PhD defence: Jaffna Tamils - colonised sub-elite of the British empire

Date of news: 25 August 2021

Historian Kristina Hodelin researched the colonial history of Christian Jaffna Tamils. In the nineteenth century, they migrated in large numbers from Sri Lanka to Malaysia, where they proved to be very influential within the British colonial rule. How did they manage that? Hodelin wrote the dissertation Navigating Empire: Migration and Social Mobility of Jaffna Tamils in Malaysia, 1800-1948 about it, which she will defend on 26 August.

From the early 1800s, British and American missionaries moved to the colony of Sri Lanka to convert the local population to Christianity. In the far north of the Asian country, Jaffna was home to large groups of Tamils ​​who originally belonged to the Vellalar caste. They were converted and worked together with the missionary groups. The Tamil children of Jaffna went to school and received the education and language skills useful to the various colonial regimes. Towards the end of the 19th century, more and more Christian Jaffna Tamil Vellala moved across the Indian Ocean to Malaysia, which was also a British Colony at the time. ‘Few studies have been done on Jaffna Tamil migrants in Malaysia, and a structural analysis of the Jaffna Tamil migration between colonial Sri Lanka and Malaysia has been lacking’, says Kristina Hodelin. For her PhD research she therefore reconstructed the migration history of the Jaffna-Tamils in order ​​to answer the question of how religion and education influenced the sub-elitist position of these colonised subjects in the British Empire. ‘It is important to study this part of history because as migrants continue to move for educational and employment opportunities or are pushed abroad due to war and climate change, their drive for belonging allows us to question how a diaspora becomes accepted and gains privileges or faces alienation in the new locale’, explains Hodelin.

sri lanka and maleysia on map

Complete view

Hodelin examined and interpreted missionary documents, Tamil correspondence, census material, official colonial correspondence, letters of encouragement from the Malaysian colonial administration, newspaper advertisements, memoirs of migrant families, petitions by Jaffna Tamils, cartoon illustrations and colonial records to get a complete picture of the relations between the Jaffna Tamils, the British, and other migrant communities in the period between 1800 and 1948. Hodelin: ‘I wanted to find a balance between analysing sources of the colonial archive - which were written from the perspective of colonial officials - and sources where we can gauge the perspective of local people. Accessing and analysing documents in the archive sometimes leaves you with a lot more questions than answers. I am proud of not being afraid to lean into the many questions that arose upon each archival visit.’

To Malaysia

Both in the north of Sri Lanka and in Malaysia, the well-educated middle class of Jaffna-Tamils ​​had a reputation of being successful. These migrants were the ones who "made it". ‘The Tamils ​​from Jaffna managed to hold their own within the British colonial empire. By taking advantage of education and converting to the religion of the British, they qualified for jobs in the colonial civil service’, explains Hodelin. ‘Through their conversion, they became acquainted with the British rulers, their language, dress and religious practices. That knowledge was not only relevant for Sri Lanka, but also opened the migration path to Malaysia - also a British colony - where the same British standards and values ​​applied.' Education and religion remained the gateway to social progress and the maintenance of sub-elite status for the Jaffna Tamil Christian Vellala. 'But it remained just that: a sub-status', says Hodelin. ‘When Tamil officials from Jaffna wanted higher positions in the various government ministries, they were rejected. The colonial order is a hierarchical system, with British colonial officials at the top and the sub-elites, who would never become equal to them, below them.’

Through the system

The story of the Jaffna Tamil Christian Vellala shows how local communities were able to maneuver through the system of colonisation through performance and imitation, to achieve personal and group success, Hodelin concludes. ‘The story of the Jaffna Tamils shows us the ties between targeted and favoured migration to a new location and education and socio-economic status back in the country of origin. Historically, voluntary migrants have moved to gain education, employment, religious freedom, and to flee conflict. In the past few decades, climate change has also been one of the main reasons for migration. Depending on the circumstances of migration, a group will either be more easily accepted in the new society and acquire privileges, or they will face more visible alienation in their new environment. This case study can help us better understand contemporary migration policies favouring the educated elite (brain drain) between nation-states in the Indian Ocean and the effects of this on those migrating as a result of climate disaster or poverty, who may not necessarily have the same socio-economic and education background as those migrants favoured by current policies.’

Kristina Hodelin’s defence takes place on August 26.