British Ceylon (Sinhala: බ්රිතාන්ය ලංකාව, Britanya Lankava; Tamil: பிரித்தானிய இலங்கை, Birithaniya Ilangai), known contemporaneously as Ceylon, was a British Crown colony between 1802 and 1948. At first the area it covered did not include the Kingdom of Kandy, which was a protectorate from 1815, but from 1817 to 1948 the British possessions included the whole island of Ceylon, now the nation of Sri Lanka.
The first Europeans to visit Sri Lanka in modern times were the Portuguese: Francisco de Almeida arrived in 1505, finding the island divided into seven warring kingdoms and unable to fend off intruders. The Portuguese founded a fort at the port city of Colombo in 1517 and gradually extended their control over the coastal areas. In 1592 the Sinhalese moved their capital to the inland city of Kandy, a location more secure against attack from invaders. Intermittent warfare continued through the 16th century.
Many lowland Sri Lankans were forced to convert to Christianity while the coastal Moors were religiously persecuted and forced to retreat to the Central highlands. The Buddhist majority disliked Portuguese occupation and its influences and welcomed any power who might rescue them and defeat the Portuguese. In 1602, therefore, when the Dutch captain Joris van Spilbergen landed, the king of Kandy appealed to him for help.
It was in 1638 that the Dutch attacked in earnest but ended with an agreement (which was disrespected by both parties), and not until 1656 that Colombo fell. By 1660, the Dutch controlled the whole island except the kingdom of Kandy. The Dutch (who were Protestants) persecuted the Catholics (the left-over Portuguese settlers) but left the Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims alone. However, they taxed the people far more heavily than the Portuguese had done. A mixed Dutch-Sri Lankan people known as Burgher peoples are the legacy of Dutch rule.
In 1659, the British sea captain Robert Knox landed by chance on Sri Lanka and was captured by the king of Kandy. He escaped nineteen years later and wrote an account of his stay. This helped to bring the island to the attention of the British.
During the Napoleonic Wars, Great Britain, fearing that French control of the Netherlands might deliver Sri Lanka to the French, occupied the coastal areas of the island (which they called Ceylon) with little difficulty in 1796. In 1802, the Dutch part of the island was ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Amiens and became a crown colony. The following year, the British invaded the Kingdom of Kandy in the First Kandyan War, but were bloodily repulsed. In 1815, Kandy was occupied in the Second Kandyan War, ending Sri Lankan independence.
A Postmaster General was appointed in 1802 and handstamps supplied in 1813. Internal posts grew with the building of roads between 1820 and 1845. Mail for Europe was routed overland and across the Palk Strait via India until packets started calling at Galle between 1845 and 1860. Mail coaches connected Galle with Colombo, Colombo with Kandy.
Following the bloody suppression of the Uva Rebellion, the Kandyan peasantry were stripped of their lands by the Wastelands Ordinance, a modern enclosure movement and reduced to penury. The British found that the uplands of Sri Lanka were very suited to coffee, tea and rubber cultivation, and by the mid-nineteenth century Ceylon tea had become a staple of the British market, bringing great wealth to a small class of white tea planters. To work the estates, the planters imported large numbers of Tamil workers as indentured laborers from south India, who soon made up 10% of the island’s population. These workers had to work in slave-like conditions and to live in line rooms, not very different from cattle sheds.
The first stamps for Ceylon were issued on April 1, 1857, featuring a portrait of Queen Victoria. These were a 1 penny blue and 6 pence plum (Scott #1-2). The 6 pence denomination was used to send a half ounce letter from Ceylon to England. Eight more stamps were issued that year, all featuring the portrait of Queen Victoria (Scott #3-13).
The British colonialists favored the semi-European Burghers, certain high-caste Sinhalese and the Tamils who were mainly concentrated to the north of the country, exacerbating divisions and enmities which have survived ever since. Nevertheless, the British also introduced democratic elements to Sri Lanka for the first time in its history. The Burghers were given some degree of self-government as early as 1833. It was not until 1909 that constitutional development began with a partly elected assembly, and not until 1920 that elected members outnumbered official appointees. Universal suffrage was introduced in 1931, over the protests of the Sinhalese, Tamil and Burgher elite who objected to the common people being allowed to vote.
The Ceylon National Congress (CNC) was founded to agitate for greater autonomy. The party soon split along ethnic and caste lines. The Marxist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), which grew out of the Youth Leagues in 1935, made the demand for outright independence a cornerstone of their policy. They also demanded the replacement of English as the official language by Sinhala and Tamil. The Marxist groups were a tiny minority and yet their movement was viewed with grave suspicion by the British administration.
The Soulbury Commission was the most important result of the agitation for constitutional reform in the 1930s. The Tamil leadership had by then fallen into the hands of G. G. Ponnambalam who had rejected the “Ceylonese identity”. Ponnambalam opposed universal franchise, supported the caste system, and claimed that the protection of Tamil rights requires the Tamils (15% of the population in 1931) having an equal number of seats in parliament to that of the Sinhalese (about 72% of the population). This “50-50” or “balanced representation” policy became the hall mark of Tamil politics of the time. Ponnambalam also accused the British of having established colonization in “traditional Tamil areas”, and having favored the Buddhists by the Buddhist Temporalities Act. The Soulbury Commission rejected these submissions by Ponnambalam, and even noted their unacceptable communal character. Oliver Gunatilleke and others lobbied the Soulbury Commission without confronting them officially. The unofficial submissions contained what was to later become the draft constitution of 1944.
The close collaboration of the D. S. Senanayake government with the war-time British administration led to the support of Lord Louis Mountbatten. His dispatches and a telegram to the Colonial office supporting Independence for Ceylon have been cited by historians as having helped the Senanayake government to secure the independence of Sri Lanka. The shrewd cooperation with the British as well as diverting the needs of the war market to Ceylonese markets as a supply point, managed by Oliver Goonatilleke, also led to a very favorable fiscal situation for the newly independent government.
During World War II, Sri Lanka was a front-line British base against the Japanese. Opposition to the war in Sri Lanka was orchestrated by Marxist organizations. On April 5, 1942, the Japanese Navy bombed Colombo, which led to the flight of Indian merchants, dominant in the Colombo commercial sector. Marxist leaders also escaped, to India, where they participated in the independence struggle there. The movement in Ceylon was minuscule, limited to the English educated intelligentsia and trade unions, mainly in the urban centers. Ceylon became crucial to the British Empire in the war, with Lord Louis Mountbatten using Colombo as his headquarters for the Eastern Theater. Oliver Goonatilleka successfully exploited the markets for the country’s rubber and other agricultural products to replenish the treasury. Nonetheless, Sinhalese continued to agitate for independence and Sinhalese sovereignty, using the opportunities offered by the war to establish a special relationship with Britain.
The constitutionalists, led by D. S. Senanayake, succeeded in winning independence. The Soulbury constitution was essentially what Senanayake’s board of ministers had drafted in 1944. The promise of Dominion status, and independence itself, had been given by the Colonial office. Dominion status followed on February 4, 1948, with military treaties with Britain, as the upper ranks of the armed forces were initially British, and British air and sea bases remaining intact. This was later raised to independence itself and Senanayake became the first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.
Scott #279 is the 11½ x 11-perforated version — issued May 14, 1942 — of a stamp originally issued on March 21, 1938, in versions perforated 13 x 13½ (Scott #279a) and just 13½ (Scott #279c). The 3 pence dark green and black stamp was recess printed by Thomas de la Rue & Company on paper watermarked with multi-script CA. It portrays Adam’s Peak, known in Sinhalese as Samanalakanda (සමනළ කන්ද), “Butterfly Mountain”. The 7,359-foot (2,243-meter) tall conical mountain located in central Sri Lanka is well known for the Sri Pada, “sacred footprint”, a 5-foot, 11-inch (1.8-meter) rock formation near the summit, which in Buddhist tradition is held to be the footprint of the Buddha, in Hindu tradition that of Shiva and in Islamic and Christian tradition that of Adam, or that of St. Thomas.