Consuming the Law: Civic Litigation in Rural-Urban Sri Lanka, 1700-1800

Project information

Start date: 01-09-2017
End date: 31-08-2020
Researcher: Dr Dries Lyna
Partner: Leiden University
Financing: NWO Vrije Competitie

Litigators and their anxieties are central to the analysis of this research project. In witness accounts, interrogations and other documents pertaining to the lawsuits, we see the litigators being identified, and identifying themselves.  Investing in the judicial forums could be a costly affair for petitioners, but as we see from the records, this did not prevent them from using the court to settle disputes. Rather than negotiation with the state, the  ‘consumption’ of state legal institutions is central to this subproject.


Why did people choose to have their disputes settled by Dutch law courts? Colonial law courts have for long mainly been studied as coercive instruments of state control and societal hierarchies. This is conceivable when focusing on criminal cases trialed in court. However, civil cases are more complex as through them we see individuals, families or companies actively seek mediation by the state. Did colonial subjects seek ‘rational justice’? Or, acting more as consumers, did they simply wish to win or use the forum to force an opponent towards a compromise?

What was the social function of the colonial civil law courts in eighteenth-century coastal Sri Lanka? This project builds on the myriad of studies on daily life in colonial port-cities that have created insight into the shaping of identity and cross-cultural interaction between social groups. Recent research has convincingly shown that in Dutch port cities courts were the colonial institution where most ethnicities and religions met. Court records provide evidence of lively contacts between people from different backgrounds.

This project will seek to apply the concept “consumers of justice” to the case of Sri Lanka. The traditional top-down analysis of law makes way for an approach that conceptualises courtrooms as public stages where individuals could use the VOC institution to enforce a social sanction and at the same time renegotiate their own social standing.  About 150 civil cases brought before the High Courts of Justice in Colombo, Jaffna and Galle between 1750 and 1775 will be used and screened to answer the main question of why people made use of these law courts. The following sub-questions will be addressed: Who made use of the court? Who won and who lost? What were the private and public issues at stake?

The high courts were all situated in port cities, but litigants came from afar and had interests at stake that reached beyond the city walls. In most studies litigation is understood merely in the urban colonial context, and hence as an urban phenomenon encompassing the cosmopolitan trading communities in particular. Indeed, a number of the 150 court cases involve the trading community, but many others include lower-level indigenous chiefs, women and owners of larger gardens and plantations who had vested interests in the hinterland. The existing analyses of the social stratification of the port cities of Colombo and Galle will give this project a head start.

This research will draw the litigation practices in the courtroom onto a larger social and economic canvas using the data from head, land and school thombos. At a basic level the head thombos will allow us to locate individual litigators within larger social and economic structures, with information on occupation, caste and family structure. A thorough contextualisation of litigating practices can equally be related to possible family or group strategies to achieve social mobility and public status. Understanding litigation as a form of consumption gives the litigant agency in the formation of their social identity vis-a-vis other members of society. This social negotiation went beyond categorization of the company, but in the process contributed to the shaping of everyday colonialism.