Narrative of the Operations of a Detachment in an Expedition to Candy, in the Island of Ceylon, in the Year 1804 / With Some Observations on the Previous Campaign, and on the Nature of Candian Warfare, etc., etc., etc.

Narrative of the Operations of a Detachment in an Expedition to Candy, in the Island of Ceylon, in the Year 1804 / With Some Observations on the Previous Campaign, and on the Nature of Candian Warfare, etc., etc., etc.

Arthur Johnston
Arthur Johnston

Author: Johnston, Arthur, 1778-1824
Sri Lanka — History — 1505-1948
Kandy (Sri Lanka) — History
Narrative of the Operations of a Detachment in an Expedition to Candy, in the Island of Ceylon, in the Year 1804
With Some Observations on the Previous Campaign, and on the Nature of Candian Warfare, etc., etc., etc.


As it appears generally incumbent on those who offer information to the public, to explain the sources from whence they have derived their knowledge, it may not be improper to state the circumstances under which my experience on Ceylon was acquired.

In 1800 I commanded a corps of pioneers, which opened a road for General Macdowal’s embassy to Candy. After that period, till the commencement of the Candian war, I was chiefly entrusted with the command of remote districts, uniting in my own person the civil and military authorities. On the breaking out of that war, in 1803, I was appointed to command a free corps, composed principally of Malays, and was generally employed in escorting supplies to and from the different depôts; a service which led to frequent skirmishes with the enemy.

When the army returned to Columbo and Trincomalé, after having seated Boodoo Sawmy (the prince whose cause the English espoused) on the throne of Candy, I was appointed first commissioner for regulating the affairs of the provinces ceded by that prince to the British Government. Illness, however, obliging me to repair to the sea-coast for the benefit of a change of air, I thus fortunately escaped the massacre which shortly after took place in the capital.

On the re-establishment of my health, I was appointed to command the district of Batticolo, which, in common with most of our other provinces, was invaded by the enemy, who was not driven out till after repeated skirmishes.

I continued at Batticolo till September 1804, when I received the instructions, in my conception of which originated the expedition to Candy, and which General Wemyss has obligingly permitted me to publish.

On my return to Columbo, I was nominated to the command of Hambingtotte, into which the enemy had penetrated, under the Desave[1] of Ouva, and from whence I was so fortunate as to expel them, with little loss on our side.

Thus, during a residence of nearly twelve years in Ceylon, the greater part of that time employed either in active military scenes, or in the discharge of civil duties, I had frequent opportunities of observing the nature of the country, and making myself acquainted with the character and customs of its inhabitants, and their mode of warfare.

Having been led, since my return to Europe, to consider the importance of the Island of Ceylon as a colony, which, I trust, will never again revert to the enemies of Britain, I have been induced to commit to the press what occurred to my observation during my continuance there, in the hope of promoting the benefit of His Majesty’s service; by giving to officers, who may hereafter be employed in the interior of the island, that information which they may not have had the means of obtaining, in regard to a species of warfare peculiar to it, and which has not, to my knowledge, been noticed in any former work.

In publishing this Narrative I aspire to no literary fame, having joined the army at the age of fifteen—too young to have made any considerable proficiency in letters—and at an age when men are even apt to lose what they may have already acquired.

I trust these circumstances will bespeak the indulgence of the candid reader, for occasional inaccuracies of style and manner, from which I cannot presume to suppose this little work exempt.


Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Johnston was the eldest son of the late John Johnston, of Clare, in the County of Tyrone, Esq., whose ancestor (of the ancient house of Loverpay, a branch of the Annandale family) left Dumfriesshire in the beginning of the seventeenth century, and purchased considerable estates in the Counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh.

Colonel Johnston, the subject of this Narrative, was born in 1778, and when very young received his Ensign’s and Lieutenant’s commissions in the 19th Regiment, and accompanied that corps to Ceylon, where he early attracted the attention of the Governor of the Island, and was placed on his Staff.

His command of a detachment of his regiment to Kandy in 1804 is still spoken of in Ceylon with admiration. Major Forbes, in his work on Ceylon, recently published, makes frequent mention of it, and says—”That the gallantry of Captain Johnston and his party taught the Kandians a respect for British troops which they had not felt before, and afterwards reluctantly admitted; and that one of the chiefs, who harassed Captain Johnston’s retreat, assured him that the commander of that party must have been in alliance with supernatural powers. His personal escape while passing through such a continual ambush, and his superior judgment and energy, were unaccountable, unless this explanation were admitted.”

His naturally fine constitution, however, never recovered the effects of that severe and trying expedition, and he was shortly obliged to return to Europe; soon after which, he joined the senior department of the Royal Military College at Wickham as student, and was selected by the Commandant to act for him during his absence in Spain. On the return of Sir Howard Douglass, he was made Assistant-Commandant—a situation which he held till the conclusion of the war; and when inquiries were started as to what retrenchment could be made in that department, he suggested that his appointment could better be dispensed with than many others.

He married Martha, eldest daughter of Thomas Smith, of Shalden, in Hampshire, Esq. He died and was buried at Shalden, in June, 1824.



Before I enter on the detail of the operations of the detachment, which I had the honour to command on the expedition of 1804 against Candy, it may be proper to explain the peculiar nature of Candian warfare, and to describe the country and the character of the inhabitants, considered with relation to military affairs; since to these circumstances may be attributed, in a great measure, the want of success which in the interior of Ceylon has too frequently attended the operations of the regular troops of Europe against the undisciplined rabble by whom they have been opposed.

Ceylon, situated at the entrance of the Bay of Bengal, is reckoned about the size of Ireland. It consists of two great divisions; the one possessed by Europeans, the other exclusively occupied by the natives, and governed by the King of Candy. The part actually in possession of the English encircles, like a belt, the territories subject to the King of Candy, comprehending the whole coast of the island, in a circumference which varies from ten to twenty and thirty miles in breadth, its extent inland being regulated by the terms of various treaties concluded between the King of Candy and the successive European invaders of his territory, at the termination of their different wars. The residence of the English is confined to the principal settlements on the coast; the rest of their territory is inhabited and cultivated partly by Cingalese, and partly by Malabars; the former occupying the southern parts, and the latter the northern coast, adjacent to the continent of India, from whence they gradually migrated.

Our knowledge of the interior of Ceylon is still extremely imperfect. The ruggedness of the country, and the insalubrity of the climate at any distance from the coast, have hitherto prevented our obtaining an accurate survey even of those parts in the interior under our own immediate control. Of those in possession of the Candians, consisting principally of steep and lofty mountains, in many places covered with impenetrable forests, still less is known. Well aware that our ignorance of their passes and defiles forms one of the best safeguards of their independence, the rulers of the Candian nation take all possible care to prevent our acquiring information on this subject. They watch the ingress and egress of their territory with unremitting vigilance. This is the less difficult, as the access is by paths along which two men can seldom go abreast. In these paths gates are fixed, and guards stationed, to prevent the entrance of strangers, and to examine all passengers. Few Europeans, even in time of peace, venture to approach these barriers; and the continued detention of Major Davie, since the unfortunate fate of his detachment, notwithstanding the unwearied exertions of Governor North and General Maitland to effect his liberation, is an example of the extreme difficulty of escape.

It does not appear that the Portuguese and Dutch armies, which at different times penetrated the interior, were accompanied by men of science capable of taking topographical surveys of the country. Indeed, the officers who commanded those armies do not seem to have attached so much importance to this species of military knowledge as we now find it to deserve. They have not left us any general description of the country, nor even of those parts which were the scenes of their own operations. The accounts which remain of their campaigns abound, indeed, in details of battles and marches, describing the sufferings and privations of their troops, but convey no topographical information.

The government of Candy, like most Eastern governments, is purely despotic. The standing army consists of a few hundred men, chiefly mercenaries, who are generally stationed about the king’s person. They are armed with muskets, taken at different times, or purchased from their European invaders. Although they possess little, if any, of what is considered discipline in Europe, yet the Candians have acquired, in their frequent conflicts with the Portuguese and Dutch, a considerable knowledge and dexterity in that species of warfare which is best suited to the nature of the country and the disposition of the inhabitants. Conscious of their inability to resist the regular attack of European troops, and aware of the advantages they possess in being familiar with the country and inured to the climate, they avoid close combat, preferring an irregular and desultory warfare. They harass the enemy in his march, hanging on his flanks, cutting off his supplies, interrupting the communication between his divisions, and occupying the heights which command the passes, from whence they fire in perfect security from behind rocks or trees. They aim principally at the Coolies, who carry the ammunition and provisions, well knowing that, without these, a regular force can make but little progress.

To dislodge them from these heights is a task of extreme difficulty, as the paths leading to them are mostly on the opposite sides of the mountains, and only known to the inhabitants.

They are accustomed to impede the march of hostile troops by felling, and placing as abattis, large trees across the defiles. In narrow passes, where they cannot be avoided, this contrivance presents a most serious obstacle to the march of troops; for cutting up and removing a large tree is not the business of a moment.

One of their maxims is, seldom to press closely an enemy marching into their country; being certain that the diseases incident to Europeans in that climate, and the want of provisions, will soon oblige him to fall back; the farther he advances, the better he promotes their scheme of defence, as they can thus throw more numerous impediments in the way of his return. In the meantime, they are busily employed in blocking up the roads through which they think it most probable that he will attempt to retreat; when encumbered by a long train of sick and wounded, exhausted by fatigue and want of provisions, and probably destitute of ammunition (which frequently happens from desertion of the Coolies), then it is, and then only, that they attack him, exerting all their energies and skill to harass and cut off his retreat.

What makes the situation of the troops, under those circumstances, still more distressing is, that every man who falls into the hands of the enemy is certain of immediate death. Nor does this inhuman practice arise from thirst of blood, or the gratification of revenge; it is a consequence of the reward offered by the King of Candy for the heads of his enemies, and of the desire of affording proofs of personal courage.

The Candians will even decapitate their own countrymen when killed in action, and carry the heads to their chiefs, as belonging to the enemy, in order to obtain this reward and distinction. I had frequent opportunities of ascertaining this fact. On surprising their posts at night, which we often effected without the loss of a man, and afterwards passing over the ground, we invariably found their slain without heads.

The nobles hold their lands by tenure of service, and are obliged, when called upon, to join the king at the head of a third of their vassals, should that number be required. This enables the king to dispense with a large regular force, which would be burthensome to his finances, and to bring into the field, on any emergency, a considerable portion of the male population of his kingdom.

Each village has its chief, with several inferior officers, in proportion to its size. The chief, on receiving an order from his dessa, or lord, summons every third, fourth, or fifth man, according to the nature of his instructions, and proceeds with his feudatory levies to the place of rendez-vous. Each soldier is provided with a musket, and carries with him fifteen days’ provisions, and a small cooking vessel. A few are armed with bows and arrows. A leaf of the talipot tree, an extensive umbrella, serves to protect him from the heat of the sun during the day, and two men, by placing the broad end of their leaves together, may form a tent that will completely defend them against the rains or dews, by night.

The provisions of the Candian are equally portable with his tent. Although, in most parts of the continent of India, rice forms the principal article of food amongst all ranks of natives, in Ceylon, and particularly in the interior of the island, it is reserved for the higher classes, and is a luxury of which the lowest order of the people seldom partake. The chief food of the poorer sort is a grain that grows on the hills, with little cultivation, and without watering. This, together with a root dug from the bottom of the tanks, and a decoction of the bark of a tree found in abundance in the forests, constitute their principal means of support. Men accustomed to such diet cannot be supposed to require many luxuries in the field. Two or three cocoa nuts, a few cakes made of the grain I have just described, and a small quantity of rice, compose the whole of the soldier’s stock for the campaign. His other wants he is certain of being always able to supply.

Thus equipped, the Candian soldier follows his chief, to whom he is accustomed to pay the most implicit obedience. He crawls through the paths in the woods, for the purpose of commanding the roads through which the hostile troops must pass, or climbs the mountains, and places himself behind a rock, or a tree, patiently to await the enemy’s approach. At the end of fifteen days he is relieved by a fresh requisition from the village; and thus the army is constantly supplied with fresh troops, totally unencumbered, the party relieved always carrying home their sick and wounded companions. Another great advantage attending this system of warfare is, that the soldier will more cheerfully encounter fatigues and privations, which he knows are to be of short continuance, and must terminate at a certain fixed period. He is also supported by the hope of shortly returning to his village, and recounting his exploits.

Such a system could only answer in a country like that which I have been describing, where the theatre of war is almost always within certain limits, so that whatever be the fortune of the contest, the soldier is seldom removed above two, and never more than four days’ march from his own abode.

Nor is it necessary to furnish those returning home with escorts, as they have little to fear from the slow and unwieldy movements of their European enemies, whom they can at all times avoid by taking a circuitous route. A Candian army, thus unencumbered by sick and baggage, and being perfect masters of their intricate paths and passes, is enabled to move with much more rapidity than regular troops, strangers to the country, and encumbered, as they usually are, with artillery, ammunition, baggage, provisions, and frequently a long train of sick and wounded, can possibly do.

The climate also, which, as in every uncultivated country, is unfavourable to the constitutions of its invaders, has been a powerful auxiliary of the Candians, in all their wars with the European powers, who have successively had possession of the maritime parts of the island.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans who obtained a footing in Ceylon. They occupied a considerable portion of the island from 1517 to 1658, a period of 141 years. They at first came as merchants, and obtained permission from the king to erect a small factory at Colombo, which, however, they soon converted into a fort. The spirit of conquest which then animated the Portuguese nation would not allow them to remain long contented with what they had thus peaceably obtained. They made gradual encroachments on the adjacent territories; and being strengthened by reinforcements from their other settlements in India, they not only threw off all appearance of restraint and allegiance to the prince, but even carried the war into the heart of his country. The situation of the island, divided into several governments, each jealous of the other, was particularly favourable to their views. By the superiority of their arms they soon extended their conquests over some of the most valuable provinces, and by their address and insinuating manners obtained a degree of influence at the court of Candy, which none of their successors have ever been able to acquire. They even persuaded one of the Emperors of Ceylon, at his death, in 1597, to bequeath his kingdom to the King of Portugal: a bequest which was attended with no permanent advantage, and only involved them in fresh wars.

The Portuguese government in Ceylon appears to have committed a great error in policy, in raising the Cingalese to the rank of generals, and entrusting them with the command of armies. At one time, four of these persons, under the title of Modiliars, went over to the enemy, by a preconcerted arrangement, which occasioned the destruction of the Portuguese general, Constantin de Sâa, and of his whole army.

Ribeiro, a Portuguese captain, in his History of Ceylon, a work of authenticity, but now very scarce, gives an account of the whole affair; which he thus prefaces:—”We had four Modiliars in our armies, viz., Don Alexis, Don Balthasar, Don Casmus, and Don Theodosius. As they were all four born at Colombo, of the Christian faith, very rich, and allied to the first families of the island, they were made commanders of armies. The General had much consideration for them, had them always with him, admitted them frequently to his councils, and very often followed their advice. Notwithstanding, although they had considerable establishments amongst us, and were under great obligations to the General, they did not scruple to enter into a secret treaty with the King of Candy, which, as shall be seen, was the cause of our total ruin.”—(Ribeiro Hist. of Ceylon, lib. ii. cap. 1.)

This treaty had been carrying on for three years, at the end of which time, things appearing now to be ripe for their purposes, the Modiliars persuaded the General, that the honour of Portugal required that the King of Candy should be chastised for conduct which they represented as insulting to the Portuguese crown. These Modiliars commanded the advanced guard of the Portuguese army, composed of 20,000 native soldiers. As the hostile armies approached each other, Casmus, one of the principal traitors, by way of signal, struck off the head of a Portuguese, and displayed it on the point of his lance; on which the three others declared themselves, and their example was followed by all the native troop

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Narrative of the Operations of a Detachment in an Expedition to Candy, in the Island of Ceylon, in the Year 1804 / With Some Observations on the Previous Campaign, and on the Nature of Candian Warfare, etc., etc., etc.
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