An Imperial Saga: The Kandyan Sinhalese Prisoners in Mauritius, 1819-1832

Michael Roberts, reviewing Raja C. Bandaranayake:  Betwixt Isles: The Story of the Kandyan Prisoners in Mauritius, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2006. 360pp, ISBN 13 9789551266417 and 10 955-1266-41-2

 Ähalēpola – a contemporary etching and his gravesite epitaph (with contradictory dates in Sinhala and English) as photographed by Bandaranayake  recently

Raja Bandaranayake ventures bold. He unravels and describes the story of the 29 Kandyan prisoners and 11 convicts who were sent to Mauritius by the British authorities between 1819 and 1832. This ‘contingent’ also extended to others, namely, (1) one convict named John Herman Haas; (2) an English speaking gentleman “Translator” with his retainer; and (3) a few retainers for Ähalēpola Nilame when he was sent there in 1825 without facing prosecution simply because the British Governors were fearful of his capacity to incite discontent.

The British Empire, as we know, was far-flung. They used manpower from one area, notably India, to conquer and control other areas. They also used some of their colonial territories as a “repository’ for rebels and recalcitrant from other colonies. Sending Arabi Pasha and his lieutenants to Ceylon in 1883 and a large contingent of Boer prisoners of war to Ceylon in 1900 are perhaps the best-known of these instances. Now, Bandaranayake has placed the saga of the Sri Lankans on the imperial map.

Bandaranayake is a a Faculty of Anatomy man from Peradeniya, the Arabian Gulf and New South Wales Universities – hence my opening line about his adventuresome act. Medical work does, however, call for forensic skill. In this book the investigative and empirical capacities fostered thus have been deployed in the manner of a historian’s forensics to recover for us the tale of the Kandyans conveyed to Mauritius.

Medical duties took Bandaranayake periodically to Mauritius. This circumstance encouraged him to venture upon a historical voyage – one that now benefits us readers. It is a tale set in detailed place/space. Bandaranayake introduces us to the isle of Mauritius and carefully works out (and maps) where the little ‘mansion’ which housed the noble Kandyan leader, Ähalēpola (also spelt Ehelapola), was located. This was no easy task and required detailed archival research as well as leg-work in the landscape.

The book is also embellished by several sketches and drawings as well as reproductions of manuscripts showing the signatures of Pilimatalauve and Ähalapola. To my mind the most valuable of these “extras” are (1) the etching of Ähalapola which is presented as frontispiece; (2) the four charts depicting the genealogies of Ähalēpola, Iriyagama, Pilimatalauve and “The Relationships among Kandyan Prisoners in Mauritius;” and (3) the two charts  which usefully summarize the lengths of stay (and year of death) of both the rebel prisoners and convicts.

These figures, charts and reproductions, of course, are appendages to a historical tale. My point is that they are supports that reveal the thorough-going manner in which Bandaranayake caters to a reader’s quest for completeness of detail.

The text itself is replete with detail presented in good prose that carries one along. At one level it is a book for an antiquarian. The thorough manner in which Bandaranayake has rooted out all manner of sources and woven the empirical material into an unfolding picture of events places the author in the category “HISTORIAN.” He is not afraid to surmise, but places all his conjectures before the reader as conjecture.

The empiricism that dominates this book means that it does not address large questions. The details on what is widely called the “Kandyan Rebellion of 1817/18” are certainly of consequence and some of this material is, as far as I know, quite new. However, it does not address the issue of the sentiments motivating the rebels of that period in any fresh way – in part because he has not studied such documents as the Ingrīsi Hatana (describing the war against the English in 1803).

As I have argued in Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, 1590s-1818 (Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2004) — a book that was not available to Bandaranayake when he penned his manuscript, the ideological currents motivating the resistance of those whom we have called “Kandyans” in their struggles against the Portuguese Dutch and British were “Sinhalese” (or “Sinhala” if you prefer that nomenclature). They fought on behalf of pāta rata and uda rata combined. When I was examining an English translation of a letter from the Kandyan court that was not available in its original form, I struck a conundrum: “what Sinhala word had been used for the term “Kandyan” which appeared in the letter? Even Punchibanda Meegaskumbura scratched his head when I raised the question. It could have been Sīhala ratē ayaval; but it was pure chance that led me to the discovery of the word kanda udayo in the book Rājāvaliya – where Gunasekara (the Editor of the English translation) had rendered it as “hill men”!! Amusing all this is it not! Titillating it may be, but the details involve major historical issues.

Another fascinating detail unearthed by Bandaranayake then strikes home. An English lady visitor who attended an evening soiree at Ähalēpola’s house in Mauritius complained that the guests “resignedly listened to an interminable ballad sung by one of his attendants relating a Sinhala victory over the Portuguese” (pp. 175-76). For me this is a real empirical gem. It confirms the vitality and weight of oral transmission in Sinhala society. It supports the emphasis on oral learning that I have pressed in the critical second chapter of Sinhala Consciousness and previously in the pamphlet, Modernist Theory. Trimming the printed word: the instance of pre-modern Sinhala society (Colombo, Unie Arts for ICES, 2002 — ISBN 955-580-068-7).

This is not an isolated illustration from Bandaranayake’s book. The empirical richness of his investigations provides historian with invaluable data on the social history of the British Empire through details on its consumer products, culinary tastes and its attentiveness to social rank. British society at home and abroad in the early nineteenth century was a status conscious dispensation. In Ceylon and in the Sinhala/Tamil worlds it encountered another status order informed both by caste differentiation and rank within the superior castes.

In sending and placing the Kandyan chieftains and others to Mauritius, the British gentlemen rulers attended meticulously to rank. When Ähalēpola was dispatched to Mauritius, he was allowed three retainers (one apparently a private secretary) and an interpreter of gentlemanly status who had his own retainer. He was not placed in a dungeon, but given a separate house, while his “wants and comfort” were carefully attended to by the British officer seconded to the role of prisoners’ supervisor under instructions from the Governor of Ceylon.

Ähalēpola even purchased a horse and gig after a while; and “decked in his elegant outfit” he attended “parties of high Mauritian society” (p. 105). It is here that we discover the consumer tastes of that age and find that there were such items as “bottled curry powder” (p. 97). Remarkably, the British authorities did their level best to provide the Kandyan prisoners with fare, from curry power to goraka to betel leaf, favoured by the Sinhala palate.

This fare included fine Madeira wine. While Bandaranayake proves conclusively that Ähalēpola was abstemious, he also shows us that “every description of expensive wines” was served at the parties he held in Sri Lanka and thereafter in Mauritius.

There is yet another gem in this line of detail. We find that the headman Mattamagoda, one of the rebels of 1817/18 and another of those sent to Mauritius (in 1819), was definitely not a teetotaler. When the British army units were closing in on him in the jungles of Uva, they discovered “ten bottles of fine Madeira wine in one of the jungle huts” (p. 100). There is a lesson in this useful piece of information for those patriots who paint a romantic pastoral picture of the Sinhala village in past time. They will perhaps retort that such signs of degeneration were introduced by the Portuguese. This may be possibly so. But, then, infinite regression into the obscure past is also a defense emerging from minds dogmatic and prejudiced.


Filed under heritage, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, military expenditure, politIcal discourse, power politics, unusual people, world events & processes

7 responses to “An Imperial Saga: The Kandyan Sinhalese Prisoners in Mauritius, 1819-1832

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