People Inbetween: Ethnic and Class Prejudices in British Ceylon

 Michael Roberts, courtesy of The National Trust — see This is the elaborated and clarified text of a verbal presentation at the National Trust’s LECTURE SERIES in Colombo in late May 2015. I note here my appreciation of the National Trust for the manner in which it fosters interest in the history and culture of the land.

The National Trust’s brief was for me to present motifs from the book People Inbetween. The Burghers and the Middle Class in the Transformations within Sri Lanka, 1790-1960s, (Ratmalana, Sarvodaya Book Publishing Services, 1989) and more specifically its first chapter viz. “Pejorative Phrases: the Anti-colonial Response and Sinhala Perceptions of the Self through Images of the Burghers .” LORENZ

Many think People Inbetween is a history of the Burghers. Not so. It is multi-faceted. It describes (a) the rise of the middle class in British times, an influential force within which the Burghers were a critical element and a vanguard in the questioning of British rule; (b) the initial strands in the development of Ceylonese nationalism and (c) the development of Colombo into a metropolitan hub that became the island’s hegemonic centre. The latter theme, namely, the emphasis on Colombo’s centricity, is often forgotten or missed in commentary on the book. That is why I have presented three illustrations from the many appendages in the book that provide a glimpse of this centrality, namely, a map of the internal migration to Colombo locality seen in the 1971 census and a distilled table showing the distribution of tenement owners in the municipal area of the city as it was constituted in 1868 (merely a tithe of the data in the book). See Figures 1, 2 and 3 ….= For the moment in see

The economic and political domination of the island that reposed in Colombo was compounded by the fact that it was the symbolic centre of cultural fashion (e. g. in the style of architecture for mansions) and the island’s ideological command post, both facets that were exercised in part through the considerable influence of English-media newspapers. Since the Burghers were seven per cent of the city’s population even as late as 1911 and a powerful component in the middle class in the decades leading up to that point, one can see why they figure so prominently in the explorations within People Inbetween.

The rise of the local middle class interlaced with capitalist modernization in the 19th century-and-thereafter, with the British road/rail transport network and the expansion of coffee plantations in the Central Highlands forming the keystones for economic growth and exploitation. The British also instituted a new bureaucratic order, one integral to the state form that was being moulded in Europe at the same stage. English was the media of state administration. Able to pick up English quickly and located in key urban centres, the small Burgher population profited from the channels of educational advancement that opened up in the 19th century and filled intermediary roles in the administration, while also providing a significant number of schoolteachers in towns.

Education brought the intellectual currents of Europe to the small corpus constituted by the English-proficient middle class in the early-mid 19th century. A few Burghers (Charles Ambrose Lorenz, George and Frederick Nell, John Prins and Charles Ferdinands) got together and launched an erudite literary magazine called Young Ceylon in 1850-52 – a display of burgeoning talent and an outstanding testimony to the influence within this circle of the Romantic Movement in Europe. See Figures 4 and 5.

4 =Young Ceylon Drivers

5=Young Ceylon cover

The political edge motivating these men was more explicit in the anonymous work by “Henry Candidus” (probably Lorenz) published in 1853 and thereafter in the marshaling of effort in 1859 to purchase an English newspaper – the Ceylon Examiner –so as to provide a critical voice directed towards keeping the (autocratic) colonial government on its toes. See Figure 6.

Note the opening lines in Candidus’s “Preface’: “The educated amongst the Natives (including Burghers) are far from being satisfied with the government under which they live. …. They feel in many respects that England in many respects is wanting in her duty to them. If there is one thing more than another which Young India and Young Ceylon laments, it is the absence of Patriotism and the existence of utter indifference to freedom among their countrymen.”[i]

Such strands of activity and the initial, muted challenges[ii] directed at the British belief in their racial superiority are among the details pursued in the body of the book. At the same time, however, the underlying context in which such threads of development occurred is set out in the first chapter, namely, “Pejorative Phrases.” This chapter explores and elaborates upon (1) the complex threads of class differentiation within the ethnic groups that constituted Ceylon’s social order and (2) the lines of ethnic differentiation that persisted at the same time. Disparaging epithets are the chief medium for these explorations.

The Britons in Ceylon were stratified. The gentry-class made up of the Civil Servants and other public servants, the leading businessmen and planters kept aloof from the petty functionaries such as the shop assistants (called “shoppies”) at places in Cargills and the railway functionaries of various types. The Burghers themselves were sharply divided in the 19th century — with the differentiation being imprinted in the terminology “front door Burghers” and “back door Burghers.” Both in English and Sinhalese this line of class difference was embodied in the distinction between the (respectable) “Lansi” and the not-so-respectable “Tupass.”

The latter term Tupass (also written as Topaz) was a carry-over from the period of Dutch rule, where the racially conscious Dutch gentry had adopted a term emanating from the sea lanes of the preceding Portuguese Empire in the Indian Ocean, namely, Topaz and Tupass – used to delineate Native Christians and others who were go-betweens as well as the progeny of mixed marriages/liaisons[iii] — to differentiate the Portuguese descendants in the Maritime Provinces from the Dutch ruling classes. This differentiation was further underlined by the use of the Dutch epithet kakkerlak to disparage these people, people who were usually darker-skinned.[iv]

In time, however, that very epithet, translated into Sinhala as kärapottā (or kärapoththā), became widely used over the British period in English argot as well as Sinhala badinage to depict all Burghers. This usage is clarified in People Inbetween through ethnographic explorations as well as documentary illustrations which pinpoint the mix of banter and abuse in the incidents and contexts of usage. So, this specific theme is also a tale of poetic justice insofar as racial prejudice enveloped the original Dutch wielders of prejudice in their own coinage.

The use of kärapotta and kärapotu lansi as pejoratives is ­placed alongside a whole battery of epithets in the Sinhala-world which depicted the invading forces from Europe and abroad from the sixteenth century onwards: notably, parangi[v] and tuppahi. Such terminology was accentuated when a speaker/writer added the inflection to constitute the epithets as tuppahiyā, kärapotu lansiyā or lansiyā …… or worse still as para lansiyā (low and alien Burgher). In effect, such terminology placed the European peoples and their progeny outside the valued native dispensation of the Sinhalese.

This was a reading of the European imperial impact rooted in the war poems of the Portuguese period (but also embodied in the Ingrīsi Hatana describing the war of the people of Sīhalē[vi] against the invading English armies in 1803).[vii] Thus, the stock of epithets lead us to a distilled understanding of Sinhalese nationalism in the British period, a form of nativism that embodied a cultural bedrock at the same time that it served as an expressive weapon of the downtrodden.

It was a weapon of the underprivileged (Sinhala) classes because it was also a response to the widespread tendency among the emerging middle classes in British Ceylon, whether Sinhala, Burgher or other, to depict the rural masses as yakoes and godayās (that is, rustics without knowledge – meaning English-media knowledge). Thus, the abusive terms para lansiyā and thuppahiyā cannot be comprehended without attention to such terms as godayā and yako. The former were counter thrusts. Figures 7 and 8 present the charts deployed in People Inbetween to depict these counter-thrusts constituted by two interlacing strands, those of Sinhalese indigenism and Sinhalese nationalism. The two charts, in fact, serve as a distillation of the theses in my first chapter “Pejorative Phrases.” Figures 7 and 8 here


8=CHART 2--Inside vs Outside

The fuller comprehension of these charts, however, demands close attention to the detailed clarification of the strands of Sinhala nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th century within that chapter. These strands were also multi-faceted. One major thread was the movement for the rejuvenation of Buddhism in the face of Christian missionary proselytization-cum-denigration.[viii] Another was the fight to prevent the cultural degeneration of the Sinhala people in the face of Western lifeways – in brief the attack on Westernization.

Though the influence of Anagarika Dharmapala must feature in any account of these inter-related strands, in “Pejorative Phrases” the principal medium for a comprehension of this corpus of thinking is the work of Piyadasa Sirisena (featured in Figure 9).

9=Piyadasa Sirisena.tif

Sirisena (1875-1946) was not a simple traditionalist: he was a pioneer in popularizing a new feature, the romantic love story in Sinhala novel, a new medium catering, as Sarath Amunugama has shown (1979), to the emerging lower-middle classes and bourgeoisie.

“Pejorative Phrases” dissects Sirisena’s first three novels in particular, namely, Jayatissa saha Roslin (1906), Maha Viyavula (1909) and Apata Vecca De (1909). Note that Jayatissa saha Roslin had been reprinted as a fifth edition by 1916. Indeed, it was claimed that 25,000 copies had been sold up to that date. Moreover, his novels were regularly reprinted by his son or the firm of MD Gunasena & Co right through into the 1960s.  A typical plot in Sirisena’s novel sees a Sinhalese lad or girl misled by a Burgher girl or man, losing contact with parental home and ending up dissolute and poor, sometimes in the occupation sapaththu-kāra, that is, as shoemaker, a most despicable trade in the caste-thinking of the Indian subcontinent.

Sirisena’s literature seeks to protect four concepts: the jātiya (race, nation); āgama or gunadharma (religion, virtues), sirit virit and kulaya (traditional practices inclusive of caste distinctions) and bhāshava (language).[ix]  Thus, among the several motifs his novels present the following equation: mixed bloods (samkara) = unclean (apirisidu, nīca) = unstable and fickle (chapala). In opposition, to be Arya Sinhala was to be pure and the epitome of virtue, stability and order.

Here, then, in Sirisena’ thinking one finds the imprint of the either/or epistemology etched into Western thought with its sharp, racialized distinctions between “Aryan” and “Dravidian” or White distinct from Black. But, here in British Ceylon among the Sinhalese, such racialized differentiation was also mapped unto caste. That is, the indigenous caste ideology was meshed with racial differentiation. This was a deadly cocktail.

As noted in “Pejorative Phrases” (1989: 19), “it is not [the argument] that when a non-Burgher speaker uses one of these [epithets] in abusive intent, he/she is necessarily bringing in all the associations into focus. It is sufficient that we point to the cultural logic and the principles which order the use of such terms of disparagement. … The Burghers stood for defiling impurity, for disorder. They were, therefore, samkara, para, thuppahi, pahat, nīca, vanacara, gättara and nosandala” (1989: 19).

The impact of such lines of thought was all the more profound because Sirisena was also a political activist. For one, he edited the Sarasavi Sandaräsa for quite some time. For another, he was an activist in the temperance movement and participated as an outreach campaigner for the Central Total Abstinence Society during that association’s protest activities in the period 1912-15. He was a member of the Ceylon National Congress and was tasked with moving the resolution in September 1919 which gave the Lanka Mahajana Sabhā its name (Roberts 1994b: 307). The latter, significantly, was an instrument sponsored by F. R. Senanayake. It is likely that Sirisena’s activism extended into the endeavours of the association known as theAll-Ceylon Village Committees of the 1920s and even possibly that of the Sinhala Maha Sabhā from 1936, but that is uncharted territory. A fuller comprehension of the probable interplay between different generations of Sinhala-speaking activists stretching from the 1880s to the 1950s can be gleaned from the data presented in my article “The 1956 generations: after and before” (Roberts 1994).

Our living generations today have enough older cohorts who can attest to the power of the motifs identified in “Pejorative Phrases” in the electoral politics of the 1940s to 1960s. In 1956 in particular the epithet thuppahi was a powerful weapon in the demagogic speeches mounted by the rhetoricians of the Mahajana Eksat Peramuna, notably Professor W. S. Karunaratne, Philip Gunawardena and L. H. Mettānanda, during the election campaign that brought this coalition to power in 1956. “Thuppahi” at this stage embraced all the Westernized elements in Sri Lanka, whether Burgher, Sinhala, Tamil or Colombo Chetty. As thuppahi, they were paradēsakkēra, natives who had become alien – deserving the trampling act directed against kärapottu. Epithet and lampoon are powerful political tools.

Underlying all this then is a semantic structure that pits Insider against Outsider (Figure 8 presenting Chart Two). This is a basic coding system in the caste dispensation of South Asia. In Sri Lanka it appears to have been turned into a vessel of ethnic essentialism as denoted in the term “a-sinhala” or un-Sinhala (literally outside Sinhala).[x]  In this subterranean coding the thinking mapped unto a segmentary structure in Sinhala-linguistic forms which enabled native-speakers to deploy the term pita minissu in a series of concentric meanings that worked like a Chinese-box.[xi] Given such modalities of thought, it was feasible for a Sinhala nativist to value the Sinhalese of the rata (interior) as superior to those of the tota (port) because the latter had become Westernized and/or mixed – and thus mixed up and apirisidu. Roslin was a suitable love-match for Jayatissa because she was rata not tota (Roberts et al, People Inbetween, 1989: 19-20).

So, in this argument in “Pejorative Phrases,” the pattern etched in Figure 7 (Chart One) interlaces with, and supports, those embodied in Figure 8 (Chart Two). This is thinking reposing below the surface, working insidiously and yet powerfully. Amen.


[i] Henry Candidus, “A Desultory Conversation between Two Young Aristocratic Ceylonese,” in Michael Roberts (ed.) Sri Lanka. Collective Identities Revisited, Vol. II. Colombo, Marga, 1998, pp. 1-2.

[ii] One arena of challenge was the sports field, both at athletic gymkhanas and at cricket. Thus, in May 1887 the local “Ceylonese” took on the local “Europeans” in a “Test Match” on the cricket (which the Europeans won). This became an annual encounter. In 1887, significantly, the eleven players representing the Ceylonese were all Burghers, mostly from the Colts Cricket Club located in one of the Burgher heartlands, namely the Pettah. See S. P. Foenander, Sixty Years of Ceylon Cricket, Colombo, 1924, pp. 158 & 167 and Roberts et al, People Inbetween, 1989, pp. 121-22.

[iii] See Yule & Burnell, Hobson-Jobson, 1886 and Roberts et al, People Inbetween, 1989, pp. 7, 8, 17-18, 35-43, 48-49, 140-47, 199-200, 212.

[iv] Roberts et al, People Inbetween, 1989, pp. 8, 41.

[v] Parangi referred to the Portuguese, but was also a term utilized to describe a syphilitic disease, one that some Sinhalese understood to be a suffering introduced by the Portuguese and/or foreigners.

[vi] This term Sīhalē is the proper designation for what we refer to nowadays, following British usage, as the “Kingdom of Kandy.” In most contexts of usage in the medieval and ancient periods Sīhalē (and its synonyms) denoted the whole island, the practice being sustained by the fact that the Dutch accepted their designation of being His Majesty’s guardians of the coast. This may seem to us a fiction. But that is to impose a 21st century perspective and a failure to grasp the state form of “tributary overlordship” (Roberts, 2004: 59-63, 70, 75-84, 86-87, 123-24). Note that there other synonyms for Sīhalē: Sīhalaya, Tunsinhalaya, Heladiv, et cetera. The concept and practice of solosmasthāna also sustained the all-island perspective enshrined in this nomenclature.

[vii] In People Inbetween this aspect is only touched on briefly – using Chandra R de Silva’s short article in 1983. However, a considerable clarification is provided in chapter 6 of Roberts, Sinhala Consciousness (2004) on the basis of a detailed study of the war poems (hatan kavi) with the aid of such specialists as Ananda Wakkumbura, Paul E. Pieris, Sandadas Coperahewa, PB Meegaskumbura, Srinath Ganewatte and KBA Edmund.

[viii] See Malalgoda 1973 &1976 and Wickremeratne 1969.

[ix] The influence of the model of “triple gem’ is such that Sirisena usually presented these four motifs in clusters of three – with one dropped.

[x] See Cyril Mathew, Sinhalayāgē Adisi Saturā, Galle, 1970 and Roberts et al, People Inbetween, 1989, 19-21.

[xi] The concept “segmentary structure” is clarified in fuller fashion in Roberts, Sinhala Consciousness, 2004: 17, 30-33, 136ff. Also see E.E. Evans-Pritchard, The Nuer, 1940. It is clarified in a lucid and simple manner in the Bedouin saying: “I, my brother and my cousins against the world, I and my brother against my cousins, I against my brother.”


Amunugama, Sarath 1979 “Ideology and class interest in one of Piyadasa Siris­ena’s novels: the new image of the “Sinhala Buddhist” nationalist,” in M Roberts (ed.) Collective identities, nationalisms and protest in modern Sri Lanka, Colombo:: Marga Institute, pp. 314-36

Barnett, L. D. 1916 “Alphabetical guide to Sinhalese folklore from ballad sources,” Indian Antiquary 45: 1-116.

Evans-Pritchard, E E. 1940 The Nuer. A description of the modes of livelihood and political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

De Silva, C. R. 1983 “The historiography of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka. A survey of the Sinhala writings,” Samskrti 17: 13-22.

Dewaraja, Lorna S 1988 The Kandyan Kingdom of Sri Lanka, 1707-1792, Colombo: Lake House Investments Ltd.

Dharmadasa, K. N. O. 1978 “The ideological pinnacle of Sinhalese language nationalism, Part I: Cumaranatunga and the Hela identity,” Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies 8: 1-16.

Dharmapala, Anagarika 1965 Return to righteousness, (ed. by A Guruge) Colombo: Ministry of Education & Cultural Affairs.

Foenander, S. P. 1924 Sixty years of Ceylon cricket. Colombo: The cEylon advertsisng & General Publicity Co.

Godakumbura, C E 1955 Sinhalese literature, Colombo: Colombo Apothecaries’ Co. Ltd.

Henry Candidus 1998 “A desultory conversation between two young aristocratic Ceylonese,” in Michael Roberts (ed.) Sri Lanka. Collective Identities Revisited, Vol. II. Colombo, Marga, 1998, pp. 000 Originally printed in 1853.

Malalgoda, Kitsiri 1973 “The Buddhist-Christian confrontation in Ceylon, 1800-1880,” Social Compass, XX: 171-200.

Malalgoda, Kitsiri 1976 Buddhism in Sinhalese society, 1750-1900, Berkeley, University of California Press.

Obeyesekere, Gananath 1979 “The vicissitudes of the Sinhala-Buddhist identity through time and change,” in M Roberts (ed.) Collective identities, nationalisms and protest in modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Institute, pp. 279-313.

Pieris, Paul E. 1949-50 Sinhale and the patriots, 1815-1818, Colombo: Colombo Apothecaries’ Co. Ltd.

Police Inquiry Commission 1916 “Report of a Commission appointed by H.E. the Governor to inquire into the organization of the police.,” being Sessional Paper XVI of 1916, Colombo: Government Printers.

Roberts, Michael 1972 “Variations on the theme of resistance movements: The Kandyan rebellion of 1817-18 and latter-day nationalisms in Ceylon,” Ceylon Studies Seminar, 1970-71 series, No. 10, 5 October 1971.

Roberts, Michael 1979a “Meanderings in the pathways of collective identity and nationalism,” in M Roberts (ed.) Collective identities, nationalisms and protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Institute, pp. 1-96.

Roberts, Michael 1979b ‘Elite formation and elites, 1832-1931′, in M Roberts (ed.) Collective identities, nationalisms and protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Institute, pp. 153-213.

Roberts, Michael 1989a “A tale of resistance: the story of the arrival of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka,” Ethnos 55: 69-82.

Roberts, Michael 1989b “The political antecedents of the revivalist elite within the MEP coalition of 1956,” in C R de Silva and Sirima Kiribamune (eds) K. W. Goonewardena Felicitation Volume, Peradeniya University, pp. 185-220.

Roberts, Michael 1994 “Mentalities: ideologues, assailants, historians and the pogrom against the Moors in 1915,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, chapter 8, pp. 183-212 – also reprinted in Confrontations in Sri Lanka, Colombo, Yapa, 2010.

Roberts, Michael 1994 “The 1956 generations: after and before,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, chapter 12, pp. 297-314 (originally presented as the GC Mendis Memorial Lecture, 1981).

Roberts, Michael, Raheem, Ismeth and Colin-Thome, Percy 1989 People inbetween, Vol. I, The Burghers and the middle class in the transformations within Sri Lanka, 1790s-1960s, Ratmalana: Sarvodaya Book Publishing Services.

Suraweera, A. V. 1965 Alakēsvara yuddhaya, Colombo: Ratna Pot Prakasakayo.

Tennekoon, Serena 1990 “Newspaper nationalism: Sinhala identity as historical discourse,” in J Spencer (ed.) Sri Lanka.  History and the roots of conflict, London: Routledge, pp. 205-26.

Wickremeratne, L A 1969 “Religion, nationalism and social change in Ceylon, 1865-1885,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, GB & I, LVI: 123-50.


Filed under British colonialism, cultural transmission, disparagement, economic processes, ethnicity, heritage, historical interpretation, island economy, life stories, modernity & modernization, politIcal discourse, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, world affairs

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