Uthuwankande Sura Saradiel – The Robin Hood of Sri Lanka – උතුවන්කන්දේ සූර සරදියෙල්
During the latter half of the nineteenth century, in the far-flung and mighty British Empire under the reign of Queen Victoria, one of its minor colonial outposts in South Asia called Ceylon continued to thrive steadily amidst its halcyon environs and caring inhabitants.
However, such instances of serenity are usually marred by the occasional bandit who emerges from a backwater and disturbs the peace and tranquility of the passive village-folk. Such a situation arose in Ceylon sometime in the year 1863.
The British colonial government in Ceylon became seriously concerned about a character that was becoming a nuisance to the Administration in the precincts of Utuwankande , Mawanella in the Kegalle District. Such nuisance appeared in the form of a daredevil man called Saradiel, a bandit of sorts, who operated with his gang of robbers in that part of the country.
Deekirikewage Saradiel was born in 1832. He was the eldest son of a tobacco merchant hailing from Haldanduwa in the Chilaw District. His mother was one Pitchohamy from Utuwankanda .
The young Saradiel began his early studies in the Illukwatte Temple School. After some time, he left for Colombo, and was employed as a barrack boy in the Ceylon Rifle Regiment cantonment in Slave Island (now Kompanniweediya), Colombo. In the midst of barrack life, Saradiel began to learn the art of using a gun and other weapons from the experienced Malay soldiers.
One day, Saradiel was caught in the act of committing a theft, and was summarily dismissed from service. He then returned to Utuwankanda and began a life of crime.
Saradiel began his criminal career by getting involved in the Arrack Go-Down robbery, which caused him to flee to Chilaw with the Police hot on his heels. His father, who was at that time in Chilaw, apparently disappointed with the declining character of his son, refused to help him. Saradiel evaded the police authorities for some time, and traced his way back to Utuwankanda . However, on a tip-off by an informant, he was arrested by the Mirigama Police at Pillawate. Saradiel was agile enough to fatally stab the Police informant before he was caught.
On 3-July, 1862, Saradiel was produced before the Justice of the Peace, Negombo, who committed him to fiscal custody in Colombo. He was detained in the Hulftsdorp Jail awaiting trial by the Supreme Court for assault and stabbing.
In the early hours of 29-Nov. 1862, during the morning coffee break, Saradiel, in a daring escape bid, scaled and jumped off the prison roof. Apparently a friend, one Magiris Appu, a peon, also from Utuwankande, had helped him. Shortly after this daring episode, Magiris Appu was sentenced to 6-months’ hard labor for helping Saradiel escape.
Saradiel returned once again to Utuwankande, where he was arrested by the village constable, Baba Sara, and was summarily dispatched to Colombo in the custody of a police constable and several fiscal peons. Saradiel was pinioned and handcuffed. Those who escorted him were strictly instructed not to un-pinion him even when he had to eat his rice. The escorting party was also instructed not to travel after dark, and was ordered to stop only at Police Stations. Notwithstanding such strict instructions being imposed to ensure that Saradiel was safely brought to Colombo and incarcerated, he miraculously escaped. With his handcuffs on!
What really happened was that, contrary to the instructions given, his arms were un-pinioned at a place called Balapane, and they failed to pinion him again. The only Police Station at which they stopped was the one at Ambepussa. Apparently, the constable and fiscal peons had, to their detriment, allowed Saradiels’ stepfather to join the party. This man is believed to have bribed the guards and given them enough liquor to drink.
A five-pound reward was offered for Saradiel’s arrest. The following description of Saradiel Appu was published in the Government Gazette Extraordinary of 10-Jan., 1863:
Birth place: Uttoowankandy. Residence: Uttoowankandy. Trade: Boutique keeper. Caste: Wellala. Religion: Buddhist. Age: 31 years. Height: 5ft 3ins. Hair : Long. Eyes: Hazel. Complexion: Brown. Make [Build]: Well. Read and Write: Both. School: Private school. Family: None. Former convictions: None. Distinguishing marks: mark of a mole on the right cheek. Escaped: 29-Nov., 1862, from Hulftsdorp Jail.
An Arab trader who had arrived at Galagedera to sell horses was robbed by Saradiel at knife- point. Also, two other traders in the vicinity were stabbed since they were suspected to be police informants.
There was a time when a posse of policemen and soldiers, assisted by villagers, headed by Chief Superintendent McCartney, combed the jungles and fields and threw a wide dragnet around the Utuwankande hills in the manhunt for Saradiel. On this occasion, Saradiel created a tactical diversion by stampeding a herd of buffaloes, and escaping by courageously hanging on to the neck cord and belly of a galloping buffalo.
Sometime later, Saradiel made a strategic move in shifting his undercover operations to Aranayake, where the villagefolk witnessed widespread crime. On a request made by the European planters in the area, a Police Station was established in July 1863 at Aranayake. A police sergeant and three constables manned the Police station: all of them Malays. Chief Superintendent McCartney also sent acting-Sergeant Mendis, who was familiar with the area, to bolster the group. The Police Stations of Hingula, Kadugannawa and Gampola were alerted about Saradiel’s dangerous presence, and were instructed to assist the new Station.
Saradiel’s gang comprised of some daring individuals. The principal characters were identified as Mammala Marikkar, Hawadiya, Bawa, Samath, Kirihonda and Sirimala. The reward offered for Saradiel’s arrest was increased to 100-pounds and for each of his henchmen 20-pounds per head.
Sometime in Feb., 1864, on a tip-off, three houses were searched by a police party headed by Head Constable Amat of Utuwankande. Saradiel was not spotted, but the police party found the following weapons and loot:
Seven loaded single barrel guns; 2-pistols; 1-bag containing ball and two canisters of gunpowder; 1-pair of boots; 2-silk umbrellas; 1-writing box containing paper; 21-pieces of brass vessels; 1- tortoise-shell box containing 18.7 Rix dollars and 1 Spanish dollar; 1-set each of silver and gold studs; 1-bunch of 50 keys, and silk coats, china coats and woolen shirts.
On 17-Mar., 1864, Head Constable Amat, now hot on Saradiel’s trail, received information that Saradiel and Mammala Marikkar were hiding in Saradiel’s mother’s house. Amat immediately set out with a posse of policemen, and stealthily surrounded the house.
Just then, another group led by George Van Haght, Sergeant Muttusamy and Christian Appu who was Van Haght’s father-in-law, made an incautious attempt to storm the house. Saradiel’s mother suddenly raised the alarm, which led to Saradiel and Mammala storming out of the house with their guns blazing.
In the melee, Van Haght was killed, Christian Appu mortally wounded and Sergeant Muttusamy seriously injured. Two others also received injuries. The two desperados escaped; the ambush had failed. Chief Superintendent McCartney then raised the reward for Saradiel’s capture to 150- pounds and returned to Colombo a disappointed man.
George Van Haght, a Special Constable was reportedly under suspension at that time because there was a feeling in the police force that he was not asserting himself enough to apprehend Saradiel. Perhaps such belief spurred Van Haght to make a bold bid to catch Saradiel and prove this position otherwise, finally causing him to die heroically. Christian Appu’s heirs received a pension, but it is sad to note that despite Van Haght’s final act of supreme loyalty to the Police Department, his family reportedly never received a pension, probably in view of his being on suspension at that time.
Then one day, luck ran out for Saradiel. One of his confederates called Sirimala, who had become a police informant, told Saradiel to hide in a two-storied house on the Colombo Kandy Road at Mawanella owned by one Abdul Cader. At the same time he tipped-off Sergeant Mahat and Constable Tuan Saban. The two policemen stealthily entered the house from its rear end.
Sirimala then whispered to the policemen, “Here they are,” and made a dash, away from the tension-ridden scene.
Police Sergeant Mahat immediately took aim and fired, wounding Saradiel. Constable Saban gun in hand then stormed up the staircase screaming, “The Kandy Police have won the day, the Kandy Police have won the day!” Mammala Marikkar then fired two shots with his gun, killing Saban on the spot, and missing Mahat. Mahat then positioned himself strategically at a point where he could carefully snipe them if they made a bid to escape.
At this deadly moment, Asst. Govt Agent of Kegalle, E. R. Saunders arrived at the scene in a cloud of dust with a company of soldiers from the Ceylon Rifle Regiment and took positions by surrounding the house. The criminals, realizing that further resistance was futile, surrendered. Saunders, while making the arrests, struck Saradiel hard with his cane, causing a fracture to his right arm. The same night the two prisoners, Saradiel and Mammala Marikkar, were escorted to Kandy by the Rifles. On the following night, Sergeant Mahat returned to Kandy with the dead body of Saban.
Saradiel and Mammala Marikkar were jointly charged for the murder of Constable Saban and were tried by an English-speaking Jury before Justice Thompson. Advocate Dunuwila refused to appear for the accused. Then attorneys Purcell and J. Van Langen were assigned to appear in their defence. Both accused were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. They were hanged at Gallows Hill in Kandy on 7-May, 1864.
The Colombo Overland Observer describes the event as quoted by AC Dep, retired DIG of Police, in his book, A History of the Ceylon Police Vol: I (1795-1866) (Colombo: Author, 1982):
“All the available Policemen in Kandy formed part of the procession. The Roman Catholic minister, Rev. Duffo, went with Saradiel from the jail and the Mohammedan Priest attended on the Moorman. It was quite clear that the prospect of death had completely unnerved the two unfortunate men. They were both pale and the Moorman in particular appeared to be greatly affected. Saradiel walked pretty steadily, reading out of a book, which he held in hand, but the Moorman was quite knocked down, and scarcely once lifted up his head during the walk. The procession passed through the town at a funeral pace until it reached the Hill on which the gallows had been erected.”
The bodies of Saradiel and Mammala Marikkar were buried at the Mahaiyawa cemetery in Kandy. A Police guard was maintained over the graves since there was a demand for the bodies.
Richard F. Morgan, Queens Advocate, who conducted the case against Saradiel and Mammala Marikkar, in his report to the Colonial Secretary, commanded the zeal and bravery of Constable Saban and Sergeant Mahat for taking part in the arrest of these two brigands who defied law and order, disregarded the might of the British government and terrorized the people.
Constable Tuan Saban of the Kandy Police Station, who died in his daring and courageous attempt to arrest Saradiel on 21-March, 1864, is the first regular Police Officer of the Ceylon Police to sacrifice his life in the course of duty, and thereby in every year Police heroes are commemorated on this day.
Sergeant Mahat was promoted to Head Constable and given a monetary reward of 35 pounds. Sergeant Muttusamy was presented with a reward of 20-pounds. Thirty pounds were deposited in the savings bank account of the son of the late Constable Tuan Saban. Saban’s widow was awarded a monthly pension of 2-pounds 6- shillings for life. Incidentally, a posthumous promotion, which was well deserved for Saban, was unfortunately overlooked by the Police Department.
Lapses on the part of the Village Headmen also surfaced during the subsequent investigations. When the Korale was asked as to why he did not make efforts to catch Saradiel – he had replied that “this is not our work – but the work of the Police force. We have other civil duties to perform”. This showed the differences and jealousies arising between the village police and the gradually emerging regular police force.
My uncle, the late Kalabushana Tuan Alaldeen Ibbon Saldin, a longtime resident of Utuwankande, who took a keen interest in Saradiel and his confederates, told me an interesting tale:
One Raban, an overseer in the CGR, who was supervising the laying of railway lines from Yatiyantota to Kadugannawa, was in possession of a Kreese (Kris) endowed with “spiritual powers” brought by his ancestor from Java, Indonesia.
A powerful Kreese is made with several metals, which include a piece of “meteorite”, by a master craftsman known as an “Empu,” and hence the Kreese came to be known as “Henaraja Thalaya” (Blade made from the thunderbolt). Saradiel, whilst visiting his mistress, Thangamma, in the vicinity of the railway lines, had seen the Kreese and eventually stolen it from Raban.
The legend goes that whoever has the Kreese (Henaraja Thalaya) on his person, is virtually “bulletproof’. “Henaraja Thalaya” had, with the passage of time, somehow undergone a name- change to “Henaraja Thailaya” (Oil from the Thunderbolt). When Saradiel was shot by Sergeant Mahat, the “powerful” Kreese was under his pillow.
Mr. Mass Jaam Cassiere a committee Member of the Kandy Malay Association also related to me that his father had told him that poems were sung about Saradiel by schoolboys during his time. One such poem was:
“Utuwankande Saradiel Appu mini maraala
Saban Tuan wedithiyala kakula kediila”
Thus ended the saga of Saradiel, sometimes known as the Robin Hood of Lanka.
(The writer is a Past President of the Mabole Malay Association)
References: A History of the Ceylon Police Vol: 1 (1795-1866) by AC Dep, Retired Deputy Inspector General of Police, Ceylon (Colombo: Author, 1982).