Colombo, Identity, Religion and faith

Cargills Food City and ‘Humber’ dates

On its website, Cargills Food City (one of Sri Lanka’s oldest and largest supermarket chains) notes, that it “has been recognized for its innovation in taking super marketing to the masses”. We wonder if said innovation includes interesting references to Muslims in items sold in its supermarkets?

The term ‘hambaya‘ and its variant ‘hamba‘, in Sinhalese, is a well-known and highly derogatory term referring to Muslims (Abdul Halik has a really interesting post on its etymology). The term today is used with complete impunity by fascist groups and their supporters, parading as Sinhala Buddhists, to incite violence and hatred.

We were surprised to see, especially during Ramadan, ‘Humber’ dates for sale at Cargills Food City, which on the bill of sale comes up as ‘Hamber’ dates. We are told these dates are on sale at a number of Cargills Food City supermarkets across Colombo, and bought ours at the outlet down Duplication Road.

Vikalpa, at the time of writing, is seeking clarification from Cargills as to how such an item was allowed to be sold at Food City outlets.

At least thanks to Cargills, ingrained racism in Sri Lanka now has a price tag. 1kg of ‘Hamber’ dates costs Rs. 547. Surely, the “lowest price” for the defamation of a community, “on your way home”.



Food City Bill

Update, 7.48pm: As noted above, at the same time we published this, Vikalpa was literally on the line to Cargills to get some explanation as to why this product was allowed to be sold in their supermarket chain. They were entreated to a lot of Cargill’s promotional material on hold, but no clear answers.

And though Cargills is really progressive when it comes to social media interaction on Facebook, there too, there has not been any answer to date as to why such an epic fail came about.

Update, 21 July, 9.00am: Following up some of the comments below, and in other fora, as to whether Cargills can be held to account over packaging and labelling that isn’t clearly their own, we decided to investigate whether ‘Humber Dates’, bearing Reg. No. 204715, actually exists in the database of the Registrar of Companies. Note that save for a mis-spelt address in Colombo, a registration number and product name, no other details of the supplier or importer are given on the packaging.

‘Reg. No. 204715’ doesn’t exist.

Screen Shot 2013-07-21 at 7.59.15 AM

‘Humber Dates’ doesn’t exist as a registered company. There is in fact no company in Sri Lanka that is registered with the name ‘Humber’.

Screen Shot 2013-07-21 at 8.02.11 AM

Update, 23rd July 2013, 9.15pm:  As noted in the packaging, the shop that ostensibly Cargills gets these dates from is located at 29, Old Moor Street, Colombo 11 (emphasis ours). Following up calls over the weekend, we went and spoke to the shop owners today.

  1. The business located at No.29 does not import dates, and have never imported dates. They are rice merchants.
  2. Old Moor Street is in Colombo 12. Not in Colombo 11.
  3. A person working in No. 29 said there are only 2 other shops (both owned by brothers) on that road that imports and sell dates, and neither of them know of ‘Hamber Dates’ and deny having anything to do with it.
  4. The owner of No. 29 was upset of that his shop’s address was being used to sell other products. He took a photocopy of the pictures we had and said he wanted to take action against this.
  • Safa

    Methinks there will be a huge demand for Humber Dates unless BBS Gnanasara steps in and issues an edict that it contains contraceptive substances. Or may be the opposite to encourage the increase in majority population.

  • Maheshi Karunatilleke

    Humber is a well known trade mark for a British manufactured motor car. In this case it is only a trade mark for dates and not a reference to a particular race. If it was spelled Hamba the writer would have had a point. This article would be more credibl if groundviews was not strangely silent about Muslim traders in Nuwara Eliya selling socks with the Buddhas image printed on them.

    • So you mean Buddhism can now warm your feet and not just your soul?

    • Last we heard, there were some “Buddhist monks” meditatively chanting hambayo inside a clothing store in Maharagama, whilst peacefully engaging in non-violent egg-throwing at customers inside it. Socks with Buddha’s image ostensibly sold in Nuwara Eliya may truly reflect state of Buddhism in Sri Lanka today, and we must congratulate the traders who were allegedly selling them. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

      • I think there is a point “Ground views” 🙂

      • Maheshi Karunatilleke

        And thank you for removing all credibility of this article by proving that you are a racist from your above reply!

        • If by flagging fascist “buddhist monks” and their behaviour, we become racists, then that’s a badge from the likes of you we will proudly adorn.

      • As someone who has always respected this forum, and the work of its editor and team, I must criticize the tone used in replying to the issue raised by Maheshi Karunatilleke. While, as someone from an evangeical church which has suffered attack, I do not certainly condone the ethno-nationalistic hegemony being used to persecute others in various ways, respect is an essential part of any engagement for it to see profit.

        • Respect is earned, never demanded.

          • Leadership is example. If the forum could set an example by admitting and apologising for small mistakes, many who disagree with it, will admit and apologise for bigger mistakes.

          • Good luck with that.

  • I think this writer is a very irresponsible person who can put fire to the whole world.

    Did he take any effort to verify the whether the Cargills really meant to insult Muslims? Did he make any inquiry before his hasty wring from Cargills whether their act was intentional or not? Does the writer know whether the item is a product is a product of Cargills or they are just somebody else’ product?

    Humber has been known in Sri Lanka for several decades but no one had the idea that it insults Muslims.

    This man is trying to show crocodiles in a tea cup and shouting to the sky for that.

    I think Groundview should not make such irresponsible rabble-rouses roam around them.

    An irresponsible man can put fire to the whole world in a second.


    • “Humber has been known in Sri Lanka for several decades but no one had the idea that it insults Muslims.”

      Strangely, Cargills itself seems to not know this, given their inability to answer a direct question (see above). Do you have a source that can confirm, officially and from within Cargills, that the product has been sold for several decades, as you say?

  • veer

    GV is looking for holes in every mustered seed? 🙂
    And Devid Blacker…. [edited out]

    • No, just questioning corporate decision making that allowed a product such as this to be sold, and if Cargills does stand by their decision to sell a product with this name (which they can), on what basis they justify it. One commentator here claims the product has been sold “for decades”. Yet to hear any official confirmation of that.

      As for comment on Blacker, suggest you read moderation guidelines. Blacker’s life and his take on Sri Lanka are irrelevant here, though if you do want to confirm your wild assumptions, we are happy to put you in touch with him directly.

      • veer

        Thanks for the response!
        Anyway, why do GV always in complain mode 🙂
        Do you NOT find anything positive about the place you live?
        Be happy guys… all the best!

        • Why is holding up government and governance for greater and sustained scrutiny linked to unhappiness? You can’t run a site like this without being, at one’s core, very happy and at peace.

  • janz

    imagine if it was the other way round. what if a buddha image was printed in some corner of an item. gnanasara will be up and around the media and organizing rallies [edited out]. The weird thing is that “Humber dates” is prevailant ONLY in sri lanka! how amazing is that! Things like these that the buddhists do are the causes of attacks on buddhagaya and other religious places of buddhists worldwide. Atleast now stop this hatred towards christians, muslims and tamils and try to live in harmony. Im not blaming all buddhists but the racist buddhists who have an itching to create racial unrest.

  • I think you are making too much of this.

    You need to first check with the distributor at No.29 Old Moor Street where the name comes from, because it is they, not Cargills who used it. I’m guessing its the name used by the exporter from overseas.

  • Sanjaya Senanayake

    Recording a phone conversation without informing the person on the other end is unethical.

    • Very good point Sanjaya. Have asked Editor of Vikalpa to get back to you here, and possibly through Vikalpa as well. We’ll respond after he does.

    • Having issues with copying and pasting Sampath’s response in Sinhala to GV. Here’s a link to it as an image –

      • Sanjaya Senanayake

        Since I’m not experiencing technical issues I’ll reproduce Vikalpa editor Sampath’s response here.

        ????, ???????? ??? ???????????, ?? ???? ??????????..!

        Translation: Sanjaya, thank you for your response, it was something I forgot..!

        a) Forgetting ethics is not a luxury anyone has. Every single time GV and Vikalpa have been critical of other’s unethical behavior would they have been excused so easily?

        b) Since you do agree that it was unethical, would you mind taking down the audio recordings from the post? From both GV and Vikalpa.

        c) Not responding to ANY questions raised on your facebook page and ignoring comments, while complaining about Cargills not responding to your comments is hypocritical.

        • Don’t recall when or where we have once said we write the rulebook on ethics. In fact, over very public exchanges with Charita Herath in the past two to three months – ever since the Govt. took an interest in ethics – what we’ve repeatedly said is that ethics is a process of learning from both good and bad examples. Clearly, the audio recordings were not something that should have been done the way they were by Vikalpa and refeatured here. More than happy to admit a mistake and learn from it, and also why following your suggestion, the recordings have been taken down from GV.

          Even as you’ve been commenting on GV’s Facebook and other social media fora, we’ve been working on the story from the day it went online. Clearly, the information on the packaging is false – from the business registration number to the address of the business supposedly associated with this product. Would hazard a guess that whatever the debate around the name (curiously some suggest that merely on account of the English spelling of the name, the product reference isn’t really insulting), the fact that a product with completely false information sold in a major super-market chain is breaking some laws.

          Vikalpa’s following up with the Consumer Affairs Authority, and we’ll update the story with their response as and when we get it.

          • Sanjaya Senanayake

            Adding an apology to Cargills for recording and publishing telephone conversations would be leading by example. It would be in keeping with high standards I’m sure many readers expect of GV.

            Also, question about FB silence ignored. Surely you see the problems in accusing Cargills of something you yourself are guilty of? No?

          • Question of expression and location. Given limited time and interest, choose to engage here to extent possible rather than on FB, where your own language is markedly different and the shrill voices of so many others is an echo chamber unto itself. Also, few there even remotely aware of story updates herein.

            You can take up your suggestion for apology bilaterally with Editor of Vikalpa.

      • Sanjaya Senanayake

        You really need to support Sinhala unicode.

  • Realist

    Why doesn’t someone go to the distributor address on the label and check what or who is there?

    • Precisely what we’ve done. Following up on Tuesday, since today’s a public holiday.

  • Wallflower

    Humber, Humbaya, Hamber and Hambaya are four different words. The only known definition for Humber is of a car which was sold by, if I remember right Rowlands down Dharmapala Mawatha, formerly Turret Road, and the other is the estuary of a river in England. We have enough and more problems in this country than to be worried about trying to play around with words. Are’t there so many words being used which sound like obscene words of another language the world over?

  • Off the Cuff

    Dear GV and Readers,

    I was appalled to read this article on Groundviews, a web site that I respect.

    It is true that “hambaya” is used derogatively to refer to Muslims but connecting the English word Humber with the Sinhala derogatory word, is far fetched. At this rate Lanka will have to expunge from the English Lexicon words that even have a remote connection to any local derogatory word.

    Several decades ago hambaya was more frequently used than today. That was also a time tradesman used Bicycles to peddle their wares. It was also the time when all bicycles available in Lanka was either a Humber or a Raleigh. The Humber was the cheaper of the two and had the Humber name very prominently on the chain case and the frame ([email protected]/4545657690/).
    The low gravity carrier model was favoured by Bakeries that delivered bread ([email protected]/4351093402/).
    Many a Muslim trader used a Humber bike to make their living with no thought to the trade name. They did not boycott the Humber in favour of the Raleigh.

    More Dates are sold during Muslim Fasting periods as they are in demand by the Muslims during that time. Hence the target consumer is the Muslim. It is inconceivable for an importer to import Dates from the Muslim world and sell it to Muslim consumers by intentionally using a derogatory label taunting the Muslims.

    A misspelled receipt is not evidence of racism. Misspelling of English is common all around us. The intelligent question that should have been asked and answered is, what Cargills or for that matter the importer, has to gain by doing so? Both are trying to sell a product. Will either of them increase their sales by derogatorily and tauntingly addressing their target customer, the Muslim?

    Cargills is so biased against Muslims that they appoint Mr. M Imtiaz Abdul Wahid as the Managing Director / Deputy CEO?

    Perhaps the Cargills Board of Directors named below are all Racists to call the Muslims of this country ‘Hambayas’ by selling Humber Dates in their island wide supermarkets!
    Mr. L R Page (Chairman)
    Mr. A T P Edirisinghe
    Mr. V R Page
    Mr. S E C Gardiner
    Mr. M I Abdul Wahid
    Mr. Sunil Mendis
    Mr. S V Kodikara
    Mr. Anthony A Page
    Mr. P S Mathavan
    Mr. J C Page
    Mr. Jayantha Dhanapala (Formally UN)
    Mr. E A D Perera
    Mrs. S R Thambiayah

    Re: Janz’s comment

    Janz has thought it fit to put the blame on the Buddhists. Perhaps the Cargills Board named above are all Buddhist or at least those who have a control are Buddhist. What his logic is, is not clear as Cargills is not owned or controlled by Buddhists. But that he is an opportunistic Buddhist basher is clear.

    This type of incendiary writing will feed the radicals like the BBS.
    If Janz’s intent is to instigate a reaction then Janz may probably succeed.

    Please think twice before publishing similar articles in the future. It is one thing for a member of the public contributing such an article to GV but it’s quite another when such an article is published in GV’s name.

  • Sanjaya Senanayake

    FYI: ‘Humber Dates’ has been rebranded and repackaged as ‘Crown Dates’ with another non-existent address on Keyzer street added as the manufacturer.

  • As much as I am appalled by Groundviews’ arrogance in responding to some comments, and embarrassed at Vikalpa’s oversight in not adhering to ethical best practices, I think we need to all get some perspective here.

    Coming from a mixed family (with my mom from Jaffna) I find it a pang of ‘otherness’ when people use the word Dhemala. if you believe this is just a simple term with no harm intended, that only underscores my point. As for the word Hambaya on the other hand, anyone who has seen the comments in the many vile anti-muslim (by language and tone) Facebook pages, will see that these groups, some in their fifties of thousands strong, liberally use the word Hambaya. This should, provide basis for concluding it is a word that is well known by those who do not respect minorities as equals.

    is it derogatory? I am yet to see a birth certificate or sign that says “Race: Hambaya” or “Hamba Ladies International School”. This is because it is not a term that most of us deem acceptable. I therefore, propose that this is 1. a word in current use 2. derogatory (maybe the equivalent of Nigger).

    If that is so, I raise the point that a derogatory term needs to be stopped, not just because those who are the recipients of this abuse will get upset. It also needs to be stopped, so that those who use the term, will not assume complicity, tolerance, or even simply indifference to their (blind yet damaging) behavior.

    The seeming lack of control of these elements is fuel enough for people to be worried (not to say, that actual acts proving these have not happened), it would be worse to nourish these elements into thinking they are succeeding in their purposes (of legitimizing discrimination. As a country with riots and war since 1905 (plus or minus 10 years), we need to honestly be a little more careful with what we do.

    It is for this reason that I applaud Groundviews for their spirit of being cautious. The best intentions of Cargills and the most ethnically diverse board of management will all be academic knowledge if a tiny act of oversight, adds even a drop of fuel towards an 83 (or one of our many riots). Thanks for reading my comment.

    • Maheshi Karunatilleke

      To Ashan.

      As usual you are totally missing the point here. Even if Hambaya is a derogatory term, the likes of GV and you are equating Humber (which is a trademark) to it without any basis. As someone pointed out why would Cargills which has a multi-ethnic Board do something so rash as to undermine their own sales by so naming a product that is primarily intended for the Muslim community? A true racist will see racism even where none exists!

      As for your feelings of otherness you need to search deep within yourself for an answer. I have many Tamil friends who are proud to be Tamil and don’t have any problem with the words like Dhemala which is a direct derivative of Sanskrit Dhamila (Tamil) Even the Tamil word for tamil itself is Thamila!

      You applaud GV for being cautious? Publishing telephone conversations without permission, congratulating vendors who sold socks with Buddhas image, rude response to their own fanbase and publishing such an inflammatory article without basis can hardly be called cautious. Just bear in mind that you penultimate sentence of the last paragraph of your comment applies to a widely read forum like GV more than it applies to Cargills


      • “congratulating vendors who sold socks with Buddhas image”

        Clearly, English comprehension isn’t one your strong points.

  • Random mumblings

    Amidst all this debate, has GV thought of cross-checking with other distributors or supermarkets as to whether the said product in question is sold elsewhere?

    As i’d had the fortune of reading this article on Friday, when i did my Sunday shopping at Arpico Hyde Park, i checked the dates counter. They too stocked HAMBER dates (spelt as H-A-M-B-E-R), with the name tag reported as HUMBER. Would someone who has shopped at Keells over the weekend comment on whether they too had HAMBER/HUMBER dates?

    So why pick on Cargills only? Hopefully it is not due to ulterior motives of the author.

    While citizen journalism has done a lot of good in the world, to maintain the credibility of the source, I advise GV to (where possible) do channel checks or cross check the information in its articles. This could well have been an oversight on the part of two multi-cultural, public listed companies which are noted for decent levels of governance.

  • Thanks for your views and comments Maheshi. Once again, in case it wasn’t clear, I have no doubt that Cargills has the best of intentions. I was just saying, if this innocent act gave rise to problems, intentions won’t matter. Thanks by the way, for the mini-lesson in linguistics, and ethnic-identity! 😀