Slave in a Palanquin. Colonial Servitude and Resistance in Sri Lanka

Wickramasinghe, Nira
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Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Nabhojeet Sen

The first thing that would strike readers about Nira Wickramasinghe’s Slave in a Palanquin is the rather wide variety of themes that are addressed throughout the book by using slavery as a bricolage. These themes become visible as the book progresses. Wickramsinghe achieves this by situating slavery in the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka (erstwhile Ceylon) through the colonial Portuguese, Dutch, and finally the British regimes—at the confluence of race, colonial governmentality and liberalism, caste and traditional forms of servitude, memory, modernity, labor migration, process of ‘creolization’, resistance, violence, and gender among others. In the process, this book sets out to position Sri Lanka as a key site of slavery and other forms of servitude in the Indian Ocean, grievously neglected so far, while simultaneously steering its findings on the form of slavery and servitude, and on the process of abolition in Sri Lanka, away from broad generalizations such as “South Asian slavery” (p. 7). That said, the many findings of this book do have a bearing on studies of global slavery and processes of abolition, insofar as Ceylon served as an example, of sorts, for carrying out amelioration in crown colonies.

The book poses a consequential question at the outset that proves to be of singular importance by the end: Why are slave pasts in Sri Lanka today unknown, or eclipsed and effaced from popular memory? Furthermore, even when they are acknowledged, why are they mostly conflated with Africans and “Kaffirs” in conventional accounts? The search for an answer to these questions leads Wickramasinghe to extract narratives by foregrounding the actions of slaves themselves. Each chapter is organized around key events from their lives that took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Reading along the grain and using the archives innovatively, especially in the context of the lack of slave accounts for Sri Lanka, the book unpacks the processes of enslavement, amelioration and transition to wage labor, violence and resistance, through the actions of those enslaved. The book is a critical reflection of accounts of slavery in the Indian Ocean world (IOW), where “survival” rather than “freedom” is seen as the key in explaining the actions of those enslaved, which showed a lack of revolt comparable to that of the slaves in the plantations across the Atlantic.[1]

The metamorphosis in the collective memory of Sri Lankans (p. 17) is analyzed early in the first chapter in the form of a gradual “blackening” of slaves, in texts and popular culture, through events surrounding the killing of a Dutch fiscal officer in 1723 and the popular history of the slave island in Colombo. This led to the disappearance of a whole history of slaves from places such as southern India and the East Indies, and association solely with Africans. Further, through classificatory schemes such as the Census, starting from the ones conducted by the Dutch from 1684 onwards, and the imperial blue books[2], an unstable regime of taxonomies was crafted which flattened different social backgrounds, and in which the meanings of the word “black” and “free” shifted until 1838. It was only by the late nineteenth century that the term “black” had come to be associated only with Africans, along with the development of a sharp racist undertone by ascribing racial inferiority to it.

Episodes of everyday violence, domination, and brutal asymmetry of power, including sexual exploitation of enslaved females, were part of the lives of the enslaved in the northern and southern parts of the island. Through events surrounding the murder, trial, kidnapping, petitioning, and whipping of those enslaved for traveling in their master’s palanquin – the act that gives the book its name – chapters 2 and 3 foreground the activities of those enslaved. The actions of those who were dominated but refused to accept their perilous condition, otherwise clothed in a colonial paternalism, speak against the silence of slavery on the island. The limits of colonial liberalism, and its connivance with local dominant groups and modes of power organized around custom, especially traditional forms of servitude of castes such as the Nalavar, Pallar, and Covia are also highlighted by Wickramasinghe. Indeed, it was during Dutch colonization from 1658 to 1795 that these traditional forms of servitude of certain castes were codified as slavery. This later enabled the “monstrous growth” of a slave-based economy (p. 97) in Jaffna. These focal actions of the enslaved occurred at a time when amelioration and the process of abolition had been begun by the British in the early nineteenth century through various regulations, such as No. 13 of 1806, Nos. 9 and 10 of 1818, and No. 8 of 1821.

The problem of the amelioration of slavery, and transition, can be observed in chapter 4. The Chilaw experiment, hitherto unknown, was an experiment through which the colonial government purchased the freedom of the enslaved in Jaffna in exchange for hard labor at public works in Chilaw. It was a precursor to more well-known tests for a suitable labor regime and abolition of slavery in Crown colonies. Chilaw, however, had more to do with the need for labor than ideological reasons. This is shown through the wide variety of forms of labor relations that were made use of by the British in the nineteenth century such as corvée (Rajkarya) based on caste, convict labor, and other forms of bonded labor. The desire of the slaves to earn their freedom through hard labor hundreds of miles away in Chilaw, in which many of them perished, provides crucial insights for our “reading” of slaves in the Indian Ocean staying with their owners for survival and protection, and carving a niche within the dominant society.[3]

The actions of the enslaved to claim freedom and equality, the difficulties of assimilation, and colonial officials resisting local communities and established “customs” forms the crux of chapter 5, which looks at attempts by Rowathan, a “Moorish” (Muslim) emancipated slave, to get permission for the circumcision of his son and the resultant petition, letters, and court case. This act, as Wickramasinghe argues, constituted a “revolt” (p. 161) and should be seen in the context of attempts by the Muslim community, and others, to be equal partners in colonial society on a par with the Sinhalese and Tamils by creating norms of purity, and the problems that this would have caused for emancipated slaves.

The question of slavery and its memories returns in the culminating chapter and posits reasons why former slaves had to “disappear” into society after the abolition of slavery in 1844. The denial of creolization, along with the conflict between Tamil minority and Sinhalese majority, has played a key role in eclipsing the history of the enslaved on the island.

Wickramasinghe mostly achieves what she sets out to do: to recover the history of the enslaved in Sri Lanka where none exists, from a hostile archive, through piecing together individual life histories to go beyond slaves as mere numbers in maritime trade. However, one cannot help but observe that this method also lends a complicated narrative to the book, which might not always be the easiest one to follow. There is rarely a chronological or systematic development of the various themes and questions through successive colonial regimes. Many of these themes, such as abolition, unfold over several chapters in different regions. Readers might similarly find it difficult to delineate the arguments by regions of the island. However, despite this, this ambitious book is a vital contribution that speaks to scholarship both on the Indian Ocean and global slavery.

[1] Gwyn Campbell, Introduction. Slavery and other forms of Unfree Labour in Indian Ocean Worlds, in: Gwyn Campbell (ed.), The Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean, Africa and Asia, London 2005, pp. vii–xxxi.
[2] Sent to the colonial office in Downing Street, annually in manuscript from each colony since 1828, these blue books contained a variety of commercial, financial, ecclesiastical, and general information for the government. Three blank books, with ruled columns and printed headlines were sent to each colony every year to be filled in by returns from the different departments, under the authority of the colonial secretary in each settlement.
[3] Campbell, Introduction.

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