Ballhatchet on the Colebrooke-Cameron Papers

Kenneth Ballhatchet, from Bulletin of the School of Oriental & African Studies, [??] pp 407-08  reviewing G. C. MENDIS (ed.): The Colebrooke Cameron Papers: Documents on British Colonial Policy in Ceylon, 1796 -1833. 2 vols: lxv, 404 pp.; ix.116pp. London: Geoffrey Cumberlege, Oxford University Press, Indian Branch,1956.

Though all history may not be the history of ideas, even the closest followers of the Namier tradition in historical writing would hardly deny that there have been movements of thought which have strongly influenced the world of action. But unless philosophers are kings, or at least civil servants, historians will often find it a difficult if also a challenging task to establish connections between philosophies of life and policies of governments.

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The Colebrooke reforms in Ceylon provide a classic example of the application of the Utilitarian ideas to administrative, social, and economic problems. Thus the reports of the two Commissioners, W.M.G. Colebrooke and C. H. Cameron, criticised the unchecked powers of the Governor, the absence of a Legislative Council, the system of forced labour, the cinnamon monopoly, inequalities of taxation, the complexity of the judicial system, the expense of litigation, and the persistence of caste and racial distinctions in the administrative system. The reforms which they proposed were in similar accord with Utilitarian Ideas, and have been of fundamental importance in the subsequent history of Ceylon. Their reports are therefore of considerable value both as evidence of conditions in Ceylon at that time and also for the light which they throw upon the ideas of the reformers.

Besides the actual reports the two volumes under review include not only the dispatches in which the Secretary of State  told the Ceylon Government how to carry out the Commissioners’ recommendations, but also a number of important documents relating to previous British policy in Ceylon. These set the reforms in their historical context. Not all the documents are of equal significance, and some would have gained from further editorial comment: for example, a proclamation of 1800 levying a tax is on ‘joys’ is followed by a note to the effect that this tax ‘has ceased to be enforced’, but we are not told when this note when this note was added, or by whom.

Dr. Mendis has added a lucid introduction and a useful index. These volumes will long remain of major importance to students of the history of Ceylon; they will also be of interest to students of British policy in India and elsewhere.

 A NOTE: Together with  CH Philips Kenneth Ballhatchet was one of the doyens of South Asian Studies at the University of London in the 1950s and 1960s. They would have been intimately connected with the labours that went into the production of  The Colebrooke-Cameron Papers. From family lore conveyed by Sita Pieris nee Mendis it is evident that they had sustained a long friendship with Dr. GC Mendis and visited him if and when they visited Ceylon. Ballhatchet was the quintessential British scholar: quiet,  unassuming, dedicated and soft-spoken. He was one of my examiners when I submitted a D. Phil thesis at Oxford. Both in physical appearance and demeanour he seemed to me the antitheses of an individual traipsing among the courtesans of monarchs in past luxurious time. But that is what his magnum opus is about. It is something of  a surprise that I have not been able to locate a Wikipedia biographical note on the man and no trace of any pictorial image. He would be delighted I am sure, but the generations that live today and in the future are missing a beat. Michael Roberts

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One response to “Ballhatchet on the Colebrooke-Cameron Papers

  1. John Rogers

    I first studied South Asian history in the academic year 1978-79 through a course on “Aspects of the Social History of South Asia,” taught by Ballhatchet at SOAS as one component of the Area Studies (South Asia) M.A. degree offered by the University of London. I recall that one week we focussed on the Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms. The assigned readings included not only the documents edited by Mendis, but a number of articles published in Sri Lanka, which took varying positions on the reforms. The course that year covered two other topics on Ceylon — the unrest of 1848, and the 1915 violence against Muslims.

    Ballhatchet spent a year teaching at the University of Ceylon (then in Colombo, this was before Peradeniya opened) in the academic year 1948-49 (or possibly one year earlier). He must have met Mendis then. Though Ballhatchet supervised many PhD theses on Sri Lanka, beginning with K.M. de Silva’s in the 1950s and ending with K.M.P. Kulasekera’s, which was submitted in 1984, he did not go to Sri Lanka again until the 1970s, when he made two visits.

    I remember him particularly for his very dry sense of humor, often delivered in a mumble, so one had to listen carefully to catch it. He was also keen on irony. It is indeed a pity that no photograph seems to be available. As you say, given the self-effacing side of his personality he might well have been pleased that no image is available even in this age when we are bombarded by images shared through social media. On the other hand, Ballhatchet was very keen on preserving records of the past, and tracked down many photos of individuals for his Race, Class and Sex book. Thus he would likely approve of efforts now to track down such a photo.

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