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 plan envisaging a  set of books (four volumes).[2] The first 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, People Inbetween,  has been out of print for quite a while.




The opening segment of the book decodes 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] It is presented once again in People Inbetween. The rest of the book, however, has not seen wider circulation (though some items in Thuppahi in 2022 have focused on some of these activities). This content addresses: (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. This body of work has not seen wider circulation (though some items in Thuppahi in 2022 have focused on some of these activities).

Recently the assiduous compilation presented this year 2022 by Kumar Kirinde et al with the title Volunteers from Ceylon who served in the British and Commonwealth Forces during World War I (1914-1918and World War II (1939-1945) has depicted the extent to which male personnel from the middle class 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. Some died in the process.

This book is an important addition to our interpretations of the British colonial order. Its details fit into and supplement the concept of “Empire loyalism” that has been marked in People Inbetween (see pp. 114-26 in particular). In fact, People Inbetween 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 nineteenth 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[5]). Chapter X in People Inbetween deals with some dimensions of these processes. The first part of this chapter, being pages 140-47, will soon be placed in the wider digital realm within


[Kirinde, Kumar et al] 2022 Volunteerism. Fighting and Dying for Britain during the Two World Wars, Colombo, 2022

Roberts, Michael 1989 “Pejorative Phrases: The Anti-Colonial Response and Sinhala Perceptions of the Self through Images of the Burghers.” in Swedish in Lanka. Tidskrift om Lankesisk Kultur (Uppsala), 2.

Roberts, Michael 2001 “Dakunen sädi kotiyo, uturen golu muhudai,” [Wicked-cum-vile Tigers to the south and the turbulent sea to the north], Pravāda, vol 6, no. 11, pp. 17-18.

Roberts, Michael 2000 “History as dynamite,” Pravāda, vol. 6, no.?,  pp. 11-13. Also published in the Island Special Millennium Issue, 1 Jan 2000, pp. 43-44.


[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 “Pejorative Phrases: The Anti-Colonial Response and Sinhala Perceptions of the Self through Images of the Burghers. in Swedish in Lanka. Tidskrift om Lankesisk Kultur (Uppsala), 1989, no.2.

[5] Twenty first century generations should be alive to the widespread sense of superiority and the racial prejudices among the British personnel in Ceylon and other parts of Asia and Africa. Racial bars were enforced in elite British clubs in Colombo as well as the provinces … and also, in practice, in first class railway carriages. The tough young Ceylonese men who slapped or punched haughty British men for perceived racial slights became folk heroes as a result: for example, Danister Perera Abeywardena and John Kotelawela Sn.

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