Liberating the enslaved from dominant historiographies | Sunday Observer

Liberating the enslaved from dominant historiographies

10 January, 2021

Slave in a Palanquin: Colonial Servitude and Resistance in Sri Lanka.
Author: Nira Wickramasinghe
Reviewed by Anushka Kahandagama

Nira Wickramasinghe’s new book, Slave in a Palanquin: Colonial Servitude and Resistance in Sri Lanka discusses the histories of enslaved people in the Indian subcontinent, a topic rarely explored. The travellers in the region were not only explorers, invaders, traders or religious figures, it also included those stamped out from the histories of life and power, and forced to travel across the boundaries as ‘slaves’. Their histories are connected both to the histories of the geographies and communities they came from and travelled to.

Crucial place

Sri Lanka occupies a crucial place in this story, as it was a significant transit point for enslaved people within the VOC or Dutch East-India Company shipping network. It is not a book on Kings or Queens; it is not a book on slaves as a category, rather, the author attempts to tell the stories of enslaved individuals. Documenting stories of enslaved people is a strenuous task because such stories are often not being told by the enslaved, and also there is hostility towards the enslaved in existing writings and records. These are unfinished stories that one has to collect from many scattered sources. In a sense, this book is suffused with these unfinished stories from where it draws both its strength and its core methodological approach.

Since the popular chronicling of ‘slavery’ has been synonymous with ‘black’ slavery, their narratives have overshadowed other narratives of slavery that come from the Indian Ocean world. The history of slavery in Sri Lanka goes back to the colonial and pre-colonial times.

However, it is not to be misunderstood that the book focuses on Sri Lankan slaves, which is a category that is hard to articulate. Instead, Wickramasinghe sheds light on the enslaved people who found themselves in Sri Lanka. She discusses the ways in which the notions of ‘slave’ and ‘black’ transformed, and how this transformation made the slave trade in the island vanish from the dialogues on slavery. Earlier, ‘black’ was identified with all the communities who were not ‘white’. Eventually, when ‘black’ became an exclusive reference to Africans, enslaved people from other geographical parts vanished from the picture.

The murder of a Dutch official in 1723 in Colombo by his slaves is used as a point of departure for the first chapter, in which the author discusses the gradual ‘blackening’ of the slaves in the records and popular discourse.

The second chapter starts with a description of the vessels that carried spices, salt, coffee, and humans. In the records of the time, humans were also priced along with goods. The chapter unravels around four enslaved humans: an enslaved woman, Celestina who killed her newborn in 1820; an enslaved man, Valentine who ran away from servitude, only to be murdered on Maradana road; a woman from Cochin sold in Galle who made a strong claim for freedom; and a child kidnapped for the Arabian slave market who was saved by diligent neighbours and the British collector of Galle.

Violence was evident in these snippets and it was present in the everyday lives of enslaved people in many brutal forms. The author discusses the fragments of their lives and explains how they have been placed in written histories, by and for the privileged.

The third chapter begins with the story of a young slave in the Jaffna peninsula who rode in his master’s palanquin and was later punished by the authorities. This act of riding in palanquin was discussed and emphasised not only in the colonial British circles, but also in high caste social segments in Jaffna as well. While there was a debate on the legitimacy of the punishment based on the law’s interpretation, no debate occurred about the morality of the punishment. The author mentions many stories of resistance from the Jaffna peninsula in addition to the story referred to above. Among these is the story of a female slave who took her master to court for failing to register their children’s birth freeing her children from enslavement.

The fourth chapter is dedicated to the so called Chilaw ‘experiment’. Under this project, the freedom of some enslaved people was purchased by the colonial government. They were asked to sweat in canals and public work in Chilaw promising ‘freedom’ after returning to Jaffna, where they resided. However, this new form of labour performed for the colonial government was not that different from slave labour. The promise of freedom after returning from Chilaw was just a partial freedom and therefore a false promise. The slaves were never told what the colonial government meant by ‘freedom’.

The fifth chapter starts with an incident centered around a person known as Packer Pulle Rawothan from a small Muslim community in Colombo. He requested the headman of the community to grant him permission to circumcise his son. However, some sections of the Muslim community in Colombo rose against the proposed action pointing out Packer Pulle Rawothan’s affiliation with the enslaved.

As per their argument, only respectable Moors are qualified to perform such ceremonies. The chapter analyses the background of the incident in the context of the Moor community of Colombo in 1820. From there, it moves towards the forms of resistance Packer Pulle Rawothan performed to gain his lost respectability among Moors, to establish himself as a free subject of the colony.

‘Repressed memory’

The last chapter discusses the reasons and circumstances that made the slavery in Sri Lanka a ‘repressed memory’, and why the narrative of enslavement in the island was seamlessly linked with the ‘Kaffir’ community. As per the author, emerging and reshaping of racial ideologies in the 19th century that were based on purity and authenticity of the community might be a reason to erase the histories of slavery on the island.

The book succeeds in disclosing the invisible spaces of human existence, concealed in the domains of ‘non-human’. When it comes to these humans, their histories and personalities were forgotten by the dominant historiographies. They were subjugated by the locals as well as by outsiders. The book attempts to bring these people into the light of the present, not only as a community but as individuals who are unique in their attempts for survival.

Anushka Kahandagama is a PhD student in Sociology, South Asian University, New Delhi.