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Saturday, March 01, 2008

John Martyn, Notes On Jaffna, 1923.

Published: Sunday Island, Colombo, 1 March 2009.

John Martyn, Notes On Jaffna, 1923.

Charles Sarvan (Berlin)

Republished by Asian Educational Services, New Delhi & Chennai, 2003.
(Hereafter, “Jaffna Notes”.)
Page reference is to this text. I thank Mr Nanda Godage for sending me a copy of the book.

Entries in “Jaffna Notes” begin with 1505 and the first visit of the Portuguese to the Island; the last is dated 1920. The work is dedicated to the Compiler’s father, Henry Martyn, one of the first graduates of the “Batticotta Seminary”. The compilation, in the first instance, is for “my countrymen, the Jaffnese” to whom Jaffna will “ever be dear” (Preface). Unfortunately, there is much trivia: records of official appointments, deaths, honours conferred, examinations passed, relating to individuals most of whom are of no present importance or interest. Further, meant for then-present readers, some entries are bare and mystifying: “14 May 1904. Serious riots in Vannarponne in front of the Sivan Temple” (p. 75). “28 May 1915. Serious rioting and looting commence at Kandy and rapidly extend to Colombo and surrounding villages” (p. 104. One notes Colombo was then surrounded by villages). We are none the wiser as to who rioted and why. However, despite trivia and the cryptic, the work is interesting, and not without relevance to the present.
Life in Jaffna, given soil and climate, was hard. Consequently, the book extols an unostentatious life; a life of frugality and public service. That things did not come easily helps to explain the comic stereotype of the “Jaffna man” (like the Scotsman) being frugal to the point of parsimony. Forty-seven schools in Jaffna are suddenly closed for want of funds (p. 10). Money is sent to sustain relations in Jaffna by those living in other parts of the Island or abroad (p. 276). Western powers wished to conquer Jaffna not because of any commercial advantage but for “the security it gave to their settlements in the richer districts of the South” (p. 142). The iron horse (the railway line) began to run between Colombo and Jaffna only in August 1905, helping to break the isolation of the “Jaffnese”. There being no wealth to be extracted from Jaffna, the peninsular was neglected and disregarded. For example, it was rare for the wives of visiting high officials to accompany their husbands.

Clarification. Paragraph 2. The impression, created through repetition, firmly remains that the North was favoured by the British because Tamils were “tame” and cooperative. Following from this, some Sinhalese have argued that discriminatory laws and practice against the Tamils after independence in 1948 was only an attempt to right a historical wrong. Tamils having failed to correct this impression, it remains - and continues to justify reaction and conduct.
Regarding religious intolerance, I have contemporary manifestation in mind, such as the Taliban and (the political, fundamentalist, populist) variety of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
As for collaborators, that too is a reality for Tamils today.

Though there is much chaff in “Jaffna Notes”, one does pick up grains of interest. I will draw attention to some of these “grains”, and then take up two aspects, namely, religion and imperialism, more precisely, the reaction to imperialism. In many ways, religion and imperialism are connected, Christianity having been brought to the Island by three successive, Western, Christian, powers: the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. Had Christianity been introduced to Asia, South America and Africa by powers technologically backward, militarily weak and economically poor, it would not have had the same immediate success. (However, despite centuries of rule by Western powers, the percentage of Christians in countries such as India and Sri Lanka is very small.)
In 1575, digging to lay the foundation for St John’s Church, Mannar, gold coins with the effigy of the Roman emperor Claudius are discovered, confirming the Roman historian Pliny’s claim of contact between the Roman empire and the Island (p. 137). On 4 June 1707, Thesawalame (the “Customs of the country”) duly “declared correct by a body of 12 Moodaliars specially appointed for that purpose” (p. 147) is sanctioned by the Dutch government, and civil courts ordered to be guided by it. (For the benefit of non-Sri Lankan readers, a “Moodaliar” or “Mudaliyar” can roughly be described as a chief.) With some of the “grains” of interest (see “chaff” above), one wishes for more information. For example, we read that on the 15th of January 1799, the “importation of slaves into Ceylon” was prohibited (p. 9), and wonder from where these slaves had been imported. How many, what work did they do, and what became of them? (I will be grateful for guidance on this.) Later on, one reads that during the Dutch period, “Freedom was conferred upon all children born of slaves who were Protestants, whilst those of Catholic parents were condemned to perpetual servitude” (p.144). Jaffna in 1830 is described as follows:
There were no main roads beyond Pettah. Main Street from the fort terminated near 3rd Cross Street. The rainy season terminated contact between settlements. “Pachchillapally, now the coconut garden of the North, was comparatively little known, except as the domain of the elephant and the black bear. Elephants roamed about Kaithadi [...] cheetahs committed sad havoc on cattle” and packs of jackals roamed (p. 235).
Even as late as July 1918, a leopard stayed into the peninsula, mauling “two persons at Uduthurai and five at Chiviatheru” (p. 115). In September 1880, a “Dharma Chattiram (a charity house for Hindu pilgrims, mendicants and others) [was] established in Colombo” (p. 41). Presumably, the pilgrims were on their way to holy sites and temples in India. In 1864

“the question of an imperium in imperio for Jaffna was first mooted [...] Mr. Henry Francis Muttukisna [...] then fresh from a visit to Europe and smitten perhaps with an ardent love for the progressive institutions of the West, called a public meeting and harangued with all his eloquence, the burden of his song being that the time had come for Jaffna to set about to take upon herself the direction and Government of her own internal affairs” (p. 264. The choice of words such as “smitten” and “harangued” reveals the Compiler’s attitude, and relates to what will be noted about imperialism later on.)
Jaffna College was opened on 3 July 1872 “under the presidency of Rev. E. P. Hastings” (p. 270). February 1898 saw the publication of a short-hand system for the Tamil language (p. 65). The 23rd of April 1905 witnessed the arrival of the first motor car in Jaffna (p. 77). At a Durbar of Tamil Chiefs held at Queen’s House, Colombo (1June 1909), “it was decided to revive the rank of Adigar to be conferred as a mark of pre-eminence among the Tamils” (p. 90). Following this, a Durbar of Tamil chiefs was held in Jaffna (17 August 1910) under the presidency of His Excellency the Governor. Wider cultural insight is provided in the reference to one Sangarapillai Mudaliyar. During the early days of British rule, this Mudaliyar was in charge of the “Oppum” department of Jaffna. (“Khai oppum” in Tamil literally means “hand signature”, that is, a signed document of permission or authorisation.) The Mudaliyar’s office issued permits for the holding of ceremonies to mark

“marriages, births, deaths and other [social] occurrences, when the attendance of the Blacksmith, the Carpenter, the Dhoby [washerman] and the Barber were compulsory for the purpose of decorating the house with white cloth, spreading cloth on the ground for the newly-married couple to walk upon and for the temporary canopy, and for other services appropriate to their respective castes. An ‘Oppum’ was also required for riding in a ‘Palanquin’ [...] The ‘oppums’ were written in Tamil on slips of ola or palmirah leaf with a margin on the left on which were stamped the initials” of the authorising officer” (p. 232).

Moving to the aspect of religion, the Roman Catholicism of our Compiler seems to have been of a rather bigoted nature. Artefacts in churches are statues and religious images, while those in Hindu temples are “idols”. No doubt, he would have reacted similarly to Buddhist carvings and figures. Unaware of his own bias; reflecting imperial attitudes, Martyn writes (p. 116) of someone that he was a convert from a heathen family: those of “our” religion are believers; those of others, “heathen”. Those who join “our” religion are converts; those who leave it for another are renegades. Discrimination against Roman Catholics arouses his indignation, but not that suffered by Hindus and Buddhists.
In 1544, six hundred converts to Roman Catholicism were executed by the King of Jaffnapattam, who also dealt in similar fashion with his own eldest son. The second son fled to (Portuguese, Roman Catholic) Goa. Thereupon, Saint Francis Xavier “immediately repaired to Cochin, and having obtained from the authorities there a fleet, with a sufficient number of troops to co-operate with him in destroying the tyrant”, appeared off Mannar in April 1545, but failed in his enterprise” (Simon Casie Chitty, quoted on p. 136). The Compiler does not find it strange that a saint should resort to military invasion. In the name of religion, sometimes grossly irreligious acts are perpetrated – then and now.
Both Buddhism and Hinduism were neglected, if not badly treated, during almost half a millennium of Western rule. In 1711 (6 June), a law was enacted by the Dutch government “prohibiting Hindu ceremonies under severe penalties” (p. 6). However, it is discrimination against Roman Catholicism that is expatiated on. The penalty for harbouring a Roman Catholic priest was death. Marriage officiated by such priests was void. Private or public gatherings of Roman Catholics were banned, but neither “corruption nor coercion” (p. 144) led Sinhalese and Tamil Roman Catholics to abandon their religion. There is no mention of the percentage, greater by far, of the Buddhists and Hindus who remained faithful to their “heathen” (sic) religion. Presumably, Dutch hostility to Roman Catholic priests was not only on theological grounds but also based on the fear that they would work secretly towards restoring Portuguese power. If so, it would once again indicate the link between religion and politics; between power in the name of a religion, and political power.
The relation between imperialism and religion is shown in that no “native could aspire to the rank of Modaliyar, or be permitted to farm land or hold office under government, unless he became a Protestant” (p. 144). Prohibition and disqualification were matched, on the other hand, by the temptation of rewards. The Dutch grant a Mudaliyar, appointed to “watch the Company’s interests” and to deal with elephant traders “to the profit of the Honourable Company” (p. 152), twelve servants, permission to wear his turban, to be conveyed in a palanquin, “and above all, to have carried in state over him an umbrella” (p. 152). Some who are unable to resist the seduction of power, wealth and status join the enemy, and become collaborators. Having become collaborators, their status is increased because (be they envied or held in concealed contempt) Tamils desperately needing help have no option but to come to them as supplicants. Not only do collaborators have power but they are the intermediaries, having access to the real source of power, the central government in Colombo. But there is more to collaboration than the selling of the “soul” for worldly gain; than sacrificing one’s group for individual profit.
Whatever its fringe benefits, it is apodictic that, in its essence, imperialism meant military conquest, forced occupation, exploitation and humiliation. Why Western powers were able to defeat and control vast, highly populated, territory has several explanations, among them the following. Western scientific and technological progress meant military superiority. Those who have power are able to grant rewards, be it in money, land, position or privilege. There was division and distrust among “native” groups whose intra-rivalry, suspicion and hate were far greater than those directed at outside forces. The Uva Rebellion (1817-1818) was put down by the British because of support from “Low country” Sinhalese. Solomon Dias Bandaranaike received extensive tracts of land from Governor Brownrigg as a “reward for eminent service during the Kandian (sic) Rebellion A. D. 1818.” The so-called Indian Mutiny was crushed with the help of “loyal” Indian troops, “loyal” in their service to a foreign power.

Yet another factor, and the one relevant to the present work, is the success with which the belief was ingrained that the European powers were (a) superior in every respect – material, moral, cultural - and (b) impossible to defeat. I quote from a review of mine: in 1870, in an administrative district of Bengal, twenty Europeans lived among a native population of about two and a half million. Indeed, a visitor to India wondered why the natives simply “do not cut all our heads off and say nothing more about it” (Emily Eden, ‘Up the Country’, 1866, 2nd edition, p. 116). It was essential for the continuation of imperial rule that the conquered came to believe and accept that they were inherently inferior and incapable. From the conviction that the imperial powers were undefeatable, it was but a step for some to feel it was a pleasure and a privilege to serve, and in that way, be identified with them. (As suggested two paragraphs above, the motivation leading to collaboration can be complex, including not only greed but also the mistaken and the delusional.) This last psychological reaction, both at the individual and sub-group level, has been portrayed in literary texts, analysed in academic studies and, rather than dwelling on it, I will merely draw attention to some of its manifestation in this compilation.
The British Empire meant the exploitation of natural resources (including, in various forms and capacities, human resource) and markets for finished products. Only British goods could be sold in imperial territory. Cocoa and rubber were shipped to England, and Ceylonese (the Island was then Ceylon) bought chocolates and tyres exported from England but made with Ceylonese cocoa and rubber. Yet, bizarre as it may now seem, “Empire day” was celebrated in conquered territories world-wide. The purpose of this celebration was to encourage feelings of “devotion to the British Empire and Sovereign” (p. 100). As I have written elsewhere, while it is understandable that the British national anthem should express the wish that God would save the king and enable him to long “reign o’er us”, it is odd when conquered people join. That is tantamount to singing, “May he continue to be victorious over us.” The celebration of the coronation of His Most Gracious Majesty George V is “the heartiest and the most enthusiastic” event ever known (p. 297). Imperialism was armed robbery - massive in scale, protracted in time - and yet the subject peoples gave, from what was left to them, lavish gifts to their “robbers” because the latter basked in power. Indeed, it was felt to be an honour if one’s gift (more precisely, “offering”) was accepted – an honour, a bribe and an insurance. A list, too long to be quoted here, of presents sent to the Prince of Wales from Jaffna begins, “One snake bangle set with rubies and diamonds” (p. 243).

It is easy today to feel surprised, complacent and superior but, on closer examination, we see that, in some ways, the world changes and remains the same. The ethos of our times fits a pair of spectacles on us, lenses through which we see the world. We are unaware we are wearing glasses; that we see through them, and react accordingly. Few, very few, are able to detach themselves from their temporal, cultural, spectacles. What “Jaffna Notes” reveals is the Weltanschauung of many during imperial times. Rather than feeling distanced in history, safe and superior, this book should lead to the asking of the question: How will posterity view present beliefs and attitudes, present values and conduct? Will generations of Sri Lankans in the distant future be surprised, embarrassed and regretful (living in Germany, I am aware of this country’s sense of disbelief and shame when it looks back at past injustice and violence) or will the Island’s posterity be quietly satisfied and proud?


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