The hidden racism and naming of roads in Sri Lanka
By Saroj Jayasinghe
A single incident in the US which was captured on a mobile phone by a teenager has triggered waves of protests against racism, globally. This has included bringing down of monuments that represented racists or slave owners in the UK and USA. Well-known names of such racists who were being implicitly honoured include the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford University and the Policy School named after Woodrow Wilson in Princeton USA, both of which are likely to be removed by the universities.
It is inevitable that countries in the global financial periphery such as Sri Lanka, too are touched by these events and reflect about racism. In the next few paragraphs I wish to outline the history behind a few selected names we currently glorify in Sri Lanka. The fact that Sri Lanka honours white skinned looters, criminals and murderers with road names may illustrate that we have learnt to accept racism within our collective psyche. This brief paper is to confront this by identifying a few well-known road names and delving into their histories.
Human rights violators
1. Thomas Maitland (1805-1811).
A soldier who became a governor, TM came after the blockage of the Kandyan Kingdom by Governor North. He cannot be considered a benign leader worthy of a road named after him. Maitland was famous for using modified slave labour and used deceit to undermine the Kandyan King. His letters to Britain (quoted in Colvin R. De Silva’s book) stated that ‘it is by sword alone that we have obtained possession of this island and it is by the sword alone we can expect it to hold it’. He fleeced the country with innumerable taxes and ensured trade rules favourable to themselves: cinnamon, pearl fisheries, etc.
He was a soldier at a time when slavery and white supremist ideas would have been the norm. If we are to extrapolate to the past from what Floyd underwent inside his own country under the full glare of mobile phones, it must have been worse 200 years ago, when absolute unbridled power was with the colonisers.
We honour him with the following roads:
Maitland Crescent in Colombo 7.
Maitland Place in Colombo 7.
2. Robert Brownrigg (1811-1820).
Another soldier, we have chosen to honour a military brute for his genocidal approach against a rebellion. A war criminal by any standards, he implemented a scorched earth policy and ordered that all males above 16 years were to be executed, destroyed dams, cut coconut trees, and burnt paddy fields in order to starve the rural populations. (See K.M. de Silva: A History of Sri Lanka). These are crimes against humanity and collective punishments that are despicable by any standards.
The roll call of honours:
A pompous aristocrat who was known to have crushed the second freedom struggle in Ceylon (1848). Human rights violations were his forte especially executions without proper trials. Venerable Kudapola, a Buddhist monk was executed by Torrington in 1848 for supporting Veera PuranAppu. Those who were associated with the rebels, even remotely were banished. Areas such as Moneragala still have families that fled the British occupation (in “puraana gam”- old villages) and they continue to suffer, partly as a result of these historical events.
We do honour him with the following:
4. Edward Barnes (1824-1831). The man who used a form of slavery to build roads is ironically honoured by a road named after him. His method was to use existing systems (Rajakariya) to force people to build roads for the colonisers to transport their commercial products from the hill land to the ports for export.
Sadly, the blood, sweat and tears of the peasants who died in the process are forgotten and we continue to hail their slave master. Though we venerate tea, what the British did was close to an ecological catastrophe by denuding the virgin hill forests to plant tea. By 1848 almost 250,000 acres of prime hill land had been sold at a pittance to British landowners. The land-grab was masterminded by a string of governors whom we don’t fail to honour. The areas were cleared by slaves or forced labour brought from India. Hundreds of such labourers died during the grueling treks to locations inland, but none are honoured by any memorials. Its time we honour these generations of Indian labour who perished in Sri Lanka, far away from their own homes.
This generational discrimination is partly responsible for the plight of modern-day plantation workers, a fact that is glossed over by most researchers who tend to place the blame only on post-colonial Sri Lanka for the poor health and socio-economic outcomes of plantation workers.
Honours for Barnes:
A manipulator and deceitful person of no mean repute, credited for having split the emerging independence movement by helping to weaken the Ceylon National Congress. He was a racist who promoted divisions based on ethnic groups, the more sanitised words used by V.L.B. Mendis is that he was ‘a ruthless communalist’. The impact of his divisive policies which led to 30 years of conflict are conveniently forgotten. Instead, we have honoured him with the following:
Robbers and looters
In addition to honouring a few despicable characters, we have also let several looters of our treasures off the hook. There is a treasure trove of items in museums all over the world plundered during the colonial period (see ‘Catalogue of Antiquities’ by Dr. P. H. D. H. de Siva available at the National Museum Library in Colombo). Some of these were looted by the governors: the 10th century golden statue of Tara, was taken out of Sri Lanka in 1830 by Robert Brownrigg.
What should or should not be done:
We need to confront hidden symbols of racism, in a way similar to debates sweeping the US and Europe. We could be brave and change all these names of previous criminals and replace them with names of local heroes, people or places. The other option is to keep their names while placing a bold plaque below each name board that lists their criminal behaviour. Perhaps a group of historians could be appointed to review situations where colonial criminals are being honoured. This could be followed up with proposals to rename certain locations, roads and buildings.
The views expressed do not reflect those of the institution.
First a confession. I am not a historian. Second, I wish to lay to rest the philosophical argument as to whether we should or should not reflect on history. These protests, including the bringing down of statues of racists overseas show how deep-seated systemic racism is and how it has blinded thinking. In the US, it manifested recently as White Policemen killing Black people, but its tentacles were wide enough to glorify the killers with statues. I consider the existing situation in Sri Lanka an insult and would equate it to having a street named after Hitler in London. Unless we identify the roots of some of our current predicaments, we will continue to be haunted by the ghosts of yesteryear. To understand what I mean, please listed to this video on “The Australian Dream by Stan Grant” the Australian TV presenter (search the above or go the following link:
Finally, some may critique me for using harsh words. I shall not defend this because I believe what the colonists did was infinitely more harsh and cruel.