Percy Colin-Thomé and the Composition of the Book People Inbetween

Michael Roberts

Percy Colin-Thomé was born in Galle and his initial learning roots were at Richmond College. His genealogical roots derived from the Swiss personnel of the de Meuron Regiment in the service of the VOC in the 1790s who stayed on in Sri Lanka in British times when the colonial lands on the coast of Ceilao were taken over by the expanding imperial power known as Britain. These lineages became one strand in the mixed/race “Burgher” ethnic group in the island once the whole arena had been unified as colony by Britain between 1815 and 1818. Largely urban in background and increasingly English-speaking at home, these Burgher people became an influential segment of the local “middle-class” fulfilling intermediary roles in the British colonial service.[1]

Calverley House verandah in Cinamon Gardens in the 20th century — an epitome of middle class life styles

As such, there was a significant concentration of Burghers in the City of Colombo and this metropolis was where Percy Colin-Thome set up house.  Apart from his professional engagements in the legal field, Percy was prominent in the Thespian Society of actors and served as President of the Dutch Burgher Union from 1988-98. I cannot recall how and precisely when our paths crossed in ways that led to our collegial interaction in the manuscript that eventually appeared in print in 1989 under the imprint of Sarvodaya Book Publishing House with the title People Inbetween (the incorrect form of “inbetween” being my imposition — because I consider it more aesthetic).

Roberts in the 1980s

This particular outcome of a collaborative enterprise involving Percy, Ismeth and myself cannot be understood without a digression that focuses on my career and the research work pursued in the 1980s. After I received an appointment at the Dept of Anthropology at the University of Adelaide in 1977 my disciplinary training was perforce expanded into sociological and anthropological realms. My appointment was probably directed by an ambitious scheme to study the development of Colombo in a multi-disciplinary manner – a project developed by Professor Bruce Kapferer and Dr. Kingsley Garbett. Adelaide University’s long vacation extended from November through to the end of January, so one aspect of this project was a detailed survey of the socio-economic and migration details of households in Colombo city via a survey of cross-sections conducted by a troupe of local personnel administering questionnaires. In 1978/79 Garbett directed this enterprise with me in support (presumably because of my local contacts and knowledge). Kapferer, Garbett, Lee Sackett and Roberts complemented this background statistical work with their own urban studies after year-long stints of research in the city in the following years.

My year’s turn came at the end of 1980 – so that the Roberts family (Shona, Kim Maya and myself) found a house to rent in Nugegoda in December 1980 and settled down to live there for a year. My focus was ethnographic work on (A) the shanty area in Kirulapona (B) the motor trading shops at Panchikawatte Rd, Maradana[2] and its successful merchant princes and (C) the historical transformation of the city of Colombo from the 1800s onwards.

The third line of inquiry, the growth of Colombo, led to of the material that is encompassed in People Inbetween. It also led me to visit the records office of the Colombo Museum, the Department of National Archives and the Library of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (then located in the Old Racecourse buildings). It was at the latter site that I banged into Jehan Raheem – once a fellow student and rugby mate at Ramanathan Hall. This chance event brought me into contact with his younger brother Ismeth, an architect and book collector with an avid interest in the island’s history. The RAS library was (and still is) the repository of the CA Lorenz Manuscripts – all locked away in a solid cabinet.[3]

These documents – including copies of letter written as well as a variety of printed articles from the mid-nineteenth century – are a goldmine. In plunging into this work, I recruited the help of Percy Colin-Thome (a friend of my elder sister Sheila and Rene Ludowyk[4]). The friendship between Percy, Ismeth and myself flowered from that point on. My memory is defective, but I think most of the work that went into the book People Inbetween was pursued in the years 1986/87 when I had another sabbatical year of research involving a long stay in Colombo and Sri Lanka.

As originally planned, People Inbetween was meant to extend into four volumes. Ismeth Raheem served as the ‘General’ pursuing his expertise in historical portraiture and architecture to produce the second volume Images of British Ceylon in 2000 (Times Edition, Singapore). Percy, alas, had passed away be then. Volumes III and IV have not seen the printer’s ink. This scheme sought to present the letters and work of Charles Ambrose Lorenz and his circle as well as a collection of writings, paintings, drawings and photographs from a talented pool of personnel – mostly Burgher but including a few Sinhalese and some Europeans (e. g. the Worms brothers).[5]

This failure is to be regretted.

C’est la vie.

**** ****

APPENDIX: Original Intentions that did not see fruition

Volume III: People Inbetween: Life and Times in British Ceylon, 1840-70

I-III: Letters (being copies of original letters from JF Lorenz Snr, Alfred Drieberg, C. A. Lorenz and Lily Bartholomeusz)

IV: Materials, Culture and the Social Scene

V: Selections from Nineteenth Century Paintings

VI: J. L. K. Van Dort’s Pencil and Brush

Volume IV: Life and Times in British Ceylon, 1840-70

VII: Views of Ceylon c.1868: The Worms Collection

VIII: Perakadoru, The Proctor’s Paradise

IX: Events and Incidents

X: Orientations and Incidents

       **** ****


Gunesekera, Olcott 1995 “150 years of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka,” Sesquicentennial Commemorative Volume, pp. 1-70.

Raheem, Ismeth & Percy Colin-Thome 2000 Images of British Ceylon, Singapore, Times edition.

Roberts, Michael 

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

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.

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

1981d  “The Hydraulic Society of Ancient Ceylon: Speculations on the Factors Contributing Towards the Relative Stasis in its Socio-Economic Structure”, Journal of the Oriental Society of Australia, pp. 23-33.

1983    “‘Our Duty to Act’: Brown Sahibs in Universal Suits”, South Asia, 6: 62-77.

1984    “‘Caste Feudalism’ in Sri Lanka?  A Critique through the Asokan Persona and European Contrasts”, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 18: 189-217.

1985a  “Ethnicity in Riposte at a Cricket Match: The Past for the Present”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 27: 401-429.

1985b  “‘I Shall Have You Slippered’: The General and the Particular in an Historical Conjuncture”, Social Analysis, 17: 17-48.

1985c  “From Empiricist Conflation to Distortion: Caste in South Asia”, Modern Asian Studies, 19: 353-52.

1988    “Sri Lanka:  Ethnic Conflict and Political Crisis, A Review Article”, Ethnic Studies Report, 6: 40-62.

1989a  “The Two Faces of the Port City:  Colombo in Modern Times,” in Frank Broeze (ed.), Brides of the Ocean:  Port Cities of Asia, 1500 to Modern Times, Sydney, Allen and Unwin. pp. 173-87.

1989b  “A Tale of Resistance: The Story of the Arrival of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka”, Ethnos, 55: 1-2:69-82.

1989c  “Pejorative Phrases: The Anti-Colonial Response and Sinhala Perceptions of the Self through Images of the Burghers,” in Swedish in Lanka. Tidskrift om Lankesisk Kultur (Uppsala), No. 2, March 1989.

1989d  “The Political Antecedents of the Revivalist Elite within the MEP Coalition of 1956” in K.W. Goonewardena Felicitation Volume, ed. by C.R. De Silva & Sirima Kiribamune, Peradeniya University, pp. 185-220.

1989e  “Indian Plantation Labour in Sri Lanka,” a review essay, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 3: 380-85.

1989f   “Apocalypse or Accommodation?  Two Contrasting Views on Sinhala-Tamil Relations in Sri Lanka”, South Asia, 12: 67-83.

1990    “Noise as Cultural Struggle: Tom-Tom Beating, the British and Communal Disturbances in Sri Lanka, 1880s-1930s,” in Veena Das (ed.), Mirrors of Violence: Communities, Riots, Survivors in South Asia, Delhi: O.U. P., pp. 240-85.

1993a  “Nationalism, the Past and the Present: the Case of Sri Lanka,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 16: 133-161.

1993b  “Emotion and the Person in Nationalist Studies” in Japanese in The Shinso, Jan. 1993.  (Special edition on Nationalism Today ed. by T. Aoki), pp. 127-50.

1994a  “The Cultured Gentleman: The Appropriation of Manners by the Middle Class in British Ceylon”, Anthropological Forum, 7: 55-73.

1994b  “Of Traditions, Memories and Ideological Blockages”, Asian Studies Review, November 1994, 18:71-76.

1996a  “Beyond Anderson: Reconstructing and Deconstructing Sinhala Nationalist Discourse”, Modern Asian Studies, 30: 690-98.


Michael Roberts 2021 “The Burgher Elite and the British Raj,” 20 May 2021,


[1] The term “middle class” encompasses social formations that were “capitalist” inline with the manner the term is deployed within Marxist thinking – that is, it includes landlords and economic entrepreneurs in a wide variety of trades.  For the Marxist dimensions, visit the writings of Kumari Jayawardena Newton Gunasinghe and Vinod Moonesinghe. My work can be found in some of the bibliographical items listed below.

[2] One of my research assistants Joe Perera even drew aup a chart of all the shops and houses fronting this street. Note, too, that a few of those owning an establishment in this street had become new rich and moved into Colombo Seven to live. I interviewed at least one such family living in Rosmead Place.

[3] The RAS began moving to a new and superior location in April 1984 and this shift was completed by April 1985 with a formal official opening at its premises within the Mahwweli Development Board in Colombo 7 (info from Prof KD Paranavitana). See Gunasekera 1995.

[4] My unmarried sisters Marge, Norah and Sheila lived with Rene in a house in Kirulapona. The Roberts-Ludowyk link goes back to the Galle Fort in the 1930s and 1940s. Rene was a sister of EFC Ludowyk and both Rene and Marge were nurses who became matrons in the hospital system.

[5] The broad plan is reproduced here as an APPENDIX.


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9 responses to “Percy Colin-Thomé and the Composition of the Book People Inbetween

  1. Pingback: People Inbetween and Professor K. M. de Silva’s Diehard History | Thuppahi's Blog

  2. Daya Wickramatunga

    Many thanks.

  3. Paul Schumacher

    Thanks for your hard work.

  4. Sanath de Silva

    Michael, all this brings me personally great memories of my happy childhood. This is one of the awesome gifts one can look for, and thanks to you, Michael!
    Blessings to you!!

  5. Daya Wickramatunga.

    Your contributions are deeply appreciated. Ceylon needs people of your calibre ro remind us of how great our conutry was in the past.

  6. Joe Simpson

    Most interesting, Michael. I’ve had the privilege of periodic correspondence with the estimable Ismeth Raheem in the past, and thanks to the kindness of Vancouver, BC-resident Ranil Bibile who agreed to be courier, once sent Ismeth a Giclée reproduction of a previously-unknown 1840s painting by Andrew Nicholl from his outbound voyage to Colombo, the original of which has been purchased by a British Columbia collector with whom I’d been in touch.
    In regards to your attached bibliography, specifically the scholarly article on the 1915 communal riots that particularly affected the Galle-Tangalle area, while I was on VSO teaching at Richmond College (1973-74) some RCG colleagues and I were in
    Matara on our way to visit a rural jungle primary school in the Moneragala area, when we fell into conversation with an elderly local, who had been a fisherman all his working life. With my colleagues translating for me, he shared some boyhood memories of those riots. His most memorable observation (to me at any rate) was how vicious the Sikh troops brought in from India were towards the locals, regardless of their involvement or otherwise in the communal strife. He remembered as a teenage bystander being beaten about the head and legs by their lathis, and counted himself lucky that he hadn’t been shot out of hand.
    Such was the nervousness of the colonial authorities, imagining all kinds of German wartime intrigues behind the riots. Engelbrecht, of course, was another victim of that prevailing paranoia on the part of the British. Always easier to blame foreign intrigue for domestic unrest — à la Hong Kong and Iran in more modern times! Salut!

    • Thank you Joe.
      You have provided an unusual but valuable item of ETHNOGRAPHIC EVIDENCE of the type gathered by anthropologists and other fieldworkers. The attacks on the “Mohameddan Moors” (as they were described then) in mid-1915 were awful; but some dimensions of the British government’s response also demands critical examination. The deployment of ‘alien’ functionaries was one aspect of this punishing process.
      So, in brief, this slant is an useful supplement to essays by Kumari Jayawardena and others (including myself) that have surveyed the “1915 riots” and marked the severe reprisals pursued by the Britsh authorities –including some British planters enlisted as policing personnel.

      • Vinod Moonesinghe

        As far as I know, modern descriptions of the 1915 anti-Muslim riots rarely discuss the causes. Anti-Muslim sentiment among the Sinhalese and Tamils came about mainly due to the role of Muslims as usurious moneylenders (Sinhalese anti-Tamil sentiment, similarly, arose from the usury of the Nadar bankers). Usury constituted a key part of the exploitation of the peasantry in the colonial economy, reducing the farmer to a peon. (As an aside, the anti-Semitism of Black African-Americans also springs from the role of Jewish moneylenders and slum landlords – the Jewish community having evolved from the exploited to the exploiters.)
        The British authorities exacerbated this sentiment by ostentatiously taking the side of the Muslims in the Perahera case. The British may have been worried about a Muslim revolt, in view of the popularity of the Ottomans among that community, and of the Kaiser’s declaration that he would protect Muslims worldwide; the Ottoman Caliph had issued a call to Jihad, and the German High Command had established a “Jihad Bureau” in Berlin.

  7. … and now JOE has sent a photo of the old fisherman who related that tale about being beaten by Sikh soldiers in 1915 …. [not sure HOW I can place it here]

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