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‘Mathata Thitha’  100 years ago

Curbing alcoholism and drug addiction is among the present government’s proclaimed objectives today under the Mathata Thitha program. 

But under British rule popularizing liquor was a means to fill government coffers through taxation. This pernicious policy continued into the post-independence era resulting in alcoholism becoming a major problem in a society where hitherto such addiction had been virtually unknown.  Although in pre-colonial times people used to have an occasional drink of toddy after a hard day’s work, our ancient kings did not consider liquor sales as a means to increase State revenue.   

In 1912, the Colonial Government issued a decree permitting the opening of taverns in every village and town. Among the national leaders who first vehemently opposed this move was appointed MP Ponnambalam Ramanathan. Despite his opposition, the proposal was unanimously adopted in the Legislative Assembly and taverns began to mushroom in all parts of the island.

It led to the rise of a new-rich native middle class (tavern owners), particularly in the low-country, that thrived on the misery of others.   Many patriots, however, reacted strongly to this unfortunate development.

Among them were Anagarika Dharmapala, Walisinghe Harischandra, Dr. C.A. and his brother Edmund Hewavitharana, D. B. Jayatilleke, F.R. Senanayake, Arthur V. Dias, W. Arthur de Silva, Amadoris Mendis, A.P. Gunaratna, John Dissanayake and Martinus C.Perera. 

Around this time, a temperance movement had already been launched by P. A. de Silva of Bandarawatte, Koggala in the South.   In Colombo the Anagarika Dharmapala provided the movement with a new impetus and soon many joined it.  

Dharmpala noted: "…It was the British government for the first time for the sake of filthy lucre opened liquor shops in the year of Christ 1801 in Ceylon. Since then with muddle-headed indifference the Government has continued to give liquor to illiterate villagers, and today the prisons are full of criminals… We are blindly following the white man who has come here to demoralize us for his own gain.   He asks us to buy his whisky, and we allow him to bamboozle us. He tells that we should drink toddy and arrack separately…  It is time for the Sinhalese to weep with the exiled Jew and to say with Jeremiah, ‘He hath led me and brought me into darkness but not unto light.   He hath filled me with bitterness, he hath made me drunken with (arrack and toddy)’…" 

Inspired by the Prohibition Campaign in the United States that began in the late 19th Century, the temperance movement here became Sri Lanka ‘s largest mass agitation campaign that arose against colonial rule.

The movement received a major boost with the arrival in Sri Lanka of ‘Pussyfoot’ Johnson, an American temperance worker.  He organized temperance meetings in various parts of the island and one of these was held at Ananda College , Colombo.

The meeting was chaired by F.R. Senanayake.  After Johnson delivered a stirring speech at this meeting on the evils of liquor a man in the audience stood up and started to scoff at the temperance movement saying that it would serve no useful purpose.  He was R.L. Pereira who later became a leading lawyer and King’s Counsel (equivalent of today’s State Counsel).  But the majority in the audience did not allow him to continue with his speech. He was compelled to stop half-way when he was jeered and hooted at.   

 On another occasion at a meeting in Mirigama, a person stood up and challenged F.R. Senanayake, who was in the Chair. The man asked him, "When we don’t care for the advice of even Jesus Christ, Lord Buddha and Prophet Mohamed against drinking, would we care to listen to you?"   

He received an answer not from the Chair but from members in the audience. They thrashed him well and truly.   

Physical violence unfortunately increased when unruly elements joined the movement, according to one temperance activist the late P. A. Somapala. Militant agitators waited in hiding near taverns and assaulted those who patronized them. When lay Buddhists were found guilty of drinking the punishment meted out to them was to compel them to carry sacks of sand needed for repairs to temple buildings. Another form of punishment was to ‘welcome’ them with garlands made of coconut shells!    

The temperance movement spread rapidly owing to the unstinted financial support of such philanthropists as W. Arthur de Silva, Dr. C. A. Hewavitharane and F.R. Senanayake.  The movement cut across all ethnic and religious lines and all community leaders extended their full cooperation to the campaign.

Fortunately in that era, narcotic drug addiction, as we know it today, was virtually unheard of except for a few ‘ganja’ addicts and some old folk who used to take a bit of opium with their daily cup of coffee.

A familiar scene those days, says Somapala, was a cyclist carrying a musical instrument.   His bicycle – one of the early models had a large front wheel and a very small rear wheel.  This was a popular mode of transport at the time.  He would stop the bicycle at a place where many people frequent and play the musical instrument while singing and dancing.  After he succeeded in attracting a large crowd, he stopped his performance and began a sermon on the evils of drinking. He was Martinus C. Perera, a well-known businessman at the time.

Temperance Movement members worked enthusiastically during an election conducted on the issue of closing taverns. There were a few instances where it was rigged.  

During the campaign to canvass support for the closure of taverns, Somapala had inadvertently walked into the premises of a tavern employee’s house.  The man’s wife who saw Somapala approaching threw a pot full of waste water at him.

Once Anagarika Dharmapala, having arrived in India , was traveling by train from Varanasi to Calcutta .  As usual he was traveling first class when an English civil servant (administrative service officer) boarded the compartment. Those were the days when the arrogance of Colonial India’s European officials knew no bounds.  The ‘civil’ servant who sat opposite Dharmapala began smoking with no concern for the discomfort of the other passenger. Then the Englishman pulled out a bottle of whisky and a glass, had a sip and started smoking again. There were no others in the compartment.  

The cigarette smoke was becoming unbearable and so was the man’s drinking. Dharmapala was controlling his temper with great difficulty.   But the offender did not stop his smoking or drinking. Suddenly, the Sri Lankan stood up, grabbed the Englishman’s bottle of whisky and the glass and threw them out of the window.

The white man was shaking with rage.  But Dharmpala could not care less.   He severely warned the offender that he, too, would be thrown out of the window if he tried to make any more trouble.  When the train reached Howrah station in Calcutta, Dharmapala gave his visiting card to the English passenger before getting off the train.     

At one stage the temperance movement was so successful that there were almost no court cases of drunken offences.   During one Supreme Court session there was not a single criminal case to be heard, proving the close link between crime and alcohol addiction.  This led Judge Walter Perera to pay a glowing tribute to the Temperance Movement.

 In a passionate appeal to the people of England , Dharmapala urged, "In the name of humanity and progress we ask the British people to save the Sinhalese from the jaws of the demon alcohol and opium let loose by… England for the sake of filthy lucre"

There is an amusing story linked to the spread of taverns in Sri Lanka’s coastal areas under British rule.  A colonial governor who had developed a taste for the local brew was motoring down south on an official visit when his car passed a wayside toddy tavern.   Extremely thirsty, he was yeaning for a drink of fresh toddy.  He stopped the vehicle and ordered his valet to fetch him a glassful.   He drank it with relish and continued his journey.

Next day, as his Excellency was returning to Colombo, imagine his horror when he saw a huge board outside the toddy tavern he had patronized. Written in big, bold letters were the words; ‘SUPPLIERS OF TODDY TO HIS EXCELLENCY THE GOVERNOR.’ (The late Amitha Abeysekera cited this in his column This is My Island some years ago).

The demand for the closure of taverns later evolved into a campaign for freedom from British colonial rule.  The Temperance Movement thus became the forerunner of the struggle for national independence.

However, the desired objectives of temperance activists both in Sri Lanka and the United States could not be fully realized since the demand for prohibition came only after large sections of the population had already become addicted to alcohol.  

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