Sri Lankan Tamils & Their English Names: How This Feature Came About

Vinod Moonesinghe, in RoarMedia, 13 January 2023, where the title runs thus: How Sri Lankan Tamils Came To Have ‘English’ Names”

Many Sri Lankan Tamils have English or otherwise European names, and are often confused with Burghers or Eurasians. How this came to be constitutes a vital part of the evolution of modern Sri Lanka.


The story begins with the British invasion of the island in the late 18th century and conquest of the lowlands, hitherto occupied by the Dutch. Unlike previous European invaders, the British were more concerned with Ceylon’s  strategic position in relation to India, and so expedience and budgetary constraints played a major part in their decision-making on the island.

After the British occupied the country 1796, they appointed Dutch Burghers, descendants of the Europeans employed by the former colonial power, to positions in the administration,  to mediate between them and the native population. The historian, lawyer and politician Colvin R de Silva noted, in his monumental study of the early period of British rule Ceylon Under the British Occupation (pp205-208), that the British brought in East India Company apparatchiks, mostly South Indian natives,  to replace native “headmen”of the Mudliyar and Arachchi classes.

This led, de Silva noted, to a revolt in 1797, following which the British built up a privileged minority of “natives” to supplement the Burghers in the higher altitudes of society. This privileged elite came from the most educated members of society, a disproportionate number of whom were Tamil, due to a peculiar circumstance of history.

American Missionaries

According to de Silva’s Ceylon Under the British Occupation, when the British government slashed expenditure on education on the island due to budgetary constraints, it relied heavily on Christian missionaries to carry out educational activities. A significant portion of this effort was made by the American Ceylon Mission (ACM), established by Rev. Samuel Newell in 1813, in Jaffna, in the Tamil-dominated north of Ceylon, as part of the evangelising  effort of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Although Americans had been visiting the island since 1788, as spice traders and whalers,  the British, citing the ongoing war with France, refused to allow the Americans to proselytise elsewhere — a ban which lasted far longer than the war of 1809-1814, the penultimate in a series of Napoleonic Wars waged all over the world.

Rev Samuel Newell, who founded the American Ceylon Mission  Image via Wikipedia

In 1816, the ACM established a school at ‘Tillipally’ (as they called the town of Tellippallai), today’s Union College, also in Jaffna, in the Tamil-dominated north. In 1823, they inaugurated  the Batticotta Seminary (which evolved into Jaffna College), Ceylon’s first modern university-level institution at Vaddukoddai, also in the north. The next year, prominent ACM missionary Harriet Winslow (ancestress of later Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles and CIA head Allen Welsh Dulles) founded Uduvil Girls’ College, Asia’s first girls’ boarding school, in the Tamil-dominated north.

In 1848,  American doctor and missionary  Dr Samuel Fiske Green opened the first modern medical school and teaching hospital (South Asia’s second modern teaching hospital, which later came to be known as  the Green Memorial Hospital) in Ceylon, at Manipay — again, in the northern part of the island. The ACM also set up the first printing press in the north in 1820 and in 1841 began the island’s second oldest newspaper, the Morning Star, there too.

Harriet Winslow, who founded Uduvil Girls College. Image via Wikipedia

The ACM weren’t the only missionaries making inroads in the country; the Wesleyan Methodist Mission (a British Methodist missionary society) already had bridgeheads in the Eastern Province, and followed on the heels of the ACM, founding Jaffna Central College, in the north, in 1817. The Anglicans (from the Church of England) also established St John’s College, in Jaffna in 1823, and it was the Roman Catholic Church that attended to the educational needs of its flock in Jaffna long after the ACM.

 The Batticola Seminary, which is now Jaffna College. Image via Wikipedia

English Handles

These activities resulted in profound changes in the traditional, caste-based Hindu structure of society. An English-speaking, mainly Christian elite emerged in the northern peninsula. The missionaries, when baptising converts, would give them Christian names and surnames, often those of sponsors of the mission.

These names could be Biblical — such as James, Paul, Simon, and Solomon. Anglicans and Methodists often received English surnames, such as Crossette, Crowther, Handy, Spencer, Williams and Watson. Those baptised by the ACM, however, invariably received the English monikers of eminent American Protestant families, mostly originating from New England. These included Armstrong, Arnold, Barr, Buell, Chapman, Cooke, Cotton, Curtis, Dwight, Hensman, Hoole, Hopkins, Lawton, Lodge, Macintyre, Martyn, Mather, Mills, Nevins, Niles, Phillips, Riggs, Sanders, Stone, Strong, Taylor, Wadsworth and Wilson.

Catholics were generally named after Christian saints, notably Anthony, Bastian, David, Diego, Emilianus, George, John and Joseph, often tagging “pillai” (child) at the end; or Biblical entities, such as Cherubim.

Names Of Note

Generations later, many people reverted to their Tamil names, either out of patriotism, or for expediency. For instance, E.M.V. Naganathan, the eminent politician, was originally Hensman. Several others decided to adopt double-barrelled surnames, with their baptismal monikers connected to their ancestral Hindu handles by hyphens, for example Crossette-Thambiah, Nevins-Selvadurai and Philips-Arasakumar.

“[In fact] all the Protestant Christian Tamils are related or connected,” Sereno Barr-Kumarakulasinghe, a eco-tourism entrepreneur with such a double-barrelled name, told Roar Media. For example, he said, his own family has connections with the Mather, Page, and Phillips families, as well as with Federal Party founder S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, who in turn had Wilson connections.

Exemplifying these relationships, the Paul family of doctors, originating in Manipay (patriarch, William Paul being one of Green’s first medical graduates), who occupied several residences in Ward Place, has links with the Cooke, Crosette-Thambiah, Edwards, Phillips, Snell and McGowan-Tampoe families. The Cooke family married into the Abraham, Arnold, Black, Francis, Lawrence, Mather, Strong  and Wilson families, while the Page family has ties to the Dwight, Gardiner, Mather, and Strong families.

Among this disparate community of English-named Tamils, several stand out in history — from Jaffna College co-founder James Prince Cooke, pioneer photographer S. K. Lawton, pioneer surgeon S.C. Paul and Senator Chittamapalam Gardiner to mathematician and physicist Christie Jayaratnam Eliezer, author of the 1978 Constitution Alfred Jeyaratnam Wilson and current cricket commentator Russel Arnold. This small, but homogenous and refined social stratum has had an impact far beyond its meagre numbers, and can be found today in positions of influence on every continent, some of them even in New England, from where their names once came.

****    *****


E. Valentine Daniel:  “Val Daniel’s Introduction of Ben Bavinck and Ben’s Diary over the Years of Conflict in Sri Lanka,” 7 September 2011,


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6 responses to “Sri Lankan Tamils & Their English Names: How This Feature Came About

  1. Barclay Reid

    Hello Michael,
    My wife Peace Ira-Gould was born in the Green Memorial Hospital, Manipay and attended Uduvil Girls School.
    Buddy Reid

  2. Chandre Dharma-wardana

    This interesting article by Vinod Moonesinghe mentions, for example Tillipally, a place name used by American Missionaries (ACM), and gives the place-name of the town as Tellippallai. Just as there were changes in Tamil names that became English, the local place names also changed.
    Also Vaddukkoddai is mentioned, and the ACM School there was named “Batikotte seminary”. Actually, the names used by the ACM were closer to their historical names (found in Portuguese and Dutch maps, in colonial writings or in the Pali chronicles, stone inscriptions etc.). They too underwent rapid modifications during colonialism and especially at the end of the 19th century, assuming more Tamil-like forms. This is because of demographic changes, with the Tamil population increasing due to the introduction of Malabars as indentured labour. The population of the Jaffna Peninsula which had nearly equal numbers of Moors, and Tamils, and also many Sinhalese landowners (according to Captain Percival’s account of Ceylon in 1800), became majoritarian Tamil by 1900.

    Regarding place names like Tellippallai, we may quote from Karthigesu Indrapala’s Thesis:
    “”Kantarodai has yielded very important Buddhist finds, which prove the existence of an important Buddhist establishment in the region in early times. Such artifacts as the glazed tiles and the circular discs discovered here have helped to connect the finds with those of Anuradhapura. Sinhala Nampotha, dated in its present form to the fourteenth or fifteenth century, preserves the names of some of the places of Buddhist worship in the Jaffna Peninsula. Kantarodai is mentioned among these places. The others are Nagakovila (Nakarkovil), Telipola (Tellippalai), Mallagama (Mallakam), Minuvangomu Viharaya (Vimankamam), Tannidivayina (Tana-tivu or Kayts), Nagadivayina (Nakativu or Nayinativu), Puvangudivayina, Punkutu-tivu) and Karadivayina (Karaitivu).”

    Further information, perhaps relevant to the topic covered by Vinod Moonesinghe’s discussion may be found in:
    Dr. G. H. Piyaratna of the Vidyodaya University in “his doctoral thesis; American Education in Ceylon: 1810 to 1855”, University of Michigan, USA.
    The first photograph taken in Ceylon in 1853, by Henry Martyn, is said to be that of a group of missionaries of the Seminary in front of the “Batticotte igreja” (church) built by the Portuguese in 1626. This church (in Vaddukkoddei) is now the Cathedral Church of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India consecrated as such on October 10, 1947.

    These details are extracted from the website of place names, viz.,

    That the American missionaries gave names to Tamils is recognized. But what is often not noted is that the ACM also taught the Jaffna Tamils how to transliterate their names. For instance, the Tamil name விசுவநாதன், romanized: Vicuvanātaṉ, is used as Visvanathan by Jaffna Tamils, where the வ sound is NOT rendered as W, but as V. On the other hand, Colombo Tamils and the Sinhalese render their வ and ව sound as W, for example in Wigneswarn.or Wickramasinghe, although வ and ව are phonetically closer to V. We also have the form “Viswanathan” used by Northern-Southern Tamils..

    This use of W is because transliteration of names (be they Sinhalese or Tamil) into roman characters happened in the south under Dutch rule where the V is reserved for the sound F. Hence, under he Dutch, the வ and ව became W, the nearest equivalent. Those Tamils who have been largely in the south can be spotted by the manner that they or their elders transliterated their Tamil names.

    Similarly, hardly any Sinhalese would find their ව sound in a name like Wimalaweera being written as Vimalaveera, the exception being the name Vijaya, but W is used in Wijitha..

    Even if a Sinhalese had deliberately changed the spelling to fit phonetics, their birth certificates, if written in English, will reveal the use of a W.


    Thanks Michael. At last I’m getting your emails. Very interesting and useful write up about the Tamil Names. I was aware of most of the details but didn’t know the ‘a seminary’ was there before at St John’s.

  4. I wish to respond to the comments made by good Prof. Chandre Dharma-wardana. It’s better if you don’t cherry-pick specific paragraphs from Capt Robert Percival’s book. He is NOT an oracle. Information provided by him in his ‘An account of the island of Ceylon’ (1803) is hardly reliable at all.

    For example, I cite from p. 186 of this book.
    “The current opinion among the natives is, that Arabic is their original language, and that some mixture of the Sancrit was introduced by a colony who came over by Adam’s bridge from the continent of India. Among the Cinglese on the coasts, the vulgar dialect, distinguished by the name of the Cinglese is spoken;…If I may judge from the impression made upon me during my residence on the island, the Cinglese spoken on the coasts is much inferior to any of the other Indian languages which I have heard.”

    Prof. Chandre, do you agree with this view of Percival?

    Again, in p. 197, this army guy had written as follows:

    “Several Cinglese lunaticks have fallen under my own observation; and upon enquiring into the circumstances which had deprived them of their reason, I universally found that their wretched state was to be traced solely to the excess of their superstitious fears.”

    Here, Perval pretends to dispense his psychological knowledge, on which he is least qualified!

  5. Michael, hope you’d permit a rejoinder from me on this particular issue of Jaffna’s ethnic distribution around 1800.

    Prof. Chandre had quoted ‘The population of the Jaffna Peninsula which had nearly equal numbers of Moors, and Tamils, and also many Sinhalese landowners (according to Captain Percival’s account of Ceylon in 1800), became majoritarian Tamil by 1900.’

    Though I do NOT wish to embarrass Prof. Chandre, I assert that he had provided FALSE information in his citation, and had committed a serious sin for an academic of his standing. Nothing is mentioned by Robert Percival about the Sinhalese landowners in his 1803 book.

    Here is the specific citation, from page 48, chapter 2

    “The inhabitants of Jaffna consist of a collection of various races. The greatest number are of Moorish extraction, and are divided into several tribes, known by the names of Lubbahs, Mopleys, Chittys and Choliars: they are distinguished by wearing a little round cap on their close shaven heads. There is also a race of Malabars found here somewhat differing in their appearance from those on on the continent. These different tribes of foreign settlers greatly exceed in number the native Ceylonese in the district of Jaffna.”

    An interesting point to note is that Percival DON’T mention Tamils, but in his ignorance address them as ‘Malabars’. This makes me doubt whether he did really visit Jaffna. Had he visited Jaffna, he would have heard that Jaffna Tamils called themselves as ‘Tamils’ and NOT Malabars. Percival lived in Ceylon, only for 3 years! It’s my guess that whom he had referred as ‘inhabitants of Jaffna’ then, correctly applies to the Mannar region, and not to Jaffna. I can cite evidence for my speculation, from the Memoir of Harriet Winslow (1786-1833), who had lived in Uduvil and died there in January 1833. Please refer to Miron Winslow’s 1835 book ‘A Memoir of Mrs Harriet Wadsworth Winslow combining a sketch of the Ceylon Mission’ published in New York.

    Another point to note is, Percival DO NOT provide the numbers of ethnics, but Miron Winslow’s book provide the numbers, and DO NOT mention about any Sinhalese living in Jaffna then.

  6. Sachi Sri Kantha

    Oops! Harriet Winslow was born in 1796, and not in 1786. My previous communication had this typo error, which I had overlooked. Extremely sorry about it.

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