toward a laissez-faire economic system. Indeed, the 1848 document reported a dramatic decrease in the colony’s expected revenues and the Colonial Secretary of British Ceylon, J.E. Tennent, recommended the abolition or reduction of trade duties, taxes and the cessation of remaining monopolies to remedy the fiscal decline. These policy recommendations were informed by classical political economy and signal the propensities of British colonial administration in Ceylon. However, the timing of the report coincided with a commercial crisis in metropolitan Britain and decline in cinnamon production and the nascent coffee plantations and the immediate response to the crisis involved reform of the tax system, burdening the peasants and Sinhalese population without removing impediments to economic liberalization. Nevertheless, the British effort to develop the infrastructure and agricultural production of Ceylon continued despite the setbacks of the late 1840s.

The development of plantations continued with renewed vigour after the collapse of 1848, as new investors brought failed plantations and commenced cultivation without the crippling debts of the first generation. It should be noted that the Kandyan rebellion of 1848 coincided with commercial crisis and occurred in geographical regions with intensive plantation cultivation. From this it has been speciously argued that the combined force of the commercial crisis and plantation economics caused the disturbances of 1848. However, the development of plantation cultivation in the region of Kandy did not occasion wide-scale dispossession of lands and much of the disturbances was associated with marginalized native power-elites that had not been placated under British rule. Landlessness was not a significant problem. Sinhalese peasants could not be made to work on plantation in large enough numbers. Therefore, Tamil seasonal labourers from South East India had to be imported to work the plantations. In practical terms, the Kandy Rebellion was not difficult to supress. The British had connected Kandy to Colombo by a major road that allowed for the quick movement of troops from the maritime region to the upcountry and further connected isolated regions by intensive road systems. Thus, the rebellion was suppressed quickly. In response to the rebellion, the British adapted their policy towards Buddhism and started to discourage Christian evangelicalism in an effort to plicate traditional power elites. Though, there was no great reform of the administrative system and the priorities of government remained consistent with those outlined in the Colebrooke Commission and the 1848 Ceylon: Reports on the finance and commerce of the island of Ceylon, and correspondence relative thereto. Leonard Woolf’s Diaries in Ceylon 1908-1911, though written in a later period, support this understanding of British Colonial administration.

Leonard Woof’s diaries detail his conduct and performance of duties as a member of the Ceylon Civil Service. It was required of agent assigned to districts that they maintain a daily account of their activities and these diaries were the primary source of information for the colonial administration in Colombo and from there the Colonial Office in Britain. In view of this, it should be remembered that Woolf is writing to impress a superior and present the image of himself as an efficient administrator and this perspective colours the document. Woolf served as the assistant government agent in the south eastern district of Hambantota and had roles pertaining to both the judicial and executive functions of administration. Many entries of the dairies detail inspection of infrastructure, predominantly this applies to irrigation systems and the construction of water tanks to facilitate the cultivation of rice paddies and moreover, the maintenance and improvement of salt production in the districts collection of lagoons. Of course, much preoccupation is given to the state of the district’s finances and means by which the administration could allocate its resources more efficiently. Specifically, through much of November 1908, Woolf spent much of his time attempting to reduce the cost of production and transportation of salt. This kind of activity was especially important, given that salt constituted one of the leading sources of colonial revenue, as the report on Ceylon’s finances makes clear. Incremental improvement to infrastructure and inspection of facilities constitute a mainstay of Woolf’s administrative duties.

In the administration of Ceylon, the fiscal position of the government and the economic development of the island were of paramount importance to the British establishment. Though, Woolf’s judicial function required him to preside over the trail of murder and other crimes. His ability to pursue this question is limited given his resources and there is one occasion were he acknowledges his inability to ascertain the truth relating to a murder in January of 1910. It is clear that Woolf’s primary role and that of Civil Servants was to preside over the economic development of the country and maintain the semblance of order among the natives. Only occasionally does Woolf depart from the recounting of his daily activities to offer casual opinions and aspects of Sinhalese culture and the effectiveness of the civil service. Thus, while much of Woolf’s activities are centered on the improvement of infrastructure, he regularly expresses skepticism about the technical prowess of the Sinhalese and their ability to maintain machinery indicating a contrary impulse among members of the civil service. As stated above, much of the labour for coffee and tea plantation was undertaken by imported Tamils from South East India and contemporary British opinions of Sinhalese were not favourable. Though, the Sinhalese did not destabilise the British Occupation after the Kandyan rebellion because they were not disposed of their lands and the development of plantation cultivation which were the primary economic support of colonialism did not in large matter adversely affect the native population and their way of life.

Infrastructure and economic development were the guiding priorities of the British occupation of Ceylon. Roads like the Colombo-Kandy link provided access to suitable lands for plantation and much energy was expended to improve farming and village conditions. The 1848 report was a low-water mark in British efforts to reform the Ceylon’s economy and administration given the impact of the 1847 commercial crisis. Though, it indicates the trajectory and priorities of British administration. Woolf’s diaries support the understanding of British rule presented within the report and add a quotidian dimension to that viewpoint. Under British Rule, Ceylon remained relatively stable after the suppression of the Kandyan Rebellion of 1848, many factors influenced this outcome and it would appear difficult given the small British presence in the day to day lives of the native population, especially in regional districts, but a confluence of economic and cultural forces mitigated against forces that destabilized other European colonies.

Written by Mathew Toll.


Primary Sources.
United Kingdom, House of Commons, (1848), Ceylon: Reports on the finance and commerce of the island of Ceylon, and correspondence relative thereto, London; William Clowes and Sons.
Woolf, L. (1963), Diaries in Ceylon 1908-1911 & Stories from the East, London; Hogarth Press.
Secondary Sources.
De Silva, K.M. (1981), A History of Sri Lanka, London; C. Hurst & Company.
De Silva, C. R. (1995), Ceylon under the British Occupation 1795-1833: Its Political, Administrative and Economic Development, Vol 2, New Delhi; Navrang.
Kerr, D. (1998), “Stories of the East: Leonard Woolf and the Genres of Colonial Discourse”, English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, Vol. 41, No. 3, pp. 261-279,
Samaraweera, V. (1972), “Governor Sri Robert Wilmot Horton and The Reforms of 1833 in Ceylon”, The History Journal, Vol. XV, No. 2. Pp. 209-228.
Sivasundaram, S. (2007), “Tales of The Land: British Geography and Kandyan Resistance in Sri Lanka, c. 1803-1850”, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 41, No. 5, pp. 925-965.
Subramaniam, V. (1957) “Graduates in the Public Services: A Comparative Study of Attitudes”, Public Administration, Vol. 35, No. 4. Pp. 373-394.
Wenzlhuemer, R. (2007), “Indian Labour Immigration and British Labour Policy in Nineteenth-Century Ceylon”, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 41, No. 3. Pp. 575-602.



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