Modernization and Reform

Sri Lanka Table of Contents

According to Sri Lankan historian Zeylanicus, each of the three epochs of European rule on the island lasted roughly 150 years, but rather than being assessed separately, these epochs should be thought of collectively as a "mighty cantilever of time with the Pax Britannica as the central pillar." Many British institutions have survived and currently have a direct and lasting influence on cultural and political events. Historian E.F.C. Ludowyck concurs, stating that whatever the Portuguese and Dutch did, the British improved upon. He attributed this accomplishment to British grounding in liberalism, a belief in the emancipation of slaves, the absence of religious persecution, and conscious attempts to maintain good relations between the rulers and the ruled.

When the British first conquered the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka, the indigenous population of the island was estimated at only 800,000. When the British left a century and a half later, the population had grown to more than 7 million. Over a relatively short period, the island had developed an economy capable of supporting the burgeoning population. Roads, railways, schools, hospitals, hydroelectric projects, and large welloperated agricultural plantations provided the infrastructure for a viable national economy.

In the early years of British colonization, Sri Lanka was not considered a great economic asset but was viewed instead almost exclusively in terms of its strategic value. By the 1820s, however, this perception was changing. As governor, Sir Edward Barnes was responsible for consolidating British military control over the Kandyan provinces through a program of vigorous road construction. He also began experimenting with a variety of commercial crops, such as coffee. These experiments provided the foundation of the plantation system that was launched a decade later. In administrative matters, the British were initially careful not to change the existing social order too quickly and were not inclined to mingle socially. A sharp distinction was made between the rulers and the ruled, but in time the distinction became less defined. The governor, who held all executive and legislative power, had an advisory council made up of colonial officials with top posts filled by members of a civil service recruited in Britain. The governor was under the director of the Colonial Office in London but was given whatever discretionary powers he needed to balance the colony's budget and to make sure that the colony brought in enough revenue to cover its military and administrative expenses.

By the early 1830s, the British had almost finished consolidating their position in Sri Lanka and began to take more of an interest in securing the island's political stability and economic profitability. A new wave of thought, influenced by the reformist political ideology articulated by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, promised to change fundamentally Britain's relationship to its colonies. Known as utilitarianism, and later as philosophical radicalism, it promoted the idea of democracy and individual liberty. This philosophy sponsored the idea of the trusteeship, i.e., that new territories would be considered trusts and would receive all the benefits of British liberalism. These philosophical abstractions were put into practical use with the recommendations of a commission led by W.M.G. Colebrooke and C.H. Cameron. Their Colebrooke Report (1831-32) was an important document in the history of the island. G.C. Mendis, considered by many to be the doyen of modern Sri Lankan history, considers the Colebrooke-Cameron reforms to be the dividing line between the past and present in Sri Lanka.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress