Working on the Book PEOPLE INBETWEEN

Michael Roberts 

 The ‘discovery’ of the Lorenz Cabinet in the Royal Asiatic Society in the 1980s led me to combine with Percy Colin-Thome[1] and Ismeth Raheem in working up this material into a four-volume book.[2] The first book in this projected series was drafted by me and came out in 1989 courtesy of Sarvodaya Publishing Services (within the limitations of book production in that period).[3] This book has been out of print for quite a while. Though the opening segment of the book, decoding the famous Sinhala story about the first sight of the Portuguese on their shores, a tale that that has been passed down over the centuries, was presented to the world way back in time as an article,[4] the rest of People Inbetween – dealing with (a) British racial prejudices and practices; (b) the process of Westernization, competition and jostling among the emerging middle class families and (c) the introduction of census data collection by the modernizing government and the implications thereof, has not seen wider circulation (though some items in Thuppahi in 2022 have focused on some of these activities – see Appendix A).

Volunteers from Ceylon published this year 2022 by Kumar Kirinde et al has depicted the extent to which male personnel from the middle classes educated in four of the prominent schools of the colonial era volunteered to join the British military forces when the World Wars broke out in 1914 and 1939.[5] Some died in the process. Volunteerism (2022) is an important addition to our interpretations od the British colonial order. Its details fit into and supplement the concept of “Empire loyalism” that has been marked in People Inbetween. In fact, the book even presents a photograph of the twenty “Ceylon Volunteers” that was presented to the world in Arnold Wright’s massive tome entitled Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon (1907, p. 861). No less than 13 of these men are Burgher; while five men are identifiably Sinhalese, one bears the name “Bawa” (a famous family of Westernized Moors whose mother was British) and another is a CL De Zylva (who could be Burgher).

These details are germane to the concept of “Empire-loyalism” that is stressed in People Inbetween (see pages 4, 114, 118, 126). Servicing this thread of analysis are the chapters, or segments thereof, that deal with the emergence of the families identified as “middle class” and the competition within these elements of the population during the 19th century as the British colonial administration offered openings for those with the requisite skills. The basic requirement was proficiency in English; but that capacity had to be complemented by social skills and good connections (all competencies subject to the force of racial prejudice amongst the British rulers[6]).

Chapter X in People Inbetween deals with some dimensions of these processes. The first part of this chapter, being pages 140-47, will be placed in the wider digital realm as the next item in the Thuppahi production ‘machine’..


[1] Alas, Percy Colin-Thome passed away quite some time back.

[2] The Third Volume was meant to present documentary items and was entitled “Life and Times in British Ceylon, 1840-1870;” while Volume Four was a continuation on the same theme. See People Inbetween, page 389.

[3] The phrase “in between” is presented as Inbetween for aesthetic reasons; I detest the unsightly appearance of “in between”.

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

[5] The full title reads Volunteers from Ceylon who served in the British and Commonwealth Forces during World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945) and its ISBN is 978-624-6207-01-4.

[6] A particularly important aspect of People Inbetween is its detailed deployment of the diary thoughts (and drawings) of a British lady, one Mrs GD Griffith in the years 1841-42, who was the wife of an Army officer Major George Darby Griffith stationed in Colombo, Kandy and Galle during those years. This voluminous diary sits in the Peradeniya University Library and has been little used. Her thinking exposes the racial prejudices of the British upper classes in her day – prejudices to which all the colonial residents were subject, but which those personnel in the indigenous middle classes were likely to meet and recoil against most keenly.


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