Remembering Indian Ocean Slavery through Film: Afro-Sri Lankan Memories

Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya

Whilst the transatlantic slave trade has overwhelmed the historiography of Africa, the forced easterly movement of Africans is only receiving scholarly attention in the twenty first century.  Movement of Africans from the Continent is not characterised by the slave trade alone.  Not surprisingly, free Africans moved eastwards as missionaries, soldiers, sailors and traders.  Forced migration was concurrent with free migration.

By contextualising Afro-Sri Lankans within the frame of the Indian Ocean African diaspora, I draw attention to the networks that operated in the region and the diverse fates of African migrants and their descendants. Malik Ambar, an Ethiopian sold to slavery by his parents, became the Peshwa (Prime Minister) of Ahmednagar in India, a position he held from 1600 until his death in 1626. Africans ruled parts of India — the States of Janjira (in today’s Maharashtra) and Sachin (in today’s Gujarat) — until merger with the Indian Union, in 1948. Descendants of African elites, currently numbering a few hundred, continue to live in India. The majority of Afro-descendants in the sub-continent, however, fall below the radar.

Gaps in the archival records do not allow a continuous history of African migration to be established.  Free Ethiopians were trading in the north western port of Mātota, near Mannar, during the sixth century and perhaps even earlier. From the records of Ibn Batuta, the fourteenth century Moroccan traveller, we learn that five hundred Abyssinians served in the garrison of Jalasti, the ruler of Colombo.  During the colonial era (1505-1948), Africans were brought to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese, Dutch and British.

Incoming Africans intermarried with Sri Lankans and today there are only a few identifiable Afro-Sri Lankan communities. I first met the community in Sirambiyadiya, near Puttalam, during fieldwork for my doctorate on the “Indo-Portuguese of Ceylon: History, Linguistics and Literature”. I approached the community as a linguist, twenty years ago, but on hearing their drums beating out reverberating remembered rhythms and their chant-like manhas, my interests broadened to include ethnomusicology.  As a musician, brought up on the classical western canon, I was enthralled by their music-making, with homemade instruments accompanied by energetic unchoreographed dancing on the sandy gardens. 

Afro-Sri Lankans have put Sirambiyadiya on the map. The village is key to the cultural production of this community of sixty-seven people living in twenty two houses – a real community bound by a common history and heritage.  Afro-descendants living outside Sirambiyadiya perceive the village as the cultural hub.  However, their relatives living in Kalpitiya have recently begun to perform manhas, and on occasion the two groups perform together.

In my paper, Remembering Indian Ocean Slavery through Film: Afro-Sri Lankan Memoriespublished in the Journal of Global Slavery (2020), I argue that film is an effective communication tool and a medium for making visible the Afro-Sri Lankan community and for giving them a space to voice their opinions.  The community reflect on their ancestors, their lives in a multiethnic setting, and their tradition of chant-like manhas handed down through an oral tradition by their ancestors and on its emergence from the periphery.  Manha performances have also moved on to the stage and are performed at social occasions in hotels and at cultural festivals.  Manhas showcase the African diaspora in Sri Lanka and also the historical African presence on the Island.  The Sirambiyadiya community’s identity is entwined in their manha performance.  Their cultural memories are expressed through singing manhas which are mainly in Sri Lanka Portuguese, the lingua franca for most of the Island’s colonial era (1505-1948).

Afro-Sri Lankans re-create Africa through manha and broaden the culture spectrum of Sri Lanka.  The community’s agency is manifested in the formation of a twelve-member band called “Ceylon African Manjas” consisting of six females and six males. Being a village community, the band is unable to market itself adequately.  Film offers a medium to draw attention to the community’s cultural production.

My film “Indian Ocean Memories: African Migrations” has brought the Afro-Sri Lankans to the attention of those in positions of authority. The South African High Commissioner, Robyna Marks, was not aware of Afro-descendants in Sri Lanka until she saw my film screening which complemented my lecture to the ICES (International Centre for Ethnic Studies) in Colombo.  The Seychelles High Commissioner, Philippe Le Gall, read my interview with The Island following the film screening and lecture to the University of Colombo.  He learnt of Afro-Sri Lankans through this writeup.

Plans to strengthen ties between Creole communities across the Indian Ocean are ongoingFollowing my lecture, my film was screened during the Kreol Festival at Victoria, Mahe Island, Seychelles, in order to make known Afro-Sri Lankan culture. The Head of the Africa Section, at the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), who attended my lecture to Chatham House (London), was stirred by the powerful audio-visuals and intended to visit Sirambiyadiya to meet the community. Through film, I am able to reach a privileged audience who are able to empower subaltern communities.

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Dr Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya, FRAS, is an Academic at the University of London and drafted this Item on 10-3-2021.


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