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PhD project

Negotiating Conversion and Family Law in eighteenth century Dutch Colonial Sri Lanka

What was the function of the Dutch Protestant Church in Sri Lankan society? Why did people relate to the Church and how did conversion influence their life course?

2017 - 2022
Bente de Leede
NWO Vrije competitie NWO Vrije competitie

This PhD-project sees the church as an important institution in coastal Sri Lanka. Company statistics show that almost half the population, or around 350.000 people were registered as Christians in the late eighteenth century (De Zwart 2012). The question of what baptism meant in practice for these thousands of people has never been asked. Church activities were surely spiritual in nature, but in Sri Lanka they also held a strong administrative component. A crucial figure in the daily interaction between society and the church was the indigenous schoolmaster who resided in the villages and had as primary tasks the registration of births, deaths and marriages, besides instructing his pupils on the catechism. These responsibilities were linked to creating the so-called school thombos. The schools were presided by a School Board that discussed appeals to changes in registration, approval of divorce and other familial matters, besides discussing the progress of its pupils. Protestantism in Sri Lanka is a long forgotten subject and has mainly been studied in the context of church history, with a focus on Bible translations and the education of indigenous clergy (Van Goor 1978; Schutte 2002).

This subproject sees the church as norm-maker and addresses the issue of intervention in family affairs of colonial subjects. It will use hitherto untouched conversion, baptism and marriage data from eighteenth-century parish registers (or school thombos), cadastral thombos, minutes of the School Board and minutes of the consistories of the Dutch Reformed Church in Wolvendaal, Colombo where issues of morality were extensively discussed.  The thombos provide data on how people married and had children.

Central to this subproject are the questions of why people related to the church and how conversion shaped their lives. The following subquestions will guide this study:

  1. How did the school thombo registration develop in practice?
  2. How did this relate to the registration in head thombos?
  3. How did conversion to Dutch Protestantism translate into the realm of the ordinary in the normative structures of the family?

The Colombo thombos mentioned above can be used for this analysis, while the researcher will develop a pilot database of the school thombos. The school thombos have details of parents and their children, recording their baptism and details of entry and exit from church schools. Such details would yield hitherto unseen data on family life cycles of a pre-1800 Asian society that can determine on a wider scale how religious conversion potentially influenced a household under Dutch colonial rule. Quantitative data will be amply complemented in this study by more qualitative sources such as judicial and parish records.

Like subproject B, this subproject is located in Colombo town, its suburbs (Four Gravets) and its hinterland. The research will extract data from selected villages in the school thombos of the Colombo Four Gravets, coastal Negombo and Chilaw, hinterland Hewagam and Hina (Siyana) and inland Hapitigam. It will run parallel with PhD subproject B that uses the head and land thombos for the same villages. A local research assistant will be employed for one year to help gather this data. The newly gathered data and the existing Colombo database will enable us to connect civil status registration to region (distance from Colombo), caste, and religion and thus trace how Dutch and Protestant notions of marriage had affected indigenous customs.

The records of the School Board bear details of family laws that affected peasant families, while the records of the consistory of the Dutch Reformed Church in Colombo document the struggle for compliance with Christian morality among urban communities. Cohabitation, marriage, divorce and family scandal were key issues brought up in these records. For villagers, the new requirement to register marriages with the company administration was often a puzzling conundrum in their lifeworlds (Rupesinghe 2016). More in-depth study of such issues of everyday life in the areas of marriage and illegitimacy could display how individuals and families ignored, used, and came to terms with normative structures of colonial law.

This subproject will result in a socio-cultural history of how premodern peasant and urban communities negotiated religious conversion, partnerships and family relationships under colonial rule. Marriage and inheritance, transactions of everyday life, were affected by the Company’s requirement for either a recognised customary or registered marriage and were closely linked to illegitimate birth. What drove people like Annika Kobeiwattege to take make recourse to the law and invest in unfamiliar procedures in new institutional forums? Through this subproject, the PhD candidate will engage in a broad discussion of the everyday realities of intimate relationships and family structures in Dutch Sri Lanka at urban and rural levels that is based on a wide array and quantity of sources. It will yield a rich dissertation on the effects of early modern religious conversion on South Asian family life.

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