Captain Noordin’s encounter with King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe

By M D (Tony) Saldin

The year was 1803. The British had consolidated themselves as rulers of the maritime provinces of Ceylon after ejecting the Dutch in 1796. A steady stream of merchandise in the form of cinnamon, areca nut, ivory, pearls and spices were being shipped out in British merchantmen from this far flung outpost in the Indian ocean.

Governor Fredrick North was now looking for an excuse to invade the Kandyan Kingdom. An opportunity presented itself in July 1802 when a stock of arecanuts belonging to two parties of Moormen who were British subjects, were seized by Adigar Pilimataluvava’s men. North had a feeling that Pilimataluvava had dragged him into a confrontation, since the scheming Adigar had made secret overtures to the British to invade Kandy. Pilimataluvava entertained hopes that once the Nayakkar King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe was overthrown, he would be placed on the Kandyan throne, thus bringing back a Sinhalese dynasty in place of the South Indian Nayakkars’ who had ruled the country since 1739.

On 31 Jan. 1803, General Hay Macdowall on the orders of Governor North, commenced his march on the hill capital with a fighting force of 1900 men comprising European infantrymen of the 1st Foot, 19th Foot, 2 companies of Bengal Artillery, a company of Malays from the 1st Ceylon Regiment and the others made up of lascoreens of the Ceylon Native Infantry. Another force comprising 700 men mostly Malays of the 1st Ceylon and Sepoys of the Madras Artillery together with some Moorish gunners under the command of Colonel Barbut, commenced its expedition from Fort Ostenburg in Trincomalee.
Macdowall advanced through Negombo across the Maha Oya through Kotadeniya, Dambadeniya, and the mountain passes of Galagedera and Girahagama. At Girahagama, Macdowall heard gunfire and found that Colonel Barbut’s column had already arrived and were firing their cannon across the Mahaveli at Kandyan gun emplacements in Watapuluwa.

Stiff resistance was put up by the Kodituwakku karayas from elevated positions with their gingals(Kodituwakku - a 3 legged small Sinhalese cannon which fires a 9 to 10 oz ball), but accurate musket fire from British regulars made them retreat from time to time.
Sinhalese army & King’s bodyguard

The Kandyan kings mainly depended on their levies (levaayo) or militia who were made to perform compulsory military service or rajakariya for their monarch. The levies were called out to war by theDissawas or provincial governors, and also on behalf of the king by other native officials such as theMohottalas, Korales, Vidanes and Arachchies. In addition to the levies, there were also the hereditary class of uniformed soldiers such as the Atapattuwa and the Maduwa. The Kodituwakku nilames headed the King’s artillery, the Tuwakku kara and Wedikkara lekams, deployed the gunners, the Dunukara lekamsmobilised the archers, and the Madige lekams provided the pack bullocks for carrying supplies and logistics. The "Padikara Peruwa" (paid levies) comprising of Javanese and Malay mercenaries were frontline troops for the Kandyan monarch.

The inner circle of the King’s personal bodyguard was mostly Malays, Javanese, Malabari’s and Caffres (Africans of Mozambique origin). The Nayakkar Kings depended on foreign mercenaries to guard them, since they had no blood ties with scheming local Chieftains. No Kandyan King was ever murdered by his Malay bodyguard. Finally there were the Appuhamis, a cadet corps of the sons of local nobility who formed a further ring around the King.

When Macdowall and Barbut’s columns had forded the Mahaveli and were approaching the outskirts of the city, they could see the capital in flames, set on fire by the King who had fled with the tooth relic and his court, albeit after checking the auspicious time from the court astrologer. In the town square stood a handsome stage-coach, a gift from Governor North to King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, set on fire by the retreating court.

In the deserted capital, North installed his puppet Prince Muttuswamy, Sri Wickrama’s half brother as the new ruler, but he had no following and was largely ignored by the people. Macdowall then received a secret letter from Pilimataluvava that the King was in his mountain palace at Hanguranketa and that he would help the British to capture him. Macdowall responded by sending two columns of 800 infantrymen. However British troops encountered stiff resistance from hidden gingals manned by Kandyan gunners. After resistance was eliminated and troops reached the palace, they found that once again the bird had flown!

Macdowall was now getting nervous since he had possession of only an empty capital. His anxiety grew since the monsoon rains were fast approaching and a raging fever was gradually decimating his men. Little did he know then that the fever was caused by deadly mosquitoes spreading malaria, dengue and encephalitis. Sporadic hit and run tactics by the Kandyans were also taking their toll on British troops. General Macdowall then withdrew to Colombo leaving the garrison in Kandy under the command of Major Adam Davie, with instructions to hold the capital and continue negotiations with Adigars Pilimatalavuva and Migastenna until such time Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe was captured.

In the meantime persistent efforts were being made by Sangunglo, Captain of the Kandyan King’s Malay mercenaries to his half brother, Captain Noordin of the 1st Ceylon (Malay) Regiment, to kill or drive away the British and join the Kandyan monarch who would reward them highly. The invitation was ignored and Noordin’s loyalty was rewarded by the gift of a 100 star pagodas and a kris, which was in North’s words "a plain one that befits a soldier, but the first which was made in London, for the service of our King" (Peiris 1995 pp: 61).

Offensive operations by British troops were becoming almost impossible due to monsoon rains, and many falling ill due to fever and beriberi. Supplies were also reducing and there was an acute shortage of arrack, opium and tobacco which was a staple for British troops. The garrisons of Girahagama and Galagedera had fallen and several soldiers had already deserted. Gradually the Kandyan militia were forming a net around the British, and on 24th June a party of Kandyan Malays led by Sangunglo, their agile Captain commenced the attack on the garrison. In the subsequent close quarter combat, Sangunglo stabbed Quartermaster Brown with his Kris, but, in the melee, he was bayoneted by Ensign Barry and the death blow was delivered by Major Davie with his sword. The first attack was repulsed but the Kandyans regrouped and kept up a harrying fire at British positions. After a short resistance, Major Davie raised the white flag and negotiated terms with Adigar Pilimataluvava for a withdrawal. This arrangement was agreed upon. Davie decided to abandon 149 of his sick and wounded men in Kandy.

After spiking their cannon and throwing their excess powder and shot into nearby waterways, the beleaguered garrison comprising 30-Europeans, 300-Malays, 12-Bengali gun lascars and 30-Indian pioneers all carrying arms, struck their colours and were marching to Fort Ostenburg in Trincomalee together with Prince Muttuswamy, when they were trapped at the Watapuluwa ferry near the village of Mawilmada, on account of the flooded conditions of the Mahaveli river. Some bamboo rafts were made by the troops, but the river was not navigable. Attempts to secure ropes across the river were also thwarted when some of the Kandyans severed the ropes on the far bank.

On the following day the King’s officials arrived with a request to surrender Muttuswamy, which was rejected by the British. Reluctantly, Davie surrendered Muttuswamy, only after the Kandyans threatened to take him away by force. Prince Muttuswamy, with three of his relations were then led about a mile away to the presence of the Kandyan monarch and after a summary trial, were condemned to death and beheaded.
Major Davie thereafter decided to return to Kandy, but found that they were surrounded by about 20,000 of the king’s forces. Several soldiers then began deserting to the Kandyans. Major Davie then gave a strange order that all troops ground their arms. The British troops were then surrounded and the Asian soldiers were separated from the Europeans, and the officers from the men. They were then given the option of either entering the Kandyan king’s service or face death.

Those who refused were immediately beheaded. However some of the European officers chose to shoot themselves with their pistols rather than fall into the hands of the enemy.
Two British officers who were led forward to be beheaded by the Kandyan Kings Caffre Corps were the commanding officer Major Davie, and his adjutant Captain Rumley but their execution was stayed on the timely arrival of Adigar Pilimataluvava who took them before the Kandyan monarch who decided to keep them as state prisoners.

Execution of the Noordin brothers
The postscript to this tragedy was that Captain Noordin Goah and his brother Captain Karaeng Sapinine were ordered to be brought before the Kandyan monarch so that they might be induced to become the leaders of his Malay subjects and to fight for him. When they came into the royal presence, they declined to prostrate themselves in the customary manner, but instead saluted the King respectfully, excusing themselves from performing the more formal abasement on the grounds of their royal status, their grandfather having being an independent ruler. Their temerity did not anger the King, who repeated his offer to the brothers to become "princes" over the Malays residing in his Kingdom, and to take command of his Malay troops, which role had fallen vacant on the death of their half brother Sangunglo. Both brothers declined the offer, explaining that they had taken an oath to the King of England, and that acceptance of this offer would be treachery, saying that they would live and die in their master’s service. The King impressed with this answer had them imprisoned and 3 weeks later, again requested them to join him, but received the same reply once more. Following this event, the King became angry and ordered that they be hanged. Their bodies were denied decent Islamic burials and were thrown into the jungles to be devoured by wild beasts - an action that horrified and greatly offended his Malay-Muslim subjects (Hussainmiya - 1990 pp: 71).
One thing is certain - the role played by the Kandyan Malays in fighting against the British, tilted the balance of power in favour of the Kandyan monarch in the first war.

References: (1) The Kandyan Wars - the British Army in Ceylon 1803 - 1818 by Col. Geoffrey Powel (2) Orang Regimen - The Malays of the Ceylon Rifle Regiment by Dr. B. A. Hussainmiya (3) Tri Sinhala - The last phase 1796 - 1815 by Sir Paul Pieris (The writer is a Past President of the Mabole Malay Association)
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