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PhD project

Negotiating Fiscal Norms, Property and Labour in Eighteenth-Century Dutch Colonial Sri Lanka

This project focuses on Dutch registration of land and people in rural Sri Lanka. How did the practice of “fixating” the fluid social relations and dynamic daily practices into categories affect family strategies of reproduction and survival?

Duration
2017  -   2022
Contact
Alicia Schrikker
Funding
NWO Vrije competitie NWO Vrije competitie

This PhD project focuses on the thombos as a platform of fiscal norms relating to property and personal service. It will analyse how people related to the complex and manifold categories (as studied in subproject A) 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 villagers and aristocracy, between the local population and the VOC, and between the VOC and the Church. 

This subproject will focus on five administrative units, called korales, that extended from Colombo’s suburbs along the coast and into the hinterland: the Colombo Four Gravets, Negombo, Hewagam, Hina and Hapitigam. The socio-economic make-up of these areas shifted gradually, from urban gardens and plantations to rural village economy and mixed marine-rural economies on the coast. Presumably settlement of temporary migrants was stronger in the areas closer to town, due to commercial activities. This study then, like its counterpart subproject C, is highly localized and will fully grasp the sliding scales of society-state interaction and the practice of negotiation.

The goal of this dissertation is to understand how the Dutch administrative practices of thombo-keeping were adapted to the traditional feudal services, inheritance rules and family forms, and how – in turn – the practice of “fixating” in thombo categories the fluid social relations and dynamic daily practices affected family strategies of reproduction and survival. To achieve this, the dissertation will address three guiding questions:

  1. What is the logic behind the numerous labels that the thombos attach to land, people and kin relations?
  2. How were the administrative practices on the local level geared to the economic and demographic practices of the indigenous people?
  3. How did the thombo registration offer people room for negotiation and agency?

For the VOC, the local aristocracy, and the peasants, titles to landed property and the feudal services attached to them were crucial. Moreover, the Dutch administration emphasized the individual nature of these titles. Contrary to what is often supposed, there was no joint ownership of land by agnatic kin. Individual family members jealously guarded their personal rights against kin. However, family members living on the same compound had to cooperate in order to survive. The family group could be endangered by an unfavorable ratio of consumers to producers. Moreover, traditional methods of expanding compound acreage by slash-and-burn was restrained by the VOC (Dewasiri 2007). Thus an essential question is: who was part of the family group and who was not?

The head thombos describe all persons living on family compounds and even family members living elsewhere in unprecedented detail (up to the seventh degree of kinship). This ordering in kin categories is probably connected to stratified claims on family property, which also implied allotment of labour services to the VOC. A subject to be explored is the notation of kin not living on family lands. The Sinhalese practice of equal division of land included (uniquely) daughters. How are these rights reflected in the thombo notations? When was close kin recorded and when were they left out? Do we observe differences between the near-urban and fully rural areas? Was unregistered land appropriated by the VOC?

How and why did such issues differ from one province (and even from one sub district or korale) to the next? How did the VOC adapt its fiscal practices to the variation in ethnicity, exploitation possibilities, local power relations, local traditions? To answer these questions, the PhD student will analyze the variation charted in the Colombo pilot database in combination with the newly collected data. Moreover, the database will be used to calculate consumer/producer ratios in relation to (potential) crop yields on the basis of rice acreage and number of fruit trees. Thus, it is possible to distinguish between poor and rich family compounds, and relate land use, compliance with service regulations, taxation, outmigration, form of marriage (e.g. bringing in a husband), foster children etcetera to the actual economic and demographic constraints of families. 

The thombo registration was also a field of negotiation, litigation or outright conflict. Combining an analysis of the thombos with Colombo Landraad records will offer important material for the individual and family histories integral to this subproject. Did kin omitted from the thombo try to be included? What do litigation cases reveal about the status of foster, adopted and illegitimate children, which we will find in the thombo database? From what kind of family groups did people litigate? The land thombos record non-compliance to Dutch demands, another form of agency.

Connection with other research

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