Dry zone colonisation and myth of
displacement of Tamils
Establishment of permanent Tamil settlements
Continued from yesterday
The third point, on which there is no disagreement and is related to the second, is that the permanent Tamil settlements in the island originated in the early Christian era. The establishment of Tamil political power at various occasions during the early Christian era might have induced more Tamils to migrate into the island, in addition to the Tamil armies, and to establish permanent Tamil settlements here. Most of the settlements were established in northern Sri Lanka, especially in the Jaffna peninsula. Some Tamil settlements must have been established in and around Anuradhapura the seat of the Sinhalese kingdom, but with the Sinhalese regaining power over those areas, those Tamils may have either left or been driven out of the Sinhalese core. It can also be assumed that the Tamils who remained behind were assimilated into the larger Sinhalese-Buddhist community.
The fourth point on which there is no controversy is that the establishment of formal Tamil political power in the northern parts of the island took place when the Sinhalese political power and their economic base in the Dry Zone began to decline in the 11th Century and after. The South Indian invasions which came in increasing frequency and might, and the long chain of weak Sinhalese kings who could not withstand the invading Tamil powers were largely responsible for the south-westward movement of the Sinhalese political centre.
Nicholas (1963) describes this politico-spatial change:
The ancient irrigation system had already broken down and Codrington has suggested that the famine probably coincided with the first appearance of Malaria which for over six and a half centuries afterward became the scourage of the Dry Zone,, The north-western, northern and north-eastern and maritime eastern parts of the island passed permanently out of Sinhalese hand to the Tamils.
From about 11th and 12th Century, the Tamil population has been slowly but steadily increasing in certain areas of the present Eastern Province and the southern Districts of the Northern Province. Simultaneously, the Sinhalese population in these areas appears to have been on the decline.
When the first official census was taken in 1871, all the Districts in the Northern and Eastern Provinces had a Tamil majority. These politico-spatial processes and the resultant pattern of population distribution, viewed at the scale of either the District or Province, gave birth to the idea that these areas constitute a ‘Tamil region’. The concept of ‘traditional homelands of the Tamils’ covering the whole of these areas was largely a subsequent political interpretation of the former.
The fifth point, on which there is common agreement, is that the Jaffna kingdom for the most part seems to have remained partially independent with few exceptions during a period of less than 3 centuries. When the Sinhalese rulers in the south were powerful, they have invaded the Jaffna kingdom and made it pay tribute to the King in the south. Rarely as a fully and mostly as a partially independent kingdom it survived from 12th Century until it was subjugated by the Portuguese in 1619. The extent of the core area of the Jaffna kingdom, even at its climax, was largely limited to the Jaffna peninsula and certain parts of the mainland sections of the present Northern Province. Whatever the territorial and temporal extensions were, the existence of a separate Tamil politico-territorial entity gave the Tamil community what such a Sinhalese entity had given for the Sinhalese community - the provision of a politico-territorial identity.
The commonly agreed sixth point is the emergence of the sparsely populated area which was under the direct and rigid control of neither the Sinhalese nor the Tamil rulers. Certain parts of this area were once the "economically dynamic rice and other crop producing region of the Sinhalese kingdom. For reasons mentioned earlier (see Nicholas’ quotation in page 177), these areas were abandoned by the Sinhalese and only a very small population was left behind. The isolation of these settlements from the central control of either the Tamil or the Sinhalese centres of power when both Kingdoms existed, was the most significant feature of the politics of this sparsely populated periphery. The local rulers of these areas were known as ‘Vanniars’ and their political allegiance has varied between the Jaffna kingdom to the north and the Sinhalese kingdom to the south. Even the ethnicity of the Vanniars and their subjects also varied between the Sinhalese and the Tamils; there were Tamil Vanniars as well as Sinhalese Vanniars. With the consolidation of political power by the Portuguese and the Dutch in the maritime areas and then by the British in the interior as well, the Vanniars were displaced by the colonial administrators.
The seventh irrefutable point is that during the period of the first two colonial powers, northern Sri Lanka, especially the Jaffna peninsula came under their rule, but control over the coastal areas and the interior of the eastern Sri Lanka varied. These areas usually came under the political authority of the Kandyan kings, but when the colonialists were powerful, they were able to secure certain areas of the coast under their control.
After the conquest of the Tamil kingdom in Jaffna in 1619 by the Portuguese, the Kandyan kingdom singly remained to face the threat of the western colonial powers. The Kandyan kingdom at various times signed treaties with the Portuguese: King Senarath in 1617 acknowledged the authority of the Portuguese to rule over the maritime districts.