Should we get compensation from British for colonial era crimes?

A recent article quoted the letter written by the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) demanding compensation from the British government for their misdeeds during colonization. Its main thrust was that the British are responsible for sowing the seeds of the current conflict and therefore obliged to pay compensation. Some of the responses to the JHU attempted to speculate on their motives, rather than tackle the issue. Leaving these emotional reactions aside, the topic is certainly an interesting area for further academic inquiry and I wish more thought had gone into it.

This article gives an overview that may help to take the discussions forward. In order to think of the issue systematically, I address three main areas: documenting the impact of colonization; quantifying the impact of colonization and the legal position in obtaining compensation from a country.

Documenting impact

This section attempts to describe the impacts of invasion, suppression and occupation under six headings:

1. Cruelty to Indian Tamil persons who were forced into bonded labour

2. Human rights violations and crimes against humanity

3. Ecological disruption caused by denuding forests

4. Economic plundering

5. Deliberate policies to destroy traditional life styles

6. Stealing of artefacts and archeological items

In contrast to the letter by the JHU, I have deliberately left out the costs of racial disharmony. I did so because I find it difficult to ‘prove’ the contribution by the British and I doubt whether anyone will be able to convince a court of law.

Cruelty to Indian Tamil persons who were forced into bonded labour:

The British action on the Indian Tamils was disgracefully cruel. A bit of history is necessary to understand what happened during this period. After invading Sri Lanka we had two main freedom struggles. One was in 1817-18 and the second was the freedom struggle of 1848. After crushing these brutally, the British began mass scale exploitation of the country by opening of land for their planters. Initially, the plantations consisted of coffee and spices. In 1880 an epidemic of fungal infection destroyed coffee and it was replaced with tea, a labour intensive crop. This increased the demand for immigrant labour. Since the indigenous peasants refused to work in the plantations, they were unfairly taxed and the British began mass scale recruitments from India. Recruitment was using an exploitative system which manipulated the social and class structures of the Indian Tamils. The planters paid ‘Kanganies’, Indian Tamils from upper social classes and castes, to act as intermediaries and recruit workers from India and control them within the plantations. Male and female workers, children and pregnant mothers were all forced to make the 130-odd mile walk to the plantations in the hill country and almost 25% died on the way.

Employment conditions in the plantation were similar to those for slaves with extremely poor conditions. Almost one in every infant died before reaching their first birthday. Workers lived in the plantations with the Kanganies, to whom they were often indebted. The latter were paid an incentive when workers under their control reported to work and collected the workers’ pay for subsequent disbursement. They also had the power to transfer workers from one plantation to another with complete disruption to their family and social lives. Travelling outside the plantations was restricted and physical punishment was common. As a result, the Kanganies totally dominated the lives of the workers. Any attempts to improve the health and living conditions were opposed by the British planters.

Perhaps the CWC should seriously think of documenting all these abuses and develop an archive of historical record and include it in our school history books. That should be the first step in obtaining compensation at least for the Tamils who were brought in from India for the plantations. (Theoretically, they should have had the right to opt for British citizenship when Sri Lanka gained independence).

Human rights violations

The genocidal aspects of the British occupation are documented in historical records. One example is the manner in which the freedom struggle of 1817-1818 was crushed by Brownrigg, (a war criminal by my standards). He implemented a scorched earth policy. It is said that all males above 16 years were to be executed and this can be verified using the archives. Dams were destroyed, all coconut trees chopped off, and paddy fields burnt; all done in order to starve the rural populations. These are crimes against humanity and collective punishments that are despicable by any standards. Costing these acts could be difficult, but possible. Even the second freedom struggle of 1848 was crushed inhumanely and certain areas subjected to years of neglect. Areas such as Moneragala still have families that fled the British occupation (in "puraana gam"- old villages) and they continue to suffer, partly as a result of these historical events.

There were instances of documented human rights violations, such as executions without proper trials. Venerable Kudapola, a Buddhist monk was executed by Torrington in 1848 for supporting the second freedom struggle led by Veera Puran Appu. Henry Pedris, another freedom fighter (subsequently proven innocent), was executed at the age of 27 years on July 9, 1915, for supposedly instigating race riots. Direct descendents of these heroes may have some prospects of legally demanding compensation.

Ecological disruption

There are at least three areas that are relevant to this section. One ecological disaster commenced when the British began the sale of virgin forests for cash crops. This led to large scale denudation of water -retaining hill country. Though the tea which grew in our hill country has given us a life-line, it was done at tremendous ecological costs. Natural sources of water are dwindling and fertile top-soil eroded. There are ways of estimating these costs using environmental audits, pioneered by our own Prof C. Suriyakumaran - Deputy Executive Secretary of the UN’s Science Council for Asia; United Nations Sasakawa World Environment Laureate 1995.

Another problem relates to the innumerable landslides the hill country is subject to. These occur periodically as a result of large scale changes to the soil and water absorption capacities. Finally, the British deliberately built roads across agricultural tanks. These too can be easily identified and documented using archival materials and satellite imaging techniques.

Economic plunder

This can be estimated because there is documentation of the unfair taxes charged by the colonial government from peasants. Paddy land was taxed, grain harvests were taxed, and labour was forcefully used with minimal or no pay (i.e. the Rajakariya system). Most of the rail and tarred roads built during the British times have the blood, sweat and tears of our forefathers. The sale of land was done at a low rate to attract investors. By 1848 almost 250,000 acres of prime hill land had been sold to British landowners. This land grab was masterminded by a string of Governors (e.g. Thomas Maitland and others, some of whom we disgracefully continue to ‘honour’ by having streets named after them). Taxes of produce exported from Sri Lanka that went to the colonial coffers too can be estimated. Valuable sources of data and information can be found in the book by D.R. Snodgrass titled "Export Economy in Transition" (1966) and the Report of the Jennings Commission on Social Services (1943), published as a Sessional Paper of Parliament.

In 1946 there were almost 2,300 plantations in ‘Ceylon’ covering 488,000 acres. Four fifths of this was owned by the British. Thus the money that would have been drained from the country only through tea could be estimated. The Kandyan Peasantry Commission Report published in 1953 too may give more information on this aspect.

Destruction of life styles

Perhaps the most socially toxic policy was the widespread introduction of taverns by the British. (This is similar to what they did in China using opium). The British encouraged and facilitated opening of taverns and selling alcohol, despite opposition from the Buddhist clergy. The present epidemic of alcoholism in rural areas may have their roots in this despicable policy. Costing this component is fraught with difficulties.

Stealing artefacts

There is a treasure trove of items in museums all over the world plundered during the colonial period. These need to be valued. ‘Catalogue of Antiquities’ by Dr. P. H. D. H. de Siva available at the National Museum Library in Colombo, lists out a large number of Sri Lankan artefacts kept in foreign museums across the world. Examples include, a statue of Tara Devi, said to be one of the world’s five best statues, that is exhibited in the British Museum. Another is the valuable ivory casket from the 16th century during the reign of King Buwaneka Bahu, on display at a museum in Munich, Germany (this casket is made of ivory and also consists of gold, rubies and sapphires). The government has attempted to obtain some of these through UNESCO with limited success. Costing the value of stolen artefacts is relatively easy compared to the previous sections.

Quantifying impact

Costing the impact of colonization can be done using accepted methods in economics. This will be an interesting area for research by economists. There are several research papers that have done cost- benefit analyses of colonization. These allow one to take account of the investments made by Britain when the empire was gasping, that had a favourable impact on the country. An example is the benefits of road network, though they also helped in rapid deployment of troops to diverse locations. This is nothing new in academic circles and several universities have undertaken such exercises. For example see a draft of a paper published by a researcher from the New York University. (http://w4.stern.


Legal position

What are the legal mechanisms available to Sri Lanka to pursue compensation from the British? There is certainly precedence and payments have been made by former invaders for events that took place before 1948. Examples include reparations paid to the Jewish people for their suffering during World War II and payments to Japanese-Americans for their wrongful imprisonment during World War 2. In recent times other demands have been made. For example, the Metro Area chapter of the N’COBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America) has claimed that slavery was directly responsible for the current deprived status of African Americans in Harlem area.

They argue that the reason for the predominantly black neighborhood in this deprived area is due to the effects of slavery. Another example comes from Australia where the Aborigines who received a public apology from the Australian PM, are also calling for compensation. Similar actions have taken place in New Zealand by the indigenous Maoris.

Having considered a framework for demanding compensation, what are the practical steps we could take? My suggestion is that we have at least three research-cum-advocacy teams to work on the topics indicated in the beginning:

a. legal mechanisms for obtaining compensation for colonization

b. collating the evidence on adverse impact of colonialism

c. quantifying the damages of colonization

They could work under an existing institution (e.g. a university) or under a newly formed institution or NGO, and required to submit their report within a specified period. Such an activity could be funded using individual donations, donations from expatriate groups or with state funds (e.g. The President’s Fund).

What is the value of such an exercise? The worst scenario is that it will be limited to a mere publication and we will not receive a red cent in compensation. However, there can be other benefits. These could be interesting topics for students and university students to do more research on. It will help enlighten us about our roots and help understand some of the current predicaments. Discussions begun in this manner may engage a critical mass of people, which will generate its own momentum to bear fruit in the future.

(The writer is a Professor and consultant physician.

The views expressed are his and do not reflect those of the institutions he works in. He wishes to acknowledge the research done ‘under tremendous hardships’ by Donovan Moldrich, author of "Bitter Berry Bondage: The nineteenth century coffee workers of Sri Lanka")

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