The Portuguese were the first Europeans to settle in Sri Lanka. And they were followed and supplanted as the leading European power there by the Dutch. Neither Portuguese nor Dutch, however, managed to take total control of the island. Both had been prevented from doing so by fierce resistance.
In 1795, we arrived in force on the island. Due to French influence over the Netherlands back in Europe at that time, we were rather worried about the French controlling parts of Sri Lanka, particularly the strategic port of Trincomalee with its magnificent harbour. The French Admiral Suffern had already taken it from us in 1782 and though we had got it back in 1783, we had made the mistake (as it subsequently turned out) of handing it over to the Dutch.
This time we weren’t to make the same error. We took Trincomalee and kept it until Sri Lanka became independent from us. In addition, we took other key places, like Colombo, Jaffa, Batticoloa, Galle and, in fact, nearly all the low-lying areas along the coast.
Before we could control the whole of the island we had the Kingdom of Kandy to deal with. I know that to many Brits the Kingdom of Kandy will sound like something out of a kid’s dream about sweets, but in this case it was a powerful kingdom based on the important city of Kandy in the centre of the island.
We didn’t find it easy to take control of the kingdom. In fact, we ended up fighting three wars against it.
The first war broke out in 1803 and we advanced boldly into Kandyan territory. A bit too boldly as it turned out. After fierce fighting on the way, we eventually took Kandy and set up our own local rival to the Kandyan ruler. But our advance got bogged down as the Kandy forces switched to guerrilla tactics. Even worse (from our point of view), they counter-attacked and among other successes (from their point of view) retook Kandy and virtually wiped out our forces. Then when the Kandyans advanced out of the mountains we managed to crush them. But when we advanced into the mountains again, we were crushed. A stalemate developed.
By the time of the second war, the situation had changed. By 1815, we had been able to exploit assorted internal disputes to get some key local figures on our side, and when Kandyan troops pursuing a fleeing noble clashed with our forces, we moved once again into Kandyan territory. This time our forces advanced easily and arrived in Kandy on 10 February. The king was exiled to India and we signed the Kandyan Convention with local nobles, effectively securing British control of the kingdom.
Already by 1817, discontent with the situation led to the Uve Rebellion or Third Kandyan War, in which locals, including nobles, rose against us. We reacted rather ferociously and crushed the rebellion. It was all over by 1818.
Sri Lanka became independent in 1948.