How did the tiny Jaffna Kingdom evolve into a larger Tamil homeland?

By Thomas Johnpulle (March 23, London)


It is widely accepted that there was an independent Jaffna Kingdom in Sri Lanka until 1619 when the Portuguese ended it for good. From the Portuguese, subject to a few complications, it went to the Dutch and thence to the British. Similarly there were two other independent kingdoms in the island, namely the Kotte Kingdom and the Kandy Kingdom. Portuguese succeeded in bringing the Kotte Kingdom under their direct control first and then proceeded to take Jaffna. The Kandy Kingdom couldn’t be conquered by them and it finally fell in 1815 under a historical agreement with the British. Had the Jaffna Kingdom been part of the Kotte Kingdom, it would have fallen automatically when Kotte fell. But that never happened which means it was a separate kingdom. Obviously some hold different views and the intention of this article is not to prove it but to discuss a more important issue.

However, when Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) gained Independence in 1948, the recipient of Independence was one country.

What is strange about this is there was no significant movement to gain separate independence for the Jaffna Kingdom. There were very weak movements to demand it but these quickly died down. Had Tamil intellectuals from Jaffna demanded that the old Jaffna Kingdom be granted independence separately from the rest of the country, Britain would have considered it favourably. Apart from India and Pakistan, there are plenty of other examples.

On the other hand there were loud demands from Tamil politicians. The infamous 50:50 demand is one example which was outright rejected by the British as it would give Tamils (worded Tamil speaking people) an unfair advantage at the expense of the Sinhalas. It led to protests and the boycott of the first ever election in 1931 in some areas in the north.

So why wasn’t there a movement to gain independence for the Jaffna Kingdom?

The answer lies in economics!

The Jaffna Kingdom was a very small area that didn’t even cover the Northern Province by 1619. Trincomalee was under the Kandy Kingdom as per historical accounts. Given its worth for trade and shipping, the Portuguese and the Dutch tried various appeasement tactics aimed at the Kandy king hoping to use it but to little help. Robert Knox was arrested by the army of the Kandy Kingdom when he landed there. Therefore there is little doubt that Trincomalee was not part of the Jaffna Kingdom. There aren’t any contrary evidence anyway. On the western part, it is on recorded history that the present Madhu church was located in the Maddu area at the mercy of the Kandy king. Obviously it was a substantial distance from the boundary of the Jaffna Kingdom. Otherwise Tamil Catholics would not have agreed to it as it would have been unsafe and it would not have survived Dutch hostility.

These facts leave only a small area apart from the Jaffna peninsula for the Jaffna Kingdom. That too was in most part heavily underdeveloped by the 20th century. Even today apart from a few places, the rest remain hopelessly underdeveloped in Vanni. The total area of the then Jaffna district that included modern day Kilinochchi administrative district was 2,309 square kilometres. The rest of the old Jaffna Kingdom would have been a few more thousand square kilometres of vastly undeveloped area subject to a few townships. No one of the right mind was going to demand Independence for this area as it would be an economic calamity.

On the other hand, during the Dutch and British periods, Jaffna population grew fast. Rapid migration of Tamils from South India during the Dutch time for its plantation industry is considered a major reason. By 1953, just 5 years after Independence, the Jaffna (mainly Tamil) population was 492,000. This means a population density of 213 persons per square kilometre. This is extremely high as the country’s population density was just 123. In other words, Jaffna district population density in 1953 was 1.7 times higher than the island-wide density! According to 1946 population data, it would have been 177 persons per square kilometre for the Jaffna District and 96 persons per square kilometre for the island. (Source- Census of Ceylon) Therefore it didn’t make sense to demand the returning back of the old Jaffna Kingdom to its “owners” as there would be a massive and calamitous resource crunch.

Also by 1948 Ceylon Tamils comprised 35% of the public service. Had the old Jaffna Kingdom were to gain independence, many of such opportunities would have been lost as it’s area only needed just a fraction of them. This would have been a disaster for the very high population depending on government jobs. Also there was a serious lack of other industries in the area aggravating the situation.

This led to the demand of “Tamil Homelands” which encompassed an area of 19,000 square kilometres. This is more than three (3) times larger than the Jaffna Kingdom! And it also included areas of very high commercial value such as Trincomalee, Mannar, Batticaloa and Ampara. None of these was part of the Jaffna Kingdom when it fell to the Europeans. And hence an undoing of the taking of the Jaffna Kingdom would not have given them enough land which was essential for the economic survival of the people of Jaffna by the mid 1900s.

This is how the tiny Jaffna Kingdom grew exponentially to “Tamil Homelands”. And this is why the British were not agitated to undo the taking of the Jaffna Kingdom. In 1922 the area encompassing the north and the east of the island was termed “Tamil Eelam” by Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam - undoubtedly one of the most educated Ceylonese at that time. The one island, two nations concept gathered momentum over the years in the guise of discrimination (although discrimination did take place to a significant extent). But most miraculously it was the Tamil Eelam demand that was (and is) seen as the solution to discrimination by those who promote it! This is bizarre. There is no logical connection between the “Tamil Homelands” concept and solving Tamil grievances.

The plan was not to make the demand from the British for the reestablishment of the status quo of the Jaffna Kingdom but to extort a much larger area from subsequent rulers based on a new set of “reasons” that can be applied and manipulated beyond the tiny old Jaffna Kingdom. This is how the tiny Jaffna Kingdom mysteriously grew to “Tamil Homelands”, a landmass more than three (3) times larger. Had they demanded independence for the old Jaffna Kingdom instead, it may have been granted. But it would have been in total calamity as it lacked resources for its very large population and had heavily underdeveloped areas. However, the journey towards “Tamil Homelands” was a horrible mishap and it has reached its bloody end without it in sight. It was a wrong decision.

There is a third way which is about preserving the island nation of Sri Lanka in one unit where people of all races live in harmony and where there is neither a Jaffna Kingdom nor “Tamil Homelands”. We rejected the Jaffna Kingdom in favour of much larger “Tamil Eelam” in early 1900s. A century later, we must reject “Tamil Eelam” in favour of Sri Lanka which is more than three (3) times larger with ample room to roam. There is no other way.