Disparaging Ethnic Epithets in Lanka: A Chat – Van Arkadie and Roberts

I: Preamble:Alex Van Arkadie is not known to me but seems to have received a stack of reports on the humanitarian side of the IDP camps [2009-12], which had recently been posted in http://thuppahi.wordpress.com from some circuits of email, perhaps that generated by Victor Melder. This conversation was an incidental outcome. Michael Roberts.

II: Alex Van Arkadie to Michael Roberts, 30 September 2012

Pardon me for the intrusion. Tell me please, what relevance does the word ‘thuppahi‘ have in relation to your works of mercy for the abandoned, helpless and needy?  I am rather concerned, because not all of the contemporary Burghers in Sri Lanka would consider it user-friendly?
If I may recall well, as far back as in the 60s (when the late SWRD was spearheading his Sinhala only campaign), the word ‘thuppahi’ was used by the common Sinhalese to ridicule and put a degree of shame/or fun on the English-speaking in the country, essentially the ‘burghers’ (I mean the race formed by a mixture of those who traced their family genealogy to originate from Dutch, Portuguese, and or a blend of similar or other European heritage. A common ‘coinage’ used also as a slang from that time among the ‘militant Sinhalese community’ was when they would refer to or challenge the ‘thuppahi sanskrutiya’ (to mean the ‘vulgarized culture’). [I mean the race formed by a mixture of those who traced their family genealogy to originate from Dutch, Portuguese, and or a blend of similar or other European heritage].
Incidentally, I cannot trace reference to the word ‘thuppahi’ either in the Oxford English dictionary, nor Malalasekera’s English-Sinhala dictionary, but yet from habit take may still take some offence to the use or application thereof (a little like when our fair skinned
Burgher batch mates in College or at the workplace were referred to as kerapottas (especially if they bore a tint on the skin).

Now my ageing curiosity has been awakened, when you make reference to it here. So, I felt like checking with you, please.

With respectful regards and all good wishes for your ‘humane’ endeavours.

ALEX, Roma, Italy.

III: Michael Roberts –Alex Van Arkadie, 1 October 2012

Dear Mr Van Arkadie

Thank you for your polite inquiry. If you had taken the trouble to visit my site and clicked the Menu Bar heading “Why Thuppahi,” your question would have been answered.

Let me respond in point form.

  1. You MUST initially read Roberts, Raheem & Colin-Thome: People Inbetween. The Burghers and the Middle Class in the Transformations within Sri Lanka, 1790s-1960s (Ratmalana: Sarvodaya Book Publishing Services, 1989), which is almost wholly my writing. The book is a social history of the emergence of the middle class in British Ceylon set within the growth of Colombo into a dominating centre. It also has lots of material on the Burghers which will interest you, including the disparaging use of kärapoththa.
  2. More particularly, read the first chapter entitled “Pejorative Phrases: The Anti-Colonial Response and Sinhala Perceptions of the Self through Images of the Burghers.” It provides a backdrop for the whole book that reveals how among the Sinhalese caste values opposed to mixture coalesced in British times with new Western intellectual currents of racist thought that also looked down upon mixtures of “race.” Thus one saw an interlacing of indigenous caste ideology and imported race ideology.
  3. Your dictionary sources are inadequate. People Inbetween uses a host of dictionaries, including Sinhala-Sinhala ones and Hobson-Jobson, together with ethnographic information from social interaction to explore the semantic pattern that supports the lines of thinking that I have pinpointed in B above.
  4. As an aside, let me observe that through Hobson-Jobson I discovered that in pre-British timesthe Dutch word for cockroach, kakkerlak, was deployed by the pukka Dutch to disparage the Portuguese mixed descendants. Indeed, “cockroach” seems to be an international pejorative that crosses many borders. Peter Muhlhauser, who is Swabisch, told me that the Swabisch refer to other Germans sometimes as “cockroaches.” I suspect the Germans living in the eastern portions of Deutschland would in their turn sometimes call the Poles “cockroaches” etc etc. Again, some Americans refer to Puerto Ricans on occasions as “cockroaches” …… I believe that Queenslanders occasionally disparage the people of New South Wales in this fashion. But this is to digress in order to lead you to consider the universe of pejoration in a reflective manner.
  5. I suspect that you thought I am Burgher. I am NOT. My father was a Barbadian or Bajan (pronounced bay-jan) whose second wife was a  Sinhala-Burgher — but Sinhala on her father’s side. Since there were no other West Indian families around (with the exception of the Rock family who were not in close proximity), Our family was not part of any “community” within Ceylon. My sense of being West Indian was minimal those days and when the West Indian cricket team under John Goddard (a distant relative I was told) played a Ceylon XI at Galle I was there cheering for Ceylon and still recall a flat straight six hit by Russell Heyn of Ceylon. Thus, if I had been pressed to express my identity when I was a teenager I suspect that I would have said I was a “Roberts” or “an Aloysian” — for my school loomed large those days [as they did for many urban lads]. Being an Aloysian is still important in my thinking [as, indeed, it is with Pissu Percy].
  6. Later, in undergraduate days I believe that many people, including good friends who did not know my family background, read me as “Burgher” and treated me accordingly. This fact came home to me recently on two occasions: (a) after a talk in Sinhala to a Left-leaning audience at Trikone in Colombo where I used my upbringing to address the issue of ethnic subjectivity in Sri Lanka and the process by which people BECAME Sinhala or Tamil or Muslim or Burgher or Whatever, Ananda Wakkumbura, one of the scholar-activists who had been working with me closely for five years in the study of the Kingdom of Sīhalē in the period 1590s-1818, remarked to me afterwards that my disclosure of background was a revelation because he had always considered me Burgher; (b) likewise when I was Chief Guest at a gathering of the Peradeniya Alumni of Sydney in September this year and indicated to a small group beforehand that most undergrads at Peradeniya had probably treated me as a Burgher, Earlson Forbes, who was there in my time and who was standing beside me, admitted that he had always thought I was Burgher.
  7. Thus, in sociological vocabulary I could be defined as demi-Burgher insofar as I was treated as one and did not have ethnic badge on my forehead. But in terms of internal subjectivity I was never ever Burgher. Either way, some Sinhalese may well have felt that I was not fully indigenous. I have no way of assessing this possibility except that on one occasion in the early 1970s when I was a Lecturer at Peradeniya, one of my students, who was helping me repair my defective scooter, said something that was not offensive but nevertheless implied I was not wholly autochthonous. That attitude on his part registered. I take that sort of thing in my stride. There are different degrees of connection and sentiment around a territory/state/nation. After living 44 years in Australia I do not expect dinky-die Australians of White or Aboriginal lineage to view me as a dinky-die Aussie. God forbid! I do not want to be a dinky-die Aussie. I am satisfied if Australian society leaves room for diversity and allows me space as a non-autochthonous, outsider Australian citizen of some sort — thus a fringe person in some degree because my patriotic sentiments lie wholeheartedly with Sri Lanka anyway. In my scheme of evaluation the weight of history within Australia, and its attendant lineage claims, must be given some significance, some primacy.

Finally since the use of “thuppahi’ disturbs you, let me stress that my usage is political: it seeks to turn the tables on those Sinhalese and those others who look on mixtures with disdain and who value their putative purity of lineage/blood/ pedigree. This ploy pursues the policy adopted by American Blacks to counter White superiority by calling themselves “nigger’ and thereby turning invective and a weapon of domination into a tool of resistance. The fuller clarification of this strategy is available in WHY THUPPAHI.  That post also attracted some interesting blog-remarks. One bloke, Padraig Colman, who is true-blue Irish, hailed my strategy by inserting a sharp note: “I also am a mongrel dog!” Yes, the best translation of thuppahi is “mongrel” [because many Westerners do not understand such terms as “pariah”].

  1.  Finally, your reading of Why thuppahi should be complemented by reflecting on the companion-piece THE SINHALA MINDSET. This, too, has drawn a few comments over the years – not many fortunately. But one by S. Mahinda on 2 July 2012 is an illustration of some aspects of Sinhala chauvinist thinking – precisely the perspective that was clarified in my chapter on Pejorative Phrases. His hostility proves my point.

If any contemporary Tamils develop fortification of their hostile anti-Sinhalese emotions from a reading of Mahinda’s little note or my chapter on Pejorative Phrases, they should pause. It is happenchance that I grew up in Sinhala majority-areas and have some familiarity with Sinhala argot. My suspicion is that the over the centuries the Tamils of northern Ceilao, British Ceylon and independent Sri Lanka harboured strong prejudices against foreigners and outsiders. However, one will need a Tamil-speaker with a clinical mind devoid of defensiveness to dissect past and present usage to work out the semantic foundations of Tamil prejudices against Whites, foreigners, Sonahar and Sinhalese.

Enough said. When I receive unsolicited comments I normally regard them as material for the public realm. Given your courtesy, let me ask you – request you please – to allow me to post your Query and My Response on web as a public debate so that people can be informed and, hopefully, educated in some fashion by our thoughts.


PS: in the 1950s and 1960s tuppahi [this is the correct transliteration but I have used the phonetic form to assist those unfamiliar with academic style] as political weapon was sometimes more sharply aimed at Westernized, and supposedly de-nationalized, Sinhalese. On such occasions Burghers were not the principal target.

III:  Alex Van Arkadie to Roberts, 2 October 2012

Dear Mr. Michael Roberts
The least I can repeatedly say is “thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Not only have you instinctively sensed to the right degree the inner sentiments that went into my courtesy enquiry, you have gone even much farther to reward me with the exclusive favour of caring to put together such a valuable collection of first-hand facts that henceforth would enrich my personal knowledge. There again you are right when you say you are going to host this material on your site, for then, many others would also come to know. Please go ahead!
In turn, allow me please to attach hereto my brief CV. In the event our acquaintance grows with time, I would have no hesitation to collaborate with you and share from my own personal background, experience and expertise in the event you would consider me useful in your future humane endeavour activities, programs and formation missions.

Sincerely, Alex


Filed under Australian culture, caste issues, citizen journalism, cultural transmission, ethnicity, heritage, historical interpretation, Left politics, life stories, nationalism, politIcal discourse, racist thinking, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, tolerance, violence of language

6 responses to “Disparaging Ethnic Epithets in Lanka: A Chat – Van Arkadie and Roberts

  1. deena

    looking for any geneology- information on my grandmother rose-marie van arkadie or her grandmother emily van arkadie

  2. Dorothy Van ARKADIE

    I am impressed by the comprehensive explanation given by Dr Robert in his answer to the query by Alec Van Arkadie . The division of the community in SrIlanka did not touch me at the time when we were at the Ui Pera .1958/61 I was a happy person who did not worry about the etnic origin when I made friends . I got married to a Van Arkadie and when I came over to Australia I found that I was cold shouldered by the Burgher community and merely tolerated at most gathering where everything was a ‘kusu kusu ‘ as to whether someone was a Burgher or not may be a cricketer or even a celebrity . That was a shock to me and as a Sinhalese who grew up at Galle educated at Sacred Heart Convent being in the hostel with a majority of Burgher students .. This petty behaviour was indeed part of the trauma of migration . But I have adapted and take it all as pigeon among the cats ha!I am Proud of my husbands name and also proud I am a SriLankan of Sinhala oroigin . As an African Nigerian writer said recently -one story does not make it a national experience .

    • Very well said, Ms. Deena. Fortunately, I have never had to face such a situation within Italy where by current count Lankan immigrants count more than seven thousand and Burghers like me may count less than a hundred families (my random guess only).

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