The earliest traces of human habitation in Sri Lanka date from the Old Stone Age of about 1,750,000 years ago, and archaeological evidence suggests that later hunter-gatherers wandered across a land bridge between the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka some 10,000 years ago. In the ancient Hindu epic, the Ramayana, Lanka (not yet blessed with the prefix 'Sri') appears as the homeland of the demon king Ravana, who kidnaps Siva, wife of the hero Rama.
THE MAURYA EMPIRE
The earliest historical record is the remarkable account of the arrival of the Prince Vijaya from southern India sometime in the 5th century BC. His arrival is chronicled in the Mahavansa, and relates how Prince Vijaya, having been expelled by his father, landed and conquered the three indigenous tribes. This account forms the basis of Sinhalese tradition and understanding of the Sinhalese people's roots in the island. The Sinhalese language has features in common with those of northern India, whilst the language of the Tamils, the other major ethnic group in Sri Lanka, is related closely to the Dravidian languages of southern India. This ethnic difference has created a divide amongst the peoples of Sri Lanka which continues to cause major problems to this day. Firmer historical data begins to appear around the 3rd century BC, when the Maurya Empire of India embraced Sri Lanka, bringing with it the Buddhist faith that remains a distinguishing feature of the nation's culture some 2300 years on. It was during the Mauryan era, too, that Europe first heard of Sri Lanka, when rumour of a land rich in gems and spices reached the ears of Megasthenes, Alexander the Great's envoy to the Mauryan court.
A GOLDEN AGE
Sinhalese tradition states that the third king of the Vijaya dynasty, Pandukhabhaya, founded the city of Anuradhapura which was to be the seat of government for over a thousand years. The remains of this remark- able city were rediscovered by the British in the 19th century, and comprise the evidence of the scale and com- plexity of the early civilizations that existed in Asia. This is the city where, according to Buddhist legend, a sapling of the bo-tree under which the Buddha achieved enlight- enment was planted. Anuradhapura was eventually abandoned as the capital in the 11th century as a result of its northern location, which made it vulnerable to frequent raids and invasions from southern India. King Vijayabahu I chose Polonnaruwa, further to the south- east, as his new capital precisely because it was further away from India and less vulnerable to attack.
Both Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa relied on a sophisticated artificial irrigation system of canals and large man-made reservoirs or 'tanks'. Constant feuding and even foreign adventures such as that of King Parakramabahu 1, (1153-86), who attacked Burma, led to the decay of the irrigation system and eventually to the abandonment of Polonnaruwa. There then followed a prolonged period of confusion, as rival Sinhalese rulers fought each other and various intruders. These internal conflicts made the island easy prey for invaders. In 1247 and again in 1258 the island was raided by Malay pirate sultans, and in 1411 the Chinese admiral Chen Ho abducted a local king. Internal divisions and factional dynastic quarrels meant that by the early 16th century the island was divided into three kingdoms: a Tamil kingdom in the north, with the Sinhalese kingdoms of Kandy in the centre and Kotte in the south and along the coastline. Then in 1505 a storm blew into Colombo a Portuguese fleet.
Portugal in the late 15th and early 16th centuries was an aggressively expanding power. Vasco da Gama had rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 and reached India. The fleet that came to Sri Lanka in 1505 was a follow-up to that voyage.
What the Portuguese were seeking was access to the spices of the east.The Portuguese tapped into the sophisticated trade networks that existed, and became inextricably involved in local politics and power struggles. They first traded with, then assisted the Kings of Kotte in their struggles with their neighbours, and then ended up controlling Kotte. The most profitable trade was in spice, mainly in the torm of cinnamon, and later ginger, nutmeg and pepper.
The Portuguese also came with a mission to spread the Roman Catholic faith. Religion could also be used as a means of control, and the Portuguese success in converting Prince Dharmapala in 1557 meant that he was little more than a Portuguese puppet. By an agreement in 1543 the Portuguese were confirmed in their control of Kotte and the coast, and guaranteed the defence of Sri Lanka in return for a tribute of cinnamon, but they never controlled the interior of the island, and their control of the coast ended in 1658 when they were ousted by the Dutch.
The foundation in 1600 of the Dutch East India Company, or VOC, had been designed to wrest control of tar eastern markets from the hands of the Dutch Republic's enemies, Spain and Portugal. The Dutch enlisted local allies, in particular the Kingdom of Kandy, but like the Portuguese they never controlled the whole of the island. Kandy, in the inaccessible, mountainous and heavily forested interior, was able to maintain its independence. Like the Portuguese the Dutch were attracted by the spice trade, and the island was also an important staging point on the VOC's trade routes to the East Indies, China and Japan. When the Dutch Republic declined at the end of the 18th century, its possessions overseas became natural targets for Britain, which seized the island in 1796, renaming it Ceylon.
The Congress of Vienna (1815) confirmed the British in possession of Sri Lanka, and they turned their attention to conquering Kandy. They built military roads to make the inland kingdom accessible, and Kandy was quickly conquered, ending more than 2000 years of independence. A revolt in 1818 was suppressed with great severity, burning fields and villages, and some districts took decades to recover. As in India, the British set out to change the nature of the country over which they were ruling. Slavery, for example, was abolished.
In 1833 a series of reforms introduced an element of Sinhalese participation in the government, with the aim of regenerating Sri Lankan society along European lines. The main thrust though was economic liberation, which was followed by the introduction of coffee-growing on large plantations. To work these large plantations labour was required, and the Sinhalese were unwilling to work tor the low wages offered. The solution was the importation of Indian Tamils, ethnically related to the Tamils already present in Sri Lanka, but from southern India. This immigration was to cause problems later, especially in the post-independence period. Coffee failed as a crop in the 1870s due to a leaf blight, and production was switched to tea. Rubber was also an imported product that was cultivated on the island, and started by the British. Few Britons actually settled in Sri Lanka, and when nationalist stirrings did start, it was not possible for Britain to retain control indefinitely.
The British response to riots and disturbances in 1915 was repression, followed by concessions to nationalist demands. In 1919 the creation of the Ceylon National Congress united previous Sinhalese and Tamil organizations agitating for greater involvement in government. Pressure for change came mainly from those who had received a western education, but who also felt threatened on religious and cultural grounds by the British domination of the country. A new constitution which took account of those demands was implemented in 1920, and then amended in 1924.That response was developed in 1931 with further constitutional changes which created a universal franchise and the inclusion of Sinhalese and Tamils in government. There was little opposition to the British during WWII, and the nationalist cause was rewarded bv the 1945 Soulbury Commission which drew up a constitution based on the Westminster model, and would confer independence. Elections were held at the end of 1947, and the country was granted independence on 4 February 1948.