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A Month Of: History Blogs – Countries of the British Empire – Ceylon


A Brief History of Ceylon During the British Empire


Better known now as Sri Lanka, which lies on the southern tip of India and remains a strategic naval link for the area. Back in the beginnings of the British Empire it was an important spot for the silk road trade, now however, the country is famous for its diversity. It boasts an immense wealth of cultures, religions, languages and exports included tea, coffee gems, coconuts, rubber and cinnamon.


Prior to 1638 the Portuguese occupied the coastal regions, after which they signed a treaty with the Dutch East India Company, when Dutch explorers arrived in the area. With the rise of Napoleon, the Dutch, as they were elsewhere, were worried that the region would fall into French hands and so they handed over the control and the protection of the region to England. The British easily occupied the region and in 1796 renamed the region Ceylon.

The rulers of Ceylon were unable to halt Britain’s advance from the coastal regions, and by 1814 Ceylon lost its independence and was brought under the control of the British Empire.


The Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms in 1833 marked the beginning period of British control, in which it amalgamated the Kandyan and maritime provinces creating a single unit of government, and saw the introduction of a utilitarian and liberal political culture and the establishment of an executive and a legislative council.

The economy was at first dominated by coffee when plantations were introduced and initially thrived, however following the 1847 depression which forced prices down, an influx of a leaf disease literally killed the industry in 1869. Tea production became the substitute. After the loss of Malaya during the Second World War to the Japanese, Ceylon swiftly raised its output of rubber.[i]

The nineteenth century saw the creation of a new professional class under British rule to transcend cultural and caste differences in order to encourage more people into the Ceylon Civil Service.

From the early twentieth century the push for more constitutional reforms came. Major Sinhalese and Tamil political organisations in 1919 united to form the Ceylon National Congress, however it collapsed within a year after failing to win mass support from the people.

Despite this collapse, changes did come. Universal suffrage was introduced in 1931 through the Donoughmore Reforms. The reform was unpopular and was opposed by the Tamil political organisations as universal suffrage, for them, ran the risk of reducing them to a minority.

Another reform came in 1944-5 with the Soulbury Reforms. These reforms brought Dominion Status to Ceylon. Independence soon followed on 4th February 1948 as a result of the reform.


[i] James, Lawrence, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, 1994 page 508

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