Sanderatne reviews Kapi Kannangara’s book on caste and class transformations

Nimal Sanderatne in Sunday Times, 27 May 2012

A.P. Kannangara’s, A Survey of Social Change in an Imperial Regime, is a fascinating narrative of how different segments of society in British Ceylon responded to the changes in economic opportunities and administrative changes brought about by the British. It is an absorbing documentation of the caste and class transitions that occurred during British rule. The descriptions of these transitions and transformations of caste and social status are intriguing and captivating.This is a posthumously published book: a labour of love of his wife Monica to whom we owe a debt of gratitude for compiling this valuable book recording interesting facets of social history during British times. The author died in July 2004 having collected a considerable amount of information from the Sri Lankan National Archives, the British National Archives in London, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and other sources, leaving a tentative plan for the book. We are indeed fortunate that this meticulous research was not lost to generations of those interested in the social history of the country.

Kapi Kannangara spent a good part of his life in England and France. After graduating in Law at the University of Ceylon, he studied at the London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where he distinguished himself as the best examinee of his year with a First Class. He won a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford where he obtained a D. Phil. He was a student of Law, Economics and Sociology and a recognised scholar of Modern Indian History.

In her preface, Monica Kannangara places the book in perspective. She describes it as a work meant for the general reader rather than a scholarly examination of social change. This makes the book eminently readable as a narrative of social change that began in the mid nineteenth century with British administration of the country and continued into the twentieth century.

Her preface is a succinct review of the purposes, content and presentation of this intriguing process of social transformations that occurred.

There is also an introduction by the author himself that defines the objectives of the study. The author observes “The desire for status may be universal but in Sri Lanka, as even a casual visitor may observe, people pursue it with extraordinary avidity.” The new structures “left individuals to fight their way through a society to which they were tenuously connected.”

The book is the story of the quest of the Sinhalese for status in a changing economic, political and social transformation under British rule. It documents the devaluing of ancient institutions and the imposing of different social structures under colonialism.

The focus of the volume is on how caste influenced and yet transformed over the years, responding to the various changes made by the British. The British administrators upheld caste and its attendant practices in key aspects of governance especially in the provincial and rural administration that was largely based on caste, but developed an administration based on education and skills that provided opportunities for upward mobility, not on birth but education. The book is on how the role of caste changed over the years in response to the various changes by British administrators.

The book is in two parts and consists of nine chapters, in addition to the preface and introduction. The first part of the book is on the impact of British rule in Ceylon, while the second part is on ancient status symbols, primarily associated with caste and hierarchy. The first part describes how different groups of people found themselves defined in the course of the 19th century, and the responses they made to the changes they had to contend with. While this part of the book is described as a narrative, the second part is a narrative with comparisons and analysis.

The first chapter on “The Rise and Fall of the Mudaliyar Class” refers to petty struggles among the Ceylonese upper classes, to obtain favours and honours from the British. The local notables wanted the Mudaliyar system to be kept within the narrow confines of class and caste. However, the complex system of administration specialising in selected areas of administration introduced by the British required skills and an English education that Mudaliyars lacked. Consequently the role and importance of the Mudaliyars waned, although they remained until the 1930s.

The second chapter on “The Creation of an English Educated Class’ describes how people responded to the British requirement of persons to administer the country and for the judicial system for which an English education was needed.

The missionaries with a motive to Christianise the population, as well as spread the value system, established schools that provided the Sinhalese with an opportunity to gain new status through education. However it was those who had acquired the means through new economic opportunities from trade, plantations and mines that were mostly able to access this education that conferred a new status. Those who exploited the new economic opportunities arising from trade and the plantations were able to acquire wealth that enabled the education of their children in leading schools and to send them to prestigious British universities. A new class of notables side by side with the old aristocrats emerged.

The third chapter on “The Emergence of an Entrepreneurial class” is a fascinating detailed description of the growth of the small new Sinhala entrepreneurial class and the families and enterprises associated with them. Complementing this development was the migration of Sinhala entrepreneurs from coastal areas to the hinterland and the growth of small new towns in the low country and in the upcountry which were largely peopled by those migrating from the low country. An important outcome of the rise of this class of middle level Sinhala entrepreneurs is that they supported the growing articulate Buddhist movements of the late 19th and early 20th century. There was a close relationship between the new emerging families and Buddhist temples in their areas such as the Rankot Vihara. Buddhist practices and entrepreneurial activities appeared to work harmoniously with this new class.

The fourth chapter titled “The Displacement of the Peasantry” in the Contents, and “The Abandoned” in the chapter heading, deals with several diverse issues. It does not discuss in detail the plight of the peasantry with the implementation of the Crown Lands Ordinance of 1832 that historians and economists have discussed at length. Instead it is about how those who did not benefit from the economic changes coped with their deprivation. It brings out the fact that while colonial rule brought about many improvements, opportunities and benefits, a large proportion of people did not benefit from these. The most interesting feature of this chapter is how conversions to Christianity occurred. Converted Christians continued with their worship of Buddhism: “To adopt a new religion did not seem to these Buddhists to require the abandonment of the old- if the new God was true it did not follow the old was false.”

“Caste in the Emerging Class Hierarchy” (chapter 5) offers many insights into how the caste system operated. The rise of professional classes led to a gradual diminution in caste practices. Although caste did not play the same role as in pre-British times, the British recognised the caste hierarchy in subtle ways. There were conflicts and clashes between traditional caste values and modern class and functional positions and status. An interesting story of caste conflicting with functionality is told of how so-called superior caste jurors refused to sit with those whom they considered as of lower caste. There were major tensions within the Sinhalese based on caste and hierarchy. In the early years of the 20th century “when the young Rajaka Lawyer, George E. de Silva, took his seat at the Bar table in Kandy for his first appearance the other lawyers walked out”. This chapter has interesting accounts of the rise of important families, like the Senanayakes, Kotalawelas and the Wijewardenas.

While this chapter describes the status and changing roles of several castes, an appendix to the volume has a comprehensive classification of “contemporary castes and sub-castes in order of rank”. There are twenty five caste groups. Within the Govigama caste alone, there are nine sub-castes ranging from Radala to Guruvos (conch bearers). Each of these castes has their own symbols and practices.
The second part of the book-The Devaluation and Disappearance of Ancient Status Symbols-is a detailed description of the origins and changes of Names and Titles (Ch. 6), Pomp Salutations and Greetings (ch.7), Dress and Houses (ch.8) and Westernisation (ch.9). All these aspects had a bearing on status, caste and hierarchy. They describe the ancient and traditional status symbols and their devaluation. It gives a detailed account of the system of honours and ranks that were held by, or bestowed on, the Sinhalese. The author highlights the fact that “the people of Sri Lanka are very keen on titles, as observed and commented on by many foreigners in the past. Robert Knox was one of the earliest to recognize this”. The British exploited this weakness to their own advantage. While maintaining some of the old titles such as Mudaliyar, Muhandiram, Arachchi, and others, they also bestowed their own titles.

There is an account of the tussle when the philanthropist, C. H. De Soysa, campaigned for a knighthood. Although several Britishers lobbied for him, there was resistance from other Sinhalese and his attempts failed. His son, Wilfred, was however knighted in 1897. Before that, in 1893, “A First Class Goigama” Harry Dias, a Puisne Judge was given a knighthood.

Symbols of status were associated with dress forms. As late as 1938, Deva Suriya Sena, (son of Sir James Peiris) wore the traditional dress of a Kandyan chief at an Oxford function. Three Kandyan chiefs objected, as it was considered an affront to the Kandyan chiefs in general. The book gives an account of a more serious incident of caste discrimination as late as 1949 when local people of the Nekati caste began to disregard the ancient prohibition of their caste wearing anything above the waist. When some boys of that caste came to school wearing banians they were beaten up by adults of other castes in the bazaar.

In the final chapter (10) and brief conclusion that follows Kannangara discusses the broad sweep of social history during British colonial years and summarises and interprets how the different castes and classes of Sinhalese responded to the economic opportunities and administrative changes brought about by the British. He discusses several views of historians and social anthropologists that have analysed the social transformations that occurred.

This is an absorbing book that describes in a very lucid style the transitions and transformations of caste and social status that occurred during British rule. The descriptions and interpretations are informative, revealing, and fascinating. It is an invaluable contribution towards understanding the social evolution of modern Sri Lanka.

 Bookfacts: A.P. Kannangara, A Survey of Social Change in an Imperial Regime. Vijitha Yapa Publications. Price Rs. 980.00 Reviewed by Nimal Sanderatne


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