Islanded: Britain, Sri Lanka, and the Bounds of an Indian Ocean Colony

Islanded: Britain, Sri Lanka, and the Bounds of an Indian Ocean Colony

by Sujit Sivasundaram


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How did the British come to conquer South Asia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? Answers to this question usually start in northern India, neglecting the dramatic events that marked Britain’s contemporaneous subjugation of the island of Sri Lanka. In Islanded, Sujit Sivasundaram reconsiders the arrival of British rule in South Asia as a dynamic and unfinished process of territorialization and state building, revealing that the British colonial project was framed by the island’s traditions and maritime placement and built in part on the model they provided.
Using palm-leaf manuscripts from Sri Lanka to read the official colonial archive, Sivasundaram tells the story of two sets of islanders in combat and collaboration. He explores how the British organized the process of “islanding”: they aimed to create a separable unit of colonial governance and trade in keeping with conceptions of ethnology, culture, and geography. But rather than serving as a radical rupture, he reveals, islanding recycled traditions the British learned from Kandy, a kingdom in the Sri Lankan highlands whose customs—from strategies of war to views of nature—fascinated the British. Picking up a range of unusual themes, from migration, orientalism, and ethnography to botany, medicine, and education, Islanded is an engaging retelling of the advent of British rule.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226038223
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/05/2013
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Sujit Sivasundaram is University Lecturer in World and Imperial History since 1500 and fellow of Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge. He is the author of Nature and the Godly Empire: Science and Evangelical Mission in the Pacific, 1795–1850.

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Britain, Sri Lanka, and the Bounds of an Indian Ocean Colony



Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-03822-3



Sri Lanka has been a nodal point of migration at the center of the Indian Ocean, attracting waves of traders, conquerors, and holy men from India and also from West and East Asia. Even though this long-running history of cosmopolitanism is undeniable, in the modern period the island's people have preferred to emphasize matters of "nativeness" in arbitrating among themselves. Of critical concern in this chapter is the nature of British colonialism, and the manner in which it consolidated a separate and unified territory of governance in the island and set in motion a colonial policing of the movement of peoples, so that belonging on the island equated with a different identity from that of coming from the mainland or elsewhere in Asia. The British undertook a process of islanding and partitioning Lankans, particularly from Indians.

This colonial program recontextualized some elements of pre-British social structure. As the kingdom of Kandy engaged in repeated battles with Europeans, identities within the kingdom started to contort, so that outsiders were cast as separate from the "Sinhalese." This ran in parallel with the continued arrival of foreigners within Kandy, resulting, for instance, from warfare with Europeans. The British misunderstood this balance between attention to indigeneity and cosmopolitanism. After they took over the kingdom, they sought to repatriate to India the "Malabars" of Kandy, an ethnic label that later became "Tamil." They narrowed preexisting patterns of identity in Kandy and sought after the truly indigenous in their newly acquired territory, so that it could be marked as distinct from India.

To understand the islanding of Lankan ethnicities, it is important to think beyond the island, to transcolonial processes and structures. Sri Lankan ethnicities emerged in the context of the movement of peoples between India, the island, and the wider region and in the colonial state's attempt to impose new norms and meanings on those movements. To follow Arjun Appadurai's provocative work, in the contemporary world the difference between majorities and minorities has been crystallized out of the entanglement of state-building with globalization. In the colonial era as well the friction between the making of the colony and the flow of peoples shifted and created distinctions between those who belonged and who did not, and this is evident in the period that saw the advent of British rule to Sri Lanka.

It is easy to consider island-making and its turn to indigeneity and ethnicity as a matter of discourse alone. Yet structural interventions are critical—at least because the political organization of the island underwent dramatic changes in the last decades of the eighteenth century and first decades of the nineteenth. The separation of islanders and mainlanders came about partly because of the structural irritations between the different arms of the British Empire, namely Crown and Company, and their need to define separate populations of subjects. When Indians came to the island for the purposes of war and labor, a new regime of distinction and segregation dictated their treatment. Following Sanjay Subrahmanyam, the structure of the state in Asia was in flux at the end of the eighteenth century, and this affected discourses of identity.

The discussion begins by examining the different axes of Kandy's overseas relations at the end of the eighteenth century and how those relations impacted on the composition and self-awareness of the kingdom of Kandy. The main body of the argument looks at the arrival of the British and the emergence of a regime of partitioning islanders from mainlanders, and in particular at an attempt to repatriate Kandyan Malabars. The end of the chapter looks at the opposite direction of travel, by considering how the British regulated the movement of Indians from the continent to the island.


The last king of Kandy, Sri Vickrama Rajasimha, died in captivity on 30 January 1832 in the fort at Vellore in the Madras Presidency (fig. 1.1). The family of Tipu Sultan, who had ruled Mysore and was vilified as an oriental despot by the British, was also kept captive in this fort. The European surgeon who attended Sri Vickrama Rajasimha found him to be "affected generally with the dropsy"; but the king also asked to be attended by a "native medical practitioner," who was probably an ayurvedic practitioner who accompanied him from Kandy, and in his last hours preferred the latter. He asked his keeper to burn his body on a plot of ground assigned for the purpose, which would be sufficient to erect a "kind of tomb being built over the ashes ... a small garden being formed and a small Chattry being erected for the accommodation of a superintendent Bramin [sic] and water to travellers." In making this request the king pointed his keeper to a drawing of the family tombs at Kandy to show the building that he hoped would be raised over his ashes. Yet in asking for a "Chattry," the king seemed to have had in mind a dome-shaped Hindu funerary monument typical for instance of the Rajputs of India.

Despite the kingdom of Kandy's Buddhist heritage, in this conversation its memory is forged within Hindu norms. Understanding why Sri Vickrama Rajasimha was taken from the highlands of Ceylon to South India and why he adopted Hindu symbols might serve as a point of entry in discussing how the British intervened in the economy of migration between the mainland and the island.

Sri Vickrama Rajasimha marked the end of the Nayakkar royal line, which is said to have commenced with the ascension of Sri Viyaya Rajasimha (r. 1739–47), and which marked its origins from South India. In the context of the fall of the coastal polities of the island to invading Europeans, there was a dearth of suitable brides of solar caste for the Kandyan monarchy in the interior of the island. In South India, meanwhile, a class of settlers, including military adventurers and governors, called the Nayaks, had broken away from the nominal overlordship of the Vijayanagara empire. There was thus a congruence of interest between the Kandyans' need to procure brides who could be presented as belonging to the solar caste and the Nayaks' need in South India for a stabilizing of their fortunes. The Nayaks thus married into the Kandyan royal line, and eventually took it over when a Kandyan monarch was childless from his Nayakkar queens.

Given the entrenched debate on the character of the Nayakkar line, the following question is critical: were they always perceived as foreigners from South India, or were they internalized? They certainly portrayed themselves as pious Buddhists in keeping with Kandy's religious ethos, and they were tutored in Sinhala and Pali by Buddhist priests while overseeing a period of cultural renaissance in the interior. On the other hand, the plot of 1760 to depose the Nayakkar monarch, Kirti Sri Rajasimha (r. 1747–81), may have been prompted by the sight of his adherence to a Hindu custom, of anointing himself with ash. When the Nayaks multiplied, they were set apart in Kandy, having for their use a separate street, which after the British invasion was called "Malabar Street." It is useful to see the Nayaks as being both excluded from and included by what it meant to be Sinhala and Buddhist, where the sense of these categories is taken to indicate the period's meanings. The traditional idea of bounded or static identity is unhelpful in coming to terms with the shifts in both the self-presentation of these monarchs and in how they were viewed by their courts. At the same time, the political and cultural import of being Sinhala was not equivalent; it was possible at times to be a Sinhala king even while not being Sinhala in cultural terms.

For the purposes of the argument here, what is more important is an issue that has attracted far less attention from scholars, namely how the Nayakkar line forged their place in the politics and culture of the wider region. The kingdom of Kandy continued to have linkages with Southeast Asia and South India prior to its conquest by the British, and this involved the passage of peoples and the formation of a sense of regional community. Thinking towards Southeast Asia, it is interesting to note how the late eighteenth century saw the centralization and integration of a number of polities. Of particular importance for its marked similarity with the island is the reconstruction of cultural practices across Burma and Siam, which, like in the island, involved a new kingly patronage of Theravada Buddhism, the restoration of scholarly monks, and kingly interest in works of scholarship, translation, history, and art.

In the centuries prior to Kandy's fall, various island kings had established links with Burma and Siam. Particularly noteworthy is the rather exaggerated claim in the twelfth-century section of the Buddhist chronicle the Mahavamsa of how the monarch Parakramabahu I, who ascended the throne in 1153 AD, waged a victorious war against the king of Ramanna, equipped with a navy which "sailed forth in the midst of the ocean ... like a swimming island." Ramanna may be taken to be Ra-manya, or what later became lower Burma. This was exceptional: for the most part relations with Burma were friendly and beneficial for both sides, and were cemented by the shared bond of Theravada Buddhism and the passage of monks between the two territories. When the need arose for religious revival, Burma looked to the island. Similarly, the Kandyan kingdom's rulers, who observed the need to reestablish higher ordination for the Buddhist clergy, looked to Burma. At the tail ends of both the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, monks were brought from Arakan to Kandy. Bang on time at the end of the next century, in 1799, a monk journeyed to Burma with five novices to gain higher ordination there, this time to the British territories on the coast. On returning to Ceylon in 1803, this group set up a new fraternity, the Amarapura Nikaya, which continues to this date. The Amarapura Nikaya provides a successful example of the localization of an imported heritage of Theravada Buddhism.

Religious reformation also underpinned Kandy's connections with Siam. There were two failed attempts to reformulate the island's Buddhist sangha by contact with Siam during the reign of Sri Viyaja Rajasimha (r. 1739–47); these were followed by two successful attempts in the reign of his successor Kirti Sri Rajasimha (r. 1747–82). Twenty-five monks from Siam arrived in 1753, while a second group arrived in 1756. According to one palm-leaf source, five hundred monks were conferred with higher ordination in 1753 by the Siamese delegation, and then taught the Pali language and literature. The Narendra Caritavalokana Pradipikava, a historical chronicle on palm leaf, which was allegedly written at the invitation of Governor Edward Barnes, nineteen years after the fall of Kandy, notes the following about how Kirti Sri established and then celebrated the reintroduction of higher ordination from Siam:

As there was not a single monk with higher ordination in Lanka, the king knowing that the Sasana was on the path of decline, having decided "I must support the sublime and wonderful Buddha Sasana," having prepared a great deal of royal gifts and objects as offerings, having treated well the Sinhala Ministers and the Dutch ministers, handed over the gifts and royal messages to them, and sent them away to Siam by ship. Then all of them, without experiencing any danger, arrived at the city of Ayodhya, and having met with King Dharmika of Siam, presented him with the gifts and the royal message. Then that king, having treated those ministers well, having read the letter and knowing that the Buddha Sasana had disappeared from Lanka, became overwhelmed with grief. He decided to reestablish the religion of Buddha in Lanka. Having summoned and gathered senior monks of Siam led by the Sangaraja [chief of monks], having explained to them the situation in Lanka, he sent all of these into the ship to be taken to Lanka: elder Sthavira Upali and other monks of ten categories, text books that were not available at the time in Lanka, gold statues and golden books and many other gifts to ambassadors of Lanka, special gifts to the king and a royal letter to the king of Lanka, a few ministers of Ayodhya who were capable of protecting the monks, and a valuable gem-set casket for keeping the Tooth Relic. He entrusted everything to the ministers who had gone to Siam from Lanka, and granted them leave to return. Then they arrived by ship at the port of Trincomalee [in Lanka]. When King Kirti Sri heard of their arrival he informed the citizens of Kandy, ordered his ministers to repair and decorate the way from Trincomalee to Kandy, and built temples at many places, and sent forth his ministers to receive them.

The strength of this connection with Siam is exemplified in the inner history of the 1760 plot against Kirti Sri: some local Buddhist monks, who had benefited from Kirti Sri's religious reformation, sought to assassinate the king and replace him with a Siamese prince. The plotters designed an elaborate plan to kill Kirti Sri. They set a pit of sharp spikes under Kirti Sri's chair at a religious ceremony. Having heard of the plot, the monarch arrived at the ceremony, exposed the pit, and the event carried on as if nothing had happened. The Siamese prince and monks were sent back home.

Kandy's relations with the outside world followed the geographical contours of Dutch colonialism. The Dutch shipped ambassadors and monks on their vessels. For instance, Kirti Sri's embassy to Siam in 1750 went via Aceh, Sumatra, and Malacca. Throughout the journey the vessel flew the Dutch flag and only lowered it and replaced it with the "Lion Flag of Lanka" when it approached Siam. The Dutch for their own part were deeply suspicious of the external relations of Kandy, and in particular of the connections with the wider world that the Nayakkar line brought with them, as immigrants from South India. They provided assistance in procuring brides and monks in order to control these relations as much as possible.

The movements of peoples and the sense of community were not only directed towards Southeast Asia and were not purely religious in this period. A series of intriguing letters between the kingdom of Kandy and a South Indian coastal polity, possibly Arcot, and also between Kandy and the French based in Pondicherry, suggest the need to place the highland state in the context of the Indian mainland. The Nayakkars did not forget their mainland connections upon coming to power in Kandy; indeed, they spoke to the mainland with a sense of authority and with the expectation of respect. In doing this they did not necessarily forge a new relationship to India. But their correspondence is striking, given the traditional view of how landlocked Kandy was by European colonists who had taken the coasts.

A letter, possibly from the Kandyan monarch Rajadhi Rajasimha, was drafted in gold characters and wrapped in two muslin handkerchiefs and put into a large bag of gold tinsel cloth and wrapped again in a handkerchief. The text includes the notice of gifts: "We are in receipt of the set of golden garment [sic] which you with your good will sent unto us. In return We are gracefully sending a set of golden garments, a letter bearing our seal and two elephants, one a she-elephant and the other a baby." Accompanying this letter was another of the same date from "Divaka Wickramasinghe, the General of His Most Gracious Majesty (the Beneficent Great Court), the Lord of Sri Lanka." Wickramasinghe heaped praise on the character of his enlightened monarch, who was "resplendent with multitudinous glory as clear and excessively white as snow, kunda flowers, sandal paste, autumnal Moon, milk, white lotus, celestial elephant, stars, pearl necklace...." He pointed out that ambassadors from "many countries" had visited Kandy. Having drawn attention to Kandy's greatness, he then meted out his criticism of Arcot. He noted how the ambassadors had not followed the etiquette of mutual gift giving in a way that was consistent with the honor of the court: "Some forms of etiquette observed in the island of Lanka may appear disrespectful to you and some of yours may appear disrespectful to us.... Therefore do not send such Ambassadors. If such are sent we shall not receive them nor talk to them."

British soldiers retrieved these letters between Kandy and Arcot from the palace at Kandy after the city's invasion by the British in 1815. Another of the letters was written in Arabic-Tamil, by Magdom Lebbe or Magdom Ismail from Ramnad, on the east coast of South India, and was addressed to the chief minister at Kandy. It carries news from the mainland: there is mention of a war in Madras and how "owing to storms and floods, sloops and boats are in great distress." Most of the contents are devoted to matters of maritime trade. The need to write in Arabic-Tamil is spelt out: it is to prevent information falling into the hands of the British. The importance of the straits surrounding the island of Mannar, on the northwest coast of Ceylon, are also explained: "There is a house near the Sundresa Aiyer Chattiram [traveler's bungalow] in the Isthmus of Pamban near Kovilgramamam village at the confluence of the southern and northern seas which is a convenient place for going and coming." The agent communicates his plan of housing his son at this point. He tells of the possibility of trading in cloth from the mainland: "If after a year or two of business in clothes [sic] we find it profitable we can always do that business. If the present samples are approved of, we can send clothes [sic] and shell bangles."

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Paths through Mountains and Seas
1 Peoples
2 Trade
3 Scholars
4 Sites
5 Gardens
6 Land
7 Medicine
8 Publics
Conclusion: Convolutions of Space and Time

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