People Inbetween and Professor K. M. de Silva’s Diehard History

Michael Roberts, in Daily News, 27 March 1991 … reproduced here with highlighting emphasis added

Professor K. M. de Silva’s review of the book People Inbetween Volume I in the Daily News on the 19 and 20 September, 1990 has come to my notice. My response here to seeks to raise issues regarding the way in which history can be written.

It is clear that Professor de Silva has a rigidly conventional model of what I should have done. He stipulates the lines which the book should have followed: namely, a focus on the Burgher contribution to Sri Lankan history. In these terms he criticizes me for omitting references in the work to such famous Burghers as R. L. Brohier, Dr. Andreas, Nell and C. W. Nicholas.

Here, de Silva advocates a type of history which carries limited value. It has no theoretical foundations. Contributions are to be set out like a

Catalogue of items

in an antique shop. They are not analysed in relations to each other or within their context, either in terms of the thinking of the people studied and/or the analyst’s own scheme of appraisal.

There already are several studies on the “Burgher contribution.” These have yielded some fruit. But unless located within their context in a holistic manner, and assessed in an analytical way, such studies amount to little more than mindless empiricism.

People Inbetween eschewed this type of history. It is not a history of the Burghers and explicitly informed its readers about its orientations. It uses the Burghers as a window to wider processes: (1) the growth of the middle class in British Ceylon; (2) the Westernization of the Island peoples through the middle class; (3) the manner in which Colombo developed into a primate city which dominated the island’s socio-political processes and (4) the interplay of

Racial prejudice

 among the British, the Burghers and the Sinhalese (and also the nuances of ‘class’ prejudice among the Burghers).

Towards the latter project, viz ethnic prejudices, it attempted a novel analysis of the implicit patterns of thinking revealed by a corpus of pejorative terms used by Sinhalese and others to depict both the lansi and the various categories of suddha.

It is remarkable Professor K. M. de Silva’s review should have hardly any reference to any of these themes. It is the first duty of a reviewer to inform readers about the central themes of a book. To the extent that de Silva’s review does not do this, it amounts to a misrepresentation.

Whatever the author’s intention that is the effect. A great deal of history, it could be noted here, is about the unintended consequences of individual or group action. Historiography bears a similar imprint.

A mark of K. M. de Silva’s misreading is the fact that his review contains no references to the work of the

Young Ceylon Circle

even though People Inbetween has three chapters which are largely based on their writings and other activities. This group of young Ceylonese (led by C. A. Lorenz, Frederick and Louis Nell, John Prins and Charles Ferdinands) receives its name from the fact that they edited a journal called Young Ceylon in the years 1850-52.

The important point to grasp here is that the Young Ceylon circle was not merely a literary group. Literary creativity they possessed in abundance and in this broad sense they bear comparison with the creativity of

The 43 Group

 in the artistic field [in the 20th century]. But, unlike the 43 group, their interventions had political implications (in the analytic sense) and they carried greater clout in their own time (for a number of reasons which I cannot tackle here).

The title of their journal was a nationalist statement and one mark of their progressive political leanings.

This was taken further in 1859 when a syndicate of lawyers (Loresz, James de Alwis, Ferdinands, Harry Dias, J. A. Dunuwille et al) purchased a leading English newspaper, the Examiner. The aim behind this take-over was to “prove that Ceylon after all has arrived at a position when her children can speak for themselves” (Lorenz to Morgan, 14 March 1859).

The Young Ceylon ad Examiner activists were among those who participated in the abortive constitutional agitation of the Ceylon League in the 1860s. But, more significantly, the wide ranging interests of the circle are revealed by their links with the emerging Sinhala intelligentsia: it was to Lorenz and the Nell brothers that the sponsors of the Lakminipahana turned for advice when they initiated the first Sinhala newspaper in 1862.

Moreover, the Young Ceylon circle took up

The term Ceylonese

 and gave it a political meaning opposed to the term “natives” (which had demeaning miscellaneous, implications when used in a non-disparaging way.)

The only recognition of the Young Ceylon Circle in de Silva’s review is a reference to C. A. Lorenz. He does so only to delink Lorenz’s connection with this wider group by stressing that “Lorenz was very much the odd man out in the Burgher elite.” People Inbetween demonstrates that Lorenz was a culture hero in his own time in the mid nineteenth century as well as subsequent decades. His fame extended beyond the Burgher elite to the other Ceylonese elites and to the labouring population around Colombo. There is no way in which a culture hero can be an odd man out.

Apart from differences of interpretation on such specific points, however, Professor de Silva’s review is significant in revealing a fundamental difference in the way he and I approach data. He insists on retaining a rigid distinction between History and Anthropology. I see all disciplines, Geography, Political Science, History and Sociology, as intermeshing.

In my view, no study of any people (or sections thereof) can be attempted without understanding their world view, their mentalities, their patterns of symbolic meaning – and this is a province where Anthropology (a branch of Sociology) can make its contribution.

Here, then is the difference. Professor de Silva’s review is an important contribution (that word again) precisely for this reason: it displays the dangers of diehard empiricism.

Diehard empiricism

 is the art of not seeing the wood for the trees.

Empiricists produce useful material. But they do not examine the procedures by which they constitute their “facts” and their interpretations.

Many of the facts which social scientists use are already interpreted facts, opinions by this or that individual which have been socially constituted. Even census data is socially constituted; the categories in the census schedule embody a specific framework of thinking. Such social constructions cannot be adequately analyzed without attention to the patterns of meaning among the people under study.

Social science writing, therefore, involves interpretations built on interpretations. Within social sciences, cultural anthropologists have tended to produce interpretations about the patterns of interpretation (worldview) prevailing among a people or a sub-section of a group of people rather than, say, historical events like a strike or a war.

It is only too evident that Professor de Silva is dogmatically opposed to these anthropological procedures (procedures which are now widely used by historians, geographers etc.) His bemused reading of my first chapter on

Pejorative Phrases

 brings out his own prejudices on this point.

In this chapter I present a picture of Sinhalese understandings of the Sinhala jatiya from the writings of Sinhala nationalists as well as those everyday interactions which portray images of the white colonial intruders and those deemed to be their progeny (mestizos, Burghers etc). This is a simple, procedure of using pictures of the Other prevailing among a people in order to build up an analytical picture of their implicit or explicit understandings of themselves, that is their images of

The Self

As the capitals indicate, this operation is an analytical abstraction (artists will understand what an “abstraction” is [but] some emplicists refuse to come to terms with the concept). In this particular instance I moved, step by step, to the conclusion that the thinking of those Sinhalese who expressed chauvinist sentiments in opposition to the paradesakkara in British times was not only infused by the Aryan, theories sponsored by Western Indologists (an argument presented by R. A. L. H. Gunawardana), but also by caste ideology.

In arguing that casteism bolstered the racialist thinking of Sinhala chauvinists (thus not all Sinhalese) in British times, I believe that People Inbetween has presented an original argument.

This argument does not attempt to compare the Sinhala chauvinists with other chauvinists. I believe that most peoples will have prejudices encoded in  their language, but I do not have the expertise to disclose these.

In bringing out the underlying pattern encoded within certain disparaging epithets in use among the Sinhalese, I also took special care to set out the context in which words such as parangi, thuppahi and para achieved their emotive and acerbic force. This was the context of

 White Colonial Domination

with all its white racism, Christian bigotry and economic exploitation. In British times the subordinations to which (most) Sinhalese were subjected included the arrogance of (some) Burghers. This is highlighted within a subsection entitled “Burgher Airs and Prejudices” (to which K. M. de Silva makes no reference).

By bringing out this oppressive context, People Inbetween is able to argue that the disparaging epithets used by Piyadasa Sirisena and others were “Weapons the Downtrodden.” In brief, “the yakoes were striking back” (page 13).

  Piyadasa Sirisena

Thus, both sides of the coin are set out in People Inbetween. Nowhere in the book is it said that the Sinhalese have an “innate racism” (de Silva’s reading) or that all Sinhalese are (were) influenced at all times by the caste ideology and language pattern which I identified.

When a code gets inscribed within a language, however, and when the socio-political circumstances of nationalist liberation sustain such a code, its force is insidious and potentially powerful. The violent potential was revealed in the full during the anti-Muslim riots of 1915 and the anti-Tamil riots of 1958.

In other words, the code which embodied revulsion directed against white aliens could be extended to alien others (of whatever colour) who were deemed to be demanding too much and intruding into Sinhalese realms. People Inbetween does not attempt to argue the latter. The task of unravelling the pattern of thinking was difficult enough without having such an extended brief; and the central focus in chapter one was on the ancestors of the 20h century Burghers (and these embraced the white colonial masters).

Pejorative Phrases remain central to our understanding of Sinhala nationalism, whether in its moderate or chauvinist (fundamentalist) forms. To reject it as “opinionated” and “farfetched” with the magisterial imprint of a professor’s fiat is to take refuge in the bunker of empiricism. And those in beleaguered bunkers (shades of Saddam) cannot see.

And even dyed-in-the wool empiricists are not always masters of their data. There are numerous empirical bloomers in de Silva’s review. I shall conclude my reply by selecting one.

This is the empirical foundation which de Silva gives for his conclusion that the Burghers “were never the object of Sinhalese hostility.” The latter interpretation is in itself a horrendous [historical blunder] which, I trust, will be corrected in such histories by Burghers and others.

For the moment, what interests me is “the solid empirical evidence” (always de Silva’s touchstone) provided in support of this statement, namely, the thrust of Michael Ondaatje’s

 Running in the Family

The latter book is a sympathetic satire on a cosmopolitan jet-set within the middle class in the 20th century has always been multi-faceted. Parts should not be taken [for] a whole. Especially not extreme parts like a jet-set.

And especially where the data emanates from a work of fiction whose author deploys aesthetic license in the entirely germane belief that “in Sri Lanka a well-told lie is better than a thousand facts” (Ondaatje, Running in the Family, page 206). So much for conclusive proof. Q. E. D.

The writer is Reader, Discipline of Anthropology, University of Adelaide. 

***** *****



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3 responses to “People Inbetween and Professor K. M. de Silva’s Diehard History

  1. Agnes Nell, who married George E. de Silva, (Minister of Health 1942-7 under Donoughmore Constn.) was the granddaughter of Louis Nell and grand-niece of CA Lorenz and HL Wendt. There was a radical element among intellectual Victorian Burghers who were anti-casteism &/or anti-white supremacism.

    Agnes Nell was proud of the fact that her forebears were French Huguenots who had come to Ceylon via exile, first in England and then South Africa. Huguenots were radical by nature, having suffered much at the hands of the French establishment ie French monarchy, aristocracy and Catholic church.

    Certain values seem so embedded in families that they course down several generations. Agnes defied the prevailing racist/casteist snobbery-cum-miscegenation rules of the Kandy Burgher elite to marry George in 1908. The vicar at her church (St Paul’s) refused to perform the marriage ceremony: in the end WS Senior, the Chaplain at Trinity College and a personal friend of her father’s, agreed to do it.

    PS I agree with you about the rigidity of empiricism. It is important of course for historians to marshall their evidence correctly and ensure it is based on fact. But to fence off history from sociology, anthropology, art, literature, language codes, music etc, (ie its cultural context), is to starve it into oblivion. There are lots of schoolchildren who believe history is a dull subject, irrelevant and boring. Much of this disdain is due to an over-emphasis on empiricism.

    But as anyone following the BLM movement, the Israel-Palestine issue, Brexit, Belorussia, the rise of China, US elections, etc etc, HISTORY MATTERS!! Those who don’t know their history are, as they say, “doomed to repeat it” !! So all hail to historians who have discarded strict empiricism and gone down the scenic route…..may they live long!!

  2. Pingback: Debating Modern Ceylon History with Daggers Drawn: Roberts vs De Silva, 1986-91 | Thuppahi's Blog

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