13 June, 2024


Confrontations With Colonialism: Resistance, Revivalism & Reform Under British Rule In Sri Lanka

By Sumanasiri Liyanage and Charitha Herath

In the last ten years or so, Prof. P V J Jayasekera has been working on revising his doctoral dissertation for publication as many friends had insisted that it should be offered for public consumption. Finally the first volume of it is out. We are not a historians so we possess neither the subject knowledge nor the capacity to comment on the wider field the book is grappling with. Hence this is just a reader’s response.

Confrontations with Colonialism by Prof P.V.J. Jayasekera

Confrontations with Colonialism: Resistance, Revivalism and Reform under British Rule in Sri Lanka 1796- 1920. Vol. 1 By P V J Jayasekera

Confrontations with Colonialism: Resistance, Revivalism and Reform under British Rule in Sri Lanka 1796- 1920 (hereafter Confrontations) begins with a long introduction on the failure of existing historiography to account for the domination technology deployed by the colonial rulers and the complexities of how natives reacted to it. Eurocentric historiography with its univocal, positivistic, linear and meta-discourse has viewed the imperialist mission as a civilizing agent of continuing the European Enlightenment project throughout the globe. According to the author, this view was challenged by postcolonial studies initiated by Edward Said’s Orientalism. Prof. Jayasekera talks about the subaltern studies as a positive contribution to colonial history writings as the subalternists have focused on the specificity of colonial context and the non-elites and their struggles in the colonial setting. However, in a recent book, Vivek Chibber (Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital) has made a substantive critique of subaletern studies notion of the specificity of colonial capitalism by bringing in the complexities of the historical development in the metropole. Prof. Jayasekera’s main critique is that this debate in historiography has no influence in Sri Lankan historiography of colonialism. His is a critique of the Sri Lankan historiography in the writings of academics following the colonial master’s format. Hence. those work remained “within the paradigm set by European historiography of colonialism” (p xx).) Hence, P.V.J suggests that we need a different perspective in writing history of the colonial period in Sri Lanka that includes critique and re-reading.

Confrontations has three long chapters that the author has defined as parts. A reader may wonder why he called chapters as parts in the Volume 1 while using the usual word “chapters” in the Volume 2. The three parts are as follows:
Part 1. The British Colonial Project in 19th Century Sri Lanka: The Orwellian Logic
Part 2. Christian Colonialism and the Resistance and Revival of Buddhism
Prat 3. Buddhism, Theosophy and Nationalism

The Nature of the Colonial State

P.V.J in Part 1 of the Confrontations questioned the seemingly dominant view that the colonial state in Sri Lanka after Colebrooke- Cameron Commission’s recommendation had turned into a Laissez- Faire state. K.M.de Silva representing the dominant position writes: “The basic purpose of Colebrooke and Cameron was to impose on Ceylon the superstructure of the laissez -faire state. And in this they succeeded to a greater degree than they themselves could have anticipated.” (quoted in p. 38). This view was upheld by many other historian including G C Mendis. Contrary to this view, P.V.J argues that “The colonial state in its typical 19th century form emerged not with the Colebrooke- Cameron reforms but with the development of the plantation system as the dominant sector of the economy and its concomitant result of firmly establishing the hegemony of the British bourgeoisie over the colonial society.” (p. 41) In support of this argument, he quoted Vijaya Samaraweera’s view that the legislation on land, labor and taxation that facilitated the development of the plantation system amounted to a total rejection of Colebrooke- Cameron recommendations. What is the nature of the colonial state in Sri Lanka? As P.V.J argues that “the hegemony of the British bourgeoisie over the colonial society” was established in the 19th century, the question arises what were the concrete mechanisms that facilitated this hegemony. The central argument of the Part 1 of Confrontations as it appeared in the quotation cited above is that the colonial state was an interventionist state on behalf of the British capitalist class in their endeavor to make profit. Here one may see a minor contradiction. On page 41 onwards, the author gives the impression that the colonial bureaucracy was relatively independent from the British capitalist class so that one may wonder that the colonial state’s interventionism was an outcome of this relative independence of the bureaucracy that had direct interests in plantation industry. Whatever its source, the book gives ample evidence to show that the colonial state was not a laissez- faire state but a state that intervened in multiple means in order to promote the plantation industry in grabbing land and hiring low-cost labor. As noted in page 50, K.M. de Silva has also emphasized that the colonial state used deception, denial of information and misinformation to get the legal validity for draconian Land Ordinance 5 of 1840.

Although the Confrontations relates the colonial interventionist state to direct plantation interests represented by the colonial bureaucracy that operated as a power bloc, S.B.D. de Silva in his study argues that plantation system was not in fact directed and controlled by the owners whether they were colonial bureaucrats or absentee owner class but by novel institutions called agency houses. He sees agency houses not as a form of productive capital but a form of merchant capital. In the analysis of the nature of the colonial state, it would have been better had the author focused on the web of alliances between the colonial state, its bureaucracy and the agency houses.

Revival of Buddhism and the Emergence of Sinhala-Buddhist Nationalism

The second part of Confrontations focuses on another facet of the colonial state, namely, its mission to promote Christianity as a colonial governmental technology. The argument here may be summarized as follows: 1. He proposes to use the phrase Christian colonialism in order “to highlight the vital role of Christianity in European colonialism and its project of spiritual and cultural domination” (p. 180). 2. Buddhism as “a key element in Sinhalese social formation and a means by which the community maintained and expressed its traditional identity” (p. 181) confronted Christian colonialism through multiple ways. The complex process through which Buddhism encountered Christian colonialism and the colonial state’s deployment of bio-politics is explained in the following words: “Resistance and revival are a complex process of restoration of what colonialism attempted to disrupt and eliminate, a restoration of the free and unrestrained practice of the traditional religion of the Sinhalese, a reassertion of its predominant position in the spiritual life of its believers, an attempt to reclaim the recognition and respect that its institutions and priesthood enjoyed in precolonial social and political space.” (p. 181) This process, according to the author was not confined to the British period as the same can be seen under Portuguese and Dutch rule in the maritime provinces.

The colonial state recognized the significance of Christianity not only as a legitimizing force of the colonialism but also as a means of establishing new hegemonic force replacing Buddhism and Hinduism. It is interesting to note that the Buddhist priest and religious institutions did not pose an objections against preaching an alien religion. As the author notes, “Buddhists initially extended their support to the Portuguese missionaries to set up their churches and maintain their priests” (p. 185) and “the attitude of the Sangha was that the Catholic missionaries were also teachers of people, like themselves, and saw no harm in their preaching a different faith” (p. 186). How did this initial accommodative perception change later into active resistance and confrontation? The author has collected so much evidence to show that this change was mainly due to the fact that the religion was made a significant element of colonial rule that in many ways oppressive and intrusive. Thus the Buddhist revival cannot be depicted as an emulation of ‘nationalism’ available to locals by Europe. Here, the Partha Chatterjee’s distinction (in The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Identities) between “inner” and “outer” may have relevance. Christian colonialism’s intrusion into the “inner” domain of local culture even though the “outer” domain had already been under the colonial state had to be confronted and resisted. The confrontation and resistance took many forms and the author has given detail and vivid portrayal of the process. The author has thus resituated the famous five debates in this context of confrontations with colonialism.

In Part 3, Confrontations focused on the process and developments through which the Buddhist revival and resistance had crystalized in the form of anti-colonialism. Thus the movement with limited objectives of countering religious differentiation and discrimination was gradually transformed into a quasi-political movement against colonial administration. P.V.J writes: “With these developments the confrontation between Buddhism and Christian colonialism reached a stage where strategies of revivalism that challenged the ideological hegemony of Christianity were being transformed into politics of anti-colonialism going beyond the domain of religious differentiation” (p. 433). Does the author imply that the reassertion of the “inner” domain had gradually transformed into Sinhala Buddhist nationalism? In the latter portion of the book, the author appears to grapple with this controversial issue. How the Sinhala-Buddhist collective consciousness took shape as an anti-colonial nationalism is discussed from p. 435 onwards. The author concludes that “neither the mystification of nationalism as a reified phenomenon nor the representation of nation as an ‘imagined community’ readily fit into this concrete situation” P. 437).

Prof. Jayasekera while arguing for the emergence of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism during the colonial period also posits the extreme limitations of it due to multiple factors. Hence, having referred to Anthony Smith’s definition of nationalism as an ideology with “well-defined goals of collective self-rule, territorial unification and cultural identity” the author concludes that “the ideology of Buddhist revivalist nationalism to reassert the past cultural identity and reconstruct the historic community in its ancestral homeland challenging the ideological hegemony of Christian colonialism was extremely hazy” (p. 475). Although Prof. Jayasekera has left this question unanswered, the last a few pages may lead one to wonder if it can be attributed to the inherent weakness of the Sri Lankan elites.

The book should be an essential reading for everyone who are interested in colonial history as a source material as well as a critique of the existing historiography and anthropology on colonial history.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    This is an old thesis. So, what is the purpose here, except reviewing for publishing.

    Anyway, the author should have been non-buddhist and he did no know about buddhism.

    buddhists are taught to live with other religions. It is only the middle east religions that behaves like the Camal – head in a small house.

  • 5

    ” As the author notes, “Buddhists initially extended their support to the Portuguese missionaries to set up their churches and maintain their priests” (p. 185) and “the attitude of the Sangha was that the Catholic missionaries were also teachers of people”
    This attitude still continues in some ways even today. Buddhists happily pay obeisance at Catholic shrines such as St. Anthony’s and Madhu, but we don’t see many Catholics at the Sri Maha Bodhi. This was the root of the problem with the Portuguese, whose Catholicism was pretty intolerant in some ways. On the other hand, they were more or less caste and colour -blind.Unlike their successors the British and Dutch, they intermarried freely (there are still lots of Pereras and Silvas) and allowed lower castes to engage in occupations that they were not allowed under Sinhala Kings (as long as they converted).The rise of the Karawes and others is mostly due to Portuguese intervention.
    It is well to remember that the Portuguese came looking for a route to India and also to convert the people. Religion was much less of an incentive to the British and Dutch.
    As to the traditional status of the priesthood,( which the authors seem to be in favour of) I do not think this servility to them was a good thing. It was simply a device to keep much land under the control of particular families .We must not forget that even today, Loku Hamuduruwos hand over succession to their relatives. Not quite what the Buddha taught, is it?

    • 0

      This attitude still continues in some ways even today. Buddhists happily pay obeisance at Catholic shrines such as St. Anthony’s and Madhu, but we don’t see many Catholics at the Sri Maha Bodhi.

      – Madu is a former Pathini Devala. Portugeuse took over it because it was a female deity.

      Loku Hamuduruwos hand over succession to their relatives. Not quite what the Buddha taught, is it?

      Buddha did not ban the devotees to obey their culture.

      In the west the buddhism is very much christian -buddhism.

  • 4

    A serious review by two genuinely progressive intellectuals of a valuable scholarly book by a respected historian (whose lectures I am happy to have attended as a student). Well done Charitha and Sumanasiri–hope you collaborate more often and on bigger projects. You guys are way better than the cheap cosmopolitans-for-hire i.e. the so-called civil society academics and intellectuals.

    • 6

      War Monger types:

      “(whose lectures I am happy to have attended as a student).”

      How did Prof. P V J Jayasekera fail to educate Dayan? Where did Prof. P V J Jayasekera go wrong?

      • 2

        Dayan attended lectures but to be fair he did not claim that he learned anything from Prof PVJ Jayasekara.

        All that Dayan knows about life were learned from his revered Guru Mahinda Rajapaksa.

        • 3


          “All that Dayan knows about life were learned from his revered Guru Mahinda Rajapaksa.”

          I thought he learned everything from Wimal Sangili Karruppan Weerawansa.

  • 2

    Trouble is, unlike Indo-China and Myanmar which are fine examples of preserving traditional lands, livelihoods and heritage, we were too far from Russia and China for Communism to have dissolved off our 0.01% Elites. On top of that, however much caste-systemed India tried to incorporate Socialism, it always ended up as an embarrassing disgrace of Eelitisism. And Sri Lanka was most influenced by her nearest neighbour.

    Certainly will Buddhism be just as welcoming to other faiths as it was in Colonial times. Sinhala Buddhist Revival is imperative for the posterity of our Nation. All schools and places of education need to undergo compulsory Buddhist education classes (the Nationalism word being a misnomer due to Elites and aspiring Elites especially of the alien faiths holding their heads in fright that they would have to pay up for using the labour of the masses……and of course the Aryan word too….the very word that rattled up Tamils).

    But it is not too late to instruct the present day Lankan Elite to correct the ways of their capitalistic technique. If taxation appropriate for overall country development(i.e. traditional development) is repugnant to them, and/or if they use their profits for the regional show, rather than to build up our land, then the government should venture in and hand it to more honorable stakeholders (and merely taking pics. with sorong and baniyan as goviay will not cut it either). The Trumpian era will surely kick start the process.

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