A Survey of Social Change in an Imperial Regime


By A.P. Kannangara,
(Published by Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2011) –

by Leelananda De Silva

The British period in Sri Lanka’s history has been well excavated by academics and other scholars, some in pursuit of their postgraduate studies. In recent years, there have been efforts to bring to light what has remained unpublished. A large number of academics in History and Economics of the 1940s and the 1950s did their research on the British period. Several of them focused on issues of social change – the rise of the plantation economy, the emergence of the English educated classes, the birth of an urban working class, the rise and fall of castes, the activities of the missionaries and so on. It can be argued that British rule in Sri Lanka really touched only a minority of the population (10 to 15 percent), who lived in the urban areas. The rural population was ignored, by and large, by the British administration and was left to the mercies of the local feudal administrators. Caste relationships determined the pattern of interaction between various segments of the rural population until well into the 20th century. There was no social change in the rural areas, and when these studies, including the one under review, refer to social change, it is about what happens in the urban areas and the plantation economy.

The volume by A.P. Kannangara, (popularly known as Kapi) to all intents and purposes, is a joint production of him and his wife, Monica. Based on the notes Kapi left, when he died in 2004, Monica has converted them into an eminently readable book, of particular interest to the general reader. Kapi was a brilliant student at the university in the early 1950s and a popular and much sought after figure. He read for a law degree but his affection was for history. He left these shores, first for London and then to Paris. He did his postgraduate studies at Oxford, and obtained a D. Phil. based on a brilliant thesis on the division of Bengal by the British. This has been commended as a remarkable study by leading scholars of India. Kapi undertook this work as he felt that a comparative piece of work of this nature could enable him and others to understand the demands for division and separation in Ceylon. Kapi’s thesis is one of the very few by any Sri Lankan on a subject relating to a foreign country. Monica (sister of Denzil Peiris, redoubtable journalist and editor) read English under E.F.C. Ludowyke, and since then had been an inspirational teacher of English in Colombo, London and Paris. As Monica and Kapi have been away from Sri Lanka for so long, younger generations do not know them.

The comparatively slim volume of 250 pages, offers a broad perspective of the changes in Sri Lankan society during the British period. It consists of two parts – the first part, on the impact of British rule in Ceylon, and the second, on ancient status symbols, primarily associated with caste and hierarchy. Altogether the book consists of nine chapters, in addition to a long preface by Monica. The focus of the volume is on the role of caste and how that has shifted over the years, responding to the various changes made by the British. This book might even have been titled "Caste and Hierarchy in British Ceylon". British administrators in general, and as a matter of policy, upheld caste and its attendant practices in key aspects of governance. Provincial and rural administration was largely based on caste factors. The volume is lavishly embroidered with stories and snippets of changing social mores.

An intriguing chapter on Caste in the Emerging Class Hierarchy offers many insights into how the caste system operated. The rise of professional classes led to some diminution in caste practices, but even this happened gradually. In the early years of the 20th century "when the young Rajaka Lawyer, George E. de Silva, took his seat at the Bar table in Kandy for his first appearance the other lawyers walked out". In an appendix to the volume there is a bewildering classification of "contemporary castes and sub-castes in order of rank". There are twenty five caste groups. Within the Govigama caste alone, there are nine sub-castes ranging from Radala to Guruvos (conch bearers). Each of these castes has their own symbols and practices.

The chapter on "The Rise and Fall of the Mudaliyar Class", refers to petty struggles among the Ceylonese upper classes, to obtain favours from the British and to be bestowed with honours. The local grandees wanted the Mudaliyar system to be kept within the narrow confines of class and caste. The days of the Mudaliyars were however, numbered. In Colombo, the British introduced a departmental system of administration, each department specializing in a selected area of work. The Mudaliyars were generalists, recruited on caste lines, and not on merit. Merit and technical skill were required for a growing, complex system of departmental administration. So the Mudaliyars had to go but they remained until the 1930s. Another interesting aspect of caste comes up when examining the jury system. So-called superior caste jurors refused to sit with those whom they considered as of lower caste. There were major tensions within the Sinhalese themselves, based on caste and hierarchy.

The volume examines other issues in social change – the rise of the English educated class, the growth of the small Sinhalese entrepreneur, and internal migration. Many small new towns emerged both in the low country and in the upcountry. The upcountry towns were largely peopled by those migrating from the low country. A new entrepreneurial class grew up, and the author discusses several of the enterprises, and the families associated with them (Malibans, Gunasenas). The successful middle level entrepreneurs supported the growingly articulate Buddhist movements of the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. There is a close relationship between new emerging families and Buddhist temples in their areas (the Rankot Vihara and the Diases of Panadura, for example). Buddhist practices and this kind of entrepreneurial activities appeared to work harmoniously.

The second part of this volume on ancient status symbols and their devaluation gives a detailed account of the system of honours and ranks that were held by or bestowed on the Sinhalese. The author says that "the people of Sri Lanka are very keen on titles. This weakness has been commented on by many foreigners in the past.Robert Knox was one of the earliest to recognize this". The British exploited this weakness to their own advantage. While maintaining some of the old titles such as Mudaliyar, Muhandiram, Arachchi, and others, they also bestowed their own titles. There was quite a tussle when the philanthropist, C. H. De Soysa, campaigned for a knighthood. Several Britishers lobbied for him, while there was resistance from other Sinhalese. His attempts failed and it was his son, Wilfred, who was knighted in 1897. Before that, in 1893, "A First Class Goigama" Harry Dias, a Puisne Judge was given a knighthood.

Symbols of status were associated with dress forms. As late as 1938, Deva Suriya Sena, (son of Sir James Peiris) wore the traditional dress of a Kandyan chief at an Oxford function. Photographs appeared in the local press. Three Kandyan chiefs objected, considering this to be an affront to the Kandyan chiefs in general. The protest went up to the Secretary of State in London, who ordered that Deva Suriya Sena should be "apprised of his disapproval". The British are presumed to have a sense of humour, and did the Secretary of State have nothing better to do than get involved in these petty squabbles? The volume refers to a more serious incident at less exalted levels. "As late as 1949 near Tangalle in the Southern Province, there was what the newspaper headlines called a battle of the ‘banians’ when local people of the Nekati caste began to disregard the ancient prohibition of people of their caste wearing anything above the waist. Some boys of that caste came to school wearing banians. There were riots in the bazaar and the boys were beaten up by adults of other castes". While caste barriers still persist in more invisible forms, this kind of crude reaction has probably disappeared.

The Kannangara volume offers many insights for future studies. During the entirety of the British period, and particularly through the operation of caste factors, supported by the then colonial government, human rights of the vast majority of the people of Ceylon were violated. The situation improved only with universal franchise in 1931, and with the onset of democratic processes of government since 1948. How strong is the caste factor nowadays – at the political, social and business levels? Janice Jiggins, in her path-breaking book, "Caste and Family in the Politics of the Sinhalese" - in the late 1970s, made many observations which threw some light into the murky operations of the caste factor after 1947. This work of Jiggins needs to be updated, as there are many new aspects to a rapidly evolving situation. It is arguable that only someone from outside Sri Lanka can examine the more recent developments in the unfolding caste saga. There is so much human rights activism nowadays, that the caste factor should not be neglected.

There was much social change during the 150 years of British rule, although it was largely confined to a limited segment of the population. Since 1948, there has been a dramatic transformation in Sri Lankan society, through government action and economic expansion. The social structure left by the British – the plantation economy and the landed classes, the hierarchies of mudaliyars and knighthoods, English schools, the English educated in public administration, the parliamentary system of government - have all disappeared. Rural change has been brought about as a result of universal franchise, colonization schemes, expansion of education and health, the recognition of vernacular languages and through many other forms of public action. The market economy since 1977 has brought about a new class whose wealth is not based on land. Sri Lanka is now a remittance economy. The influence of the diasporas is evident. A new English educated class and elite international schools can now be observed, while at the same time there are the unemployed graduates. It is time for historians to evaluate social change in Sri Lanka since 1948. The Kannangara volume also suggests to me that it would be timely for a short general study of the British period, drawing on the extensive academic work done, so that a generation which has little knowledge of British administration is made more aware of its recent history.

(The reviewer is a former member of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service who has served both in the provinces and Colombo, quitting the public service in 1978 as Senior Asst. Secretary of the Ministry of Planning. He has since worked as UN Consultant based in New York, Geneva and London)

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