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The pragmatic idealism of Frederick North

21 May 2019 - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}      

Between 1796 and 1803, the colonial administration in Ceylon experimented with various forms of administrative changes in the interests of greater efficiency. The Portuguese and the Dutch had left the administrative machine more or less as it was; that served their interests as well as the interests of the local rulers. The relationship between the colonial power and local authority had been clearly defined, and though the retention of local forms of administration did not stem the tide of rebellion it nevertheless had a say in legitimizing colonial rule.  
We see a different kind of relationship between the two emerge after 1803, when the Treaty of Amiens made Sri Lanka a Crown Colony of the British. The economic and ideological changes taking place in the home country no doubt shaped the nature of this relationship. The rise of Evangelism in England, for instance, centering around the Clapham Sect, had an impact on the Colonial Office’s attitude to missionary work and education, while the writings of Adam Smith compelled certain officials to implement theories looked down upon back home.  

One of these officials was the first Governor Frederick North. As his successor Thomas Maitland’s criticisms of him make it evident, he was not averse to abolishing local forms of land tenure and administration to test the feasibility of his ideas. These ideas had to do with three things: the abolition of service tenures, imposition of taxes on estates, and attempts to create a uniform tenure system. That all three of them in part at least failed showed that the administration was not as yet ready to graft on the colony the latest developments in economic theory from the home country.  

The results of the economic measures implemented prior to his arrival to the country had been mixed as well: proposed “to relieve the lower order of people from the many personal taxes they now labour under”, their outcome was a regime of taxes that were “unjust and impolitic.” Particularly onerous was a coconut tax the notice of which had been made in July 1796: at 1/12th of the value of a tree, it was not computed on the basis of the yield of nuts, which meant that “the amount of the tax more than equalled the value of the entire produce.” The burden fell more on the poor. All these policies obviously had a great deal to do with the men behind him – in the case of the coconut tax, that of Superintendent of Revenue Robert Andrews. But the Governor was different. The reason isn’t hard to find.  



As of now, the sympathies of the people rested with the Kandyan rulers, and reformism was looked as something that could channel those sympathies into a rebellion

In Frederick North, we come across an idealistic official who was, nevertheless, marred by a rigidly conservative worldview. He was, as his policies were to prove, moved by a need to revamp the old system without doing away with its virtues. The son of a Prime Minister (who has been negatively viewed as the man who let America go, given that in his time the 13 colonies broke away from Britain), he was probably the only civilian official of his kind to serve in Sri Lanka. He was also a paradox, the likes of which the country could not afford to have in his post again.  

By installing himself as the head of the salagama caste (with his Chief Secretary Arbuth not as head of the karavas), he was signalling his desire to continue with the status quo; later, by proclaiming an end to caste-based services he was signalling his willingness to do away with the old structures if that made the administration of the country more efficient. In that sense he was less idealistic than pragmatic.  

North’s subsequent actions compelled a debate between those who wanted to abolish non-service tenures and those who wanted to retain them, i.e. between the abolitionists and conservatives. That the latter group won is no cause for surprise, since the amount of money in the domestic economy of 19th century Sri Lanka was small, which meant that with budget deficits officials were in no mood to implement policies that were not only far-reaching but also short-sighted: as Maitland put it later, to give effect to them would have been akin to “one of the ancient Barons” in feudal England pulling “out of his pocket Adam Smith.” They were simply too far ahead of their time.  

The Governor’s response to these criticisms was firm, stubborn, yet flimsy: he had acted “on that practical knowledge of the country, and not on any theory”, and the implementation of his measures were preceded by a “long, practical, and laborious investigation.” His “practical knowledge of the country” notwithstanding, most of the policies had ended up alienating the same people they had intended to benefit. An outcry was provoked, for instance, when attempts were made to pass title to locals: try as they might, officials could not get residents to conform to the law, especially given that locals were opposed to the idea of selling their lands.  

This was, moreover, long before links were established between the Maritime Provinces and the Hill Country. As of now, the sympathies of the people rested with the Kandyan rulers, and reformism was looked as something that could channel those sympathies into a rebellion – a problem at a time when hostilities between Britain and France had resumed with the Napoleonic Wars.  

Thomas Maitland wasn’t the only official irked by North’s presumptuousness. The Secretary of State for War and the Colonies Robert Hobart had on February 16, 1798 called for an relationship of neutrality with the Kandyan rulers, since “if unassisted by the Natives” the administration would “find it difficult if not altogether impracticable to procure” the supplies necessary to run the country. The sympathies of the headmen was thus considered necessary, and by alienating them by a rigid system of checks and balances, the imposition of direct taxes, and the proposed abolition of rajakariya, their loyalty to British rule was being severely tested.  

Moreover, a Committee of Investigation tasked with looking into the causes of a rebellion which had erupted in 1796, headed by Brig. Gen. Pierre Frédéric de Meuron, contended that the administration’s efforts at reforming, if not abolishing, old structures of power had distanced headmen from the centre. De Meuron recommended that the status quo be restored to them; in this he was certainly playing into pragmatic considerations, as much as Colebrooke and Cameron would 30 years later.  

North was not opposed to the De Meuron Commission; in fact as K. M. de Silva contends, “the restoration of the old order” was in accordance with his “conservative instincts.” But even at the time of the Report’s publication the Governor’s ideas “grew evident.” He faced a dilemma there: he wanted to curb the headmen’s powers without doing away with them. When he gave effect to the recommendations, he restored the service lands. At the same time, he requested that a Registrar be made for those lands (or accomodessans) – a double-pincer move: he revived the old system while doing away with its biggest problem, uncertainty of tenure. He was no longer dependent on the Mudliyars; their privileges had been checked.  

In this the Governor was toeing neither the abolitionist nor the conservative line; he was instead toeing a “permissive principle” that tried to steer clear of both. But there was no doubt as to which line he preferred to follow, as shown by a dispatch in 1802 where he lamented, quite clearly, the prevailing assumption that “the Cinghalese must be compelled to labour, as there is no way of overcoming their natural indolence.” In attributing to the Sinhalese people a spirit of enterprise and calling for the abolition of slavery and compulsory service, he was opposing the thinking of not just De Meuron and Maitland, but also (as events showed) nearly every successor of his. Which goes to show that even in colonial societies like Ceylon, officially accepted prejudices and policies could at times be overtaken by the caprices of officials.  



North never quite achieved what he wanted to when it came to his economic reforms. More time was spent in defending his theories than implementing them

North never quite achieved what he wanted to when it came to his economic reforms. More time was spent in defending his theories than implementing them, which was to be expected given their radical content. In trying to do away with slavery he was taking heed of Adam Smith’s views on the matter; concurrently, he was shaped by the Evangelical movement back home (though he was a follower of Eastern Orthodoxy), as his association with James Cordiner shows.  

There are times when the two – Adam Smith and Evangelism – met, and their fusion – very often too paradoxical to sustain – would have led him to make pronouncements on matters such as compulsory service which were far-reaching and short-sighted. 30 years later Colebrooke and Cameron would wrestle with the same issue – by then the dominance of Evangelism and Adam Smith had been established, but even with this it remained difficult to reconcile them in a country which was, as yet, far away from the thinking behind these two ideological strands.