Colonial Affordance, The Dynamic Registration of People, Property and Services in Eighteenth-Century Dutch Colonial Sri Lanka

Project information

Start date: 01-09-2017
End date: 31-08-2021
Researcher: Luc Bulten
Partner: Leiden University
Financing: 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 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.

This study will put emphasis on the everyday lives of the inhabitants of the Colombo province during the Dutch period of rule in the eighteenth-century in Sri Lanka, through the lens of the Dutch registration practices and the subsequent negotiations surrounding the administration of personhood, property, labour and taxes. The emphasis will lie on the Dutch (thombo) registries as a colonial institution and the impact the registration and categorisation of both individuals and groups and their property and supposed obligations had on the lived reality of those who resided under the colonial regime. It will not merely fixate on the ideology of land extraction and exploitation that – assumingly – drove the VOC to these elaborate recordings, but it will concentrate on the registration practice as a process, which gave rise to opportunities for the local population and which was dialectically shaped by negotiations and conflicts but also by cooperation and consultation between both colonial officials, local headmen and also the ‘common people’ living in this society.

The focus on the dynamics of (colonial) registration in Dutch colonial Sri Lanka will be twofold and complementary. Firstly the actual process behind the thombos, and other subsequent or related registers (e.g. the registration of ‘cinnamon gardens’ or reports and lists compiled by native commissioners in service of the company) and the accompanying registration (and categorisation) of people, property and services will be portrayed. This will be done by looking at the turbulent period starting in the 1740s – when renewed attempts to record overarching thombo registries for every district began – which continued throughout the second half of the eighteenth century, cumulating in the 1760s when several large revolts arose across the Dutch territories as a, sometimes direct, sometimes indirect, result of the efforts in the late 1750s to ‘update’ the thombos. Conflict, protest and revolt characterises this response of the colony’s native population, but it is also a time of negotiation and growing cooperation – as the Dutch relied on an extensive network and infrastructure of native commissioners and local headmen (basing themselves on pre-Dutch and even pre-colonial traditions of registration) to complete the extensive thombo records and all the subsequent bureaucracy.

Every wave of reluctance and protest to a (re)new(ed) operation to create or update a collective (thombo) registry, was followed by a deeper institutionalisation of these registers into the society of Dutch colonial Sri Lanka. Therefore, the second part of this study will focus on the workings or ‘affordance’ of these colonial registers for all the different layers of the aforementioned society. As registration also meant recognition, an increasing number of stakeholders attempted to get their property and personhood registered and got involved through the strategic deployment of these registers to their own benefit. In this second section of my doctoral research I aim portray the aforementioned affordances of the registers by looking at cases of litigation; the workings of (caste-related) service for the company and the process of taxation; and the effect of categorisation on family composition and identity formation.

The thombos and the documents surrounding its implementation offer the chance to look at the registration and categorisation practices from both a qualitative and quantitative perspective. By combining the registers and the other products of the Company’s bureaucracy, an unique opportunity to gain insight into the everyday reality of registration as a colonial institution surfaces. How and why were these people and their property registered? What kind of impact did this have on the persons recorded? The colonial institutions had its ideology (in the case of registries: taxes, land revenue, services), but to what extent did this ideology actually function? And what kind of ‘affordance’ did it provide to the local population rather than the official ideology, for example in the sense of recognition and legal rights? Did the implemented categorisations and registrations shape new allegiances and identities? And if so, how did that work?

By answering these questions, this study aims to create insight into the daily lives of people living in an eighteenth-century colonial society, during a time in which European colonial bureaucracy was ever-growing but at the same time was constantly influenced by the Asian society it was attempting to control. This dynamic development characterised by negotiation, contestation and strategical implementation by both European, Asian and mixed actors will give us an insight into the everyday life in a colonial society and will help us to render a deeper understanding of the processes and mechanisms behind both registration and colonisation (in in the eighteenth-century) and the historical affordances of (colonial/imperial) institutions.

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