HISTORY OF THE SINHALESE PEOPLE
The Sinhalese people made up of four clans referred to as Sivu Hela are the original inhabitants of the island of HELADIVA later known as SRI LANKA, and the Founding People of the nation. With the arrival of Prince Vijaya of North West India accompanied by 700 members of the Sinha clan and their merger with the Hela people in the 5th Century BC resulted in the formation of the Sihala (Sinhala) people, who form nearly 75 percent of the island’s population even today. Sri Lanka has a recorded history dating back to over 2,500 years published in the Pali language as an epic poem called the Mahavamsa in the 4th Century CE, by the Buddhist monk Mahanama based on prior records in Dipavamsa and AththaKatha covering the period from 5 BC to 5 CE. The Mahavamsa concludes at Chapter 37 covering the reign of King Mahasena. Continuation is in the Culavamsa which ends when the Chieftains of the Kingdom of Kandy called Sinhale ceded power to the British in 1815. The Mahavamsa was later translated to German by Prof. Wilelm Geiger in 1908 and soon after into English as well. The contents have been corroborated by records found in India and on over 3,000 rock inscriptions found in the island , photos of which are available in the archives of the Cambridge University in UK and in the journal Epigraphia Zelanica.
A complete transformation of the life of the people took place over 2,300 years back when the son of Emperor Asoka, Arahat Mahinda came to the island and imparted the Teachings of the Buddha which were accepted by King Devanampiyatissa the ruler and his subjects, which gave a fillip to the attributes in art, architecture and innovative skills of the people. The Sinhala people are heirs to the illustrious dagobas and other sacred monuments built to honour the Spiritual Teacher seen in ancient cities dating to over two millennia, and a unique hydraulic civilization comprising reservoirs and feeder canals developed to harness every drop of rain water to grow food crops for the wellbeing of the people. The philosophy that nurtured the culture and values of the people led to the ancient kings demarcating 1/16th of the land as Nature Parks called Abhaya Bhoomi, where the animals were free to roam unharmed.
Our ancestors have waged over 1600 battles to save the land from Chola Tamil and Pandyan invaders who came from the southern parts of India to pillage and plunder. Great kings such as Dutugemunu, Gajabahu and Vijayabahu defeated the enemy and rolled back the invasions. The Tamils first arrived as settlers around the 11 Century and established a sub-kingdom called Jaffnapatam in the 13th Century, comprising the Jaffna peninsula and a narrow strip extending to Mannar. The King of Kotte sent his forces under Prince Sapumal to regain suzerainty over Jaffnapatam after a lapse of nearly 150 years.
The Portuguese drifted off course and reached our shores in the year 1505. They falsely sought a trading post on the west coast and soon annexed the Kotte Kingdom. A new chapter dawned with partial subjugation of our territory to a Western European power. They adopted oppressive ways to forcibly convert the subject people from their traditional faith to Catholicism. Our nation too soon acquired an armory of locally made firearms to outmaneuver the enemy in open territory to defeat the Portuguese in their attempts to lay siege to the capital of the Kandyan kingdom. With the help of the Dutch, we successfully evicted the Portuguese in 1658 after 153 years. The Dutch replaced the Portuguese on the west coast and also obtained rights to a narrow tract along the east coast. The Buddhist King of Kandy gave refuge to the Arab Muslim traders who were driven out by the Portuguese and the Catholics who were persecuted by the Protestant Dutch.
In 1801, the British took possession of the Dutch controlled territory in terms of the Treaty of Amiens. They made several attempts to militarily annex the Kandyan kingdom but failed. They then resorted to deceptive means under the direction of the Sinhala speaking British Civil Servant, John d’Oyly whose duplicity and trickery helped to isolate the unpopular king from his chieftains. The Chieftains ceded power to the British in terms of the Kandyan Convention of 1815, only to find that the Treaty was being violated especially in respect of granting protection to Buddhism. These treaty violations gave rise to about 12 rebellions which were put down by the British by brutal means with orders to shoot every male over 14 years of age and adopting a scorched earth policy. No apology or compensation has been made by the British to the affected people up to date. The British soon after introduced the ‘Crown Lands Encroachment Ordinance No. 12 of 1840’ to expropriate private lands belonging to the Kandyans, and sell it to British capitalists at a shilling an acre. The forest cover over 2.5 million acres of expropriated land was stripped and burnt to ashes causing wide scale damage to the ecology. By 1848, the British made a sport of shooting elephants resulting in the killing of 5,500 of these majestic animals within 5 years. The dispossessed Sinhala peasants were unwilling to work as labourers on these lands taken from them without a penny in compensation. The Portuguese and the Dutch brought indentured South Indian labour to grow tobacco in the north and the east, even giving special land rights to these Malabars who came to reside in the Jaffna region. In 1805, Capt. Robert Perceival of the British Army stationed in Jaffna, in his book, “An account of the Island of Ceylon” said the majority in Jaffna made up of Moors and Malabars were foreigners.
The British started coffee plantations in the expropriated lands, and brought in migrant South Indian Tamil labour willing to work for a little food and a roof over their heads. In 1869, a disease struck the coffee plantations causing the British to switch to a variety of tea from Assam. Tea was harvested year round requiring a permanent labour force. Waves of Indian Tamils in excess of a million were brought in as indentured labour and settled on the estates changing the demography. The expansion of the tea plantations followed the passing of the infamous Waste Lands Act of 1897 to confiscate the remaining lands of the Sinhalese. Attempts to introduce the sale of opium did not flourish unlike in China. They discriminated against the majority creating communal hostilities through their divide and rule policy. The damage done to internal peace and harmony continues to hamper efforts at uniting the people.
The Sinhalese and the nation of Sri Lanka have never been militarily defeated since its inception. The Sinhalese have welcomed the Tamils of South India, Moors (Muslims), European descendants, Malays, Plantation Tamils, Chettys and others of different religious persuasions as equal citizens. We must forge ahead in unity and equality and not get misled by invented histories by extremists that seek to carve out territory for a separate homeland. We have to have a sense of history as we proceed, so that we build this civilizational nation under one flag, into a land of equals with mutual respect for one and all.
MAHINDA GUNASEKERA Senior Advisor, SRI LANKA UNITED NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF CANADA (SLUNA)