Search billions of records on

Colonial role in Tamil 'Expansionism' - I

lake.jpg (11733 bytes)By D. G. B. de Silva
Former Ambassador
Some facets about the Vanni and its people figure in this study to a large degree since the subject has a significant relevance to the study of some of the issues raised in connection with the contemporary Tamil - Sinhalese problem and more pointedly, to the claim of "Tamil Homelands" and "Eelam". I have spent some time studying a few aspects of history and society of this region and its people. A part of this endeavour was included in my Hugh Nevill Commemoration Lecture on "Vanni Chieftaincies" delivered at the Royal Asiatic Society, Colombo, in December 1995. [A synopsis was published in the Society’s Journal, Special Edition, 1996, poorly edited though, under pressure I suppose. Interested readers may refer to that article].

The conclusion drawn by me was that the Vanni and its people represented an interesting sub-culture, an amalgam of Sri Lankan indigenous culture and that imported by immigrant groups led by their chieftains who fused into the local culture in varying degrees. Vanni chieftains ruled over an indigenous population which comprised mostly the cultivators (Rate Atto] that peopled the Nindagams, "Adukku" villages (Badavedili?) and other categories of land assigned to them. (See John D’Oyle on Raja Vanniya and Kumara Vanniya and R. A. S. Journal).

The process of integration had advanced when the Dutch through a series of "contracts" signed with Vanniyas living in areas under their Northern Commandment brought them under their influence though not very successfully. (National Archives). When their power was finally crushed by the Dutch these Vanni chieftains disappeared as a separate class and were absorbed into the Jaffna Vellala community so much so that Dr. S. Arasaratnam contended that Vanniyas were Vellalas. However, in the deep jungles of Northern Province, early British administrators found an impoverished people who claimed themselves to be Vanniyas or ‘Vannihuru’, who lived a life as hunters and food gatherers that they were often mistaken to be Veddas, a view they repudiated. The identity of these people was also difficult because though they claimed to be Sinhalese and descendants of migrants who were given land by king Raja Sen [Rajasinha I of Sitavaka?], they also displayed certain characteristics which brought them closer to Tamils. It was only in the ancient Nuvarakalaviya district [NCP] that Vanniyas continued to exist as a class of chieftains even after the British occupied these areas. They were matrimonially and otherwise related to Vanniyas of the northern area.

The chieftains class has to be distinguished from the inhabitants though some of them arrived with their own followers who performed various services, as was the custom. The inhabitants were the indigenous agriculturists and their presence was taken note of in later times by the Dutch, who persuaded these Sinhalese to remain in the Vanni by offering them incentives like exemption from ‘Uliyam’ and interest free grains and implements. [They were considered more energetic and perhaps, better agriculturists- See J. P. Lewis: Manual of the Vanni Districts quoting Fowler and adding his own comments]. Like in the Eastern Province in contemporary times, where Sinhalese Kandyan farmers* came to tend extensive rice fields, which they once owned but later possessed by landlords like a few rich Muslims and Vellala Tamils and a Sinhalese like my wife’s maternal grandfather - the LTTE disturbed the arrangement - the Sinhalese farmers remained the backbone of agriculture in the Vanni districts. The contribution of the Sinhalese to agriculture as serfs for Jaffna Vellalas, is also to be noted in the important Jaffna labouring class of Koviyas [Goviyas] and Nallavars* [These farmers who lived with Tamil and Vedda women during the season have left several generations of mixed population among whom the LTTE has found a ready source of recruits].

In British times John D’Oyle took note of the functioning of Rata Sabhas, e.g., those presided by Kumara Vanniya and Raja Vanniya of the North West, who were of Mukkuva lineage. That was the organisation for dispensing administration by Vanniyas guided by several Sinhalese officials who were versed in the Sinhalese system of law. More details are found in Kapuruhamy’s testimony to Codrington [published] and in Sinhala Sirith Sangrahaya [C. L. Wickremasinghe, (C.C.S.) Collection-unpublished]. See also Dewaraja’s ‘’The Kandyan Kingdom".

This subculture of the Vanniyas, the amalgam of Sinhalese inhabitants, Veddas and immigrant families of chieftains and their retinues was superseded in the [later] Northern province by the action of the Dutch who took over the lands of Vanniyas and sold them to rich Jaffna Tamils while the greater part was kept by Lieut. Col. Nagel, who became the landraad," rented them for ten years initially. The greater blow was the introduction by Nagel, the Thesawalamai," a law of the South Indian Muslims as the law of the Vanni. The British delivered the final blow on the Vanni sub-culture when the sitting magistrate of Mullaitivu confirmed, based on the evidence of headmen [who were lately settled Jaffna Tamils], that the law of the Vanni was the "Thesawalamai." The questionable nature of this action was seen when the civil administrator, Sweethenham later observed (Minute dated 1879 quoted by J. P. Lewis] that the laws in the Vanni districts in respect of succession" had relationship to the "customs of the Malabars and the Mukkuvas". — On the other hand Hugh Nevill has pointed out that the customs of the family of the chieftain of Hurulle was also akin to the Malabar/Mukkuva custom. [Hugh Nevill’s Notes in British Library, summary published by K. D. Somadasa, B.L/P.T.S. publication, 6 vols].

The region is drawing much local and international attention today. This has its own historical parallel. Without going far? The international attention could be judged by the way foreign diplomats in Colombo and missionaries are taking an inordinate interest in the Vanni, as the Europeans did several centuries back. A leading Councillor of a City Ward in Paris once wrote reminding me that this was the region where Francis Xavier who is held in high esteem by the French people conducted his missionary work. He tried to impress on me how important the region was for Roman Catholics and, as such, the interest of the French people. All leading Vanni chieftains of the north in Dutch time had been converted to Roman Catholicism earlier by Portuguese missionaries. That adds another dimension to Western interest in the Vanni. One cannot also forget the contribution of Mr. Jon Westborg, present Norwegian Ambassador, to settling estate Indian labourers on the borders of the Vanni when he was the head of a N.G.O. in Colombo.

The British colonial administration’s position towards the Vanni could be seen as a conspiracy against the subjugated land, but on deeper analysis one recognises that it was as much policy resulting from bourgeois Western "liberal democratic" ideas of the time. The Dutch wanted to complete the encirclement of the Kandyan kingdom. The Vanni also figured in their scheme, the objective being to lure the Vanniyas away from the Sinhalese king. Once this was set in motion, though unsuccessfully, they completely subjugated the Vanniyas under their Commandment.

The Plantations

In the south where a new British plantation culture had been established, with the support of the colonial administration and the press, a campaign was conducted to "inferiorise" the Sinhalese as ‘less energetic and listless’? and "innately Proved to laziness". (I am indebted to W. T. Jayasinghe’s most recent authoritative work,"The Indo-Ceylon Problem", Stamford, June 2002 for the latter quotation). That was largely because the local inhabitants were not supportive of attempts to maximise the exploitation after they were deprived of their traditionally owned land, and the abolition of ‘Rajakariya’. In doing so the circumstances that the Sinhalese had cooperated with the British in clearing vast extents of primeval forests, in preparing the land to receive the new coffee plantations and even picking up berries in the first seasons was ignored. So were the economic and social problems caused by depriving the Kandyans of their traditional lands and the abolition of ‘Rajakariya.’ (See A. Bandarage’s Colonialism in Sri Lanka, 1950].

The higher colonial administrators including those of the judiciary whose membership had become landowning planters, were also in the forefront of this act of downgrading the Kandyan populace. If the opening up of land in the hill country and elsewhere was influenced by the then current "laissez-faire" policy as it is commonly asserted, it is also not difficult to see that the manifest" inferiorisation" of the indigenous population of Sinhalese was an echo of the ideology advocated by exponents of British political thought of previous centuries, like Harrington and Locke which continued to influence thinking even in the 19th century. For example, speaking of Ireland, then England’s colony, Harrington drew attention to the fact that England derived very little revenue from it. Claiming that climate of Ireland had a debilitating effect on the native population as well as on English settlers, he advocated the settlement of a more industrious and enterprising people, the Jews, whom he thought capable of improving Ireland’s agriculture and increasing its trade." [Ouoted from C. B. Macpherson: The Political theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke", Oxford, 1962].

At the same time one could also see the emergence of another concept related to racism, though it was still not identified with what came to be known as scientific racism". That is the concept of a "inferiority in breed, degenerate, and simple minded people, though they may be hardy, competent, industrious, and business-like." [Guy Rozart and Roger Batra, UNESCO, 1980]. Other concepts like biological inferiority of certain races were developed later and one sees how even after the emancipation of the Negroes under pressure from Europe, State Secretary of the U.S., deferred constitutional reforms on the basis of opinion given by a leading Swiss biologist! All these Western thoughts exerted influence over British policy in the colonies including Sri Lanka.

Though Harrington’s anti-democratic Irish stereotype may not be a contribution to ‘scientific racism’, the underlying principle to apply to a whole country, a policy of discrimination by substituting a new population for the indigenous population" is significant. Its relevance to the consideration of developments which took place in "Ceylon" a few decades later needs emphasis. This was the policy that was preached and applied in the island in respect of the newly opened plantations on the one hand, and the plans to open up the "Tank country" for agriculture on the other hand. [The latter included the Trincomalee district and other parts of the Eastern Province]. This policy was applied also in several other colonies where the indigenous population was wiped out, outnumbered or submerged. M. G. Smith observed that the situational context may be different from one colony to another but one sees how the original Amerindian peoples were mostly eliminated and replaced by European colonizers, by slaves from Africa, by large numbers of indentured workers, mainly from India". [M. G. Smith: Social and Cultural Pluralism, Annals of U. S. Academy of Sciences, 1960].

Policy Outside Plantations

The history relating to the importation of South Indian indentured labour to work in plantations is well documented and needs no repetition here. [See the monumental work by Asoka Bandarage and the most recent contribution by W. T. Jayasinghe, bringing in his over 29 years of experience into this subject]. The situation in respect of agricultural expansion outside the plantation areas in the hill districts is not so documented though a considerable amount of source material is available. This aspect needs elaboration.

A few of the individual British administrators at district level had shown some interest in improving the lot of the Sinhalese peasants who lived in the jungles of the Northern Province, including Nuwarakalaviya, and in the Trincomalee district. They had expressed admiration for these villagers, who, though impoverished, emaciated, under-nourished and disease-ridden, and confined to four or five households having withstood the vagaries of time yet tended their village tanks with meticulous care. (It has also been recorded that so called "tank-menders" from Jaffna [masons] came in the season and "fleeced" the unsuspecting villagers).

However, at the higher policy level, it had been decided first to ignore the development of irrigation works, but later, under pressure from local administrators they were allowed to provide state aid to rehabilitate some of the smaller village tanks. In general, the policy was that preference should be given not to improve the lot of the impoverished Sinhalese peasantry in the Northern Province and elsewhere but on improvement of agriculture ‘per se’ whatever the social cost may be. Even the local administrators were later influenced by this high level policy under the colonial land policy introduced through the Crown Lands Encroachment Ordinance, 1840, [and the Waste Land Ordinance of 1897, when all land for which titles could not be established, vested with the state; and also when the restoration of larger irrigation works was taken up, so much so that some of them later wrote that they would like to see coast Tamils [South Indian] colonies established at Gantalava and other places and of prospects of getting colonists from the peninsula. [See Adminhstration Reports]. Like in the Kandyan areas, lands which the Sinhalese peasants traditionally possessed or held in common came to rest with the state. It was on this basis that the colonial administration went about distributing this land based on preferential treatment [as will be discussed in this paper], which finally resulted in the idea of exclusive zones for Jaffna Tamils [now for other Tamils also], which is really the genesis of the so called "Tamil homeland" concept. Later, the Paddy Tax further resulted in the appropriation of peasants’ small paddy lands. George Turner even advocated the partition and sale of these small scattered peasant properties on the ground that it could help release a labour supply for plantations.

Obtaining a permanent labour force was then the chief concern of the colonial government and the planters in order to make the capitalist investment viable. Such a labour force, which was also docile could not be found in the Kandyan areas where every person held land to sustain himself. On the contrary, South India abounded in landless agricultural labourers who could be exploited. [See later and also Gunnar Myrdal: "Asian Drama"). It was from this class that the Vellala immigrants in Jaffna recruited "slaves" for tobacco cultivation in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Jaffna peninsula also had an excess landless population like these "slaves" and the ancient Sinhalese who were reduced to the rank of serfs who did not hold land, e.g., Koviyas [Goviyas] and Nalavars [toddy-tappers] who were later recruited also as coolies by British forces in their expeditions to the Kandyan districts.

Discrimination - Irish Model

A prerequisite for the application of the discriminatory policy accepted for the island (Harrington’s Irish model) was the simultaneously orchestrated campaign to spread the myth that the Sinhalese were a people who were "docile and listless," and "an innately prone to laziness." In the vanguard of this campaign were not only the plantation community but also some plantation owning top British bureaucrats, and even members of the judiciary. Reference to laziness of the Sinhalese, particularly the Kandyans, abound in colonial documents. [Bandarage]. Ralph Peiris, Ludovici and others have quoted Governor Maitland which shows that the prejudice was born even before large scale exploitation of the country through European capital commenced.

Only a handful of local administrators like Fowler, [later repeated by J. P. Lewis], and a few Government Agents at Trincomalee expressed a different view in respect of lands in the "Tank Country" but their voice was lost in the wilderness. In respect of the appropriation of peasant land in the hill country a few officials like H. L. Leyard, a prominent British official and a planter differed. In his testimony before the British Parliamentary Committee inquiring into the Kandyan Rebellion of 1848, Leyards attributed the cause in the first instance, to "encroachments" by European and colonial state on "native" lands, rather than to "native encroachment" on plantations and crown lands as was customarily held by the colonial administrators and planters. The "inferioisation" of the Sinhalese was good enough to promote the 18th century British policy of discrimination by "substituting a new population for the indigenous population".

This myth [See Jayasinghe] spread about the Sinhalese stayed on course for a long time with Tamils and others [collaborators] who had later joined the British in the exploitation joining in chorus. How far this idea had influenced the thought process locally and internationally was seen by the comments made in the Time Magazine when Sirima-Shastri Agreement of 1964 was signed. The Magazine asserted that the island would have to erect a "tarpaulin cover over its plantations" in order to get Sinhalese to work! These critics both at home and abroad have never seen under what climatic conditions and other hazards the Sinhalese workers had for long centuries worked in cinnamon jungles and plantations, or the suffering of timber fellers who cleared land for Coffee and tea cultivation under worse conditions. I have seen both as late as a decade before the middle of the last century when I saw men going to work in our cinnamon jungles and their permanently scarred bodies from noxious red ant attacks; and much later, the conditions under which timber fellers worked clearing heavy forest land near Sinharaja as well as in the jungles of Mahiyangana and Lahugala under my wife’s family business. My experience in our own land was that an Indian worker would not get near a tea bush by the length of her ‘levelling’ pole, if a single tea bush was infested with red ants! [I carry over 25 years experience in managing Indian estate labour].

"Tank-Country" and the East

Colonial British government’s policy outside the plantation areas was best demonstrated by the Governor Mc Cullum’s address to Tamil Chiefs at the Durbar in 1909, where he observed that applications for land was always from the Sinhalese but Jaffna Tamils should have the first choice. In other words, he had "reserved" the "Tank country" for them and held the prospects that South Indians whom he had already met in Madras were prepared to come to do earth work for nothing. At the same Durbar, he asked the chiefs of the Eastern Province if they preferred the Jaffna Tamils or the South Indians to take up land in the East. (National Archives]. Freeman supported the idea of settling Tamils from North in the Eastern Province.

Doubtless, the first British Government Agent of Northern Province, "The Prince, of the Jaffna people did much to influence policy at higher level; but it only served to reinforce an already decided colonial policy. [Nuvarakalaviya, later made part of the North Central Province (1873) was part of the Northern Province]. As such, the scheme included parcelling out not only the Vanni land but also the traditional ancient land in Kala-Balalu wewe and others in the very heart of ancient ‘Rajarata’ to Jaffna Tamils. Already, by 1897, Ponnmlbalam Ramanathan was able to claim that Jaffna Tamils [and those from the South] had ‘colonised’ up to Anuradhapura. That was when he was seeking opportunities for them to proceed further, to the very heartland of the contemporary Capital of Colombo to pursue trade [Ref. Ramanathan Memorandum: Governor’s Despatch No 144 of May 1897]. [Today, exactly the reverse is said on behalf of Tamils in the South when it is claimed that they should have a safe haven to return to when they have the need. That is part of the reason for a separate homeland and "Eelam" claim].

The symultaneous dismemberment of the ancient Kandyan administrative districts of the North Central and Eastern regions and annexing them to the administrative Provinces of Jaffna, Trincomalee and Batticaloa after the Kandyan rebellions of 1818 and 1848 were ruthlessly crushed, was a measure to diminish the powers of Kandyan chiefs and was twinned to the discriminatory policy of substituting a new population for indigenous population. To start with, under the new dispensation the district of Jaffna which was originally confined to the Peninsula was expanded to include the originally Vanni land of Pooneryn and others. Next, the entire "Tank country," including those in the East, was offered to Jaffna Tamils as exclusive area for them. [Ref: the Governor’s meeting with Tamil Chiefs, National Archives]. That compounded the ‘complot’ against the Sinhalese which is at the bottom of the claim for an exclusive area under the Tamil "homeland" call.

It could be argued that the opening up of Jaffna settlements in the "Tank Country" was considered on account of the high density of population in the peninsula. The peninsula was not so overpopulated under the Portuguese. (Ceylon Literary Review, Vol. I.p. 342] and it has been noted that there were more "foreigners" in Jaffna than there were Tamils. Population expansion came with the expansion of lucrative Tobacco cultivation in Dutch time and migration of Vellalas and slaves. The problem of overpopulation of the Peninsula was noted by the Dutch as well as the British. In contrast, the Vanni as well as the entire "Tank Country" was sparsely populated. Bertolacci records, basing his information on Mr. Bournand, the authority on whom Cleghorn also relied, that the "entire country from Magama [Moneragala District] to Kokilai (that is more than the entirety of the Eastern Province] and the Vanniyaships of ‘Sorele’ [Hurulla] and ‘Nagore’ [Nuwara Wewa] consisted of no more than 10,000 people. [That was the state of the so called exclusive "Tamil Homelands" even after the British occupation! Obviously, there were more wild animals and perhaps? Veddas in that area. Hugh Nevill found Veddas inhabiting the Vanni and Trincomalee districts up to the confines of the Jaffna peninsula].

Tamil Expansionism - British Hand

Various reasons cited for the depopulation are given in my paper in the R. A. S. Journal. Bertolacci attributed it to the neglect by the Dutch and the vexation of inhabitants by Dutch and later British troop detachments which marched through the Vanni from Vertivu to Mulativu on their way to Trincomalee.

Overcrowding of Jaffna as a reason has its weakness because it was not only the Jaffna settlers that the British had in mind but also South Indians. On the other hand? the British did not show the same humanitarian consideration to resettle at least some of the Sinhalese peasants who lived in the most inhospitable areas of the Vanni and N.C.P. The balance weighs heavily on what we point out, that it was decided colonial policy to maximise profits from the possession of the island using discrimination against the majority indigenous population as a vital part of the strategy.

The policy to settle Jaffna Tamils in the "Tank Country" was made amidst claims of Tamil Chiefs who attended the Governor’s Durbar that the Jaffna Tamil was no pioneer but one who, if he ventured out of his village at all, would want to "make as much as possible and return to the village." They were not the people to clear up jungle and turn the country into flourishing agricultural land as the Sinhales did. That they moved in when land was made ready is also seen from the traditions in Nadu-Kadu, south of Batticaloa where they had asked Rajapakse Mudaliyar to get the Veddas to clear the land for them. [Taprobanian]. The whole history of later induced Jaffna Tamil expansionism is that they came to occupy agricultural land which flourished once. In the case of much praised South Indian labour, [whose output in tea is the lowest in the world today - four times lower than the manwl labour output I observed in tea plantations around the Caspiasn Sea], they came first as Coffee pluckers in estates which had been already established through the employment of Kandyan labour using also the ‘Rajakariya’ system. The clearance of wild-beast and leach ridden primeval forests in fever-ridden hilly country in itself was no mean task. The Administration Report 1692 of W. Ievers, on Sate aided colonisation scheme at Kalaweva sets out his contrasting negative experience of settling Jaffna colonists in the Kala wewa and Balalu wewa basin. [Sic]

"In 1890 I was called upon by Govt. to state the conditions under which in my opinion colonists could be settled in the land below Kalawewa. A scheme was accordingly formed by me. Sanction of the scheme was received, and it was stated that the selection of the nationality and individuals was left to me, but that a preference might be given to Tamils from the Peninsula. [This confirms what I said that it was government’s policy to give preference to Jaffna Tamils]........ [Met] cost of transport from Jaffna, maintenance for 6 months inclusive of houses,; grant of seed, tools, hire of buffaloes and ploughs....... more families arrived, and given land under Balalu wewa, but they have no heart or desire for work and were under the impression that Govt. was the father and the mother......... They were quite unused to clearing forests-they had never seen forest trees before they came; if one man got ill all stayed away from work; and by the end of the year except for a clearing of about 20 acres for which they got help (from Sinhalese], there was nothing to show for their labour. Although the clearing was sown with Kurakkan they would not watch to protect the crop from birds and beasts and showed themselves so unfit colonists that Govt. aid was withdrawn by me in December and soon afterwards they all returned to Jaffna," "The season was a sickly one.. children died of pneumonia from which local inhabitants equally suffered.... Even if the season was a healthier one... doubt if the experiment would have been any more successful because of what I saw of the disposition of the people".

"In contrast, the low country gentleman, Mr. Silva from Negombo has cleared 20 acres during the year, and will take up additional 200 acres in 1893".

The 1892 Diary records Mr. Nagalingam who had taken 700 acres at Kalawewa, and Asipillai were asked to send more Jaffna colonists but since further state aid to colonists was not recommended it is doubtful if any came. The Tamil contractors would have depended on local [Sinhalese] labour. The allotment of large acreage of land to rich Jaffna entrepreneurs again shows how the colonial policy of settling Jaffna Tamils in the traditional "Tank Country" was implemented throughout the 19th century even after the North Cenkal Province was created. Ievers had been given instructions that preference should be given to Jaffna Tamils in the selection of colonists. Perhaps, the policy continued to the twentieth century.

Under the Bandaranaike-Chelvenayagam Pact it was agreed that in the selection of settlers for land in North and Eastern Provinces preference would be given first to those in the district. Though the pact was not implemented this part of the understanding has been carried out without variation. [Personal communication]. This is how the villages in the Trincomalee district which were one hundred per cent areas of Sinhalese habitation when the British found them [towards the latter part] in the 19th century have today become areas with mixed population and are included in the claim of "Tamil homelands." Administration Reports record only the villages of Tiriyaya, (Giri-bhanda), Pulmuddai [Puhulmote] and Kumburupidy (Kumburupitiya) on the coast having an exclusively mixed population of Muslims and Tamils. These records also contrasts the energy of the Sinhalese in the small villages of the interior Lying on the ancient route from Tiriyaya to Anuradhapura through such villages as Morawewa, Ethavetuna weva, Medawahchiya (E.P.), Relapanawa and others. [See also Denis Fernando’s identification of Jambukolapattana in this coastal area). It is significant that the records specifically refer to the people of Tiriyaya as a lazy lot for the restoration of whose tank state aid was withheld. Were they the descendants of degenerated Sinhalese who lived in this former important Buddhist settlement though classified as Tamils because they were Tamil speaking? (See the contention of Henry Parker and others on Tamilisation of Sinhalese. [JRAS, 1996, Sp. Vol].