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Research project

Colonialism Inside Out: Everyday Experience and Plural Practice in Dutch Institutions in Sri Lanka (c. 1700-1800)

In what way did coastal inhabitants of eighteenth century Sri Lanka utilize Dutch legal, fiscal and religious institutions to further their own interests? And how did this everyday interaction contribute to the shaping of their lives?

2017 - 2022
Alicia Schrikker
NWO Vrije competitie NWO Vrije competitie

Radboud University Nijmegen

This interdisciplinary project takes a novel socio-legal approach to the history of colonialism by analysing the everyday interaction between an Asian society and an expanding European bureaucracy. 
It focuses on how ordinary people in Sri Lanka experienced and navigated normative institutions of taxation, legal action and religion that were set up by the Dutch East India Company (VOC). These institutions were created by the Dutch for social control and revenue extraction, but functioned simultaneously as sites of mediation and conflict resolution. 

This project looks at the function of these institutions in Sri Lankan society from the inside. The meticulous Dutch bureaucracy produced census registers, church and judicial records that are unparalleled in their degree of detail compared to other eighteenth-century colonial empires. This unique material makes it possible for historians to capture everyday colonialism: while the serial nature of the sources allows for a structural analysis of the people involved and the institutions at work, the rich data at the individual and family level enables a microanalysis of the indigenous experience. The detailed records of registration and dispute resolution reveal how colonialism could penetrate the household. By foregrounding everyday entanglements and plural practices this project turns the institutions inside out and develops a unique view of the lived experience of Dutch colonialism.

Project leader: Dr. Alicia Schrikker

Postdoc: Dr. Dries Lyna (Radboud University Nijmegen) 

Phd Students: Bente de Leede MA (Leiden University), Luc Bulten (Radboud University Nijmegen)

Promotors: Prof. Dr. Jos Gommans (Leiden University) and Prof. Dr. Jan Kok (Radboud University Nijmegen)

Advisory board: Prof. dr. Nira Wickramasinghe (Leiden University); Dr. Nirmal Dewasiri (University of Colombo); Dr. Sujit Sivasundaram (University of Cambridge); Prof. dr. Fabian Drixler (Yale University); Prof. dr. Paulo Teodoro de Matos (Universidada Nova de Lisboa); Prof. dr. Adriaan Bedner (Leiden University); Zoltán Biederman (University of London); Lodewijk Wagenaar (University of Amsterdam). 

Four interconnected subprojects address the central question: In what ways did inhabitants of eighteenth-century Sri Lanka interact with Dutch normative institutions and how did this interaction shape everyday life under colonial rule?  

At the base of the project as a whole, subproject A considers the Dutch bureaucratic culture of registration and its ideological framework in general, subprojects B, C and D each focus on one particular institution: taxation, religion and legal courts. The Project Leader will produce a synthesis that will bring together the results of this localized study of society - state interaction and place this in a global context of contemporary expanding (colonial) bureaucracies and state-formation.

All subprojects are based on the following questions: Which local groups are involved, and who is excluded? What are the concerns at stake and whose issues are addressed? What procedures are followed and what norms are articulated? Who benefits or loses, and why? Each subproject combines a structural macro-analysis of the function of these institutions in society with a micro-approach that singles out life stories of individuals and families who engaged with them in order to grasp their everyday experience with Dutch colonialism. Both on a conceptual and methodological level these approaches crucially complement each other, as the macro-analysis of people and cases justifies the selection of representative micro stories that make tangible the workings of the institutions in society at large. 

Project A ‘Mapping identity’ (Postdoc Leiden University) will for the first time critically reassess the thombo registration as part of larger Dutch administrative efforts to categorize and control the inhabitants under their rule, as both an ideological reflection and bureaucratic instrument of colonial stereotypical reasoning. The thombo registers will be analysed both diachronically in relation to earlier indigenous and Portuguese administrative practices and comparable proto-registers as well as synchronically in relation to the parish and legal administration of the VOC.

Project B ‘Negotiating fiscal norms, property and labour’ (PhD Radboud University Nijmegen) focuses on the thombos as sites of negotiaton related to property and personal services. It will analyse the complex and manifold categories employed to describe land plots and concomitant rights and duties in the land thombos and those describing caste, labour services, civil status, legitimacy and genealogical relations in the head thombos. It is precisely in these categories as they emerge over time and differ across regions that we find the crystallized negotiations between members of extended families, between villages and aristocracy, between the indigenous population and the VOC, and between the VOC and the Church.

Project C ‘Negotiating conversion and family law’ (PhD Leiden University) sees the church as norm-maker in family affairs and addresses the issue of religious conversion as offering social mobility to Sinhalese and Tamil families. It will use conversion, baptism and marriage data from the eighteenth-century parish registers (or school thombos) and minutes of the Consistory of the Dutch Reformed Church in Wolvendaal, Colombo where divorce cases were discussed. In order to understand the effect of everyday experiences with Christianity it will identify the family structures of converted Roman Catholic and Protestant families in the thombo registration.

Project D ‘Consuming the law’ (Dr. Dries Lyna, Radboud University Nijmegen) conceptualises the civil courts as arenas of self-assertion for families and individuals living in the multi-ethnic social order in the coastal urban and adjacent rural areas of Colombo, Galle and Jaffna. Litigation practices between and within various groups over inheritance issues and business transactions were regular affairs at the Civiele Stadsraad. The court cases will allow us to gauge the importance of citizenship for urban communities such as the Sinhalese, Dutch and Portuguese Burghers, Muslim traders and Chetties. The thombo registers are used to localize litigants and allow us to go beyond the fragmented socio-economic pictures of colonial urban melting pots.

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