Sri Lanka Genealogy Website

Borneo Bulletin


Malays in Sri Lanka

By B. A. Hussainmiya, Ph.D

    Malays in Sri Lanka series - Part 1

A corporal of the Ceylon Malay Rifle Corps.

Ceylon Rifles in action.

Sri Lanka, hailed as the pearl of the Indian Ocean, is in the throes of a long drawn out ethnic conflict between the majority Sinhalese population and the minority Tamils who form nearly 70 per cent and 20 per cent respectively of the population.

However, the island nation does not belong to only these communities as highlighted in the international press coverage. The island is blessed with an interesting cultural mosaic that has enriched its history and civilisation in the past.

Known in the ancient times to the Arabs as the Serendib, and Taprobane for the Greeks, the mango-shaped island of some 25,000 square miles of natural beauty has been a home for a mosaic of several ethnic minorities.

Some are indigenous people like the Veddas, others were lured to the island by trade like the Arab-Moors, while some others such as Chetties Borahs and Memons settled during the colonial period beginning from the 16th century.

Not the least interesting of these is the Malay community, now totalling about 80,000 people out of a total population of about 18 million. This article deals with this colourful community, especially the cultural contributions of the Malays to both Sri Lanka and the larger Malay-speaking world.

The Early Contacts

Unlike Indians and Chinese Diaspora, the Malays did not engage in mass scale migration in search of a livelihood. They roamed freely within the Nusantara region of Malay-Indonesian archipelago. In the early Christian era there is evidence of some sea-faring activities by the Malays whose ancestors sailed to and settled in as far West as Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

It is likely that the original sea-farers also touched down in the southern coast in Sri Lanka situated centrally in the sea lanes linking the east and the west. The sea coast town of Hambantota (a Sinhalese variant of Sampan and Tota standing for landing bay) probably had welcomed the Sampan-sailing Malays who settled and merged with the ancient Sri Lankan population.

Medieval Sri Lankan historical chronicles record an invasion by a Javaka 'Malay' ruler Chandrabahanu from the Nakhon Sri Dhammarat or better known as Pattani who was keen to possess a relic of Lord Buddha revered by the Sinhalese rulers. Chandrabhanu not only defeated the Polonnaruwa Kingdom, but also established his own Java kingdom in the North of Sri Lanka which forms the present day Jaffna region. The Pandyan Ruler in South India killed the son of Chandrabhanu according to the Kudumiya Malai inscription, and that ended the brief episode of Malay monarchic rule in Sri Lanka in the early 13th century.

The Origins

The ancestors of the present day Malay community of Sri Lanka arrived mostly during the period of the Dutch colonial rule. The Dutch had ousted the Portuguese from the coastal regions of the island in the middle of the 17th century.

The Malay/Javanese soldiers served in the regular army of the Dutch led by the princely class of Malay/Javanese families. Aside from these soldiers, the early Sri Lankan Malay population was comprised significantly of the Javanese/Malay ruling class who were exiled to the island by the Dutch in Java.

An important Javanese ruler thus banished to the island in 1707 was Susunan Mangkurat Mas who lived in Sri Lanka with a large retinue of royal families. A host of other rulers from the Dutch East Indies, presently Indonesia, spent their time in Sri Lanka as political exiles.

The list is a long one from Rajas and nobles from as far as Goa in Celebes, Tidore, Ternate, Bacan, Kupang, Timur and other spice islands. There were so many political exiles in Sri Lanka that in the Indonesian language the word 'disailankan', or to be sent to Ceylon came to mean banishment. The other place of exile was the Cape Town in South Africa where a similar Malay community emerged in later years.

When the British fought the Dutch in 1796, the Malay soldiers in the latter's service provided stiff and brave resistance. The bravery and discipline of the Malay troops appealed to the British who decided to retain their services and formed a full battalion in Sri Lanka. Thus was born the Malay regiment of Sri Lanka, the first ever Malay regiment to be formed and receive Queen's colours in 1802.

Later the name was changed to the Ceylon Rifle Regiment composed of the Malay majority, some Indian Sepoys and some Kaffirs. During the 19th century, Malay life in Sri Lanka was dominated by the military that became their family occupation until the Regiment was disbanded in 1873.

The original Malay population of Sri Lanka consisted of diverse East Indian nationalities, preponderantly of Javanese origin, while others belonged to Sundanese, Bugis, Madurese, Minangkabaus, Amboinese, Balinese, Tidorese, Spice Islanders, and not the least the Malays themselves.

In Dutch records they are referred to as Oosterlingen, or Easterners. Most of them already formed their own kampongs outside the fort of Batavia (now Jakarta) founded by the Dutch Governor Cohen in 1619. When the Dutch fought wars in Sri Lanka and in the Malabar coast these kampongs became depopulated due to heavy recruitment to serve in the Dutch army.

Though the Batavians spoke different dialects within their own communities, they used a common lingua franca, namely the Batavia Malay, or Pasar Melayu to interact among themselves. Besides, they were bound by the common Islamic religious bond. Based on these two strong markers of identity, a strong localised Malay community emerged in Sri Lanka with its own culture and characteristics. It is this community which the British came across when they occupied Lanka in 1796.

The British not only 'martialised' the Malays like the Gurkhas to serve in their native army, but also took firm steps to strengthen the numbers of Malays in Sri Lanka by inviting Malay families from the areas in the Peninsular Malaya which were under their control.

In 1802, the Sultan of Kedah had sent a contingent of his Malay subjects to serve in Sri Lanka who were also joined by a number of Malays from Penang, Malacca and Singapore. Reinforced by new blood from Malaya, the Sri Lankan Malay community truly gained roots in Sri Lanka and was thoroughly indigenous with its own culture and language. 

Borneo Bulletin


Malay heroism in Sri Lanka

By B. A. Hussainmiya, Ph. D

Malays in Sri Lanka Series - Part 2

Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe, the King of Ceylon.

Aside from the colonial army, the Malays also found employment with the local Rajas.

The transformation of the Sri Lankan Malay community into a martial race became more complete under the British rule than under the Dutch who surrendered their coastal possessions in 1796. Strangely enough, while the soldierly capabilities of Malays in Sri Lanka came in for their praise, the British treated the Malays in the peninsular as unfit for military duties. Similarly in Sri Lanka, they considered the indigenous Sinhalese as unsuitable to bear arms and preferred to employ the Malays.

The first Governor of British Ceylon, Frederic North (1798-1805) made elaborate plans to establish the Malay Regiment, modelled on the Sepoy Regiments of India. The Malays were dressed for the first time in scarlet and white uniform of a regular regiment of infantry on line. Special military schools were founded to teach them and their children to be proficient in both Malay and English. A special library for the soldiers lent books, publications and manuscripts in Malay. The regiment also had its own Malay chaplain to perform their religious rites. In short the Malays enjoyed full facilities to practice Islam and their culture.

More Malays were encouraged to immigrate to Sri Lanka with their families and paid bounty money. Aristocratic Malay families were especially welcomed, enjoying higher ranks in service depending on the number of their followers they brought along.

Several exiled Malay princes had held commissions in the Army. For example, three out of five male children of the Makassarese King of Gowa, Batara Gowa Amas Madina II, from Southern Celebes who was exiled to the island in 1767 by the Dutch, had joined the regiment. His eldest son Captain Abdullah fought valiantly and died during the British-Polygar Wars in South India in 1800. His younger brothers Princes Karaeng (a Makassarese title for nobility) Mohd. Nuruddin and Karaeng Mohd. Saifuddin were both captains in the Ceylon Malay Regiment.

Aside from the colonial army, the Malays also found employment with the local Rajas. The Malays served the Cochin Raja in the Malabar coast of India who later were recruited by the British for service in Sri Lanka in 1799. More importantly, the last independent Ruler in Kandy in the central hilly region of Sri Lanka also had his own Malay army, known as Padikara Peruwa (paid levies) originally formed by the last Sinhalese Kandyan Ruler Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe (1747-82). In 1800, there were nearly 400 of them. They ran away from the Dutch oppression into Kandy and welcomed at the Kandyan court, some of whom became the King's bodyguards. Their chief was decorated with the highest title of Muhandiram, (like Pehins of Brunei) reserved for local chieftains. A half brother of the Bugis Princes, known as Sangunglo, who escaped to the central hills and described as 'fat tall prince' by a contemporary British account, was the Commander of the Malay Army in the Kandyan Kingdom.

During the first British-Kandyan war of 1803, British sources reveal an interesting but a heart-rending saga of sibling bravery and princely honour involving the Malay-Bugis princes. When Kapitan Nuruddin and his brother Saifuddin led the British-Malay army into the heart of Kandy to fight the Sinhalese troops, their half brother Prince Sangunglo in the enemy ranks tried to lure them to join the Kandyans, and vice versa. Both parties refused the offers but remained loyal to their masters, the British and the Kandyan kings respectively. The Malay royal brothers fought each other as enemies in the service of their kings.

The brave Sangunglo, the Kandyan Malay commander created havoc by his daring exploits against the British enemies who advanced into the heart of Kandyan capital during the first British-Kandyan war. He fought bravely, engaging in hand to hand combat with his own brothers. Sangunglo lost his life in the battle at the hands of the British commander, Major Davy. The enraged Kandyan forces massacred and annihilated the British troops and brought victory to the Kandyan King, Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe.

Following the British defeat in Kandy, their Malay commanders Princes Captain Nuruddin and Saifuddin were captured and brought before the Kandyan king. During the audience the royal brothers refused to prostrate themselves in front of the King in the manner of customary obeisance. Ignoring their temerity, the Kandyan king offered them the position as his own commanders and to become princes among his Malay subjects. The princely brothers refused the offer, explaining that they had taken an oath to the King of England, and the acceptance of such an offer was tantamount to treachery. The Kandyan king gave them time to reconsider. After three weeks in prison the Malay princes refused to budge even under torture.

The enraged king put them to death and threw their bodies into the forest to be devoured by wild boars. The ill treatment of their princes and the denial of decent Muslim burials to the Malay martyrs sent a chilling message to the King's Malay subjects who had served and fought for him loyally. Governor North was especially aggrieved to learn about the sacrifice and martyrdom of the Nuruddin brothers, and set up a special Malay committee to compensate the widows of the slain soldiers.

The Kandyan king was becoming notoriously paranoid and engaged in cruel acts against his own people. During the second war in 1815, his discontented Malay subjects decided to turn the tables on him. The role played by the Malays in the Kandyan wars certainly did tilt the balance of power. The British could not win the first war, due to the Malay backing to the Kandyan king. During the second war he lost their support and the war. The centuries old Sri Lankan monarchic rule ended with him and the British became masters of whole of Sri Lanka in 1815. Now they had the entire Malay population in the island to serve them.


Borneo Bulletin


What lured Malays to Sri Lanka?

By B. A. Hussainmiya

       Malays in Sri Lanka Series Part 3

Mastan, a Malay trader.

Robert Brownrigg, Governor of Ceylon 1812-1818.

Areas of origins of Sri Lankan Malays.

There were some good reasons for the Malay migration to Sri Lanka until the early half of the nineteenth century. They moved not just as individuals, but brought along their families and children by uprooting themselves from their indigenous environment.

No other Eastern community did so in such numbers. For instance, when the British administrators enticed the Chinese into Sri Lanka to take advantage of their industriousness, only very few of them could be attracted, and those who did were confined to dentistry.

The Chinese sought good fortunes in Singapore, Malaya and even Brunei.

Malays, on the other hand, found affinity with Sri Lanka owing to climate, promise of good living and guarantees to practise Islam and their traditional ways of life.

During Dutch times (1656-1796), they came as sailors, storekeepers and in other minor occupations. However, many had been conscripted to fight the Dutch wars in the colonies when the entire 'Malay/Javanese' villages surrounding the Dutch Fort of Batavia became depopulated to fill the army.

Malays who came to Sri Lanka under the British patronage did so voluntarily, except in rare cases of being 'Shanghaied'.

The roaming Malay families of the Archipelago searching for better livelihood in the Straits Settlements were easily netted in to work in Sri Lanka.

Unsettled conditions in the early 19th century Nusantara region made life for the ordinary Malays miserable compounded by internecine wars, colonial inroads and rapacious chieftains who squeezed everything out of their subjects. Those who dared sought solace elsewhere.

The Malay settlers expected to find peace and wealth, albeit by joining the military in Sri Lanka, considered the new El Dorado. As a local Malay folk song indicated "the Malays came to Sri Lanka in order to purchase two elephants for a price of one cent"! But soon they discovered the deception while in the island when they were offered the British one-cent coins that carried the imprint of elephants on both sides!

At any rate, the Malay recruits to the army received generous terms of enlistment in the beginning. For example, when first joining the men received bounty money, a sum of (Spanish) Rix dollars 21 and Pice 34 besides the monthly pay of 3 Rix dollars and 74 Pice. Their wives and children also received additional bounty monies.

When the men become unfit for service because of injury or old age they were placed in an invalid establishment and thus assured a comfortable maintenance during the remainder of their life. Those who fell in battle had their families placed under protection of the Government. Their children could take their fathers' places and good education awaited them in the regimental schools.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the hapless Malays who led miserable lives under some of the rapacious Malay Rajas must have found these terms very attractive, especially the prospects of earning cash remunerations and a degree of social security.

They were recruited in special depots set up in Penang and Singapore. Additionally, the British Governors sent special naval missions to comb the East for suitable Malays. In 1803 Lieutenant Rofsi's mission to Prince of Wales Island received the blessings of the Sultan of Kedah who sent nearly 300 of his subjects to Sri Lanka.

The second governor, Thomas Maitland (1805-1811) became prejudiced against the Malays treating them as scapegoats for the defeat of the British in the 1st British- Kandyan War of 1803. His attempts to abolish the Malay Regiment failed due to resistance from the community and the military officials.

Nonetheless, in 1808 he forcibly repatriated more than 300 Malay royal exiles and their families to their original homes, as they were a pecuniary burden on the government. Thus the community lost its cream.

Some relatives and the descendants of royals who married other local Muslim-Moors did stay behind. And that reinforces the claims of some present-day Malay families to royal lineages.

The next governor Robert Brownrigg (1812-1818), having an eye on annexing the last Sinhalese Kingdom of Kandy, boosted the numbers of the Malay settlers. In 1813, his agent Captain de Bussche visited Lieutenant Governor Stamford Raffles in Java requesting help to enlist Javanese soldiers.

A reluctant Raffles argued that "the Javanese were needed more for agricultural pursuits than for becoming soldiers." Yet, he contacted his friend the Raja of Madura. As a result, 412 fine soldiers (accompanied by 214 women and 208 children), mostly Sumanapers from the island of Madura left to Sri Lanka from the Javanese port of Surabaya. They remained by far the best quality recruits in the Ceylon Malay Regiment, followed in 1816 by a further batch of 228 Javanese from Semarang and Gresik off the northern coast of Java. This was the largest groups to arrive and integrate well into the existing Malay community. Thereafter until about 1850 there were irregular arrivals annually an averaging of about 30 or so Malays from the Straits Settlements.

A soldier earned 8 pence a day in 1815, which increased only by a penny in 50 years. Rising prices of commodities shrink the soldier's income, making the profession less attractive. Hence few Malays volunteered to go to Sri Lanka after 1840s.

During the hard times when the Regiment faced closure owing to a dwindling number of recruits, Captain Tranchell of Ceylon Rifle Regiment came all the way to Brunei in 1856-57 in the hope of recruiting Malays from Kampong Ayer, who were the last to leave their homes for greener pastures.

The obliging Brunei Sultan Abdul Mumin ordered his harbour master Pengiran Shahbandar to assist the English Captain who succeeded in collecting only seven Malays from his entire tour of East including Labuan, Pahang, Trengganu and Kelantan.

As a pungent British officer put it: "This expedition and the expenditure compared with the net proceeds of it must show these four or five Malay recruits to be about the most expensive in the British army."

Another writer commented that "the old Malay birds.picking up corn worth a dollar or so on their own feeding grounds were not to be caught with the chaff of nine pence per diem from the soil of Ceylon." And that was the beginning of the end to Malay migration to Sri Lanka.


Borneo Bulletin


Islam and learning among Malays

By B. A. Hussainmiya

Malays in Sri Lanka Series Part 4

Baba Zain Jurangpati, a Malay alim from Kandy, and his family, c.1900.

A Sri Lankan Moor gentleman, Hon. M.C. Abdul Rahman.

The Sri Lankan Malays are among the strongest adherents of Islam on an island where a 70% of the population are Buddhists while others follow Hinduism and Christianity. Unlike the South African Malays who underwent religious crisis during 18th and 19th centuries as a result of settling in a remote part of the world where Islam was hardly known, the Sri Lankan Malays, lived among a strong Muslim community in the island -the Moors - whose ancestry dates back to the early days of Islam.

The Muslim Moors, an ubiquitous minority of nearly 8% of the current population in the island numbering more than one and half million people, have lived throughout the island with major concentration is in the Eastern province.

The Moors are mainly the offspring of Arab and South Indian Muslims who speak Tamil as their mother tongue. The Portuguese who first met the dark Muslim 'Mouros' of Mauritania in the African coast in the early sixteenth century, applied the term pejoratively to other Eastern Muslims, including the Moros of the Phillippines.

The Arab and Persian ancestors of the Moors had dominated the entire maritime route from the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf to Canton in China. Many of them married into local communities forming settlements in the port cities of Malabar and Mabar Coasts in the southern India. Their descendants moved to Sri Lanka virtually dominating the island trade. Seeking commercial prosperity, the Sinhalese kings offered them settlement privileges.

A tenth century Arabic Text, Ajaib al Hind, (Marvel of India) composed by Ibn Shahriyar, says that the Sinhalese King Aggabodhi III sent a fact finding mission to Arabia during the time of the Prophet to know more about his teachings. After hazardous ocean travel, the delegation reached Arabia only during the reign of Caliph Omar (654-664). The Arabs had been attracted to the resplendent island, known as Serandib or Seilan, well-known for its gem-riches and serenity. Another major attraction was the Adam's Peak where Prophet Adam is believed to have set foot as attested in medieval Arabic writings. The renowned Muslim traveller Ibn Batuta who visited Sri Lanka in the 14th century to see the Adam's Peak, lists other Muslim visitors from the 10th century. Such was the esteem in which Sri Lanka was held among the Arab West and through them in the Malay East.

The presence of Moor - Muslims in large numbers certainly proved a great boon to the newly arrived Malays. More importantly, the island was also a centre of Islamic learning where celebrated religious teachers and Islamic mystics attracted traders and intellectuals. For instance, Shaikh Nuruddin ar Raniri, the Gujerati scholar who founded Malay-Islam in the court of Alauddin Ri'ayat Shah of Aceh in the island of Sumatra in the 17th century perfected his knowledge of Islam during his sojourn in Sri Lanka as attested by the text Tuhfah-e-Serandib, (Ar. Key to Serandib). Various Javanese chronicles make references to Islamic activities in Sri Lanka. Professor M. C. Ricklefs, leading expert on Javanese history, points out that the Javanese exiles who learnt Islam in Sri Lanka carried high esteem in their own country. For example, Radin Adipati Natakusuma, the Javanese chief minister who was banished to Ceylon in 1743, after his return to Java in 1768 was made chief of Islamic officials in the court of Jogyakarta. Likewise, Pengeran Wirakusuma, born in Sri Lanka to a leading Javanese noble and acquired Islamic knowledge in the island, became the leader of another Islamic group in 1781 and then the religious advisor at the Jogyakarata court.

Babad Mangkubumi, the famous Javanese chronicle mentions that in the 18th century the Javanese exiles became spiritual pupils to two Ceylonese Muslim Sufi masters namely Sayyid Musa Ngidrus, and Ibrahim Asmara. It further narrates the experience of the wife of Pengeran Natakusuma describing her husband's religious experiences in Ceylon. She told King Pakubuwana III that the royal exiles, became the students of the above Sufi masters, "whose magical powers achieved wonderous things." As the story goes, at the great recitations of the Quran each Friday, Javanese fruits and delicacies were "magically transported to Sri Lanka". She also related how the merchants and ship-captains from such far away places as Surat, Bengal, and Selangor sat at the feet of these teachers in Colombo.

Despite the legendary overtones of these tales, the Dutch records testify that such religious gatherings did take place in Sri Lanka albeit banned by the Dutch government who feared the power of Islam. They tried to prevent the gatherings in their maritime territories by imposing severe punishment on those involved - the [Muslim]'yogis' and 'heathen mendicants'- by chaining them for life.

Indeed the recent discovery of Malay manuscripts in Sri Lanka shows the existence of dozens of significant Islamic/Malay Kitabs, scriptures and works of Islamic jurisprudence. These include the famous works of Sirat al Mustaqim and Bustan As Salatin, by Syaikh Nuruddin ar-Raniri and other well-known Malay-Islamic writers such as Samad al- Palembani, Shamusuddin al-Pasai, Dawud al-Pattani and so on. The local Malays also avidly read Islamic epics such as Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiyyah and Hikayat Amir Hamza. Some rare Malay-Islamic texts, some written by the local Malays Ulamas found only in Sri Lanka. Almost certainly some of these texts did form part of the library belonging to Javanese-Malay royal exiles from the 17th century.

The Malays, patronised by the British, built their own mosques in the military cantonments of Colombo, Kandy, Badulla, Kurunegalle, and Hambantota so that they could conduct their sermons in their own language. However, they could also congregate in mosques in the Moor areas. Occasionally there had been disputes among the congregations about belongingness to mosques of certain social groups.

The strength of Islamic practices among the community has contributed at times to an exaggerated claim that most saints, (Walis) in Sri Lanka have hailed from the Malay community. Particularly famous are the tombs of Saint Tuan Bagus Balangkaya buried at the Colombo grand mosque and Pengiran Adipati at the Kehelwatte Peer Saibo mosque in Colombo. Tombs of Malay saints abound in other Malay localities in the island as well. Whatever the case may be, it remains the fact that the strength of Malay Islam in Sri Lanka has been reinforced by their co-religionists, the majority Tamil-speaking Moors, who shared their resources, mosques and religious texts with their Malay brethren.



Elite and cultured Malays[1]

By B. A. Hussainmiya

Malays in Sri Lanka Series Part 5

A leading elite Malay family of Sri Lanka,  Hon. M.K. Saldin, the first Malay Legislative Councillor, (Centre( his children and sons-in-laws.

By the early 19th century the original Malay community (the "Ceylon Malays") that had gradually formed during the previous century had firmly established itself within Sri Lankan society. Many of them came from cultured families around the Archipelago.

Their descendants had been driven by the ambition that often activates migrants and supported by closely-knit kinship groups. They rose to elite status taking advantage of the educational opportunities offered by the regimental schools and occupied high ranks in the Regiment.

As a British officer remarked in 1839, "the non-commissioned officers of the Ceylon Rifle Regiment are to a man almost all Ceylon Malays for which service the foreigners (i.e. the later Malay immigrants from the Peninsula) have not the smartness nor intelligence."

As this quote shows, the fate of the Malay recruits who came during the early 19th century from Malaya is a different story. They were mostly half-hearted and desperate job-seekers who roamed in the Straits Settlements only to be lured by the few dollars offered as bounty money on enlistment.

On one occasion in 1841 onboard the ship 'Baroque la Fellies', the Malay recruits waiting to be transported from Singapore to Sri Lanka even murdered the Sri Lankan Malay recruitment officer and escaped with the bounty money.

In a few rare cases unscrupulous sergeants even 'shanghaied' their recruits, i.e. drugging and transporting men without their agreement. Nonetheless these later immigrants were far less sophisticated and motivated than the early ones and ended up as low achievers. Many did not take advantage of regimental education and remained at the rank of private.

These later immigrants never really assimilated into Sri Lankan Malay society, even though many married local women. The established elite Malays looked down upon them and often treated them as simpletons. Being less established and privileged than the older Malay community, some tried to return to their home country. Thus in the 1860s a return movement began when the regiment offered them repatriation, though some of them decided at the last minute to remain with their families in Sri Lanka.

There is no better way to sum up these events than by reproducing verbatim an account from the 1865 biography of J.T. Thompson, government surveyor of Singapore, that chronicles the sad tale of a Peninsular Malay recruit to Sri Lanka.

"Oamut was a true Malay; and, I was more in contact with him than with any other person for a whole year, I will describe him as well as I am able. ..Oamut might stand about five feet four inches. He dressed in the usual manner of Malaya, viz., in the sarong (olaid), salvar (trousers), and baju (coat). On his head he wore a Bugis handkerchief; and on his feet he wore sandals. By his aide was a kris, with which he never parted for a moment. At a distance he might have been taken for a Scottish highlander; when near, his copper-coloured skin, black twinkling eyes, Mongolian physiognomy, proved that he was a Malay. He was independent in his tone, but respectful in his manners; and, during my long intercourse with him, he neither betrayed a tincture of low breeding, nor a sign of loose and improper thoughts.

"Indeed his sense was delicate and keen: his ideas had a tone of high standard. He was unmindful of money or any other object than what was necessary to maintain himself and family. He gradually commanded my friendship. I felt I could not but respect him. His conversation was intelligent on the affairs of the surrounding states, his information was deep in the characteristics of his own race; and his descriptions of past and passing events interesting and instructive. Yet he could neither read nor write - a defect he bewailed with much sorrow. His age might have been forty-seven to fifty. In our many rambles and rides together, he used to relate the history of his own life; and as an illustration of these social incidents I will put down what I can remember.

"...He was born near Bukit Tingah, on the Juru river; he once pointed out to me the remnant of his father's coconut grove, standing in the midst of a plain of lalang (high grass) close to the mangrove jungle. Now only three trees served as a mark of the spot - circumstance which drew a sigh from the Malay; for these melancholy remembrances brought back the memory of a doting father and fond mother, as he knew them in his sunshine of childhood. But he soon turned aside: grave thoughts crossed his brow; for time had dispersed the members of that family, and scattered them to and fro.

"Oamut was a wild young man, and wanted to see the world; so, in a moment of unguardedness, he was caught in the meshes of an enlisting sergeant of the Ceylon Rifle Corps. Dosed with narcotics, and before seeing either father or mother, he was carried on board a ship bound for a long foreign service."

"'It is not wonderful,' said Oamut to me, 'that an amok takes place; for the bereft and frenzied youths see the land of their love still in view and are maddened at the parting.' An amok did not occur on this occasion; Oamut was borne off; and he landed safely in Ceylon, was drilled and stiffened into the shape of a British soldier. He was also sent to school, but could never learn the difference between a and b; he however progressed so far in English as to speak it, parrot-like; but what he said was better understood by himself than by his white friends.

"While in Ceylon he assisted in the reduction of the hill tribes [a reference to 1848 Kandy rebellion]; and on one occasion stuck by his wounded captain for three days. He concealed him in the jungle, and bore him out in safety.

"This gave Oamut a step; but he was bodo (unlearned), so could not be made a sergeant. He served for twenty-seven years, after which he yearned to return to his native land. He got his discharge without pension (the reason for this I could never satisfactorily learn). So he returned penniless to Polo Pinang to find father and mother, sisters and brothers, gone. The very posts of his father's house had rotted away."



Life after the Regiment

By B. A. Hussainmiya

Malays of Sri Lanka Series Part 6

A Malay in the fire-brigade uniform (seated) flanked by sons in jail-guard uniform in the 1920s.

The Malays in Sri Lanka gradually began to shun military service, the mainstay of their sustenance, after 1850.

Nearly one third of the Ceylon Rifle Regiment (CRR) positions, some 500 out of 1600 positions fell vacant by 1860. Unable to enlist Malays from the Peninsula, the military authorities extended their search in vain for recruits from as far as the Cape of Good Hope among the Hottentos, Sepoys of Mysore, Arraccanese from Burma, and even Bajaus from Borneo.

Malay antipathy to military profession arose due to several reasons. First, they resented the fact that some non-Malay Companies of Indian Sepoys and African Kaffirs were attached to the Malay battalion when the CRR was restructured. Second, Malays were no longer engaged in combat duties, but in civilian pursuits like guard duties and providing security services in government offices.

As all resistance to British rule in Sri Lanka ended after 1848, there were no more wars to fight.

Malays also disliked foreign service when six companies were sent to garrison Hong Kong from 1847 to 1854. Many died in the insalubrious conditions in Hong Kong. Labuan also received a contingent of Sri Lankan Malay soldiers from 1869 to1871 which they did not mind. They appeared to have fraternised with Malays of Brunei who lived not far away. (Some soldiers went to collect Malay manuscripts from Brunei.)

Many opted for early retirement under the new military regulations of 1847 that allowed soldiers to retire after 10 years of service instead of being recruited for life. The pensioners were welcomed in the expanding Police Department. With regiment experience, a number of them also filled fire-brigade services as well as security related employment such as jail-guards in the country's Prisons.

With the expansion in plantations of export crops such as coffee, tea, cocoa and rubber under colonial stimulus, increased job opportunities became available in the estate sector.

While another class of immigrants - the Indian Tamils from Tamil Nadu - flocked in as estate labourers, Malays with rudimentary English education availed themselves of the opportunities for supervisory roles in the hill country estates and office jobs in the European agency houses.

In 1873, the Ceylon Rifle Regiment, the principal arm of the British colonial military establishment was disbanded due to operational reasons. Governor Sir William Gregory justified the action as Sri Lanka enjoyed times of peace and prosperity that had reduced the need for any substantial native military force.

The governor also justified the decision by reference to Tamil population in northern Jaffna region whom he opined were by nature a docile people more prone to agricultural pursuits and not capable of bearing arms to require any policing by the army. Later the history would prove otherwise as armed Tamil youths, the Liberation Tigers of Sri Lanka did build one of the ferocious guerrilla fighting force the world has ever seen!

After the Regiment, it was the Ceylon Police Department that absorbed most number of Malays. In 1879 they formed nearly one third of the force, some 493 out of strength of 1692 men. The police took over the civilian duties of the disbanded CRR, and the Malays moved into the vacated barracks of the CRR soldiers built in outstations like Badulla, Kurunegalle and Trincomalee where the Malays continued their own kampong life. The Fire-Brigade and Prison services also provided steady sources of employment to the Malays.

The disbandment of the CRR in 1873 indeed ended a most remarkable era in the history of the community. Apart from acting as their major employer, the CRR contributed in other significant ways by reinforcing social cum cultural cohesion among the Malays who lived in large clusters in the cantonments. In contrast, the Malays who entered other occupations became scattered in isolated parts of the island, although a substantial civilian Malay population, known as Priman (Malay Freemen) lived in the major towns of Colombo and Kandy.

The disbandment of the CRR also meant loss of other facilities which countenanced educational and cultural life of the community. For example, the Regimental schools which provided valuable free education for Malay children had to be closed down along with the CRR library which housed Malay books and manuscripts.

It was the CRR that had linked the community with their Malay fatherland. Local Malays who went on recruitment duty to Malaya refreshed ties with their long-lost cousins. They brought back Malay educational and literary material, which helped in keeping alive in Sri Lanka a vibrant indigenous Malay literary tradition during most part of the 19th century. The colophon of a Sri Lankan Malay manuscript described how a CRR Sergeant Shamsuddin, while on duty in Singapore in 1847, spent time in the Malay royal Kampung Gelam to copy down famous Malay literary works which he brought back to Sri Lanka. Such opportunities vanished once the Regiment was disbanded.

The military men, as distinguished pensioners, no longer enjoyed elite or privileged status in the community. Civilians took over the management of Malay regimental mosques in the cantonments, especially in Colombo's Slave Island and Kandy's Bogambara wards.The documents of the period indicate emerging conflicts, tensions and legal disputes between the civilians on the one side and proud soldiers on the other who insisted on their special status for elitism.

The literary life of the Malays suffered most following the disbandment of the Regiment. Malay language had been taught as a compulsory subject in the regimental schools. In the new occupations there was hardly any need for the Malays to pursue their vernacular. As a result the indigenous literary activities slowly faded away when Malays could no longer read Jawi script, known among them as Gundul.

Furthermore, it became difficult to sustain a refined Malay lingo, a hall mark of the Malay literati.The Malay language spoken in the community became increasingly creolised by having veered away from language spoken in Malaysia and Indonesia.

In the absence of the Regiment, the community was thus forced to fend for itself to survive as a separate and identifiable community amidst great odds. If not for the Regiment, the Sri Lankan Malays would have embraced the same fate of identity loss that took place among the nominal Malays of South Africa.

Orang Melayu: The story of Sri Lanka"s Malay folk

Asiff Hussein

 Renowned for their martial prowess and happy go-lucky attitude, Sri Lanka"s Malay folk have but a relatively short history in the country, albeit a very fascinating one.

 This small Muslim community which comprises of about 50,000 persons are mainly descended from Javanese political exiles (nobles and chieftains), soldiers and convicts, who arrived in the island from Dutch-occupied Java during the period of Dutch colonial rule in Sri Lanka from 1658 " 1796.

 Although the vast majority of Sri Lankan Malays are of Javanese ancestry, there are also considerable numbers descended from the folk of other islands in the Indonesian archipelago such as the Balinese, Tidorese, Madurese, Sundanese, Bandanese and Amboinese.

 Thus the ethnic term "Malay" should not be misconstrued as indicating their origin from the Malayan peninsula. Although there do exist Sri Lankan Malays descended from the folk of the Malayan peninsula, their numbers are very few indeed.

 The local Malays refer to themselves as orang Java (people of Java) and orang Melayu (Malay people) while the majority Sinhalese community call them Ja-minissu (Javanese people).

 Indonesian political exiles comprised a significant portion of the early Malay population brought hither by the Dutch.

 These exiles posed a serious political threat to the Dutch East India company (or "vereenigde oost indische compagnie", known as the VOC for short) which had its headquarters in Batavia (the Dutch name for Jakarta).

 Sri Lanka and the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa were the principal centres of banishment for such exiles.

 According to B.A. Hussainmiya (Lost cousins, the Malays of Sri Lanka. 1987) there must have been at least 200 members of this eastern nobility including the younger members of aristocratic families born in the island, in the latter part of the 18th century.

 This is indeed a significant number considering the fact that during this time, the entire Malay population in the island amounted to about 2400 persons.

 However, during the early British period, Governor Maitland (1805 " 1811) who believed the exiles to be "a great pecuniary burden to the colonial revenue, besides being a danger to the British interests in the island", took measures to expel them.

 Although the Dutch authorities in Batavia were reluctant to take back the exiles, Maitland"s threat that he would forcibly "send them in one his Majesty"s cruises to the Eastward to be landed among these islands", sufficed to change their minds. However, a few exiles who had espoused local women stayed back and gave rise to a small community of Malays claiming aristocratic status.

 However, it was the Malay soldiers brought hither by the Dutch to garrison their strongholds, who comprised the bulk of the Malay community in the island.

 By the turn of the 18th century, there were about 2200 Malay soldiers in the island.

 Malay troops are said to have taken part in the wars of the Dutch against the Portuguese such as the storming of Galle (1640), the siege of Colombo (1656) and the capture of Jaffna (1658).

 The Malays also served in the Dutch wars against the Kandyan Kingdom (17th "18th centuries).

 With the surrender of the Dutch to the British in 1796, the Malay soldiers were absorbed by the British military, and so served them as they had done their predecessors, the Dutch.

 The British authorities who were not unaware of the martial prowess of the Malays, imported over 400 Madurese soldiers and about 228 Javanese soldiers along with their families from 1813 " 1816.

 This was during the brief period of British rule over Java from 1811 " 1816.

 Following the Dutch takeover of Java in 1816, the British had to turn elsewhere for the supply of Malay soldiers and set up recruiting offices, which were however a miserable failure.

 Captain Tranchell"s mission (1856 " 1857) which travelled extensively in the East Indies including stopovers in Brunei, Lubuan, Pahang and Kelatan, managed to recruit only seven Malays, which prompted a contemporary British officer, Cowan, to remark:

 "The expedition and the expenditure as compared with the proceeds of it must show these four of five (Malay recruits) to be about the most expensive in the British army." He says that everyone of them were subsequently set at liberty as they were physically unfit for fighting when they arrived at headquarters.

 As for convicts, these comprised petty officials and commoners deported by the VOC. However, these were very few compared to the soldiers. It has been shown that in 1731, there were 131 of these convicts serving the VOC in Sri Lanka, besides those convicts serving in the army and those who had been set free.

 Although it appears that the majority of Malays did not bring their womenfolk with them, there is evidence to show that a good many of them did.

 Christopher Schwitzer, a German resident of Dutch Ceylon alludes (1680) to Amboinese soldiers in the Dutch service who had Amboinese Sinhalese, and Tamil wives, so that we may assume that some of the Malays, especially the soldiery, brought their wives with them.

 However, as borne out by later Dutch records, the Malays preferred to marry local Moor women, due to their common religious background.

 Intermarriage with Sinhalese women has however also been considerable since the 19th century.

 It is for this reason that local Malays somewhat differ physically from their brethren in the Indonesian archipelago.

 As for Malay culture, we know that the Malay language (known to local Malays as "bahasa Melayu") is still a living one and is spoken in Malay homes, though there is evidence to show that it is being fast replaced by Sinhala.

 The local Malay language which somewhat differs from standard Indonesian (bahasa Indonesia) and standard Malaysian (bahasa Malaysia) was however a thriving one in the olden days, so much so that two Malay newspapers, Alamat Lankapuri and Wajah Selong in Arabic script (known to local Malays as the Gundul script) were published in the latter part of the 19th century.

 As Hussainmiya (Lost cousins 1987) has noted, Sri Lanka"s Malays have belonged to a fairly literate society.

 Although a great part of their literature, which includes "Hikayats" (prose works) and "Syairs" (works in verse) have had their origins from classical Malay works popular throughout the Malay world, a considerable number of such works have had their origins amongst the local Malay community.

 The Hikayats which have derived from Arabian, Persian, Indian and Javanese sources, comprise of fantastic tales including romances, legends and epics.

 Some of the notable Hikayats found in Sri Lanka are the Hikayat Amir Hamzah, Hikayat Isma Yatim and Hikayat Indera Kuraisy.

 According to Hussainmiya (1987) the Hikayat Indera Kuraisy is peculiar to Sri Lanka.

 This fantastic Malay romance, which is interspersed with pantuns (traditional Malay quatrains) relate the adventures of the hero Indera Kuraisy who departs from his homeland Sarmadan in order to win the heart of the inapproachable princess, Indera Kayangan.

 The Syairs are Malay classic poetry that have for long captured the fancy of local Malay folk.

 Two notable local syairs are the syair syaikh Fadlun, a romance-epic narrating the story of the pious Fadlun who lived in Arabia during the times of the Caliph Omar, and the syair Kisahnya Khabar Orang Wolenter Bengali which describes the armed skirmish between Malay and Bengali soldiers in Colombo on New Years Day 1819.

 These Hikayats and Syairs were also written in the Gundul script.

 However, despite attempts at reviving the Malay language, it is fast dying out and giving way to Sinhala. The vast majority of vernacular- educated Malay youth today speak Sinhala at home.

 In spite of all this, it can still be said that the local Malays have been much more conservative than their brethren domiciled in South Africa (Cape Malays) who have had similar beginnings but have ceased to speak that Malay language long ago (as far back as the 19th century, as evident from John Mason"s "Malays of Cape Town" 1861). This is despite the fact that the Cape Malays constitute a community three times as large as the Sri Lankan Malay community.

 There have of course been numerous attempts at reviving the local Malay language and culture by such organizations as the Sri Lanka Malay Confederation, an umbrella organization of the local Malay community.

 The second Malay world symposium held in Colombo in August 1985, and co-sponsored by the Malay Confederation and Gapena, the Malaysian Writers Federation, is a case in point.

 To this day, the Malays have jealously retained certain aspects of their culture, examples being the honorific Tuan which precedes the names of Malay males, their family names, social customs and culinary habits.

 Today there exist many Malay family names that have fiercely resisted the inroads made by Islamic Arab names; these include Jaya, Bongso, Tumarto, Kitchil, Kuttilan, Kuncheer and Singa Laksana.

 Although Malay social customs such as those pertaining to births, circumcisions and marriages are not significantly different from those of their Moorish co-religionists, there nevertheless do exist a few practices that do differ. A practice peculiar to the Malays until fairly recent times was the singing of pantuns on such festive occasions.

 The Malays have also retained some of their traditional fare such as nasi goreng (Fried rice), satay and Malay Kueh (cakes and puddings). Pittu (rice-cake) and babath (tripe) is another favourite dish that has found much favour amongst other communities as well.

 Traditional Malay dress has however ceased to exist for some time. Local Malay women, like their Moorish sisters, dress in sari (Indian-style with a hood left at the back to cover the head when going outdoors) instead of the traditional Malay Baju and Kurung.

 However, it is possible that the sarong which Malay men as well as those of other communities wear at home is a recent introduction from the archipelago.

 It appears that in the olden days, Sinhalese, Moor and Tamil folk wore a lower garment similar to the Indian dhoti and not exactly the same garment we know as the sarong, whose name itself is of Malay origin.

 The arts of batik printing and rattan weaving, both lucrative cottage industries in the country, also owe their origins to the Malay.

Source: Explore Sri Lanka








[1] The Editor has changed my original title ‘The Malay Elites and Simpltons”!