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Rise of the Karava in the pre Plantation Economy
Compiled using the book ‘Nobodies to Somebodies – The Rise of the Colonial Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka’ by Kumari Jayawardena. 

 Foreword: This book explores the rise of a bourgeoisie class who acquired wealth during a time of capitalist development in the 19th and 20th century colonial periods.

            From the time of the Portuguese/Dutch rule and the early decades of the British occupation, the restrictive policies of the colonial state imposed a serious check on the enterprise and accumulation. Within this confines of this rudimentary colonial economy and given the prominent position that some foreigners occupied in the trade of the country, there existed only a limited opportunity for capital accumulation by Sri Lankans. There were however a few areas where indigenous middlemen and traders were able to participate in some significant way in economic activities, namely the Indian, coastal and domestic trade, contracts to provide goods, services and transport to the government and the renting from the government of certain rights to collect taxes and tolls and to retail liquor.

             In the Indian and coastal trade, some karava  families of the south and west coast were shipbuilders and owners involved in the trade. Roberts sites the two families of Hendrick Pieris and Telge David Peries who were engaged in trade with India. As inland travel was restricted due to non-existence of roads, trade was concentrated on the coastal areas and transport was done in ‘dhonies1’ owned and operated by the ship owning families. Transport by Cart was also to become a profitable venture, especially after the coffee plantations opened up in the central regions and roadways opened up to the central part of the country.  An early pioneer in this trade was Jeronis Soysa, a karava  of Moratuwa who went on to become the foremost capitalist in the country. Artisans mainly of the karava caste from coastal areas, who specialized in carpentry and boat building, also had an opportunity of accumulating wealth by supplying their services to the governments.

            The Farming of Rents however was the main source of wealth to many people. The term farming of rents is used to describe the process of the auctioning of the rights to collect certain taxes, tolls and rents by the government. This was advantageous to the government as they collected the rents up front, and its own officials were not involved in the risky process of extracting the taxes from the peasants. Although there was rents for paddy, fish other minor rents and the toll rents at roads and ferry crossings, it was the liquor rents that made the breakthrough in the rapid rise of certain families.

            The arrack industry was based in the south and west coastal areas and the retailing was tightly controlled during the Dutch times and was in the hands of a few Dutch Burgher citizens. The British opened this to the local bidders. There is evidence that the distillers in general were small investors operating with limited capital and were not a prosperous group. The wholesale dealers fared better and later successfully ventured into the retail trade as renters, making large profits from the western and central province renting. Renters in the costal regions were mainly Singhalese from the karava  and goigama  castes, who were influential people in their localities. What is significant about the ownership of arrack rents in the years up to 1830 is that no one person or group dominated the rents. Very few also survived in to the new era. Families of the period before 1835, who continued to be prominent in renting in the new era, were those of Vidanalage De Mel, Talge Peiris, Weerahennedige Fernando, Mahamarakkalage Perera and Balappuwaduge Mendis. Those of the coastal regions dominated rents in the Kandyan regions, as the kandyans were reluctant to participate in new avenues of business. Being landowners they lacked mobility and skills necessary for commercial enterprise.

            In the first decades of British rule, two broad categories of Sri Lankans, benefited from the opportunities that became available through trade, contracts and renting. They were the minor government officials (vidanes2) and the groups of artisans, contractors, distillers, ship owners and renters. In the 1830s, two important policy changes affected these people. The change from renting on a tavern basis to renting by administrative division, eliminated most of the weaker renters. The crucial shift occurred in 1832 when the commissioner of Revenue issued a circular banning government officials from becoming renters. It was this important prohibition that effectively eliminated the many goigama  headmen (vidanes) from renting. The advantage was reaped by the karava  renters, who swiftly moved and dominated the arrack rents for the following periods. The following year, the entire Kandyan region (province) went to a single renter of the karava  caste Jeronis Soysa, who achieved remarkable success as a renter.

            Karava  families, mainly from the southwestern coastal areas became prominent capitalists in the following periods. Some of these successful business clans were the Lindamulage de Silva family,  Balappuwaduge Manakulasuriya Mendis family and  Vidanalage de Mels all of Moratuwa, the Telge Peiris family of Panadura and the family of Warusahennedige Soysa, who went on to become the wealthiest of the Sri Lankan families of the 19th century.

 Caste and Class:

             It might be useful at this stage to refer to a question that has been raised by many scholars in recent times – the dominance of the karava  caste in new economic activities. According to Michael Roberts the community’s “involvement in the fishing industry…provided the Karavas with a training in market operations” and that a specific and traditional large net fishing operation known as madal3 (seine) fishing which necessitated an entrepreneur and a large group of fishermen, was more conducive to the evolution of “organisational forms needed for business concerns in the nineteenth century than most other occupations of the pre British period” (Roberts 1979:201 & 213 citing Evers 1964; and Roberts 1982: 251-9). Roberts also suggests that, since many karava  were carpenters and cart wrights, “the Karava artisanate” may have developed ideas of capital accumulation backed by achievemental motivations and workaday industry,” and that the karava  advances were secured by their “dominating role… in the arrack industry from the early 19th century (if not earlier)” (Roberts 1979:202).

            What the evidence shows, however, is that the karava were not the first in the field nor the dominating group in the early 19th century. Many castes and ethnic groups took advantage of the new economic opportunities and even ventured into the remoter parts of the island as speculators and renters. What was occurring was not the rise of the karava, but the early beginnings of the bourgeoisie class. However this was not to be in the post 1832 period where the karava  dominated the renting business.

             Since distilleries were located mainly in the southwestern coastal belt, where the karava community were dominant, it is not surprising that members of this caste were active in the liquor trade as distillers, wholesales and renters. Although the goigama  minor government officials combined their official duties with renting activities in the period before 1832, karava  traders and renters seldom had similar outside commitments. While many other renters did not survive long in the arrack trade or took their investments elsewhere, those karava  renters (who were full-time traders) were able to outpace their goigama  rivals (who were part-time) and get an important head-start in the large-scale arrack trade that developed in the post 1832 period. 

(1) Dhonies - A Cargo vessel with one mast.
(2) Vidane   - A Village Headman or official: maha (chief) vidane.
(3) Madal     - A Large fishing net.

Rise of the Karava: The transition to a Plantation Economy 

            The British continued the Dutch practice of promoting a non-industrial type of capitalism in the form of the plantation system. A few Europeans ran the estates in similar style, organising the daily production of the export crop and utilising institutionalized force to control what was virtually a domain. Plantations were opened up with foreign capital on cheap crown land, which were managed by British superintendents, producing an export crop almost exclusively for sale and consumption in foreign markets. The work force was composed of immigrant South Indian labor. 

            The growth of the plantations also required the development of a network of roads, the railways and the port. A vigorous policy of road building was undertaken and the Colombo – Kandy railway was completed in the year 1867. A string of feeder roads to feed the railway, and  roads to the interior of the country were also built during these years. These large-scale building activities also bought a large workforce to these areas. This also gave a good economic opportunity to the local cart contractors, labor contractors, construction workers and mills to provide services. Another important event was the abolition of Rajakariya  (a system of compulsory unpaid labor to the state) in the year 1833, which resulted in a large base of paid labor. This combination of the opening of the interior, the large immigrant plantation work force, the large road building workforce and railway workforces and the other construction, cart transport and feeder services labor and the military, all with an expendable income, gave rise to a meteoric growth in the consumption of liquor. The renters who were prospering due to this, vertically integrated with the supply chain, buying and controlling the distilleries. They also formed cartels thru kin and caste relationships to control the bidding and the amounts of rents paid to the government, a crude form of monopolistic control and oligopoly as practiced in today’s’ economy. 

            The fortunes made from renting gave them enough money to venture out into other available avenues of investments, mainly plantations, mining, acquisition of land and urban property and the practice of the professions. Such investments in the economy and education formed the elite class in later years. The acquisition of land gave status and prestige to the renters, as in earlier periods the kings created nobility through the granting of lands. Most successful renters took to plantations and land acquisition so much that the second generations concentrated only on these new investments. In fact biographies of some of these families make either no reference (or only a passing allusion) to the profits reaped from the arrack businesses. The initial foray into the plantations was mainly in the coffee, with the karava  soysas owning over 3000 acres of planted coffee in the early periods. With the fall of the coffee plantations in the 1880s, coconut and rubber also became an important economic base. Tea was mainly a British preserve, with some Sri Lankans planting in the low and mid country regions. Rubber was a more important investment to the locals. Introduced in 1875, the growing areas expanded mainly in the Kalutara, Galle and Kelani Valley districts. E.C De Fonseka, Fred Abeysundera and Alice Kotelawela are among the non-liquor bourgeoisie large rubber owners owning over 1000 acres (1927), listed by Roberts (1979:180).

            One other investment that was almost the exclusive preserve of Sinhala capitalists was the mining of graphite ((plumbago), and had close connection with the arrack renting. Several leading Karava renters owned graphite mines. 

            To those without personal fortunes, education proved to be the main vehicle of achievement. In a society that respected the learned persons, most families of petty bourgeois pooled all resources to educate the best among them. Sinhala and Tamil men increasingly entered the medical and legal professions. Many of these professionals married into rich families, with doctors and lawyers being in demand. As colonial institutions were democratised, greater opportunities arose for these professionals.

The Karava  Capitalists: 

            The association between occupation and caste ceased to be observed in the late colonial periods, due to the new non-caste occupations that cut across all caste lines. In 19th century Sri Lanka, the goyigama  was the prestigious and the largest caste group, and also formed the majority of the Sinhala population. (The goyigama  of the land owning mudaliar groups, who were designated ‘first class’, distinguished themselves from the average goyigama, and later on used the term Radala  to describe themselves.) However this was to change in the turn of the century with many karava families accumulating wealth and prestige. Roberts (1982:115) who did a caste analysis from A. Wright’s book ‘Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon’ revealed that, of the 248 names where the caste could be identified, 51.2% was goyigama  (against a population over 50%) and 43% from the karava, durava and salagama  castes, where all three castes formed only 31% of the population. Roberts points out that the karava  alone having 35.8%, has done relatively well for themselves.

             Attention has also been drawn to the caste controversy between the goyigama  and the karava  castes. Although formally expressed in terms of caste, its contents can be better construed as arising from the two sections of the bourgeoisie class, the land owning goyigama  group and the new merchant capitalist (heavily karava).

            Of the new karava capitalists, the following were some of the leading families of the period. Warusahennedige Soysa the richest and the most powerful of the Singhalese capitalists, Hennedige Jeronis Pieris, protégé and cousin of Soysa, Vidanalage de Mels of Moratuwa, renters and leading graphite merchants, Telge Peiris family of Panadura, Lindamulage de Silvas of Moratuwa, Hanwedige Peiris of Moratuwa, Ponnehennedige Dias family of Panadura including Jeremias Dias, Merennege Salgado family of ‘Salgado Bakery’ fame, Hettiakandage Fernando of Kalutara and the de Silva Amerasuriya family of Galle.

            TheKarava  in Politics:

            One of the key battles of the new rich was the issue of representation in the Legislative Council that has existed virtually unreformed from 1833 to 1912. The council of 15 members was composed of nine senior government officials and a minority of six 'Un-officials', appointed from among the 'higher classes of natives' from various ethnic groups. The person nominated to represent the Sinhalese was always drawn from the first-class goyigama  mudaliar clans. The Karava  made many representations to elect their highly qualified members to the legislature. In 1882 a class organisation of capitalists formed by the name of Ceylon Agricutural Association. This consisted of the most prominent karava  capitalists of these years including S. R. de Fonseka. In 1888 the name was changed to 'Ceylon National Association', a bold step towards making it a more political organisation. The change had been initiated by Walter Pereira, Telge Charles Peiris and S. R. de Fonseka, but led to Charles de Soysas disapproval and resignation. In 1888 this group again attempted to gain entry to the Legislative Council, but failed.

            The continuous campaign of the new group of capitalists only succeeded in 1912, when A. J. R Soysa, second son of Charles de Soysa was nominated as the second low country Singhalese member. The electoral reforms of 1920s which launched a limited franchise and the subsequent reforms of 1931 which launched universal franchise, brought about significant changes. The legislatures of the 1920s, elected from a restricted base of 4% of the population and including nominated members, proved to be the heydays of the karavas. But with the extension of territorial representation in 1925, the proportion declined, and with universal franchise in the 1930s, there was a further sharp reduction.

            The new faces in the 1931 State Council included  Susantha de Fonseka (Panadura), son-in-law of Mathes Salgado (arrack renter and founder of a chain of bakeries); John L Kotelawala (Kurunegala), Henry W. Amerasuriya (Udugama) and S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. Of the 50 elected 76% were Singhalese, of which the karava  members Dr. A. E Cooray, Henry Amerasuriya, Dr. W. A. De Silva and Susantha de Fonseka constituted 10.5%. In the 1936 elections this wend down with the defeat of Dr Cooray. The new board of ministers included one karava minister Dr W. A. de Silva. From 1942 to 1947 there were no karava  ministers, but in 1948 this changed with the inclusion of Henry Amerasuriya.