Follow us on


Hidden histories

Print edition : Aug 01, 2008 T+T-

The author shares the hopeful vision of the future that fuelled so many of the human lives recorded in her ambitious and free-ranging study.

BACK in the 1820s, Henry Derozio, a young teacher at Kolkatas Hindu College, served his students a heady brew of anti-colonial rhetoric, rationalism and social criticism, sparking the emergence of the short-lived but combative Young Bengal movement, capable of drawing the ire of colonialists and Hindu traditionalists alike. A couple of decades later, there were echoes in Sri Lanka, where Charles Lorenz, with a group of young friends, launched the journal Young Ceylon and threw himself into public protests against oppressive taxation.

One of Lorenzs relatives, Alfred Ernst Buultjens, would take the radicalism further later in the century through his leadership of the Ceylon Printers Union, the islands first trade union, and his involvement in its inaugural strike in 1893. A year earlier, Evelyn Davidson and Henrietta Keyt had been the first women students to cross the threshold of the Ceylon Medical College in Colombo, spelling doom with the swish of their skirts to male monopolisation of the medical profession. And in the coming battle for voting rights for women in Sri Lanka, an energetic role would be played by the feisty Agnes de Silva, the lifelong enemy of convention who in 1927 founded the Womens Franchise Union.

What links these pioneers, these emphatic voices from South Asias colonial past, is not simply their appetite for redressing injustice, exposing hypocrisy and smashing obstacles to freedom. All six could also lay claim to what Kumari Jayawardena, in an ambitious new study, calls an indeterminate social identity: that of mixed European and Asian ancestry. However distant the origins (Portuguese, Dutch, British) of their hybridity and irrespective of their class or status, such individuals remained the visible by-products of European colonial rule and as such attracted a complex cocktail of responses in which the negative prevailed. As a result, Kumari Jayawardena argues, their contributions have tended to be overlooked not only by colonial historiography but also by the South Asian nationalist tradition and by post-colonial scholars and activists. In her book she seeks to reclaim a past that has been (in the historian Sheila Rowbottoms phrase) hidden from history, and to probe the factors behind this erasure.

Kumari Jayawardena, a distinguished political scientist currently teaching in the Womens Studies Programme at the University of Colombo, is well placed to undertake this journey. Her own origins lie in the coming together, across barriers of race, nationality, language and culture, of an English-born mother and a Sri Lankan father. As the product of an interracial union, she is alert to the possibilities opened up by what Salman Rushdie has described as hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, culture, ideas, politics. Through a remarkable body of published work, including The Rise of the Labour Movement in Ceylon (1972); Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World (1986); The White Womans Other Burden: Western Women in South Asia during British Rule (1995); and From Nobodies to Somebodies: The Rise of the Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka (1998: reviewed in Frontline, January 4, 2002), she reveals a formidable scholarship and readiness to take on big themes. As a Marxist and a feminist, she has fused historical research and the pursuit of knowledge with radical political engagement, defence of the vulnerable and persistent questioning of received wisdom. In Sri Lanka, she has attracted controversy through her interventions in the ethnic crisis, where she has spoken out bravely against the rise in chauvinism and extreme nationalism on both sides of the ethnic divide. As she notes in her new book, some political opponents have retaliated by labelling her sankara a derogatory Sinhala word connoting a person of mixed ethnic origin.

In a study that provides further evidence of her bold instincts and refusal to confine herself to established paths, Kumari Jayawardena pursues a three-pronged strategy. She begins by exploring, across a broad Asian canvas, the colonial framework in which interracial communities emerged and took shape. Comparing Portuguese, Dutch and British approaches to the question, she enters the thicket of terminology that colonial administrators and mixed race communities alike devised to tackle its intricacies. East Indian, Indo-European, Indo- British, Eurasian, Britasian and Firinghee were among the names to surface in India, while Portuguese rule in Sri Lanka threw up such terms as tupasses (converts to Christianity of European-Asian ancestry), mestia/mestio (female/male of mixed race) and castizo (offspring of a mestia mother and a European father). Following the arrival of the Dutch and then the British in Sri Lanka, mixed-race descendants of the Dutch came to be called Dutch Burghers but, to add to the confusion, the term Burgher was also used to designate people of Portuguese descent, while the offspring of British-Asian alliances were labelled Eurasian. Kumari Jayawardena deftly sidesteps this morass by offering a new term Euro-Asian as a catch-all category designed to embrace every conceivable admixture and permutation.

In this initial phase of the study, Kumari Jayawardena also encounters a recurring problem: the slipperiness of her subject matter. In relation to colonialism the intermediate identity of the Euro-Asians seemed to generate a perpetual wavering within the community, a vacillation between pride in European roots and resentment at the smarts, racism and discrimination directed at them by the colonial power. In class terms, diversity prevailed. While some Euro-Asians rose to high positions in government or the medical, legal and teaching professions, others worked on the railways, became domestic servants or toiled as day labourers. Emphasis on stock (a code word for class-cum-occupation), together with a consciousness of the subtlest gradations in skin pigmentation, encouraged Euro-Asians to pursue policies of stratification and exclusion very much in tune with what Kumari Jayawardena calls the South Asian preoccupation with hierarchical formations. If no formal caste system existed among the Euro-Asians, only those few who could climb the class ladder could divest themselves of the stigma of mixed origin (page 11).

Nonetheless, the rootlessness of a community that stood outside the caste system could yield dividends. In the right circumstances, the author argues, the fact that Euro-Asians were neither fully European nor Asian gave some of them the ability to challenge authority and orthodoxy, to face unpopularity and to take risks by championing democratic rights (page 85). In the second prong of her study, she seeks to document this by showcasing the artistry, radicalism and exuberance of a sequence of Euro-Asian figures united by their anti-colonial instincts and precocious socio-political views. In what is in many respects the most accessible and absorbing part of her book, Kumari Jayawardena retrieves these vibrant voices from the musty confines of the archives, enabling them to sing again. Whether it is the freethinking poet and teacher Henry Derozio, empassioned by Byron and the European Enlightenment, or Charles Lorenz calling his Sri Lankan compatriots to action in the wake of the 1848 revolutions, these vagabond firingis, loathed by traditionalists at home as much as by the colonial authorities, set about attacking every reactionary shibboleth, whether colonial in origin or emanating from calcified religious and social tradition. Kumari Jayawardena characterises them as utopian visionaries of Asia, able to catch the dawn long before the rise of fully fledged nationalist and reform movements (page 126).

One aspect of this early assault on home-grown orthodoxy was its progressive stand on the position of women. In India, Derozio was (with Rammohun Roy) among the first to denounce publicly the practice of Sati, while the Lorenzians in Sri Lanka lobbied energetically for girls to go to school. In the third part of her study, Kumari Jayawardena seeks to explore what she terms the gender, patriarchal and chauvinist dimensions of the Euro-Asian experience. What emerges is a complex, many-layered picture in which Euro-Asian women, objects of what the author calls the desire and denigration syndrome of both Europeans and locals, found themselves pulled in contradictory directions. While the better educated or socially advantaged could emerge as pioneers, as new women prepared to trail-blaze into higher education and the professions, others fell victim to the potent combination of racial and sexual stereotyping that surfaced across a broad swathe of culture, from the fantasisings of 19th century writers such as Baudelaire to the 1931 Noel Coward song Half-caste Woman.

In films, Kumari Jayawardena finds the Euro-Asian woman mostly portrayed as a temptress or victim who could never marry the white hero, and whose liaison inevitably came to a sad end through separation or death (page 202). Under the circumstances, the decision of two Hollywood actors Merle Oberon and Vivien Leigh to draw a veil over their Euro-Asian origins seems neither irrational nor inappropriate.

The erasure of the Euro-Asian thus reveals itself to be a tricky, multifaceted process to which politics, racism, mass culture and murky psychological and sexual aspects have all contributed. In a concluding chapter that perhaps could be expanded in subsequent editions, Kumari Jayawardena makes a spirited if not yet completely convincing attempt to pull her disparate threads together. If in the colonial past, she argues, the marginality of the Euro-Asians was upheld by white rulers fearful of their insurrectionary instincts and by home-grown cultural diehards antipathetic to their radical social message, today the suppression can be sourced elsewhere. Across a subcontinent beset with religious fundamentalism, communalism, ethno-nationalism and exclusivist identity politics, assertions of purity tend to obscure the past and block the appreciation of nuance and difference. In such a context, antagonistic attitudes to hybridity can be seen as part of a more general denial of the pluralist, multi-ethnic roots, and reality, of contemporary South Asian society. Should an upstart individual of Euro-Asian origin lay claim to the tradition of Derozio and Lorenz by raising questions concerning the whole of society, they can expect ancient epithets to fly in their direction.

Despite this, the author shares the hopeful vision of the future that fuelled so many of the human lives recorded in her wonderfully ambitious and free-ranging study. The time is propitious, she believes, to push beyond outmoded and scientifically discredited notions of purity by embracing (in Rushdies memorable characterisation) melange, hotch-potch change-by-fusion, change-by-conjoining. For its contribution to this awakening, as well as for its freshness of approach and its meticulous scholarship, her new study deserves the widest possible readership.

Frontline ebook




Living on the edge

They are river people, whose lives ebb and flow with the waters of the Brahmaputra in a timeless rhythm. But now, hydroelectric projects and homogenis