Since time immemorial Sri Lanka has been a meeting point for Eastern and Western trade. The Island was known for precious stones, tortoise shells and ivory to Greek merchants and sailors from the Roman Empire and later to Persian, Armenian and Arab navigators. Chinese cartographers mapped the island well before the sea route from Europe to India was discovered in the 15th Century.
According to Sinhalese legend the island was inhabited by demons (yaksas) when Prince Vijaya and seven hundred followers landed at Puttalam on the Western Coast some time in the 5th century BC. Vijaya, like many a prince since if not before, had upset his father, King Sinhabahu, by his behaviour and had been banished from the kingdom of Sinhapura. Vijaya defeated the yaksas and drove them into the interior. Legend has it that he married a Yaksas princess but that he later disowned her and the two children he had fathered with her. The story goes that he then sent for a princess from the Madurai court in India together with wives for his hundreds of followers. It is not recorded quite what the Madurai made of this mail-order bridal service but, having gone through marriage ceremony and coronation, King Vijaya is reputed to have lived happily ever after. Having no legitimate heir, towards the end of his reign he sent for his younger brother to come from Sinhapura. The brother, unwilling to leave his native land, sent instead his youngest son, Panduvasudeva, who landed with a small entourage of just thirty-two followers at Gokamma (now renamed Trincomalee) on the Eastern Coast to be crowned at Upatissagama and continue the Vijaya dynasty.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to visit Sri Lanka, arriving in 1505 to find the island divided into seven warring kingdoms and unable to fend off intruders. The Portuguese founded a fort at the port city of Colombo in 1517 and gradually extended their control over the coastal areas. In 1592 the Sinhalese moved their capital to the inland city of Kandy, a location more secure against attack from invaders. Intermittent warfare continued throughout the 16th century.
Portuguese occupation was disliked by the Buddhist majority which welcomed any power who might rescue them and defeat the Portuguese. Thus, when the Dutch landed in 1602, the king of Kandy appealed for their help. The Dutch gradually wrested power from areas held by the Portuguese and by 1660 controlled the entire island with the notable exception of Kandy. The fiercely Protestant Dutch persecuted Catholics (mainly Portuguese settlers who had remained) but left Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims alone but they imposed much higher taxes than the Portuguese had done. The mixed Dutch-Sinhalese (Burgher) people are the legacy of Dutch rule.
In 1659, English sea captain Robert Knox landed on the island and, together with sixteen of his crew, was captured by the king of Kandy. He was treated with some leniency and was able to work as a farmer. He eventually escaped nineteen years later and an account of his stay, An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, was published in 1681. It is one of the earliest and most detailed European accounts of life on Ceylon and is today seen as an invaluable record of the island in the 17th century.
During the Napoleonic era the Netherlands had gradually become a satellite state under French control and the British, worried that the island might be ceded to the French occupied the coastal areas of the island. In 1802 under the Treaty of Amiens, the Dutch part of the island was formally ceded to Britain and became a crown colony. In 1803 the British failed to capture Kandy in a bloody conflict that became known as the First Kandyan War. In 1815 Kandy was occupied in the Second Kandyan War which ended Sri Lankan independence.
Coffee had been introduced by the Dutch in 1690 but under the British the number of plantations expanded considerably, particularly in the highlands of Sri Lanka which were highly suited to coffee and rubber. Many of the coffee pioneers did not arrive as settlers but as speculators, indeed, the state encouraged venture capitalist investment. Investors were able to obtain land grants and loans. They were also exempted from land taxes. The reduction of export duty led to a rise in consumption levels rise, both in the UK and in her colonies. By 1857, coffee plantations covered over eighty thousand acres. Within ten years this would double.
But in 1869 orange spots first appeared on the leaves: coffee blight. While coffee plantations were being decimated by disease, farmers, investors and speculators desperately looked for other crops to avoid financial ruin. Over the next two decades the great coffee industry built by private enterprise collapsed entirely and Ceylon teas would become famous throughout the world. To work the estates, the planters imported large numbers of Tamil workers from southern India, who soon made up ten per cent of the island’s population.
Under the British, English was the state language which greatly benefitted educated speakers of the language. Whilst some Sinhalese in Colombo and other cities could speak English, the vast majority of poorly-educated rural Sinhalese could not. The Tamils in the north and east of the country had received opportunities to learn the language via missionary schools. Thus, the Buddhist Sinhalese resented what they saw as British favouritism towards the mainly-Hindu Tamils. This exacerbated divisions and enmities and continues to have repercussions to this day. Nevertheless, the British also introduced democratic elements to the island. The Burghers were given some degree of self-government as early as 1833 but it was not until 1909 that constitutional development began with a partially elected assembly, and not until 1920 that elected members outnumbered official appointees. Universal suffrage was introduced in 1931, despite the protests of some sectors of the Sinhalese, Tamil and Burgher elite who objected to the common people being allowed to vote.
Independence finally came on 4 February 1948 with Don Stephen Senanayake, leader of the United National Party, as Prime Minister of a coalition government after more than one hundred and fifty years of British rule. The island became a member of the Commonwealth and in 1955 joined the United Nations. But tensions were mounting and economic difficulties emerged. The falling price of tea and rubber, coupled with an increase in costs of imported food (even today Sri Lanka is not self-sufficient in rice) severely affected the nation’s wealth. Unemployment was on the increase too.
This set the stage for the rise to power of Soloman Bandaranaike, an Oxford-educated barrister who established the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Elected Prime Minster in 1956 he removed British air and naval bases, began a nationalization programme and introduced the Sinhala Only Act which recognised Sinhalese as the only official language. Amongst other moves, he increased the number of Sinhalese officers in the army and appointed a Buddhist officer the Inspector General of Police over three other more senior Christian officers. He also commenced land reform policies which called for the resettlement of Sinhalese peasants and slum-dwellers to what was commonly regarded as the Tamil homeland.
Following Bandaranaike’s assassination by a Buddhist monk in 1959, his widow came to power as the world’s first female Prime Minister. Known as “Mrs. B,” Sirimavo Bandaranaike skillfully boosted support by bursting into tears as she pledged to continue her assassinated husband’s policies. Her detractors scornfully nicknamed her the “weeping widow”.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike nationalized the banking and insurance sectors and by 1961 the state controlled all schools. Following the nationalization of foreign owned companies the United States and Britain ended aid to the country. She also strengthened ties with the Soviet Union and with China whilst promoting a policy of non-alignment.
In 1972, the country became a republic and changed its name to Sri Lanka. Then in 1973 the government implemented what they called a “policy of standardisation” designed to rectify disparities in university enrollment which had traditionally favoured educated English-speakers. Today we would describe it as an experiment in positive discrimination.
The policy enabled many more Sinhalese students to enter higher education and led to a significant fall in the number of Tamil students. Over the next few years Tamils were increasingly marginalised and ethnic tensions turned violent. In the 1977 election the Tamil United Liberation Front (formed by the merger of Tamil political parties) ran on a separatist platform, calling for their own independent state within the island. It gained majority votes in the north and the east and became the largest opposition party in Parliament. But Tamil self-determination met severe opposition under the government of J.R. Jayawardene. By 1983 Tamils in Parliament were required to take an oath of allegiance to the unified state of Sri Lanka. TULF members of parliament were expelled for their refusal to do so. Civil war broke out in 1983.
The war lasted twenty-six years and ended in 2009 when government forces defeated all territory held by the Tamil separatists and their military wing, the Tamil Tigers. Some 450,000 Tamils sought asylum in Western Europe and the United States between 1983 and 1998 alone. It is estimated that between 60,000 and 100,000 people were killed in the conflict, perhaps as many as 40,000 in the closing stages alone. Around 250,000 Tamil refugees were confined to camps for a long time afterwards and there have been persistent allegations that the government had ordered the execution of captured or surrendering rebels. A 2001 UN report said that both sides had committed war crimes.
Mahinda Rajapaksa won a landslide victory in early elections in January 2010 after the defeat of the separatists. His ruling coalition went on to win an overwhelming majority in parliamentary elections three months later. Shortly afterwards a constitutional amendment was passed allowing him to stand for unlimited terms in office.
Rajapaksa claimed to be providing much-needed stability in the post-conflict era but the opposition accused him of dictatorial tendencies.
In a dramatic turn of events, Maithripala Sirisena defected from the ruling party and announced he would stand against Mr Rajapaksa in the elections.
In the January 2015 election Maithripala Sirisena won 51.3 per cent of the vote, in a turnout of 82 per cent.
Sri Lanka is a small country of immense charm, intense humidity and impressive cultural heritage. People are friendly and engaging, welcoming travellers with a ready smile. But it is sobering to reflect that until 2009 the country was in a state of civil war and there remain occasional bouts of ethnic tension and violence between Muslims and Buddhists, Tamils and Sinhalese.
At Revealed Travel we continue to watch developments with interest.