“Goyi-Lansi”: Badinage founded on Class Differentiation laced with Ethnicity and Prejudice

Michael Roberts

This article is inspired by Fabian Schokman of Moratuwa whose questioning comment led to a brief exchange involving Eardley Lieversz and myself. I will place these exchanges first before proceeding to address the context and implications of the article on “Goyigama Lansiyās” written by a retired Sinhala police officer of senor rank.

This essay was obviously penned in light-hearted spirit. But, in conveying ethnographic tales of past times in genial tones, the account reveals questionable ‘seams,’ i.e. strands, within the socio-political order. Readers are advised to absorb the essay “The Goyigama Lansiyaas”[1] as an initial measure …. before proceeding to the exchanges and the arguments below.

the 2nd Pic may well be British ladies and gents in a Whites only club


Fabian-to-Michael, 12 July 2019

Dear Michael, ……  Respectfully, while it is an informative and equally interesting read, I don’t find the term “goyigama lansiyā” defined anywhere in the piece. I was hoping you could enlighten me as to the etymology of the word and the usage and connotation. ….  Hoping to hear from you soon. ……….Regards, Fabian

Michael to Fabian, 13 July 2019

Dear Fabian, …………..I have never heard it myself. Your question is pertinent. As a guess I would say that it is a way in which upper class Sinhalese in the Westernized world [of Sri Lanka] gave weight to most Burghers by weighting them with the Goyigama — thus with the respectable Sinhala layers as distinct from the godayō.

By implication these Burghers were not karapothu lansi [that is, sapaththu lansi or lower-class Burghers] …………… Michael

Michael II: I hinted at the layering via my ref to the book People Inbetween and a placement of the cockroach caricature [in this Thuppahi item]. IF I may, can I insert your Comment and Query in Thuppahi and Facebook to see what older generation personnel will say?

Michael to Fabian III, 14 July 2019: ….. Thinking Further: the phrase “Goyigama Lansi” points to the play of these sentiments and the mix thereof

  • Radalaness
  • Snootiness
  • toffee-noseness

In other words, your Question is a very good one…… but let us see

An Interjection from Eardley Lieversz [in Sydney], 14 July 2019  …….. Very good. I would like to disseminate this.

Fabian-to-Michael, 14 July 2019

Dear Michael, …. Thank you for the charts. I do own a copy of your People Inbetween – a treasured possession, but while acknowledging the linguistic etymology of the other words, I am particularly curious as to the origin of the phrase “govigama lansi.” I acknowledge your hypothesis that it is a derived from a need to differentiate between the “karapotu lansi” and therefore distinguish a caste above by comparing them to the upper caste “govigama,” but is there any proof of this origin.

TWO: “Strands of Class and Caste Prejudice in Ceylon Society, 1930s-1970s,” by Michael Roberts

The exchanges displayed in the recollection of social banter and club-talk by a Sinhalese police officer of senior rank relates to the 1950s to 1970s; but can be extended further back in time to the first half of the 20th century. They reveal the genial banter that marked social exchanges in ways that eased and transcended ethnic difference in that era. Thus, the phrase “Goyigama Lansiyas” refers to a class order within the former pre-1948 colonial order that placed different ethnic personnel within the superior bourgeois and/or middle-class layer, thereby rendering them distinct from – and superior to – the lower-middle class and working-class layers below them. This marking was secured via the use of caste terminology: for the “Govigama” had been traditionally regarded as the superior and genteel upper order of the Sinhala social formation from centuries past.

This kind of social usage invariably by-passed and glossed over awkward questions. It did not take account of the power and superiority exercised by the British ruling elements in the island, especially the gentlemen of the Ceylon Civil Service and those commanding the business firms and those making up the plantocracy in the first half of the 20th century. Nor did it embrace/address the continuing vestiges of White racism in the 1940s-to-1960s which saw membership of the Colombo Swimming Club, the Colombo Club, the Colombo Lawn Tennis Club and the CCC closed to people of colour however affluent and genteel; while also barring treatment at the Fraser Hospital to all non-whites.[2]

It also leaves us with questions: since a significant number of the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie from late British times were from the Karāva, Salāgama and Durāva castes and a sprinkling from the Wahumpura and other castes, what influence did these gentlemen … and their womenfolk …. have on the use of “Goyigama Lansi” and related exchanges? Would HW Amarasuriya or NQ Dias[3] or Stanley de Zoysa[4] ever refer genially to a good Burgher friend or police superintendent as a Govigama Lansiyā?

Would George E. de Silva of Kandy, “Apey George” as he was referred to by many,[5] resort to such a phrase and ‘embrace’ Cox Sproule in this manner? Both were lawyers in Kandy at about the same time in the 1910s to 1940s and were good friends – a friendship that enabled Sproule to make fun of George E. De Silva’s faux pas in the use of English, his “malapropisms” as Cox Sproule called them.[6] Let me stress that George E. de Silva was born into the relatively disadvantaged Radā caste (traditionally associated with washing clothes); but had risen to become a lawyer and married Agnes Nell, a Burgher lady from an upstanding Burgher family of French Huguenot descent.

George E himself was quite tall and a striking figure. He possessed many of the attributes valued by the westernized Ceylonese in the early 20th century. It is difficult to think that “Apey George,” as he was referred to by many,[7] would refer to Cox Sproule as a Govigama Lansiyā. To bring this specific issue up here, of course, is special pleading. But, then, that phrase. Goyigama Lansiyā is a walking/talking instance of peculiar usage.

This term seems to have been an occasional reference in the banter among the Ceylonese bourgeoisie and upper classes in their clubs and even perhaps in drawing rooms during the 1940s-70s. I have just been informed by a friend that a Burgher of more recent vintage, the singer and film star Ronnie Leach (1963-2018) used to refer to himself laughingly on air as a Goyigama Lansiyā. By implication, the likelihood is that it was deployed earlier as well during the first three decades of the 20th century when the political activists within the Ceylonese bourgeoisie were pressing for constitutional reform and independence.

In my reading Goyigama Lansiyās (note the plural) marks the intercalary strands of (A) the British colonial order; (B) the Ceylonese class formation; (C) the Sinhalese caste differentiations; and (D) the ethnic differentiations among the Ceylonese (Sri Lankans).

By embracing a Burgher person as a Goyigama Lansiyā, a Sinhala person was indicating that he was of the same class strata and possessed its genteel civilities and capacities. Further, that this Burgher was not from either the Burgher lower middle class manning the Railway Department or clerical posts in the administrative sector nor from the poor Burghers identified as sapaththu lansi (shoe-making Burghers). This line of differentiation was in play within the Burgher social formation as well. On one occasion in the 1970s a Burgher friend of mine referred to another Burgher family as “back-door Burghers” (the only time I have heard that phrase). So, for some genteel Burghers it was only right and proper for these backdoor Burghers to come to their rear door rather than the front if there was any request to be presented.

Moreover, we must heed the intricate customs embodying social differentiation among the Sinhala peoples of the western, southern and middle tracts of Ceylon. Visits to the house of a radala Goyigama family or a prosperous Sinhala family entailed clear social distinctions. Some persons of lowly status would not dare to go beyond the garden pathway. Others would be permitted entry on to the verandah and left standing. Yet others would merit a stool. Entry beyond into the parlour was only for the esteemed visitors ….. oola-la, wunderbar.

In deploying a Sinhala caste designation to mark social distance, a Sinhala speaker would be importing caste layering into the field of class distance. That is why I raised an awkward question: would Karāva, Durāva and Salāgama gentlemen of the good bourgeoisie adopt such language? Alas, I do not have the ethnographic material to answer this question.

Let me complicate matters further by bringing up the class and ethnic epithets that were in play during the colonial period and were still part of everyday language in the latter half of the 20th century. It was not uncommon for middle class folk to refer to the working class as “yakoes” or godayās.” At tennis some would upbraid the ball boys as yakoes. Again, there was a period in the 1940s and 1950s when youth from both the upper and lower middle classes picked on male villagers who came to town with hair knotted at the back as a “somapāla” and derided them unmercifully – in such a belittling and demeaning force that this hair style declined fast. That was a form of urban bias incorporating class oppression (the more alarming because working class boys in town were among those wielding this weapon).

Weapon? Yes, weaponry. Words of rebuke or denunciation or disparagement are sharp weapons that can lead to violence and long-lasting enmities.

There is a yet more revealing issue – raised here as a possibility in social intercourse rather than a body of recorded data. Would a Sinhala upper class gentleman who considered his Burgher neighbour to be a Goyigama Lansiyā respond amicably if that Burgher gentleman’s son started flirting with his ‘beautiful’ daughter? And what sort of language would be deployed if a property dispute developed into a crescendo of sharp friction between these neighbours? At moments of altercation what words of rebuke would be called into play? Would the good lansiyā be deemed a parangiyā or karapothu lansiyā or sapaththu lansiyā in utterly demeaning manner?

These terms of denigration and abuse in Sinhala were part of English-speak as well. The pejorative parangiyā was a Sinhala term for the Portuguese and featured prominently in the anti-Colonial Sinhala war poems of the seventeenth century: for example, in the Rajasinha Hatana (c. 1638) and the Māha Hatana (circa 1690s).[8]

Piyadasa Sirisena

It eventually became a word that could be applied to all those of European descent. It was also a weapon in the anti-colonial armoury that developed from the mid-19th century (if not earlier). It was among the terms deployed by Piyadasa Sirisena in his popular romantic novels — novels that were threaded with anti-Western messages, economic nationalism and indigenist purism.[9] Sirisena had been born as Pedrick de Silva at birth; but chose to discard this sign of Portuguese influence and became a journalist, novelist and political campaigner (1875-1946). In his brand of thinking all forms of mixture were bad. Those deemed “para” were thereby nīca, jada, nindita (low & dirty; inferior; despicable).

The chart deployed by me in People Inbetween encapsulates this field of exclusion and disparagement in a manner that mere words cannot capture.

To those partial to Sirisena’s type of thinking, any Burgher, whether Goyigama Lansi or not, was contaminated, vile and politically suspect. Thus, every Burgher, whether Goyigama Burgher or sapaththu Burgher, could be branded with another demeaning epithet: karapoththā or karapothu lansi – meaning Burgher cockroach. The metaphor of cockroaches is, in fact, a widespread international pejorative that is well nigh universal.[10] But in Sri Lanka it was the Burghers who copped this flak in the era of British rule and the decades that followed Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948.

The class identity Goyigama Lansiyā must not, therefore, be read innocently without attending to a whole range of ramifications within Sri Lanka’s socio-political dispensation in the middle decades of the twentieth century.

   **** ****


A Wandering Lānkikayā: “The Goyigama Lānkikayās,” 12 July 2019, ……………….. https://thuppahis.com/2019/07/12/the-goyigama-lansiyaas/#more-36336

Eardley Lieversz & Jane Russell: “Anecdotal Lore on “APEY GEORGE,” namely, George E. De Silva and Family,” July 2019, in press.

CR de Silva: “The Historiography of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka: A Survey of the Sinhala Writings,” Samskriti, 1983, vol 17, pp.13-22.

Michael Roberts: “The Political Antecedents of the Revivalist Elite within the MEP Coalition of 1956,” Modern Sri Lanka Studies, 1987, vol 2: 185-220.

Michael Roberts et al: People Inbetween, Colombo, Sarvodaya Book Publishers. 1989.

Michael Roberts: Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, 1590s-1815, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2004.


[1] I have taken the liberty of naming the anonymous Sinhala author as “A Wandering Laankikayaa.” See https://thuppahis.com/2019/07/12/the-goyigama-lansiyaas/

[2] My wife and I became warmly friendly with Ratna and Maureen Liyanagamage during our sea journey from England to Colombo in March 1966 – with Maureen being English from the London area. Ratna worked as an executive for Heath & Co and we visited them often during visits to Colombo, especially when Maureen entered Fraser Nursing Home for the delivery of their child. At one time just afterwards, Ratna told us that, as they took their leave, the hospital had politely informed him that neither he nor their new-born son could come there for treatment.

[3] Both HW Amarasuriya and NQ Dias were from the Karāva caste, the former from the Galle locality and Dias from a prestigious Panadura lineage. Amarasuriya not only had considerable and interests, but also figured in politics. NQ Dias entered the Ceylon Civil Service and was a powerful figure in the Bandaranaike administrations. As a driving force behind the Sinhala Only movement, he would have been anathema to most of the police officers and lansiyās featuring in the original article.

[4] Born in 1907 Stanley De Zoysa was from the Salāgama caste and the son of Sir Francis de Zoysa (advocate and A Member of the First State Council). He was the Minister of Financé in SWRD Bandaranaike’s first cabinet. Note that his brother Sidney was a senior police officer with a reputation for tough decision-making.

[5] See Jane Russell, Our George, Our George: A Biography of George Edmund de Silva, 1942-47 (unknown binding – 1981).

[6] Note the assessment by Jane Russell: “Cox Sproule was a great pal of Apey George’s: George was a very charming man, intensely likeable. ….. He’d had an interrupted education, so his English was hit and miss at times but almost everyone who knew him fell under his spell. He’d been brought up in Nuwara Eliya and was well acquainted with British sporting and leisure culture: he could dance, play tennis, cricket and golf as well as any Englishman, and he knew all the songs that Englishmen sing when they’re drunk.”

[7] See Jane Russell, Our George

[8] Roberts et al People Inbetween, 1989, pp.9-12 and Roberts, Sinhala Consciousness, 2006.

[9] See Roberts et al People Inbetween, 1989, pp.9-12.

[10] Puerto Ricans in New York were (are?) depicted as cockroaches. A German Professor from southwestern Germany working in Adelaide told me that the Swabian Germans considered other Germans as cockroaches; and that Germans in general regarded the Poles as cockroaches.

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One response to ““Goyi-Lansi”: Badinage founded on Class Differentiation laced with Ethnicity and Prejudice

  1. I, too, was sent this disgraceful, ignorantly offensive piece of work by a former classmate. It is typical of the casual racism of contemporary Sri Lankans (itself an inherited colonial attitude, although it certainly found a fertile field among the natives of the country).

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