The British Empire and Ceylon

The British Empire was based on trade, not plunder, unlike many other empires. We arrived at places that had not invented the wheel and we left them with universities, hospitals and democracy. Many of these places have developed very little or very slowly since we left.

Britain had its industrial revolution well before the rest of the planet. So we were, uniquely, able to make most things better, cheaper and in far larger quantities than anyone else. And to produce a whole panoply of new products. We needed markets to sell these things to. In exchange we bought raw materials and luxury goods, such as tea. Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” was our text book. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Britain produced about half the world’s commercial cotton cloth, while heavy industrial output was even more impressive, accounting for around two-thirds of the world’s coal production, half its iron, and almost threequarters of its steel. By 1890 Britain had more registered shipping tonnage than the rest of the world’s carriers combined.

Britain ruled the planet from the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 until the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914. This period was called Pax Britannica, during which global humanity advanced far faster than ever before. The Royal Navy ruled the seas of the  world to ensure the free movement of goods and the very effective suppression of piracy and slavery. By the mid-nineteenth century it consisted of around 240 ships, crewed by 40,000 sailors. The Naval Defence Act (1889) established the ‘two power standard’, by which the Royal Navy was supposed to be maintained at a strength that was equivalent to the next two biggest navies combined.

There had been no slavery in Britain itself since the dark ages, it was effectively banned in 1066. In 1807 the Slave Trade Act prohibited slave trade in the British Empire. The Royal Navy applied this with considerable zeal. Between 1808 and 1860 the West Africa Squadron seized approximately 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans who were aboard. The Slave Trade Felony Act of 1811 further tightened things up. The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 finally freed all slaves, who were bought out by the British government for £20 million, which then was 40% of government annual income. A huge amount of money.

When the West arrived in Ceylon it was not Ceylon. It was a shifting collection of separate kingdoms. And it was not the British who conquered it, it was the Portuguese, who arrived in 1505. With the Dutch conquering it in 1656. The British arrived in 1796. Only in order to prevent the island from being taken over by Napoleon’s France.

Before the Westerners arrived there had been slavery on the island, one person owning another person, since around the year 200. So it had been very well culturally established and accepted for 1,300 years. Kandyan slavery was delineated in the Niti Nighanduwa or treatise of law and slave families were clearly marked out in the Galpata vihara inscriptions. But is was the Dutch and Portuguese who introduced the concept of dark skinned slave with light skinned owner. Ceylon was specifically exempted from the British 1833 slavery act, it being finally abolished there in 1844. So Ceylon had slavery for 1,644 years. Just 48 of these under British rule. And it was we who got rid of it.

The British changed things a lot. Once we had full control we implemented the Colebrooke-Cameron reforms of 1833. This got rid of racial divisions and made everyone equal before the law. A legislative and a executive council were created with communal representation and the education system was anglicised. The British introduced the coffee crop and the economy boomed. Taking advantage of Pax Britannica to sell to the world. And rapidly increasing the quality of life of the people of Ceylon. Around 1880 tea replaced coffee and rubber was introduced in the 1900s, creating a plantation economy that is still massively important to the economy today.

In 1932 the Donoughmore reforms introduced universal adult franchise and a State Council of Ceylon. The Soulbury reforms of 1944 ushered in dominion status, with independence arriving in 1948. The Queen remained as head of state until 1972, when it became a republic called Sri Lanka.

There are two forms of slavery rife in modern Sri Lanka. Caste based slavery, in the plantations. And modern slavery. Sri Lanka is under investigation by the UN for breaches of target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals, which requires them to: ““take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms”.

Modern slavery primarily exists in female garment workers in Sri Lanka’s free trade zones. Article 54 of the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015 forces shops here to clean up their supply lines. But implementing this is sometimes problematic.

Bonded labour is widespread in tea plantations in Sri Lanka. Dalits (Hindu untouchables) constitute 83 percent of the total of 3.6 million workers that live in the plantation communities. This caste system of the Tamil plantation community in Sri Lanka is a continuation of the South Indian caste system adapted to suit the situation in the plantations.

Of course modern woke, virtue gesturing liberals know none of this stuff. They are brainwashed into thinking “British Empire bad”. When the exact opposite is is usually true.


  1. Very well written and hugely informative. This should form part of a school history lesson. Despite modern day history teachers obsession with the Woke version of the history of our wonderful country and its unparalleled achievements


  2. Well said. Totally agree, this needs to be in the main curriculum in schools.


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