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How British colonialism impeded peasant agriculture in Ceylon

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By the beginning of the 19th Century, when the British took over Ceylon from the Dutch, laissez-faire was being accepted as the ideal in Britain and Europe. It was based on free trade with the market determining economic decisions. Mercantilism, which was based on protectionism, was on the way out. However, the European powers decided that the principles of a liberal market economy should not be applied to their colonies. Political economists of that era believed that “good, stout despotism” was necessary where “civilization had not reached a high level of development.”


Since the colonial powers believed that the people of the colonies did not merit the enlightened economic and political systems of the West, the principal function of their administrations in the colonies was not the promotion of political and economic development towards modernity and prosperity, but the collection of revenue from the colonized. 


Though by the beginning of the 19th Century, when the British took over the island from the Dutch, laissez-faire was accepted as the ideal in Europe, the British in Ceylon were against the introduction of free trade on the plea that the civilization here had “not reached a high level of development,” and that what the people needed was “good, stout despotism.” This theory was used to brazenly deny welfare and make exploitation of local human and natural resources for the exclusive benefit of the British. Concomitantly, collection of revenue rather than economic development of the indigenous population became the principal aim of the colonial regime.  


Decisions taken in Colombo and London on land, taxation, labour and monopolies were, in essence, a throwback to the “old and inveterate system of oppression” that characterized Dutch and Portuguese rule in the island, says Prof.P.V.J.Jayasekera in his book: Confrontations with Colonialism, 1796-1920 Vol I.  


Right from 1796-98, the British authorities in London had set revenue targets for Ceylon. There was hardly any interest in rendering services to the people from whom the surpluses were exacted. Road-building was a major activity in the 19th century but it was not undertaken to benefit the locals but to serve British commercial interests centred around a burgeoning plantation economy. 


Earlier in 1849, the government had offered to give funds for irrigation development but these had to be paid back with interest in addition to providing free labour for the government’s public enterprises which were mostly infrastructure work for the benefit of British interests. 


Prof. Jayasekera points out that in the traditional administrative system, the emphasis was on the maintenance and improvement of agriculture and irrigation and not only surplus extraction. The British justified their control over the land saying they were only following a tradition in which the Kings had over-lordship over land as Bhupathis or Pruthivirajas. Under Rajakariya, the King granted land to peasants in exchange for services. The services expected were for public works like irrigation facilities. Special services were elicited based on a person’s caste-related occupation. But the British disallowed any assertion of customary use of, and title over, land. Jayasekera points out that this was totally against the 1815 Kandyan Convention the British had entered into with the Kandyan chiefs. The document had explicitly stated that the people’s customary rights would be protected by the new British rulers.


In 1801 Ceylon’s first British Governor, Fredrick North reasserted the governments’ right to both categories of Rajakariya services but he introduced a direct tax on the produce of the land. The peasantry resented this. While under the Kings Rajakariya labour was used for irrigation works, the British used the system for their military needs and commercial agriculture. With the result, rice production declined to 50% of the requirement, and imports increased three-fold, Prof. Jayasekera says. 


“The precarious of returns in agriculture led to peasants going in for share-cropping, giving half the produce to the landowners. The land was being mortgaged at 25 to 50% interest,” he points out. 


The British monopoly of cinnamon production and sale (until it was abolished) had deprived the peasant of a lucrative market in the West. Duties were imposed solely to benefit the British. Duties on imported British goods were slashed by 50%. Rice and cloth imported from India which were used by the masses were taxed 8 to 12 %. Export duties on tobacco and arecanuts deprived the Ceylonese peasant of the large Indian market. To promote British shipping, goods brought by non-British ships were taxed 50% extra. 


Free land was given to Europeans and Burghers for the cultivation of commercial crops like coffee, cotton, indigo and sugarcane. The tax exemption was given for 5 to 10 years for these enterprises. Their workforce was also exempted from Rajakariya obligations. With the plantations becoming money-spinners, planters and civil servants propagated the notion that paddy cultivation was a waste and did not deserve government encouragement, and the Governors agreed.   


One of the reasons why the plantation economy boomed was that the British bureaucracy was part of it as investors. Even Governors invested in the plantations. When a legislature was set up, planters and British merchants were represented significantly. Planters’ interests were also strongly represented in the British government. According to Prof.Jayasekera, the 19th Century colonial State in Ceylon was more powerful than it was in India because of the dominance of the British-controlled plantation economy on the island. 
The “draconian” Land Ordinance 5 of 1840 was based on the theory that all land belonged to the Crown unless they had been granted to someone earlier. This opened the floodgates to land grabbers and planters, a motley crowd of Whites including civil servants and Governors. Unauthorized local holders of land were sent to jail or fined. This was one of the causes of the 1848 rebellion which had to be put down with the use of brute force. A parliamentary committee went into the causes of the 1848 uprising but it made no difference. 


Prof. Jayasekera says that contrary to British propaganda that labour had to be imported from India because the Sinhalese were “indolent”, was false. The Sinhalese worked in the plantations when wages were adequate. For example, in 1890, there were 18, 000 to 23,000 Sinhalese peasants working in the plantations. 

 
However, the use of Sinhalese labour ceased when cheap Tamil labour from the famine-stricken districts of Madras Presidency was available in abundance. The British-governed Madras collaborated by neglecting agriculture and forcing peasants to go to the colonies to work in British plantations.

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