How Jennings dissected the European legacy

By Elmo Leonard










“The Portuguese who arrived in Sri Lanka in 1505 intermarried with the local population and profoundly influenced their way of life”. This is an extract from the writing of the British academic Sir Ivor Jennings who lived in the island from 1941 to 1955. The Dutch who had established themselves everywhere except in Kandy by 1660 had less influence upon ordinary people, but they were efficient administrators whose system of judicial administration resulted in the application of Roman Dutch Law. The British who took control of the island in 1815, as usual tended to segregate themselves. The opening up of plantations, the road from Colombo to Kandy and the resulting economic boom led to the creation of a substantial middle class educated however in the medium of English. Education in Sinhala and Tamil, though poor, was not neglected. No Sinhalese or Tamil who wanted to be educated in English was kept out. At independence in 1948, 60 per cent of the population was literate. Also the population had grown under British rule from less than a million to nearly seven million, Jennings says.

Jennings served as the second principal of the Ceylon University College and the first vice chancellor of the University of Ceylon. His enormous gift as a constitutional lawyer, political scientist and educationist were in astonishing evidence throughout this period, and his achievements are now a part of history.
Ceylon is therefore more westernised than India, but the indigenous social structure remains intact and both Sinhalese and Tamils maintain the caste system.

Class is more pertinent than caste and very important. Even in 1796 when the British ousted the Dutch, Ceylon had a feudal system in which large groups of villagers were dependent upon a Ceylonese landowner. The British imported a new class system which fused with this decaying feudalism. British officials, judges and the like took over the major responsibility for government and naturally lived upto the standard of life to which they were accustomed to in Britain. Indeed they “lived like lords” because servants were cheap and plentiful and living was inexpensive. Naturally they corresponded with each other, with home and the Indian government in English, and equally naturally they needed clerks and interpreters who knew English, Jennings has observed.


Dutch Burghers intermarry Sinhalese
The Dutch left behind a substantial “Burgher” population, most of whom have intermarried with the Sinhalese. The Dutch Burghers appreciated that English was the language of the future and sent their sons to schools using English as the medium, the well regarded “English schools”. The Ceylonese land owners saw that there were government jobs for their sons and were quite willing to pay school fees and this demand created in turn a demand for teachers who could speak and teach English. Thus, there developed a small middle class which could speak English, Jennings has recorded.


The Kandy Road - an economic boost

The opening of the Kandy Road and the discovery that coffee would grow in the Kandyan hills caused trade to grow. Trade was in the hands of “Europeans” and the Indians and so was conducted in English. Also, though the Ceylonese developed coconut plantations, the trade in coconut products was in “European” hands. Again, clerks, shopkeepers and storekeepers needed to be knowledgeable in English and so the English-speaking middle class grew. The island suffered a severe setback when the coffee blight virtually wiped out the estates between 1870 and 1880, but tea and later rubber came to the rescue. The “European” population was at its maximum in 1921, when there were just over 8,000 and so the effect of the European enterprise, especially in coffee, tea and rubber has been to increase the Ceylonese middle-class. It spread not only into the estates, into commerce and teaching but also into such professions as law and medicine and finally into the public service. When Ceylon became independent in 1948, no “Europeans” were dismissed, though a few left of their own accord on favourable terms. By that time, nearly all the senior posts in the public service and the senior slots of the legal and medical professions were held by English-speaking Ceylonese, Jennings has said.

The English-speaking Ceylonese earned the same salaries as “Europeans” and often had some interests in tea, rubber or coconut plantations. The ordinary villager, who spoke Sinhalese or Tamil, accrued some benefit from the growth of the plantation industries. Many villagers were small-time holders who made some profit from rubber or coconuts. Some were employed on the estates, on the roads, or in minor posts in the public service. Nevertheless, the standard of living of the ordinary villager remained very low, though comparably much higher than in India. In 1949 the national income was only Rs 300 or 24 pounds per person per annum, Jennings has said.

There were no rich Ceylonese because few had engaged in commerce and industry. But the disparity of salaries was very wide because the incomes of the peasants were very low. The position was much the same as in the peasant countries of Eastern Europe before the war. But there is the added complication that the poor spoke only Sinhala or Tamil while the middle class spoke English. What is more was that English was not a “second language”. The English-speaking classes usually spoke English at home, in the club, in the office, in the schools, and wherever elsewhere they gathered at. “This is one of the problems which the government is trying to solve’’, Jennings had said.