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The British Conquest of Ceylon and the Massacre at Kandy 1803

The British Conquest of Ceylon and the Massacre at Kandy 1803

The British Conquest of Ceylon and the Massacre at Kandy 1803

By David Howell


Towards the end of the American War of Independence, the Dutch joined France in a coalition against the British which reverberated across the world to the Indian Sub-continent and where Lord Macartney, the Governor of Madras 1781-1785, quickly saw an opportunity to expand British interests into the island of Ceylon by force.

At the time the island of Ceylon consisted of two separate geographical divisions: the coastal areas governed by the Dutch and the hinterland under an independent Monarch, the King of Kandy.

Map of Ceylon

France no longer posed a military threat to British interests in India, but Macartney believed that a naval invasion of the Dutch held coastal districts of Ceylon could improve British prestige with sceptical King of Kandy and provide the facility of ports and harbours for both the East India Company shipping and British Royal Navy vessels. What follows is a controversial history where British and Sri Lankan accounts of events differ considerably.[1]

A small British fleet successfully captured Negapatam, India on 11th November 1781, quickly followed up on 2 January 1782, by a second fleet, comprising of 1300 soldiers and seamen sailing for Trincomalee, Ceylon. A body of British troops was landed three miles away, seized the Trincomalee fort and the 43 strong garrison.

Fort Ostenberg, commanding the Trincomalee Bay, was reconnoitred by an officer, Major Gells, who approached the fort with the summons to surrender, and confirmed it could be carried by storm. A second summons met with a refusal and a storming party comprising of 450 marines and seamen took the fort on 11 January. The new possession was garrisoned but in August a French fleet under Bailli de Suffren recaptured the forts for the Franco-Dutch coalition.[2]

Whilst the Dutch retained possession of the forts and coastal districts for over another decade, in 1795 the Dutch again joined the French in a war against the British.

The French had invaded Holland in 1794, the Batavian Republic was established and the Dutch hereditary Stadtholder fled to Britain. He issued an instruction to all the Dutch East Indies possessions including Ceylon that they were now under British protection.

As the British now considered Ceylon their responsibility, an invasion force arrived off Trincomalee on 1 August 1795, comprised of 71st, 72nd, and 73rd King’s Regiments, 1st, 9th and 23rd Madras Native Infantry, 2nd /2nd Bombay Native Infantry, with detachments of Madras and Royal Artillerymen, and a number of auxiliaries, all under the command of Colonel James Stuart.[3] He was supported by two Royal Navy Admirals, Peter Rainier and Alan Gardner, HMS Suffolk and Centurion armed with 124 guns, the frigates HMS Diomede and Heroine and sloops HMS Rattlesnake, HMS Swift, and HMS Echo, with additional support from East India Company ships and HMS Stately and HMS Arrogant.

The Dutch commandant of Trincomalee, Major Fornbauer, prevaricated over negotiations until Colonel Stuart’s patience gave out, over justifiable concerns of a French rescue fleet. The British troops were landed and Trincomalee fort surrendered on 26 August.

By 6 October the British were in possession of all the Dutch coastal forts. Batticaloa surrendered to 22nd Regiment on 18 September, Jaffna to Colonel Stuart on 22 September, Mullaitivu to 52nd regiment from HMS Hobart on 1 October and Mannar on 5 October. The offer of British protection still applied, but the Dutch, aware that protection meant something much nearer to British control, refused all offers.

Major General Charles Daniel de Meuron

A curious incident occurred at Colombo where a regiment of Swiss mercenaries, raised by Charles Daniel De Meuron in 1781 for the Dutch East India Company actually transferred their allegiance to the British Crown and were posted to India.[4]

The Dutch were still intending to defend Colombo as the British were advancing slowly along the coast on poor roads or marching on sandy shorelines having already abandoned their most outlying forts and a strong fortification on the north side of Colombo, where the presence of the British fleet would have exposed any defenders to being cut off. Upon arrival at Colombo, Colonel Stuart offered the Dutch Governor terms, which Van Angelbeek accepted on 15 February 1796. The fort could have held out for three more days, with the possibility of a storm of the fort which if successful, could have meant repercussions for a stubborn defence.[5]

The British would not have negotiated, Trincomalee and Colombo were too important in the future defence and trade of India to allow for any spirit of benevolence.[6]

After the invasion and conquest, the political issues were about how the island was to be governed. The cost to the Madras Presidency, who had supplied some of the troops, was £12,000 and the Company, anxious to recover its expenses wanted to establish a monopoly over trade in cinnamon and pearls.[7]

By early 1796 the Madras Presidency had established an administration in the conquered coastal territories. For the time being the Kandyan Kingdom occupying the central area of Ceylon was left alone.

Major General James Stuart


The governance of the coastal districts was placed under twofold civil and military control which proved to be unsatisfactory and contentious. The first military governor of Ceylon was Major Patrick Agnew from 1795- March 1796, followed in fairly quick succession by Colonel James Stuart until January 1797, and the following three Military Governors who all died within a five month period; Colonel George Petrie 73rd Regiment in 1797,[8] succeeded by Major General Welbore Ellis Doyle, 53rd Regiment died on 30 June 1797 and Colonel Peter Bonnevaux, of the Company’s Madras Army,[9] who was killed on 12 July 1797, when his curricle overturned. [10] The last Military Governor, whose predecessors all held wide and discretionary powers, was Brigadier Pierre De Meuron, HM’s De Meuron Regiment appointed in 1797 until 1798, when the post of Military Governor was abolished.[11]

Brigadier Pierre de Meuron


The civil administration of government proved to be corrupt, petty officials abusing their authority to extort merchants, tradesmen and pearl fishermen. Before Major General Doyle died, he had commented that the revenue could only be collected at the point of a bayonet and the Governor of Madras Lord Hobart, was already concerned by adverse reports reaching him about affairs in Ceylon.

Within six months a serious rebellion was hatching, stoked by remaining Dutch residents, which lasted from June 1796 to early February 1798. It is uncertain which military units were deployed but casualties were reported as high, because the Sinhalese adopted guerrilla style tactics of hit and run against convoys and columns sent against them, studiously avoiding pitched battle.

The rebellion shook the Madras Presidency into wholesale reforms in Ceylon between 1796 to 1798. The blunders and oppressive maladministration were corrected by October 1798 and perfect tranquillity was reported by the new Governor of Ceylon, the Honourable Frederick, Lord North.

Following the rebellion however there were to be further disappointments in the system of government and by 1801 it was clear matters needed to change. On 1 January 1802, the East India Company in Ceylon was dissolved, and although the Governor retained both legislative and executive powers under the Crown, the powers of the Governor and General Hay Macdowall, officer commanding troops and appointed in 1799, were not straightforwardly defined.

Once the British had secured the coastal districts, they cast their attention onto the Kingdom of Kandy ruled by an absolute monarch. British knowledge regarding the topography and internal operation of the kingdom was scant and throughout his tenure as Governor, North had to rely on vague and often inaccurate information about events in Kandy.

The King of Kandy, Raja Sinha, died in 1798 and was succeeded by a distant relative, 18 years old Sri Vikrama Raja Sinha, who was destined to be the last Sinhalese monarch. His accession, was not without controversy and during the next five years leading up to 1803, the allegations of plots, counter plots and bloodshed obfuscate the broad picture.

Upon the new Monarchs accession, there followed a three-year period of intrigue and duplicity between British officialdom and Kandyan ministers which eventually led to war. The political manoeuvrings and treachery are of little concern here, except that Lord North appointed the Commander-in-Chief, Hay Macdowall as his ambassador at the Court of the King. Hay Macdowall’s escort on his embassy mission to the King comprised of 1,164 troops and six 6-pounder cannons, and taking with him a draft of a treaty which incorporated the terms agreed by North and Talawuwe, the King’s chief minister. North had already determined the treaty would be annulled if the King refused to sign the treaty or accept Macdowall’s escort.

Lieutenant General Hay MacDowall

On 12th March 1800, the King having agreed to the escort, General Hay Macdowall and the detachment set out for the Kandyan capital. The King, however put little trust in British intentions and ordered Macdowall to leave the major portion of the British detachment at Ruwanella, permitting only four companies of Sepoys and officers to continue to Kandy. The King then told Macdowall, that his smaller detachment could not remain at Kandy either. The mission collapsed into failure and Macdowall with his detachment was forced to return to Colombo. After all the political scheming, the British had been snubbed and the long history of distrust between Kandy and the British was about to ignite into a war.

In April 1802, a group of Kandyans allegedly seized a convoy of Areca or Betel nuts, at Puttalam worth £1000, from a party of native merchants under British protection.

This was deemed an act such of seriousness that it provided the British with sufficient cause for Lord North to declare war against the Kingdom of Kandy in January 1803.

The War

Certain problems were lurking for the British before ever getting to grips with their new enemy. An under estimation of the enemy’s capacity to resist and fight, an over estimation of British troops fitness and ability to counter guerrilla style warfare, and a scant knowledge of the terrain and topography of the Kingdom of Kandy, necessary for a largely European army on the move. Additionally, after two centuries of warfare against Portuguese and Dutch invaders the Kandyan’s were not exactly on their own. The rivers, mountains, plains, thick jungle, and weather were all useful allies, contributing to the ‘permanently operating factors,’[12] which served their cause, added to which was an older enemy of the British, disease and fever which were to prove devastating.

North must have discussed the war and its implications with Hay Macdowall, not least of which was the total complement of British troops in the districts of Ceylon in 1803, was between 4000-5000 men of all arms, including Malay and Sepoy infantrymen. Though the forts were held by the British, the garrisons had suffered from outbreaks of sickness which had made a devastating impact on their numbers.

The decision was to send an invading force towards Kandy in two separate columns with a combined strength of 3,344 troops. The Colombo Column 1,900 strong, under the command of Macdowall, left Colombo on 31 January 1803, and included the 51st Regiment of Foot comprising 625 men.[13] A second column left Trincomalee on 4 February, under the command of Colonel Burton Gage Barbutt, including HM’s 73rd (Highland) Regiment and comprising of 1,434 troops.[14]

The columns were not seriously opposed to any extent but the Kandyan’s displayed a considerable degree of skill at guerrilla tactics, sniping, and ambush using the cover of swamps and jungle to their best advantage, killing several British soldiers including two Brigade Majors. Isolated British parties and commissariat convoys were additional easy targets and transport broke down frequently.

On 23 February Colonel Barbutt, was writing back to government, that he and his men were encamped just over a mile from Kandy, having entered the city on the evening of the 20th and found it wholly deserted, although the King’s palace had already been partially consumed by fire and the King had retreated to Hanguranketa.[15]

The Governor, Lord North, at the suggestion of Barbutt, decided to enthrone a Prince Muttusamy as the King of Kandy who had already agreed to cede a district of Ceylon, called the Seven Korales, to the British, in addition to acknowledging British suzerainty and agreeing to pay for a British garrison to be stationed in Kandy.

The two British columns marched to Hanguranketa, described as a pleasant place set in a basin of hills, but their quarry had flown. The palace was empty and burnt down by the British, who now moved back towards the capital Kandy as their rations would only last eight days.

The rainy season in Ceylon would have caused transport difficulties in both columns regarding the transport of men, infected by malaria and various fevers in significant numbers. Taking account of these factors, Macdowall was forced into suspending the campaign until the next dry season and returned to Colombo on 1 April 1803.

Colonel Barbutt however, remained in Kandy with a garrison of 300 Europeans, 700 Malays and a few Indian artillerymen. He remained in positive mood for a short while, providing reports to Lord North that gave cause for optimism.

Lord North, now agreed a second alliance or treaty which allowed the lawful King, Sri Vikrama Rajahsinha, to be handed over to the British, for Prince Muttusamy with the regal court to reside in Jaffna and the King’s chief minister, Pilama Talawuwe, to rule in Kandy. The new agreement fell apart quickly, the war was to continue, dashing any hopes of an early end to hostilities.

The garrison remaining at Kandy were to pay a heavy price for North’s ineptitude, particularly as their supplies and safety were low and had relied on the agreement being ratified in good faith. Colonel Barbutt reported in April, that the Europeans were becoming unfit for duty and within a month were dying at the rate of six a day and Barbutt himself, died of fever on 21 May. The command at Kandy devolved to Major Adam Davie, who joined the army in 1787, transferred from 75th (Highland) Regiment to Champagnes Malay Regiment, on 25/04/1801, had been Commandant at Fort Ostenburg, October 1802 and yet, despite his sixteen years’ service, had no experience of action in the field.[16]

On 23 May Macdowall returned to Kandy to meet Kandyan ministers, who failed to attend, and the General became ill as the fever increased in the garrison. Hay Macdowall left Kandy with promises re-assuring the garrison that reinforcements would arrive, or they would be withdrawn altogether. Macdowall did not arrive back in Colombo until 19 June and attempts to raise a rescue column failed principally over the transport service at Colombo which had collapsed and the 1000 ‘coolies’ required were either sick, already dead or simply refused.

Much of the blame for what now ensued fell upon Major Adam Davie, described as a man hopelessly out of his depth, rather confirmed by his request to be granted permission to decline the command on the grounds that it could only bring him ‘discredit and blame.’[17]

In one of his last letters from Kandy he wrote:

‘Henderson died on the 11th, and Bausset this morning: Rumley and Gonpil are also ill.

The Lascars and Malays desert by the dozens, and high rewards are offered to murder all the officers. Batteries close upon us. Our bullocks are carried off by force and attempts even made to carry of the small mortars from the park.

A hopeful situation truly and a pretty time to succeed to such a command.

Excuse this scrawl, it being the 19th letter I have written today and besides I am far from well. The General and his aide de camp left this on 11th both ill. I wish they may reach Colombo safe.’[18]

Lieutenant Thomas Ormsby, 51st Regiment, wrote in similar vein:

What a catalogue could I give you of our departed friends. God only knows what will become of us if we are ordered to evacuate the place, there is scarce a single European that could walk a mile…for if we were to be attacked we have only three artillerymen fit for duty.’[19]

The Kandyans’ avoided direct assault, favouring harrying the supply lines from Colombo and stealing from the garrison when opportunity arose.

Any orders that Davie received from Colombo were not complied with and two forts or outposts, Ghirriagamme and Galligherderah, held by small garrisons of a dozen Malay soldiers and invalids, each under a Havildar surrendered on 22 June. Their fate was never established.

A further post at Dambadinia, some 60 miles from the capital Kandy, was garrisoned by a few invalids under the command of Ensign Grant, and joined on 26 June by Lieutenant Nixon 19th Regiment who was also accompanied by a party of invalids.[20] On the 29 June they were attacked by a force of Kandyans, many of whom were dressed in British uniforms belonging to those at Kandy. The enemy were repeatedly repulsed by the determined defenders and although offered favourable terms to surrender, wisely declined and were eventually reinforced and brought out on 2 July, by a detachment from Colombo under Captain Robert Blackall, 51st Regiment. Blackall’s Detachment of ninety Europeans and 150 Asian troops had left Negombo specifically to carry out a deliberate policy of burning and destroying property, plundering cattle, to spread terror into the countryside.[21]

The last order Major Davie received from Colombo was to evacuate the fort at Kandy, but without additional help to move or transport the sick was not practicable.

On 23 June Major Davie received a warning from the Kandyan Chief Minister Talawuwe, informing him that the Kandyans’ were about to attack. Davie had only twenty Europeans to attend the four artillery 3-pounders covering entrances and the Kings palace, where Prince Muttusamy was still residing but now in fear of his life.

In reality there were no defences. The wall surrounding the fort on three sides was more decorative than defensive. The eastern side was without a wall, instead there was a stockade, beyond which hills rose sharply, providing easy access for fire into the fort. A fifth 3-pounder and mortars manned by ten men, without a European NCO or officer present, were placed on the eastern side to complement the limited defence capability. During the night of 23-24 June, the Kandyans’ came out of the darkness and overran the eastern post.

The Massacre

No British troops stirred in the fort until at 0500 hours, Quartermaster Brown, a corpulent man, was in discussion with Ensign Barry, when they were confronted by a large number of the enemy approaching from the south east. Assistant Surgeon Greeving, estimated their numbers to be 20,000 but likelier to have been fewer.

A skirmish ensued where the enemy leader, Sangunglo, pushed aside Quartermaster Brown’s gun and stabbed him to death with a knife, probably a traditional Piha-Kaetta. The enemy leader was then bayoneted by Barry and killed by Major Davie with his sword. Captain Humphreys, an Artilleryman with a few men of 19th Regiment quickly manned a 3-pounder loaded with grape which cut down a large swathe of attackers and killed twenty four, prompting the remainder to retreat. It was to make little difference.

The enemy held the hill overlooking the fort and kept up a continuous fire with muskets and gingals until heavier pieces of weaponry could be deployed. A sally by a company of the Malay Regiment led by their Malay Lieutenant, gained some precious time before what is described as a ‘grotesque performance’ took place.[22]

Towards the latter part of the morning four British officers commanding the Malay Regiment approached Major Davie and suggested that it was time to surrender. Davie refused whereupon the four threw down their swords declaring that the fort could not be held for another hour. Major Davie promptly seized a pistol and attempted, unsuccessfully to shoot himself. The pistol was taken from him and other officers arrived who advised that surrender was tantamount to suicide. Davie however decided to capitulate and it is not known whether the remaining six other British officers present in the fort were consulted.

General Hay Macdowall had previously criticised the Malay Regiment for a lack of discipline and castigated the same officers of the corps as barbarous, unmilitary and immoral.[23]

Just after midday on 24 June, Major Davie accompanied by a Captain Nouradin[24] carrying a flag of truce, met with Kandyan leaders to seek terms which at first appeared reasonable. The troops who were fit would accompany Davie and the Prince Muttusamy and march to Trincomalee. The 120 sick in hospital would be cared for and remain where they were until an evacuation could be arranged. The artillery and ammunition were to be surrendered. As the sun was setting, thirty four Europeans, 250 Malay troops (reduced from 700,) a small party of Bengal artillerymen, 140 Lascars, Prince Muttusamy, his suite, and the wives and children left the fort for a ferry crossing over the river Mahaweli Ganga.

Their situation began to look ominous from the outset. On arrival at the ferry near to a place called Watapulwa, the river was in flood but no boats, although promised, were available.

The next day the Kandyans’ immediately breached the terms by insisting that Prince Muttusamy and his servants should be handed over or they would not supply boats. Davie knew full well that relinquishing his charge over Muttusamy to the King would mean a sentence of death on the Prince and he managed to stall two further requests. The third visit from the Kandyans’ was short and the message concise. Muttusamy must be handed over, otherwise there would be no boats and several thousand Kandyan troops would attack the remnant of the garrison. Despite protestations from Muttusamy, chiefly touching upon on the breach of good faith and English honour, he and a small entourage of relatives with seven servants were handed over to the Kandyans. They were escorted back to Kandy, where Muttusamy with four relatives were beheaded and their servant’s noses and ears cut off.

News also arrived that the sick and wounded at Kandy had been massacred. A room in the palace had been prepared for them, but once Davie and his column had left, the Kandyans’ entered and slaughtered nearly all those sick and wounded who remained.

One survivor who was in the hospital, a Sergeant Jan Egbertus Thoen, Bengal Artillery, who later described the scene:

The garrison had hardly marched out of the gate when thousands of Kandyans entered armed with swords knives, clubs and old firelocks, rushed into the hospital where I lay with 149 other Europeans …… The Kandyans had no sooner entered than they began to butcher indiscriminately everyone in the hospital, robbing them at the same time, cursing and reviling and spitting in their faces; they mostly knocked out the soldier’s brains and pulled them out by the heels, threw many into a well and numbers of the bodies were left in the street and devoured by dogs.[25]

The only officer in the hospital was Lieutenant Peter Plenderleath, Adjutant of the 19th Regiment, who was beaten and left in the gutter to die.

Sergeant Thoen, knocked unconscious, awoke to find himself naked and his colleagues dead. As he attempted to crawl away, he was discovered and hanged from a nearby beam. The Kandyans’ then left him but before Thoen died of strangulation, the rope broke. Hiding for seven days before being rediscovered, he was taken before the king who treated him well. He remained in Kandy as the King’s royal pensioner for the next twelve years. In 1815 he was brought back into the British post at Galle, 75 miles from Colombo, where he resided with his native wife and child.

The two surgeons with the garrison, Holloway, 19th Regiment and Assistant Surgeon Greeving, Malay Regiment, had abandoned their patients and marched out with Major Davie.

If Davie had hoped by handing over Muttusamy to the Kandyans’ it would improve his position, he was mistaken. No boats to take the surviving garrison across the river were supplied. The troops managed to get a rope thrown over in the hope of building a raft to cross but the rope was severed by the Kandyans’, who now insisted that boats would only be provided once all arms and weapons were laid down. Davie gave the order to lay down arms which provoked protest from some of his men. He then revoked the order until he had destroyed papers in his possession and then reinstated the order to disarm.

Now all disarmed, the native Malays and other natives from the garrison who remained loyal were murdered and the 34 remaining European troops were led away in pairs to be murdered at the riverside, principally by men described as ‘Caffres’ wielding large swords[26] although Major Davie and Captain Rumley were spared. A few officers had secreted pistols about their bodies and managed to shoot themselves before being killed. An unnamed Ensign snatched a musket from a guard and shot himself. A Lieutenant Blakeney wounded in the chest and thigh, was dragged from his dhoolie and clubbed to death, two officers threw themselves into the river and drowned and Assistant Surgeon Greeving and Captain Humphreys managed to roll out of sight unseen down an embankment, only for Humphreys to be recaptured later. Greeving escaped and eventually returned to Colombo in September. Of the officers of the 19th, 51st, Malay Regiments and Bengal Artillery 11 were killed. Of the original 300 European garrison from Kandy excepting the officers, twenty men of the 19th were killed at the ferry and only one soldier from that regiment survived. His name was Corporal George Barnsley 19th Regiment, who during the killing spree by the river had suffered a sword cut on the back of his neck and left for dead. On recovering consciousness, he found that he had to support his head otherwise it fell forward, yet despite this he set off towards Fort Macdowall. Recaptured by Kandyans’ and treated well, he was taken to Fort Macdowall, his intended destination. On arrival he was told to take a message to the fort’s British commander Captain Edward Madge 19th Regiment, that Madge would be wise to surrender but on meeting the Captain, Barnsley’s first words were, ‘the troops in Kandy are all dished, your Honour.’ [27]

Madge and his men had been under a relatively quiet siege of spasmodic attacks without attempts to storm his position and where his three officers, twenty two Malays and thirty two soldiers of 19th Regiment, nineteen of whom were incapacitated, were still awaiting a relief column. On hearing the Corporal’s account, including what had happened to the sick in the hospital at Kandy, Captain Madge decided to evacuate the fort and abandon his sick men to their fate.

At 10pm the same night the garrison stole quietly out of Fort Macdowall, leaving lamps burning and the sick in their cots. They marched as rapidly as possible for four days, only occasionally harried by Kandyan forces. They were eventually met a relief column from Trincomalee comprising of 150 troops, with porters and dhoolies but having been reinforced, Madge decided not to return to his fort but continued to Colombo. Here he was commended for his withdrawal, the issue of the nineteen abandoned sick soldiers passing without comment.[28] The authors referenced below, give very different accounts regarding the sick being abandoned. Johnstone states that a ‘considerable number of the sick’ escaped with Madge. Powell gives a diametrically opposed account which is supported by Henry Marshall, an Inspector General of Hospitals and formerly of 89th Regiment in his ‘Historical Sketch of the Conquest of Ceylon.’[29]

The fate of two other officers thought to have survived, Captains Rumley and Humphreys appears to be uncertain, they were assumed to have been imprisoned at the end of August 1803, after which their fate was not determined but both probably died, whether from disease or execution is unknown.

Major Adam Davie is known to have survived as a special prisoner of the King for at least ten years. Still wearing his tattered Major’s jacket but barefooted, he frequently requested information from Colombo about his rank and pension and was still in contact in November 1805 but never made an attempt leave Kandy. Both General Macdowall and Lord North attempted to bring him back to Colombo but requests to the King for his return were refused. Davie had married and had children, so whether it was a filial attachment or embarrassment over his conduct and decision making that kept him in Kandy is debatable. He died of dropsy in 1812/13.

The British held the Kandyan’s responsible for the massacre and deaths. Major Adam Davie’s surrender contributed to the disaster by trusting an enemy he knew to be ruthless but if the British had made a determined stand at the fort would the result have been much different? Many would have become casualties against overwhelming Kandyan odds and subsequent prisoners likely to have been executed. Had the British been in a position to defend the fort determinedly, as elsewhere in Ceylon, would the Kandyan enemy have prevailed. Their skills were at ambush, sniping and harrying supplies, utilising the terrain and physical features to their advantage. The frontal assault, favoured by western European armies was not their tactical style, as the British often discovered elsewhere on the Indian Sub-continent.

Once the Kandyan forces had expelled the British from the interior they continued with attacks on defensive positions in the coastal districts during August and September in the hope of driving out the British for good. Here they were less successful.

Together with reinforcements from The Cape and Bengal, the British defenders rendered Kandyan attacks against defended positions, ineffectual and wasteful. ‘In leaving their fastnesses the Kandyans’ relinquished those advantages which made them formidable.’ Major Arthur Johnston 19th Regiment, the author of those words, had some military experience in Ceylon, having arrived there with his regiment in 1796.[30]

On 20 September 1804, Johnston with 2 officers, 70 European troops, a Royal Artillery sergeant and 6 gunners, 53 Malays and 175 Sepoys from the Bengal Volunteers marched out of Batticaloa, on the basis of vague orders, towards Kandy where he would meet with other detachments to carry the war to the Kandyans. There were only 550 pioneers and porters available, the carriage bullocks were of poor quality and the gunners had only one light 1-pounder cannon and a Coehorn mortar.[31]

Conditions for Johnston’s detachment were bad enough but on their arrival at Kandy on 6 October after waiting three days it became apparent no further support was coming. Johnston decided to return to Trincomalee but was attacked on several occasions suffering losses. During one attack Johnston ordered his deputy, Lieutenant Virgo to fall back and bring up the rear-guard with the wounded and sick. Neither Lieutenant Virgo nor the rear-guard returned.

Even with his experience Johnston struggled with the jungle, local conditions and ambushes by the Kandyans’ until he was able to reach Minneriya some 50 miles from Trincomalee. To his amazement Lieutenant Virgo and the rear-guard were present, stating they had become lost. Two lieutenants, Berkeley Vincent and Henry L. Smith with two other wounded soldiers were unaccounted for as well as many porters.[32] Virgo was placed under arrest although he stated his soldiers had refused to obey his orders and at his later court martial and conviction, his punishment was six months loss of rank and pay.[33] A Sergeant Craven 19th Regiment was sentenced to transportation for life for abandoning four wounded men but he died before being shipped to Botany Bay.

Johnston arrived in Trincomalee on 20 October 1804, with the loss of 38 officers and men. In the first instance he too was court martialled for disobedience to orders but the charges were dismissed.[34]

Repressive counter raids by the British eventually began to take effect and with the arrival of a new Governor, Major General Thomas Maitland in July 1805, the 1st Kandyan War began to grind to an inconclusive end.

There was to be a Second Kandyan War in 1815, and a Third War in 1817-1818, both of these followed by major unrest during the Verandah Rebellion of 1847-1850.

The people of Ceylon for all their efforts, like many other peoples and tribes across the world, were to wait another hundred years before gaining their independence from the British.

Officer of the Regiment Meuron, late 18th century



G. Powell, The Kandyan Wars (London: Leo Cooper, 1973)

J. Cordiner, A Description of Ceylon (Sri Lanka: T Prakasakayo, 1983) a reprint of the 1803 edition.

L. Mills, Ceylon under British Rule (London: OUP, 1933)

J. Tennant, Ceylon (Sri Lanka: T. Prakasakayo, 1977) a reprint of a 1859 edition.

M. Ferrar, (ed.) The Diary of Colour Sergeant Calladine, 19th Regiment. (London: E Fisher & Co., 1922)

J. Davy, An Account of the Island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka: T. Prakasakayo, 1969) a reprint of an 1821 edition.

B. & Y. Gooneratne, This Inscrutable Englishman, Sir John D’Oyly (London: Cassell & Co., 1999)

A. Alexander. The Life of Alexander Alexander, (London: Wm. Blackwood, 1830)

C. Wickremeskera, Kandy at War, (New Delhi: Manohar, 2004)

U.C. Wickremeratne, Hearsay and Versions British Relations with the Kingdom of Kandy 1796-1818. (Colombo: V. Yapa Publications, 2012)

J. Forbes, Eleven Years in Ceylon (Asian Educational Services, 1994) a reprint in 2 vols of 1840 edition.

R. Perceval, An Account of the Island of Ceylon, (Sri Lanka: T. Prakasakayo 1975) a reprint of the 1805 edition.

A. Johnston, The First Kandyan War, A Narrative & History of the British Conquest of Ceylon (London: Leonaur 2014) A reprint of the 1804 edition.

H. Marshall, A General Description of Ceylon (Colombo: Soriya Publishing, 2005) a reprint of 1845 edition.

JSTOR, The Ceylon Regiments. The Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research Vol. 30, No. 123 (AUTUMN, 1952), pp. 124-128 (6 pages) Published By: SAHR

JSTOR, The Captivity of Major Davie. The Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland Vol. 29, No. 76, Parts I., II., III. and IV. (1923), pp. 147-185 Published by: Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka (RASSL)


[1] U. Wickremeratne, Hearsay & Versions in British Relations with the Kingdom of Kandy 1796-1818, (Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2012)

[2] L. Mills, Ceylon under British Rule 1795-1932, (London: OUP 1933, H. Milford) p.41

[3] C. Buckland, A Dictionary of Indian Biography (London: Swann Sonneschein, 1906) James Stuart 1741-1815 p.409

[4] G. de Meuron, Le Regiment Meuron, (Lausanne: Le Forum Historique, 1982) pp.90-115

[5] A Gillespie, A History of the Laws of War, (London, Bloomsbury) 3 volumes.

[6] Diaries and Correspondence of James Harris, 1st Earl of Malmesbury, (London: R Bentley 1844) pp.358-558

[7] L. Mills, Ceylon under British Rule 1795-1932. (London: OUP 1933) quoting Brit. Mus. Add, Mss 13866.

[8] Petrie’s will was proved in the UK in 1798. Vide and ref.

[9] E. Dodwell & J. Miles, An Alphabetical List of the Officers of the Indian Army 1770-1837. (London: Longman Orme & Co. 1838) Peter Bonnevaux, entered Madras Army, Ensign 1768, Lieut., 1770, Captain 1779, Major 1788, Lieut., Col. 1794.

[10] J. P. Lewis, List of the Inscriptions on Tombs and Monuments in Ceylon. (Colombo, Ceylon: H. Cottle, Govt. Printer, 1913) p 380. Both officers Doyle and Bonnevaux have brief biographical entries.

[11] De Meuron was briefly replaced by Robert Andrews, until the appointment of the new Governor, Lord North.

[12] A phrase used by Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington during the 2nd Anglo-Maratha War 1802-5

[13] Army List 1801, 49th edition (Dublin: The War Office 1801) pp.232-233, The 51st (2nd Yorkshire West Riding) Regiment of Foot.

[14] Ibid. 73rd (Highland) Regiment of Foot, pp.294-295

[15] Annual Asiatic Register 1803 pp.84-86

[16] Army List 49th edition, (Dublin: War Office, 1801) pp.41 & 298-299. Colonel Josiah Champagne commanded an Independent Malay Company upon their transfer to the Kings Service in 1801.

[17] G. Powell, The Kandyan Wars (London: Leo Cooper, 1973) p.112

[18] Ibid. p.113.

[19] G. Powell, The Kandyan Wars (London: Leo Cooper, 1973) p.111

[20] The Army List 49th edition, (Dublin: The War Office 1801) The 19th (or 1st Yorkshire N. Riding) Regt. of Foot, known as the Green Howards. pp.158-159. There are 2 Nixons listed as Lieutenants.

[21] G. Powell, The Kandyan Wars (London: Leo Cooper, 1973) pp.173

[22] G. Powell, The Kandyan Wars (London: Leo Cooper, 1973) pp.116

[23] Ibid. p.117

[24] Ibid. Later Nouradin and his brother, a fellow officer in the Malay Regiment, were taken prisoner before the King. Declining to prostrate themselves, they saluted but refused further requests to enter his service. Initially the King was impressed by their steadfast loyalty and kept them prisoner until August when their loyalty finally resulted in their execution. pp.127-128.

[25] JSTOR, Royal Asiatic Society of Ceylon, The Captivity of Major Davie, Vol. 29. No.76 parts I, II, III 1923 pp147-185. The figures on the deaths at the hospital are difficult to ascertain. Some sources say 120 others 149.

[26] A Burnell & H. Yule, Hobson Jobson, A Glossary of Anglo-Indian Words, (London: J. Murray, 1903) Caffre pp.140-141

[27] A. Johnston, Narrative of the Operations of a Detachment in an Expedition to Kandy in the Island of Ceylon 1804, (Dublin: J. McGlashin, 1854) Corporal Barnsley’s Deposition, Appendix pp.130-134

[28] G. Powell, The Kanyan Wars, (London: Leo Cooper, 1973) p.126-127

[29] H. Marshall, Ceylon, A General Description of the Island, (London: W. Allen, 1846) Appendix Historical Sketch part II pp.94-114

[30] A. Johnston, Narrative of the Operations of a Detachment in an Expedition to Kandy in the Island of Ceylon 1804, (Dublin: J. McGlashin, 1854) p.35

[31]  Named after its inventor Menno Van Coehorn, a military engineer in 1674, and continued in use until 1915 during WWI.

[32] P. Lewis, List of Inscriptions on Tombstones and Monuments in Ceylon pub. 1913 p.441

[33] A. Johnston, Narrative of the Operations of a Detachment in an Expedition to Kandy in the Island of Ceylon 1804, (Dublin: J. McGlashin, 1854)

[34] A Johnston, A Narrative of the Operations of a Detachment in an Expedition to Kandy in the Island of Ceylon 1804. (Driffield: Leonaur 2014.) Major Arthur Johnston, b. 1778, joined the 19th regiment at 15 years old and was a British officer in command of a Pioneer company and commanded at Hambingotte, Ceylon, during the 1st Kandyan War 1803. He left Ceylon c 1812. Died 1824.