Was the Colonial Encounter an unmitigated disaster for the peoples of Sri Lanka?
Posted on April 6th, 2013

R Chandrasoma

It is commonly supposed that Asiatic nations – Sri LankaƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  being a kind of archetype in this respect – suffered hugely due toƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  the predation of European nations in the first flush of imperial power. There is no doubt that Portugal was a marauding menace in the sixteenth century and that this first encounter with a rough and brutal European nation was calamitous for us. Let us not forget, however, that much of the misery wasƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  locally engendered in that our rulers of the time not merely misjudged the White Invader but openly sought his patronage in the belief that the Conquering Whites were a superior race. It is not, however,ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  the Portuguese encounter that is the at the focus of this article. Our primary reference is to the Dutch and English period when a social revolution occurred in our country under the powerful influence of the New Secular Humanism that was spreading in the West. The central belief in this movement – one that challenged both the aristocratic rulers and the religious orthodoxy of the day – was that man – irrespective of status and religious affiliation – had basic rights that were God-Given and could not be impugned or withheld byƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  any ‘sub-lunar authority’ however high and mighty he (or she) may be. This inspired belief is the foundation of social justice and human rights – issues that are commonplace today but were roughly pushed aside is most parts of the world in the ages past.

It may pain some to hear that in ancient – and not so ancient – Sri Lanka a flagrant and entrenched violation of the rights of a human being was not merely endorsed but actively enforced. More than ninety percent of the natives of our country ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” during the miserable period we speak of – were forced into submissive – even humiliating – roles for being born ‘low’. Some of the lesser beings were denied the right to wear an upper garment. Indeed, those not categorized as ‘Radala’ or ‘Mudali’ were forced to live in hovels lacking such commonplace items (today) as beds and chairs. (It was only after the Portuguese occupation that a poor Sinhala Man had hopes of quitting the beggarly hovel that he was forced to inhabit.) Education in ancient Sri Lanka was not regarded as a desirable accomplishment for those eager and willing ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” it was the Dutch who first started what we now recognise as ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”schoolƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ or ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”collegialƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ education. Learning was linked to sacerdotalism and the thought that ordinary people would benefit from schooling was a novelty that we owe to the West.

Let us look more closely at Social Justice defined as that meliorative force that makes a society admirable to those who value freedom and dignity. After the arrival of the British, a transformation was forced on a backward and reactionary society that made the poor underclass to be hereditary slaves. Admission to state service ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” at least its lesser grades ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” was thrown open to all and for the first time in the history of our nation the hereditary underclass had its social fetters riven. The poor and scorned rose in society ad rubbed shoulders with those long accustomed to be the unquestioned masters. That our gratitude to the White Foreigner for freeing a shackled society must not be diminshed by his acts that very clearly tarnish his standing as a civilizing power ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” no one questions his villainy in trampling a free people. But let us not be so foolish as to conceal the great good he has done. Let us remember that before the European invasions, there were no roads, no wheeled transport, no system of communication beyond the Tom-Tom and ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” sad to say ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” no covered latrines. Apart from the Royal Parasites and their privileged retinue, bartering and subsistence agriculture were the norm as currency and free trade as we know it did not exist. Let us conclude with a historical reference. When the Dutch were asked by Rajasingha II to quit the territories wrested from the Portuguese at his behest, they demanded payment for the services rendered. Pathetically, this overbearing and obnoxious ruler could pay only in sack-loads of Areca-nuts. Indeed he failed to deliver the required quantity of nuts and the Dutch stayed put. A land trampled by tyrants and and suckered by an overweeningly obnoxious feudal elite cannot be a good example for mankind. For having removed such ugliness, we must thank the invader for a brand of ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”political therapeuticsƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ that has done mighty good to our nation.

7 Responses to “Was the Colonial Encounter an unmitigated disaster for the peoples of Sri Lanka?”

  1. Ratanapala Says:

    Buddhist Thailand did not go through all the garbage Sri Lanka had to go through and yet they are far ahead of Sri Lanka in every aspect of social advancement. All what is there to boast about what the colonialists left half half baked black brown neo colonialists ready to barter away at the fall of a leaf. Sri Lanka would have worked out all the social achievements in spite of the colonialist scum by herself.

    When the colonialists came to India it was the richest country in the world – what they left was a burnt out shell wide spread poverty and with millions starving.

    Yes, it was an unmitigated disaster for the pride and well being of all those who had to suffer under the yolk of colonialism. It was not so for a few bootlickers!

  2. Voice123 Says:

    The writer sounds like a victim of colonialism also. Dont compare Sri Lanka with post renaissance/industralised Europe. Look at Europe a century before that, before the crusaders went to the Middle East and plundered and learnt new things from the coloured folk there. Even much of Europe before that time was still feudal or class oppressive. Witches were burnt at the stake and there were cruel punishments like the rack and ordeal by boiling oil and superstitious practices passed for medicine eg there was no such thing as Ayurveda. Asians knew about the different planets and the round earth, the graha lokas etc before Galileo “discovered” the earth went round the sun. Early London lacked sewerage disposal and the rich people used to simply throw out their sewage onto the streets below. Unlike Asians, Europeans, including the aristocracy knew little of personal hygeine and used to stink to high heaven until the Arabs gave them perfume to disguise the smell. At the time of the arrival of the Europeans, Sri Lanka’s classic agrarian civilization had already been plundered and weakened by the Cholas and Indians. It had passed its zenith. One good thing the Portuguese did though was deal a fatal blow to the caste and radala system which Indians had sneakily introduced to Sri Lanka through marriage alliances with nobility, mercenaries etc. If not the Portuguese, it would have been the Indians or Arabs that conquered. We are living in a historical blip.

  3. Voice123 Says:

    Okay for the first time I actually agree with Ratnapala! Thailand cane to my mind immediately also.

  4. Fran Diaz Says:

    Lanka Ports, Spices, growing of tea & tobacco, cheap indentured labor from Tamil Nadu, were the many prizes the Colonists came after. The local Sinhala people desisted being turned into slave-like labor. Some were forcibly converted to Christianity, and some willingly took on the new religion/s for various favors and for security.

    Connecting the East with the West happened through Colonisation. Culture & ideas were exchanged. Variations/adaptations from the Buddhist religion form some of the most important modern day Psychiatric treatment e.g. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Spices were taken to the west to preserve food, as there were no ‘fridges to keep food fresh in those days. Fair weather in the tropics was an attractive feature to avoid harsh winters. The treasures of the East were shipped westward –
    gold, silver, ivory, gem stones, statutes of the Buddha & various deities carved from ivory, sandalwood were taken away.

    Let us not forget that India, America & Sri Lanka were all colonized countries.

    Roads were built in Lanka to facilitate the movement of Colonial troops, move tea, rubber, coconut to ships etc. It was not done to help the local folk, contrary to some odd belief here. Ports were developed to accommodate trade to build Empires.
    In the long run, some Colonial activities benefitted the local people. Some of these items are the modern medical system, Science & Technology, introduction of the English language as a world language for communication purposes.

    But in the long run, there was a down side which is still apparent in the loss of self confidence of a Nation. This is irreparable damage, and will take a long time to repair.

    As for the Caste system, Buddhism does not recognise caste. It existed in Lanka through Hindu influences, and for the wealthier people to hang on to status. The Buddha said that ‘one is high born or low born through ones actions only’.
    Buddhists will have to practice their religion in a practical way.

    Putting all this into balance, the losses are great indeed. Losses in self reliance and self confidence will take a long time to repair. Adaptation to new world circumstances is proving to be difficult and new advances in communication, monetary and social theory difficult to keep up with. There is a lost sense of security and well being. Damage repair to the psyche will take a long time. A long time of peace is requested from ex-Colonists to enable the local population to achieve well being again.

  5. aloy Says:

    I think both of you are wrong with repect to Thailand.
    I know of one reputed university in Thailand which admits students from this country who are way below the level of students qualified for admission to our unis. They have some car essembly plants set up by Japanese. They have a market for computer parts etc. in US. And you know why lot of tourist go there. All of these they have achieved because of their foreign policy especially their attitude to the west. They were also exporting slave labour (who are hard working unlike our poor souls) to ME and other ASEAN countries just like SL. How ever they built up their economy while we a fighting a war for thirty years in which they even supported our enemy.
    We can easily catch up with Thailand and surpass them in leaps and bounds within the next few years if we do not get road blocks put up by our own people- the so called Colombians again.
    I like you to qualify your statement that India was the richest country in the world before the Britishers went there. Are there any references in the internet?

  6. Voice123 Says:

    Aloy, ive heard thatBengal was a centre of international trade and very rich before the British closed its economy and engineered a series of famines. Perhaps Ratnapala knows more?

  7. Ratanapala Says:

    Aloy /Voice 123

    Britain and the rest of the Chrisitian West pirate economies were all looking at ways to reach the richest countries in the world – China and India for plunder. In fact Christopher Colombus discovered the America’s while looking for a way to reach the famed India shows where they were looking to plunder next. Just because you asked I googled the following is the first that I came across. There must be more there to authenticate my statement.

    As for Thailand, all what I was trying to say is that there is no one path to social advancement. Japan did not come to challenge the Western World pre World War II by being a colony of one of the Christian West countries. They were able to industrialise with the rise of the Meiji Dynasty by opening to the western technologies. They didn’t have to get these piratic countries to come and run industries before they became an industrial power by themselves. Going on the same logic there was no need for Sri Lanka to have gone through a colonial past to reach modernity. We could have done better if not for the 500 year old plunder of our motherland and the creation of white bootlickers who still cannot get the logic straight.

    Following is part of talk, I found in Google.

    Talk delivered by Smt. Usha Thorat, Director, CAFRAL on the occasion of decennial celebrations of FISAT( Federal Institute of Science and Technology) Business School( FBS)- Annual Lecture Series on November 25, 2011 at Ernakulam , Kerala

    Challenges before Indian banks in the next decade

    Will Durrant, the legendary historian, once remarked that most of us spend too much time on the last twenty four hours and too little on the last 6000 years. Two thousand years ago, India had the largest GDP in the world. China was close behind. Together, they accounted for more than half of global GDP. And this was at the height of the Roman Empire in Europe, which accounted for just 10 per cent of global output. Over the next 1,800 years, the two Asian giants remained the largest economies in the world, with China pulling ahead of India about 500 years ago. Then, came the Industrial Revolution in Europe. By the start of the First World War, Europe and America accounted for more than half of global GDP. By 1950, the share of India and China fell to less than 10 per cent. China is already the second largest economy in the world, India the fourth largest. According to Deutsche Bank’s forecasts, China’s economy will become the largest in the world in 2022. India is projected to become the world’s third largest economy by 2015. The 21st century is likely to be the “Asian Century”, much as the 20th century has been described as the “American Century”, and the 19th century the “British Century”.


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