Standing on the shoulders of giants



Keynote address delivered by
Prof. Premakumara de Silva
at a recent ceremony to mark the launch

of Prof. C. R. de Silva Felicitation Volume
on ‘Essays on History and Society’ at the Senate Hall, University of Peradeniya.

I am sure all of you will agree with me that Prof. C.R. de Silva is one of the greatest scholars Sri Lanka has ever produced in the field of Humanities and Social Sciences, particularly within the discipline of Sri Lankan History. I first got to know Prof. C. R. de Silva as a Sri Lankan intellectual through his work, particularly, his masterpiece ‘The Portuguese in Ceylon, 1617-1638 (1972)” when I was an undergraduate at the University of Colombo.

I had a chance to associate with him closely when I was a visiting lecturer for the ISLE programme, under his directorship. In 2021, I again had an opportunity to engage in intellectual discussions with him when he contributed two co-edited chapters to the three-volume series of ‘Hundred years of Humanities and Social Sciences Education in Sri Lankan Universities’ ; I was the chief editor. Prof. C.R.’s contribution to Sri Lankan scholarship is wide ranging, moving back and forth between the 16th century and 21st century while finding remedies for some of the challenging problems in our country. Though I am not a historian, I am keen to situate my sociological and anthropological analysis in understanding the historical process of human problems. That is one other reason that made me happy about this opportunity to be here today.

Let me elaborate on this point a bit further. There is a very close relationship between history and sociology/anthropology. Sometimes historians turn into anthropologists and anthropologists turn into historians. If you look at the close connections between these two branches of knowledge production, Sri Lankan academia is no exception. Within anthropology the interest in history appears to have received legitimacy and gathered momentum in recent years. In his 1961 lecture “Anthropology and History”, British anthropologist Evans-Pritchard appealed for an integration of functionalist and historical interpretation in anthropology.

He emphasized the need for greater historical understanding in anthropology, but anthropology did not turn towards history until the early 1980s. However, it is important to highlight here, that by early 1960s historical analysis is quite evident in anthropology of India and Sri Lanka through the works of M. Marriortt (1955), MN Srinivas (1952, 1955, 1962), and in Sri Lanka Ralph Pieris (1956); Edmond Leach (1961), Gananath Obeyesekere (1964, 1984), Kitsiri Mallalgoda (1978), HL Seneviratne (1978) and others.

Nevertheless, broadly speaking, by the 1980s the importance of history in anthropology was revived, particularly after the works of well-known anthropologists such as Michael Taussig, Bernard Cohn, Marshall Sahlins, and also the writings of historians like Ranajit Guha and his group of subalternists . Bernard Cohn’s call for anthropology to collaborate with history in his landmark essay “An Anthropologist Among the Historians,” first published in 1962, represented an early attempt by anthropologists to take the question of history seriously.

Indeed, today, both anthropologists and historians probe into the dynamic interrelationship between culture and history, to understand culture mediated by history and history mediated by culture. This is because many critical historians have realized the need to move from the archive to the field, in order to ‘explore the concept of history through the anthropological experience of culture’ (Sahlins 1985: 72).

This ‘historicization’ of anthropology and ‘anthropologization’ of history has come about as the result of several important processes. One is the decolonisation of the ‘third world’ nations from the late 1940s through to the 1960s which served to produce questions about the traditional binaries of anthropological enquiry, like, ‘modern’ and ‘primitive’, ‘dynamic’ and ‘static’. The perceptions and assumptions of European colonizers about the colonized, and the methods by which they categorized the subject populations, came in for radical criticism.

Under these conditions anthropologists began to study ‘native’ intellectual traditions and historical schools, and elaborate on indigenous renderings of history. It has been pointed out that the concentration on the ‘local’, and the great dependence on ‘fieldwork’ do not necessarily make ethnographic accounts authentic and authoritative representations of other societies. Thus ethnography is caught in a ‘historical predicament’ where it often invents rather than represents cultures. As Bernard Cohn suggests, anthropology in a historical mode has moved away ‘from the objectification of social life to a study of its constitution and construction’ (Cohn 1980: 217).

The close scrutiny and consequent critique of the ways in which colonial states generated knowledge of the people they colonized has also directly influenced the dialogue between history and anthropology. This critique became centrally visible after the groundbreaking work of Edward Said, Orientalism appeared in 1978. Said argued that European knowledge about the Orient enabled Europe to define, classify, dominate, and restructure – to thus have authority over – the Orient. From its beginning, Orientalism was nurtured by scholars and intellectuals, and it continues to live on academically.

While it is true that Said’s Orientalism frequently relapses into ‘essentializing modes’ particularly by overemphasising the negative dimensions of Orientalism and imputing varied discourses of cultural difference with ‘hostility and aggression’ (Thomas 1994: 26), it also succeeds in questioning a number of important anthropological and historical categories, and challenging the progressive and liberal idea that former stereotypes have been superseded by a more objective way of seeing.

The immense challenge posed by Said’s arguments has prompted scholars to reflect on their assumptions, sources, and methods. Historians and Anthropologists working on South Asia have sought to extend Said’s analysis by penetrating scholarship on others, a scholarship that viewed the Orientalist in a relation of intellectual dominance over the Orientals whom they studied and represented.

All these interventions have prompted historians and ethnographers to abandon the search for the ‘real’ or the ‘essential’, and replace it instead with a sense of the production of culture. The conjunction of history and anthropology is not just ‘another new speciality’, a means for the writing of hyphenated histories and anthropologies (Cohn 1980: 216). ‘Ethnographic history’ and ‘historical anthropology’ are hybrid labels that strive to bring about a meaningful collaboration between the two disciplines so that the subject matter common to both may be reasserted, and the limits of each transcended.

It is in this context, I would like to situate the felicitation volume of Professor C.R. de Silva titled ‘ESSAYS ON HISTORY AND SOCIETY’. Interestingly, this volume was edited by a Sociologist and a Historian and many of the writers in this volume are interested in dealing with historical sources and analysis. Intellectually C.R. de Silva’s expertise is lying on colonial history of Sri Lanka. As we now know, authoritative discourse on the ‘colonized’ was largely produced through the agents of the colonial governments, military personnel, Christian missionaries, philologists, and administrators, of course not to mention uncritical historians as well.

But there is a limitation in such analysis, in my view, because most of the “decolonising projects” in South Asia, including Sri Lanka, have located their fields of work and expertise in the 19th and 20th centuries to unpack ‘British colonial knowledge production’ and they have paid scanty attention to ‘pre-British knowledge production’ for example as far as India and Sri Lanka are concerned, the Portuguese and the Dutch ‘colonial knowledge productions’. In my view, a reasonably comprehensive understanding of culture, religion, and history of the various sub-continental regions in the early 18th century and before, is a prerequisite for our understanding of the transformations which the British instituted.

Surely, there are great many historians who deal with pre-colonial history(ies), KM de Silva, RLH Gunawardena, Karl Gunawardene, Michael Roberts, Sirima Kiribamune, Lona Devaraja, Indrani Munasinghe, Amaradasa Liyanagamage come to my mind, to name a few of them. Historians in Sri Lanka are known and usually identified by the historical period which is the subject of their research. For instance, there are ancient historians, medieval historians, modern historians and so on. Each historian will also have a more specific time span such as the Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa period or even a specific kingdom or a specific dynasty as his or her specific concern in terms of teaching and research. CR de Silva would be identified as a modern historian or more precisely specialist on Portuguese colonial history.

A lively debate has sparked over the nature of “colonial knowledge” that enabled European colonizers to achieve domination over their colonised subjects in South Asia and even beyond. As a result of this debate two opposing approaches on the production of colonial knowledge have emerged; one sees colonialism introducing a profound epistemic disjuncture or rupture in the historical fabric of the society subjected to colonialism.

Hence, there can be no significant continuities across the production of colonial knowledge. Scholars like Inden (1986, 1990); B. Cohn (1987, 1996); N. Dirks (1996, 2001); and P. Chatterjee (1993) supported this line of argument.

The other approach is largely conceived as revisionist critique of this post-colonialist view and it sees continuities between the late pre-colonial and early colonial periods. Historians such as C.A. Bayly (1998); S. Bayly (1999); N. Peabody (2001); J. Rogers (2004) belonged to this school of thought. Therefore, the production of knowledge over colonized subjects in Sri Lanka in particular South and Southeast Asia in general should not be limited to one particular colonial power because ‘colonial history’ in these regions is much more complex and deeper than some of the scholars have thought out.

Focusing on the Portuguese in Sri Lanka, CR de Silva compares a Portuguese and Sinhalese account of their first encounters and then shows how each text was modified as they came to know each other better. The historical contribution made by CR de Silva to our understanding of colonial time is lucidly depicted by the well-crafted introduction written by Kalinga Tudor Silva in this felicitation volume. Let me quote him:

“In keeping with the twists and turns in the career of Prof. C. R. de Silva and my direct engagement with him at several junctures of my own career, I prefer to divide up this essay into four sections as follows: (1) CR’s contribution to understanding the Portuguese period in the colonial history of Sri Lanka (2) His contribution to research and academic culture at University of Peradeniya (3) The establishment of a research track on ethnicity and politics in Sri Lanka and (4) The interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary nature of his contributions.

I must state upfront that these remarks are based on my personal reflections on a leading scholar of the earlier generation whose work also influenced the trajectories of research in subsequent generations rather than a meticulous analysis of his writings and scholarly work in the areas listed above with the possible exception of his work on ethnicity and politics.”

While agreeing what Prof. Tudor Silva’s formulations of Prof. CR’s career as an academic, an efficient administrator and a researcher I much admire and appreciate his interdisciplinary approach to understand Sri Lankan society, culture, politics, and history in a context where many Sri Lankan academics are reluctant to position themselves in.

By focusing on CR de Silva’s life and work one of his students Ramani Hettiarchchi commented on what kind of personality and a remarkable teacher he was. I quote her:

“A remarkable feature of his teaching is that he presented facts not only in a simple, coherent, and interesting manner but also in an analytical and critical way enabling the students to understand the past in its broad perspective together with the intricacies and complexities of the discipline of History.”

The immense contribution CR de Silva has made to the advancement of historical knowledge is quite evident if one even pays a cursory look into the publication list that Ramani has produced in the volume. After the introductory remarks to the volume there are eleven chapters contributed by reputed local and international scholars on various subject matters with serious historical and analytical depth.

For example, Nihal Perera argued in his chapter on ‘History, Space, Amnesia: Invented Memories and Convenient Forgetting in Sri Lanka’ that the society, culture, and space of the colony was produced and structured from Colombo, as opposed to Colombo evolving from Ceylon or Sri Lanka. Spatially, the colonials superimposed the social and spatial structures they were producing on pre-existing ones, destroying, using, and incorporating them.

Hence, evolution cannot explain the post-colonial culture and space in independent Sri Lanka for there is no continuity. Rather, these were modified by external powers within the worldviews they were producing. His essay speculates on a crucial missing dimension in Sri Lankan historiography, especially in regard to the memory, history, and culture while denying voluntarily accepted colonial history without questioning the sources and exploring novel approaches to it.

In Ananda Abeysekara’s essay on ‘The Loss of Kingship and Colonial and Other Uses of the “People” in South Asia’, provides a good example for such novel approaches to interrogating and deconstructing our colonial past.

By using recent publications of Obeyesekere’s The Doomed King (2017) and Piliavsky’s Nobody’s People (2020) which were written on two different instances of the past in South Asia obstructed by the violence of colonialism he provides how unquestionable history writing effectively reproduces the colonial notion of the category of ‘people’ which he sees rearing its head in the colonial operations of power that made possible the destruction of the Kandyan kingdom and the forms of life.

Rather than talking about the destructive aspect of colonial governmentality, Ann Blackburn in her essay on ‘Buddhist Collaborations in Later Colonial Singapore’, shows that how colonized made creative use of the “wider opportunities” available to them in colonial-era networks and the communications technologies of that time to spread Buddhism and commercial interests far from Sri Lanka. These networks or collaborations depended on contingent historical circumstances, including the availability of land and liquid capital, and the circulation of Buddhist monastics across the South China Sea and along Indian Ocean routes.

I have to apologies, for not giving due attention to other essays that were contributed by Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya, Maura Hamet, John Clifford Holt, Shimon Shetreet, G. H. Peiris, Annette Finley – Croswhite and Gayle K. Brunelle due to time constraints. However, their scholarly contribution to the Felicitation volume of Prof. CR de Silva must be well recognized and appreciated.

Let me windup my intervention here by saying this. As most of us know Prof. C. R. de Silva begun his academic career at the University of Peradeniya, then at Indiana State University and finally at Old Dominion University, and over the years he has made tremendous contributions not only to university administration, but also, most importantly, to scholarly work as a dedicated teacher who inspired critical thinking, creative explorations, and empathetic understanding among his students.

Finally, let me reiterate what I mentioned at the beginning of this talk that, Prof. CR de Silva is one of the greatest scholars Sri Lanka has ever produced in the field of Humanities and Social Sciences, particularly within the discipline of Sri Lankan History. I wish him a happy, productive, and healthy life for many more years!