A Brief History of Sri Lanka

By Tim Lambert

Ancient Sri Lanka

About 500 BC when a people called the Sinhalese migrated there from India. According to legend, the first settlers were led by a man named Vijaya. According to tradition, Buddhism was introduced into Sri Lanka in 260 BC by a man named Mahinda. It soon became an integral part of Sinhalese culture.

However, at first, Sri Lanka was divided into different states. A man named Dutthagamani (161-137 BC) united them into a single kingdom. As well as being a powerful ruler Dutthagamani was a great builder and he erected palaces and temples. The capital of the first Sri Lankan kingdom was at Anuradhapura.

The staple diet of the Sri Lankan people was rice but to grow rice needs to stand in water. However in the hot climate of Sri Lanka water soon evaporated. Some water was provided by rain in the rainy season (October to April) but it was not enough. To gain extra water the people dammed streams and rivers.

However, in time it became the ruler’s responsibility to provide water for farming. King Mahasena (274-303) built large reservoirs and irrigation canals to take water from one area to another. The network of reservoirs and canals gradually became bigger and more complex.

In the 2nd 3rd and 4th centuries, AD Sri Lanka became a rich kingdom. She traded with India, China, Persia, and Ethiopia. However, from the 5th century, onward Sri Lanka suffered from invasions from India. In the 10th century, the Chola kingdom became powerful in southern India.

In 993 the Cholas captured northern Sri Lanka and they made Polonnaruwa the capital. In 1017 they captured the south. However the Sinhalese continued to resist and in 1030 the Cholas withdrew from Rohana, in the Southeast. In 1070 the Sinhalese ruler Vijayabahu recaptured the north.

However, after his death in 1111 weak rulers succeeded him. Sri Lanka broke up into independent states. Then in 1153 Parakramabahu the Great became king of the realm of Dakkinadesa. This great ruler reunited Sri Lanka and he repaired the irrigation system. He died in 1183.

In the 13th century, Sri Lankan power declined. There were repeated invasions from India and political instability. The irrigation system began to break down and the people drifted to the Southwest. In 1255 the capital Polonnaruwa was abandoned.

In the 13th century the Tamils settled in the north of Sri Lanka and by 1505 Sri Lanka was divided into 3 areas. In the north lived Tamils. There was a Sinhalese kingdom in the Southwest based in Kotte and another in the center and east based in Kandy.

Portuguese Colonialism in Sri Lanka

A new era in the history of Sri Lanka began in 1505 when the n arrived. The Portuguese sought cinnamon (a very valuable spice). In 1517 they sent an expedition to Colombo and asked permission to build a fort there. King Vijayabahu of Kotte reluctantly assented.

However the Portuguese then ordered the king to sell them his cinnamon at a price fixed by them. When the king refused the Portuguese used force. In 1518 the king of Kotte was forced to agree to give cinnamon to the Portuguese each year as tribute. Increasing Portuguese demands led to a war in 1520-21, which the Portuguese won. The king lost the support of his people and he was overthrown by his 3 sons.

The eldest son became King Bhuvanekbahu VI. He reigned until 1551. However, he agreed to give his 2 brothers principalities of their own within Kotte to rule. The largest of these became the kingdom of Sitawaka. The smallest was based on Rayigama but when its ruler died in 1538 it was absorbed into Sitawaka.

In time the states of Kotte and Sitawaka began to quarrel. The rulers of Sitawaka resented the increasing Portuguese influence in Kotte. So Kotte and Sitawaka fought a number of wars. Each time Kotte was forced to look to the Portuguese for help. So inevitably Portuguese influence in Kotte increased.

In 1551 King Bhuvankbahu was assassinated and the Portuguese installed a puppet ruler in Kotte. Meanwhile, Catholic missionaries were at work in Kotte. In 1557 the puppet ruler became a Catholic. Many of his subjects also converted.

Finally in 1597, the Portuguese annexed Kotte and Sitawaka. In 1619 they annexed Jaffna. Only Kandy was still independent. The Portuguese made several attempts to conquer Kandy, in 1594, 1603, and 1629, without success.

Dutch Colonialism in Sri Lanka

In 1636 King Rajasinha of Kandy turned to the Dutch for help. (The power of Portugal was declining while Dutch power was increasing.) In 1637 he received Dutch envoys. In 1638 the Portuguese invaded again but they were crushed at the battle of Gannoruwa. Afterward the Dutch agreed to capture the Portuguese-held ports on the Sri Lankan coast in return for their expenses.

Between 1638 and 1640 the Dutch captured certain ports but they held onto them instead of giving them to Kandy, claiming their expenses had not been paid. The Dutch and Portuguese made peace in 1640 but war resumed in 1652. Once again the kingdom of Kandy formed an alliance with the Dutch. This time the Dutch attacked Colombo and they captured it in 1656. However, they refused to hand it over to Kandy. Instead, they pushed inland. In 1658 they captured Jaffna. That was the end of Portuguese rule in Sri Lanka.

The Dutch extended their rule and in 1665 they captured Trincomalee on the east coast. Kandy remained independent and continued to exist uneasily beside the Dutch colony until 1760 when war broke out between them. The Dutch won the war and they forced Kandy to accept a humiliating treaty. Kandy was forced to recognize Dutch sovereignty over n the Sri Lankan coastline, even those parts that formerly belonged to Kandy, to a depth of 4 Sinhalese miles.

British Colonialism in Sri Lanka (Ceylon)

However, in 1796 Dutch rule gave way to the British. In that year the British annexed Colombo and Jaffna and Dutch rule was extinguished. The British were keen to conquer Kandy. They gained their opportunity in 1815. Kandy was ruled by Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe (1798-1815). He was a cruel king and was deeply unpopular with his subjects. Some of his nobles conspired with the British to get rid of him. The British army invaded Kandy and met little resistance. The king fled abroad.

However, in 1817-18 there was a rebellion in parts of Kandy against British rule but it was crushed. At first, the British trod cautiously. Trial by jury was introduced in 1811 and the British built a network of roads. Then in 1833, they introduced wide-ranging reforms. English was made the official language and the administration was reformed. Slavery was abolished in 1844.

In the early 19th century the British created large plantations for growing coffee. Import duties on coffee in Britain were reduced and coffee drinking became more common. Exports of Sri Lankan or Ceylonese coffee boomed and large numbers of laborers from India were brought to work on the plantations.

However, from the 1870s, the coffee crop was devastated by the slow spread of a fungus called hemileia vastatrix. In the late 19th century tea replaced coffee as the main Ceylonese crop. Rubber and coconuts were also important crops. Also in the late 19th century both Hinduism and Buddhism revived in Sri Lanka.

In the early 20th century Sri Lankan nationalism grew. The Ceylon National Congress was formed in 1919. In 1910 the Ceylonese were allowed to elect one member of the legislative council and in 1924 the British made further concessions.

However, the Ceylonese were not satisfied. In 1931 Ceylon was granted a new constitution. From then on the legislature was elected by universal suffrage. However the Ceylonese demanded complete independence. Yet another constitution was introduced in 1946 but in 1947 the British announced that India was to become independent. The Ceylonese now demanded their independence and in June 1947 the British agreed to make Sri Lanka a dominion. Sri Lanka became independent on 4 February 1948.

Modern Sri Lanka

The first prime minister was Dr Stephen Senanayake. When he died in 1952 his son Dudley Senanayake followed him. Dudley resigned in 1953 and was replaced by Sir John Kotelawala. All three were members of the United National Party. However, in 1956 their party fell from power. The next government was led by S W R D Bandaranaike. He promoted Sinhalese culture and extended state control of the economy. However, he was assassinated in 1959.

In 1960 he was replaced by his widow Sirimavo Bandaranaike. She was prime minister until 1965. She continued the policy of nationalization. She also brought most schools under state control. In 1965 she was replaced by Dudley Senanayake who was prime minister again until 1970.

From the 1950s tension between Tamils and Sinhalese grew. In 1956 Sinhalese was made the only official language (instead of both Sinhalese and Tamil). Mrs. Bandaranaike also deported many Indian Tamil laborers.

In 1971 a rebellion of young people was led by an anti-Tamil organisation called the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. The rebellion was quickly crushed.

In 1972 Sri Lanka was given a new constitution. This one stated that Buddhism had ‘foremost place’ among Sri Lankan religions. This was very unpopular with followers of other religions. Furthermore, in 1972 the number of Tamil places at university was reduced.

Furthermore in 1972 the name of the country was officially changed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka.

In 1976 the Tamil United Liberation Front was formed. They demanded a separate Tamil state. Then in 1977 Sri Lanka was rocked by ethnic riots in which 128 people died. Yet another constitution was introduced in 1978. This one made a president the head of state. However, the new constitution failed to satisfy the Tamils.

In 1983 civil war broke out between Tamils and Sinhalese. On 23 July 1983 Tamil separatists ambushed and killed 13 Sinhalese soldiers. The result was rioting in which hundreds of people died. Afterward, the Tamils fought a guerrilla war against the government.

India was drawn into the crisis in 1987 when they agreed to send a peacekeeping force to the north and east of Sri Lanka. However, fighting soon broke out between the Indian forces and the Tamil ‘Tigers’ or guerrillas. The Indian Peace Keeping force withdrew in 1990 and fighting between Tamils and Sinhalese began again.

Meanwhile in the late 1980s Maoist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna led a violent campaign in the south. It was crushed in 1989-1990. In 1993 President Premadasa was assassinated. From the mid-1990s efforts were made to end the fighting. A cease-fire was made in February 2002 and talks were held.

However, the cease-fire broke down, and fighting resumed. The war ended in 2009 with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers by the Sri Lankan government. Despite the bloodshed, some progress was made in Sri Lanka. By 1986 Sri Lankanwas self-sufficient in rice. Life expectancy increased from 50 in 1948 to 69 in 1983.

From 1977 the Sri Lankan government adopted a market economy. Sri Lanka still produces tea, rubber, and coconuts and the textile industry is growing. Tourism has now become a major industry. In the early 21st century the economy of Sri Lanka grew steadily. In 2020 the population of Sri Lanka was 22 million.

Unfortunately in 2022 Sri Lanka is facing an economic crisis but hopefully it will soon pass.


Last revised 2022