Nobodies to Somebodies: The Rise of the Colonial Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka By Kumari Jayawardena, Leftword, Rs 650
Kumari Jayawardena got the title of her book, Nobodies to Somebodies, from a remark by Christoffel Obeyesekere, the great-grandfather of Sri Lankan president Chandrika Kumaratunga. During a debate in the legislative council, Obeyesekere had claimed that the Muslim-Sinhala riots of 1915 had happened because the villagers had been deluded “for the personal aggrandisement of a few who are nobodies, but who hope to make somebodies of themselves by such disgraceful tactics”.
The “nobodies” Obeyesekere refered to were Sinhala leaders like D.S. Senanayake, the first prime minister of independent Sri Lanka, and his brothers, F.R. Senanayake and D.C. Senanayake. Their father, Don Spater Senanayake, had made his fortune in graphite-mining and had later branched out into coconut plantations, arrack-renting, toll-renting and real estate.
Nobodies to Somebodies, thus, charts the mercantile foundations of the 19th century Sri Lankan bourgeoisie. It shows how a few families of different caste, ethnic and religious background accumulated riches through ventures like arrack renting, land acquisition, and coffee and tea plantations, entered politics and then attempted to transform the political system into one based on capitalism and democracy.
Jayawardena also examines whether class became more important than caste in this battle between the “nobodies” and “somebodies”. The colonial period in Sri Lanka saw a gradual decline in the caste system. Initially, people from all castes made use of the opportunity to get rich through the liquor trade.
But after the 1830s, it came to be dominated by the karavas. As the karavas’ social and political status increased, it roused the hostility of the elite goyigamas. Historians have called this a “great” controversy between the two castes. But Jayawardena re-examines the data and argues that it was more an inter-class rivalry expressed in caste terms, a rivalry between the old and nouveau rich, between landowners and the merchant class, between the forces of conservatism and reform.
This lucidly-written, detailed and meticulously crafted book fills a gap in Sri Lankan history. Jayawardena, it is obvious, has made every effort to corroborate oral histories with archival material. Above all, her approach is non-polemical. Also, the 16 pages of photographs of the “Nobodies” of the temperance movement appended to the book add to its value.