About the Kāberi in Colonial Ceilao and the Fort of Galle

Michael Roberts

Writing in the Daily News in March 2019 and deploying the affirmation of a South African diplomat, Jeevan Thiagarajah has lamented the alleged fact that the VOC Black African used slave labour to build the imposing Fort of Galle – even asserting that “an estimated 15,000 Africans brought from Portuguese and Dutch colonies” worked on this project.[1] Thiagarajah is a political scientist and not a historian. His essay is clearly riding on the back of the movement “Black Lives Matter.” But in this populist move to earn kudos (as I speculate), he displays abysmal historical background and has failed to consult the many personnel next door to him in Colombo who would have served up solid data on the topic – notably Ashley De Vos (who has subsequently, albeit briefly, questioned Jeevan’s claim).

The Fort of Galle in the late 19th century

Storming of Galle fort in 1640

“Native troops’ in the service of the colonials

I happen to have a rather unusual slave background myself via my father’s origins in Barbados. I also happened to be born and bred over the first twenty years of my life on earth within the four walls of the Galle Fort. I never heard of the slave story, but that is no foundation for my questioning of Jeevan’s suggestion. What I can now question with some stress is based on my subsequent work on the history of Sri Lanka – a grounding which leads me underline his paucity of knowledge about the Kāberi in Sri Lankan history from Portuguese times.

The Portuguese and Dutch had to sail around Africa in the 16th to 18th centuries – a continent where they sustained colonies and a continent that was the source of slave labour and mercenary aid for the various European imperial enterprises in the Americas and Asia. Thus, Black African personnel were rendered into elements in their imperial penetration of India, Sri Lanka and the Malay-Indonesian countries. Some of these personnel were probably in military service, while others were a labour force and yet others were probably domestic labour. The latter probably included a few Black African women sustained as domestics and concubines;  but the majority were probably male.

Jeevan Thiagarajah seems to be blissfully unaware of the Sinhalese literature on the Kāberi or the more recent publications by Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya of the University of London.[2] Way back in 1954/55, PEP Deraniyagala edited three volumes of Hugh Nevill’s Mss collection of Sinhala verse. This set includes hatan kavi or war poems. One is even entitled “Kāberi Kataawa” or “The Kāberi Story” (Nevill vol I: 132). Another is called the “Kappili Hatane” or “The Kaffir Trouble” (Nevill vol. II: 206).

These were among the war poems I had to study during my research on Sinhala identity in the pre-British period with the aid of a considerable clutch of Sinhala scholar friends.[3] The war poems sustained the traditions of prasasti, the eulogistic poetry in praise of great men who were rendered into epic figures replicating the battles of Buddha against Mara or the Sura against the Asura. So, the Sinhala kings were (are) presented as cakravarti figures of superhuman character who are/were supported by Sinhala sen (Sinhala fighters) defending a valued territory namely Lakdiva.

It was within this dichotomised cosmic setting that the mercenary forces aiding the Portuguese Dutch or British were framed — that is to say, castigated. As I noted in my study, the foreigners who feature in the war poems in this disparaging manner included the following: “the Bengālis, Doluvara, Javun (Malays), Kannadi, Ormuzi (from Ormuz), Mukkarū, Paravara, Tuppāsī (tuppahi), Vadakkara and Kāberi (Blacks from Africa, also called Kapperi).”[4] Within this set, those that received the most frequent condemnation seem to have been the Kannadi, Kāberi and Tuppāsī.

Let me underline this ‘distinction’ with a long quotation from my old study:

“At some point in the late 1790s or early 1800s, various recensions of a war poem known as Kāberi Hatana or Kappiri Hatana focused entirely on these people. This poem appears to have been occasioned by a marauding incursion into Kandyan territory by a band of Blacks. In all probability the reference is to Blacks in the service of the English army, probably in the Trincomalee area because Nevill found that this story was extant during the nineteenth century in the Trincomalee and Nuvarakalāviya districts in particular. In all versions the Kaffirs are presented in gruesome and fearsome fashion. They are depicted as people with “hair like a burned white-ants hill, eyes like inflamed boils, mouths like the sore left by a boil that has burst, breath of horrible stench, and slobbering tongues.” This story therefore marked as well as reproduced a fear of the ‘cannibal’ Blacks among the Sinhala people that continues to have resonances inscribed within folklore in the twentieth century.”[5]

These fears did not prevent the Kings of Sihale located at Mahanuvara (Kandy) from employing black mercenary troops themselves. In medieval polities praetorian guards were a valued commodity because of their skill-set and presumed loyalty. One of the ironies of the wars between the English and the Sinhala forces in the early nineteenth century revealed within the British source material is the documentary evidence referring to “our Blacks” and “their Blacks.”

Placed within this context the use of Kaffir labour to build the Fort of Galle in the 17th and 18th centuries is unlikely to have occurred without a clutch of sources remarking on such a fact. Ashley De Vos’ forthcoming book will settle the issue.

However, one set of facts we know full well. Birth, caste and colour distinctions mattered. Within specific contexts, those deemed low or fearsome were treated with disdain and outcaste – yet feared. Indeed, one could conjecture and flip the process of thought: by suggesting that they were feared in the past because they were outcastes who could pollute.

Today, their historical presence in noticeable number and prominent physical features is marked among little pockets of people in the Puttalam locality and in one or two coastal loyalties in Batticaloa and Trincomalee. Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya’s considerable work on song, dance and language is a vital resource for any commentary on their role in recent times.

Genetic traces of African inputs into Sri Lankan genealogy?

****  ****


De Silva Jayasuriya, Shihan 2021 “Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya’s Wide-Ranging Work on Portuguese Creole and the Kaffir,” 22 February 2021, https://thuppahis.com/2021/02/22/shihan-de-silva-jayasuriyas-wide-ranging-work-on-portuguese-creole-and-the-kaffir/

Neville, Hugh 1954 Sinhala Verse (Kavi), ed. by PEP Deraniyagala, Colombo, Government Press.

Neville, Hugh 1954 Sinhala Verse (Kavi), ed. by PEP Deraniyagala, Colombo, Government Press.

Neville, Hugh 1954 Sinhala Verse (Kavi), ed. by PEP Deraniyagala, Colombo, Government Press.

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

Tennekoon, Vimalananda  1984 Sri Wickema, Brownrigg and Ehelepola, Colombo, Gunasena & Co.

Thiagarajah, Jeevan 2021 “Galle Fort built on the backs of African Slave Labour,” 13 January 2021, https://thuppahis.com/2021/01/13/galle-fort-built-on-the-backs-of-african-slave-labour/


[1] See Thiagarajah, https://thuppahis.com/2021/01/13/galle-fort-built-on-the-backs-of-african-slave-labour/

[2] See de Silva Jayaasuriya 2021 and await another item or two.

[3] No less than the following:  Sandadas and Sandagomi Coperahewa, CR de Silva, Yodhagama Dharmapala, KBA Edmiund, Srinath Ganewatte, DS Mayadunne, Swineetha Nawanna, Sumana Ratnayake, SJ Sumanasekera Banda, Ananda Wakkumbura and PB Meegaskumbura(see Roberts, 2004: 115). Alas, several have since passed away.

[4] Roberts 2004, p. 126.

[5] Roberts, 2004, pp. 126-27.

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One response to “About the Kāberi in Colonial Ceilao and the Fort of Galle

  1. ranjitratnaike

    I enjoyed reading your very interesting and informative article and realized how little I know of Sri Lankan history. Thank you for this.

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