Sikh Troops as British Punishing Rods during the 1915 Riots

Joe Simpson, in Email Note responding to the Thuppahi Item

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 [photo taken then].



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!

A NOTE by Michael Roberts, 11 November 2022

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 demand critical examination. The deployment of ‘alien’ functionaries was one aspect of this punishing process. This practice was made feasible by the vast reaches of the British Empire in its heyday: personnel from a country X could be deployed as cheap hired hands to labour in countries Y and Z. The work could include policing or military activity. This was a common practice from centuries back  — so that Black Africans, since identified as “Kaffir” or “Kaaberi,” were among the troops deployed not only by the Dutch and British, but also by the Kings of Kandy! The practice is, I think, charaterized as “Alienage.”

So, in brief, this piece of information is a gem and a 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 British authorities –including some British planters enlisted as policing personnel.

Intriguing sidelights emerge when one trawls the web pages for information on the Kaffir and other foreign personnel deployed by the European colonizing powers. Thus one such item has this item of characterization:

Sri Lankan Culture: Members of Sri Lankas Dwindling Kaffir Or Caffre Population Sing a Hymn During a Multi-cultural Show Organized by a Sri Lankan Malay Organization in Colombo Sri Lanka 26 February 2012 Ancient Sinhalese Kings Had Recruited Kaffirs to Serve As Body Guards Palace Guards and Mercenary Soldiers They Were Also Brought to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) From Africa As Mercenaries and Soldiers by the Portuguese and the British and Also to Be Extensively Deployed in Construction Sites Etc Now Numbering Around 3 000 They Are Mostly Restricted to the North-western Coastal Area of Puttalam As Well As Batticaloa and Trincomalee and Are Mostly Catholics While Adapting to the Languages Prevalent in the Area Sri Lanka Colombo.”… with these pictures among the several deployed.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by M A Pushpa Kumara/EPA/Shutterstock (7662129a)
Members of Sri Lankas Dwindling Kaffir Or Caffre Population




Mandatory Credit: Photo by M A Pushpa Kumara/EPA/Shutterstock (7662129b)
A Group of Women Attired in Traditional Malay Costumes Sing During a Multi-cultural Show Organized by a Sri Lankan Malay Organisation  These modern day illustrations are a long way from the characterizations of the Kaaberi troops serving the Kings of Kandy and/or the British and Dutch. 


Filed under accountability, Africans in Asia, atrocities, authoritarian regimes, British imperialism, centre-periphery relations, communal relations, demography, disparagement, economic processes, ethnicity, governance, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, insurrections, landscape wondrous, legal issues, life stories, military strategy, politIcal discourse, power politics, riots and pogroms, security, sri lankan society, trauma, unusual people, vengeance, world events & processes

7 responses to “Sikh Troops as British Punishing Rods during the 1915 Riots

  1. dickie bird

    Joe Simpson – Always easier to blame foreign intrigue for domestic unrest — à la Hong Kong and Iran in more modern times! Salut!
    a la Hong Kong….. was being cooked by the British over a period of time & finally stirred with spices by the last Governor Chris Patten
    A gift to the Honkies with a BN(O) passport.
    After the handover, it was all about “Universal Franchise”- One person One vote.
    All the while, Democratic Party of HK cosied with the colonials under their Authoritarian rule never interested in Universal Franchise until & after the handover…
    After the handover, demands for Universal Franchise began to sprout to the Society & finally engulfed the Uni students who till then were peaceful & focused on education.
    Thus came the tipping point.
    It became chaotic in 2019. In the meantime HK Police had video taped all the violence that took place. Once the the Security Law was brought 2021 saw leading figures taken in irrespective of status. Closure of Next Media. Its tycoon, A retired mafia type cardinal of the catholic church, Anglical church, Pro-Dem politicians, Uni Student Movement, NED were all exposed. In addition British Govt offering citizenship to BN(O) P/P holders.
    (Unfortunately, the Indian labour brought to SL by the british were denied a BN(O) passport)
    The US Congress provided direct these agitators.
    Rioters went on rampage against police to break their will & destruction. Police for their part video taped all the riots & protests where ever possible.
    Finally with the security Law introduced with video evidence, perpetrators are being taken in and charged in Court..
    Subsequently, RATS jumped ship and fled HK. Prominent, politicians Dennis Kwok,Ted Hui & many other District level politicians, Student movement Leaders. They are now engaged in bad mouthing HK from overseas.
    The happenings in SL are similar & HK would have been the trial. The focus on HK issues have now changed to lack of affordable & proper housing , wheras in SL it was Corruption.

    All in all, no denying a Western Hand in all these.

  2. Joe Simpson

    Hello again, dear Michael! Another “1915” association comes to mind from my days at Richmond College 1973-4. At that time, as some of your readership will recall, a long-retired Reverend Joseph Small (School Principal, 1906-22) still resided on Richmond Kanda, in a small but comfortable annex of the Principal’s Bungalow across from the boarding hostel where I lived. Small talked to me once of his memories of that year (1915) when all hell broke out along the southern coast. He expressed great sadness about the communal strife, especially as Richmond, although a Christian Methodist establishment in those pre-independence times, rightly prided itself on accepting bright boys of all religious backgrounds, and – even more important – respecting religio-cultural differences within the student body. For Small there were added complications arising from the 1915 communal disruptions, or more specifically from the panicked reaction from the British colonial authorities, not least the Martial Law “Hundred Days” when the civil authority was essentially superseded by military rule.

    For one, as Richmond Principal Joe Small was a consistent source of support and quiet encouragement for the burgeoning independence sentiment that pervaded the most intellectually alert elements of the school’s senior student body. Secondly, his beloved German-born wife Thekla née Gunther (m. 1910) was of course technically an enemy alien in wartime Ceylon, subject therefore to incarceration like most of her countrymen unfortunate enough to find themselves under British rule when the Great War broke out the previous year. Given the “posse” mentality of those planter “weekend warriors” in particular, and the “German spies” hysteria of the time, this was most uncomfortable situation for the Smalls living quietly in Galle area.
    Rev. Small told me of how relieved he had been when his overtures to the Governor’s Secretary were successful, and his wife Thekla remained at liberty, with himself as her surety. He attributed this to the personal kindness of Governor Chalmers, who as a young civil servant had quietly done voluntary social work, on his own time, in the Victorian-era slums of Whitechapel, East London. (Chalmers’ career in Ceylon ended the following year, no doubt blighted by the events of 1915, and in retirement from government service he became Master of Peterhouse, coincidentally my own Cambridge college ‘alma mater’.)

  3. Joe Simpson

    A further thought, Michael – perhaps a more accurate description of the Indian Empire professional soldiers used by the British to quell communal strife in 1915 Ceylon might be “Punjabi” rather than “Sikh” as I described them in my earlier posted comments. Some of those Punjabi soldiers would have been Moslem, not Sikh, which doubtless (surely) would have been a factor in hardening their personal animus towards the Buddhist population in the troubled areas. Nowadays their direct successor regiment forms part of the modern Pakistani Army. From a Wikipedia entry about the 28th Punjabis stationed in Ceylon during the early years of WW1, I quote this one short excerpt:
    “Subsequent to the reforms brought about in the Indian Army by Lord Kitchener in 1903, the regiment’s designation was changed to 28th Punjabis. During the First World War, they were stationed in Ceylon on garrison duty and was [were?] called out to suppress the riots in 1915 which they did brutally. Many atrocities were committed by the Punjabis during Martial Law that prevailed in the country. Following the incidents of the riots, 28th Punjabis was transferred to Mesopotamia, where they fought in the bloody battles on the Tigris Front, as the British made desperate efforts to relieve their besieged garrison at Kut al Amara.”

  4. Joe Simpson

    Interestingly, Michael, at the time of Partition, Wikipedia has this to say about the huge Punjabi Regiment (an amalgam of the 28th and various other Punjabi regiments dating back to a British Indian Army re-organization in the early 1920s):
    Before the Partition of India in 1947, the ethno-religious composition of the Punjab Regiment consisted of: Punjabi Muslims (50%); Punjabi Hindus (40%); Punjabi Sikhs (10%). Following the regiment’s transfer to the Pakistan Army, it became largely religiously homogeneous, comprising mostly Muslims with around 20% ethnic Pashtuns and 80% Punjabis.
    (End quote)
    Quaere: how far did this immediate pre-1947 composition, in which Punjabi Sikhs were but a small minority, and Moslems at 50% the largest single component, also apply in the case of the 28th Punjabi Regiment stationed in Ceylon at the time of the 1915 communal disturbances?

    • EMAIL COMMENT from Somasiri Devendra in Colombo, 11 November 2022:
      “I grew up understanding that they were Marathis. My father, DTD, who was a Richmond student of that time, said that the common Sinhala word was “maeraetiyo”, and that it was synonymous with cruelty. It’s still used to mean overbearing soldiers.”

  5. Lam Seneviratne

    So enthralling to read all of this information

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