Opinion

The Sinhala Buddhist peasantry and Sri Lanka’s Estate Tamils (Part I)

Summary

When it comes to the reality of plantation colonialism in countries like ours, certain myths have to be debunked.

The abolition of plantation slavery in the Caribbean and the Americas did not mark the end of plantations. Nor, for that matter, did it mark the end of slavery.

The unwillingness of indentured white servants to remain in the tropics, and the need to settle them on lands of their own once their period of indenture was over, had earlier led the planters to dragoon permanent slave labour from Africa. The emancipation of these slaves in the 19th century, as George Beckford put it, “changed the scene drastically.” The newly emancipated slaves now sought to build settlements of their own.

The planters, trying to mitigate the losses arising from this, began a sharecropping scheme. When even that failed to make up for their losses, the latter used their influence to secure indentured labour from the new colonies of Asia. The expansion of the British East India Company in Sri Lanka and of Dutch influence in South-East Asia thus soon necessitated the recruitment of Indian migrant workers: in Malaya as in Sri Lanka, it gradually took the place, or rather was made to take the place, of indigenous workers.

It has almost become a practice among economists, historians, and social scientists to identify plantation activities as capitalist. Largely owing to a paradigm shift that transpired in research in the social sciences in the 1970s – a shift that, as the “privatisation” of the social sciences in the 1980s proved, was short-lived – we know today that in actual fact, they were anything but; the plantations outwardly exhibited capitalist forms of production, but inwardly, as S. B. D. de Silva has argued in The Political Economy of Underdevelopment, they remained pre-capitalist. Yet even George Beckford, whose study of plantations Persistent Poverty was largely limited to the Caribbean, characterised them as capitalist enterprises.

My contention is that we must draw a fine line between the capitalist facade and the pre-capitalist reality of the plantations of Asia here, because it has a bearing on the evolution of migrant Indian labour in Sri Lanka. It is vital to our understanding of the structures to which Indian Tamils found themselves tethered, and the insensitivity of Sinhalese and Tamil elites alike, after independence, to their exploitation by those structures.

There is little debate over the way the plantation economy developed in Sri Lanka. British officials in the island initially favoured the continuation of Dutch mercantilist policies. In his dispatches to the Governor, for instance, Henry Dundas, the Secretary of War, deplored the rising tide of laissez-faire sentiment in Britain. He clearly did not want laissez-faire to take root in the colonies either, at least not for some time.

40 years later, though, owing to pressures exerted by aspiring planters who colluded with officials – who in turn, as the case of Edward Barnes and George Bird showed, themselves turned into plantation owners – a new economic system came into place.

The colonial State, as Bandarage (1982) has observed, completely identified with plantation development. In that scheme of things land became paramount. The passage of the Crown Lands Encroachment Ordinance in 1840 hence paved the way for officials to take over uncultivated and unoccupied lands if locals failed to prove ownership.

Initially handed over as grants, these were sold at five shillings an acre; according to Bandarage, in 1844 the price was increased to £1. Their sales were swift: in one day in 1840, for instance, more than 13,275 acres were sold. The designations of their new owners indicate the link between the State and the emerging plantocracy: judges, road commissioners, surveyor-generals – even the Governor himself.

Here we need to assess the impact of these transactions on what became, for a while, the most discriminated community in the country: the Kandyan peasantry. In Java the plantation system managed to gain control of land through accommodation rather than outright takeovers. In Sri Lanka no such accommodation was possible in light of the rebellions that sprang up after the British annexation of the Kandyan provinces.

Surprisingly, Beckford’s conclusion here seems to be that “the invading Crown” moved into and took over peasant land “without seriously disrupting the settled or shifting agriculture of the indigenous people.” This implies, in other words, that the British could take over land in the Central Province without radically altering the agricultural patterns of those regions. History tells us otherwise, and we need to assess this thesis in-depth.

A corollary to the characterisation of plantations as capitalist is the assumption, shared widely, that migrant Indian labour was necessitated by the unwillingness of indigenous labour (Sinhalese peasants) to adjust to the plantation economy. This explains not just Mick Moore’s “Sinhalese peasant myth” thesis, itself a myth, but also continuing references to the laziness of Sinhalese Buddhist “natives” by rightwing academics.

Such Orientalist views are not unique to Sri Lanka. Nor are they the preserve of rightwing academics, who, during the previous regime, frequently used to churn them out. But they indicate, if not intellectual bankruptcy, then a failure to grasp history: a history free of ethnic and racial stereotypes, one conversant with facts and figures. It is that history which we, whether as readers or students of the social sciences, must privilege.

The truth is that the Sinhalese, as S. B. D. de Silva has clearly shown, did not always remove themselves from the plantation economy. When land needed to be cleared and trees felled to build estates, it was to the peasantry that the plantocracy went.

That in itself flatly contradicts the two most cited assumptions regarding their unwillingness to engage in plantation labour: their lack of familiarity with a monetary economy and their aversion to hard work. What these presume is that acceptance of money transactions and wage labour is predicated on prior acquaintance with monetary exchange, rather than the factors which facilitate the transition from a non-monetary to a monetary economy: “a veritable non-sequitur of bourgeois scholarship”, as de Silva once caustically observed.

(To be continued)

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