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Sri Lankan Muslim



         For nearly three hundred years, the Portuguese and Dutch, actuated in turn by religious fanaticism and commercial jealousy, subjected the Moors to cruelty and oppression. Each sought by measures of increasing harshness to exterminate the race if possible, but without success. By slow degrees the Moors were ingratiating themselves into the favor of the Hollanders as we have seen in the previous chapter, till in 1796 there commenced an era of freedom and progress.


         The Netherlanders in Ceylon capitulated to the British under Colonel Stuart on February 16th, 1796. This event harbingered political as well as commercial and religious toleration, not for the Moors alone, but as well for all races that inhabited the Island. Even during the short interval between 1796 and 1798, when the government of this country was conducted from Madras by the British United East India Company, facilities were afforded to all and sundry in Ceylon for the purpose of trade. The iniquitous Plakaats which disfigured the administration of the avaricious Dutchman found no place in the British Statute Book, even though the English East India Company, like its predecessor , was to a considerable extent a mercantile organization.


         In this connection, it is but fair to state, in justice to the Hollander, that when he had assumed the government of the maritime provinces, conditions were vastly different. The resources at his command had been limited, and so it was with the machinery of civil and military administration. For the purpose of the latter, the Dutchman had to depend largely on the services of mercenary regiments composed of Swiss, Austrian, German and French soldiers, many of whose descendants today masquerade under the designation of Dutch Burghers, so that it was necessary to keep a vigilant eye in order to check the rapacity and excesses of these hirelings. On the other hand, the civil government, for the most part, had to be entrusted to the care of the different classes of merchants such as the Opperkoopman or Hoofd Administrateur, Kiipman, Onderkoopman, Boekhouder, Adsistent and Aankweekeling. The majority of these were revenue officers who had no previous administrative experience.


         One of the first acts which made the government by the British appear fair and equitable in the eyes of the indegenous populaion was a proclamation bearing the date, September 23rd, 1799. It runs as follows according to an extract from the Wellesly M.S.S.published in the Ceylon Literary Register Vol:II:


         And we do hereby allow liberty of conscience and the free exercise of religious worship to all persons who inhabit and frequent the said settlements of the Island of Ceylon, provided always that they peaceably and quietly enjoy the same without offence and scandal to Government; but we command and ordain that no place of religious worship be established without our license or authority, first had and obtained. And we do hereby command that no person shall be allowed to keep a school in any of the said settlements of the island of Ceylon without our license first had and obtained, in granting of which we shall pay the most particular attention to the morals and proper qualification of the persons applying for the same. And we do hereby in His Majority’s name require and command all officers, civil and military, and all other inhabitants of the said settlements, that in the execution of the several powers, jurisdictions and authorities hereby and by His Majesty’s command erected; they be aiding and assisting, and obedient in all things, as they will answer the contrary at their peril.”


         By another clause of the same Proclamation, punishment by torture was abolished. Similar laws extending the liberty of their subjects were enacted by the British Administration, in all of which the Moors benefited most since they were the most oppressed class. The freedom to worship in accordance with the rites of any religion greatly overjoyed the Moors to whom their faith means so much. Doubtless, the granting of this privilege served  to emphasise the toleration to be enjoyed under British rule, in contrast to the wanton indignities imposed by the Dutch, and the inconoclastic destruction of mosques by the Portuguese.


         By another Proclamation, certain sections of the people were liable to render compulsory personal service to the State. This was really a legacy of the Dutch who based their system of forced labor on the custom obtaining amongst the Sinhalese Kings. In the territory of these monarchs, it was known by the name of Rajakaria, with which the Dutch system was more or less identical. According to this system, the Kandyan Court through a system of feudal laws compelled a certain amount of forced labor from its subjects in return for benefits of doubtful and sometimes negligible value. Abuses crept into the manner in which these services were exacted. The duties demanded of the serfs were often unequal in their incidence and of a humiliating nature, whilst the superior officers appointed to see that each individual performed his obligations to the full, were frequently corrupt and harsh.


         In the concluding years of Dutch rule, these services were commuted by a payment of 12 rix-dollars per head, so far  as the Moors, against whom the tax was directed chiefly, were repugnant to the British mind and the collection of the tax was discontinued by the authorities at Madras in the first years of British rule.


         Shortly afterwards when it was proposed to revive it, the Hon. Frederick North who was the first British Governor of Ceylon, according to the Dispatch of February 26th, 1799, condemned it as oppressive and disgraceful. However, Lord Hobart who was the Secretary of State for the Colonies did not share this view. In a Dispatch dated, March 13th, 1801, he expressed the opinion that there was nothing disgraceful in the tax. Accordingly, the Governor, by a Proclamation dated December 2nd, 1802 levied the tax, with a modification which reduced the commutation from twelve to eight Rix dollars, making it payable in two installments. The revenue from this source was estimated at 60,000 rix dollars at the rate of eight rix-dollars each, from 7,500 Moors. This last figure, incidentally serves as an indication of the extent of the population of the Moors in Ceylon in early British times.


         The report of Captain Schnelder on the Matara and Hambantota districts, dated 1808, contains lengthy references to this tax and urges its continuation. He also states that:


         Within the Fort of Galle are many houses belonging to private indivituals, including Moormen. The latter have a mosque. As no one has any income from these premises, especially those inhabited by the Moormen, who living in the Fort are making great progress, therefore, I think, when an order be issued to pay one pice for each square yard of ground annually to Government, it would not hurt them at all.”


         The report referred to betrays the mentality of the Dutchman. It was submitted to Governor Maitland and was published for the first time in the Ceylon Literary Register, Vol I No 10, 1886.


         About the year 1804, the relations between the Sinhalese King and the maritime government were so strained that an outbreak of hostilities was imminent. It was therefore considered unwise to press for the payment of the head-tax and thereby alienate the sympathies of the Moors who could be of service to the British in many ways. Those who had already paid the tax due for 1803 had their monies refunded and in the following year, a Proclamation dated October 2nd, entirely exempted the Moors and Chetties from the payment of this levy or the performance of forced labor in lieu.


         Although the total abolition of Rajakaria did not take place till many years afterwards, this first step towards the realization of that object was received with general approval as an indication of the governing policy of the British. It also tended to beget confidence in the members of the permanent population were wont to regard with suspicion at first, owing to the tactless breaking of faith on the part of the Netherlanders and the errant Portuguese.


         The reason for this partiality to the Moors in those days, on the part of Government, is not far to seek. During the periods of warfare between the British and the Sinhalese, the Moors turned out to be of invaluable service to the former. Owning to their position as middlemen and itinerant peddlers, the Moors were able to collect information regarding the State of the country preparations that were going on and the secret intrigues. This knowledge was of utmost importance to the maritime authorities. That they did make use of such information is proved by the existence in those days of a detachment of regular spies, most of whom were Moors, under the command of an officer named Don Adrian Wijesinghe Jayawardana, Thamby Mudaliyar. (See Ceylon Antiquary.)


         In these early wars between the British and the Sinhalese, the Moors took an active part. The despatch of February 18th, 1801 mentions a Moors Battalion under the command of Captain Martin of the Madras establishment. The battalion was divided into two sections. Of these, the first was intended for internal defence, in the event of the Sinhalese of the Kandyan provinces crossing the border-line at Grandpass, near the Kelani River and marching into Colombo. This natural barrier with its other pass at Pashetal, Mattakuliya, marked the northern boundary of Colombo and was regarded as the most likely direction from which a raid or invasion could be expected from the intrepid  hill folk.


         The second section consisted of those who were recruited for general service, but it is a noteworthy fact that the fighting ranks were more popular. In a short space of time, the combatants numbered as many as five hundred, which figure can be regarded as a very large percentage, considering that the Moors of Colombo and its environs alone are taken into account.


         Henry Marshal, F.R.H.S. in his book, Ceylon, gives a description of the Moors of his day, 1808-1821, which may be regarded as typical of the class that enlisted in Captain Martin’s Battalion. Marshall says:


         “The Vellasy Moormen, an active, energetic body of Kandyan merchants, were the first portion of the population of the newly acquired territory who became by furnishing carriage cattle to the Commissariat for the purpose of conveying stores and provisions from the coast stations. This class of the population formed an intermediate link between the traders in the maritime district of Batticaloa and the interior provinces. They supplied for example, almost all the salt which was used in the Kandyan country, and as this was an expensive article, being monopolized and highly taxed by Government, the traders required to possess a considerable amount of capital. Although the Moormen had petty headmen of their own caste, they were like the other classes of inhabitants completely under the sub-regal control of the Dissave and other Sinhalese chiefs of the Province of Velassy. These chiefs levied heavy taxes and fines from the Moormen, and insisted upon obtaining from them whatever salt they required,  as well as other articles of trade, at their own price, and sometimes as is alleged, without any remuneration. In consequence of extortions of this kind, the Moormen solicited General Brownrigg, through Colonel Hardy, to be placed under a headman of their own religious persuasion, and their request was granted. Hadjee, a Moorman who received the appointment, was a person of superior intellect, and highly respected among his own caste, not only on account of his natural talents, but also in consequence of having made a pilgrimage to Mecca. The Moormen forthwith practically renounced the authority of the Sinhalese or Kandyan headmen and withheld some of the dues which they had been accustomed to pay, either in kind or in money. Being deprived  of their usual revenue, the chiefs were greatly incensed with the Moormen, and more especially Hadjee, who had in no small way supplanted the Dissave in authority.


         The same writer goes on to describe the nature of the services rendered to Government by Hadjee who by his loyalty and self-sacrificing zeal won for his community the favor of the British. He states:


         “On the 10th October, 1817, Mr. Wilson, Assistant Resident, Badulla, having received information that a ‘stranger’ with two old and six young priests, had recently taken up their abode in the jungle in the province of Velassy, it was deemed necessary to dispatch a party to apprehend ‘the stranger.’ For this purpose Hadjee was selected. He took his brother with him, together with a small party of Velassy Moormen, and left Badulla to execute his mission. On arriving at one of the passes into the Velassy, he was met by a party of men who attempted to prevent his proceeding further. Hadjee secured four of the party and sent them to Badulla. Proceeding on the road he was opposed by a more considerable party, armed with bows and arrows, who after wounding his brother, captured Hadjee himself. The rest of the party effected their retreat to Badulla. The news of Hadjee’s capture reached Badulla on the  12th, and on the 14th, Mr. Wilson set out for Velassy with a party of Malay soldiers, under the command of Lieutenant Newman, and attended by an interpreter and some native Lascoreens, Having halted at Alipoot, the first night, he proceeded early the next morning towards Velassy. At 3 p.m. he reached Wainawelle, and found that all the inhabitants had fled, except two Moormen, who stated that Hadjee had been flogged and sent prisoner to the man who was called ‘the stranger.’’


To return to the civil rights of the Moors; it would appear that as early as 1804 they had so succeeded in enlisting the sympathy of the Britisher that a resolution was passed on the 5th August, publishing a code of Muslim Laws which were observed by the Moors residing in the area known as the Province of Colombo. It will be noticed that whilst the Portuguese and Dutch did everything that was possible to disregard the rights of the subjects of this history and wantonly wound their susceptibilities, the diplomatic Englishman took them under his sheltering protection, with that characteristic solicitude for subject races which distinguishes British rule in the most distant out-posts of Empire. Government’s attitude towards the Moors who were only a minority community even in those days could not have failed to impress the Sinhalese themselves who in thee territory of their own kings were not infrequently made the instruments of arrogant chiefs and intriguing ministers of the Royal Court.


         The next outstanding event relative to the Moors of those pioneering days of British colonisation in Ceylon was the incident of 1814. In the November of that year, ten Moorish cloth merchants from the Coast who had gone into the interior for purposes of trade and barter were seized and punished on the orders of the Sinhalese King. They were so horribly mutilated and dismembered, that seven of them died on the spot. The three survivors managed to escape to Colombo, where their blood-curdling tales of the torture inflicted on them provoked the anger of the authorities. The Governor at the time, General Brownigg, considered the treatment meted to the Moors who were British subjects as an acts of aggression, and Major Hook immediately took the field and advanced as far as Hanwella. It is supposed that it was the commencement of hostilities on this occasion really that terminated in the overthrow of the Sinhalese kingdom and the annexation of the Kandyan Country. However, although the brutal massacre of the Moorish merchants is regarded by some as one of the immediate causes of the  last Kandyan War, it is well known that there were numerous other contributory factors, the chief of which may be regarded as the long desire of the Britishers to be absolute masters of the whole of Ceylon. The Moors, of course, regarded the injury done to their kinsmen as the primary casus belli, and it is a noteworthy fact that whilst there have been a few petty insurrections on the part of the Sinhalese, since British conquest, the Moors, to the present day have remained loyal to the Union Jack.


         It is about this time that Ceylon Moors were for the first time appointed to native ranks. One of the earliest of these was Hadjee off “Velassy” the distinguished, though little known Moor. A more popular individual was Uduman Lebbe Marikar Sheik Abdul Cader, the grandfather of the late I.L.M.Abdul Azeez, who in his day was a prominent member of the Moorish Community. “Sekady Marikar” by which name he was better known was appointed Head Moorman of Colombo by Sir Robert Brownigg, on June 10th, 1818. Several other appointments followed soon afterwards and the Moors were not only made chiefss in different parts of the maritime Provinces, but they were also admitted into the Public Service. The names of some of these with the offices which they held are to be found in the “Ceylon Calendar” of 1824 which was an official publication, published  in book form those days. These names are mentioned here as indicating the status of the Moors a hundred years ago.


         Head Moorman of Colombo, Uduman Lebbe Marikar Sheik Abdul Cader, Interpreter to the agent at Tamankaduwa, Mr. John Downing; Cader Shahib Marikar, Kariaper, or Head Moorman over the Temple at Welasse, Neina Marikar, Head Marikar of the Moormen in the jurisdiction of Tricomalie; Cader Sahib Marikar, Head Moorman under the collector of Galle; Pakir Mohadien Bawa Saya Lebbe Marikar and Samsi Lebbe Ali Assen, Head Moomen of Gindura; Slema Lebbe Samsy Lebbe, Head Moomman of Matara; Sekadi Marikar Sekadi Lebbe Marikar, Head Moorman of Weligama; Kasi Lebbe Sinne Lebbe Marikar, Head Moorman under the Collectors of Chilaw; Omer Marikar Sego Lebbe Marikar, Head Moorman of Puttalam; Neina Lebbe Bawa Marikar, Head Moorman of Kalpentyn; Sinna Tamby, Clerk and Storekeeper to the Deputy Assitant Commissary pf Hambantota; S.A.L.Munsoor Sahiboo, Storekeeper to the Assistant Commissary at Badulla.


         In March, 1825, Sir Edward Barnes, Governor of Ceylon, appointed the first Moorish Notary Public, “Sekady Marikar,” “for the purpose of drawing and attesting deeds to be executed by females of the Mussalman religion.” The fact that  there was not a single Moorish lawyer in the island in 1825 and that the community is today represented in all the learned professions and has two elected representatives in the Legistative Council, indicates the advancement of this section of the population during the intervening period of a hundred years. Again, it is worthy of note, that the Moors who had not one among their number in 1825 who was capable of holding a brief before even the Minor Courts of Justice, in the year 1904 weilded such influence as to be able to insist on the rights of their lawyers to appear in their Fez-caps before “My Lords.”


         The regime of Sir Wlimot Horton, 1831-1837 which is notable for the establishment of the Legislative Council, the running of the “First Mail Coach in Asia,” the abolition of compulsory labour and the publication of the first news paper in Ceylon, also saw the repeal on June 1st, 1832 of the Dutch Resolution in Council of February 3rd, 1747, by which Moors and Tamils were prohibited from owning property or residing within the Fort and Pettah or Colombo.


         Up to this time, according to the old order of things, various section of the public had separate residential areas allotted to them. For example, the Moors were, confined to Moor Street which is designated Moors Quarters in old maps of Colombo, the Colombo Chetties lived in Chetty Streett or Chekku Street, as it was also known, the brassfounders in Brassfounder Street, the barbers in Barber Street and silversmiths in Silversmith Street, whilst the “dhobies” lived in an area called Washermen’s Quarters.”


         The removal of these restrictions led to an influx of  Moors into the business quarters of the City. Gradually they began to acquire property in the Pettah of Colombo and in the process of time nearly all the immovable property here which originally belonged to tteh descentdants of the Dutch passed into the hands  of the Moors. It is significant that a large proportion of the shops and other buildings in Petttah today belong to this community, whilst all that remains to the descendants of the Hollanders who excluded  the Moors from this area, is their ancient Kerkhof behind “Consistery Buildings.”


         Having established themselves in business here, the Moors were now able to carry on a flourishing trade without any hindrance whatever, and strangely enough they count amongst their chief patrons, the Burghers who are the descendants of the Dutch. Although all professions and occupations were thrown open to this hitherto oppressed class of people, true to the instincts inherited from their Arab forefathers the Moors largely engaged in trade and amassed fortunes, whilst education suffered. It was in comparatively recent times that the efforts in this direction of the late Mr. A.M.Wapche Marikar, a building contractor, the Muslim Educational Society and the United Assembly were crowned with success. After more than a generation of patient endeavor, the Moors slowly began to realize the extent of the disadvantage encountered on every hand owning to a lack of modern education. The introduction of up-to-date business methods, strongly contrasted with the primitive systems of exchange and barter and it became necessary to be properly equipped in order to meet the competition from other quarters. Other communities were forgoing ahead in the march of progress and the Moors as a community were badly left behind. These considerations led to a wider interest in education, and the more progressive Moors sent their sons to the best schools at the time. Of these the most popular institution seems to have been Wesley College, due perhaps to the proximity of this institution in those days to Moor Street still the stronghold of the Moors. There had been no Muslim Schools at the time, with the exception of the small classroom attached to most mosques where the Muslim youth is instructed in the Koran and receives an elementary knowledge of the reading and writing of the Muslim Zahira College, at Maradana, although it was proclaimed with much gusto, did not for very many years rise above the level of an elementary school. It is only during the last decade that it has mushroom-like sprung into prominence under the energetic direction and untiring zeal in the cause of enlightenment by the then principal, the Hon. Mr. T.B. Jayah, B.A.,London.


         Of those Moors who engaged in trade, a large majority became shopkeepers. Their chief articles of merchandise were cloth, hardware, crockery, household goods and groceries. A few exported arecanut to South India and still continue to do so, and a fewer still became planters and made large profits in the  days of “King Coffer” which preceded the tea-growing industry. Several continued to be dealers in precious stones, having gained distinction in this line since Dutch times when they were credited with an export knowledge of pearls and gems. To the present day the leading firms which deal in jewellery and precious stones are conducted exclusively by the Moors. One of these had even found it necessary in order to provide a nearer depot for its numerous European patrons.