Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Mapping Identity in Dutch Colonial Sri Lanka (1658-1796)

At the heart of this study is a thorough inquiry of categorisations of social identity used in the VOC’s record-keeping bureaucracy. How were service, occupational and caste groups classified and shaped by the VOC?

2017 - 2022
Alicia Schrikker
NWO Vrije competitie NWO Vrije competitie

This postdoc-project will critically assess Dutch administrative efforts to categorise and control inhabitants under their rule. Social categorization in the VOC’s record-keeping bureaucracy was both an ideological reflection and an instrument of colonial stereotypical reasoning. The colonial census plays an important role in the historiography on colonialism. For India it has been argued that nineteenth-century colonial censuses contributed significantly to the construction and fixation of previously more fluid social and religious identities (Dirks 2001; Cohn 1996). In the past decade this view has been challenged by scholars who accessed vernacular and precolonial sources on South Asia (Lorenzen 2006). For Sri Lanka, Rogers (1994) and Strathern (2012) have critically commented on this post-orientalist understanding of the colonial impact on identity formation, by directing attention to dynamic processes of identification. The proposed research will delve deeper into identification processes, circumstances and everyday realities of Dutch registration of premodern communities in Sri Lanka.

Why was record-keeping necessary and how did it operate? The Dutch colonial bureaucracy’s prime interests on the island were collecting cinnamon and increasing revenue through taxation. This was combined with an attempt to improve the government of the people to maintain stability. A bureaucratic science of classification produced by the VOC is seen in its most advanced form in the thombos, mapping conceptions of family, community, landed property, location and village boundaries. This subproject will look at social categorisation as seen in the prosopographical data of the thombos and other VOC records such as census and judicial records. Comparison of identification in schepenkennis-rollen or deeds affecting land and revenue farming records will add depth to the study by revealing various ‘templates’ (Smail 1999) of self-identity by indigenous populations. Company lists of cinnamon-peelers, Muslims (Moren), Chettiars and lascarins or foot soldiers confirmed occupational and social categories and could be produced as evidence in judicial cases. Self-identification and registration in the VOC’s record-keeping bureaucracy were legally binding. Did these records classify persons differently and if so why? The requirements and genealogies of each document genre will be taken into account in this analysis.

At the heart of this study is a thorough inquiry of categorisations of social identity used in the VOC’s record-keeping bureaucracy. How were service, occupational and caste groups classified and shaped by the VOC? The thombo represented a colonial registration system that responded to and potentially reshaped cultural categories of identity. Was the growing record-keeping bureaucracy of the VOC accepted by the public? Who was describing whom and for what purpose? In all this, how did such linguistic classifications on the catherns of the thombo and other records of the VOC translate into or change the everyday life experiences of the registered individual? In this way, we can observe identification as viewed by those who were registered and the foundations of dynamic identity categories as engineered by both coloniser and colonised.

Such efforts at registration aimed to set up a standardised social and economic regime on paper through establishing direct links with peasants and bypassing intermediary elites. Faced with multiple overlapping normative communities, the Dutch government mapped diversity in its record-keeping, striving to impose order. The Company seemingly recognised the complexity of social formations in categorisations of identity, which were also closely linked to land tenure and possession. Was the VOC’s classifying project representative of the everyday coherence for indigenous populations? Finally, why was registration at times collectively contested?

The thombo registers are unique in that they can be analysed diachronically in relation to earlier indigenous and Portuguese administrative practices and comparable proto-registers and thereafter synchronically in relation to the executive and legal administration of the VOC. This subproject will for the first time analyse the origins of the classificatory schemes of the Dutch thombos in preceding Portuguese and indigenous record-keeping bureaucracies, and highlight the evolution to their eighteenth-century form. The ideas and practices of identification in Sinhalese palm leaf manuscripts of land registrations (lekammiti) and Portuguese thombos will be compared with Dutch thombos of the same geographical areas. For the synchronic analysis, governor in council records, instruction books, reports and judicial records of the Landraad (a land council), a judicial institution that drew up and maintained the thombos, enhance our understanding of the nature and reception of social classificatory schemes.

Dutch mapping of multiple categories of identity, if not always precise and consistent, had ramifications for emerging universal definitions of social categories in modern times. It is for this reason that this study will also consider the lasting legacy of Dutch categorization during the early British period, when it is known that the new rulers haphazardly continued many aspects of Dutch administrative culture (Schrikker 2007). The multiple processes of mapping identities that this subproject analyses through its source-critical approach forms an essential building block for the three other subprojects. 

Connection with other research

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