People In Between: The Splendid Contortions of DBU Diehards

Rajiva Wijesinha, reviewing the book People Inbetween in the Sunday Observer of 24 March 1991 **

“In this review of the book by three Sri Lankans – Michael Roberts, Percy Colin-Thome and Ismeth Raheem, Rajiva Wijesinha discusses some interesting aspects that go to make People In Between a ‘fascinating social history’.” — The Observer’s Introduction

 Three things are to be considered a man’s estimate of himself, the face he presents to the world, the estimate of that man made by other men. Combined, they form an aspect of truth.

Paul Scott’s superscription to The Mark of the Warrior may well serve as a theme sentence too for People In Between, the compendious volume (and it appears that there is more still to come) put out by Messrs Roberts, Colin-Thome and Raheem as a ‘contribution towards’ a history of the Burghers. That modest disclaimer makes clear that this is not meant to be a comprehensive or scientific history, but rather a collection of impressions and ideas designed to stimulate further thought and study. The writers of course would well have understood that most of us would not be able to go much further by ourselves, and to some extent at least would expect a fairly thorough account of the subject matter. That I should say from the start we certainly receive, and this volume is therefore to be welcomed for providing a basic guide to the interested layman about some very interesting aspects of the nation’s recent history, with the impressions sifted carefully and curiously so as to rouse further speculation and thought.

A principal theme of the book is what is termed the Ceylonization of the Burghers in the 19th century, followed by what amounts to a deceylonization in the mid 1900s; this theme is interwoven with many others that help to make the book a fascinating social history of a great many people and indeed ideas and aspirations that could equally well be described as InBetween.

Amongst subjects approached if not always apprehended thoroughly are the Ceylonese middle class, with its greater or lesser aspirations towards Westernization in terms of more or less complimentary usages of the word; the domination of Colombo, and the varying reactions of its multifarious population to the colonial dispensation; and the Sinhala Buddhist response both to colonialism and to what was perceived as the denativization of the post-colonial elites. Despite some detailed analysis of the background, in this last regard, to Piyadasa Sirisena’s novels, what is missing from the book is an exposition of what might be termed the roots against which this rootlessness took place, namely the original cultural heritage of this country, the rural background and backbone, if you like of the nation.

This however is by no means a culpable omission, since the very point the book makes most powerful is that, as a consequence of the very insecure response of this country to colonialism, it was the InBetween world, with all its hangups, that has dominated us for the last couple of centuries; and we are unique perhaps in that both actions and reactions in this respect spring from the bastardization that has overtaken us – whether this is because of our small size, the long-lasting cultural confusion that so many invasions over so long a period of time during the last millenium have left us in, or the absolute domination of the nation in the last couple of centuries by Colombo, which could almost be described as a hybrid execrescence upon the body politic, with neither the sophistication nor the charm that, one or other if not both, one expects from capital cities.


It is doubtless because of these uncertainties that the very different identities humanity accumulates, as sketched out by Scott, are so very important. Of course it could perhaps, be argued that the roots as it were of this rootlessness lie too in our own intrinsic cultural make-up, in the dominance of shame in our culture, as indicated by Gananath Obeysekere in his stimulating study. The Cult of the Goddess Pattini, which seems so very different in its subject matter from People. InBetween but suggests such similar conclusions, There is certainly a sense in which our concern with the images others form of us is so vital that it affects not only the reality, but also our own perceptions.

Here however I am anticipating. I am attributing to the Burghers, the main subject of this book, aspects of a cultural make up which Obeysekere attributed to indigenous Sri Lankans. Yet this conflation is I think amply justified by the whole thrust of the book. What People InBetwen demonstrates so ably in many of its chapters is the fact that, right through until independence, the Burgher identity was emphatically based on this country. Even though European parentage of some sort was crucial to the identity, and even though as the years passed, in common with the native middle class, British culture too was absorbed into patterns of, social interaction, there was always a strong awareness of the distinction between those who belonged here by birth (whatever their other aspirations might be) and the British colonial presence, which was necessarily transitory as far as individuals were concerned.

Interestingly enough, the underlying cause of this perhaps is connected with the Portuguese, whose impact has been forgotten with the 20th century stress on the so called purity of Dutch Burghers and their Union (s); though now to some extent, with the continuing presence of what used to be called black Burghers, many of the white ones having gone away, the resilience of the Portuguese strain s once more to be recognized. This of course reflects the universal capacity of the Portuguese to take on the colour as it were of the countries they conquered, uniquely as it seems for a colonial power. What the book demonstrates is the comparative strength of their legacy, the persistence for instance right through into British times of the Portuguese language amongst those of mixed blood, Dutch or otherwise-which ties in too with the continuing power of Catholicism where the Portuguese introduced it.


Related to all this perhaps, to the sustained indigenization the Portuguese indulged in, in contrast to later colonial powers, is the presence of a bedrock of ‘mestizos’, people of mixed race, who sustained the concept of Burgher after the British took over-as the analysis of Tables 18 & 19 in the book makes clear, while contradicting the ‘Dutch Burgher’ concept that represents the primacy in later years of the exclusive tendency. Rather, what becomes quite clear is the originally very mixed nature of the population known as Burgher, from which some through colour of skin or whatever distinguished themselves as Dutch or European, as opposed to both Burgher and British. In time of course the term European became, if not synonymous with British, reserved exclusively for those born in Europe and with roots there. It is for this reason perhaps that, towards the end of the 19th Century with the possibility of absorption at the higher levels of the colonial hierarchy gone for ever because of the greater stress on British and White/European exclusiveness that the Post-Mutiny colonial mentality entailed, the main distinguishing use of the word Burgher was to establish a barrier against more heavily indigenized groups.

In the mid-nineteenth century on the contrary we find the Burghers anxious to learn about the West, but to do so as Ceylonese absorbing values they thought of as universally applicable. By the mid-twentieth century however the situation has changed, and the Burghers, or rather the leading members of the community, safely ensconced within the Dutch Burgher Union, seem anxious to divorce themselves from the population of the country at large. Clear evidence of this appears early on in the splendid contortions, reproduced here in print, that the diehards of the DBU indulge in their anxiety to preserve what they see as a predominantly European identity. Yet even more significant, I would suggest, is the antipathy to developments in the country at large that underlay this, and that emerge more worryingly in the period to which the authors devote chapter 10, namely the 1950s.


My one quarrel indeed with the book is the pains the authors take to assert that this approach can be equated with that of previous century as exemplifying the anxiety of the Burghers to ‘stand forth as Ceylonese’. This, it is claimed, was in opposition to the Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism of the period, which was not thought of as being truly in the national interest.

Now there is little doubt that chauvinism, with regard to any race or religion, is not in the national interest. Equally, there is little doubt that insensitivity to the claims of others in asserting-oneself is equally pernicious. Most recently for instance we had the sorry spectacle of Sinhalese announcements on television claiming that Ranjan Wijeratne laid down his life for his country, his race and his religion – when he himself would have been the first to claim that be acted on behalf this country, and for those of all races and religions within it. It is surely insensitivity in this respect, about the rights of minorities to be recognized at the centre, that has created such chaos in the country at present. But, while recognizing that fact, it is also necessary to be clear about the motives of those who roundly condemn nationalistic tendencies in terms of what they claim to be cosmopolitanism. There is little doubt for instance that, while they might have been perfectly sincere in their professions the Coup conspirators of 1962 were concerned to assert no the primacy of a wide-ranging Ceylonese identity, but rather the continuing domination of the urban upper middle class elite to which they belonged. I would argue that, contra the very sympathetic assessment in People In Between, it was precisely the refusal of that elite to recognize and sympathize with the claims of others in the nation that contributed to the polarized view of politics we have been saddled with since the fifties.

The incapacity of the authors to look at this question is the sadder in that they come close to identifying one of, the, primary reasons for this polarization namely, the profound cultural dichotomy between Colombo (with the elites described in this book saw as synonymous with their ‘Ceylon’ in the 1950s) and the rest of the country, the aspirations of which it could be argued Bandaranaike sought to fulfill. This is not the place to consider the responsibility for the failure of that aim; but it is worth noting that a significant part in this was played by the readiness of so many of those who, in terms of education and professionalism and qualifications, had much to offer to opt out. The proportion of middle-class Sri Lankans who have migrated is surely one of the largest in the world; and their willingness to do this, as well as the acceptability they have found elsewhere, has much to do perhaps with their markedly In Between status, as compared say with similar elites in India or the African countries.

For the fact is, those who the writers of this book characterize as anxious to Ceylonise in the 1950s in fact felt deracinated, and much closer to the West. Of course I am not for a moment claiming that the extremism of some of the Nationalists of the fifties, and then the seventies, was not such as very understandably to drive many people to despair. Certainly, the juxtaposition first of the very understandable principle that the state had an obligation to cater to the worst off with the consequent insistence that only the state had a right to do anything proved disastrous, and prompted the bitter resentment that we have seen hursting out in other areas too; but the fact that what might be termed the cream of the Colombo educated elite, who might have worked to alleviate the effects of this, instead went away surely contributed to the polarization that we must now all recognize has only stultified us.

And in this respect perhaps something the writers might have done well to look at was the contribution to this immense sense of deracination that the Burghers, or rather the processes that established their identity, might have played. At its simplest, when a Western educated middle class elite emerged in India, was emphatically Indian. However sophisticated in Western terms Indians or Pakistanis are, or were there was a tremendous identification with indigenous tokens of identity, food, dress, religious and social customs. In Ceylon as it was on the other hand there was an almost wholesale identification on the part of the emerging middle class with things foreign, a much greater readiness to abandon native roots. At its most obvious, we can see this in the emphasis in this country on speaking English with the right accent, a notion Indians or West Indians would find absurd: in this country however our middle class aspirations are towards identification as far as possible with the colonial master.

My point, or rather suggestion, here is that whereas this is clearly impossible, given colour, in Ceylon in the 19th century there did exist a body for which such hopes were distinctly fulfillable; viz, as mentioned above and as stressed throughout in People In Between there were those with some European blood who might have hoped in time for perfect fusion as it were with the British. The writers do stress that the recognition of the fact that this was largely impossible may have contributed to the movement amongst Burghers in the 1850s to present themselves as Ceylonese; and it is certainly true that by the turn of the century, even while the DBU was insisting on European paternity, there was no question at all of equation with the British; but during the crucial fifty years when patterns of cultural interaction were being set, a high proportion of the emerging middle class saw its way to a complete identification with the West, rather than simply absorbing what was best while retaining local roots. This pattern, I would suggest, is what has contributed so singularly to the polarization in our society- so that, even in a context in which the British became an imposition to be got rid of they were no means seen by our elite as culturally and socially alien, in a way the vast majority of the Sri Lankan people was.

On the above argument, the conflicts the People In Between generated were perhaps inevitable. Yet I would argue that there was in fact an alternative, an alternative which is still present, namely, an encouragement of diversity with an emphasis on synthesis, such as might have been discerned in the interactions between people of various backgrounds at the very beginning of the 19th century. That to a certain extent had been the theoretical ideal of the Young Circle of the 1870s, though as it happened a social dispensation that concentrated development in Colombo made this impossible, since it minimized socio-cultural inputs from as well as benefits to the nation at large. With such lessons apparent from this book, and the sad – assuming all exoduses are sad-fate of all the people In Between, we can but hope that the new phase of restructuring with openness that we need to embark on soon will pay due weight to a broadening of all our perspectives.


** The news cutting in my hands was retyped by Nadeeka Paththuwaarachchi of Colombo. Some readers may wish  to visit the Thuppahi Items reproducing the searching and caustic debates between KM de Silva and Michael Roberts in the years 1986 -1991 — arising from the Roberts Review of KM De Silva: Managing Ethnic Tensions (1986) …. and …. KM de Silva’s Commentary on People inBetween (1989)…. and involving several newpaper bouts.

Leave a comment

Filed under accountability, British colonialism, centre-periphery relations, communal relations, cultural transmission, economic processes, education, heritage, historical interpretation, island economy, landscape wondrous, life stories, literary achievements, modernity & modernization, patriotism, politIcal discourse, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, teaching profession, unusual people, world events & processes

Leave a Reply