Colonial registration practices seen through the eyes of the ‘registered’ in eighteenth-century Sri Lanka

Thursday 20 April 2023, 10:30 am
L.J. Bulten
prof. dr. J. Kok
dr. D.B.G.W. Lyna, dr. A.F. Schrikker (Universiteit Leiden)
Faculty of Arts

This PhD dissertation covers approximately a century and a half of Sri Lanka’s history, with a particular focus on the second half of the eighteenth century. At the time, much of the population of this South Asian island lived under the self-proclaimed rule of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). In putting this rule into practice, the VOC relied on a veritable army of clerks, civil servants, and bureaucrats, who registered thousands of indigenous families and their land holdings on behalf of the Company. This registration process aimed to exploit the caste-related labour services of these families and the agricultural products (such as rice) that traditionally had to be ceded to the state. However, the research of this thesis shows that this registration process was by no means a one-sided development. Local people, customs, and infrastructures all had a significant influence on how lives, land, and labour were documented. Moreover, the documents resulting from this process, such as the ‘thombo’ land and population registers, were used on a demonstrably large scale by Sri Lankan families to secure their social status, property, and inheritance – for example, as evidence in court. This allowed local communities to demonstrably appropriate these colonial records, a fact that has received little attention in previous scholarly work. 

Luc Bulten (1993) is a social historian who specialises in interactions between governmental and other institutions and individuals in colonial societies, with a specific interest in early modern South Asia. In recent years, his research has focused mainly on land and population registration. For his PhD thesis, he studied the registration process that took place in Sri Lanka in the eighteenth century, specifically from the perspective of the local population registered by the Dutch East India Company. During this research, Luc was a PhD candidate at the Chair for Economic, Social and Demographic History at Radboud University, where he has also been a lecturer in social and economic history since September 2022. During his PhD, he travelled to Sri Lanka several times to do research and was also active as a lecturer in Groningen (Economic and Social History) and Leiden (Early Modern History). As of September 2023, Luc will combine his teaching position in Nijmegen with a position as a postdoctoral researcher in Leiden.