The Sinhala King and British envoys

Courtesy: the Island

( August 13, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Udarata king, Kirti Sri Rajasinha sent an envoy in 1762 to the English East India Company based in Madras hoping to obtain English assistance to get rid of the Dutch. The Company sent John Pybus, a senior officer of the Company. This embassy marks the first official contact between the English East India Company and Sri Lanka. The Sinhala king made a fuss of Pybus and granted him priviledges. He was allowed to stay in the town and travel in a palanquin. He could sit while the royal audience was going on.

The Council of ministers who met with Pybus found to their surprise, that Pybus has been sent without the power to conclude a treaty. Pybus had been sent on a spying mission to obtain information on Sri Lanka. He had been given a specific list of the items he was to observe and report on. But the local official assigned to him made sure that Pybus did not find out anything. Pybus had been told not to do anything that would lead to a war with the Dutch, but he was to ask for a British settlement near a port close to the cinnamon trade. Kirti Sri had had exclaimed ‘if they have the effrontery to make such claims now, what they will not do when they get hold of the land.’ Pybus created a bad impression and Udarata felt let down by Britain.

Kirti Sri then contacted the French at Pondicherry, India. He was prepared to cede Batticaloa and Trincomalee to them. The offer was accepted and sent to France for approval from French King Louis IV, but before that could happen, Sri Lanka found that the French and Dutch had got together against Britain and the Dutch possessions in Asia had become potential bases for the French. The plan had to be abandoned.

The next British envoy to arrive was Hugh Boyd in 1782. Unlike the boorish Pybus, Boyd was cultured and graceful. He was instructed to conform to local customs, observe every form of ceremony and somehow obtain a treaty. Britain wanted permanent rights over Trincomalee which they had captured in 1782. The king and his ministers were not ready to agree. They first wanted to know all about the wars between the British, French and Dutch. Why was Portugal not heard of now? Why did the British attack Trincomalee without contacting the Sinhala king first?

The Dutch had also rushed to Kandy when Boyd arrived. Boyd reported later that there were two factions in the Udarata court, pro-Dutch and anti-Dutch and the pro-Dutch faction was in the lead. Rajadhi wooed by both British and Dutch adopted a middle line, neither accepting nor rejecting Boyd’s terms. He said that when they needed British assistance, at the time of Pybus, the British did not help. ‘They come now to further their own interest, because they are against the Dutch.’ He was not prepared to enter into a treaty on Boyd’s terms and Boyd’s gift was refused. Any request to establish diplomatic relations must come directly from the British king, under his signature, not from the East India Company in Madras.

Rajadhi like Kirti Sri, attempted to link with the French at Pondicherry but the British conquered Pondicherry in 1793. Udarata was therefore without an ally against the Dutch when Robert Andrews, a senior officer of the East India Company, arrived in the Udarata court in 1795. He received a warm welcome. Udarata went out of its way to be friendly. He was offered ‘sugar cakes, plantains, milk and syrup’ as refreshments at the royal audience.

A preliminary treaty was signed in 1795, where Udarata agreed to help the British chase out the Dutch. This was to be followed by a second treaty of 1796, in which Britain would agree to chase the Dutch out completely, not allow them to return and then would give all the Dutch possessions back to Udarata.

The events that followed show that the Udarata court had seasoned negotiators. Andrews took a team of Sinhala ambassadors to Madras to continue the negotiations. The team was led by Dumbara Rala, later First Adigar. One of the items agreed on in Sri Lanka, was that Britain would guard and protect the Sinhala king, country and religion. In Madras the British wanted this deleted. They also said that they may perhaps have to return the Dutch possessions back to the Dutch instead of the Sinhalese, if things changed in Europe. The Sinhalese pointed out that in that case they need not have come to Madras. They could have tried to chase out the Dutch by themselves or use the Dutch against the British in the event of a British take-over. They ‘desired to return home at once.’

Britain needed the support of Udarata, so they pacified the Sinhalese, who agreed to continue with the negotiations. The Sinhala team were very particular about the words used in the treaty. The final treaty included protection of king, country and religion and also the return of all Dutch possession back to the Sinhala king. The Udarata negotiators were shrewd on another matter, too. Andrews had asked for copies of all treaties with the Dutch. This was ‘curtly refused.’ He was not told about the 1776 treaty with the Dutch, which gave the Dutch legal rights in Sri Lanka and also a mile all round the coast, Britain learnt of this treaty only in 1796.

Udarata managed to obtain trade concessions as well. Britain was to pay for the commodities supplied by Udarata using ‘gold, silver, saltpeter, cloth, lead, flints, swords, firearms and other items,’ at agreed rates. Otherwise Udarata would be free to sell elsewhere. Udarata would be allowed access to one port and for purpose of trade, ten vessels, free of search and free of duty in Sri Lanka. Madras had no objection, but when Andrews returned to Kandy to get the treaty settled, Udarata asked for the ports of Puttalam and Batticaloa as well.

Udarata did not get the Maritime Provinces back, the British took them in 1796, but Udarata kept trying. In 1797, when there was a rebellion in these provinces, Rajadhi told the rebels to take over and govern in his name. In 1798, Udarata told British Governor, Frederick North that they wanted the Dutch possessions back. Governor North refused saying the British had taken over legally. Udarata drew attention to the aborted 1796 treaty and the time wasted on it with Andrews. Their archives, they said, contained records of many other treaties as well. All these they would consult and frame their own proposals for the Governor’s consideration. North replied that he would only agree on his own terms, the ministers could send any document they like.

Udarata was also very anxious to get access to the sea and kept asking for a seaport. In 1799, they asked back the ‘seashore around Trincomalee’ including Tamblegam bay, saying Boyd had promised this. Britain refused saying that they had conquered it. Udarata was persistent and these requests continued. As late as 1812, Udarata was still trying to get the British possessions back. Major Davie, kept as a hostage, would be released, they said, but ‘the coastal districts must be surrendered’. Governor Brownrigg wrote back firmly that there would be no return of territory. Udarata never got the ‘coastal districts’ back.

Udarata also helpfully added that in the past, enemy chiefs who had been captured in war were released by ‘proper application made through suitable representation accompanied by the offering of presents’. In the time of Kirti Sri, the disave of Colombo and two other officials had come with gifts on an embassy and obtained the release of the disave of Matara who was a prisoner in Udarata.

Michael Roberts observed that the Sinhala court’s recall of diplomatic discussions over the past 150 years was ‘extraordinarily specific’. There was a good archive in the royal court, with a mohottala specially appointed as its archivist, he said. Copies of the Mahavamsa have been available in court and a continuation of the Mahavamsa had been in progress under Rajadhi. Udarata therefore had a strong sense of history and could provide a full list of the Sinhala kings. Two letters sent to the British governor in November 1811 and February 1812 spoke of Parakrama bahu I, Parakrama bahu VI and several incidents from the Mahavamsa.

The writings of Colvin R de Silva, K.M. de Silva, S.Tammita Delgoda, D.A Kotelawele, P.E. Pieris, M. Roberts, A Schrikker, T. Vimalananda and Upali C Wickremeratne were used for this essay.