By C.T. Abeysinghe –
The Malay community of Sri Lanka, whose ancestors came from the present-day Indonesian archipelago, Malaysia, and Singapore, accounts for less than 1% of the country’s population, and official statistics show that there are fewer than 40,000 Malays living in the country at the moment. My interest in this tiny but culturally vibrant community began with the reading of a book titled “Orang Regimen” (2008), written by a historian named Prof B.A. Hussainmiya, a Sri Lankan of Malay descent, who provides an extensive account of the Malays’ history from remote antiquity to the present. According to Prof Hussainmiya’s writings, the community’s ancestors are primarily from what is now known as Indonesia, formerly known as Dutch East Indies, which came under Dutch Colonial rule in the 17th century. During the Dutch Colonial period, the Dutch East India Company brought Easterners (Oosterelingen) from the Malay islands to fight the natives of Ceylon, build fortresses for the Dutch, and work in the cinnamon plantations. Some worked as supervisors, and those from the royal, aristocratic and Peranakan (those of mixed Malay/Indonesian and Chinese parentage) families held important positions in the Dutch regiments in Ceylon. The most notable of these Peranakan chiefs was Captain Baba Aboo Sally Lye, who served as second in command of the Dutch Regiment during the governorship of Iman Willem Falck. It is said that those of good social standing were offered bounty salaries when they joined the Dutch Forces, and when the British usurped the Dutch and took control of the island, they too offered higher ranks and salaries to those of the gentry. During the Colonial period, the Malays distinguished themselves as a martial race, playing a pivotal role in the Dutch and British conquests of Ceylon, and were praised by the Colonising powers for their loyalty, valour, martial prowess, and unwavering support. In 1802, they became the first Asian regiment in history to be awarded the prestigious King’s colours, and they played an important role in the Ceylon Rifle Regiment, Ceylon Police, and the tri forces, intelligence, prisons, and the fire brigade. According to M.M. Thawfeek, at the turn of the twentieth century, Malays made up 75% of the police force and 100% of the Colombo fire brigade.
Malay exiles and the Kandyan Kings
Many Royals, aristocrats, and their retinues were exiled to Ceylon from the Malay archipelago during the Dutch Colonial period, and they were held captive in Dutch fortresses across the island, including a place called “Kampung Pangeran” (Prince’s quarters) in Hulftsdorp, Colombo. Prof Husseinmiya’s book includes the names of these “anti-imperialist” Royals who were exiled to the country. Unlike those who came to Ceylon to join the soldiery and clerical staff, the Malay Royals were political exiles who were sentenced to Ceylon because of their opposition to colonial rule; as a result, they were fiercely anti-Dutch, and many escaped the Dutch clutches and joined the service of the Kandyan Kings. Those who made it into the interior of the island were given refuge by the Kandyan Kings and appointed captains of the native regiment known as “Padikara Peruwa,” which was manned by Malays who had previously served the Dutch. During the Kandyan Dutch Wars (1764-66), these Malay soldiers are said to have been deserted and betrayed by their Dutch officers. They were later apprehended by the Kandyans and given the option of joining the Kandyan King’s service, which many did and fought against the Dutch in subsequent wars as loyal subjects of the Kandyan King.
During the reign of Kandy’s last King, King Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe, the Kandyan Malay regiment grew to 22 companies of 32 men each, and by the turn of the 19th century, these Malay soldiers made up half of the Kandyan King’s force. Even the military commander of ‘Padikara Peruwa’ was a Makassarese Malay Captain, Karaeng Sankilang, dubbed “Sankelan” by Prof.Paul E.Peiris, son of the exiled King of Gowa [Celebes], Batara Gowa Amas Medina II. Among the notable Malay Chieftains appointed during King Wickrama Raja Singh’s reign are Assana Kapitan, Kuppen, Creasy (Greasy), and Kaladay (Kalladi) Kaya. Chieftain Kaya of Kalladi, was the descendant of an exiled Orang Kaya (title used by chieftains/Princes/Rajas) from Banda Islands, where nutmeg was discovered. Many Bandanese were tortured and massacred in large numbers, while many Rajas and Orang Kayas were impaled by Japanese executioners, and one of the chieftains was exiled to Ceylon, which was considered a worse punishment than death. According to records, he escaped from the Dutch fort in Jaffna and sought asylum in Kandy. He married locally, and his descendant, rose to become the Mudaliyar/chief of Batticaloa. Colonial records say that the wearing of the tortoise shelled comb was first introduced into Ceylon about the 18th century by some Malay Prince from Java, Pangeran Cinta Soesoma Raden. Following the arrival of the British, most Malays had their titles of Royalty and Nobility anglicized and borne as surnames; for example, the title “Raden” was anglicised to Raden, “Maas” to “Marso,” Raden was simplified to “Dain or Deane,” “Orang Kaya” was simplified to just “Kayat/Kayath” and some bore Peranakan title for males, “Baba” as their surname, as evidenced by the Jubilee Book of Colombo Malay Cricket Club, the oldest cricket club in Sri Lanka. Research suggests that surnames like Engha, Juhan, Draim, Warish, Thillas, Ramblan, Satheen, Bartholl, Kayath, Emaum, and Sameon are on the brink of extinction.
Young talents and the Malay contribution
Malays form a small population that has declined over time, and many of their young people are working hard to promote and raise awareness about this dying community. Firi Rahman, a multidisciplinary artist from Slave Island, is one of them. He expresses the simplicities of life through his paintings and helps raise awareness about the historic “Slave Island,” which had a large Malay population until the early 1990s. He is well-versed in Malay cuisine, culture, traditions, “slave Island life,” and the hardships endured by Malays of Slave Island. Firi recalled stories his grandmother told him about gang wars, laundry communities that once worked in Beira Lake, and a cinema being burned down by a mob in the 1980s during one of his interviews. Firi also works hard to promote animal conservation and other praiseworthy projects in Sri Lanka. Dr. Zameer Careem, a 28-year-old medical doctor-historian and author, is yet another interesting personality, working to preserve Lankan culture and heritage while also promoting coexistence, religious and racial equity, and tolerance through his writings, artwork and TV series “Lost and Forgotten”, which airs every Friday at 9.30 pm on TV1. Given that he was mentored by Deshamanya Tissa Devendra and that one of his maternal great-grandfathers, B.T. Lye, was a military historian, poet, and decorated soldier who served as native equerry to Lord Herwald Ramsbotham, 1st Viscount Soulbury, the last British Governor-general of Ceylon, it comes as no surprise that the young Dr Zameer Careem is highly erudite, competent in History, and eloquent. Interestingly, his mother whose maiden name is Kayat, is among the few remaining descendants of Mudaliyar Orang Kaya “Kayat” of Kaladay (cited by Sir.J.E. Tennent’s accounts as Kaladay Moodliar), and Javanese Prince Pangeran Cinta Soesoma Raden. In fact, many Malays held important positions during the Colonial period; Baba Arifin Doole and Baba Hakim Muthalip were appointed as Gate Mudaliyars, as were others such as Baba haji Bahar and Jainudeen made Mudaliyar, while several other Malays held titles and important positions under the British.
The Malay community has produced several such leaders in every field. The first non-Christian to sit on the Supreme Court bench was a Malay Justice-Puisne named Mass thajon Akbar, the first minister of social services and labor of Independent Sri lanka, Dr. T.B. Jayah, a Malay; Gemini Kantha, the first female comedian in Sinhala cinema, was a Malay; Tuan Ibhan Saldin, a Malay, choreographed the first Sinhala ballad Vijaya and Kuveni; and Tuan Saybhan, a Malay constable, was the first police officer to die in the line of duty. Artists like Haroon Lantra, G.S.B. Rani Perera, Stanley Omar and Umara and Umaria Singhawansa are all Malays. Senators and legislators such as M.K. Saldin, Dr. M.P. Drahaman, B. Zahiere Lye, and M.D. Kuttilan are Malays, as are Snr DIG M.R. Latiff and military officers such as Brigadier T.S.B. Sally, Major General Suraj Bangsajayah, Major General M Z R Sallay, Brigadier Kumban Bohoran, Colonel Nizam Muttaliff and many others. Despite their services and contributions to Sri Lankan society, this vital community is gradually dwindling.