Photo courtesy of Sunday Times

With British colonisation, the freedom that the royalty and the radala nobility had to rein over the subjects was lost. They were displaced and replaced by the colonial rulers who expressed allegiance to the throne of British imperial power. Administration of the country, legal system, education, work and land ownership came under the influence of Britain. The society and its organisation – although the traditional ways continued among various layers to some extent while undergoing heavy stress – became further divided and diversified. Changes in individual and community identities, language, ways of living, knowing and doing and values became more visible as the privileged groups by virtue of their association with the colonial power, system of governance and its local agents holding power positions in the internal hierarchy of administration. The vast majority had to function as powerless people subjugated to the desires of imperial rulers or masters and their local agents e.g. mudaliyars who were known as walawwa families and those who held various roles.

Colonisation destabilised the system of governance and traditional social organisation as they used to be and imposed an alien system together with a native elite stratum that controlled society together with alien white British rulers. That destabilisation took many forms and resistance to it also took diverse forms. Unfortunately, our colonial history has not been written by professional historians from the perspective of such destabilisation and its negative impact. Rather it has been written to show how wonderful the colonial system or heritage has been, with only some critical accounts in between. This is not to deny the existence of several accounts about the human condition by non-professional historians and others. This poses a challenge for those who wish to obtain realistic understanding about what actually happened with colonisation and its consequences but also about the historical roots of our contemporary problems.

The capture of Kandyan king by the British rulers and the opening of the hill country paved the way for British colonialists to start plantations, open commercial enterprises, import and export, construction of roads, railway for the movement of produce and other materials. For example, until these were constructed, the mail carriage run between Kandy and Colombo was driven by horses. Small infrastructure in rural areas such as dams and anicuts to facilitate paddy production and rural roads were also constructed. Some of those in the low country who had been suffering from the colonial rule more than the Kandyans for a couple of centuries also moved to Kandyan areas in search of work opportunities in the expanding plantation, commercial or infrastructure fields. They wanted to find better opportunities in a new place. Some became carpenters, builders, suppliers of materials or small traders. However, a large majority of those who were native to Kandyan areas were dispossessed as a result of government laws that required them to prove their land ownership according to the conditions laid down by colonial rulers.

Those who could not prove their land ownership extending to generations or through documents lost the land and they became crown land.  The extent of such land was immense. The British colonial government offered such land to British nationals to start coffee or tea plantations. Sinhalese peasants after losing their land and compelled to move to the valleys did not want to work in tea plantations so the government had to import South Indian labourers who were willing to work under difficult living conditions and limited rights for a small payment. They did not have citizenship rights until after the country gained independence. In the meantime, the native elites or radala families enjoyed the fruits of their association with the British rulers in return for the support they provided to rule the country. This was a new experience for them compared to the low country walawwa families who had done so for two European colonial powers earlier.

The well to do, privileged, Westernised sections of society in terms of power, colonially defined status and material possessions started to look at the less advantaged sections of their own native society as strange aliens and servants who do not have the same status, rights, abilities and skills or networks of connections cultivated through work, education and marriages. In the outlying rural and regional areas and the plantations sector, this class cleavage was more manifest compared to the upper layers of society even though the class difference manifested in the latter in more subtle ways. Those who prospered in the commercial sector also tried to imitate the Western way of life with their material success such as building large houses, buying motor cars, tea, rubber and coconut plantations, entering mining and transport industries, liquor trade and employing domestic servants. Those who were educated in English to be professionals such as lawyers, doctors, surveyors, judges, police officers, court officials, managers and supervisors in the commercial and plantation sectors also adopted similar attitudes of privilege and behaviour patterns although some still maintained a degree of affinity, romanticism and humanism toward the less advantaged natives who lived without a direct knowledge of English language, the British administration and the laws. There are only a few academic, literary, media or similar works available on this interface for the current generation to acquire a reasonable understanding such as Leonard Wolf’s Village in the Jungle and his diaries.

There was anti imperial sentiment and opposition due to the oppressive conditions that existed during the British colonial period. Some leaders from all communities, while being trained in various professions, businesses, administration roles and English language plus knowledge from Western disciplines became conscious about the national heritage (religion, language, literature, art and customs) and agitated for more rights and freedoms within the colonially imposed framework of governance. The 19th century revival of Buddhism and two rebellions against the British occupation reflected the unhappiness of natives about the impact of the British rule had on religion and conditions of living on one hand and the motivation for resistance and resurgence on the other. Key figures such as Anagarika Dharmapala and Buddhist clergy associated with the revival of Buddhism articulated the plight of Sinhalese Buddhists, their religion, language, culture, traditional values and practice for public consumption. The discourses associated with the rebellions are not available in English publications but fragments appeared in Sinhala poems, printed publications like magazines, journals or pamphlets.  In the latter phase of the British rule, agitation for English educated Ceylonese for limited political reform took place. Beneficiaries of such reforms were the English educated, empire embracing, conformist leaders who were agitating for “accommodation of native interests” in the parliamentary system of government via the State Council introduced by the British rulers in the then colony of Ceylon.

Bilingualism was also promoted by the government during the late British colonial period. Schools provided education in English and to an extent native languages also. However, the majority schools provided basic education only in the native languages. Privileged families sent their children to English medium schools – government run or missionary run – for a better education with English curriculum. A very few of those who were educated in English were proficient in Sinhala and/or Tamil. Those in the colonial government and administration required their skills to understand the native needs and communicate with the natives. Some British officers also learned local languages. Likewise, Sinhalese nobility also acquired a knowledge of English language and customs as they were useful for their roles.

Education was a key avenue employed by the British colonial government and the empire to train generations of natives to be conformist, empire loving, high status individuals and families to achieve the objectives of British empire and turn them away from the Ceylonese natives who were compelled to resist. The expansion of class divisions between those who got closer to the colonialists and those who were removed from the benefits of expanding colonial government and commercial sector was a main divide that emerged during the colonial period. The middle class, which was in between, aspired to be in the privileged category on one hand but did not possess the skills, knowledge or material conditions to belong there on the other hand.

What I am illustrating here is the fact that the division or cleavage between those privileged, empire loving, Ceylonese who served the interests of the British colonial government and performed the role of good and conformist citizen vs those who became disenfranchised, powerless and marginalised as a result of the colonial system of governance, administration, commerce and trade, and professional practices became clearer by the time of independence in 1948. The tension between the English educated elites and those in business and professions vs the natives who were proficient in native languages also grew. Here again, the details of this interface, interactions, tensions and manoeuvres are not available in English publications as such. This was either due to the enforcement of colonial rules that restricted publication of such materials or the domination of English educated natives who were a part of the colonial administration occupying important positions and playing a loyalist role in various sectors including the system of governance and administration.

In essence the colonial establishment was an oppressive system accommodating selected individuals and families for better treatment for their loyalty to the crown. The particular way our Western trained historians have approached colonial history meant that the story of such contradictions that emerged in society did not get due recognition in their narrations. Nonetheless, the British colonial system of governance and commerce planted the seeds of a divided society creating new cleavages based on British values, norms, practices and rules and who could benefit from the overall system and who couldn’t. The evolving system of government after independence in 1948 has to be viewed in this light.

In addition, the colonial system linked the society, economy and polity that underwent significant transformation with the imperialist economy, polity and society. In time to come, it became clear that this relationship was not between equals.  It was to create certain kinds of dependencies that we suffer from until today.

Read Part 2 here: