The Carpentry Trade in the Rise of the Karāva in British Ceylon

Professor Sanath Lamabadusuriya

The Dutch period opened up several new economic opportunities for the locals, and the British period that followed opened up even more. Carpentry was one of them. Colonial economic activity in the maritime provinces required large buildings with extensive woodwork, Carts, boats and ships for transport, barrels for storage and European style furniture. These demands created a new and thriving carpentry industry.

A Coopering Factory …. Such products as arrack and coffee (and later graphite) were packed into barrels for transhipment. The demand would have been considerable so that entrepreneurs who set up coopering concerns would have been among those who became scions of the indigenous capitalist class.

When Sri Lanka was ruled by Kshātriya kings of the solar and lunar dynasties, the Army and the Navy of the country was led and manned by the Karāvas whose traditional occupation by birth was to fight, capture land and guard what was captured. With European invasions, the advanced sailing vessels of the Europeans, and the fall of Sri Lankan kingdoms, the military and naval roles of the Karāvas diminished, and the destitute naval and infantry communities on the coast had to resort in large numbers to fishing and those in the interior to agriculture for survival.

However, several Karāva families who already owned long distance sailing boats, ships and boatyards, focused fully thereafter on international trade, mostly with India and southeast Asia and became quite prosperous during the 1800s. For example, the Ponnahennedige (meaning armored in gold) de Silvas (during the late 1700s and early 1800s), and Don Bastian de Silva Jayasuriya (during the mid-1800s) both from Magalle, had owned 30 to 40 wooden sea going vessels and traded with Burma; and Margiris de Silva Weerasooriya (1780-1841) had been producing large seagoing wooden vessels at his ship building yard in Dodanduwa. 

However, several Karāva families who already owned long distance sailing boats, ships and boatyards, focused fully thereafter on international trade, mostly with India and southeast Asia and became quite prosperous during the 1800s. For example, the Ponnahennedige (meaning armored in gold) de Silvas (during the late 1700s and early 1800s), and Don Bastian de Silva Jayasuriya (during the mid-1800s) both from Magalle, had owned 30 to 40 wooden sea going vessels and traded with Burma; and Margiris de Silva Weerasooriya (1780-1841) had been producing large seagoing wooden vessels at his ship building yard in Dodanduwa. 

They and their extended families living in the ports were also engaged in domestic transport by wooden carts and were the wealthy capitalists and patrons of skilled traditional carpenters. As they were already equipped with carpentry workshops, many carpenters in port towns readily exploited the needs of the colonial economy, and prospered by producing woodwork for buildings, colonial furniture and barrels.

The thriving plantation and trading economy of the late 1800s saw the venturing of several entrepreneurial Karāvas, with and without capital, into innovative new fields. Not being bound to land, the exposure of their families to a few centuries of western culture and trading practices and the fast-paced growth of the economy were definite advantages. The introduction of portable sawmills by Mututantrige Simon Fernando (Sri Chandrasekera Mudaliyar later) was an exceptional success story. At the end of the 19th century he was a principal purchase of Crown lands, a leading philanthropist. Professionally qualified sons from aristocratic Karava families married his daughters.

The Karāva family name Vaduge is often subject to a false etymology linking it to carpenters (vaduvas). However, the Karāva Vaduge clans (and the variant Baduge clans) have originally meant a Northerner, similar to the kings of Kandy who were called Vadugas. If they really were Vaduvas (carpenters), according to the same false etymology their parallel group the Baduges would be tenants from rented houses. It should also be noted that all the Karāva Vaduge names have prefixes and none of those prefixes refer to items of furniture, carts or wood.

In more recent times, innovative Karāva families in the carpentry industry ventured quite successfully into the branded furniture for the middle classes, mass market. AT Cooray and Company, EH Cooray and Company and Lakdiva Furnishers, all from Moratuwa, are now national brands.

****  ****

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY inserted by The Editor, Thuppahi

Arumugam, Thiru 2019 “The Devonshire reaches Queensland with 500 Cingalese Coolies in 1882,” 18 November 2019, https://thuppahis.com/2019/11/18/the-devonshire-reaches-queensland-with-500-cingalese-coolies-in-1882/
Bayly, Susan 1983 The History of Caste in South Asia – Caste Conflict and Elite Formation: The Rise of a Karāva Elite in Sri Lanka, 1500–1931,”  Modern Asian Studies vol. 17/3, pp. 519–27.
Raghavan MD 1961 The Karava of Ceylon: Society and Culture, Colombo, KVG De Silva & Sons

Roberts, Michael 1969 “The Rise of the Karavas”, Ceylon Studies Seminar, Series: no. 5, 4 March 1969, 36 pages.

Roberts, Michael 1973 “Elites and Elite Formation in Ceylon, c. 1830-1930” in History of Ceylon, Vol. III, pp. 263-84.

Roberts, Michael 1974 “Problems of Social Stratification and the Demarcation of National and Local Elites in British Ceylon,” Journal of Asian Studies, August 1974, 23: 549-77.

Roberts, Michael 1979 “Elite Formations and Elites, 1832-1931” in Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Publications, pp 153-213.

Roberts, Michael 1981a The 1956 Generations: After and Before, G.C. Mendis Memorial Lecture for 1981, Colombo, Evangel Press.

Roberts, Michael 1981b “Hobgoblins, Low-Country Sinhalese Plotters or Local Elite Chauvinists? Directions and Patterns in the 1915 Communal Riots,” Sri Lanka Journal of the Social Sciences, 4: 83-126.

Roberts, Michael 1981c “Occupational Diversification, Pooling Networks, and Spiralism in the Social Mobility of Karava Families in Sri Lanka,” South Asia, 4: 47-57.

Roberts, Michael 1982 Caste Conflict and Elite Formation: The Rise of a Karava Elite in Sri Lanka, 1500-1931, Cambridge University Press, 382 pages.

Roberts, Michael 1985 “From Empiricist Conflation to Distortion: Caste in South Asia,” Modern Asian Studies, 19: 353-52 ….. a Reply to Susan Bayly.

Roberts, Michael 2020 Facets of Modern Ceylon History through the Letters of Jeronis Pieris, 2nd edn, Colombo: Bay Owl Press.

A NOTE added by The Editor Thuppahi

I have requested Professor Lamabadusiriya to provide elaboration and documentation for the statements I have marked in red. This is not because I doubt the ‘facts,’ but because of my interest in source material. Galle was an important port in the Indian Ocean trade from way back. Enterprising families from its vicinity ventured across the seas to ports such as Zanzibar and Mombasa in Africa and Rangoon and Malacca and Singapore in Malaysia. As middlemen contractors a few of them provided pools of labour for work in the pearl diving areas of northwest Australia and especially for the mines and plantations of Queensland (a process described recently by Thiru Arumugam in The Ceylankan) .

2 Comments

Filed under British colonialism, centre-periphery relations, commoditification, cultural transmission, economic processes, historical interpretation, island economy, landscape wondrous, life stories, modernity & modernization, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, transport and communications, travelogue, unusual people, working class conditions, world events & processes

2 responses to “The Carpentry Trade in the Rise of the Karāva in British Ceylon

  1. JAYANTHA R. DE SILVA SAMARASINGHE

    Hi Michael,
    This is an iintriguing essay for me. My father’s side is De Silva Samarasinghe, and many of them are book keepers, and one son of my bappa/mahappa is a chartered accountant.They are all from Gallle/weligama/Ahangama etc.My father used to go to his village every year. However, he never took us there! But he used to bring Balayas every year, and my mother (who is a Fernando from grandpass, Colombo) used to cook the fish ‘Ambulthyi’ very well. My uncle Austin Feranado (from grandpass) used to refer to Karava peole gleefullyin approval. My mother and her elder brother, including his children, were very fair-skinned. When we were angry with her we used to insult her ‘white woman’. She used to say “don’t yell….the neighbours might hear it”. My father was very dark skinned and he was a book keeper too, and looked after ‘Samasamaja party’s accounts too since Dr NM Perera’s time, and until he died in my early teens.
    I am intrigued about all these. Your paper intrigued me very much. It is a pity that I can’t go back those times.
    Since you are a crickter I must say,. I played tennis-ball cricket with my 2 brothers. My shots towards the mid wicket went through his Daily News paper so many times.

    • Professor Sanath Lamabadusriya’s work not mine. But note some of the literature listed in the ADDENDUM if you wish to pursue this interest –quite a large ‘order’ I am afraid.

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