The 1848 Kandyan riots

Mr. Godwin Witane, (letter of 7th October) says that "Puran Appu (Franciscu Fernando) died a courageous death and that "he was the only leader of the Peoples’ Revolution in our history....’’ That he died a courageous death, like the other three leaders, the Buddhist Priests and the men who formed the rebellion, we do not dispute. But, was he the "only leader of the Peoples’ Revolution in our history"?

First and foremost, there were 5 such rebellions between 1818 and 1848; in the Kandyan Provinces, and the 1818 Uva Rebellion (also known as the Wellassa Rebellion) takes pride of place. It was the first ever rebellion (the liberation struggle) in this part of Asia, which nearly drove out the British from the Kandyan Provinces. Even the mighty Indians revolted against the British invaders 10 years after us.

According to primary and contemporary sources, the four men together led this popular uprising, Gongalegoda Banda (Hakuru Bastianlage David alias Wanawasala David), Puran Appu (Franciscu Fernando alias Alexander Fernando, alias Thambi Appu Rendarala), Dennis Appu (a brother of Gongalegoda Banda) and Hanguranketha Dingirala, the only Kandyan Sinhalese. Gongalegoda Banda and Puran Appu were both IRCs and fugitives fled to the Kandy Province to evade the law, and Puran Appu had worked at a Tavern in Matale, under the name of Thambi Appu Rendarala. He, like Gongalegoda Banda, married a Kandyan woman for the second time before joining the rebellion. Be that as it may, what is most remarkable in this is the fact that the Kandyan Sinhalese, in choosing men to lead them, had banked only on their leaders’ courage and skills, throwing aside the narrow differences such as religion, class, creed or caste. One must also remember that at this time, there were few able men among the Kandyans, who could provide such an able leadership, because the Britishers, with the crushing down of the 1818 Uva Rebellion led by Veera Keppetipola and others, had decimated the Kandyan Sinhalese males. As a matter of policy males over 14 years were slain and their fertile lands reduced to ashes to prevent a repetition of a rebellion. Even the severed head of Keppetipola was taken to England.

According to contemporary records and reports, it was Hanguranketha Dingirala who had convinced Gongalegoda Banda to join the rebellion as evinced from the confession said to have been made by the latter upon his capture by the British. Who the main leader of the foursome, it is however not clear, although according to authentic records, it was Gongalegoda Banda, the pretender, who was crowned as King at Dambulla ancient Vihare by Giranagama Thera, which ceremony was attended by Dingiralle and Puran Appu. J. Forbes in his book "Recent disturbances and military executions in Ceylon" (1850) refers to Puran Appu as the sword bearer to King David (Gongalegoda Banda).

It is true that all the four men (although little is known about Dennis Appu) were subsequently caught and executed. It is also true, of the four men, it was Dingiralle alone who was subjected to a most humiliating, barbaric and an inhuman execution. Almost immediately after his capture, he was brought before a military court, convicted of treason, thrown before a firing squad the same day, and his blood-soaked body hung for several days from a Banyan Tree along the Kurunegala-Trincomalee road, as if to take further revenge from his limp body too. Fortunately his head was not severed and taken to England like that of Veera Keppetipola.

This clearly proves that, to the Britishers, he was the most wanted, and dangerous man of them all, like Kudapola Unnanse, who is pushed aside by over-enthusiastic individuals trying to crown their own man as the Only Veeraya of 1848 Kandyan Rebellion. Kudapola Unnanse, was shot in his robes for "holding correspondence with rebels and not giving all the required information to apprehend a proclaimed rebel". He deserves, much like the three other Buddhist Priests charged with treason for their part in the rebellion, as much credit and honour as the others. What one should not forget for a moment is that the rebellion was a team effort, and the greater part of the glory and honour should go to the hundreds of Kandyan Sinhalese who faced the enemy bullets and joined the long list of fallen heros - heroes who took up arms against harassments and indignities forced upon them on account of a cruel system of taxation ever introduced. It was designed to crush their pride and dignity and bleed them white. The worst and most dehumanizing of them all was the breast tax (Thana Badda) imposed on Kandyan women.

It is also a fact that it was Dingiralle who fired the first shot in Kurunegala and launched the rebellion while Gongalegoda Banda and Puran Appu joined the rebellion from Kandy and Matale.

Distorting the history of our motherland is a gross insult and an injustice to the brave men who laid their precious lives in a very noble cause in liberating this country from the foreign yoke. They are all great men who have created history and all of them should be equally honoured and remembered with deep gratitude. Like the Sinhalese village lads battling the Northern LTTE terrorists, these men and the Buddhist priests sacrificed their precious lives for our sake. Let us therefore not rob them of the honour and the glory they have earned for themselves with their lives.

Wijeya Siriwardene