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History of Sri Lanka

People have lived on the island of Sri Lanka for tens of thousands of years, but there seemed to have been little organized government or movement of people until about 1500 BC. At that time cinnamon, a spice native to Sri Lanka was found in Egypt, suggesting the people had established a trading network by that point. These early people were the Veddas people, who still live in the northeastern parts of the island.

By 500 BC these people were substantially developed as they left behind numerous traces of agricultural development including the construction of dams. These people were most likely Buddhist, although when this religion arrived is unknown.

Over the years numerous people settled the island, most commonly from India as they had close relations to the Indian people as they were occasionally taken over by these same Indian kings. It was these people, arriving in waves over hundreds of years, which created the people's language and ethnicity today. Although numerous minority groups exist, the majority of the people are Sinhalese.

Buddhism was more pronounced in about 250 BC when the Anuradhapura Empire gained greater influence over the island and encouraged this religion. During this same time the Tamil people controlled most of the northern half of the island and actually established trade with Rome.

After these powerful rulers, the island was ruled over by numerous people, most particularly various Dravidian peoples. There was little cohesion on the island for the next 1000 years; this changed in 1055 when the Kingdom of Polonnaruwa came to power, ruled by local people. This empire ruled over the people for nearly 200 years.

After the fall of the Polonnaruwa Kingdom the island fell into chaos as numerous people ruled over various parts of the island.

In the early 1500s the Europeans arrived in order to gain control over the Indian Ocean trade. The Portuguese were the first to arrive to Sri Lanka and established a stronghold in Colombo. Soon the Portuguese had established control over the coast, while the people moved inland, forming a capital in Kandy. The Portuguese converted many people to Christianity, but the majority of the people resisted this and enlisted Dutch help in their fight against the Portuguese in about 1600.

By 1660s the Dutch had removed the Portuguese from the island with the condition that the Sinhalese would control their affairs, but the Dutch would have a monopoly on trade with the island. The Dutch didn't entirely live up to their expectations and soon the local people disliked the Dutch as much as they had the Portuguese, although numerous individual Dutch people and families were accepted on the island.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s the British took the island of Sri Lanka in fear of the French taking the island, due to Napoleon's conquest over the Netherlands. From this point until 1815 the British attempted to take the island from the local people, only succeeding after they took Kandy. The British used the island to grown rubber, tea, and coffee as a small number of British land owners controlled this industry and used Tamil immigrants (from India) to work the fields, giving the island a larger Tamil minority.

Throughout the 1800s and 1900s the relations between the Sinhalese and British improved, most notably among the Sinhalese's upper class. Despite this, there was a growing demand for independence among the people, leading to elected bodies on the island and eventually a proposed constitution in 1944. However at the time Britain was at war with Japan in World War II and Sri Lanka was a strong military base for the United Kingdom. The war though, was fought by many locals so it also created a stronger push for independence, just as Britain needed the island more than it had in the past.

Sri Lanka finally gained their independence in 1948. However the new government essentially excluded the Tamils from the vote as the Sinhalese were a minority in most tea, coffee, and rubber growing regions. This led to a strong backlash by the Tamils, but politics continued on this path and in 1956 Sinhala was the only legally recognized official language. This led to a growing Tamil insurgency as well as growing communist movements fighting for the rights of the poor, which included the Tamil people. One of these communist groups finally rose up in 1971 when they revolted, but were overtaken by the government.

In 1979 and into the 1980s the government made numerous changes, including giving the Tamils more rights, but not to the extent they demanded. This led to the rise of the Tamil Tigers, a group that sought greater rights and even independence from Sri Lanka and the ethnic Sinhalese. This led to numerous backlashes, but little government interference as the violence was primarily contained to the people fighting the people and many consider the events a civil war.

To make matter worst, many of the imprisoned communist movement leaders from 1971 were released from prison in the late 1980s and many ran for office (without success) or got involved in the violence. At this time they became a Sinhalese nationalist group that also excluded the Tamils, leading to both this movement as well as Tamil uprisings.

These violence movements continued until 2009 when the government declared that they had defeated the Tamil Tigers, many of whom had retreated to the region of Tamil Nadu in mainland India. This has substantially subdued violence, however the Tamils still have lesser rights and arguments continue between the groups.

This page was last updated: July, 2012