Veera Puranappu:Leader of the only People’s Revolution in Lanka
August 8th, 2007
By Tyronne Fernando
August 8th is the 159th death anniversary of Veera Puranappu
The National Hero popularly known as Veera Puranappu was originally Veera Hennedige Franciscu Fernando. He was born on November 7, 1812 in Moratuwa and was executed by the British in Kandy on August 8, 1848.
Francisco attended the Wesleyan school in Moratuwa and was a very mischievous boy. After a fight with the village headman he fled from Moratuwa in 1825 at the age of 13. He travelled about the country, mostly the hill country – Haldummulla to Badulla and other places.
In 1840, he stayed with his uncle W. Marcellenus Franciscu Fernando, the first Sinhala Proctor who had a flourishing practice at Ratnapura. He stayed at the Kahangamuwa Walawwa in Ratnapura.
Between 1842 and 1844, he became famous as a fearless person in the Uva Province. He broke into
House of Magistrate Dawson of Badulla and was imprisoned and then broke prison. He cursed Major Rodgers who brought a false charge against him and Major Rodgers was struck by lightning in Nuwara Eliya.
The Gazette notification by the Colonial Secretary, Sir Emmerson Tennent on January 1, 1847, offered 10 pounds for his apprehension and described him as follows
“Perangappo originally of Morette, lately of Kandy, trade – unknown, caste – fisher, aged 34 years, height 5ft 71/2 inches, hair – long and black, eyes – light hazel, complexion – light, well looking, make – well made, stout, marks of punishment on the back and 4 vaccination marks.”
James Alwis writing in 1876 of the events of 1848 in the “Ceylon overland Examiner” states that Puranappu or Veerahennedige Franciscu Fernando was of the Karawa caste “in whom a bold and daring disposition was combined with a strong and healthy constitution.”
In early 1847 in Kandy he met and married Bandaramenike, the daughter of Gunnepana Arachchie.
By the time Puranappu came to Kandy, the Kandyan provinces were in a State of turmoil. The Kandyan provinces had been under British rule for 32 years. The depression in the United Kingdom had severely affected the local coffee and cinnamon industry. Also, a blight had struck the coffee plant.
Planters and merchants clamoured for a reduction of export duties. Sir Emmerson Tennenet, the Colonial Secretary in Colombo recommended to Earl Grey, Secretary of State for Colonies in London that taxation should be radically shifted from indirect taxation to direct taxation.
This proposal was accepted. It was decided to abolish the export duty on coffee and reduce the export duty on cinnamon leaving a deficit of 40,000 pounds which was to be met by direct taxes on the people.
A new Governor 35-year-old Torrinton, a cousin of Prime Minister Lord Russel was despatched to Colombo by Queen Victoria to carry out these reforms.
On July 1, 1848, licence fees were imposed on guns, dogs, carts, shops and labour was made compulsory on plantation roads, unless a special tax was paid. These taxes bore heavily on both the purse and the traditions of the Kandyan peasant.
On July 6, a multitude gathered at the Kandy Kachcheri and unarmed peasants were set upon and beaten up.
On July 8, Sir Emmerson Tennent, the Colonial Secretary told the Headman “pay two and six and keep a gun or be flogged.”
A mass movement against the oppressive taxes was developing. The masses were without the leadership of their native King (deposed in 1815) and their chiefs (annihilated after the 1817 rebellion). The leadership passed for the first time in the Kandyan Province into the hands of ordinary people.
One of the groups was Gongalagoda Banda who claimed relationship to the deposed king and got himself crowned in Dambulla.
The real hero and livewire in this group became Francicu Fernando, who having earned a name for himself in the hill provinces as a courageous man was now popularly known as Puranappu.
Professor Kingsley de Silva in his book “Rebellion of 1848″ (1965) says that “Puranappu was a most resourceful and courageous man who took a leading part in the events and died a courageous death.” (P. 22, 26)
After three weeks of preparation in the early hours of July 28, 1848, a crowd of eight to ten thousand men under Puranappu’s leadership armed with guns, spears and knives set off for Kandy from Dambulla.
The plan was for Puranappu, Gongalagoda Banda and Dingirala to go in three different directions then meet at Katugastota and attack Kandy on Sunday, the 30th of July.
Puranappu’s army first attacked Fort McDowl in Matale. Government buildings and property were ransacked – kachcheries, jails, rest houses and court house records. The coffee stores of Lieutenant General Herbert Maddock, a key adviser to the Government in Kandy was set on fire.
Meanwhile, Gongalagoda Banda was attacked by British soldiers at Wariyapola and fled. Dingirala was captured at Kurunegala and hanged.
The people then spontaneously proclaimed Puranappu as the King. Rev. Fr. S.G. Perera in his “History of Ceylon for Schools” (1932) records – “At Matale crowds became unruly and brunt and ransacked some houses and proclaimed a low country man Puranappu King of Kandy.”
Then, on July 29, Lord Torrinton, the Governor proclaimed Martial Law. Indian troops were sent for and landed at Trincomalee. Captain Albert Watson and his Javneuse soldiers were let loose on a rampage of murder, arson, rape and looting.
Puranappu himself was captured on his way to Kandy on July 29. A confidential letter dated 3rd August sent to the Government by the Kandyan Chief and a proctor of the Supreme Court (probably J.A. Dunuvilla) says that Puranappu’s capture “is winning half of the battle.” (Kingsley de Silva P. 23)
Puranappu was tried by a Court Martial for treason and having been found guilty was executed on August 8, 1848, at the age of 35. The Colombo “Observer” of August 10, 1848, states “We append a Kandy letter received by yesterday’s coach from which it will be seen that the notorious Porangappoo has been shot and two of his fellow rebels sentenced to transportation.”
Sir Emmerson Tennent reported to Governor Torrinton on August 12, 1848, that Puranappu died “most heroically.” Governor Torrinton in a letter to Earl Grey, the Colonial Secretary in London dated October 9, 1849 (the original of this letter is still available at Druham University and a photocopy is in my possession) states “I remind you of the last words of Puranappu.
He held up his hands and said if there had been half a dozen such men as me to lead, there would not be a white man living in the Kandyan Province. This is true. If there had been such leaders without doubt for a time we should have lost the country.”
Veera Puranappu has permanent place in our history as a real hero and leader of the only people’s Revolution in our history – the one in 1848 which was indeed the ‘Year of Revolutions’, the world over.
The events in Ceylon had its sequel in the United Kingdom when the matter was taken up in the House of Commons by Henry Bailee, MP. A Select Committee was appointed chaired by Bailee consisting of Peel, Gladstone and Disraeli among others. (These three were later to become prime Ministers). Its report of 1850 severely criticised the conduct of Torrington, Tennent and Watson. Tennent was transferred and Torrinton was recalled. The obnoxious taxes were repealed.
In 1852, upon the fall of Lord John Russel’s Government on its colonial policies, the Colonial Secretary Earl Grey admitted that ‘much mischief had resulted from measures by my predecessors and myself, upon imperfect information not consistent with the spirit of our engagements to the people of Ceylon.” (Kingsley de Silva P. 30)
The writer, a Presidents Counsel is currently a senioor adviser to the President. He was formerly Moratuwa MP, Foreign Minister and North – East Governor. Tyronne Fernando is also a kinsman of Verra Puranappu.
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