The hidden racism and naming of roads in Sri Lanka-Remembering George Floyd and “I can’t breathe”
Posted on July 13th, 2020

By Saroj Jayasinghe Consultant Physician and  a Professor in a University of Colombo

A single incident in the US which was captured on a mobile phone by a teenager has triggered waves of protests against racism, globally. This has included bringing down of monuments that represented racists or slave owners in the UK and USA. Well-known names of such racists who were being implicitly honoured include the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford University and the Policy School named after Woodrow Wilson in Princeton USA, both of which are likely to be removed by the universities.   

It is inevitable that countries in the global financial periphery such as Sri Lanka, too are touched by these events and reflect about racism. In the next few paragraphs I wish to outline the history behind a few selected names we currently glorify in Sri Lanka. The fact that Sri Lanka honours white skinned looters, criminals and murderers with road names may illustrate that we have learnt to accept racism within our collective psyche. This brief paper is to confront this by identifying a few well-known road names and delving into their histories.  

Human rights violators

1. Thomas Maitland (1805-1811).

A soldier who became a governor, TM came after the blockage of the Kandyan Kingdom by Governor North. He cannot be considered a benign leader worthy of a road named after him. Maitland was famous for using modified slave labour and used deceit to undermine the Kandyan King. His letters to Britain (quoted in Colvin R. De Silva’s book) stated that ‘it is by sword alone that we have obtained possession of this island and it is by the sword alone we can expect it to hold it’. He fleeced the country with innumerable taxes and ensured trade rules favourable to themselves: cinnamon, pearl fisheries, etc.  

He was a soldier at a time when slavery and white supremist ideas would have been the norm. If we are to extrapolate to the past from what Floyd underwent inside his own country under the full glare of mobile phones, it must have been worse 200 years ago, when absolute unbridled power was with the colonisers.  

We honour him with the following roads:  

Maitland Crescent in Colombo 7.  

Maitland Place in Colombo 7.  

2. Robert Brownrigg (1811-1820).

Another soldier, we have chosen to honour a military brute for his genocidal approach against a rebellion. A war criminal by any standards, he implemented a scorched earth policy and ordered that all males above 16 years were to be executed, destroyed dams, cut coconut trees, and burnt paddy fields in order to starve the rural populations. (See K.M. de Silva: A History of Sri Lanka). These are crimes against humanity and collective punishments that are despicable by any standards.   

The roll call of honours: 

  • Brownrigg Road in Colombo 7  
  • Brownrigg Street Kandy   
  • 3. George Torrington (1847-1850).

A pompous aristocrat who was known to have crushed the second freedom struggle in Ceylon (1848). Human rights violations were his forte especially executions without proper trials. Venerable Kudapola, a Buddhist monk was executed by Torrington in 1848 for supporting Veera PuranAppu. Those who were associated with the rebels, even remotely were banished. 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.  

We do honour him with the following:

  • Torrington Avenue  
  • Torrington Place  
  • Torrington Flats Colombo  
  • Torrington Ground Colombo  
  • Slave Traders and Ecological destroyers

4. Edward Barnes (1824-1831). The man who used a form of slavery to build roads is ironically honoured by a road named after him. His method was to use existing systems (Rajakariya) to force people to build roads for the colonisers to transport their commercial products from the hill land to the ports for export.   

Sadly, the blood, sweat and tears of the peasants who died in the process are forgotten and we continue to hail their slave master. Though we venerate tea, what the British did was close to an ecological catastrophe by denuding the virgin hill forests to plant tea. By 1848 almost 250,000 acres of prime hill land had been sold at a pittance to British landowners. The land-grab was masterminded by a string of governors whom we don’t fail to honour. The areas were cleared by slaves or forced labour brought from India. Hundreds of such labourers died during the grueling treks to locations inland, but none are honoured by any memorials. Its time we honour these generations of Indian labour who perished in Sri Lanka, far away from their own homes.   

This generational discrimination is partly responsible for the plight of modern-day plantation workers, a fact that is glossed over by most researchers who tend to place the blame only on post-colonial Sri Lanka for the poor health and socio-economic outcomes of plantation workers. 

Honours for Barnes:

  • Barnes Place Colombo 7  
  • Racists
  • 5. William Manning 1918-1925

A manipulator and deceitful person of no mean repute, credited for having split the emerging independence movement by helping to weaken the Ceylon National Congress. He was a racist who promoted divisions based on ethnic groups, the more sanitised words used by V.L.B. Mendis is that he was ‘a ruthless communalist’. The impact of his divisive policies which led to 30 years of conflict are conveniently forgotten. Instead, we have honoured him with the following:  

  • Manning Market, Colombo  
  • Manning Place, Colombo  
  • Manning Town Flats, Colombo  
  • Manning Town Apartments, Colombo  
  • Manning Town Housing Scheme  

Robbers and looters

In addition to honouring a few despicable characters, we have also let several looters of our treasures off the hook. There is a treasure trove of items in museums all over the world plundered during the colonial period (see ‘Catalogue of Antiquities’ by Dr. P. H. D. H. de Siva available at the National Museum Library in Colombo). Some of these were looted by the governors: the 10th century golden statue of Tara, was taken out of Sri Lanka in 1830 by Robert Brownrigg.   

What should or should not be done:

We need to confront hidden symbols of racism, in a way similar to debates sweeping the US and Europe. We could be brave and change all these names of previous criminals and replace them with names of local heroes, people or places. The other option is to keep their names while placing a bold plaque below each name board that lists their criminal behaviour. Perhaps a group of historians could be appointed to review situations where colonial criminals are being honoured. This could be followed up with proposals to rename certain locations, roads and buildings.  

The views expressed do not reflect those of the institution. 

PS  

First a confession. I am not a historian. Second, I wish to lay to rest the philosophical argument as to whether we should or should not reflect on history. These protests, including the bringing down of statues of racists overseas show how deep-seated systemic racism is and how it has blinded thinking. In the US, it manifested recently as White Policemen killing Black people, but its tentacles were wide enough to glorify the killers with statues. I consider the existing situation in Sri Lanka an insult and would equate it to having a street named after Hitler in London. Unless we identify the roots of some of our current predicaments, we will continue to be haunted by the ghosts of yesteryear. To understand what I mean, please listed to this video on The Australian Dream by Stan Grant” the Australian TV presenter (search the above or go the following link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEOssW1rw0I ).

Finally, some may critique me for using harsh words. I shall not defend this because I believe what the colonists did was infinitely more harsh and cruel.  

3 Responses to “The hidden racism and naming of roads in Sri Lanka-Remembering George Floyd and “I can’t breathe””

  1. aloy Says:

    None of these colonial masters came here to help us; they all tried to perpetuate their rule on us. Another master has actually come in and dictating terms to our rulers in various ways and are bidding time to take full control. Without understanding this, these idiotic professors are writing crap as if this is the most formidable challenge for us at this critical moment in our history. We have to survive first to change the names of the roads the way we want. If you listen to Sepal Amerasinhe’s videos you will understand what has happened to Kandy.

    Perhaps all these so called educated people in important positions are singing for their supper.

  2. aloy Says:

    It was Japan that gave a death blow to colonialism. Our last colonial master which built a massive infrastructure got the maximum benefit by sending a substantial fortune from our treasury in rebuilding their country after WW2 and also left a sound economy that was second only to Japan. Our politicos who ruled us for 72 years send us to the rock bottom.

    So, a new leader is required to take us out of the mess we are in together with current prez, I suppose. First we must have a deterrent, for the meddling by outsiders. Then as the soldier Maitland said, find that sword to give a fight to anybody and also teach the youth to acquire that ‘killer instinct’ to fight with enemy when necessary. It is through the technology that we can find it just like all those colonials did during their time in the past.

    Let us hope that Gamini, the Hasaka weeraya did not give his life in vain.

  3. Nimal Says:

    If the names of the colonials are bad then why does our politicians choose to live and have colonial names in the places they live. We the hardworking and honest people have to put up with street names of known murderes,thieves and useless people. We even have a statue for an uneducated fake general who was a jail bird.If not for the last colonials we would be eating grass.at least they put up tea bushes, rubber estates from which we are earning an income for the country.PM is right to name his house with the posh Carlton,can’t be wrong.
    Remember our two bit kings did hardly anything for us, not even a public toilet Singapore is wise to retain their past with their names that brings confidence to an outside investor, the reason why our politicians go there.
    we in the third world need the colonials back but not the wicked knee jerkers from US,who needs to be tamed.
    By the way Manning put up the streets in Kandy and had the first Perahara in 1824.

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