By Sujit Sivasundaram
(A review by Radhika Coomaraswamy)
17th December 2015

Let me say that ISLANDED by Sujit Sivasunderam is a seminal work. It is an original interpretation of historical fact, backed by detailed evidence and perceptive insights. It also questions received wisdom, entrenched narratives and the way we think about our country and ourselves.

For over a century now, colonialism for Sri Lankans has always been seen as a terrible period of subjugation and oppression. As Frantz Fanon so forcefully argued, the psychological disempowerment coming from colonial exploitation and racism had not only submerged aspects of our culture, denigrated our self-respect but also destroyed our sense of being. This has therefore always led to a black and white narrative on colonialism accompanied with a great deal of anger- and perhaps rightfully so. As a result, we were never ready to look at the possible intricacies and nuances of the colonial experience. I wonder even today whether we have found the self-confidence to do it thoughtfully and without rancour.

Sujit Sivasunderam in this book ISLANDED is perhaps the first to make this attempt. He does so, not only by presenting new theories of colonial interaction, but by analysing in detail the political and non political aspects of the colonial encounter- from the mixing of peoples, trade, archaeology, land, science and what he terms the “publics”.

Sujit’s first contribution in this volume is to colonial theory. His primary proposition is what he calls “recycling and movement”. For him the colonial transition is “not singular in time, there is no beginning or end and nor is it well defined in terms of path or space.”  1947 was not a definitive end. He sees historical change in general as constant but at the same time he sees continuity. Sujit’s view is then a dynamic view of colonialism: – it was not only in our past but is here right now in our present.  The pre-colonial, that which existed prior to colonialism is also constantly present, changing, being repackaged and redefined according to the era. Pre-colonial reality for him always co-existed alongside colonialism. It changed and transformed colonial understanding and governance and was in turn transformed and repackaged by the colonial experience.

Sujit’s second contribution to colonial theory is what he calls “islanding and partitioning”. As we know from colonial history in Africa, South Asia and South East Asia, the British had no compunction in drawing and redrawing boundaries. The India- Pakistan partition being one of the most catastrophic of their ambitious demographic decision-making, accompanied by a complete lack of planning.

With regard to Sri Lanka, however, their demographic ambitions were limited. From the beginning, according to Sujit, we were “islanded”, a romantic, sexualized place that was an escape from what they saw as the barrenness of India.  We were a Garden of Eden, distinct from India that would be a separate laboratory for state making and statecraft. In this sense British colonialism was in complete agreement with Sri Lankan nationalists.

However, we also know that ideological fantasies have their counterpoise. While the British asserted our separateness formally, the flow of people, the flow of goods, the plantation system that they allowed and encouraged also created a separate reality, so much so that some scholars of British colonialism liken Sri Lanka to Mauritius and other countries where British plantation ambitions were strong.

As we begin to cast an objective eye on British colonialism we must acknowledge certain continuities. Along with Sinhala nationalists, past and present, the early British colonialists, many of them orientalists, were also obsessed with “the indigenous” and the need to preserve it. They did begin many activities to help sustain this process and helped create the institutions, the literature and the practices that many cultural nationalists took forward. From institutions of archaeology to collection of artefacts, they led the way- for that perhaps some gratitude, though they removed some of our best artefacts for their museums. Like nationalists after them the orientalists were obsessed with preserving indigenous traditions, arts and crafts. Ananda Coomaraswamy was perhaps one of the first heirs to that tradition.

But again- counterpoise- it must be remembered that Sri Lanka, especially Kandy at that time, was also a cosmopolitan place and as Sujit keeps reiterating the borders between what is indigenous and what is cosmopolitan are permeable and porous. Muslim traders, Tamil craftsmen and Malay fighters also lived side by side with the Kandyan Sinhalese.

The other day Ameena Hussein gave an interesting talk on the travels of Ibn Battuta in Sri Lanka and his description of Sri Lanka in the fourteenth century during the time of Bhuvanekabahu. What a rich and diverse society. Though Buddhism always had primacy, as it should since it is the religion of the majority- Ibn Battuta describes northern chieftains speaking Tamil and Persian showing him rubies the size of his palm, ascetic Sufi saints in a state of trance- way before the Wahhabi invasion, a southern Muslim eunuch chieftan with hundreds of Abyssinian slaves, and large Vishnu Devales in Matara where everyone from all religions worshipped.  The sharing of common places of worship and the hospitality of the local people highlighted his visit.

An important part of the book traces the love affair between British Orientalism and Buddhism, a love affair that was sustained until the onslaught of missionaries in the late nineteenth century and even then individual scholars and archaeologists persisted. He points out how D’oyly in the Kandyan Convention was quite happy to insist that Buddhism would be a protected religion but also “reformed and resuscitated” under the patronage of the British. The Kandyan Kingdom for these orientalists was the epicentre of Sri Lanka and it was their belief that the British government should just step into the role of the Kandyan King, protect Buddhism and take on the kingly trappings and rituals. In what Sujit Sivasunderam calls the “shoreline theory”, the British had contempt for those who lived near the shoreline. They felt that these people were less “indigenous”, did not have a majestic heritage and were “effeminate” – a key factor in British colonialism’s choosing of who should be favoured and who should be not. It is therefore not unnatural that a movement led by men from the shoreline was the one to finally win independence.

Central to this orientalism was not only D’oyly but also Alexander Johnston, the former chief justice, who helped establish the Royal Asiatic Society in the United Kingdom in 1823. These men had close friendships with Sri Lankan priests and scholars. They framed laws and regulations on the codes and manners of the local population and they were great collectors of indigenous artefacts.  British antiquarianism had a field day in Sri Lanka. British scholars such as Turnover and Upham translated Sinhala documents like the Mahavamsa and British archeologists led teams to rediscover and resuscitate the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, Polonnaruwa especially had been lost in the jungles for over 500 years.

It was not only in literature and archaeology but in science, medicine (Ayurveda), botany, gardens that the British made their intervention. Again here Sujit describes a far more intricate process – a more dialectical process where indigenous forms of knowledge interact with British practices to create new kinds of syntheses. Native informants, who carried local knowledge, constantly guided all these British explorers, scholars, scientists and archeologists. They were often the lead actors, but their names do not appear in the final documents, nor do they receive enough praise. Again Sujit underscores the dynamic aspect of the process between what existed before, what we received through intervention, how it finally emerged and how it is changing.

In the end the early British orientalists strengthened Sinhala markers of identity and belonging that would re-emerge with real force in the twentieth century. But, unfortunately, as the Kandyan king was their enemy the British also reinforced Sinhala prejudices of who was a foreigner. The British sent the Kandyan king back to India with his retainers where he was kept in Vellore Fort but what is little known is that the British also forcibly repatriated a massive number of “Malabars”- their term for Tamil. In fact practically every Tamil in the Kandyan kingdom was forcibly sent back to India. Only much later some of them who petitioned the Governor were allowed to return if they could prove they were not related to the royal family. The British in many government dispatches constantly refer to the Malabars, Muslims among others as “foreigners”, and “non-indigenous”- again feeding into Sinhala perceptions of Sri Lankan identity. Given that the peopling of Sri Lanka over two centuries has been a very complex process- for example a large number of Indian migrants coming in and being absorbed as a separate Sinhala caste, or the interesting political and cultural histories of the northern and eastern province, their simplicity of vision, a hallmark of British political history, has added to our limited view of ourselves.

With regard to politics – Sujit has an interesting section called “publics”. He describes with a touch of lightness how the early colonialists, influenced by the orientalists, often governed in line with the monarchs they replaced. But the Colebrook Cameron reforms, egged on by ardent missionaries, threw out the orientalists and brought utilitarianism to Sri Lanka. The Utilitarian administrators restructured the executive and the legislature of government into executive and legislative committees to move away from one-man governor rule. Interestingly it was the British who also introduced ethnicity as the way of representing the local population. There was a Sinhala seat, a Tamil seat and a burgher seat. This legacy has haunted us for two centuries now.

More importantly, along the lines of what Benedict Anderson describes in theory, they moved to take control of what creates “ideology” in a particular country. They hoped to liquidate the old order through schools dedicated to enlightenment ideas. A school commission was instituted in 1869, the Anglican Church took an active role, the Colombo Academy later known as Royal College was set up and many more Anglican schools across the island especially in the North and Colombo. They did produce brilliant pre-colonial scholars like Simon Casie Chetty and James De Alwis but the purpose was an unadulterated commitment to create as Tarzie Vitachi put it “Brown Sahibs”.

The other centre of ideological control was of course the press at that time.  Here they were far less successful. Initially they were the government mouthpieces but in time papers like the Observer and The Examiner began taking radical and later nationalist stands. Kumari Jayawardena has given us a biographic sketch of the life of Charles Lorenz who helped spearhead one of the movements. Despite attempts like the Press Ordinance to curtail press freedom, in the long run they were not so successful.

Sujit sketches all this complicated history, its nuances and its multi-dimensionality in flawless, readable English. His book is a real delight to read. His approach to colonialism and history is unique in the context of Sri Lankan writing. I like the fact that he keeps the political history for the last chapter emphasizing the multi-dimensionality of historical experience. His belief in the constant movement of history while at the same time staying in the same place and constantly being transformed is a real insight for us. As we think about how British created institutions have been transformed nearly seventy years after colonialism and how our local culture is being packaged and transformed in a globalised culture, one realizes that this dynamic view of history is the only one that makes any sense. And yet it is not always necessary to put a negative gloss on it. As we watch the next generation of Sri Lankans express themselves in music, art, theatre, poetry and all other forms of creativity we realize that their dreams and options are now unlimited. They can mix and match, fuse and unfuse.  That is not a bad thing. I wish I were young again.