|Monday, 26 November 2001|
Keppetipola Disawa - The matchless hero
by Aryadasa Ratnasinghe
After signing the Kandyan Convention on March 2, 1815, between the British Governor, Sir Robert Brownrigg, and the Kandyan chiefs, the sovereign rights of the last politically independent remnant of the Sinhalese were irrevocably surrendered to the British Crown. The British, after taking control of the whole island, made drastic changes in their administrative policy.
John D'Oyly was appointed the British resident in Kandy, Simon Sawers as Judicial cum Revenue Officer, Col.O.Kelly as Garrison Commander and James Sutherland as Secretary to the Kandyan provinces. The Maha Adikaram Molligoda was appointed as the civil authority for the internal administration of the fallen kingdom. From 1815 to 1817, the Kandyan provinces were peaceful and remained tranquil. However, with the passage of time, the chiefs found the British to be delusive and their behaviour repulsive.
The depressed and frustrated chiefs were anxious to overthrow the alien rulers, and it did happen in October 1817.
The Muslims of Wellassa, who supported the British, now sought the help of Sylvester Douglas Wilson, the Assistant Resident in Badulla, to have a man of their own appointed as the Village Head man of Wellassa.
Accordingly, Wilson appointed a Muslim named Haji Muhandiram alias Marikkar to the post, despite objections raised by Millewa Disawa, who held authority over Wellassa and Bintenne.
Not only the Muslims had their wish fulfilled but also began to repudiate the authority of the Dissawa, by with holding payment of dues and taxes, which caused the Disawa much loss by revenue to his utter indignation.
In the meantime, Wilson received information that a stranger, claimed to be a member of the exiled royal family, had come with a retinue of Buddhist priests to Wellassa to capture the Muslim Headman.
Wilson, believing it to be a rumour, sent the Muslim Haji Muhandiram, to investigate and report on the matter, but enroute, he was captured and killed.
Wilson who went to inquire into the incident was also killed. On the advice of D'Oyly and as instructed by Simon Sawers, Keppetipola Disawa of Uva was sent to Wellassa to curb the uprising and arrest the rioters. However, his patriotism did not encourage him to attack the Sinhalese.
The result was that he became the leader of the rebellion against the British.
Keppetipola Disawa who brooked on the idea of supporting the Sinhalese, returned the arms and ammunitions supplied to him by the British, to the armament depot in Badulla, "not wishing to fire a single bullet to shed the blood of the Sinhalese in action".
Rebellion broke out with serious consequences and soon began to spread to Bintenne, Ulapane, Walapone, Hewaheta, Kotmale, Dumbara and other surrounding villages.
The member of the royal family who received the support of the Sinhalese was Doresamy. Although the British were quick and took immediate action to apprehend the imposter Doresamy, the pretender to the throne, it all proved futile. However, notwithstanding all the exertions by the British to curb the rebellion, the spirit of the insurrection developed in great magnitude. By March 1818, the whole country was up in arms against the British. Most of the chiefs fanned the rebellion, while pretending to be loyal to the British.
In the eyes of the British, it was a partisan warfare which, from its very nature, was severe and irregular. The traits of heroism among the Sinhalese, their undaunted courage and patriotism were well and visibly seen. Keppetipola Disawa was very active, valiant, enterprising and an ambitious leader praised by the men.
When the position of the country turned from bad to worse, the governor placed the entire kingdom of the Kandyan provinces under martial law.
A great offensive and defensive battles raged between Keppetipola Disawa and Major Macdowall for nine days, and the death toll, on both sides, rose day by day. The decreasing strength of the British troops was given a new life by getting down reinforcements from India. "If not for this move, the Disawa would have wiped out the British quite easily" was the view of Simon Sawers.
Keppetipola Disawa alias Keppetipola Rajapakse Wickremasekera Bandaranayake, hailed from the aristocratic Monaravilla dynasty, well known for heroism. He was born at Galboda in the Four Korales, whose sister Ehelepola Kumarihamy was married to Ehelepola Adikaram, who was instrumental in deposing the last king Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe of Kandy, with the connivance of the British.
Finally, thinking that further attempts to fight the British, would only result in the death of the Sinhalese troops, Keppetipola Disawa disbanded his rebellious army, and made his way towards Anuradhapura, hoping to launch another offensive, at a later date, when the time would prove favourable. From Anuradhapura, he went to Nuwara Kalaviya to live in peace, free from political interference. However, When news reached D'Oyly that Keppetipola Disawa had taken refuge at a place in Nuwarakalaviya, he immediately despatched Capt. O'Neil to follow the rebel chief and arrest him and produce him before Col, Kelly to be tried for organising the rebellion to oust the British from the Kandyan territory.
Keppitipola Disawa soon became aware that British troops were on trail to arrest him to be dealt with under the law. Without fear or favour, he impatiently awaited the arrival of the troops under Capt. O'Neil. When he saw the Captain coming to arrest him, without the least hesitation, he went to meet him, shook hands with him and identified himself by saying "I'm Keppetipola". His words were firm and clear and his vibrant voice showed his courage.
Capt. O'Neil was surprised to have confronted with the man he was searching for, in a peaceful manner and without the least resistance, which was unusual for a man who hated the British. Keppetipola was brought to Kandy under escort, and produced before Col. Kelly to be tried for high treason. After trial, he was found guilty against the charges framed. On Nov. 26, 1818, he was taken to be executed followed by two royal executioners, carrying their lethal weapons over their shoulders. It is said that Keppetipola Disawa "walked languidly, without any signs of regret or fear, as a brave man ready to face death for good and valid reasons".
At the execution grounds, "Keppetipola Disawa rose to his feet, as a brave patriot, and looking at the executioner Iriyagama Kankanama, said that he should give only one blow at his neck and not two. So saying the Disawa asked for the sword from the executioner and checked its sharpness." Thereafter, he had tied his long hair into a knot over his head, and made his neck clear to receive the sword.
Dr. Henry Marshall, Medical Officer and Deputy Inspector of the Services Hospital, who knew the Disawa well, as a great man who was brave, forward and courageous, with qualities not generally found among men. With due respect to the deceased, Dr. Marshall took his skull to England to be placed at the Phrenological Society in Edinburgh where skulls of great men are kept preserved in honour of the dead.
The skull was returned to the island in 1954, at the request of the Sri Lanka government. It now lies in Kandy for the people to see. The public opinion was that the Disawa should have faced death for a better cause than what he had faced.
Produced by Lake House