The National Archives


by Gamini Seneviratne

This refers to the article by Gamini Akmeemana (Daily Mirror, April, 23rd) on the Department of National Archives under its new Director General, Dr. Nadeera Rupesinghe.

For well over a century the archives had functioned under the Chief Secretary of the colonial administration. It is easy, now, to see why that was the arrangement preferred by the Brits: a few months ago it emerged that the British Archives at Kew had, in effect, been looted by senior public servants in order to remove evidence of the atrocities on which the, ha-ha,‘British Colonial Heritage’ was founded. Consequently that office here was headed not by a ‘Director’ or, perish the thought, a ‘Director General’ but by ‘The Government Archivist’.

As happens I served briefly in the early 1960s in Nuwara Eliya Kachcheri when our Archives were yet up there. I recall the name of JHO Paulusz, a Ceylonese who had had formal education at tertiary level and (to the disgust of our great bibliographer, Ian Goonetilleke who had already done considerable work on that project) had edited Robert Knox’s book in its original form for Tisara Prakashakayo: he had been the Archivist at Independence.

By the early 1960s the Government Archivist was Amarawansa Dewarajah. He had a small staff of whom I recall, in situ so to say, only Sam Mottau and Haris de Silva. During a recent conversation with Haris, his memory and mine (both octogenarian) brought back other names, Paul Perera (later a Minister), M. Azeez, G M K Perera and N Amerasinghe among them.

Sam had prepared a catalogue of Dutch documents pertaining to Galle District held in those archives in Nuwara Eliya. Nadeera’s doctoral thesis was based on the self-same documents. Perhaps the last of the Public Lectures hosted at the Archives by the previous head of the department, Dr. Saroja Wettasinge and, delivered by Dr. Nadeera, was titled, "Do You Know the Ninth Commandment? Tensions of the Oath in Dutch Colonial Sri Lanka". As her account shows, our gamayas had proved to be quite quick-footed in using, to their own advantage, the ‘rules’ set up by the Dutch.

Sam’s services were also much in demand by Ceylonese who sought the documentation demanded for a resident visa under the infamous "white Australia" policy adopted by that government on behalf of earlier, pre-visa, immigrants ‘Down Under’. Indeed the only passport the encroachers needed was that they were able and willing to employ firearms against the native innocent men, women and children. Their crime, rather like that of the Palestinian people now being slaughtered in Gaza to a deafening silence from ‘human rights’ activists, (including the bearded Arabic ‘Prince’ long resident in the USA and hired by the UN who threatens us when he is short of funds) was that for millennia they had possessed the land the invaders coveted.

What follows suggests the variety of interests those officers at our Archives pursued.

For his part Haris had prepared a report almost sixty years ago, on the general holdings there. It makes fascinating reading now.

Some two decades after I left Nuwara Eliya, Azeez, who had specialized in the micro-fiche technology employed then for the preservation of documents, assisted me in setting up recording devices at a new venture for the Treasury. It had to do with gathering and analyzing the mass of documents one very conceivable tool, material and skilled manpower required in construction generated by the Mahaweli, housing, highways, manufacturing and tourism activities launched in the first wave of mostly foreign-funded investment post 1977.

Amerasinghe joined the National Library Services Board as its head; while there he published a catalogue of the post-graduate theses that are lodged in our main libraries. Its final version, in 1980, also included full bibliographic details and their location together with the library accession number.

The catalogue of such theses prepared by me related to post-graduate dissertations submitted by University and state sector personnel. It was prepared with the assistance of HAI Goonetilleke, afore-mentioned, and had a different personality. It was intended to facilitate access to potential employees and employers who could offer or might need such expertise – an exercise, one might say, in manpower planning. It was published by the Ministry of Finance in 1984. Indicative of a lack at the time, maybe it’s worse now, is that an earlier version of it came out as Volume 2 of a study on Post-Graduate Education in Sri Lanka.

GMK Perera moved through the Treasury and the Distilleries Corporation (perhaps as a teetotaler) to end his career at S. D. Saparamadu’s Tisara Publications - a reader of high professional skill.

Of them all Haris had been the first to obtain a post-graduate Diploma in Archival management. As he put it, the University of London had continued to consider ancient Greek as well as numismatics more relevant for archival studies than, as he had suggested as being more relevant to us, Portuguese and Dutch. It is to be hoped that Nadeera, with her aptitude for languages, herself acquires competence in Portuguese as she has done in Dutch. Considering the problems the department has faced in getting its officers to master English, "encouraging" others to do likewise is unlikely to be of much use for archival studies here. Perhaps the Minister could help work-up a solution to this problem.

A contemporary of Haris, Wickremanayake, had obtained a PhD in archival studies, the first and to date the only one to do so; unfortunately he had chosen to migrate to Australia, a sad loss.

KDG Wimalaratne who succeeded Haris as Director, obtained his Diploma in Archival Administration from Padua on work done in Italy, in particular at the archives in Venice. Another officer of that generation who served in the department for some time, KD Paranavitane, had done what Haris said was ‘a junior diploma’ in the Netherlands.

Wimalaratne was succeeded by Saroja Wettasinghe, who had obtained her B.Sc. with a First Class in chemistry from Pakistan, and got a Commonwealth scholarship that enabled her to proceed to the UK for a PhD on paper conservation – a vital responsibility among those assigned to the Archives.

As Haris mentioned, although Saroja had been sent for training in archival administration evidently her interests had remained on chemistry. The consequences of that are evident now. Besides having worked for several years as a researcher at our archives and those in The Hague, (and being acquainted with those in London and Lisbon) Nadeera has some executive experience as features editor at a national newspaper and left to herself would be equipped to get the full benefits of further training in archival administration.

That brings up a familiar dilemma in state (as well as other) organizations. In my view, such specialists should be rewarded on par with the administrative managers and not be burdened with such duties themselves. What follows below may be indicative of the hazards of the inappropriate allocation of functions.

Evidently three other serving officers have obtained Diplomas from Delhi. They have been long in the department but, curiously, have not been appointed, say, as Assistant Directors even in an "Acting" capacity. Haris has been spending time once a week at the department and offering such advice as was sought from him. He said those ‘diplomates’ are only "attending to the duties" of Assistant Directors. That seems strange: if Dr. Saroja, who knew them well, thought they were not suitable for appointment to a substantial position even at that level, it is obvious that they should not be attending to duties they cannot handle. May be it was an oversight on her part.

Even stranger is that the article under reference states that at present the department has some 60 percent vacancies: against its approved cadre of 292 the department has only 117 staff.

That surely is a matter that requires the attention of the Ministry as soon as possible? The assistance of the Management Services could be obtained to sort out cadre positions/titles following the elevation/renaming of the Director as Director General. No attempt seems to have been made to determine cadre positions below that as, e.g, Deputy/Assistant Director General followed, as necessary, by Directors downwards.

Pending such a restructuring those who have acquired training in archival work including the technical aspects of paper conservation should be sought out, interviewed and brought in. In the case of those who were trained in Delhi and are "attending to duties" they and any others already in the department could be interviewed by a panel headed, in the interests of discipline, by the Director General. Appointments of those found suitable could be made on probation for a relatively short period.

The Minister, Kariyawasam, has already obtained rupees one billion to finance the long awaited repairs to the main building and to install central air-conditioning for it. It is of course now up to his Secretary to ensure that the consultants and contractors proceed with that work as expeditiously as possible.

The Minister has also shown considerable initiative in ‘going outside the box’ to recruit the Director General and should take the time to invite the interest of others to join the department or come in on advisory panels. I know of Professor Nayani Melagoda (who served on the Council of the Royal Asiatic Society when I was there some years ago) who has a Masters in Archival Studies and I believe teaches ‘International Relations’ at Colombo University. There is Sujeeva Bandara who completed a Masters in Archival Studies last year in The Hague in collaboration with the University of Leiden. Her dissertation had been on "Writing memoirs in the mid-eighteenth century (in) Ambon and Sri Lanka."

I know that she was editing Sam Mottau’s bibliography and making it ready for publication but have no idea where that project is now. She is also familiar with our Archives having worked there as assistant to a Dutch scholar, Dr. Alburt Vanderbilt. The Minister might have a preliminary interview with them and any others of similar background.

He might also direct Dr. Nadeera to re-establish cordial relations with the Netherlands government units that deal with, within the broad range of the subject, the Dutch Archives in Indonesia.

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