Category Archives: the imaginary and the real

The Plantation Economy in British Ceylon: The Downtrodden Indian Tamil Labour and the Dispossessed Kandyan Peasantry

Uditha Devapriya, in SAT MAG” of The Island on September 19 and September 26, 2020.

PREFACE: This essay does not present a complete history of plantation slavery, which anyway has been covered many times before by scholars of repute, including Professor Asoka Bandarage, whose Colonialism in Sri Lanka went through a second edition recently. Rather, it counters Sinhala nationalists and those opposed to Sinhala nationalists who equate the position of African-Americans with that of Tamils and Muslims, indicating a failure to distinguish between minority communities which thrived under conditions of colonialism (and neocolonialism) and those which suffered under those conditions. It also counters certain “Marxist” and rightwing academics who see the plantation system as capitalist, and who, while either sympathising with the plight of Estate Tamils or ignoring them outright, single out Kandyan Sinhalese peasants for what they allege to have been their innate laziness under British colonialism, a myth demolished by S. B. D. de Silva in his underrated and unread magnum opusThe Political Economy of Underdevelopment.

Tea Plantation labour in Ceylon – circa 1890s

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From Galle Across Oceans: The Talented Joseph Family

An Introductory Note from Michael Roberts, 30 September 2020

This ramified tale begins with the wedding photograph sent to me my old playmate Adrienne Ranasinghe nee Conderlag displaying the elegant couple and entourage in front of the All Saints Church in the fort of Galle. This spark has set Joe Simpson, a Galle lover who taught at Richmond College for a while and is back in Canada now, off-and-running. He saw that the best man at the wedding was Louis Joseph and sent me an old article he had composed on the Joseph family. This essay is now adorning the Thuppahi web site as well.

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How Robert Knox’s Opus took shape in 1681

Anna Winterbottom, in The British Journal for the History of Science, Volume 42Issue 4., December 2009 , pp. 515-538 where the title is Producing and using the Historical Relation of Ceylon: Robert Knox, the East India Company and the Royal Society”

Abstract: Robert Knox’s An Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon was produced, published and enlarged through the collaboration of the author with scholars including Robert Hooke and financial support from members of the East India Company. The Relation should be seen in the context of a number of texts collected, translated or commissioned by the East India Company in cooperation with the Royal Society during the late seventeenth century that informed and shaped both European expansion and natural philosophy. As well as circulating between European intellectual centres, often reorientated in the process of translation, these texts served as practical guides across settlements and trading posts abroad. Comparing written accounts with experience led to annotations and borrowings that served as the basis for further writings. Company records and Knox’s own unpublished works reveal how the Relation was used as the basis for bio-prospecting for naturally occurring drugs and food sources and in efforts at agricultural transplantation spanning the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Through the reports of seamen like Knox, such experiments contributed to contemporary theories concerning the effects of latitude on plant life.

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Dr RL Spittel: A Learned Man for the Väddās and the Wild

Richard Boyle. in Serendib, October 2013 where the title runs thus “Dr. R. L. Spittel: City Surgeon, Jungle Doctor, Wildlife Crusader”

In the late 1880s, a boy with the ambition to become a leading physician stood in a jungle clearing watching his surgeon-father perform an autopsy. From the undergrowth a member of the aboriginal people, the Veddahs, suddenly appeared. Their eyes met for one brief moment before the shy Veddah hastily withdrew. It was Richard Lionel Spittel’s first experience of a Veddah; an encounter that profoundly affected his life.

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The Eastern Regions of Sri Lanka in British Times

Michael Roberts

My D. Phil dissertation at Oxford in the early 1960s centred on British agrarian policy in the mid-nineteenth century and therefore included the British efforts to revive the tank irrigation systems of the Sinhala past. Several British colonial personnel as well as visiting dignitaries were captivated by the ruins of the Anuradhapura/Polonnaruwa periods which they observed during adventure trips. A few saw it as a challenge for their imperial capacity. Some British governors, notably Ward, Gregory and Gordon, took up the prospect.

 Sir Henry Ward and SJV Chelvanyakam

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A Treasure Trove of Jewish Memorabilia in Manchester

Nazia Parveen, in The Guardian, 24 September 2020, where the title reads “Time capsule from 1873 found buried in wall of Manchester Jewish Museum”

Hidden deep within a cavity wall of the Manchester Jewish Museum, complete with its wax seal intact, lay a glass jar time capsule buried almost 150 years ago.

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Democracy under the Gun in Sri Lanka

Jayadeva Uyangoda, in Sri Lanka Guardian 24 September 2020, where the title is “The End of Sri Lanka’s Democracy”

The debate on the proposed 20th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s 1978 Constitution is gathering momentum. The proposal, which has been published in the Government Gazette, is indeed a constitutional bombshell, literally. Its provisions are very destructive in their objectives as well as consequences. 

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Sri Lankan Expressiveness: Warm Gratitude and Vicious Vituperation

Michael Roberts

I did not see the article that highlighted the manner in which the Tamil people of Vishvamadu feted and lamented the departure of the Sinhalese Military Commander of that arena, Ratnapriya Bandu, when it was originally placed in the public domain in late 2018. This striking presentation was the result of a combination between Shenali Waduge in Lanka and the SPUR organisation in Melbourne, an alliance that immediately indicates orientations laced with sentiments of a chauvinist Sinhala hue.

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The Ahikuntika …. Roaming Gypsies of Sri Lanka

Pujitha Wijetunge, in http://www.lankalibrary.com/cul/gypsy.htm ….where the title is “Ahikuntika: Roaming Gypsy Clan”………. alas, no date given

Clad  in a sari and with a red mouth that showed signs that she was chewing beetle, Lili didn’t look any different from those fortune-tellers or palm readers who were a common sight in the streets few years back. But the next generation, Lucki, looked very much like those village boys, wearing a sarong and a gold painted wristwatch.

Lakshman with his dancing cobra.

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Caste, Ur and Tamilness among the Tamils in Metropolitan London

Jane Russell. reviewing article by Thanges Paramsothy entitled  “Caste Within the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora” in Anthropology Matters Journal, Vol.18 No 1 (2018)

I usually avoid reviewing academic articles. Many are derivative and ones that employ original research can be turgid and dull. But that is not the case with this article by Thanges Paramsothy, currently South Asia Program Scholar at Cornell. While replete with sociological and anthropological information about Sri Lankan Tamil caste groupings, both past and present, it is also full of revealing insights into a social system that has been a veiled inner sanctum to many outsiders.

a toddy tapper

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