Table of Contents in the Asian Legal Encyclopedia

Ceylon in Asia


Modern Sri Lanka, an island nation in South Asia, located roughly 20 miles off the coast of India.


Government History

Ceylon is a crown colony, that is, a possession of the British crown acquired by conquest or cession, the affairs of which are administered by a governor, who receives his appointment from the crown, generally for a term of six years. He is assisted by an executive and a legislative council. The executive council acts as the cabinet of the governor, and consists of the attorney-general, the three principal officers of the colony (namely, the colonial secretary, the treasurer and the auditor-general), and the general in command of the forces. The legislative council includes, besides the governor as president and nine official members, eight unofficial members—one for the Kandyan Sinhalese (or Highlanders) and one for the “Moormen” having been added in 1890.

The term of office for the unofficial members is limited to five years, though the governor may reappoint if he choose. The king’s advocate, the deputy-advocate, and the surveyor-general are now respectively styled attorney-general, solicitor-general, and director of public works. The civil service has been reconstituted into five classes, not including the colonial secretary as a staff appointment, nor ten cadets; these five classes number seventy officers. The district judges can punish up to two years’ imprisonment, and impose fines up to Rs.1000. The police magistrates can pass sentences up to six months’ imprisonment, and impose fines of Rs.150. The criminal law has since 1890 been codified on the model of the Indian penal code; criminal and civil procedure have also been the subject of codification. There are twenty-three prisons in the island, mostly small; but convict establishments in and near the capital take all long-sentence prisoners. (1)

Banks and Currency History

Ceylon has agencies of the National Bank of India, Bank of Madras, Mercantile Bank of India, Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China, and of the Hong-kong and Shanghai Bank, besides mercantile agencies of other banks, also a government savings bank at Colombo, and post-office savings banks all over the island. In 1884, on the failure of the Oriental Bank, the notes in currency were guaranteed by government, and a government note currency was started in supersession of bank notes. The coin currency of Ceylon is in rupees and decimals of a rupee, the value of the standard following that fixed for the Indian rupee, about 1s. 4d. per rupee. (2)

Finance History

With the disease of the coffee plant the general revenue fell from Rs.1,70,00,000 in 1877 to Rs.1,20,00,000 in 1882, when trade was in a very depressed state, and the general prosperity of the island was seriously affected. Since then, however, the revenue has steadily risen with the growing export of tea, cocoa-nut produce, plumbago, etc., and in 1902 it reached a total of 28 millions of rupees. (3)


The abiding results of the occupation of Ceylon by the Portuguese and Dutch is described by Sir Emerson Tennent (Ceylon) as follows:

“The dominion of the Netherlands in Ceylon was nearly equal in duration with that of Portugal, about 140 years; but the policies of the two countries have left a very different impress on the character and institutions of the people amongst whom they lived. The most important bequest left by the utilitarian genius of Holland is the code of Roman Dutch law, which still prevails in the supreme courts of justice, whilst the fanatical propagandism of the Portuguese has reared for itself a monument in the abiding and expanding influence of the Roman Catholic faith. This flourishes in every hamlet and province where it was implanted by the Franciscans, whilst the doctrines of the reformed church of Holland, never preached beyond the walls of the fortresses, are already almost forgotten throughout the island, with the exception of an expiring community at Colombo.

Already the language of the Dutch, which they sought to extend by penal enactments, has ceased to be spoken even by their direct descendants, whilst a corrupted Portuguese is to the present day the vernacular of the lower classes in every town of importance. As the practical and sordid government of the Netherlands only recognized the interest of the native population in so far as they were essential to uphold their trading monopolies, their memory was recalled by no agreeable associations: whilst the Portuguese, who, in spite of their cruelties, were identified with the people by the bond of a common faith, excited a feeling of admiration by the boldness of their conflicts with the Kandyans, and the chivalrous though ineffectual defence of their beleaguered fortresses.

By a convention entered into with the Kandyan chiefs on the 2nd of March 1815, the entire sovereignty of the island passed into the hands of the British, who in return guaranteed to the inhabitants civil and religious liberty. The religion of Buddha was declared inviolable, and its rights, ministers and places of worship were to be maintained and protected; the laws of the country were to be preserved and administered according to established forms; and the royal dues and revenues were to be levied as before for the support of government.

With the exception of a serious outbreak in some parts of the interior in 1817, which lasted for upwards of a year, and of two minor attempts at rebellion easily put down, in 1843 and 1848, 785 the political atmosphere of Ceylon has remained undisturbed since the deportation of the last king of Kandy. (4)


Notes and References

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica (11th Edition)
  2. Id.
  3. Id.
  4. Id.

See Also

Further Reading

Major Thomas Skinner, Fifty Years in Ceylon, edited by his son, A. Skinner (London, 1891); Constance F. Gordon Gumming, Two Happy Years in Ceylon (2 vols., Edinburgh, 1892); H.W. Cave, The Ruined Cities of Ceylon (London, 1897), and The Book of Ceylon (London, 1908); Sir Emerson Tennent, Ceylon (2 vols. 4th ed., 1860); J. Ferguson, Ceylon in 1903 (Colombo); J.C. Willis, Ceylon (Colombo, 1907). See also E. Müller, Ancient Inscriptions in Ceylon, published for the government (1883-1884), and the important archaeological survey in Epigraphia Zeylonica, part i., 1904, ii., 1907, iii., 1907, by Don Martino de Silva Wickremasinghe, who in 1899 was appointed epigraphist to the Ceylon government. Among other works on special subjects may be mentioned H. Trimen, F.R.S., director of Ceylon Botanic Gardens, Ceylon Flora, in 5 vols., completed by Sir Joseph Hooker; Captain V. Legge, F.Z.S., History of the Birds of Ceylon (London, 1870); Dr Copleston, bishop of Colombo, Buddhism, Primitive and Present, in Magadha and in Ceylon (London, 1892); review by Sir West Ridgeway, Administration of Ceylon, 1896-1903; Professor W.A. Herdman, Report on the Pearl Oyster Fisheries, 1903-1904.

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