Book Review :-Colonialism in Sri Lanka; Plantation Economy 1833 – 1867 – Author Dr. Asoka Bandarage
Posted on September 11th, 2020

By Palitha Senanayake

A read through the scholarly work of Dr. Asoka Bandarage, or more appropriately the study of that voluminous material, posit the question whether such extensive dialectics is necessary, at this stage, on the evolution of an economy of a small country that has suffered under colonialism for over three centuries.  The relevance of the study however, dawns in the last chapter of the text which deals with neo colonialism that bedevils almost all these ex colonies in the present era, as if bequeathed by their colonial history. 

 There is a school of thought, in the current era that upholds these expeditions of colonial rule in to this  country, as the best thing that ever happened, in the economic and social spheres of this country. The proponents of this school of thought are, at pains to delineate the benefits accrued to post- colonial Ceylon due to colonialism, and particularly British colonial rule that was the most eventful.  Plantation economy is held out as the foremost among these favors of colonial rule followed by the Democratic system of governance and the English language.  The last two items, though beyond the scope of this study, however warrants some indulgence for the need to be consistent and wholesome.

Thanks to the plantation economy the Ceylonese lost their subsistence economy and became dependent on external trade pushing the country in to the capitalist economic orbit; the onset of globalization.  Thanks to democracy the average Sri Lankan, after 400 years of colonialism, is not acclimatized to being their own master. And thanks to English language the country is today divided on linguistic lines and well over 90% of the country’s people are made to live and die with an inferiority complex for not knowing English.  On the face of things, these alleged benefits, being Omni present in the Sri Lanka society today gives the impression that their absence would be fatal, unless a comprehensive and scholarly study of this nature, with reference to such research material and a surfeit of scholars, exposes the true nature of such benefits vis a vis the pre- colonial systems they replaced.

The most intriguing part however, is how the colonial administration attempted to help plantation to find labor for plantation through tax reforms.  Land and grain taxes imposed on indigenous farmers were designed to render paddy cultivation non- sustainable driving the peasants to be plantation labor.  However, when that strategy failed they looked towards India where there was a seasoned labor force in substantial numbers, whose subsistence again rested on the encouragement they received from their colonial rulers for agriculture.  Thus the colonial administrations of the two countries contrive to help the Plantation Raj making emigration to Ceylon the sole source of survival for the Indian peasants.

 Having arranged it that way the plantation Raj in Ceylon then places the Indian migratory labor under a  ‘debt bondage’ with barely subsistence wages to make sure that they attend work every day.  They deploy the Kangani system through which they exploits the helpless Indians through their own brethren in an alien country where alternative recourse is not available. The Debt bondage works through a cash advance system that advances money at the point of recruitment drawing the nonplussed worker in to a debt trap that he could not redeem even by a life time of menial slavery.   Thus the Sinhala peasant, who is accustomed to view this Indian labor as a lackey of the plantation Raj, could now appreciate the vicious slavery cycle, this helpless Indian Tamil who eked out a living in a 10’ X 8’ ‘lined room’ with his entire family, has been subjected to.

In the end the study draws a parallel between the colonialism of the world powers then, and the power rivalry of the super powers in the contemporary world, subjecting again the small states like Sri Lankato be pawns in their chess boards.  Sri Lanka has been offered funds and technology for its economic development on a bipartisan agreement by imperialist forces.  This strategic power alignment is specially sought at crucial time in world politics where the super powers have entered in to intense rivalry with focus on Asia. Incidentally, it is also a time when Sri Lanka as a country has been subjected to a resolution of human rights violation before the UNHRC sessions by the same imperialist forces.  This alleged violation of the Sri Lankan forces is in respect of Tamil civilians who were deployed as a Human shield by the terrorist organization that held the country to ransom for 34 years in the post olonial period.

 The irony of this situation is that the imperialists now appear to be much moved by the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka; many years after subjecting them to conditions of slavery to enable them to accumulate capital through the plantation industry.  The position of neo colonialism is much more precarious than colonialism, for there is now a set of leaders in these ex-colonies  who are made to think in the colonial perspective trusting these powers for their facile concerns and offers.  If the Sinhalese think that these ex colonials desire to develop Sri Lanka for the benefit of the Sri Lankans they should realize that there is no such thing as ’a free lunch’, particularly from such calculating world powers. On the other hand if the Tamils in Sri Lanka consider these imperialist forces to be their friends at this juncture ; they should ask themselves the question, ‘why pick on us after creating so much misery around the world to maintain their power and to ensure their national security?’ What is so special about the Sri Lankan Tamils who are much better off than their Indian counterparts, except that the imperialist could destabilize Sri Lanka by instigating the Tamils and India.

Thus, it is a situation of, In the 19th century, the colonialist ‘civilized’ us, the Tamils and Sinhalese, for their benefit, and now after 4 centuries they are inducting us in to ‘Human rights’ , for their benefit again.” Therefore those who do not study the lessons of history stand vulnerable in being subject to the same historical misadventures, again and again.

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