Man who rebelled against the British

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By 2017-11-12

By Bandula Gunaratne

There used to be a memorial of about five or six feet in height topped with a globe shape that used to stand in the middle of a lovely fountain at Lipton Roundabout. A board at the foot of this monument said 'George Wall – Philanthropist.' Even though it is no longer there today, it had been built by his friends in remembrance of the mission he carried out on behalf of the Sri Lankan people. A mission that is relatively unknown to many of us, especially the younger generation.

George Wall, who was born in England in 1820, arrived in Sri Lanka at the age of 26 years. He joined the Ceylon Plantation Company in Kandy and his residence was at Haramby House (Presently the Suisse Hotel).

In 1850 he returned to Colombo from Kandy to launch a business of his own. He set up the George Wall Company and maintained it until 1879. In the meantime, he was a pioneer of the Ceylon Planters' Association where he worked for 28 years.
During that time, representatives were selected in two ways to the Constitutional Council of the British Government in this country. One group comprised the members with office appointed by the Governor. The other group consisted of members without office.
On one occasion, George Wall was elected a member without office of the Constitutional Council of the British Government. It was during this period that he played an outstanding role to achieve justice on behalf of the Sri Lankan people.

With his appointment, the Constitutional Council of this country was subject to immense change. He expressed his objection without fear at the Assembly against certain harmful proposals the government brought. He raised his voice powerfully within the Council against the Paddy Tax imposed on farmers and the Act on Waste and Barren Lands that the Government proposed, especially during the 1860s. Due to his speech and arguments that he presented, he was able to attract the other members of the Council without office in a short period of time. Under a colonial government, it was George Wall who took the initiative to speak up against proposals and defeat them. It was stated that this had never happened under any British Imperialist Government in any colony.
Since he did not take the side of the colonial rulers and raised his voice on behalf of the local people, he was soon isolated from the British community in the country. He was considered unsuitable by the British people who lived in this country. However he was a person who did not take any notice of it. As a result, his friends and the members of the Council without office did not abandon him and stayed on to support him.

In order to maintain his voice continuously beyond the Council, he launched the newspaper 'Ceylon Independent' and published the grievances of the Sri Lankans who underwent a lot of hardship due to the Tax system. George Wall who did not stop there, wrote several articles against the government to the 'Observer' newspaper. That was under the pseudonym 'Speculum.'

By the middle of the 1860s, a situation had arisen where the village farming folk found it extremely difficult to make a living. As the harvest had not been successful, people starved. But they still had to pay taxes to the government. The Paddy Tax was one tenth of the harvest. The person appointed to collect the Paddy Tax was someone who requested paddy at the highest price. Destitute farmers who could not pay their Paddy Tax were jailed. Fines were increased. Therefore the government had to bring in more Acts.
Even though the paddy field belonged to an individual, the Tax Collector had to be present and permission obtained from him at harvest time. While people were dying of starvation, the Headmen and other officials followed a stance of silence and approved of what was taking place. Their opinion was that since the farmers were lazy, they should be punished. George Wall who understood all this, engaged in continuous protests against the Government.

The Governor at the time, Sir Arthur Gordon too, was against abolishing the tax. However, on one occasion, fortunately for George Wall and the farmers, Deputy Agent Masurier of the British Government supported Wall's battle. He stated that it had been reported to the Government that 1048 farmers whose paddy fields were confiscated due to non-payment of the Paddy Tax, had died from starvation.

George Wall made full use of this report. His friends in England published this news in the 'Manchester Guardian' newspaper and supported him.
(Pic by Akila Jayawardene)

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