A Diehard Empiricist Responds

KM De Silva, in Daily News, 8 April 1991

Michael Roberts’s response to my review of his book (the Daily News 19 and 20 September 1990) published in the Daly News of 27 March 1991 is at once characteristic and unusual. It is characteristic because my one-time student and erstwhile colleague at Peradeniya has never been known to do things by halves.

He writes two responses to the review in two separate newspapers (the Daily News of March 27 and the Sunday Observer of 31 March), only one of which, the Daily News, published the original review.

It is unusual because neither of these comes anywhere towards meeting the criticisms of the book I made in my review. This present response of mine deals with his rejoinder which appeared in the Daily News of 27 March.

That rejoinder I am sorry to say evades the criticisms I made. Much of it consists of a tiresome discourse on techniques of research in history and anthropology. I have never drawn the sort of rigid distinction between history and cognate disciplines which he appears to see in my work.

On the contrary I have always believed in inter-disciplinary research and have insisted on it to the point of earning the hostility of some very vocal academics who believe that scholars should cultivate their little academic patches and protect them against intrusion like chena cultivators protecting their plots against encroachers.

Michael Roberts describes me as an empiricis historian. That I am but his grouse I suspect is that have never concealed my mistrust of theories that are not solidly based on evidence and that I yield to none in my scepticism – publicly expressed in speech and in writing – about the research methodology and theoretical constructions of some anthropologists, especially those who have written on the affairs of this country in recent times.

Some of my criticism have been directed, in reviews and elsewhere at Michael Roberts’s recent writings on Sri Lankan history and politics, but that is because the theories he expounds lack substance and many of his assertions are not based on any reliable or verifiable evidence.

He is a lapsed historian, a new (and very willing) recruit to anthropology and inclined therefore to defend the latter with all the fervour of a comparatively recent convert. Unfortunately he is quite oblivious to the doubts expressed by more mature and more modest exponents of the craft in other countries on the ““scientific respectability and the moral legitimacy” of their methods.”

Those who have known Michael Roberts for a long as I have will not be surprised by the vigour with which he defends the research techniques which have produced this formless and distressingly impenetrable volume. He has at various times been an advocate of quantitative history of oral history and so on and on.

And yet his substantial achievements – and there have been many-have all been based on the solid grounding in history he received at Peradeniya and in historical research at Oxford. This book cannot be classed among the best of his academic ventures; on the contrary it falls well below the levels of achievement he is capable of.

In his rejoinder he takes me to task for not informing the reader of the objectives he set out to achieve in this book. “It is not a history of the Burghers” he insists. “It uses the Burghers as a window to wider processes, (1) the growth of the middle class in British Ceylon, (2) the Westernisation of the island people through the middle class, (3) the manner in which Colombo developed into a primate city which dominates the island’s socio-political process, and, (4) the inter-play of racial prejudice among the British, the Burghers and the Sinhalese (and also the nuances of class “prejudice” among the Burghers.”

There in his own words we have an indication of the structure of this book as he sees it. A discerning reader will see it for what it is, a collection of chapters strung together rather than a cohesive volume. Those who are familiar with his recent writings will see many for the themes he is currently working on.

These have been brought together rather haphazardly in this study of the Burghers and he seeks to justify this with the argument that he wishes to use the Burghers as a window to study various processes of social and economic change in modern Sri Lanka.

What Michael Roberts’s brief summary of the main themes outlined in his response to my review conceals is even more important that what be reveals. In his preface he states:

“The lineaments of Sinhala ideology provide the underlying backdrop as well as inter turning socio-political factor for the understanding of the principal theme of this book…one cannot understand the history of the Burghers… without comprehending the history of the Sinhala people and their modalities of thought..”

But for reasons best known to him this does not appear in the outline he provides in his rejoinder.

There is next a reference to “Sinhala fundamentalism”. As I pointed out in my review.

“Nowhere does he define what he means by “Sinhala fundamentalism” but he expects us to take this for granted. What all this has to do with a study of the Burghers is something I, for one, cannot understand. But the inevitable result of this extra-ordinary approach to the subject of this book is an imbalance for which the mass of facts which the author provides is no compensation.”

To all this there has been no response from Michael Roberts; nor does he provide us with a definition of “Sinhala fundamentalism” that I asked for and which any thoughtful reader will demand of him.

The fact is that Michael Roberts’s obsessive search for “the lineaments of Sinhala ideology” — whatever that may mean has distorted his scholarly vision in the writing of this book; as a result the book is out of focus. Even the title of the book is at best ambiguous, at worst patronizing. The Burghers need to be looked at as a distinct entity on their own, without letting this backdrop of “Sinhala ideology” and “Sinhala fundamentalism” dominate the stage as it unfortunately does in this book.

One of the central lectures of my review was a short summary of what I believe was the essence of the Burgher experience in Sri Lanka. It was necessarily short. After all I was writing a review article, not a book. Inevitably many features of that experience were omitted, or referred to only in passing. Michael Roberts claims that I have made no reference to a mid nineteenth century group dominated by Burghers who called themselves “Young Ceylon.”

I made just one reference to it, and that was to the single individual in that group – C. A. Lorenz – who had a national impact at that time.

…. To be continued …++….

The Daily News seems to have cut Professor De Silva’s response into two parts and presented the rest under the title I stick to my guns” in a following edition of the newspaper. Here it is.

 I believe the rest of the group were peripheral figures, and the group itself was not of any great significance in the wider perspective of the island’s history. But they were important inthe study of the Burghers, and we are informed on page 389 of. this volume, that some, if not all of them, will be referred to in some detail in volumes 3 and 4 of this work.

The outline I drafted for the purposes of the review was not merely a corrective to many of the claims made in Michael Roberts’ volume, but it also made serious criticisms of his views of the Burgher experience in 19th and 20th century Sri Lanka. The basic message of his book was that the Burghers were looked down upon by the Sinhalese, which is, at best, a highly debatable point.

In addition I pointed out that the Burghers were never the object of Sinhalese hostility. This latter, Michael Roberts rather testily rejects in his rejoinder, but regrettably fails to produce any evidence that would support his surprisingly vehement, but terse, rebuttal of my criticism.

Equally surprising were some of the immodest claims the author has made about his work. He claims – in the preface – that:

“the analysis in the first chapter is essential reading for anyone who seeks to understand the present ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. As such provocative. It is meant to be provocative.

There is no necessary connection between the first sentence, and the next two in that short extract. But just taking the first of them, I came out of it confused and bemused. Perhaps the mind of an unreconstructed empiricist is incapable of-understanding the dense anthropological argument in that chapter.

But a little common sense is enough to see how hollow and pretentious his claims about this chapter are. For, as I said in my review, it does nothing to enlighten us on the country’s ethnic crisis.

Not satisfied with this little exercise in smug self-satisfaction proceeds, in his response, to a defence of the first chapter of his book. The chapter bears an extra-ordinary title. “Pejorative Phrases: The Anti-colonial Response and Sinhala Perceptions of the Self Through Images of the Burghers.”

In my review I described it as an appropriate caption for a Health Robinso cartoon. In several paragraphs of convoluted writing in this rejoinder — which he describes with becoming modesty “as an original argument” — he has demonstrated the accuracy of my description of the title of the chapter.

I found the original argument on this theme in his book “unconvincing and its data both illogical and unreliable”. His defence of this chapter in his response is even more so, and in regard to both logic and reliability.

I would like to conclude this rejoinder by quoting, first of all, the last paragraph of my review. I said that: “On the whole this is a disappointing book. It does not do justice to its subject – the Burghers of Sri Lanka. This is partly because the author has allowed his present preoccupation with ethnicity and race to cloud his judgment in writing it and given free rein to far-fetched theories. As a result, what could well have become the standard work on the Burghers, if he had only resisted the temptation to dwell at such great length on the Sinhalese, and ‘Sinhala fundamentalism’ emerges as an opinionated and tendentious piece of writing”.

Nothing in his rejoinder would make me take back a word of what I have said in this previous paragraph. On the contrary I would say Michael Roberts’s two co-authors face the unenviably huge task of redeeming the promise of this project by a more balanced representation of the Burgher experience in Sri Lanka, in the next three volumes and – to change the metaphor – of putting this important project back on its rails.

*****  *****

Michael Roberts in a Note as Editor, Thuppahi: 

Because I am one of the objects of this essay, I have refrained from my usual practice of highlighting significant segments within its ‘covers’. Note, too, that the original intention of producing three more books as part of People Inbetween did not work out. Only the second of these intentions came to pass under the names of Ismeth Raheem & Percy Colin-Thome: namely, Images of British Ceylon. Nineteenth Century Photography of Sri Lanka, Singapore: Times Edition, 2000 …. with my name excluded because it was funded by the Ceylon Tobacco Company and university policies in Australia banned explicit links with tobacco.

Readers should also attend to the series of items in Thuppahi capturing the academic tussles between Kingsley de Silva and myself in the years 1986 to 1991 — commencing with my review of his book Managing Ethnic Tensions in Sri Lanka (1986) in a journal in which he served as one editor,

I note, too, that Kingsley de Silva’s responses in this segment of time (1986 to 1991) were coloured by his reaction to the book produced by the Professor in the Department of Anthropology, Adelaide  with whom I was associated, namely Bruce Kapferer, whose book Legends of People, Myths of State came out in 1988. JR Jayewardene was one of those caricatured in that book.


I had no input into Kapferer’s work but …. what did inform my thinking in the period 1986 to 1991 (apart from the researches  leading to People Inbetween) was the exchange of experiences with a body of South Asian scholars brought together in 1987, initially in Colombo, and then in Kathmandu, by Neelan Tiruchelvam of the ICES, Colombo. The focus of these two gatherings was ethnic violence in South Asia and some inkling of the exchanges can be gleaned via the volume edited by Veena Das of Delhi University that is entitled Communitiees, Riots and Survivors in South Asia, (Delhi, OUP, 1990).

So, as these clues will indicate, the violence directed at Tamils in Sri Lanka in July 1983 was one of the background events informing my debates with Kingsley in the years 1986-to-1991.

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