The rise of the Sri Lankan petty bourgeoisie

The study of the history and evolution of the petty bourgeoisie or lower middle class in colonial societies has not been given the attention it deserves. Part of the reason for this may be, as Arno Mayer has noted, the “intricate nature” of the petty bourgeoisie which has made it more colourful, complicated, and even contradictory than the old aristocracy, bourgeoisie, peasantry, and proletariat. While the colonial bourgeoisie and working class figured in some of the most pioneering studies of the second half of the 20th century, the lower middle class of the colonial era thus remained conspicuous by its absence in those studies.

The petty bourgeoisie, Marx observed in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, was both cut off from and connected to the bourgeoisie and the working class. Because of their diversity and size, the lower middle class were unable to enforce their interests. In other words, “[t]hey cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.” Their reliance on representatives linked them to the growth of parliamentary democracy in the West; that linked them to either the bourgeoisie or working class, depending on the mood of the moment: Arno Mayer argued they tended to be hostile to the working class, while Jonathan Wiener argued they had the potential to be allied with them: in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution, for instance, they formed an alliance with the Parisian proletariat against the all powerful bourgeoisie.

In colonial societies the petty bourgeoisie played a largely different historical role. Depending on the nature of class cleavages and social hierarchies in their countries, the lower middle class found themselves at odds with imperial economic and political policies; put simply, the more servile the bourgeoisie were towards colonial overlords, the more pronounced the opposition of the lower middle class or petty bourgeoisie to those policies was. In that regard, it is imperative to divide this class into an old and a new, or a pre-colonial and a colonial, phase, since the way it asserted its strength was different in each of those phases. This was especially true of Sri Lanka.

At the time of the Kotte kings, K. M. de Silva has contended, “the principal source of income was land revenue and not trade.” Trade, in other words, was largely left to foreign merchants, in particular the Moors but also various other groups from South India and Europe. In the context of what Tambiah referred to as a “galactic polity” (as opposed to a unitary state), Sri Lanka at the time became a multicultural trade centre, with ethnic and religious groups mingling with each other. Paradoxically though, in this galactic trade centre, the majority, the Sinhalese, happened to be unaccustomed to trade practices — a peculiarity that continued to the Kandyan kingdom: Robert Knox, for instance, wrote that while in captivity he set himself up as a hat maker and went on “profiting handsomely by enterprise” with his own captors (Ryan 1961).

This seems to show that immediately prior to the British conquest there was no active indigenous trading class or petty bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka, as there was elsewhere in the region. The American historian Burton Stein in his essay “Towards an Indian Petty Bourgeoisie” examines the emergence of a pre-colonial petty bourgeoisie in India at the time of the Mughal emperors; according to Stein, this petty bourgeoisie “occupied a place above the rural and urban poor” and made up an “intermediate formation” between urban financiers and the village peasantry.

The fusion of capitalism and casteism in the pre-colonial era no doubt gave birth to an interesting variation on the capitalist phase that the West was going through. While differences between the one and the other could not have been considerable, in one sense they were different: in Europe the rise of the petty bourgeoisie was accompanied by the rise of the nation state, while in India it was accompanied by the strengthening of communal links at village level — described today as the janapadaya (which was neither the self-sufficient “village republic” that Metcalfe, Marx, and Gandhi thought it to be, nor the caste-centred commune contemporary writers took it to be). In this janapadaya there were many economic actors dealing with one another: craftsmen, shopkeepers, labour contractors, rent collectors, and moneylenders (dalal).

If in India this monetary economy preceded the British East India Company, in Sri Lanka the formation of such an economy was curtailed, if not thwarted, by British officialdom. Colonial accounts of the Kandyan kingdom tended to downplay the role played by money in the pre-colonial phase because, being imperialists, the British felt it to be their role to familiarise the colonised with trade. As S. B. D. de Silva noted, it was their non-acquaintance with a monetary economy, and not their indolence, which compelled the Sinhalese to rebel against any paid labour schemes; being attached to land, they were averse to any policy that took them away from it, even if the compensation was fair (which it was not).

There was hence a market economy before the British, but that economy was wholly different in conception, and specific and peculiar to Sri Lanka and Kandy. The Dutch, and the Portuguese before them, had codified a law of trade in which transactions were divided into different, distinct categories; in the Kandyan kingdom, where none of these colonial powers made much headway, there was both fluidity and security of transactions: debts could be converted to land transfers, land transfers to cash, and so on. Specie was not completely unheard of in Kandy, though it was in short supply and largely a privilege of the few; accounts have been written of Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe paying off the expenses of his aunt’s funeral.

All this naturally necessitated a class of intermediaries who could intervene in trade disputes by resorting to uniformly applicable laws and customs. In Kandy, trade was conducted largely by migrants — Moors, Tamils, even Europeans — but disputes were settled by Kandyan chiefs. There were all the hallmarks of trade oriented cultures, the good as well as the bad: the chiefs, being settlers of disputes, did not entertain second thoughts about exacting “clandestine profits.” Not unlike in the colonial era, the men at the top escaped the brunt of the law even when cultivators presented accusations to the king — who, incidentally, was for most of the time “kept in ignorance” of matters relating to crop yields of the provinces under him.

K. M. de Silva’s contention that land yielded more income than trade is correct insofar as the Sinhalese lack of familiarity with trade is concerned. Sri Lanka, however, was not and never was a trade vacuum. Indeed, in the absence of proper evidence, we can’t say anything for sure, though we know that in the Anuradhapura period there were mercantile guilds that borrowed and lent grain to customers, and that texts like the Rasavahini, Saddharmalankaraya, and Pujavaliya referred to villagers who carted firewood and foodstuffs to the nearest market centre.

We also know from inscriptions that locals from distinctly identified castes took part in internal trade, including jaggery sellers, cloth sellers, and potters, making up a band of craftsmen, artisans, and merchants who served as links between the town and the hinterlands. As in India, here too villages were not self-sufficient, though as de Silva has noted, the economy of the Kandyan kingdom towards its last phase never really congealed to one entity and was instead made up of “congeries of local economies”, with very little surplus production and even less potential for trade.

In any case, the rise of a caste-based system of compulsory labour in the eighth and ninth centuries AD led to a form of feudalism different not only from Medieval Europe, but also from India. Indeed, R. S. Sharma, in his groundbreaking study of feudalism in India, went as far as to suggest that in certain respects the Indian peasant stood in the same relation to his landlord as the peasant stood to his lord in medieval England. No doubt the vastness of India necessitated a hierarchy of rulers, lords, serfs, and vassals; if so, the smallness of Sri Lanka precluded the need for such a hierarchy, and with it the need for intermediaries between rulers and subjects.

There were other important differences. For instance, Sinhala kings, unlike their Indian counterparts, were the sole owners of the land: they were called bhupati, or “lord of the earth”. In other words there was no subinfeudation, and thus no serfs and vassals. Land grants were made, but never of the sort that were made in, say, the post-Maurya period in India to brahmanas and Buddhist monks. This would have inhibited the entrenchment of a local trading class, but it also had the effect of making the land tenure system of the country more flexible; as the Portuguese and Dutch were to learn quickly, this made the business of administering the country, and obtaining the loyalty of local elites, all the more easy. That in turn had an impact on the formation of a petty bourgeoisie.

In colonial societies, the colonisers frequently resorted to established traditional patterns of living, belief systems, and hierarchies based on caste, so as to perpetuate their domination. This usually led to a jettisoning of a minority from the rest of the country and the creation of a culturally colonised elite: the brown sahibs. Where the pre-capitalist phase of such countries did not facilitate the rise of a feudal landowning aristocracy, as was the case in Sri Lanka and Mughal India, disruptions to traditional patterns led to the emergence of new aristocracies and new caste and class structures which had their origins in the pre-capitalist phase.

The Portuguese administration found Sri Lanka’s land tenure system to be both flexible and sensitive. Within 18 years of taking over Kotte, Abeyasinghe writes, they were able “to transfer a large number of villagers” to their jurisdiction. The pace at which their lands were transferred accelerated following the accession of Jerónimo de Azevedo as Captain-General. Eventually, land came to fall under two categories: temple properties allocated to the Catholic church and made subject to royal pleasure, and properties the grantees of which paid a quit-rent and maintained lascarins or soldiers whenever they were needed for war.

Most of the gabadagam lands, used by the Sinhalese kings for their use and pleasure, had by 1615 been transferred to both foreigners and locals; naturally, the best lands went to the Portuguese, because of which a Portuguese landowning aristocracy (of sorts) emerged. At the same time, however, land transfers did not result in upheavals and rebellions as they would in the British era; in fact, in many instances the Portuguese followed the patterns of landholding their predecessors had instituted, to such an extent that it has been conjectured that “not one cultivator was displaced by the changes.” The only major addition to the system was the quit-rent, and even that was made applicable to certain lands; many of the service lands were exempted from it, including owned by cinnamon peelers.

Cinnamon, in fact, became the country’s main export crop, followed by coconut, arecanut, elephants, and less importantly, gemstones. Each of these had its own designated department, known as the mahabadda, and its own designated group of extractors and dealers; none of these, however, ever became as dear to the administration as cinnamon peeling. While it is far from the truth that trade flourished or that officials were able to balance the budget in the face of hostilities by aspiring regents (especially from Sitawaka), in the first few decades of their rule they allowed open trade before price slumps and depression compelled them to set up a rigid State monopoly. As for tax collection, the Portuguese continued the collection of dues that had been collected from locals at the time of the Sinhala kings.

In other words we see a trading class conduct transactions and deal with government officials even at the time of Portuguese colonialism. Dekum, one of the customary dues collected from officials, was also collected from tradesmen and craftsmen. There is every reason to believe that the Portuguese tampered very little with the caste lines that demarcated these tradesmen and craftsmen: dekum dues, for instance, were entered in the foral mostly against groups.

More trade oriented than the Portuguese, the Dutch enacted mercantilist policies which prevented this trading class from rising up any further. In effect, the new colonial powers prevented the formation of a bourgeoisie; a strictly supervised regime of monopolies and tariffs suppressed what little competition had existed before their imposition.

In fact it is during Dutch rule that we see regional trade change its momentum, from an atmosphere which brought benefits for all to one which exclusively entrenched one colonial power or the other. No doubt local tradesmen and craftsmen were denied proper opportunities to engage in open competition; what denied them those opportunities even further were the inflationary pressures, currency shortages, and agglomeration of debt (due to wars between Holland and its rival powers), all of which curtailed their activities. By the time of the British, the amount of money circulating in the economy had reduced, and though local traders were not wiped off, they were coming into competition with foreign merchants.

Tradesmen, artisans, and craftsmen formed one part of what can be described as a local intermediate petty bourgeoisie; those put in charge of local administration, the headmen or Mudliyars, formed another part. Regarding the latter, the Portuguese, especially under Azevedo, faced a dilemma at the very beginning: should they obtain the loyalty of the local elites, or should they reward Portuguese officials?

It was a question their policies never really resolved. In any case, the Mudliyars, who trace their origins to an earlier period in the island’s low country and the Maritime Provinces, converted to Christianity and were duly rewarded with grants of some of the finest lands in the country: Simao Correra received the village of Talampitiya, Samarakone received several lands in Matara, while Alagiyawanna Mukawati, who assisted with the tombo, received all his ancestral property in Hissella with another village.

The Mudliyars had initially been military officers serving Sinhala kings. The Portuguese turned them into administrative officers and an intermediate class which the colonisers had to depend on and which, as Arno Meyer wrote, constantly “aspired upward.” On one hand, they readily converted to Catholicism; on the other, they married the daughters of Portuguese soldiers, further reinforcing the links between coloniser and the colonised.

These Mudliyars became more powerful in the Dutch era, since the Hollanders were more ignorant than their predecessors of native languages; they were resorted to as interpreters, gaining for themselves a prestige their pre-colonial position had never endowed them with. Under Governor Falck, they were delegated the duties of local korales. No doubt this was taken as a precautionary measure: the Dutch wanted to reduce their military authority, and thus handed over more administrative powers to them.

Within the next few decades they began to display many of the hallmarks of a colonial elite: they were trusted over officials, they got the best lands, they set up residences in towns, and they formed a culturally disconnected, urban absentee landlord population.

Historians and commentators have written extensively on what happened to this bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie in the British era, though most of them do not seem to acknowledge that their transformation in that period constituted a line of continuity from Portuguese and Dutch rule, especially with regard to the importance of the Mudliyars and their rise to the higher echelons of the administrative service.

Following the Colebrooke-Cameron reforms, the system of compulsory labour and land grants was abolished, and the Mudliyar class joined the bureaucracy as interpreters, tax collectors, and keepers of the peace. The opening up of the economy under severe colonial restrictions, the breakdown of the traditional order, and the takeover and sale of wastelands resulted in elements of the petty bourgeoisie graduating to the ranks of a new bourgeoisie. Initially starting out as rent collectors for fish, paddy, and road tolls, they were the first to benefit when the administration relaxed restrictions on arrack renting in the 1830s.

Fortunes made in the arrack and plantation industries in effect added a haute bourgeoisie to the ranks of the bourgeoisie, below the Mudliyar class (who gradually delved into plantation enterprises as well). Their status as elites, however, was qualified by colonial policies: they were disbarred from participation in the export-import trade, were denied credit and banking facilities, and had little to no opportunities or motives for expansion beyond the plantation trade. The wealth they gained through mammoth profits in the arrack trade (in the British era there were no income and inheritance taxes), however, put them above a secondary layer of entrepreneurs: the new petty bourgeoisie, more enterprising than and distinguished from the old who had carried on trade as a group of caste-centred communities.

In India, as in Sri Lanka, the absence of sub infeudation in the pre-colonial phase provided colonial officials with an opportunity to create a loyal local elite. What is generally assumed is that this elite class suddenly sprang from nowhere, and that their emergence was facilitated by colonial policies. But this was true of neither India nor Sri Lanka: the bourgeoisie initially was an upper stratum of an intermediate upward aspiring class of traders, toll collectors, and rent farmers who were restricted to investments in land. In other words, there was a changing layer of traders and merchants who, despite the restrictions placed on them, managed to rise to the top by fortuitous circumstances. The zamindars in Bengal and Mudliyars in Sri Lanka were therefore never a permanent class; they had to give way to a nouveau riche, itself rising from the ranks of a pre-capitalist, occupation-based petty bourgeoisie.

The first three decades of British rule oversaw the gradual transformation from a mercantilist to a plantation economy. This did not entail a liberalisation of the economy; on the contrary it continued certain policies that had been enacted before. There were, however, two important changes, both enacted in 1832: vidanes were debarred from opening arrack taverns, and the collection of rents was changed from tavern to administrative divisional basis. The first had the effect of eliminating goyigama arrack renting vidane families such as the Hettiarachchige Pintos from the trade; the second had the effect of eliminating weaker renters in favour of the more enterprising karava renters from Moratuwa and Panadura.

Fortunes from arrack renting led to a spurt in capital accumulation which, unfortunately, was not diverted to more productive enterprises. Here the Indian experience can be distinguished from the Sri Lankan, since in India the bourgeoisie, following their flirtations with British rule (many of them, including Ram Mohan Roy and Dwarkanath Tagore, opposed the Indian Mutiny of 1857), came to abandon their position and criticised colonialism “as the chief obstacle” to the transition to capitalism; as Mukherjee has noted, Indian nationalists were among the first in the world “to evolve a multi-pronged, detailed, and sophisticated critique of colonialism.” By the time of independence, the local bourgeoisie had acquired a Janus face: while they “entered into compromise with British imperialism”, they also “spearheaded the struggle for national emancipation.”

If in India the changing layers of the traders, financiers, and speculators on the one hand and industrialists, mill owners, technicians, and engineers on the other led to contradictions with imperialism, in Sri Lanka colonial administrators were able to eliminate the potential for such contradictions from the bourgeoisie. Suniti Ghosh’s classification of two layers of the capitalist class in India — compradore and heavily tilted to finance and speculation on the one hand, and nationalist and heavily tilted to industry on the other — does not hold true for Sri Lanka, since here the British had created a class of brown dependents whose dominance they could guarantee through titles, honours, and other avenues of social advancement such as entry to the professions. Thus, whatever sector they operated in, they could not stay independent of the colonial structure.

After the First World War, the Indian economy came to be divided or dichotomised between finance capital, primarily owned by British capitalists, and industrial capital, controlled by local interests. Revisionist historians like Niall Ferguson and Tirkanthar Roy have contended that this led to rises in real wages, national income, and industrialisation, when as Mukherjee has shown the manufacturing sector, even after being “taken up” by locals, contributed a dismal eight percent of the GNP in 1951. The Sri Lankan experience was worse, in that no attempt at industrialisation was made; this soon frustrated the petty bourgeoisie, particularly the militant sections led by stalwarts like D. C. Hewawitharana, N. S. Fernando, and D. D. Pedris (the latter of whom was the father of Henry, whose rise to the ranks of the Western educated elite provides evidence of the upward aspirations of this class).

Because of sudden and favourable rises in commodity prices, the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie were able to rise above the intermediate milieu from which they had originated. The intrusion of moneylenders, investors, and speculators from India further entrenched their class, for the simple reason that the more powerful petty bourgeois commercial sectors, in Sri Lanka, came to be dominated by Indian merchants: trade by Borahs and Parsees, lending by Chettiars and Coastal Moors. Hence the upper echelons of the bourgeoisie faced no serious challenge from the lower middle class; they continued to be allied with British plantation interests. The petty bourgeoisie were assured from time to time of ascents to the ranks of that bourgeoisie, but such ascents were limited to spurts in the commodity sector, as with the opening up of arrack renting in the 1830s, the diversion to coffee, coconut, graphite, and tea after the 1850s, and the rubber boom of the 1900s. There was, in other words, a wedge between the two.

Notwithstanding this the petty bourgeoisie kept on attempting to make it to the top. However, owing to the restrictive colonial framework they had to put up with, and their inability to challenge that framework politically, they were compelled to display their frustrations with the establishment by resorting to the cultural; the revival this resulted in was both crude and communalistic. (It’s a mistake to assume that the lower middle class were at the forefront of this revival, since they were led by the Sinhala bourgeoisie; on the other hand, without them those leaders would have found it difficult to sustain its momentum.)

Here too the Indian and Sri Lankan experiences differed. The Bengali Renaissance manifested itself in three stages that revealed the contradictions between the two forces which were trying to come together: Hinduism and modernity. The Indian elite were at the forefront of all three: the Brahmo Samaj in Bengal, the Arya Samaj in the Punjab, and the Theosophical Movement. These later led to the formation of the Congress Party, the founding president of which, A. O. Hume, was a Theosophist.

In other words the revival was nurtured in India by the Indian elite before the Theosophists came. In Sri Lanka, however, the cultural revival, an essentially petty bourgeois phenomenon, did not really fall into the hands of the elite until the Theosophists took over. That bears out the view, of writers like Kumari Jayawardena, that in the absence of a bourgeois-led economic front against colonialism, there was no one “to lead these religious-cultural agitations into a fully fledged anti-imperialist movement.”

With no prospects above them, the lower middle class turned to communalism, raging against foreign groups that had been allowed to rise over them. When Anagarika Dharmapala sugar-coated his pleas for industrialisation with ethno-nationalist rhetoric, they preferred the coating to the pill; Gunadasa Amarasekara was not incorrect when he wrote that Dharmapala’s project was hijacked by opportunists who had mistaken the one for the other.

Such movements became limited to the cultural domain: the novels of Piyadasa Sirisena; the plays of Charles Dias and John de Silva; and the paintings of Sarlis. These did not challenge colonial structures, and in fact at times they even reinforced popular colonial stereotypes: the character of Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe in John de Silva’s play, for instance, conformed more to anti-Nayakkar British propaganda than actual history.

Despite these contradictions, the lower middle class never stopped “aspiring upward.” They sent their children to the best schools, even if it meant racking up debts (which made them the target of J. P. Obeyesekere’s vitriol in the 1880s when education reforms were up for debate in the Legislative Council); many of them idealised a life in the civil service, and were as enamoured of Westernisation as the bourgeoisie (even if they repudiated it in public); they subscribed to an “Orientalist” though mythical belief in a superior past that was partly based on parallels drawn by 18th and 19th century philologists like William Jones between Aryan and Sanskrit civilisation; and many of them were as hostile to working class struggles as the bourgeoisie, even though they were more in touch with the urban working class.

In 1964, the Polish economist Michał Kalecki contended in an essay that much of the postcolonial world consisted of “intermediate regimes”, or states led by “the lower middle class and the rich peasantry.” This meant the governments of those countries represented the interests of an intermediate milieu which was against both the colonial elite and the working class and lower peasantry. Agrarian reform, large scale industrialisation, and nationalisation had served to enrich this class over other groups; the lower peasantry, lacking any real power (owing partly, perhaps, to the dominance of caste-ism in countries like India), would allow authority pass to it, which left to that class the responsibility for disentangling their countries from foreign capital and thereby “assuring continuous growth.”

Revisiting the essay nine years later, the Indian economist K. N. Raj made the case for its applicability to postcolonial India. Making clear that the distinction between the upper and middle classes was one that emerged from an entirely different historical setting — Britain in the Industrial Revolution — Raj argued that the lower middle class, comprising of merchants, shopkeepers, and industrialists opposed to foreign capital, were more willing to accept state capitalism over both colonialism and communism. However, this did not necessarily in itself prevent them from making compromises with the upper class. The goals of national economic development would thus be modified to serve this petty bourgeoisie, leaving nationalisation in the hands of a regime that pandered to them.

Sri Lanka was never, at any point, what Kalecki referred to as an “intermediate regime” led by the lower middle class and rich peasantry. But in their ability to hijack the progressive sections of political movements they had a hand in shaping — from the Old Left to the SLFP to the New Left in the form of the JVP — the lower middle class and the rich peasantry remained very much dominant. (S. B. D. de Silva, reflecting on how the United Front government failed in Sri Lanka, suggested they hijacked Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s socialist administration early on.) It is outside the scope of these articles to look into their post-independence transformation. Suffice it to say that their transformation is still ongoing; to delve into it would be simplistic and self-defeating, since in Sri Lanka, as in the United States, the lower middle class remains both complex and unstable.

Sri Lankan. History fanatic. Movie addict. Book lover.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store