By the turn of the 20th century, Ceylon was a British colony. Since its last native kingdom, the Kingdom of Kandy was annexed to the British Empire, the island saw little conflict as in the century that past only two anti British uprisings (the Uva Rebellion and the Matale Rebellion) took place. Due to the relative peaceful nature of the colony, the last regular British Army regiment was withdrawn from the island in 1881. Since then the Ceylon Police Force maintained law and order in the island. British military presence in the island was limited to a regular British Indian Army infantry regiment which would be circulated to Ceylon to supplement the garrison units that was made up of a company from the Royal Garrison Artillery, the Royal Engineers and other support units of the British Army. In addition the Ceylon Volunteers functioned as a volunteer reserve.
The native population of the island at this time was predominately Buddhist mostly from the ethnic group Sinhalese. There existed a Muslim minority known as the Moors. The Moor community consisted of two segments, the Ceylon Moors who originated from the Arab traders who settled in the Island about five or six centuries before and the Indian Moors who were at the time natives and residents of South India, who had come to Ceylon for trade. By 1915, the Ceylon Moors who had controlled trade in most parts of the island had been ousted by the Indian Moors. The 1911 Census indicates that Ceylon Moors numbered 232,927 and Indian Moors 33,527. Establishing them selfs rice importation, sale and distribution Indian Moors gained much wealth and established themselves across the country.
In Gampola, a dispute arose between the Indian Moors and the Buddhist Temple authorities of Wallahagoda Dewala. The Indian Moors objected to the Buddhist Perahera (religious pageant) procession traveling past their Mosque with music. The Buddhist authorities agreed to alter the time and day of the procession to avoid disruption to their worship, yet refused to conduct the procession without ceasing the music citing that it was a practice carried-out from time immemorial, safeguarded by the terms of the Kandyan Convention. The Trustees of the Mosque refused to allow the Perahara procession to pass with music when though an other and older Mosques along the same route belonging to Ceylon Moors never objected. Due to this the procession was not held. In 1913, the Temple authorities filed action in the District Court of Kandy against the Crown for a declaration of this right. The judgment was given in favor of the Temple, however on appeal the Supreme Court, it dismissed the action, on the grounds that local legislation had modified religious privileges guaranteed to the Kandyan Sinhalese by the British under the Kandyan Convention. An appeal to the Privy Council was filed against the decision of the Supreme Court by the bench of Justices Walter Shaw and Thomas De Sampayo.
The Supreme Court judgment encourage the Indian Moors to prevent Buddhist Perahera processions from passing their Mosque in Kandy. On the night of May 28, 1915, a Buddhist Perahera procession with music a police permit authorizing it was proceeding along Castle Hill Street, Kandy when it was opposed by Indian Moors who objected to the Perahera Procession passing their Mosque. At this point Police Inspector F. T. Coore, intervened and directed the procession to turn back. The procession turned back which was followed by hooting and derision of the Indian Moors which provoked the Sinhalese to return and a fight ensued about midnight. The crowd entered the Mosque and did some damage. Several Sinhalese and Moors were injured as well as the Police Inspector Coore and many arrested.
On May 29 the first cases of violence was reported with Sinhalese attacking the Moorish bazaars. The first bloodshed of the riots was reported when an Indian Moors shot dead a Sinhalese boy in Colombo Street, Kandy and the murderer was not arrested. This aggravated the situation and rioting escalated. Shops in the bazaars were damaged, Sinhalese bazaars were attacked by Moors, Moorish buildings in Katugastota and Mahaiyawa were damaged. In Kandy the police took steps to control the rioting and police reinforcements where brought in from Colombo. Soon Sir Robert Chalmers, the British Governor of Ceylon; Herbert Dowbiggin, the Inspector General of Police and Brigadier General H. H. L. Malcolm, Officer Commanding the Troops in Ceylon; proceed to Kandy with a military contingent from the 28th Punjabis to take control of the situation.
As the situation escalated due to the initial inaction of the police, and rioting spread to Colombo by the June 31, the Governor dispatched Brigadier Malcolm back to Colombo to take control of the situation. The 28th Punjabis of the British Indian Army under the command of Lieutenant Colonel A G de V Chichester, was the only regular regiment stationed in Ceylon at the time and was called out in force along with European and Ceylonese sections of the Colombo Town Guard, and the Ceylon Volunteers to suppress the rioting.
During the next nine days or so the clashes and assaults spread through the Central, North Western, Western, Southern and Sabaragamuwa Provinces; and at one point, on the 2nd June, were reported to be occurring simultaneously at 116 centres. Large crowds were involved in the attacks on the Moors; mobs of over a thousand were reported at Matale, Wattegama, Kadugannawa, Gampola, Rambukkana, Panadura, Godapitiya and Akuressa. Areas where large populations of Moors saw fighting with Moors attacking Sinhalese and elsewhere Sinhalese mobs attacked Moors with Tamils joining in. The police and military came down hard on the riots with many Sinhalese shot and arrested. As they cleared towns of riots, the riots spread to villages where the Punjabis who were also Muslims came down hard on the villages.
Fearing that the riots would turn out of control, Sir Robert Chalmers still in Kandy declared martial law on June 2, 1915, in several provinces and down with a heavy hand on the Sinhalese community. There was a belief in higher echelons of the administration that the riots were per-planned and seditious, some believed that there was a German link and the riots was the start of an upraising against British rule. Auxiliaries units on the lines of the Colombo Town Guard was formed in the local towns with European volunteers recruited from planters and mercantile executives. Special constables were appointed from among the European planters in remote areas. Officer Commanding the Troops, Brigadier Malcolm ordered the police and the military to shoot any one who they deemed a rioter without a trial. It was reported that Brigadier Malcolm had ordered his troops to "not to waste ammunition, but to shoot through the heart any Sinhalese that may be found on the streets," and IGP Dowbiggin had given instructions to their armed constables to "shoot down, without a challenge , certain people whose identity was to be gathered from description, if they were found in the streets after hours". Hundreds of Sinhalese peasants were shot down throughout the country. Persons who couldn't answer a challenge due to language differences of the Europeans and Punjabis were shot. In villages males slept in the verandas of their huts, villages who slept as such were shot on the account that martial law dictated that all sleep indoors.
Police and Punjabi soldiers set about searching villages for looted items, with the later in tern looting the villages and harassing women. Summary police courts were conducted on case of looting at police stations by passing legal procedure. Thousands were arrested in some cased whole villages, its men, women and boys, on charges of looting and being in possession of stolen property, and no bail allowed. These were immediately tried and in certain instances sentenced to lashing and/or imprisonment.
J. G. Eraser, Government Agent, Western Province, was appointed Commissioner by the Government to inquire into the riots. At the same time Special Commissioners (Military Commissioners) with extraordinary punitive powers were appointed by Brigadier Malcolm. These Special Commissioners were mostly Government Agents or Military Officers who had powers to threaten penalties to gain information about the riots. They gained valuation of damage and looted items by the Moors themselves and demanded compensation from the local Sinhalese, failure of payment to the Riot Fund resulted in arrest and subjected to court martials. Those who paid were pardoned. R. W. Byrde, Mayor of Colombo and Special Commissioner proposed a levy on Sinhalese in the wards of Colombo to pay in proportion to their wealth as compensation to the Moormen.
In the early stages of the rioting prominent Sinhalese were arrested on accusations on inciting the riots while as others volunteered to disperse the crowds peacefully. F. B. Walgampahe, Basnayaka Nilame (the Lay Chief) of the Ancient Temple of Gadaladeniya, Gampola was taken in to custody by Punjabi soldiers and was found dead on arrival in Kandy.
The colonial authorities had the house of many prominent Sinhalese searched and many were arrested on charges of treason within days of the riots. These included F R Senanayake, D.S. Senanayake (later the first prime minister of Ceylon), D B Jayatilaka, W A de Silva, F R Dias Bandaranaike, E T de Silva, Dr Casius Ferreira, C Batuvantudawe, D P A Wijewardene, John de Silva, W H W Perera, Martinus Perera, John M Senivaratne, Arthur V. Dias, H Amarasurya, D E Weerasuriya, Reverent G D Lanerolle, E A P Wijeyeratne, Harry Mel, A H E Molamure, A E Goonesinha, Battaramulla Unanse - a monk, Edmund and Dr C A Hewavitharatne, the brothers of Anagarika Dharmapala, who was also interned in Calcutta, where he had been during the unrest. After the arrests, riot compensation was exacted under threat of force. The colonial authorities suspected the temperance movement led by educated middle class Ceylonese to be supporting the Germans in World War I that was ragging at the time.
Field general court martials were established and handed out summary judgments under martial law on arrested Sinhalese civilians and some military personal. Several where executed swiftly before appeals could be made, this included Captain Henry Pedris who was found guilty of treason and executed by firing squad. Others such as Edmund Hewavitarne were imprisoned and died in prison. Many respected Sinhalese were removed from appointments of state such as Hulugalle Adigar who was stripped of his title of Adigar on the account he was not present in his home area during the riots.
According to some official estimates, which must be taken as approximate, there were 25 murdered, 189 wounded, 4 incidents of rape associated with the riots. 4075 houses and boutiques looted, 250 houses and boutiques burned down, 17 mosques burnt and 86 mosques otherwise damaged. Other official figures place total of 116 people were killed, 63 by military and Police forces.
The heavy handed actions of colonial authorities to suppress the riots and the punishments handed down by it where heavy criticized by those such as popular Tamil politician Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan gain much national popularity. A secret memorandum initiated and drafted by Sir James Peiris to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, pleading for the repeal of martial law and describing atrocities claimed to have been committed by the authorities was carried in the soles of the shoes braving mine and submarine-infested seas (as well as the Police) by E. W. Perera, a lawyer from Kotte.
The colonial administration established a Police Inquiry Commission to inquire into the riots in late 1915 made up five members with Chief Justis Sir Alexander Wood Renton as Chairman and it contained one Sinhalese member Sir Solomon Obeyesekere. The findings were published in 1916.
In September 1915, Brigadier Malcolm was transferred to the western front as a Brigade Commander in the British Expeditionary Force where he served unit December 1915. The 28th Punjabis regiment was transferred to the Middle Eastern theatre by January 1916 where it was to take part in the mesopotamian campaign suffering a total of 1423 casualties by the end of the war.
Governor Chalmers was removed from the post in December 1915 and made Under-Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland Lord Wimborne. The British Home Government did not appoint a Royal Commission of Inquiry as requested for by the Ceylonese.
Sir John Anderson who succeeded Chalmers as Governor appointed a Commission on October 26, 1916, to inquire into and report upon the circumstances connected with the shooting of L Romanis Perera, Telenis Appu, Podi Sinno, James Bass, Juvanis Fernando, W G Serahamy, Pugoda Peter, Uduwa Arachchi and Juwanis Appu. The Commissioners were Chief Justis Sir Alexander Wood Renton and G. S. Schnieder. The Commission found that, "In each of the cases that have been under investigation the act of shooting cannot be justified on the ground of existence of Martial Law; in short, it had no legal justification.’ But, they said, they were bona fide for the maintenance of good order and government and for the public safety of the Colony, and, that action was protected by the Ceylon Indemnity order in Council, 1915."
After 1915 a number of Sinhalese leaders gradually emerged from the educated middle class, who were to leave an indelible mark on the political life of the country. It marked the beginning of the independence movement with the educated middle class demanding more legislative power that lead to the Donoughmore Commission and the Soulbury Commission which lead to Ceylon gaining independence in 1948.
The events of 1915 would ultimately be what would be called the unfolding of explicit manifestation of ethnic tensions in the country which was to increase in number and intensity once the country attained independence. Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism took hold, in the beginning led by reformers in the name of religion. The event also led to a major distrust between the Tamil and the Moor community who shared a common native language and strong cultural traditions. Also Muslims would side up with the Sinhalese against the indigenous Tamils to protect their political turf and business interests in the later ethnic conflict that would take place between the two communities after the country's independence.