Sri Lanka History

The Sinhalese civilization

Over 2000 years ago the island we now know as Sri Lanka already knew kingdoms like the ones in its big sister India. These realms were as culturally and economically developed as India's kingdoms. Well-known are the grand empires of Anaradhapura (161 BC-1017 AD) and Polonnaruwa (1070-1215), from which the fabulous buddhist architecture originates. The kingdoms are named after their respective capitals. Anaradhapura was born when Sinhalese king Dutthaganman from Rohana managed to get his hands on the whole country by beating the Tamil king. He enjoyed vast support of all Sinhalese, which is not so logical considering the strong influence of regional kingdoms. During the Polonnaruwa, king Vijabahu (also from Rohana) became ruler of the entire island. He decided Buddhism would be the state religion.

Let's flood the fields!

In the Sinhalese empires rice cultivation developed quickly because of the widely spread irrigational system. The island inhabitants had knowledge of complicated irrigational techniques already in the third century BC. At first these were just numerous tiny earthen dams that were put in nearby rivers by farmers. The water was led to small artificial reservoirs and from there by canals to the rice fields. In the next centuries the farmers built thousands of wewa's (water reservoirs) with ingenious inundation canals. Lots of these are large lakes now with abundant bird life. The largest example of this is the 12th century Prakramabahu Samudra. In that era the Sri Lanka island was the most important rice exporting country in South and South-East Asia.

Let's invade the island!

Art and architecture blossommed under Sinhalese rule. The ruins of classical temples and palaces at the sites of the former capitals are silent witnesses of that epoch. Nowadays they are members of the list of main Sri Lanka tourist attractions.

The Sinhalese kingdoms were at war frequently with Southern India adversaries. Invasions formed a two-way street, but the ends of both the Anaradhapura and the Polonnaruwa era's were marked by Indian princes conquering the whole island. Incapable kings and internal tensions undermined welfare and military force, which worked as a cascading waterfall. The costly maintenance of the complex irrigational systems could not be continued and rice harvests consequently declined, worsened by malaria outbreaks around the still water reservoirs.

Let's trek south!

The invasions and the bad economic situation caused a massive trek of the Sinhalese to the southwest of the island. They hoped to find safety and a new living there. In a short time the developed irrigation works were abandoned. Because of the copious rainfall in the south of the island no irrigation was needed there. Rice would now be cultivated in small quantities, for family use mainly. For the first time the island had to import rice, which was possible thanks to the export of pepper and cinnamon.

Let's colonize the island!

The island we now know as Sri Lanka was one of the first territories to draw European attention. Three countries would interfere with internal affairs for the coming centuries: Portugal, the Netherlands and Great Britain. All three were obviously looking for profitable trade in spices and rice.

Vamos chamá-lo Cilão!

The Portuguese period lasted from 1505 to 1658. In the capital Kotte near Colombo, the regional king received the following message on November 15, 1505: "Some men just arrived in the harbour, with white skins; they are very handsome. They wear iron vests and hats. They eat pieces of white rock and they drink red blood. Their large shooters make more noise than thunder, and their bullets can destroy a marble wall."

The Portuguese named the island Cilão. They were more merchant than soldier at first, taking the coastal areas, settling, and building churches, forts and factories. Soon Portuguese trade in spices and gems towered. In the meanwhile the settlers took full profit of disputes between the seven kingdoms on the island. They built a harbour in Colombo in 1517, and destroyed temples in the area in their urge to convert the locals to catholicism.

Laten we het Zeylon noemen!

When the Portuguese initiated the occupation of Kandy, the king turned to the Dutch for assistance. In exchange he offered them trade advantages, offering cinnamon in particular. The Dutch national trading company VOC were very interested but only when accompanied by an embargo on Portuguese traffic. After years of struggle the Dutch managed to overcome their adversaries and named the island Zeylon in 1658.

Although the Dutch rule lasted only 140 years, their influence was huge. They governed a larged part than the Portuguese, dominating the entire east coast, which was responsible for 99% of foreign trade. Zeylon was the Netherlands' second most important Asian colony, subsequent to Indonesia. From Zeylon, cinnamon, pepper, coffee and elephants were exported to the West. The Dutch built forts to protect their trade interests and imported Tamil slaves from India to work on the rice plantations. They constructed quality roads and waterways, while settling an ordered administration.

Because of developments in Europe and a lost war to Great Britain, the VOC lost its power near the end of the 18th century, providing the way for the British to take over without too much of a battle.

Let's call it Ceylon!

Where the Greeks called her Taprobane, the Arabs Serendib, the Portuguese Cilão, and the Dutch Zeylon, the island was called Ceylon by the British. They laid the foundation for the current Sri Lankan economy and politics. The British brought the island under one administration in 1833, in the meantime turning Ceylon into a plantation colony. The economy was purely focussed on export, with new roads and railways exclusively destined to transport goods to the harbours.

In a surprisingly uncomplicated way Ceylon received its independence in 1948. Violence in India and Birma scared off British resistance towards self-governing, but the huge influence of the English continued. Not until 1972 Ceylon broke all formal ties with the British royal house, thus turning itself into a republic. The new era was saluted with a new name: Sri Lanka, meaning "magnificent island".

Let's fight each other!

The infamous ethnic conflict on Sri Lanka only exists since the independence. The Tamil minority had a priviliged position under the British administration. More than the Sinhalese majority, they went to English schools and occupied key spots in the governmental organisation. After the British left, the Sinhalese obtained the power and used this to improve their social position. The Tamil minority was especially provoked by the 1956 decision to choose Sinhalese as the only official language.

Rebels organized themselved in the Tamil Tiger liberation army from 1972. Often they turned out to be stronger than the national army, partly because of their financial position and (secret) back-up by India. The clashes focussed on the north of the island, with the capital Colombo suffering most from bomb attacks.

The real ethnic war began in 1983. Over 60,000 people were killed in Sri Lanka between that year and the signing of a mutually respected ceasefire in February of this 2002. On December 5, 2002, Sri Lanka's government and Tamil Tigers agreed to share authority in a federal system, to end their 19 years of civil war on the island. The common announcement came at the end of four days of peace talks in the Norwegian capital Oslo. Under this deal, the Tamils would have autonomy in the largely Tamil-speaking north and east.

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