Feminizing the City Gender and Space in Colonial Colombo Nihal Perera Chapter in Trans-Status Subjects: Genders in the Globalization of South and Southeast Asia, eds., Esha Niyogi De and Sonita Sarkar: 67-87 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002) As Anthony King has emphasized, a distinctive demographic characteristic of the colonial community, and of the early immigrant and migrant communities in colonial port cities, was the relative absence of women (1991, 35). Colombo, the former capital of Sri Lanka, was no different. This characteristic was accentuated by the fact that the early migrants to Colombo were largely single men who came in search of urban fortunes or to escape rural misfortunes. First established as a Portuguese outpost in the early sixteenth century, modern Colombo took four and a half centuries, until the 1960s, before its proportion of women matched that of the “nation.” By that time, Sri Lanka had become the first nation in the modern world to elect a woman, Sirima Bandaranaike, to the highest office of the nation. In 1960, as the head of Sri Lanka, she came to occupy the most prestigious spaces in Colombo, such as the Prime Minister’s Office and the Prime Minister’s residence. As much as modern Colombo was created and transformed by European powers, this particular change was also caused by national forces, from outside of the city. Colonial Colombo, which developed into the capital of Ceylon, was governed by the Portuguese (1518-1656), the Dutch (1656-1796), and the British (1796-1948). Ceylon was the colonial territory which covered the entire island after its British takeover in 1815. The name continued after independence in 1948, until it was changed to Sri Lanka in 1972. This study maps out the transformation of colonial Colombo from literally a white male city to a womenfriendly place, by white European and indigenous Lankan women. It focuses on changes in the
colonial policy towards gender relations and the women’s practices that undermined those policies. This process, which I call the feminizing of Colombo, is more than a mere demographic change. It constitutes the transformation, with regard to gender, of institutions and other spaces—their meanings, representations, and power relations,. It was also part of a complex set of processes that were indigenizing, proletarianizing, nationalizing, and ruralizing the colonial city (Perera 1998). Moreover, issues of gender are directly related to those of race, class, and ethnicity, and each of these groups has its own story about feminizing Colombo. This discussion, however, concentrates on the relationship between white men, European women, and Lankan women during the colonial period; other important groups such as Lankan men are drawn into the discussion when they have a direct impact on this relationship. European colonialism goes far beyond simple political and economic subjugation to making ideological and cultural impositions (Perera 1998, chapter 3). Under colonialism, nature, animals, men, and women were objectified, owned, consumed, and forced to yield and produce. Social space is strategic since colonial authorities could not govern without incorporating a segment of the colonized body into the ruling power structure. David Harvey argues, “the assignment of place within a socio-spatial structure indicates distinctive roles, capacities for action, and access to power within the social order” (1990, 419). In this study, both place and space are social, not merely physical. The colonial spatial assignment and control is represented in the molding of the colonized body in regard to gender, race, class, and other socially constructed categories, the spaces this body occupies, and the way in which assignments facilitate the social order—I examine how the white male city of Colombo was created and reproduced by objectifying the colonized body.
However, this process of objectification and sexualization was never complete because it was flawed by the internal contradictions and convolutions of socio-spatial maps. The daily practices of certain groups of women progressively undermined the colonial maps of gender control and feminized the city. The term “feminization” employed here is radically different from what is in circulation today; for example, in the “feminization of poverty,” feminizing is viewed as a negative process that worsens the situation of women. In this essay, the term refers to the advancement in gender relations for certain groups of women within extant social structures. Instead of being passive recipients of its effects, the women involved empowered themselves by initiating certain processes of change to transform an unfavorable environment to a friendly one. The relative absence of women in the colonial city is intensified by the relative absence of literature on women. Studies on the colonial era do not consider women a significant category, let alone an agency, focusing as it does on activities from which women were excluded—seafaring, exploration of new worlds, proselytizing, and empire building. Charles Boxer observes this lack and notes, “if women are mentioned at all…[it] is usually restricted to famous characters” (1975, 9). The roles played by women in and around military and trading complexes, as housekeepers, prostitutes, or otherwise, were hardly documented. In Western urban history generally, women in urban environments have not been only silenced, but those in public spaces considered threats to urban order (Garber and Turner 1995, x-xxvi). It is, therefore, not surprising that women in the more women-friendly “Black City” in Colombo are the least documented of all. There are, however, a few recent works on women in Colombo and Ceylon during this period (Boxer 1975; Roberts et al. 1989; Grossholtz, 1984; Jayawardena 1992, 1995). It is to this developing area of study that this study expects to contribute.
With a few exceptions, such literature hardly brings out the contested aspects of gender and space. Colonialism was, most critically, ambiguous and contradictory (Bhabha 1983, 18-36) and one should consider the collision as well as negotiation between the colonizer and the colonized in shaping the urban landscape (Yeoh 1996, 9). The key variable in such analysis is social power, i.e., the capacity of some subjects to intervene in a given situation, to impose their will on others by the potential or actual use of violence, and transform it (Giddens 1987, 7; Castells 1989, 8). This chapter considers gender as a social construct, to investigate gender relationships, the rules that govern their enactment, and the patriarchal power structures that maintain inequalities between women and men. A way to approach this issue is by examining how urban spaces are differently perceived and utilized by colonial authorities and by women, why conflicts over the definitions and uses of space arise, and the implications of these conflicts. This study is, therefore, informed by postcolonial and feminist theories of social space and geography (Garber and Turner 1995; Blunt and Rose 1994; Spain 1992; Stansell 1987; and Jayawardena 1992, 1993, 1995). Highlighting the contested aspect of gendered spaces, this investigation exposes the principal official policies of spatial control and the power relations that marginalized women in colonial Colombo. It demonstrates how, in various stages of colonialism, both European and Lankan women used physical and social-symbolic mobility to subvert these policies. By crossing assigned spatial boundaries and building coalitions across categorical divisions, these trans-status subjects (as Sarker and De term them in the introduction to this volume) defied the socio-spatial order built upon separated but synchronic relationships between public and private spheres. In so doing, these women changed the values and meanings attached to their gender,
race, and status. This gendered subversion led to the gradual increase in number and prominence of women in colonial Colombo and the creation of a “women’s third space.” First nestled within the domestic sphere, this space was later extended into the public sphere by missionary and socialist women. As examples of one of the foci of this volume, various women’s local spaces within larger global arenas, the third spaces, produced during different periods were also responses to successive waves of globalization. While Western education helped upper-class Ceylonese women to claim power and agency in postcolonial Sri Lanka, it was the women of the Black City that were the backbone of the feminization process. In the following sections, I shall demonstrate how colonial places and spaces, constructed as part of systems of gender, race, class, and ethnic control, were open to deconstruction and redefinition by subordinate groups through their everyday practices.
Establishing a White Male City Portuguese Colombo was not only European and Catholic, but also a male domain by design. Like the city, gender relations in modern Colombo were first established by Portuguese authorities based on their imperialist objectives and, to a much lesser degree, the needs of the local colonial community. Other ethnic groups seem to have resided within the fort, but in small numbers and as less-powerful actors, for examples, slaves and guards. So far, I have not been able to find any indication of female presence in the core of the fort. The fort remained a male domain until the demolition of the fortifications by the British in 1869. The original fort was later expanded by the Portuguese to include residences of married settlers, but reduced again by the Dutch in the seventeenth century. The area outside the core of the expanded Portuguese fort
is referred to in this paper as the extended area, which was later called the Pettah. Married Portuguese men, casados, lived in the extended area, within the outer wall, and to the north of the fort, between the fort and the Kelani River, in and around Mutuwal, Wolvendal, and Grandpass, overlapping what became the “Black City” during the British period (Brohier 1984, 11) (Figure 1). The Portuguese fort was an extreme example of male space. The establishment of a white male city involved several important strategies and steps, including the settling of young, single Portuguese soldiers (soldados) and the development of negative perceptions of women which culminated in the “witchification” of the few European women who immigrated. The significance of being single was made very clear to the soldados from the beginning, and if any soldado got married, he was immediately discharged from service (Brohier 1984, 14). It is highly probable that any woman who stepped into the core of the fort area was seen as a prostitute, and most of those who entered it also engaged in prostitution. The Portuguese Crown actively discouraged women from going out to Asian and African colonies with the exception of the “Orphans of the King” and reformed prostitutes (Boxer 1969; Russell-Wood 1998, 110). Only a few emigrated to Asia during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and there were hardly any Portuguese women in colonies and outposts; for; there was one in Muscat in 1553, and one in Macao in 1636 (Boxer 1969, 129). In an attempt to increase the Portuguese population in the Empire, the authorities in the early seventeenth century encouraged men to emigrate to the island, marry the Orphans of the King, and make Ceylon their home (Abeyasinghe 1966, 59). The Orphans were orphan girls of (sometimes barely) marriageable age who were sent out to India from orphanages in Lisbon and Oporto at the expense of the Crown. Estado da India and its capital of Goa represented the Portuguese Empire
in the East. From the mid-sixteenth to early eighteenth century, the Orphans, who were intended as spouses for public officials and garrison officers, were provided with dowries, largely in the form of minor government posts for their potential husbands (Boxer 1975, 65-6; Boxer 1969, 129; Russell-Wood 1998, 109). As they did with male prisoners from the Limoeiro,1 the Portuguese authorities did not hesitate to make use of the bodies of reformed prostitutes and orphan girls in Lisbon and Oporto to achieve their imperial objectives overseas, by transforming orphans in Portugal to prospective white spouses in the colonies, and a problem at home into an asset of the Empire. The project was never fully successful; not more than thirty girls ever went out in a single year and the average was about ten. Even those who went East did not impress the men, the cash bonuses were unappealing, the official posts earmarked for prospective husbands were largely promises and not immediately effective, and the prospective positions were poorly paid to constitute significant financial attraction (Boxer 1969, 130; Boxer 1975, 68-74). However, the reason for Portuguese men in India not to consider Portuguese women as potential partners seems to be part of a much larger discourse addressed below. Concurrently, the colonial authorities implemented policies of miscegenation. The fact that the Portuguese who came East were mostly men was a conscious design of the Portuguese authorities to discourage their women from venturing to the colonial outposts, so as to encourage miscegenation as a bulwark of colonial control (Roberts et al. 1989, 35). Nevertheless, these strategies and controls were flawed, and males responded to the situation by engaging in prostitution and drinking. Although this was not the designed outcome of colonial policies, these developments promoted the further degradation of women. The separation of unequal public and private spaces is significant to the establishment of
spatial control (Garber and Turner 1995, introduction). Despite their presence outside the core of the fort, women in Colombo were largely prisoners in their homes of the husband or the amigo, and their lives were perceived as cheap. The sexual license accorded to men including soldados and casados was not extended to women unless they were prostitutes. Yet “Portuguese prostitute” was an oxymoron; an Iberian woman who was the mistress of a man was expected to remain as faithful to him as an actual spouse would be. Whether authorities or priests, nearly everyone who addressed issues of women and marriage was united in the view that adultery and unchastity in a woman was a much more serious crime than in a man (Boxer 1975, 109). Yet the chastity of women was not trusted (Pieris 1983, II, 115, 116); cuckolded husbands were never blamed for killing their “erring” spouses and the men who slew their innocent wives on mere suspicion seldom punished (Boxer 1969, 306). The double standard of chastity for men and women was spatially mapped out in such a way that the women’s domestic sociality would be subsumed by the men’s public sociality, enabling the men to control the public world in which women became the devalued Other (Rosaldo 1974; Blunt and Rose 1994, 3). The Dutch, too, continued to control the mobility, identity, space, and place of women, but faced different circumstances and outcomes. They were more concerned with Enlightenment beliefs (which caused a number of contradictions in their colonial policies and practices), and had more deliberate policies of settler colonization, miscegenation, and the creation of a new Eurasian race. The celebrated founder of Dutch commercial supremacy in the East Indies, Jan Pietersz Coen, conceived a flourishing society of vrij burgers (free citizens) in Dutch stations in the East, trading side by side with the East India Company (Arasaratnam 1988, 195). Yet the European enlightenment-based belief of racial segregation, that “the white man, whether merchant, mariner or settler, should stand ‘above and apart’ from the coloured races” implied
that white women should emigrate to the colonies in adequate numbers with their men (Boxer 1990, 241). In contrast to the Portuguese, more Dutch women were prepared to go East. The authorities were, however, dissatisfied with the kind of women who wanted to emigrate. On board a ship, Stavorinus observed in the 1760s, “A woman…had disguised herself in men’s clothes…and had enlisted as a soldier on board of the ship Schoonzicht; she had long kept her sex concealed, but being at last discovered, she was put on the shore at the Cape of Good Hope, and kept there, in order to be sent back to Holland” (1798, I, 195). The authorities soon learned that it was hopeless to expect “respectable” women to emigrate in sufficient numbers to the tropics, which were regarded as lands where life was short, especially for those bred in northern climates, and the acute discomforts of shipboard life on long voyages proved to be a powerful deterrent. For the Company, the women who went to the colonies were largely “light women,” more conspicuous for their adventurousness than their morals, who led “scandalous” and “unedifying” lives “to the great shame of the nation” (Boxer 1990, 241-2, 254-5). As early as 1612, the Governor-General advised Heeren XVII not to allow these women to emigrate and, later, the Dutch authorities were content with the results of this preemptive strike against the “disgraceful” women. The language suggests that these women were seen as less controllable, less abiding, more willing to take risks and, therefore, dangerous.
Incorporating Ceylonese Women Ceylonese women too were incorporated into the colonial social and spatial order. This is symbolized in the Portuguese “protection” for the families of Sinhalese auxiliaries called lascarins, and the Portuguese and Dutch projects to create a Eurasian race. The usual garrison in
Portuguese Ceylon comprised of 700 Portuguese soldiers supported by a standing force of about 15,000 lascarins (Boxer 1969?, 245). Contrary to the policy governing soldados, Portuguese authorities allowed the lascarins to have families, but desired to locate them within fortified settlements near the fort to protect them during war (de Silva 1972, 59, 78). The women and children were located in a knowable and controllable space, under the surveillance of the authority thus constructing the power to command these subjects. During war, the authorities made these families immobile and hostage, in view of providing protection for Portuguese forces. Phillipus Baldaeus provides a description of how Lup de Britto made use of this arrangement to neutralize a group of lascarins who opposed him during the 1656 Portuguese—Dutch—Kandyan war (1958-59, 249-50). De Britto led one hundred and fifty Portuguese soldiers who occupied a ‘suburb’ of Colombo, and ordered that the women and children be tied to doorposts as bait for the Sinhalese to return, and realize that they were overpowered. He then ordered that fire be set to the roofs of all houses near the Portuguese defense, to divert the Sinhalese, providing enough time to close the gates of the fort. In light of the failure of settler programs, Dutch colonizers saw the success of the former Portuguese policy of “body colonization,” of using the reproductive capabilities of Ceylonese women and Company men (Arasaratnam 1988, 194). Women and men were, therefore, seen as sets of discrete functioning mechanisms, a category of body that could be controlled, exploited, and coerced to produce a new race. Despite their low numbers, men of mixed Portuguese and Sinhalese descent who fought alongside the Portuguese were seen as partly, if not largely, responsible for the stiff and prolonged resistance by the Portuguese. The Dutch Governor, Johan Maetsuyker found that ‘free-burghers’ could not compete on even remotely equal terms with local Muslims. The children of mixed marriages, he averred, were better acclimatized than those
of pure European parentage and, after the second or third generation, they differed little, if at all, from pure Netherlanders in complexion (Boxer 1990, 247-8). The Dutch, therefore, desired the production of bodies that looked Dutch but were as strong as the Sinhalese. Yet they were specific about the bodies and wombs they wanted to employ; Muslim women allegedly deliberately aborted the babies of Christian men (Boxer 1990, 242). This policy, and that of miscegenation, produced a reasonable mestizo community, but failed to produce the anticipated results. The Dutch were not successful in attracting their preferred bodies, that of high-class, high-caste Christian or proselytizable women. According to Jean Grossholtz, â€œAlthough it was a patriarchal society, elements of a matriarchal past, Buddhism, and the idea of land-use rights rather than private ownership gave [Lankan] women an easier, more flexible positionâ€? (1984, 3). Here I use Lanka strategically to refer loosely to the island and its indigenous societies, as opposed to any particular kingdom, prior to European colonization. In Lanka, while Buddhism contrasted with the male monopoly in the Brahmin practices in India (Jayawardena 1992, 111), most importantly in regard to religious rituals and admitting women into the ranks of its clergy, women were subordinated to the male within local patriarchal ideas and the notion that only a man could become a Buddha.2 Within this broadly sketched position, however, the specifics are quite striking. Women could not only enter the Buddhist order of nuns, but also participate in religious rites with men. In farming, women worked alongside men, except in certain tasks in the cultivation cycle that were forbidden to them at certain times; women did the daily maintenance work of houses, men engaged in house building and repair work during non-peak times in farming. During the peak time of either activity, the whole family including children participated. Hence, men, women, and children were all essential member of the social, cultural, and material production and reproduction
systems at family and village levels. The choices offered by Lankan gender relationships were apparent in marriage practices tooâ€”women seemed to have enormous freedom and mostly women made decisions regarding marriages. They could be married in the patrilocal diga in which the bride was given a dowry and had no further claims to inheritance, or the uxorilocal binna in which the woman was entitled to an equal share of the inheritance when her father died, her husband was subject to expulsion at will, and the marriage contract could be dissolved by mutual consent (Jayawardena 1992, 115). Virginity in women was not valued, and a loose form of trial marriage was common (Knox 1981, 134-5; Davy 1821, 214-5). The Sinhala Buddhist precepts incorporate diverse moral codes, which were more guidelines than commandments, and monogamy, polygamy, and polyandry were customary in various segments of the society (Gombrich and Obeyesekere 1990, 28; Jayawardene 1992, 115; Grossholtz 1984, 19). A determining factor of this system was that marriage was not a mode of transferring cultivation rights to a family living outside of the village, irrespective of the gender of the person who relocated (Grossholtz 1984, 110-11). Unlike the situations of the Orphans of the King or of women in many parts of south Asia, dowry was not a way of â€œbribingâ€? a man to marry a woman, but a way of substituting moveable property for the immovable rights to land in a society that was not based on private property. European (Dutch) colonialism transformed these relationships, displacing the older system with the patriarchal Roman-Dutch legal system, and enforcing new marriage and inheritance laws (Jayawardena 1992, 116). Patriarchal inheritance, for example, a more individualistic orientation to material acquisition, was rooted in European capitalism and required a nuclear family structure. Given indigenous practices, women of upper-caste, upperclass families did not have much of an incentive to liaise with Portugese or Dutch men. Those
who were attracted by the prospect of living with a white man in the fort were largely from “lower-castes,” presumably meaning non-Goyigama caste womenfolk (Roberts et al. 1989, 35). For Dutch authorities, the final outcome was the most undesirable: Dutch children born in the Indies were derogatorily called “liplaps” (Stavorinus 1798, 315); the children of mixed marriages drew the contempt of the European-born and the Ceylonese, inherited the vices of both races and the virtues of neither, and their defects were ascribed more to their Eurasian blood than to their upbringing (Boxer 1990 , 253).
Creating a Third Space Despite the rhetoric of male superiority and women as degraded, women seem to have better adapted to climatic and cultural conditions in Ceylon. The perceived mysteriousness of Portugese women was integral to the discourse that represented them as inferior to the conquistadors. Paradoxically, men died in large numbers in the “tropics” whereas the women adapted and indigenized faster; their willingness to mingle with Ceylonese and slave women helped ‘colonial’ women create a third space for themselves which subverted the colonial gender control and maps of spatial subjectivity. The prevailing rhetoric projected Portuguese women, and their adaptation, as deranged and inferior. Pieris’s words illustrate the point.
When at home these women wore a Baju of fine muslin…varying in quality with the wealth of the wearer, wound round their waists, and loose sandals or slippers on their feet. All their spare time, which was considerable, was devoted to chewing of betel leaf; their food was chiefly rice and curry with some pickled mango…they invariably ate with
their fingers…drank water in the Oriental fashion from gorglets, which were never applied to the lips. They were very cleanly in their persons, having learnt the Oriental custom of frequent baths…and were fond of scents, using sandal wood and similar articles on the body like Indian women (1983 II, 116).
Socially conditioned to think that they were superior, the men did not give any credit to the versatility and adaptability of their women, since they perceived Portuguese women as physically inferior, not tough enough certainly to acclimatize to the tropics. Queiroz wrote in 1687 about women’s frailty, “Even nowadays the pregnancies of Portuguese women almost invariably terminate fatally for both mother and child” (In Boxer 1969, 129). Whether supported by political or medical knowledge of the time or not, this dominant notion must have justified thinking of Portuguese women as inferior beings, not only physiologically but also to mentally and morally. In large part, men’s inability to recognize or control the processes of transformation experienced the women, or an increasingly inability to know them at all, seems to have contributed to the perception of the women who wore baju, hung sandal wood articles on their bodies, and drank from gorglets as some sort of strange beings. Within hegemonic structures of masculinist privilege, unrecognizable transformations can only become so much of a potential threat before the order in the gendered landscape of power is reasserted by redirecting or stopping such change. Projecting the male “lack” onto the women to reproduce male superiority, men absorbed the difference that this uneven gendered indigenization produced into a dichotomous system of superior-inferior and good-bad. Yet the women developed their own space within the maps of colonial and patriarchal control.
Like the Portuguese, the Dutch authorities also projected male shortcomings onto women. The lack of strong family and communal life was aggravated by the alcoholism that plagued Dutchmen in Colombo, which was also a problem in the metropole. Cape Town had acquired the reputation as the “Tavern of Two Seas.” The authorities blamed the women and imposed restrictions on Burgher marriages with the intent of ensuring the desirability of women; the usual test applied was the regularity of attendance at church and their knowledge of the Christian religion (Arasaratnam 1988, 206-7). The Dutch community was hardly stable. At the beginning of Dutch rule, owing to the relative absence of Dutch women in the island, the colonists married Portuguese widows, mestizo girls, or Christian Ceylonese, all belonging to very different cultures. It created a global village with very little to share. According to Sinnapah Arasaratnam, once uprooted from their own society and resident in Colombo, the Sinhalese women who converted to Christianity and married Dutchmen tended to fall into what he calls the corrupt life of that place (1988, 206). It must have been rather difficult for any woman from outside to relocate herself within the Dutch colonial community that was, at the same time, searching for its own self, identity, form, and culture. Within this instability, slaves, mostly of south Indian but also of African origin, became the progenitors of a women’s third culture. Language, a prime component of any culture, was molded by the slaves who played a crucial role in reproducing Portuguese within the colonial community in an “Indianized” form. In the early nineteenth century Robert Percival, a Britisher, was surprised that the Dutch ladies in Colombo hardly spoke Dutch, a fact he ascribed to their frequent interaction with slaves, all of whom used “Indianized Portuguese” (1990 , 116). The 409 households within Colombo in 1694 held an average of 4.31 slaves; in 1761, slaves were
53.5% of the city population, outnumbering all others (Knapp 1981, 84-101). Their significant presence and role, especially of female slaves, in bringing up children were central to the establishment of the third culture. From them, according to Percival, children imbibed manners, habits, and superstitious notions, of which they hardly divested themselves (1990 , 139). Instead of simply occupying the slot assigned to them by the colonial authorities, and assimilating into the colonial system, the slaves incorporated the women in the colonial community into the culture that they were building. A major condition that helped the development of the third culture was the dissonance between men and women, and the closeness between women and slaves. Women had spent their entire lives apart from males, beginning with their fathers. Ladies and gents clubbed separately. Percival stresses, “The conversation of women…forms very little of a Ceylonese-Dutchman’s entertainment. Although ladies make part of the company, yet they experience none of that attention and politeness to which fair sex are accustomed to in Europe. After the first salutations are over, the men seem to forget that the ladies are at all present” (1990, 137-8). This disjuncture represents a considerable displacement of colonial social and spatial order, and provided a competing public sphere for women in the colonial community. The women’s third culture originated within residential space and the female community, but it made its way to the public sphere. Manifestations, such as women wearing bajus, smelling like oil, speaking in Indo-Portuguese, and socializing together, became naturalized and violated both the hierarchical separation of public-private and public-domestic spaces. This transgression disabled the ability of the male-dominated public sphere to subsume the domestic sphere associated with women. Ceylonese women crossing the divide to join the colonial community bolstered this
process and constructed their own segment of the third space, aided ironically by colonial policies. The women who braved the disdain of their own community and contracted unions with Dutchmen or other Europeans did not simply transform themselves into passive subjects in the new society. While the possession of slaves was especially pleasing for them, these women tended to put on “airs, ” became “ladies,” and wished to be waited on (Roberts et al. 1989, 37). These new roles and spaces, in effect, was further strengthened and expanded by Dutch intermarriage practices. Despite the desire of Dutch authorities for apartheid, within a few months after the takeover of Colombo, about 200 Dutchmen married Indo-Portuguese women (Goonewardena 1959, 226). During subsequent decades, Dutch soldiers and officials lived in boarding houses ran by Tupass, a Dutch term used to identify the darker people of mixed Portuguese and Sinhalese descent, those born out of wedlock, and Asian converts to Christianity. This often resulted in intermarriage (Roberts et al. 1989, 35, 36). Mixed marriages were instrumental in the development of a remarkable Indo-Portuguese culture within the Dutch colony, of which the lingua franca was an Indianized-Portuguese—for Europeans, the Kandyan court, mesticos, Tupass, Ceylonese headmen, and other local people. After the British takeover in the late eighteenth century, the Dutch language waned quickly, but use of the Portuguese creole continued. Even as late as the 1860s, this language was not restricted to the Burghers and Tupass, but extended to the urban notables from Bharatha, Colombo Chetty, and other Asian communities (Roberts et al. 1989, 37-8). It is this language that seeped into the women’s sphere of the colonial community through the slaves, unifying the women’s third spaces with the quotidian culture and the non-formal public sphere within Colombo.
The British Reproduction of Gender Subjectivity British Colombo was radically different from that of the Portuguese and the Dutch. The British held firmly to apartheid, and thus spatial segregation and control was highly organized. There were more English women living in Colombo than Dutch or Portuguese women during their rule, but the proportion of British women in the city was still small. According to James Cordiner, the British circle in Colombo initially numbered nearly one hundred gentlemen and twenty ladies (1807, 76). In larger Colombo, in the 1840s, the white population consisted of 2,100 people, of which only 400 were females (Roberts et al. 1989, 50). These figures include the Dutch and other Europeans who lived in the European/Eurasian residential zone, the Pettah, which had the most families. In regard to both number and power, therefore, the gender imbalance in Colombo continued, and the fort continued to be a male domain of the colonial community. The British colonial society, marked by the principle of exclusiveness, did not recognize miscegenation. Percival, for example, showed extreme prejudice against the creole population—he was appalled by the lack of “polite” or cultured conversation among Dutch ladies, their “superstitious notions,” their use of “barbarous” and “vulgar” Portuguese language, their habits of betel-chewing and applying coconut-oil to their hair, the odor of which “quite overpower the senses of a European, and render the approach to these women disgusting” (Percival 1990, 139-41; Roberts et al. 1989, 50). The British continued the same discourse of the “indigenized-witch,” but directed towards other European and Eurasian women, not to their own kind. The gendered spaces were thus more clearly demarcated at the daily level. King demonstrates how the relative absence of women in colonial Delhi led to specific colonial
institutions such as the bachelor chummery and the club, and to the allocation of disproportionate space to recreational activities for young male officers, including race courses and riding tracks, which were separated from the local bazaar (1991, 35). Colonial Colombo was no different. In the world outside work, the Ceylonese were largely kept at a distance and were not admitted into home, club, or social setting. Clubs were principally for men of the colonial community and ladies were excluded from meetings. Entertainments involving women were occasionally provided by both main clubs, but they took place in the country and in the fort, not in the clubs; when women were present, there was dancing involved (Cordiner date, 7980). The compartmentalization of time and space into specialized blocks, in the separation of activities into segregated spheres and periods of day, marks a clear break from the more evenly spread time and space of Dutch Colombo. The exacerbation of the unevenness of sociality for men and women would, thus, reproduce the temporalization of spatial control and the subordination of women. Those officials who made the mistake of marrying Ceylonese women, rather than keeping them in concubinage, ruined their careers; the so-called European “ne’er-do-wells” were quickly deported (Roberts et al. 1989, 119). The Colonial Office further tightened the controls by sending out a circular in 1909 prohibiting the civil servants from liaisoning with local women (Strobel 1991, 4; Jayawardena 1995, 3). Complementary to the intense stratification was the unwritten rule of colonialism that there should be no breach in the ranks. Englishwomen bore the burden not only of maintaining this social integrity but also of being considered the guardians of the purity of the race. White women who had local friends were, therefore, accused of “going jungli” and their socializing with local men was seen as racial betrayal (Jayawardena 1995, 4). Confining them to the particular allocated spaces, the British ostracized those English
women who had stooped to marry Ceylonese, referring to them disparagingly as “landladies’ daughters” (Roberts et al. 1989, 119). Despite the hardening of British exclusiveness over the years, these apartheid policies never fully materialized. Upper-crust British tended to marry into Burgher elite families with greater frequency in the early part of the British rule (Roberts et al., 1989, 50, 51). The loosening of the seemingly tighter British control was quickened by the movement of the lower class British across the lines of segregation into associations with the Ceylonese; some even lived with Ceylonese women. In these ways, then, although its characteristics might have transformed somewhat, women’s third spaces were further reinforced.
Feminizing Colombo During British rule, there was a marked increase in the number of European women who disrupted the colonial system of gender control in Colombo. They became increasingly involved in the social, cultural, and political activities of the island. The wide range of out-of-theordinary European women, from a colonial perspective, included holy rollers, spinsters, busybodies, eccentrics, divine mothers, fanatics, and prostitutes who disrupted the gendered maps of control to those who more overtly exported the idea of social change to Ceylon, such as agitators, anarchists, and communists. More prominent in the early years were those who brought Christianity, Western education, social reform, women’s rights, and other modernizing processes to Asia within the framework of British colonialism. Towards the latter part of the British rule, Ceylon saw the emigration of women who were rejecting Christianity, negating Western values, and rediscovering indigenous religions and cultures in a context of self-rule, nationalism, and socialism. These women were inspired by social beliefs that motivated them to
abandon their home countries to live, and in most cases die, in South Asia (Jayawardena 1995, 8). Missionary women were the first to explicitly subvert the colonial structure of gendered space. As contact with the indigenes was essential to their mission, these women boldly crossed the colonial divide. As those who carried out the broader colonial objective of Westernizing the Ceylonese, missionary women were entitled to occupy the public sphere. Through occupying these new spaces, missionary women not only subverted the colonial map of gender control but also achieved what was denied to them at home. Through their presence and activities, they expanded women’s third space into the formal public arena and, physically, to the ecclesiastical space in the middle of the city (churches, convents, missionary schools, and plazas). In the early phase of British rule, missionary schools for Ceylonese women undertook the narrow objective of producing good Christian wives for male converts. This effect was that higher education, almost equal to that for boys, granted Ceylonese women access to professions and employment in the formal economy. Women medical practitioners among the missionaries drove this social transformation even further. For example, Dr. Mary Rutnam (nee Irwin, 18731962) not only worked in the field of gynecology, but also campaigned for maternal healthcare, childcare, and hospital facilities for women. She also pioneered women’s groups such as the Ceylon Women’s Union (1904), the Tamil Women’s Union (1909), the Women’s Franchise Union (1927), and the Lankan Mahila Samitiya (1931) (Jayawardena 1995, 24, 34, 88). Towards the end of colonial rule, educated European women indigenized much faster and crossed deeper into the other side of the colonial divide. In so doing, they accelerated both the Westernization of Ceylonese women and their movement from an indigenous domestic sphere to the colonial public sphere.
Another group, consisting of theosophists, Orientalists, and Holy Mothers, who rejected the “noble savage” hypothesis, wanted to “Orientalize” and “civilize” the colonizers. For them, Asia had achieved a degree of wisdom and spirituality far superior to the materialist development of the West…they were particularly attracted by the concepts of woman’s power (shakti) in Hinduism, by androgynous deities, female goddesses such as Kali, and by the claims of high status of women in ancient Hindu and Buddhist societies. These perceptions placed them in a position of direct antagonism to colonialism, which they saw as a destructive force (Jayawardena 1995, 4-5).
The Russian Helena Blavatsky and the American Mary Foster, for example, were key figures in the revival of Buddhism in the late nineteenth century. While helping its revival process, they also contributed to the “Protestantization of Buddhism” which brought Buddism into the modern (colonial) society (Obeyesekere 1970, 43-63). As they were going against the grain of the colonial system, women who took part in these movements did not perceive their role as exporting Western ideas. Moreover, both men and women of this category did not occupy the colonial public sphere, but contributed to the development of an alternative sphere for the Ceylonese. This public space was built around the new Buddhist institutions in Colombo, particularly the Mahabodhi Society, vihares (temples) at Kotte and Kelaniya, piriven (Buddhist universities) at Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara, printing presses, publishing houses, and “mission” schools in Colombo (Perera 1998, chapter 4). In the early twentieth century, some European women directly took part in the struggle for independence and socialism in Ceylon. These socialists rejected Kali and local gurus, and
wanted the Ceylonese to free themselves—politically from foreign rule and, with regard to women, from socially oppressive structures as well as traditional religious and cultural practices. The British rulers were clearly rattled by the boldness of these Western women who were undermining white supremacy by consorting with the colonized. They were considered far more dangerous than the “indigenized-witches” of the early colonial era. If missionary women developed a niche in the public space for them, socialist women directly contested the validity of the colonial public space and threatened to replace it with a new one. Bringing the involvement of Western women to a peak in this regard, Doreen Wickramasinghe (nee Young), who married the leader of the Communist Party, defeated her own Sinhalese in-law who represented the rightwing ruling party, to become the first foreign-born woman to enter the Parliament in 1952. For almost the entire colonial period, upper-class, upper-caste women were not central to the process of feminizing the city. As argued above, there was not much for them to gain by liaisoning with the foreigners in Colombo; they did not even live in Colombo in the early colonialism. Their move to Colombo was largely as members of political and economic elite who emulated colonial roles and residential preferences in Muttuwal, Kollupitiya, and Cinnamon Gardens successively. It was Western women who helped them enter the “modern” (colonial) society, largely through educational systems (Jayawardena 1995, 262). These Ceylonese women crossed the colonial divide to create their own space, an indigenized version of the modernized and Westernized world. As illustrated above, when compared to other countries in Asia, Ceylonese women had a head start in education. Yet there were only a few Buddhist women who had a systematic education, and the literacy rate of women in 1881 was only 3%. Moreover, modernized Buddhist men were reluctant to marry uneducated women, preferring the products of the
Christian convent system. In Buddhist culture, where the woman is the agent of cultural continuity, the fact that their men were marrying Christian women, some of whom were nonSinhalese, was a threat to their identity. At the same time, a leader of Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka, Henry Olcott, an American, was interested in providing opportunities for women to educate themselves based on the idea that the “mother is the first teacher.” Theosophical women were invited from the West to become school teachers and principals; Buddhist women’s schools were established in the late 1880s, and the first high school, Visaka Vidyalaya, in 1922, in which all the principals and most of the teachers were women of European origin, and some were Burghers. The first Sinhalese woman-principal of Visaka Vidyalaya was appointed in 1967, nineteen years after independence. The number of girls enrolled in schools rose from 50,000 in 1901 to 396,000 in 1946. Their proportion rose from 27% to 42%, and the literacy rate for women from 3% to 83% during this period (Jayawardena 1993, 13-22). Thus, education opened up a broad avenue for Buddhist women to enter the public sphere. These were, however, not the lower-caste, lower-class women who helped European women indigenize and develop a third space. These women belonged to upper and upper-middle classes and castes, and were helped by educated, middle class, European women who were in the process of creating a space for themselves in their own Western world. Nonetheless, the challenge posed to the colonial rule by a few educated Ceylonese women such as Vivian Goonewardena, along with her socialist comrades, should not be overlooked. The major group of actors that brought about the feminization of Colombo’s core was the women of the “Black City,” the unsung heroines. These mostly lower-class women lived in the indigenous part of Colombo during the entire colonial period. When Percival claimed in the early nineteenth century that, for its size, Colombo was one of the most populated places in
“India,” and the meeting place of a large number of races and ethnic groups, he referred to this part of the city (1990, 114). This was also the most women-friendly area in Colombo, where women defied most official restrictions imposed upon them, and were engaged in public activities such as vending. Although some of them might have fallen prey to miscegenation, police brutalities, and other discriminatory policies of colonial regimes, and were poor, it was these women, with their men, who continued to contest the European claim to Colombo. These families built their city adjacent to the colonial city and, along with the new migrants, eventually reclaimed the city. It was these women and families that completed the transformation of the white-male city into a women-friendly city. In so doing, they brought the long process of feminizing the city to a new peak.
Conclusions European imperial powers strategically used social space—the separation between the colonial community and the colonized as well as the domestic and public spaces—to make cultural and ideological impositions on the minds and the bodies of the colonized. As illustrated, Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonial maps of gender control were not as efficient, efficacious, or complete as their discursive representations suggest. Both the Portuguese and Dutch authorities were unable to induce a significant number of “respectable” women to emigrate to colonies, nor were the Portuguese males able to engage in miscegenation to a degree that it would become a crucial instrument in the colonization of Ceylon. Moreover, subordinate groups redefined the maps of gender, race, class, and ethnic control through their everyday practices. If separation was a key strategy of control, women on both sides of the colonial divide made use of their mobility to subvert the socio-spatial map of
colonial control, enhancing the number and prominence of women in Colombo. While slave and indigenous women helped their European counterparts to both indigenize and carve out a women’s third space, European women facilitated the entry of upper and middle-class Ceylonese women to modern society. Later, missionary women of European origin expanded the third space into the public arena and the socialist women helped Ceylonese women, and men, to occupy the public sphere. In the long run, women’s third space seemed to have progressed from a “semi-private” sphere to a public sphere. First established in the domestic arena, the third space was developed, during the Dutch rule, into an alternative public sphere, and a representation of women’s resistance to colonial control. Nonetheless, the progress in regard to feminizing the city was not linear; the authorities have periodically reproduced the order within the gendered landscapes of power by obstructing the movements of subversives at the boundaries of masculinist privilege; for example, the Dutch authorities stopped the “adventurous women” from traveling to the colonies. At every stage, however, the women developed everyday practices that would resist and undermine that order. What we see is, therefore, an unfinished dialectics of reestablishment and subversion of the gendered landscape of power in colonial Colombo. What we see is, therefore, successive cycles of reestablishment and subversion of the gendered landscape of power in colonial Colombo.
Notes: I would like to thank the Office of Academic Research and Sponsored Programs at Ball State University for the Summer Faculty Grant which enabled me to complete the preliminary research for this paper. 1
According to Abeyasinghe, many of the soldados who came to the East were men pressed for service from the Lisbon jail, the Limoeiro, and the worst of the Portuguese in the East tended to be posted for service in Ceylon (1966, 93).
These patriarchal ideas do not seem to be what Buddha nor the early Buddhists believed (see Horner 1930; Grossholtz 1984, 124). For the forces defining womenâ€™s subordinate position, see Jayawardena 1992, 115.
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