Ethnicity in Riposte at a Cricket Match: The Past for the Present 

 Michael Roberts,  a reprint of an article  published originally in Comparative Studies in Society and History 1985, vol. 27: 401-429.  which is also available in in M. Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, (Harwood Academic Publishers, 1994). **

      I. PRELUDE

Some recent essays on the relationship between history on the one hand and anthropology and/or sociology on the other concentrate on the differences in the material with which the typical practitioner deals and the types of issues likely to be addressed (Thompson 1972, 1976, 1977; Davis 1981). They have tended to compare the perspectives that anthropologists[1] and historians bring into their work. And both E. P. Thompson and Natalie Z. Davis advocate increasing mutual borrowing from each discipline: they wish the one discipline to deepen its sensitivity and to avoid the usual pitfalls by drawing on the strengths of the other. Thus, by way of illustration, one finds Thompson arguing that historians tend to be more attentive to the paradoxes and ambivalences of actual men, and that they are attuned to the discipline of context because of this attentiveness to heterogeneity, a strength which sociologists[2]—who, he says, tend to overgeneralize and to swallow heterogeneity through the manufacture of neat typologies—would be well advised to draw upon (1976: 387,394).

Placing herself firmly in the category “historian,” Davis affirms that anthropology has reinforced her sense “of the varieties of human experience,” and she sums up her gains thus: [There] are sets of relationships that one is continually looking for, but evolutionary schemes do not necessarily hold. Markets do not always drive out gifts, centers do not always eliminate particular localities, and history does not always replace myth. Anthropology can widen the possibilities, can help us take off our blinders, and give us a new place from which to view the past and discover the strange and surprising in the familiar landscape of historical texts” (1981: 275).

Thompson’s position is explicitly the same: “For us [Keith Thomas, Natalie Davis, and himself), the anthropological impulse is chiefly felt, not in model-building, but in locating new problems, in seeing old problems in new ways, in an emphasis upon norms or value-systems and upon rituals, in attention to expressive functions of forms of riot and disturbance, and upon symbolic expressions of authority, control and hegemony” (1977: 248; cf. Cohn 1980: 216-18).

In sum, then, Thompson and Davis call upon the practitioners of each craft to be sensitive to each other and to fertilize their work through selective borrowings —a proclamation which had been anticipated earlier by the anthropologist I. M. Lewis (1965).

Although it may be possible to quibble with some of the characterizations essayed by Davis and Thompson, that is not my purpose today. I wish rather to pursue a different, albeit related and overlapping, angle of vision: the question of the relationship between the past and the present within a specific contemporary study. That is, I take it that the archetypical anthropologists will be studying contemporary events and processes, and then ask what history can do for them and to what extent history is relevant for their studies?

In British anthropology for many years before the 1950s, there was, as we know, extreme hostility to history and an overwhelming emphasis on synchronic studies. These leanings were inspired by the guiding influence of B. Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. The latter appears to have had a rather simple and positivist faith in the veracities of written history, for such a perspective must surely have underwritten the cavalier manner in which he dismissed the history of “the native societies of Africa” because they lacked a recorded (and written) history (1965: 104,3).

In pursuing these approaches, British social anthropology was flying in the face of opposing conclusions reached by illustrious scholars, both preceding and contemporaneous. Auguste Comte had concluded that it was “the diachronic laws which must first be established for they alone [could] validate the synchronic laws” (quoted in Evans-Pritchard 1961: 2); and in 1936 F. Boas, in common-sense fashion, had observed that an understanding of a complex phenomenon required one “to know not only what it is, but also how it came into being” (1936: 137). And Claude Lévi-Strauss was telling contemporaries that “historical development alone permits us to weigh and to evaluate in their respective relations the elements of the present” (quoted in Evans-Pritchard 1961: 11). Having exemplified this approach in his practice,[3] it was appropriate that E. E. Evans-Pritchard should launch a counterattack and affirm that we could analyse a society only when we viewed it “not only in the present but also retrospectively” (1961: 11; 1950). Further, I. M. Lewis reiterated this perspective by supporting R. G. Collingwood’s dictum that the past is encapsulated in the present and extending it through the contention that “the structure of the present is not fully revealed without reference to its development over time” (Lewis 1965: xviii; see also M. G. Smith 1962; Cohn 1980).

Since the 1950s the old confidences of a Radcliffe-Brown have been severely undermined. Nevertheless, it is still true that several anthropological studies tend to treat the past in cursory introductions and do not incorporate it into their subsequent presentations. The synchronic bias is perhaps even more pronounced in sociology and political science, especially in those tertiary educational institutions influenced by the “behavioural science” traditions of the United States. This approach can be described as the curtain-raiser perspective in which the past, insofar as it is taken into account, appears at the start and is forgotten during the rest of the story.

In opposition to such living misdirection, this article is informed by the hallowed counterpoint affirmed by Boas and Evans-Pritchard, among others: namely, that any presentation of the present can be the more sharply etched if it is outlined and organised in terms of its emergence from the past. It attempts to establish this case in the analysis of an ethnographic incident of the sort which would attract an anthropological field worker or political scientist.

This incident occurred at one of the one-day 45 over cricket matches between Sri Lanka and an Australian side on 3 May 1981. It was recorded by me as interpretative reportage that same evening. That record, with only minor refinements in language and some footnote clarification, constitutes the next part of this essay and stands as a text which demands interpretation and as a peg upon which I will hang my theses.


Scene: Sri Lankan side vs. an Australian side: 45 overs limited-over game.

Sinhalese Sports Club grounds, 3 May 1981, afternoon session.

One-storey reserved section, choc-a-bloc with people by this hour.

Cast: Laddie. A youngish man (late twenties) from Sri Lanka, seated on the floor on the first floor with legs hanging over, accompanied by an even younger, fair lad and a heavily made-up, mod girl.

Sinha. A short darkish man, also Sri Lankan, probably in his mid-thirties, on the ground below, and dressed reasonably well in trousers, shirt, and moccasins.

Rodney Hogg. A member of the Australian cricket team.

 Hogg in action   Warnapura batting in the 1970s (he scored 106 in this match at the SSC)

Background. Hogg had bowled a couple of bouncers at the opening batsmen during his first spell and was mildly barracked by individuals (not collectively) when he fielded in the deep fine leg or deep square leg region.[4] I am reliably informed (by my daughter) that Hogg even told some of the crowd to “fuck off.”

Laddie was not only a compulsive talker with a grating and irritating voice, he was an exhibitionist who delighted in attempting to chide, abuse, or tease others standing in the crowd below, directing comments not only at those he knew personally, but at strangers as well (e.g., a fat, bearded drunk who was occasionally performing a baila-style hula-hula). Throughout, Laddie’s teasing and abuse was also directed at the Australians in general, e.g., “Aussies go home,” “Why don’t you play marbles.”

Laddie was also prone to describe the Sri Lankan team’s performances (they had dismissed the Australians for 188 and the opening batsmen were, during the afternoon, in the process of making over 150 runs in unbroken partnership) as ‘fantastic,” a comment he sometimes directed at Rodney Hogg.

Prologue to the Incident. When Hogg was fielding at deep fine leg on the lines immediately below Laddie, during and after his second spell of bowling,[5] Laddie turned his attention to Hogg and began a long series of comments, some of them, to my mind anyway, quite inane and childish.

Early in this period Sinha, who was on the ground below among the spectators seated on the grass immediately before the makeshift stands, moved a few feet forward and just behind Hogg. He quietly chatted with Hogg whenever he was on the lines. Sinha even threw some chewing gum to Hogg, who, after some hesitation, accepted it and thereafter chatted more freely with him. This chewing gum incident prompted Laddie to turn his attention to Sinha, partly in a teasing way and partly in matter-of-fact conversation. An exchange (in the English language, as was all the conversation recorded here) ran on these lines:

Laddie. “So, you would like to go to Australia?”

Sinha, (Very positively, and looking directly at Laddie) “I would not mind.”

After a few exchanges, Laddie directed his attention elsewhere and sought a cigarette, whereupon Sinha turned around, offered some, and then threw him an opened packet. A little later he asked for the packet (less one) to be returned. Laddie first threw back one cigarette, but eventually returned the packet.

The Incident. Laddie’s barracking eventually got on Hogg’s nerves. He turned round, looked up, and said, “Why don’t you shut up! Give it a break!” (Verily, reasonable words, and extremely mild ones for an Aussie!) At this, Sinha, too, stood up, shook his finger at Laddie, and advised him, without abusive language, to call it off.

Laddie remained undaunted. With the supporting laughter of his two companions, he continued his chatter about the Australians, although he did ease up on Hogg. And during an interruption, he looked down at Sinha, remarking that he had befriended the Australians. He then wanted to know what Sinha was (I regret that I did not catch his exact words), the implication being that Sinha lacked patriotism. Whereupon Sinha looked up, and staring long, hard, and directly at Laddie, said, “I am a Sinhalese,” and pointed to his chest in affirmation. Laddie then said, “Let’s not go into that,” and left Sinha alone after that.

The meaning of this incident arises out of the fact that, to me or any other Sri Lankan, Laddie looked a Burgher, a Lansiyā,[6] and, flanked as he was by two comrades who were also “Burgher types,” would automatically be classified as Burgher. So what Sinha had said, in effect, was, “Who are you, Lansi putā,[7]  to question my patriotism?”


This ethnic exchange is illuminating. During its course, a transformation occurred. In one stroke, an attacker was pushed onto the defensive. An offensive, meddling person was verbally overthrown by a polite, friendly person. The critical weapon in achieving this transformation was the sentence, “I am a Sinhalese.” That short, sharp remark effectively wrapped up[8] the issue in Sinha’s favour. It was a highly charged and expressive statement which addressed a specific universe of meaning, a specific cultural and political order. It conveyed powerful messages to the people in that universe—in this instance, to Laddie, to his companions, to Michael Roberts, and to other Sri Lankans within earshot. The sentence, “I am a Sinhalese,” would not have carried the same range of understandings for aliens to this universe.[9]

The full understanding of this incident, then, demands what Thompson has described as “the discipline of context” (though, contra Thompson, I argue that such a discipline is a trademark of both good anthropology and good history).[10] In providing such a context and in analysing the incident, several lines of elaboration are, in principle, feasible. In delineating several possibilities, including pathways which I will not be able to follow, I seek to clarify my restricted goals.

One line of analysis would be to treat this incident as a point of departure for a survey of cultural reproduction among the Sinhala people of historical understandings of the Sri Lankan polity and its ethnic groups. Thus, if such an incident had occurred in the “typical” rural field situation of an anthropologist, the investigation could take the following path. The analyst would describe the lullabies, the rituals, the schooling process, the content of school textbooks, the political campaigns at the grass roots, the media presentations, etcetera, to which the children of Sinha’s generation were exposed, and would also interweave into this account actual incidents from Sinha’s life, either as apt illustration or as a means of analytic abstraction through the extended-case method (Turner 1957; Van Velsen 1967). In this way, the analyst could delineate the principal strands of contemporary Sinhala opinion regarding the polity and its past. Above all, through in-depth interviews[11] — here, with both Sinha and Laddie—the analyst could elaborate upon their respective perceptions and, in particular, link Sinha’s perceptions to the processes of cultural production, preferably with some attention to class background and class relations. In short, one could focus on Sinhala understandings of their history and the processes by which these perceptions are produced and transmitted.

However, Sinha and Laddie were strangers to one another and also to me. I did not choose to pursue them to their homes and undertake an investigation on such lines. That avenue of elaboration is now closed. This circumstance also rules out that form of situational analysis which is known as the extended-case method, viz., where “one seeks interconnected cases within a small area involving a limited number of dramatis personae” so as to discern “the way in which individuals actually handle their structural relationships and exploit the element of choice between alternative norms according to the requirements of any particular situation” (Van Velsen 1967: 147, 148; … also Garbett 1970:215, 219).

There remains, however, the possibility of situational analysis of the type associated with Max Gluckman’s study of the ceremonial opening of a bridge in colonial Zululand (1958) or J. Clyde Mitchell’s (1956) treatment of the Kalela dance. Here, the analyst focuses on the “regularity of form” or the “regularities of behaviour” (Garbett 1970:216) in situations he has selected—situations which do not necessarily involve the same actors. A prerequisite for this type of situational analysis is the occurrence of a series of broadly similar or repetitive events within the same polity or social field.

Ethnic skirmishes and riots are not infrequent in contemporary Sri Lanka. Indeed, a Sinhala-Moor clash in late July 1982 in the town of Galle and its vicinity, which led to a handful of deaths and the burning of several dwellings, apparently developed out of a personal confrontation between a landlord and a tenant.[12] Incidents which attract notice are usually those which end in violence or which generate judicial arbitration; in this sense, the incident which I recorded is unusual, though it is my guess that the incidence of verbal confrontations of a muted, nonviolent type is more frequent than that of confrontations ending in violent ethnic conflict. It remains extremely doubtful whether the immediate circumstances or the emergent properties of such ethnic confrontations would be marked by the structured and repetitive patterns associated with colonial rituals or Kalela dances. However, this supposition cannot be put to the test as I do not at present have a number of ethnic incidents to subject to situational analysis.[13]

In the circumstances, I will seek to interpret the incident at the cricket match so as to underline the manner in which the imponderabilia of everyday transactions can utilise and portray deeply rooted historical perceptions, and in so doing, may contribute to the reformulation, reproduction, and transmission of these imprints from the past.

In the light of these messages, the analysis of the incident will be extended to include other reasons why students of contemporary events must pay more serious attention to the historical dimensions of these events. In this manner, I hope to emphasize the shortcomings of sociological studies of the Malinowskian genre as well as of those publications whose only concession to history is a curtain-raising genuflection. Such a programme demands a clarification of the background to the incident. I begin with a brief outline of the place of cricket in Sri Lankan history and then describe the structure of ethnic relations in some historical depth. This background is explicitly an analyst’s construction. It is tailored for strangers to the universe which Sinha was addressing. Its function is to provide such strangers with a glimmer of the past which Sinha rendered present.


Cricket was introduced into Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) by the British and appears to have been played from the 1830s (Foenander 1924: 1-6). The pioneer players were British soldiers, administrators, schoolmasters, and planters.

The Colombo Cricket Club (C.C.C.) was formed in 1863 and was located until 1894[14] at that symbolic colonial esplanade, the Galle Face Green, which was also the locale for official parades, evening promenades, and periodic race-meetings. The match between the C.C.C. and the Planters was the high point of the cricket scene and a social event in the culture of British Ceylon for several decades.

Cricket was part of the extracurricular activities of the English-language schools at urban centres. Together with soccer, hockey, and track and field sports, it was avidly taken up by the young men within the emerging indigenous “middle class”[15] of Sri Lanka and among the Burghers in particular. The first non-European cricket club in Colombo appears to have been launched by descendants of the Malay regiments, around 1871. This venture was soon followed by the Burghers in the elite suburb of Pettah when they formed the Colombo Colts Cricket Club in 1873—a club that achieved dominance in the cricketing world of British Ceylon in the last decades of the nineteenth century. In Colombo these two non-European clubs were eventually joined by the Nondescripts Cricket Club (1888), the Bloomfield Cricket and Athletic Club (ca. 1893), the Burgher Recreation Club (1896), the Sinhalese Sports Club (1899), the Tamil Union (1899), the Moors Sports Club (1908) and several other clubs that have since passed into oblivion.[16] At this stage, as a participant sport, cricket was largely confined to the towns along the southwestern coast, a few towns in the interior (such as Kandy), and the planters’ clubs.

In the colonial setting of Sri Lanka, the British gentlemen’s game of cricket helped induct the indigenous elites into the Westernised ways of their masters. Its success as a process of induction was linked with the dialectics of political opposition which the game supported. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it should be recalled, it was not feasible for indigenous peoples to challenge British rule in political terms. That would have been labelled seditious and provoked repression. Even the spirited resistance by individuals and associations of the Buddhist revitalisation movement against the bigoted endeavours of Christian evangelicals appears to have attracted careful monitoring by the government (Dharmapala 1965: liii—lxix; K. M. de Silva 1973b: 388-89). It was probably for this reason that certain nationalists latched onto the temperance idea preached by missionaries and then converted the temperance movement into an anti-Western, anti-government campaign in the 1900s and 1910s (Fernando 1971; Jayawardena 1972: 114-16, 142-45).

In this regard, then, the game of cricket was a convenient arena in which to comment on the social order. As Don Handelman has stressed, games, or “play” as a generic category that encompasses games, pranks, et cetera, are by definition unserious activity (1974: 67) and, as such, do not call for serious response. In actively taking up cricket as a form of recreation, the Burghers and other Sri Lankans were also able to take on the British at their own game without risking the charge of “sedition.” Competition inherent in games was proper, a jolly good show, legitimate.

In their everyday world, the Sri Lankans of middle class status were subject to institutions staffed mostly by British sahibs, and they encountered the racial prejudices and airs of superiority inscribed into the everyday practices of the British colonial lifestyle. They were mere “half-castes” or “natives.” In this context, the cricketing arena was liberating: an arena in which one’s autonomy could be expressed freely, one’s self-respect built up. It was not long—in 1888 in fact—before the Colts took on a combined team of European residents in a “test match.”[17] This became an annual fixture which was formally converted in 1905 into an “European-Ceylonese” match. Of the first twenty-one games, it is significant that the Sri Lankans won fifteen against four victories for the Europeans. By the 1920s the games had become increasingly one-sided. In 1929 the Europeans were ground into the dust when the Sri Lankan opening batsmen put on 186 runs, and their team declared at 401 for 4 wickets, while the Europeans could muster only 179 runs in their first innings; and in the following year the Europeans lost a low-scoring game by 6 wickets.[18] It appears that these test matches ceased after 1933.[19]

 Note the social composition of a section of the crowd depicted here watching the Australians play a Ceylon XI in 1938 during their whistle-stop match =

Note the enthusiasm of the crowd as Morris walks back in 1953 after losing his wicket at the Oval

In the early twentieth century, interest in cricket was probably restricted to certain segments of the middle class. By the 1940s, however, it was engaging the attention of some members of the working class[20] in urban centres and bazaar towns, in addition to ever greater numbers within that increasingly large body of people encompassed within the local concept of middle class. One medium for this extension of interest has been the playing of tennis-ball cricket in the streets or on vacant patches of ground. Another stimulus has been provided by the prominence given to schoolboy cricket in English language newspapers;[21] as increasing numbers attended schools following the expansion of the school system and the extension of vernacular education as the primary mode of teaching from the 1950s, more individuals from lower class backgrounds gained familiarity with the game.

Another force in the extension of Sri Lankan interest in cricket has been the radio commentary. For several decades, the English-language commentaries on international test matches had been avidly followed by the youth in urban centres, but in the late 1960s a landmark in Sri Lanka’s cricket history was established when the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation presented commentaries in the Sinhala language[22] on the Ananda-Nalanda big match. Ananda and Nalanda are schools located in Colombo, launched as “Buddhist schools” in the late nineteenth century. By the 1950s they had long been leading schools. In step with the nativist upsurge of the underprivileged which effected the political changes of 1956, Ananda and Nalanda succeeded in building up their annual cricket match into a celebratory festival to rival the other annual big matches in Colombo, those between Royal and St. Thomas’s Colleges and between St. Peter’s and St. Joseph’s. The Sinhala-language commentaries on the Ananda-Nalanda match were an outgrowth from this development, and this pioneering work permitted the Broadcasting Corporation to extend Sinhala commentaries to matches played by visiting international teams.

By the 1950s, if not earlier, therefore, the big matches in Colombo and its vicinity, in coastal towns (such as Negombo, Ambalangoda, and Matara), and in provincial centres (such as Kandy, Kurunegala, and Ratnapura) attracted large audiences which included some segments of the working class,[23] audiences whose interest was enhanced in certain cases by bets placed on the outcome of the matches. These big matches were, to be sure, restricted in most cases to the annual encounters between the premier schools in the particular town or city.

But in Colombo, Kandy, and Galle, these intracity games were augmented by matches played against visiting international teams. By the 1970s such visits were regular affairs extending over two or three weeks (in contrast to the whistle-stop matches of the Marylebourne Cricket Club (M.C.C.) or Australian sides travelling by ship to contest the Ashes (the legendary trophy awarded to the winners of the Australia-M.C.C. series), which was a feature of the era before 1967; in several instances, these visits from M.C.C. and West Indies teams occurred at the tail end of tours of India). In addition, schoolboy teams from India, Pakistan, and Australia have played series of matches in Sri Lanka—matches which also attract large crowds. Of these matches the limited-over one-day games invariably generate a packed house.

It is an index of the socio-political changes that have taken place in recent decades in Sri Lanka that at international matches the spirit of the crowd in the relatively expensive seats is markedly different from that usually met during the 1950s: though still good-tempered, the spectators are more partisan and their cheering more raucous and strident. A further indicator of change is the fact that these international matches can command the interest of waiters at a resthouse in the deep interior, some shanty dwellers, and even a female domestic servant.[24]

At all international matches played in Sri Lanka, both today and in the recent past, the identity evoked among onlookers has been that of “Ceylonese” or “Sri Lankan.” This overarching identity transcends internal divisions and encompasses Tamils, Sinhalese, Moors, Burghers, and Malays within one category. This perspective is in keeping with the definition of citizenship in the country,[25] and, as such, it represents a conception that is part of the body politic.

But since the late nineteenth century this transcendent Ceylonese identity has coexisted, in an increasingly uneasy and dialectical relationship, with an alternative viewpoint which treated (treats) Ceylonese and Sinhalese as synonymous and which subsumed (subsumes) the two labels into one identity (Roberts 1977). This orientation took root within the Buddhist revitalisation movement, notably in the statements of the Anagārika Dharmapāla (1965:501-18, 535, lvii….. see also Roberts 1977: lxxxi-lxxxiii; cf. Obeyesekere 1979; Amunugama 1979). It came to the fore in the 1950s and contributed towards critical political changes. These changes (discussed below) have established the Sinhalese, or Sinhala, in a position of hegemony. For all that, it would not be incorrect to say that the two variants of the concept “Ceylonese” or “Sri Lankan”—the transcendent and composite version on the one hand, and the Sri Lankan:Sinhalese equation on the other—coexist in an unresolved and conflictual way within the contemporary body politic (see Roberts 1978a). Yet, in the world of cricket, this antagonism is normally submerged—especially in the heat of opposition to visiting teams from other nations. In this sense, the cricket contest that provided the scenario for the incident which is the focus of this essay represented an abnormal order within the body politic of Sri Lanka.


Ever since at least A.D. 400, the Sinhala literati have displayed a chronologically organised historical consciousness and a vision of the Sinhalese—the Sinhala—as a people chosen to preserve the Buddhist doctrine, the Dhamma, in its pristine purity. This vision permeated the Pali chronicles (the Mahāvamsa and Cūlavamsa) and gave them a purpose and didactic style (Perera 1961; Bechert 1978; Greenwald 1978: 13, 20-21,30). It has also permeated the thinking of the Sinhala-speakers through the effect of literature in the Sinhala language, oral tradition, iconography, and ritual.[26]

The sacred task of maintaining Lanka as a Dhammadīpa, an island of and for the Buddhist Dhamma, is said to have been devolved upon the guardian deities of the island by Buddha himself. The gods had received Buddha’s varan, or warrant (Mahāvamsa 1960: 55). The manner in which Buddhism was introduced into the island, however, invested the Sinhala kings with a similar, sacred role. And the Pali chroniclers moulded and manufactured a second-century B.C. chieftain named Duṭṭagāmanī into an epic hero,[27] and, with a more substantive basis in events, effected a similar role for Parākrama Bāhu I (1153-86). Thus, Duṭṭagāmanī was constructed into a Sinhala Buddhist warrior hero who defeated Tamil invaders and who saved the country, the Sinhala people, and the Dhamma. He is even said to have led his armies into battle with a “relic on his spear”—a visual metaphor of great significance (B. Smith 1972:43; Greenwald 1978:25-26).

In subsequent centuries the Sinhala kings conceived of themselves as rulers of the entire island of Sīhalē, or Lankādīpa. This notion persisted it seems, despite its manifest contradiction by geopolitical facts in the form of petty Sinhala principalities and the existence of a Tamil kingdom in the north from the thirteenth century to the late sixteenth century. Even after Western colonial powers (Portuguese and then Dutch) established a territorial state extending around the island, the kings and courtiers of the surviving Sinhala kingdom in the interior, known as the Kingdom of Kandy, continued to regard themselves as the rulers of Sīhalē; to them, “the Sinhalese, wherever they lived, were the King’s people” (Pieris 1945: 114-15).

The conquest of the whole island effected by the British by 1815, therefore, was a major transformation. During the nineteenth century, the British established more direct forms of administration, dismantled the mercantilist structures of the Dutch (including corvée labour), and set up the juridical basis for a capitalist society. Most important, they bridged many rivers and constructed a network of roads, supplementing them with a rail network that covered 713 miles by the year 1924 (Wickremeratne 1973:311), in effect, administratively and economically stitching the island together. These developments encouraged, and were in turn quickened by, the expansion of coffee and coconut plantations (and, subsequently, tea and rubber plantations), and they involved an enormous increase in the volume of land and land-share transactions. This set of changes created a broadened structure of opportunities for some segments of the resident population, albeit restrained by the imperial relationship and the powerful lobby of British planters and businessmen and the institutional structures of the agency-house system. In the result, one sees the birth of an indigenous middle class concentrated in the commercial services, in plantation ownership, and in the intermediary administrative services and genteel professions (Roberts 1979b; 1982).

Among the local residents who took advantage of these opportunities were the descendants of Dutch East India Company officials and Dutch colonists who had chosen to stay on. These people, mostly located in urban centres along the coast, soon adopted English as their mother tongue. Many of them were employed by the British in intermediary positions in the administrative agencies and the commercial houses, and they provided a large proportion of the early cohorts of lawyers and doctors. They were referred to locally as Burghers (from Dutch Burgher). By the twentieth century, this label was used widely to refer not only to these folk, but also to the mixed descendants of the Portuguese and to the British-fathered progeny of local women. In the nineteenth century, the British sometimes referred to all these mixed Euro-Ceylonese as half-castes.[28] Confronted thus with the exclusiveness and prejudice of the British rulers, the Burghers quickly began to see themselves as “Ceylonese.” This was in the 1850s (see Young Ceylon 1850-52; Candidus 1853). By the turn of the twentieth century, several Burghers were associated with some Tamils, Sinhalese and Moors in demands for more places for locals in the higher rungs of the administration, a widening of representation, and a devolution of power. The significant point for this essay, therefore, is that the Burghers were not in the same position as the Eurasians of British India: rather than being despised as half -breeds by the indigenous notables, for the most part they enjoyed elite status among the indigenous population of British Ceylon until recent times.

The Burghers did not monopolise the administrative positions open to indigenous entry. Personnel from other ethnic groups began to secure administrative places in increasing numbers, while the district headmen were usually Sinhalese or Tamils of respectable caste. Among the segments of the population which garnered a significant proportion of administrative posts were the Tamils from the Jaffna Peninsula (Roberts 1979b). They made government service into something of an industry. In the result, numerous Tamils moved south as servants of the government and a colony of Tamils became established in Colombo by the first quarter of the twentieth century. Their disproportionate representation in certain government departments soon proved cause for comment and jibe.

The nineteenth century also witnessed a general cultural awakening. A significant facet in this process was a movement of Buddhist revitalisation (Roberts 1970b: 12-17; 1977: lxxii-lxxv; Wickremeratne 1969; Malalgoda 1973). At its most extreme, Buddhist revitalization was marked by xenophobia and vituperative opposition to persons and things non-Sinhalese. Its most effective spokesman was the Anagārika Dharmapāla. In his writings and speeches, “Ceylon” and “the Sinhalese” are constantly juxtaposed and viewed in synonymous terms, while the phrase “sons of the soil” recurs regularly and is at times used to refer specifically to “Sinhalese Buddhists” (Dharmapala 1965:479-84, 501, 502, 511-12, 535, 540-41).

In the twentieth century, nevertheless, the frontrunners in the opposition to British rule were the more pragmatic and secularly oriented reformist nationalists, such as those at the helm of the Ceylon National Congress. They succeeded in extracting several measures of constitutional reform and eventually took over the mantle of rulership in the year 1948. But the ruling fraction’s more Western and secular stance left it open to caricature as a set of brown sahibs. They lost power at the elections of 1956 to a coalition led by S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The sweeping electoral overturn of 1956 was an historical landmark which was at once an upsurge of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism and a socio-political movement of the have-nots against the haves. At the organisational level, this movement was directed by a confederation of Buddhist monks and received the support of ayurvedic physicians, Sinhala teachers, and some petty businessmen (Wriggins 1960: 198, 266-67, 356, et passim; Phadnis 1976a: chs. 6,7). Their demand for the immediate adoption of Sinhala as the language of administration—soon effected—was not only a claim for symbolic status. It was also an instrumental pathway for those Sinhalese who lacked privileged access to a good English education, and, in this way, it dovetailed neatly with the protest movement of the underprivileged.

The association of the interests of the Sinhala people with those of the underprivileged, the SLFP’s socialist rhetoric, and the democratic sanction of a massive electoral victory clothed the movement with legitimacy. In contrast with the 1930s and 1940s, the political party of Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was no longer described pejoratively as “communalist” (see Roberts 1978a).

Of the other consequences of the events of 1956, some of the more important and far-reaching are presented in bald summary below:

  1. Once it became necessary for administrators to be competent in Sinhala, this change, however much diluted by special provisions in Tamil areas and by the continued use of English at the higher levels of administration,[29] served as an obstacle to recruitment of Tamils and Burghers (but not Moors) into the prestigious and pensionable public services.
  2. There has been a pervasive politicisation of the public services so that every electoral overturn after 1965 has involved political victimisation and a rampant spoils system (C. R. de Silva and Samaraweera 1974). The political control over recruitment for jobs and access to licences, tenders, import quotas, etcetera, has, in its turn, favoured the Sinhalese.
  3. Buddhist monks, Buddhist organisations, and Buddhist symbols have been afforded greatly increased explicit influence and expression. One illustration is the iconic symbolism displayed in the placement of Buddhist statues at urban junctions. Since 1956 Buddhism has been “for all practical purposes, the official religion” (Obeyesekere 1970:48-51, 62), and the constitution of 1972 expressly accords Buddhism “the foremost place” and enjoins the state “to protect and foster” the Buddhist religion.
  4. The perceptions of history embodied in the Pali chronicles and medieval Sinhala literature have been reiterated and idealised. The Dhammadīpa concept has achieved the status of an immutable truth. The interlinkage of religion, people, language, and state has received added weight, and the presentation of Sinhala cultural heroes such as Duṭṭagāmanī in newspaper, film, sculpture, painting, and cloth has proliferated. To a few Buddhists, Bandaranaike even represented a bōdhisaṭṭva and a kind of Maitreya Buddha in the millenarian mould.
  5. Citizens who could not tolerate this series of changes responded in several ways. In early 1962, to “save the country from going to the dogs,” as they would have said, a few officers in the armed forces planned a coup, but they were foiled by a last-minute leak of information (Horowitz 1980; Roberts 1983). Other citizens, including Sinhalese, Tamils, and Burghers, emigrated. Among those who have emigrated in significant numbers since 1956 have been the Burghers, with Australia being their most favoured destination. Despite a few laments, it would not be false to speculate that their departure produced little concern among the majority of Sinhalese. “Let [the Burghers] bugger off to Australia” is a statement attributed to Bandaranaike himself. There would be more room at the top.
  6. The Ceylon Tamils have grown increasingly alienated from the polity. The period after 1956 has witnessed an escalation of the conflict between the Tamil and Sinhala peoples, and the Tamils have been the object of communal riots in 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981, and 1983 as well as being subject to intermittent acts of state repression. From 1956 the Federal Party stood forth as their principal defender, its ranks augmented by radical youth who, in previous generations, had tended to join the parties of Left. By the 1970s a segment of the youth had broken off to form militant underground organisations. In 1972 the Federal Party transmuted itself into the Tamil United Liberation Front and made the creation of a separate Tamil state its chief platform. Besides alluding to specific contemporary grievances, the claims of the Tamil nation are couched in terms of an historical rationale, that is, through references to their “traditional homelands” and the argument that the creation of a Tamil state would be “the reconstitution of the sovereignty we lost to the Portuguese’ (Tamil United Liberation Front 1977). The incorporation of such historical criteria into their manifesto is a product of the dialectics of conflict with the Sinhalese. The Sinhala perceptions, as we have seen, are permeated by historical justifications. On this basis, ardent Sinhala nationalists continue to see the Tamil homelands as Sinhala territory: “If we consider our immaculate Mahavamsa and other books of history or if we take into account religious and cultural connections, the ownership of Jaffna is with us,” assert Nandarāma Thēro[30] and Samarasinghe in a 1967 Sinhala publication (quoted in Dharmadasa 1981: 60). In sum, then, the chasm between Tamil and Sinhala activists has widened irreparably (Roberts 1978a).
  7. At the same time, friction between the Sinhalese and the Moors has tended to grow sharper. The Moors constitute about 7 percent of the population and are scattered throughout the island; as a people having a significant number engaged in commercial trades, they are especially prominent in urban centres. It has not been uncommon in my own experience to observe Sinhalese of elite status expressing hostility to the Moors; and there have been at least three Sinhala-Moor clashes in the last ten years which have left several people dead and/or extended beyond a circumscribed locality.[31]


 The background which I have sketched permits a more penetrating scrutiny of the incident at the cricket match. The arena in which the incident took place was clearly of significance. The participants were part of a cricket contest between Australia and Sri Lanka, with the gladiators in the arena and the mass audience bounding it, held during the period when Sri Lanka was seeking the status of a fully-fledged member in the controlling body for international cricket. Intrinsic to this setting was the accentuation of patriotism and the heightening of identity as Sri Lankans—that is, the transcendent, composite version of “Sri Lankan”—for most members of the audience.

At the same time, the cricketing ground, bathed in sunlight, grounded in lush green verdure, teeming with people and buzzing with voice, was the embodiment of festivity. All those in the crowd were party to a festival. The festive setting was accentuated by the ebullience of those individuals who periodically sought communion with Bacchus. This setting provided a “licence to joke,” to borrow a phrase from Handelman and Kapferer (1972). Laddie was one of those who was prompted to enter into the teasing mode in an active way. He did so in the full, in a veritable orgy, selecting as targets a wide range of individuals within vocal range.

In the anthropological literature, it is axiomatic that “the play-frame” produces a metier of make-believe which enables actors to attack and dissolve the accepted and the acceptable; that it encourages the expression of underlying oppositions to the normative structures of the actor’s everyday world (Handelman 1981:14; 1974). In this instance, Laddie’s teasing activities included an affirmation of the explicit structure of the cricketing arena, viz., the opposition between the Australian and Sri Lankan teams. In heckling the Australian team’s leading bowler, Rodney Hogg, and in picking on Sinha, a Sri Lankan who befriended the enemy, Laddie was supporting the system, and not expressing “anti-structure” or “communitas (Turner 1969; 1974). This can be taken to be an indication of the virulent patriotism within the Sri Lankan audience.

Thus pressed by Laddie, both Hogg and Sinha tolerated his sallies for a while and did not engage Laddie in the same needling style: Hogg ignored him; and when Sinha did initiate an exchange, it was through the convivial act of throwing him a packet of cigarettes, an action which only bought further teasing.

It was Hogg’s tolerance that disintegrated first. And his angry demand constituted the most dramatic moment in the sequence of actions which make up the incident. In that moment, the attention of all bystanders in the vicinity fastened on Hogg and Laddie, and hence on Sinha, who stood up for Hogg. In Victor Turner’s language, this moment was an “a-harmonic” instance, a breach, in an ongoing social drama (1974:33)—a moment when unalloyed vehemence and seriousness sought to destroy the teasing mode of discourse which Laddie was wielding.

The sequel to this moment, the final exchange between Laddie and Sinha, was rather less dramatic. Yet, Sinha’s retort was much more effective than Hogg’s. And it was more sociologically significant. For Sinha’s retort, “I am a Sinhalese,” was much more threatening to Laddie than Hogg’s anger. In one stroke, Sinha broke, indeed, pulverised, the teasing mode. He transformed the context. He introduced the overarching context in which the cricket arena was embedded. He subsumed the latter within the body politic of Sri Lanka. Within that body politic, he and the Sinhala people enjoyed hegemony, while Laddie and the Burghers were locked into a marginal position. And he was fully aware that Laddie knew this only too well. No elaboration was called for.

The significance of the Sinhala identity in this context can be highlighted by a hypothetical contrast and an assertive verdict with reference to this contrasting situation. Let us suppose that Sinha was not Sinha, but Singham, a Sri Lankan Tamil (or alternatively, that he was Marikar, a Moor). If teased and ridiculed by Laddie in the same manner, Singham could not conceivably have resolved the conflict in his favour by announcing that he was a Tamil. Such a riposte would not even have occurred to him. And it would not have occurred because it could not have carried the same import. It would merely have left the exchange open to further contestation and negotiation.

It is because the riposte “I am a Sinhalese” constitutes the critical phase in the incident and because it made relevant the body politic of Sri Lanka that my clarification of the background is concentrated on the body politic rather than on the history of cricket in Sri Lanka.[32] In addressing a universe of meaning related to this body politic, Sinha was not addressing understandings that were restricted only to the contemporary system-relations of 1981; it is my contention that the universe which he made pertinent included significant perceptions of Sri Lanka’s recent and past history. As I noted earlier, circumstances did not permit me to determine the precise character of either Sinha’s or Laddie’s perceptions of the past. It is nevertheless possible for me to claim epistemological privilege[33] as a Sri Lankan whose adulthood spans the years 1956 to 1985 and to use such a foundation to present a prima facie case for the understandings which supported, and were incorporated into, Sinha’s devastating retort. There is, in this view, a presumptive plausibility that Sinha’s understandings included approximations of the following points:

  1. Sri Lanka—the whole of Sri Lanka—is an island that has always belonged to the Sinhala people.
  2. It is an island destined from the beginning to preserve Buddhism in its pristine purity.
  3. This hallowed claim from the ancient past is supported by the numerical preponderance of the Sinhalese (and of Sinhala Buddhists in particular) and by the sanction of the democratic principle of majority rule as exemplified in the electoral process.
  4. Peoples like the Burghers are newcomers, a product of the recent past and the seeds planted by foreign colonial invaders and settlers—in brief, in contrast to the Sinhalese, they are not sons of the soil.

In making this claim I realise that I am rendering myself vulnerable. These approximations serve to highlight the yawning gap between my summary of Sri Lanka’s past and whatever ideas Sinha carried in his head. My claim thereby renders a service: it displays the principle that all history is a reconstruction in terms of the present. This holds true for my abbreviated summary, which is not only an interpretation by a Sri Lankan trained as a historian, but a reconstruction designed to meet the demands of the incident and to enable non-Sri Lankans to understand it. In short, it serves a contemporary function.

Whatever the precise delineation of Sinha’s thinking, the critical point is that the past was more than background. It became “foregrounded.” And it could come to the fore, without a great deal of elaboration, because the features which I have outlined, or approximations thereof, were a powerful element in the consciousness of Sinhalese Sri Lankans and of other residents brought into association with them. These elements in the historical consciousness of contemporaries were contemporaneous and were, thereby, available; they could be readily incorporated into action and transaction. That is, in Schutz’s language (1980: 140), they were part of the “Here and Now in 1981 and accessible to actors in the sense of being “open to . . . interpretation” and to interpretive usage. In the incident which I record here, such consciousness was inscribed into a telling riposte.

In Sinha’s hands, the Sinhala consciousness of the Sinhalese people became a resource, a tool of defensive attack. Like that consciousness, Sinha’s expressive riposte embodied a political claim—a view of what the Sinhalese consider legitimate. As such, the riposte also embodied a relationship of power and of authority, and thus became a boundary specification: those who were not sons of the soil had less of a lien on Sri Lanka than the Sinhalese; those who were not sons of the soil had limits which they should not transgress. In the latter sense, then, Sinha’s specification of the ethnic and geopolitical boundary was, from an etic point of view, an expression of intolerance. But the equally significant point is that he—like most Sinhalese—did not see it this way. To him and his fellow Sinhalese, this political claim was, and is, legitimate and, as such, non-negotiable. The past provides this claim with ontological status; it has the authenticity and authority of tradition. In this way, the past to which Sinha appealed has the strengths that Schutz attributes to the Vorwelt, the social world of one’s predecessors, namely, a “character of pastness” that reduces the freedom of actors through its air of certainty, of fait accomplis (Schutz 1980:207—8,143).

And it is of significance that this set of claims was recognised by Laddie. He withdrew from the encounter. One cannot be certain that he was entirely convinced about the legitimacy of these claims. But one can be reasonably certain that he deemed it unwise to challenge them in public. In the result, the exchange ended as a victory for Sinha.

The encounter therefore was a reproduction at the face-to-face level of a societal power relation. It involved an imposition of Sinhala power on Burgher non-power, of Sinhala authority on Burgher non-authority. It represented the primacy of the Sinhalese and the marginality of the Burghers in Sri Lanka.

The deconstruction and interpretation of this dramatic episode at a cricket match in Sri Lanka, therefore, points to the incorporation of historical perceptions, of greater or lesser elaboration, within the minutiae of everyday interaction. The expression of ethnic identities and the definition of contemporary relations may therefore be a past still living, a past rendered vivid.

One can go beyond the incident to make another critical, if speculative, point. Such dramatic episodes, one can suggest, contribute toward a reproduction of historical understandings, of ethnic (or other group) identities, and of perceptions of the existing structures of power. They provide cognitive maps of the social order. They indicate rules for personal interaction. They reemphasise the boundaries between groups and fill out the content of ethnic (or other group) stereotypes. In the instance here, it is probable that the significance of the ethnic encounter was lodged in the consciousness of both Sinha and Laddie, as well as of the bystanders who heard the final exchange (and among the bystanders was a handful of Moors). Thus incorporated into the individual’s bank of experience, such memories will be reactivated[34] when fresh circumstances provide catalysts to tap the memory-bank, for memory “is like a library,” and “remembrances once stored are never lost” (Vansina 1980: 263-64).

In this manner, such incidents may not only stir old memories and enduring elements of our consciousness; they also may transmit, and in transmission both reproduce and reshape, our perceptions of the past. In this sense, the incident at the cricket match and the article which I have built around it are suggestive of the guiding principle behind Turner’s writing, viz., “the idea that human social life is the producer and product of time, which becomes its measure” (Turner 1974: 23-24).


In taking this stance on the significance of historical experience, Victor Turner explicitly contrasted it with the “essentially misleading” perspectives of “A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and other positivists” (1974: 24). By extension, his critique extends to the pragmatic approach of Malinowski. Thus far, however, the argument in this article would not worry Malinowski’s ghost, even though it might have established the contemporaneity of history, for Malinowski took account of history and myth where these phenomena were brought into play by living generations. He viewed the past as a charter.

The function of myth, briefly, is to strengthen traditions and endow it with a greater value and prestige by tracing it back to a higher, better, more supernatural reality of initial events (1974: 146).

  • Myth as it exists in a savage community . . . is not merely a story told but a reality lived (1974:100).
  • Myth fulfils in primitive culture an indispensable function: it expresses, enhances, and codifies belief; it safeguards and enforces morality; it vouches for the efficiency of ritual and contains practical rules for the guidance of man. Myth is thus a vital ingredient of human civilization; it is not an idle tale, but a hard-worked active force; it is . . . a pragmatic charter of primitive faith and moral wisdom (1974: 101).

Malinowski did not restrict this instrumental perspective to the so-called primitives. His psychologistic functionalism led him to conceive of myth as a universal, “an indispensable ingredient of all culture,” meeting the need of human beings for miracles, precedents, and sanctions (1974:146).[35]

Sinha’s use of the past as a resource would therefore mesh well with Malinowski’s conception of history and myth. Sinha rendered Sinhalese myth contemporaneous. He wielded it like a legal scroll, as a charter of rights, a demarcator of a domain which only sons of the soil could enter.

The conversion of history[36] into a resource can be described as “activated history.” The problem with Malinowski is that his conception of the relevance of history stopped there. He regarded the perceptions of the past which were brought into play by his folk[37] as the only history (myth) that was relevant; the only “reality” was that which was “real” to his living actors (Lewis 1965:xi).[38] In pursuing this methodology, he limited his knowledge of history to that revealed by his informants, his folk, and this methodology was subsumed within a theoretical perspective which emphasised the psychological needs of the actors and assessed human activity in wholly instrumental and pragmatic terms (Berry 1965: xii-xiii; Geertz 1975: 78-79).

Such a conceptualisation is restrictive. It gets lost in the present.[39] It loses some history. It shuts out the history and myth which has not been activated, what I shall call “unactivated history.” Unactivated history can be subdivided into various forms. There may be latent historical perceptions which are not perceived simply because the special circumstances which could serve as a catalyst do not happen to occur during the anthropologists’ field research.[40] There may be folk perceptions of the past which are undisclosed, and are perhaps not reproduced simply because a meddling foreign anthropologist, or an indigenous anthropologist of superior status, has thrust his presence upon the folk.

At the same time, there always will be numerous happenings which do not get recorded in lasting form or achieve significance of the sort which is transmitted to future generations. Alternatively, there will also be events which are incorporated into tradition at one point of time and are subsequently lost, dropped, or so transformed in the course of transmission that they are effectively lost. This last category of unactivated history I shall call “forgotten history.”

Forgotten history demands attention. Where undisclosed contemporary folk conceptions of the past are part of the subjective world of social actors, forgotten history is at the interface between this subjective world and the “objective” reconstructions of an analyst. The analyst intervenes, and meddles with the past, so as to reconstruct the activated history of past generations.[41] Invariably, he can do so only by deploying the traditional methods of an historian.

There may be a pot of gold at the end of this methodological rainbow. Forgotten history can provide an index of the changes in the past. What has been whitewashed, glossed over, subsumed, and transformed may be critical markers of the changes that have taken place in a body politic or a social formation. By rediscovering these lost traditions, and by supplementing this with one’s own recovery of past happenings, an analyst can construct interpretations of the past which are alternatives to those posed by contemporary social actors. In this manner, one is made more sharply aware of the selectivity of tradition, of the discriminatory ways in which a body of folk mine the past to constitute custom and tradition.[42] Where a Malinowski might, like the blinkered village policeman, accept the facts “as they are spoke,the anthropologist-historian becomes Miss Marple and ferrets out alternative possibilities in the past, exposing discarded traditions and even, perhaps, skeletons in some cupboard.

Discovering the specific character of this selectivity in folk conceptions of a people’s various pasts, especially its recent past, in its turn opens the way for an analyst to begin to grapple with the problem of why and how the forgotten history was forgotten. The social forces responsible for specific “acts” of selectivity, or specific processes of selectivity, can then be sought. In sum, both sets of discoveries provide the likelihood that the analyst will gain an understanding of the social forces behind current activated history.

In other words, activated history, or the current historical perceptions of a society[43] studied by an anthropologist, can be grasped in the full only within the context of that society’s forgotten history, and especially the more recently forgotten history. A Malinowskian version of total immersion in the present is simply not, as Maurice Bloch has noted, capable of explaining how people can change the terms inherited from the past (1977:280—81). It cannot even begin to search for the forces which have been, and are, responsible for the selective reproduction of knowledge, or rather, for the reproduction of that part of knowledge which is seen as our history.

Forgotten history, therefore, is also of instrumental utility to the analyst in disentangling those didactic and seemingly timeless folk conceptions of the past which are conventionally categorised as myth, in contradistinction from history (a demarcation which should not be treated as unproblematic or unambiguous).[44] In this sense, then my argument dovetails with Bernard S. Cohn’s recent exposition that insofar as “culture is always being constituted and constructed” and so “always being transformed,” studies in an historical mode help “shift the anthropologist away from the objectification [and reification] of social life [inherent in synchronic methodology] to a study of [the] constitution and construction [of social life]” (1980:217).

A final note can be made in this regard by returning to the incident, the ethnicity in riposte. The scrutiny and understanding of this event would also profit from the more conventional activities of an historian who sought to fill out the context by taking the survey of relevant happenings in the past way back into the nineteenth century. Such an investigation of written records would underline the significance of the incident, for it reflects the transformation in the relationship between the Burghers and the Sinhalese that occurred between the 1920s and the 1950s, and especially so as it was here played out in the symbolic order of cricket. Both the curtain-raiser history of a political scientist and the work of an anthropologist with a synchronic bias are liable to miss out on this transformation because their tendency would be to focus on the immediate past—perhaps concentrating on the events from 1948 or 1956 onwards.

In this instance, the absence of numerical strength on the part of the Burghers would have been particularly misleading, for they have always represented less than 1.0 percent of the population. But, as noted earlier, the Burghers were among the pioneers of the overarching concept “Ceylonese” (the ancestor of “Sri Lankan” at least in one sense); and they took a leading part in the verbal agitation for administrative and political reform in the period extending from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century (Weinman 1947:9-16, 39-42; K. M. de Silva 1973a:238-39). They also had a prestigious role in the corridors of Hulftsdorp, the legal headquarters in the island and one of the command posts in the nationalist activities of the Sri Lankan middle class. By the 1910s and 1920s the Burghers’ political influence within the reformist nationalist movement was on the wane, and the handful who showed an interest in political activism were, for the most part, firmly located in the ranks of the conservative, Anglophile segments of the middle class. Those few who had the temerity to contest elections in 1931 and 1936 were pushed back into the also-ran category (Roberts 1978b: 175—76).

This tendency took a longer time to penetrate the world of Sri Lankan cricket because cricket was restricted to the urban centres till about the 1940s. Thus, in the 1920s, many of the cricketeers still were Burghers—among them such stars as Cecil Horan, C. T. Van Geyzel, and V. S. de Kretser (Foenander 1924). Indeed, of the Ceylonese eleven that pulverised the local Europeans in the famous match in the year 1929, six were Burghers. In that context, it would have been inconceivable for an ethnic incident of the sort described here to have taken place at all. In the 1920s, “I am a Sinhalese” could not have been an effective and uncontested charter.


If my reflections on an incident which occurred in Sri Lanka on 3 May 1981, described here under the heading “Ethnicity in Riposte,” have led me to a position which suggests that anthropologists must move beyond a search for the sensibilities of the historian to becoming historians of their chosen fields of study, it must also be recognised that there are limits upon the degree to which an anthropologist can assume the historian’s cloak. These limits are insuperable. Not even an historian transformed into a “typical” anthropologist can transcend these constraints, for these are limits which inhere to any study of a contemporary event and, as such, mark the boundary between the typical anthropologist and the typical historian. I refer here to that most obvious of differences, the fact that the typical historian has “the advantages of hindsight” and can pursue events to their consequences (Lewis 1965:ix-x; cf. Schutz 1980:207-14; Cohn 1980; Smith 1962). Such an advantage is not without its inherent dangers—not least the temptation towards a deterministic narrative and analysis, or a reading of the past in terms of the salient features of the present. But it is, for all that, an advantage which the student of an incident today (the lot of the “typical” anthropologist) does not have: that student may have living evidence, but the understanding of the incident will still be bound to the ethnographic present and the ethnographic past. In contrast, the historian investigating an incident of 1789 has (assuming an abundance of source material, albeit dead material) the distinct advantage of what may be called the eternal triangle: he has, for that incident, its past (the causes plus other relevant “facts”), its present (the course), and its future (its consequences) arrayed before him. His evidence, his context, is fully circumjacent, wholly circumfluent. In comparison, the poor anthropologist must usually be reconciled to traversing but two sides of the triangle.[45] Unlike the historian, the anthropologist cannot be fully circumspect.


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——. 1970. “Religious Symbolism and Political Change in Ceylon.” Modern Ceylon Studies, 1:1, 48-63.

——. 1979. “The Vicissitudes of the Sinhala-Buddhist Identity through Time and Change,” in Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, M. Roberts, ed., 279-313. Colombo: Marga Institute.

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——. 1977. “Elites, Nationalisms and the Nationalist Movement in British Ceylon,” in Documents of the Ceylon National Congress and Nationalist Politics in Ceylon, 1929—1950, M. Roberts, ed., l. Colombo: Department of National Archives.

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——. 1978b. “Reformism, Nationalism and Protest in British Ceylon,” in Rule, Protest, Identity, Peter Robb and David Taylor. eds., 159-92. London: Curzon Press.

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van Binsbergen, W. M. J. 1980. “Interpreting the Myth of Sidi Mhammad: Oral History in the Highlands of Northwestern Tunisia.” Social Analysis. 4, 51-73.

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** This article was first presented at a seminar at the University of Adelaide on 9 November 1982. I am grateful to all those present for their comments. Subsequent discussions with Susan Barham, David Brooks, Tom Ernst, Kingsley Garbett and Anna Yeatman also shaped the reformulation of my essay. It was originally published in Comparative Studies in Society and History 1965 vol. 27: 401-429.  It  is also available in in M. Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, (Harwood Academic Publishers, 1994)


[1] Unless otherwise indicated, the term anthropologist is used in this article as a convenient shorthand which encompasses sociologist and political scientist as well.

[2] In this instance, Thompson was reviewing Robert Moore’s 1974 book, Pit-Men. Preachers and Politics, and was, therefore, addressing sociologists in particular.

[3] See his The Sanusi of Cyrenaica (Oxford, 1949).

[4] When a fielder is placed at these two positions, he is standing near the boundary lines of the cricketing arena and is therefore located at the interface between the players and the crowd.

[5] For the benefit of the uninitiated, it should be noted that the eleven men in the team whose turn it is to field include several specialist “bowlers” whose task it is to bowl (send) the ball to the batsman (hitter of ball). The bowlers take turns (overs) at bowling. In limited-over games, each bowler can bowl only a restricted number of overs (nine or ten). In the Australian side playing on 3 May, Hogg was the chief strike weapon and was regarded as the Sri Lankan’s most dangerous adversary—for the other bowlers were Terry Alderman, Trevor Chappell. Ray Bright, and Graeme Beard.

[6] Lansiyā and lansi are Sinhala words derived from the Dutch term Hollandsche. They describe an indigenous inhabitant of European descent, i.e., a mixed-blood type, and are equivalent to the terms creole, mulatto, etcetera, in other colonial contexts. Such persons are generally described in the Sri Lankan context as Burgher. The term Burgher is also used in Sinhala, but it usually does not carry a pejorative meaning, whereas lansiyā often does.

[7] Putā means “son.” This word is often used in face-to-face situations as a term of endearment or as a familiar and friendly personal reference, either from elders to youths or between male peers. However, in this context, it is a typical Sri Lankan way of emphasising a person’s ancestry.

[8] I am grateful to Sylvia Sharpe for providing this phrase.

[9] This applies to Hogg as well. However, as far as I can recall, Hogg was not within hearing at this point of time.

[10] Thompson’s insistence on “the discipline of context” as the trademark of the historian was initially presented in criticism (1972:41-55) of Alan Macfarlane’s The Family Life of Ralph Josselin, a Seventeenth-Century Clergyman. Here, Macfarlane is treated as proxy for all anthropologists. The fact remains that the perspectives injected into British anthropology by Malinowski were marked by a strong emphasis on the “context of situation” (see Berry 1965:x-xi).

[11] It is being increasingly realised that such interview data can generate their own distortions. The unilateral intervention of an analyst may produce representations by those interviewed which are tailored for the analyst or a supposed audience beyond the analyst. Further, the analyst’s probing may inject a specificity into the re-telling of past actions and their motivations which had not been a feature of the actual course of events. In other words, such a method can easily distil away the ambiguities in everyday interaction. In recent years, the writings of the ethno-methodologists have begun to instil a welcome reflexivity and cautiousness into the work of anthropologists, See also note 39.

[12]Daily News (Colombo), 31 July 1982, 13 November 1982, the latter detailing the sittings of a commission inquiring into the event. Rumour (as retailed in Canberra) has it that the riot all began with the comments of a parrot suitably coached by the tenant.

[13] My 1981 fieldwork was not concerned with ethnicity or nationalism; hence the failure to pursue the possibilities in this regard.

[14] In 1895 the Colombo Sports Club was started as a new club in the old premises of the C.C.C. This club had many British military officers as members; in time, however, it became representative of Europeans from junior administrative grades in government or mercantile service—in other words, it became the second-class European cricket club.

[15] The term middle class is used here as it is generally used in Sri Lanka. It is an ambiguous term that includes the white-collar wage dependents as well as capitalists from among the indigenous and non-European populations. By employing this native category, I attempt to avoid a class analysis: any satisfactory class analysis calls for elaborations not feasible here (cf. Roberts 1975; 1978b).

[16] E.g., the Melbridge Cricket Club, the Kotahena Cricket Club, the Medical College Cricket Club (Foenander 1924: 15- 16).

[17]Since the nineteenth century, the matches between England and Australia have been known as “test matches.” This label has since been extended to all international matches played by countries which have been recognised as official members of the International Board of Control for Cricket. The “illegitimate” extension of this label to the European-Ceylonese match in Sri Lanka is significant.

[18] Information supplied by Edward Kelaart and Victor Melder of Melbourne and S. S. Perera of Colombo supplemented by a news item on the death of Sargo Jayawickreme in the Sri Lanka News, 17 February 1983. Edward Kelaart gained his Ceylonese cap in 1921, was one of the leading allrounders in the 1920s and retired from cricket in 1934.

[19] Letter received from S. S. Perera, n.d., 1983. As the C.C.C. continued to exist and participate in interclub cricket, the Sri Lankans (as part of specific club teams) continued to take on the Europeans.

[20] In one sense, the term working class can be taken as a residual category encompassing all those not included in the middle class. As subjectively used in Sri Lanka, it usually refers to manual workers (and in this sense often tends to exclude peasant smallholders and white-collar employees).

[21] Sinhala-speakers with some interest in cricket would normally follow the cricket news through the Daily News and other English-language newspapers: that is, however poor their English-speaking skills, they acquired reading skills adequate for this purpose. This also held true for those who attended races in the towns in the era when horse-racing existed (until the late 1950s).

[22] A new vocabulary had to be invented for this purpose.

[23] In the 1950s and 1960s, working-class spectators were easily recognised by their attire, viz., their sarongs. By the 1980s, the wearing of trousers by working men (especially young men) in places such as Colombo and Kandy was widespread and has rendered this criterion a misleading marker.

[24] News report from Richard Streeton in The Times, 16 February 1982, and the author’s personal experience in 1981. More recently, in early 1984, the Sri Lankan cricket team was booed and subjected to stone-throwing in the city of Kandy after an ignominious loss of a test match to New Zealand.

[25] In 1949 a large number of Indian Tamils lost their Sri Lankan citizenship rights; but since the 1960s some of these have regained citizenship through the terms of a pact with India. However, it would probably be correct to say that an Indian Tamil or Indian Moor who was born, bred, and educated in Sri Lanka could have gained unquestioned recognition as a Sri Lankan (Ceylonese) cricketer had he shown the necessary prowess in school and club cricket, whatever his official status. Thus, the de facto situation would have been based on residential status and social recognition rather than pieces of government paper (until he tried to get a passport, of course). Since hardly any Tamils of recent Indian descent get the opportunity to play cricket, or even to secure secondary education, this issue has never been put to the test.

[26] The study by R. A. L. H. Gunawardana (1979) depicts important qualifications pertaining to the usual presentation of this story. This excellent essay is nevertheless misleading when it suggests that “racial consciousness [cannot probably] be traced very far back into the past of [the Sinhala and Tamil peoples], because the Sinhalese had no equivalent term for the word ‘race’” (1979: 1). I would speculate that the word jātiya, as used situationally, and such terms as Sinhala and Demala fulfilled the same purpose in contexts in which we/they distinctions had taken root. [Addendum; also see Roberts 1993).

[27] For background, see Gunawardana 1978b and 1979b.

[28] In the first part of the nineteenth century, British usage often distinguished between the Hollanders, Dutch settlers, etcetera, on the one hand, and the Portuguese, “mechanics,” half- castes, topasses, etcetera, on the other; but a tendency also gained ground to use the terms Burgher and half-caste in a generic sense to encompass both categories of European descendants. (see Roberts et al 1989 for more information).

[29] This statement is of necessity an incomplete one, as the fluctuations in administrative policy re the Tamil language, and the relationship between official position and actual practice, cannot be easily or accurately summarised in one sentence.

[30]This Buddhist monk was residing in a Buddhist temple in the Northern Province at the time this book was published—the publication itself being printed in Anuradhapura.

[31] In the circumstances, Newton Gunasinghe’s argument that there has been no “open rioting” and that relative calm prevailed in ethnic relations in the period 1959-76 (Lanka Guardian. I January 1984, p. 6). is not merely a historical, but also blatantly partisan and misleading.

[32]This emphasis is in opposition to the perspective pressed by Bruce Kapferer when I presented this study at the University of Adelaide, 9 November 1982.

[33]More or less the same privilege is attached to a great deal of the material garnered through participant observation by anthropologists.

[34] A striking illustration of such a process was provided to me after the seminar at Adelaide in November 1982. One of those present was a lady of Sinhalese-Burgher extraction. In chatting with me subsequently, she recalled an incident which had taken place when she was a wee child: when she attended St. Michael’s Church, Polwatta, with her paternal grandfather, a Sinhalese of lower-middle-class status, some Burgher ladies had remarked to each other that the tone of the church was on the decline (a comment that may have been a manifestation of status rather than ethnic prejudice).

[35] It should be noted that Malinowski placed great emphasis on what he called “the context of culture” and, in the opinion of one commentator, this included “the context of presumptions,” the whole background of unexpressed representations among the people under study (Berry 1965: xi).

[36] For the next five paragraphs, the word history should be read as standing for both history and myth.

[37] From convenience of syntax, I am neglecting the differentiation of folk traditions and the structuration of tradition by gender, age, class, and/or interest.

[38] I. M. Lewis (1965: xi) presents this perspective as a distinctive feature of the social anthropologist in contradistinction from the historian. “The social anthropologist [is concerned with] the interconnexions between [the people’s] current beliefs, actions, and institutional arrangements…. The past….becomes explicable at least in large measure as a mirror of the present” (Lewis’s emphasis).

[39] Cf. M. G. Smith’s criticism of Radcliffe-Brown and other structural-functionalists for “the fallacy of the ethnographic present” (1962:77). It is perhaps a consequence of this that “anthropologists working in tribal societies have frequently displayed a remarkably uncritical attitude towards informants’ statements about past events or conditions” (Van Velsen 1967:144).

[40] It is part of the mystique of anthropology, a mystique that non-anthropologists are more liable to swallow, that the intrepid anthropologist was all things to all men and maintained an ubiquitous presence, neither sleeping, stepping into the bush to defecate, nor slipping into the nearby town to visit bar or brothel. In brief, there also is a category of “activated and lost history.” Cf. the deliberate caricature of the historian by Bernard S. Cohn (1980:208-14).

[41]In interpreting genealogies, anthropologists have often decoded, amended, and reconstructed folk representations (see Laura Bohannan 1952 and Lewis 1962). The Bohannan article suggests that in the 1950s such decoding of the past was handled in functionalist ways, that genealogical manipulation by the actors was viewed as a validating mechanism for contemporary social relationships. For attention, to the historical dimension and examples of anthropological monographs with “an extended analysis of actual history,” see Gluckman (1961:10 ,14). For a village study with a wide-ranging survey of the historical context, see Obeyesekere (1967). For recent examples of the deconstruction of myths in order to reconstitute historical events and trends, see Van Binsbergen (1980) and Sahlins (1981). These latter mark advances being made by structuralist approaches to the study of society over time.

[42] Cf. essays in Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983).

[43] The term society is employed here as a gloss for community, people, social formation, etcetera, that is, for the anthropologist’s field of investigation.

[44] For an elaboration of the distinction, sec E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1961:8). For a warning against the unambiguous demarcation between history and myth, see Kenneth Brown (1980:116-28. esp. 116, 119, 126). Addendum: cf. Daniel 1990.

[45]This can be partially circumvented by longitudinal studies of the sort associated with Raymond Firth (1966) and Scarlett Epstein (1962, 1973). But an individual’s adult life span imposes natural limits on the span of time that can be covered.


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