Nobodies to Somebodies - extracts from the book

Extracts from 'Nobodies to Somebodies - The Rise of the Colonial Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka
Kumari Jayawardena, 2000, Social Scientists' Association and Sanjiva Books.  ISBN 955-9102-26-5

The book gives a detail account of the rise of the Lankan bourgeoisie during the vast economic changes of the 19th and the early part of the 20th century, and traces the rise and fall of the enterprising communities through the economic gains made in the liquor industry, rents, estates, conversions and plantations etc.  Some interesting extracts from the book are highlighted as follows:-

“Half a dozen misguided, designing villains … have been trying to pose as leaders of Buddhists. Had it not been for this encouragement, these disturbances would never have occurred … the proprietary peasant villagers … have been deluded into this trap for the personal aggrandizement of a few who are nobodies, but who hope to make somebodies of themselves by such disgraceful tactics.” – SC Obeysekere, on the Sinhalese, including the Senanayake brothers jailed in 1915 for allegedly instigating anti-Muslim rioting (Debates in the Legislative Council, 1913-16, p.406, August 11th 1915)

Page 17 – Internal Trade and Transport

The part of Colombo city known as the Pettah, that had earlier been a residential area for the Dutch Burghers, by the mid 19th century became a commercial center of Muslim and Chettiar merchants and was known as “the black town”. (Capper 1877:86)

Page 21– Accumulation through land ownership

Members of another group of Sri Lankans, who were to form an important part of the emergent 19th century bourgeoisie, were landowners, whose holdings provided them with a means of accumulation and later, a basis for expanded growth in the plantation era. Just as the monopolistic policies of the Dutch and the British had located a stratum of officials in the cinnamon industry and endowed them with a basis for growth, their administrative policies also created a group of Sri Lankan officials, called Mudaliyars. Peebles (1973:1) has defined them as a n economic and social status group “mediating between the alien rulers and the bulk of the indigenous population” performing functions that the foreign rulers were “unable or unwilling to do”.

Page 22 – Accumulation through land ownership

The Mudaliyars were not aristocrats in the strict sense of the term, since they were not descendants of a nobility that had derived power and patronage from the earlier Kings of Sri Lanka. They were, rather, Low-country Sinhalese who first rose to real prominence during colonial rule, with a record of loyal service to the Portuguese, Dutch and subsequently to the British rulers. The land, as well as privileges and titles they thereby acquired had enabled them to assume a “feudal” lifestyle and establish their position in the Low-country as the “leading” Sinhalese rulers who had created an “aristocracy” for their own purpose.

Page 25 – The Farming of Rents

During the Dutch and British rule, there were certain forms of revenue that were not directly collected by the colonial administration, but which, for convenience were farmed out to local renters and tax gatherers on an annual basis. These included the right to collect taxes in money or kind from direct producers (the fish tax and paddy tax), the right to collect tolls (at rates prescribed by the government) on certain roads, bridges and ferries, and the right to run gambling and cock-fighting premises at prescribed places. The most important source of such revenue, however, was the arrack (local alcoholic brew) rents (franchises) known in Sinhala as rainda, auctioned to the highest bidder, known as the renter (rainda rala) who obtained the exclusive right to retail arrack in a specified area.

Page 26 – The Paddy Rents

The forcible expropriation of the produce of the poor has been one of the classic methods of surplus extraction by the imperial powers in their colonial dependencies. One particularly onerous form of taxation in Sri Lanka was the paddy tax, which was usually one-tenth the value of the produce payable in kind to the renter. This was a source of government revenue which in 1797 produced Pounds 25,000 anually (de Silva 1962, Vol II:374)

Page 36 – The Arrack industry in the Maritime Provinces: 1796-1833

Sri Lankan merchants, whose limited opportunities for sustained growth were discussed earlier, found a breakthrough in the arrack industry, which emerged as the most important source of local capital accumulation in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Page 46-47 – The Arrack Renters

During Dutch rule, tavern keepers had been mainly burghers and Colombo Chetties, but the ethnic pattern was to change during British rule when the great majority of arrack renters were Sinhala speculators. In the early years of British rule, there were still a few Burghers who had been in the arrack trade in the Dutch period. These included Barend de Vos and J Labrooy, who in the 1790’s were arrack renters of Colombo and were referred to by British officials as “native merchants of the island – half-caste but of property and respected” Jacob de Heer, a renter in 1810-11 and in the Kandyan provinces in the 1820’s, JA de Bruin who had the Alugoda tavern in 1821 and William Hepponstall who had the Udapalata tavern in 1829. Some Colombo Chetties who had been active in the Dutch period also continued their links with the arrack trade; among them were Christobo Rodrigo Muttu Chitty, renter for Negombo in 1817, L Phillippupulle who in 1817 was referred to as “the late arrack and present gem quarry renter” of Sabaragamuwa and Phillippupulle Masilamaniaya who was the renter in 1825 of the Sabaragamuwa Province.

Renters also included members of the Bharatha community of Tuticorin, notable examples being Manuel de Croos, whose name frequently occurs as renter for Negombo in the period from 1817, and Juan de Croos, renter for the same area in 1820, who was later headman of the Bharathas. The few Britishers in the ;liquor trade included George Bird, the pioneer coffee planter who had the Udapalata tavern in 1825 and Mess-Sergeant Davidson, renter of the Kadugannawa tavern in 1831 and holder of the license to sell liquor at the canteen of the Mahahena Hotel in Kandy in 1832.

Apart from these exceptions, renters in the maritime regions were Sinhalese of the area, many of them persons with local influence, such as village headmen, police vidanes, patabendis and schoolmasters, while renters in the Kandyan regions were also predominantly Sinhalese speculators from the coastal areas. The renters were mainly from the goyigama and karava castes who were influential persons in their localities; a large number of them were minor government officials who had ready access to the small sums of initial capital needed for renting and who also had the contacts, knowledge and ability to handle a business operation such as the retailing of arrack. Once can identify certain recurrent names in this period of laissez-faire renting: Kalutara Gurunnanselage Don Carolis Aratchi, renter for Kalutara in the 1820’s; Swarisge Hendrick Swaris, renter of the Kollupitiya tavern in 1826, who was a fairly active entrepreneur in later years; Abraham Dep, tavern renter of the 1820’s whose family became leading renters of the 19th century. Benaragamage Don Daniel, Colombo tavern renter in 1813-14 and Benaragamage Don Justinus, renter of several taverns in Colombo in 1826 and 1832; Weerasuriyage Don David Appuhamy, a tavern renter of Colombo in 1826 and also renter of the Canal Lock at San Sebastian in 1828. The prominent renters of the karava caste during these years were: Vidanalage Abraham de Mel, Colombo renter in 1818; the Weerahennedige Fernando’s, who included Pedro, the renter for Kalutara in 1805-6 and arrack wholesaler right up to 1830, and David who had the Uyana tavern (in Moratuwa) in 1827. What is significant about the ownership of arrack rents in the years up to 1830, is that no one name, or group of names, can be identified as dominating the rents.

Families of the period before 1835 who continued to be prominent in renting, were those of Vidanalage de Mel, Telge Peiris, Weerahennedighe Fernando, Mahamarakkalage Perera, and Balappuwaduge Mendis, names that were to recur in the arrack rents of both the Western and Central Provinces for many decades.

Page 53-55 – Multi Caste Class formation

It is useful at this point to examine some case histories of renting families. As we have noted, many of the pioneer renters of this period were of the goyigama caste, some of them being constantly traders, renters and government officials. One such enterprising goyigama family with widespread interests were the Hettiaratchige Pintos of the Salpiti Korale. Of this family, H Louis Pinto, police vidane of Ratmalana in the 1820’s, also had the fish rents of Galkissa (Mount Lavinia), Moratuwa and Ratmalana in 1826. H Jeronis Pinto was both a ferry and a tavern renter in Kandy in 1828; H Nicholas Pinto had enough property to stand security for H Jeronis Pinto, and H Bastian Pinto had the arrack rents of the whole of the Central Province in 1837 and the valuable rents of the Four Gravets of Colombo in 1838. Another family of goyigama entrepreneurs of the period was the Kadehettige family of Kelaniya; K Don Constantine Appuhamy was not only a vidane, but was also the paddy renter in 1810-11 and arrack renter ifrom 1811-13 of the Siyane Korale, continuing his interests in the arrack rents of this korale during the 1820’2 and the 1830’s. Carolis (a schoolmaster) and Don Valentyn – were all arrack renters of the Siyane and Hewagam Korales up to 1838.

Page 54-58

Another goyigama group was the Wewage Dep family whose fortunes were laid by an early renter Abraham Dep (Aberanchi Appu) whose business activities included the renting of a tavern in Colombo in 1829. Abraham (the son of Franz Dep) was born in 1778 in San Sebastian, Colombo and died around 1856. His son, Wewage Johannes Dep, was the renter for the lock at the San Sebastian canal in 1829. Another son, Cornelius Dep, was known as Weerasinghe Kangany (“kangany” being a supervisor of labor). The family continued in renting; Cornelius’ son, Wewage Arnolis Dep (Weerasinghe) was one of the leading arrack renters at the turn of the century and his daughter Helena Dep married Tidugalle Don Philip Wijewardene, a timber merchant. Their grandson, J.R. Jayawardene, became the first President of Sri Lanka.

Enterpreneurs of the karava caste were mainly from the South-western coastal areas – especially Moratuwa and Panadura. They owed their phenomenal business success in the middle decades of the 19th century to the advantages and headstart they had earlier achieved through having family members in various occupations as craftsmen, traders, and minor government officials. Since the karava families were the prominent capitalists of later years, some information is available about these families. An outstanding example of a successful business clan was the well-known Lindamullage de Silva family of Moratuwa who claim that their ancestors came to Sri lanka from India in the 13th century. In Dutch times, the family had landholdings in Moratuwa and was probably involved in entrepreneurial activities; in the early British period, they embarked on various business enterprises and, by the 1820’s, two brothers, Lindamullage Fransisco and Domingo de Silva, laid the foundation of the family fortunes. Domingo (Daingi rainda mahatmaya) was in the arrack trade, being one of the Moratuwa tavern keepers in 1828; Fransisco was a distiller of the 1820’s and a renter in later years. However, the best known member of the family in the early decades of the 19th century was Domingo’s son Pedro de Silva, who, (as we noted earlier) was one of the leading wholesalers of arrack of the 1820’s; there are records of his annual contracts to supply large quantities of arrack to the government stores from 1827 to 1831. He was also a house and property owner in Grandpass. Qwhen he died in 1838, his son Jusey de Silva took to renting and in later years, became one of the country’s wealthiest men, and the father-in-law of Charles de Soysa, the richest merchant capitalist of the 19th century.

Another karava group with similar widespread interests was the Balappuwaduge Manakulasuriya Mendis family from Moratuwa. According to folklore in Moratuwa, one of its members, Balappuwaduge Gabriel Mendis (known as Gaba rainda rala) was said to have been an arrack renter during Dutch times. B Pedro Mendis was the mahavidana Mudaliyar of Moratuwa and a prominent landowner; B Juan Mendis had the title of master carpenter in 1819 and did work for the Royal Engineers department in 1822; B Bastian Mendis, who as early as 1804-5 had the gaming rents for Kalutara, was also a ferry renter for Mutwal and Wewelle in 1826; B Simon Mendis was a licensed distiller in 1827 and an owner of land, and B Savariel Mendis was a tavern renter in the Kandyan regions from 1828 onwards. Other members of the family, such as B carolis Mendis were carpenters working on contract to the government in the early 1830’s.

A karava familyof Moratuwa which had varied economic interests in the 19th century were the Vidanalage de Mels, whose trading and renting activities probably dated back to Dutch times. V James de Mel  was second vidane of Moratuwa in 1809; V Abraham de Mel (known as Punchi rainda mahatmaya) was appointed the first vidane and was also a renter and distiller in 1819; In 1832, his son Anthony de Mel succeeded him as first vidane of Moratuwa. V Salman de Mel was another distiller of this family in 1827. The most important family member during this period, however, was Vidanalage Pedro de Mel (1784-1850). He was a landowner, as is evident from a report that the government acquired 13 of his fields in 1826. His son Fransisco de Mel (1809-1906), the famous renter, was the father of Jacob de Mel (1839-1919) and the grandfather of Henry de Mel (1877-1936) – both leading entrepreneurs in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries (Fernando 1989).

Among the wealthy karava families of the 19th century, was the Telge Peiris of Panadura, which seems to have been involved in trade and in buying land from the Dutch period onwards. According to one account, three generations of the Telge Peiris family, Jeromias, Jeronis and David, “were shipowners as well as landowners. Their sailing vessels plied between South India and Beruwela, Panadura and other ports on the West Coast of Ceylon” (Keble and Surya Sena 1950);

Other important karava entrepreneurs with diverse interests were the Hettiakandage Fernandos. According to family sources the founder of the family came from the West coast of India

The wealthiest of the Sri Lankan families of the 19th century, however, was the karava Warusahennedige Soysa family which rose from humble origins and expanded its interests into a range of economic activities. The successful pioneer who accumulated wealth through arrack renting was Warusahennedige Jeronis Soysa, also known as Babsingho Vedahamatmaya. He was the son of Warusahennedige Joseph Soysa, a Buddhist of Moratuwa (1796-1839), known as Josrala, who it is claimed made money through renting carts and breeding cattle.

Page 132-133 – The Role of Foreign Merchants

The commerce of the city of Colombo was dominated by European and Indian merchants and by local traders belonging to minority groups. Sinhala or Tamil Sri Lankans participated marginally in foreign and internal trade

The majority of local merchants were small retailers who had to face fierce competition from Borah, Memon, Parsi and Chettiar traders from India. Ferguson’s Ceylon Directory of 1863 lists the leading merchants and agents who were large scale exporters of coffee (and other produce) and importers of goods needed for the local market. Of the 33 firms, 31 were foreign. The only locals were P.B.Fernando & Sons and E. Nannytamby, a merchant from Jaffna.

While there were several British retail establishments in Colombo in 1863, the non-European retailers, composed mainly of Chetty and Muslim traders, were located in the Pettah, the center of non-European trade. There are no references to any Sinhala or Tamil retail businesses of any note in the Ceylon Directory of 1863, but there were 75 principal firms owned by Nattukottai Chettiars of South India, who were mainly in the rice and cloth trade as importers and retailers. Writing of these Chettiars, Weerasooria (1973:xiv) has observed that, by the middle of the 19th century, “the greater part of the Indo-Ceylon trade and the internal commerce of the Island was either in their hands or at least largely funded by them.” The only local large trader of significance were the Muslims. There were 35 of them in in 1863 in Colombo who dealt in the retail of a large variety of goods. Emerson Tennent, describing the Colombo retail trade of this period, wrote:

Excellent stores within the Fort supply articles imported from Europe; and those who bring outfits from England, generally find they could have obtained the same articles on the spot… The Moors in Pettah have shops which are certainly among the ‘wonders of Serendib’. [H}ere everything is procurable that industry can collect from the looms of Asia and the manufacturers of Europe.” (1860, Vol II:160)

The non-Europeans included two Parsi firms, Framjee Bhikhaijee and Rustomjee Muncherjee; the two Sri Lankan firms, owned by Charles de Soysa and Jeronis Peiris respectively, were agencies connected with the trading aspects of their arrack renting and planting activities. The non-European retail trade, however, was dominated in 1880 by 86 leading Chetty firms involved in the rice, cloth and other trade, and 64 Muslim retailers who dealt in a wide variety of consumer goods – these two groups accounting for almost all the retail trade in Pettah (Ferguson’s Ceylon Directory 1880-81;494 &507-8). The increased economic activity associated with the growth in prosperity of the tea sector, led to an expansion of the Chetty trade, and in 1890, there were 111 Chettiar traders in Colombo; of these 66 were rice dealers, 38 cloth traders, and 7 were money lenders. They not only dominated vital sectors of local trade in essentials, but also were a readily available source of credit (Ferguson’s Ceylon Directory 1890-91;651).

Page 133-134 – The Bombay Merchants’

One new factor which emerged in the 1880’s was the appearance of Indian traders who replaced British importers in certain lines of trade. Up to the last decades of the 19th century, the large scale import trade was predominantly in the hands of the British firms such as Darley Butler (in business since 1848), and Delmege Forsyth which imported large quantities of flour, salt, sugar and kerosene oil. In 1895, this company was also involved in what was called the “native trade” operating, for example, “a great network of small bullock-carts which traveled over the whole country selling kerosene oil” (Villiers 1940:122).

The Bohras, a group of Gujeratis (originally from Kutch) who belonged to a schismatic group of Shia-Muslims of the Dawoodi sect, were part of a trading and family network spanning India, East Africa, Southeast Asia, Mauritius and the islands of the Indian Ocean.

The Parsis of Bombay were another community with a stake in the import-export trade. In India, during the first half of the 19th century, the Parsis had been “the mediating community” (as brokers, commission agents and shipping agents) in the trade between Europeans and the Indian hinterland. They had also dominated in the trade – especially in opium – between India and the Far East. In Sri Lanka there was a Parsi presence in trade from the early 19th century including Cowasjee Eduljee and Framjee Bhikhaijee.

Page 148-149

Nevertheless for many years previously rubber was a good investment for Sri Lankans and, by 1917, there were 65 local owners with over 100 acres each. Those who owned over 700 acres included many who belonged by birth or marriage to families who had made the initial accumulation in liquor – notably Henry Amarasuriya, Dr WA de Silva, AJR de Soysa, Bastian Fernando, Dr Marcus Fernando and Charles Pieris (Roberts 1979:180). By 1927 those owning over 1,000 acres were also part of the liquor bourgeoisie – Mrs Henry Amarasuriya, Dr WA de Silva, LWA de Soysa, CEA Dias, Dr Marcus Fernando, H Watson Peiris, and JLC Peiris. Other large rubber owners of over 1,000 acres, included men and women of all castes and ethnicities - namely Fred Abeysundera, E.C. De Fonseka, Silva Sr., Daniel Fernando, E.L Ibrahim Lebbe Marikar, Alice Kotelawela, A.J. Vanderpoorten and E.G. Adamaly.  

Page 159-162 – Recasting Caste in Class Society

In order to understand the prevalence of the caste system among religious and ethnic groups, this chapter will look briefly at some census data on Sri Lankan society. In 1911, the ethnic composition of the population (of around 4 million) was as follows (Denham 1912:96)

Ethnic Group


Percentage of total




Ceylon Tamil



Indian Tamil



Ceylon Moor



Indian Moor



Burghers & Eurasians


















 In terms of religion, the population was in 1911 divided as follows (ibid:246)



Percentage of total
















At this date, the Sinhalese were 91% Buddhist and 9% Christian and the Ceylon Tamils were 88% Hindu and 12% Christian.

Based on the lists of castes identified by various writers in the colonial period (cited by Bryce Ryan) and the census taken by the government in 1824 of the Sinhala castes of the Low-country, the following is a list, (in alphabetical order) of the main castes; it notes their traditional occupations and the percentage they formed of the low-country Sinhalese, who in the 1820’s numbered 352,485 (Ryan 1953:65-72 & 264)


Occupational designation












tappers of coconut palm
























cinnamon peelers



jaggery makers


(In the 1824 census, Hinna, Hunu and Oli, being numerically small castes were classified with “others” to form 2.7%) 

While in Sinhala society caste hierarchies were becoming fluid, the Jaffna Tamil caste system remained more rigid and very hierarchical. The main castes in Jaffna have been estimated as follows by Banks (1957, figure 1) and Pffafenberger (1982:47). They are given below in alphabetical order:


Traditional Occupational






temple priest



deep-sea fisher



domestic servant



praedial labor






praedial labor














Page 284

Among the new-rich Karava, marriages  were sometimes designed to set up connections with older established clans traditionally commanding higher status within the caste such as the de Fonseka, Lowe, de Rowel and Mendis Jayawardena families ( Roberts 1995:278).

Page 342

Some of the new faces in the 1931 State Council belonged to well known families. They were G.C.S Corea (Chilaw), Susantha De Fonseka (Panadura) son-in-law of Mathes Salgado (arrack renter and founder of a chain of bakeries), John L Kotelawela (Kurunegala), grandson of D.C.G Attygalle (Landowner), Henry W Amarasuriya (Udugama), and most notably S.W.R.D Bandaranaike (Veyangoda).

Obituary notice of Saturday Oct 12 2002 - Daily News

GOONERATNE - THELGE PATRICIA CLAUDA SOMILA (nee PIERIS).   AT Rest with Jesus. Beloved wife of Siri Gooneratne (formarly of Mahawela), loving mother of Duleep (John Keells), late Lakshman (People’s Bank, Kandy), Phoebe, Sunil (Australia), Surangani and Janaki (ITI), mother-in-law of Eunice, Shanthi and Geraldine, loving grandmother of Premica, Niromi, Thushan, Shalini, Shane and Sharon. Cortege lying at Jayaratne Funeral Parlour, Borella. Service at 2 p.m. Thursday 10th October and leaves for burial thereafter at Kanatte (Anglican Section).   88A, Katuwawela, Boralesgamuwa.