British Ceylon Deciphered by Stress on the Deep Structures of Social Togetherness

Uditha Devapriya, in The Island on 24 March 2023, with this title “Sri Lanka under British rule: Neither Gemeinschaft nor Gesellschaft”

Since at least Marx and Malinowski, anthropologists have been fascinated by, and focused on, the links between “primitive-tribal” and “modern-secular” societies. I use these terms with a pinch of salt – hence the asterisks – for the simple reason that no society can be said to fit one case or the other. In its initial phase the social sciences did, admittedly, distinguish between the two, and took the teleological position that the one would lead to another: hence Ferdinand Tönnies’s idea of a progression from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft. Such progressions were depicted as long, eventual, but inevitable, and were accepted widely at a time when Europe, the harbinger of industrialisation and colonialism, had consolidated its position as the main, if not sole, locomotive of world history.

I have pointed out earlier, in this column, that Europe’s encounters with the non-West – Africa and Asia, basically – did not spur the kind of transition from tribalism to modernity which the most benighted missionary and colonial official had publicly advocated. This was no less true in India than it was in Sri Lanka. To give a simple and much used example, upon their annexation of Kandy, the colonial government did not do away with the caste-based duty system, and corvee labour, at once. Unlike scholars and romantics who envisioned a supposedly nobler role for the colonising West, the administrators and officials working on the ground saw the need to retain precapitalist, and thus primitive, social relations, in order to legitimise their rule over the newly acquired territories.

One discerns an intriguing, if fundamental, disconnect or contradiction here, between the supposed aims and the actual, lived experience of colonial rule. If the objective of colonial rule was indeed to transform the societies they had acquired by force and compulsion, then the relationship between the coloniser and colonised had to go beyond the position of mere dependence which colonised territories were subjected to. We know, however, that this was never the case. India, for instance, accounted for a quarter of the world’s industrial production, and British rule smothered its textile sector in the interests of ensuring a market for British textile exports. What this reveals is that, regardless of what scholars at the time may have believed, the West was primarily interested in sabotaging the national industries of the non-West, rather than in transforming their societies.

It was the destruction of these industries, as well as official patronage of precapitalist social relations, especially in regions like Kandy, that hindered the long progression from tribalism to modernity which the likes of Tönnies, Durkheim, and Henry Maine advocated. The latter were, strictly speaking, not propagandists or mouthpieces for colonialism: it would be wrong to consider them so on the basis of their Western and European background alone. But they were products of their time, and in their time the Western view of non-Western countries gradually being subsumed by colonialism and then developing into capitalist and modernist societies was more or less accepted. Even Marx, in his initial despatches on India, pondered whether British colonialism would beneficially impact that country’s historical and economic trajectory. Of course, Marx later changed his position, proving himself an exception.

In any case, these processes ran their course more discernibly, and thoroughly, in Sri Lanka than they did in India, where, perhaps because of its size or its plurality, colonial rule did not, and could not, destroy its industrial base or pre-empt the formation of an industrial (and somewhat anti-imperialist) bourgeoisie. In Sri Lanka, by contrast, British rule managed successfully to hinder the progression from feudalism to capitalism, thereby preventing it from achieving a transition from “tribalism” to “modernity.”

Since I have reflected on these concerns in my recent essay on Maduwanwela Dissawe and the temples of the South, I will limit my analysis here to another area where colonial rule had an undeniably distinct, and paradoxical, impact on local society.

Education had long been viewed, even by the Portuguese, and more prominently by the Dutch, as a useful instrument for the consolidation of colonial power. The Dutch, through their network of parish schools, were interested more in eradicating Portuguese power – with little to no effect, as the enduring popularity of Catholicism, even today, illustrates – than in educating local elites. The latter objective formed the cornerstone of British policy on education, particularly after the Colebrooke-Cameron reforms of 1833.

The British government was itself not in one mind over education, and it was hardly in agreement with missionary enclaves who were interested more in converting locals to their specific brand or denomination. But by and large, a sort of tacit understanding developed between the two that these schools would inculcate Western values, and educate a class of locals who could staff the civil administrative service.

The first British officials to set foot in Kandy – among them, John Davy – were demonstrably surprised at the state of education there. Products of elite public schools and universities themselves, they were astonished by how much of a widespread institution education had become in the highlands, administered by the pansalas and limited to the male population. In Britain at the time, education had become the preserve of the old aristocracy and an emerging bourgeoisie. It was this model, based fundamentally on filtration theory – or the entrenchment of a minority, to the exclusion of the masses – which British officials sought to enforce in the island. By contrast, missionary bodies were interested in taking their gospel as far as possible, even preaching it in the vernacular. Yet even though they were in conflict with the government’s more utilitarian approach to education, over the years they conformed to that approach while pursuing their own objectives.

For obvious and logical reasons, the institutions of a colonial society – the superstructure, to borrow Marxist terminology – acutely reflect, or appropriate, that society’s economic base. In Sri Lanka, colonialism had transformed if not transmogrified precapitalist social relations without fundamentally challenging them: hence the government’s decision to retain rather than overhaul caste and rajakariya, and hence its decision to co-opt rather than eradicate the Kandyan aristocracy. Within such a setup, a transition from tribalism to modernity was simply not possible, particularly after the grafting of a plantation economy which reduced the peasantry to a position of dependence while undercutting them through the import of cheap, indentured, and perpetually exploited labour from South India.

It goes without saying that this setup was well reflected in the schools and other educational institutions that the colonial State established in the mid-19th century. How so? First and foremost, these schools reaffirmed the colonial State’s advocacy, and enforcement, of elite filtration, or education for a minority as opposed to the masses. In areas like Kandy, the State did not interfere when missionary bodies set up schools, because it provided them with the opportunity to educate the children of native elites and European planters. The colonial State itself did not own the kind of “superior” schools that missionary bodies did: it had the Colombo Academy, but that was in Colombo. Elsewhere, as far as the aims of the State and missionary enclaves went, laissez-faire ruled the day. Individual governors may have held views that were antithetical to the aims of these enclaves, but again, such rifts were temporary, and were in any case resolved by succeeding governors.

Secondly, the curriculum of these schools was, in comparison to the needs of a society that had yet not industrialised, hardly modern or progressive. The students of these institutions not only learnt the literature, history, and culture of a society far removed from them, their very education distanced them from the society to which they had been born. This had the dual effect of distancing themselves from their roots while failing to root them in the society of the “mother country”, or the metropole. James d’Alwis’s memoirs, in which he recounts the pressure to conform and uproot himself that he experienced at the Colombo Academy, illustrate this dilemma well. Many years later, Ralph Pieris could recount his childhood at the Academy – by then renamed Royal College – in just about the same terms. I quote him in full, simply because it sheds light on what these schools stood for.

“The Ceylon schools supported an authoritarian regime in the classroom where the rod was not spared, idealised ‘manly’ sports such as boxing and rugger, while a disciplined military apprenticeship was provided by the cadet battalion. Many adults have hankering fixation on school life, the joys of cricket; and masochistic adoration or the father-figures of teachers. even if they were responsible for sadistic and humiliating physical chastisement… All too frequently I have witnessed the tragicomic spectacle of elderly men leading a hollow existence, pitiful spectators of sports they can no longer actively participate in, who have rejoiced only in the transient marvel of their physical strength, [to] discover in later life that their range has become restricted and their interests few.”

Ralph Pieris, Sociology as a Calling: A Desultory Memoir

Modern Sri Lanka Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2, 1988, pp 1-33

Pieris’s observation leads me to my third point, which is that the elitism engendered and perpetuated by these institutions continued long after colonial rule, and in fact continues today. There are, of course, important differences between colonial and post-colonial society. The right to vote, and free education, emancipated the masses from the fields or “avocations” to which the colonial State had restricted them. These developments were not wholeheartedly accepted by the elite of the day: in criticising the Central School System, for instance, a member of the Colombo upper class remarked that the new schools would never be as good as the elite ones. Yet such reforms had in themselves been necessitated by the right to vote, and could not be prevented or pre-empted. Despite the machinations of the English-speaking bourgeoisie – which either accepted these reforms or chose to migrate from the country – free education became well established, even in the schools which they had attended, and to which many of them continued sending their sons.

In my essay on the Royal College Hostel, published last August, I noted that independence brought about a transfer of power from the legatees of British power to an indigenous class. In elite schools, I added, this transfer was not so much from the upper echelons to the lower classes as it was from an elite to an upward aspiring petty bourgeoisie, or intermediate elite. Such transformations did not fundamentally put to question, much less challenge, the elitist structures that had been implanted in these establishments by the British government. This is why Pieris’s memoirs paint an accurate picture of these institutions, not just from his time but also from ours: Pieris’s description of past pupils’ “hankering fixation on school life, the joys of cricket” and of “elderly men leading a hollow existence, pitiful spectators or sports they can no longer actively participate in”, to give one example, is amply visible at the many matches, parades, and functions organised by these schools today.

All this goes back to my original point, that British rule did not liberate colonial societies, like ours, from our tribalist past. A careful examination of the institutions which were set up by colonial officials here, during that period, should make that much clear. The transition from colonial to post-colonial society has not really challenged the status quo. If at all, it has only substituted the domination of one social class for that of another: the petty bourgeoisie, for the Anglicised colonial elite. Against such a backdrop, it behoves us to ask what exactly must be done to ensure, not merely the eradication of colonial-precapitalist remnants in these institutions, but the eventual progression, in our country, from the colonial-tribalist setup to which it continues to be tethered, 75 years after independence, to a truly modern, secular, and progressive society. Such a transformation requires a radical shift in our perceptions of education, governance, and political reform. Yet it is needed, especially at a time when mass anger against the elite class has reached fever pitch.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at




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