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Pre Colonial History

The chronicle Mahavamsa has recorded that Prince Vijaya arrived in Sri Lanka by ship with 700 turbulent followers who were banished by the King of Vanga in India. They grasped the soil on the land with their hands which became copper-colored. Thereupon they named the place Thambapanni (which later became Taprobane to the Greeks)   The present-day Sinhalese are a mixture of the indigenous people and of other peoples who came to the island from various parts of India.  The Sinhalese recognize the Vijayan Indo-Aryan culture and Buddhism, as distinct from other groups in neighboring south India. According to traditional Sri Lankan chronicles such as the Dipavamsa, Buddhism was introduced into Sri Lanka in the third century BCE by  Arahant Mahinda and soon became an integral part of Sinhalese culture.

Sri Lanka was at first divided into different states.  King Dutthagamani better known as Dutugamunu (161-137 BCE) united them into a single kingdom. As well as being a powerful ruler Dutugamunu was a great builder who erected palaces and temples. The first established kingdom in ancient Sri Lanka was Anuradhapura.  The kingdom's authority extended throughout the country. 

The staple diet of the Sri Lankan people was rice. But for the cultivation of paddy water was a great need. During the hot climate,  water soon evaporated. Some water was provided by rain in the rainy season (October to April) but it was not enough. To gain extra water the people dammed streams and rivers.    Over time it became the ruler’s responsibility to provide water for farming and King Mahasena (274-303) built large reservoirs and irrigation canals to take water from one area to another. The network of reservoirs and canals gradually became bigger and more complex.

In the 2nd,  3rd, and 4th centuries AD Sri Lanka became a rich kingdom. She traded with India, China, Persia, and Ethiopia. However, from the 5th century, onward Sri Lanka suffered invasions from India. In the 10th century, the Chola Kingdom became powerful in Southern India.

In 993 the Cholas captured Northern Sri Lanka and they made Polonnaruwa the capital. In 1017 they captured the South. However the Sinhalese continued to resist and in 1030 the Cholas withdrew from Rohana (better known as Ruhuna).   Ruhuna is believed to be the region extending from Bentota to Trincomalee and included Uva and Sabaragamuwa, However, demarcations have undergone several changes and the area now remaining is called the Southern Province.

In 1070 the Sinhalese ruler Vijayabahu recaptured the north.  However, after his death in 1111 weak rulers succeeded him. Sri Lanka broke up into independent states. Then in 1153 Parakramabahu the Great became king of the realm of Dakkinadesa. This great ruler reunited Sri Lanka and also repaired the irrigation systems. He died in 1183.

In the 13th century, Sri Lankan power declined. There were repeated invasions from India and political instability. The irrigation system began to breakdown and the people drifted to the Southwest. In 1255 the capital Polonnaruwa was abandoned.

In the 13th century the Tamils settled in the north of Sri Lanka and by 1505 Sri Lanka was divided into 3 areas. In the north lived Tamils. There was a Sinhalese kingdom in the Southwest based in Kotte and another in the center and east based in Kandy.

Post Colonial History

The colonization of Sri Lanka began with the Portuguese in 1505. It ended in 1948 after the British gave Independence to Sri Lanka. During this period of 443 years, Sri Lanka has been under the rule of Portuguese (1505-1658), Dutch (1658-1796), British (1796-1948) and Trincomalee Harbour was under the French for a  few months in 1796. Only the coastal areas of Sri Lanka was colonized until the British conquered the whole island in 1815. Until then the inner areas were under the reign of the Sinhala king. Sri Lanka declared Independence on the 4th of February in 1948 and became a Republic on 22nd May in 1972.

Portuguese (1505-1658)

The first Europeans to visit Sri Lanka were the Portuguese, who sent an explorer, named Laurenco de Almeida, in 1505. Almeida found the island separated into three different kingdoms, each controlled by a king.

The Portuguese found a port in the area of Colombo and expanded their rule throughout the country in 1517. The result was that the Sinhalese moved their capital to Kandy to prevent further attacks, but inland warfare continued throughout the 16th century under Portuguese control.

Sri Lanka went downhill due to the Portuguese control. Many Sinhalese were forced to convert to Christianity.  Many Buddhists disliked the Portuguese for their cruelty and greediness which led to the  Sri Lankans welcoming any sort of power to get rid of them. When Dutch explorer, Joris van Spilbergen landed in the island about 1602, the King of Kandy, Vimaladharmasuriya I, pleaded for help, to get rid of the Portuguese.

The Dutch (1658-1796)

The Dutch went on to fight the Dutch–Portuguese War, which resulted in the Dutch gaining victory. This war occurred because the king of Kandy invited the Dutch to get rid of the Portuguese.  Under Dutch rule, there was bigger disaster with the imposing of heavier taxes than the Portugese. They also took over the whole country, except the kingdom of Kandy  in 1660 which was after the falling of Colombo in 1656. The Dutch persecuted many Catholics but left the Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims alone. There were mixed Sinhalese-Dutch people known as  Burghers  who were the legacy of Dutch rule.

In 1659, the British sea captain, Robert Knox, was captured by the King of Kandy and escaped 19 years later.  He then wrote about his stay which brought Sri Lanka to the attention of  the British.

British (1796-1948)

During the famous Napoleonic Wars, fearing that the French  control of the Netherlands would mean that Sri Lanka would be a French country, the British took over the country with little difficulty in 1796, automatically naming "Zeylan" to "Ceylon". In 1802, by the Treaty of Ameins, which temporarily ended hostilities between the French Republic and the United Kingdom during the French Revolutionary Wars, the Dutch part of the island was bequeathed to the British.  The island then became an official British Crown Colony. In 1803, the British invaded the Kingdom of Kandy in the 1st  Kandyan War. In 1815, the 2nd Kandyan War resulted in the ending of Sri Lanka’s independence.