The Vocabulary of “Nation” in English in the Early Modern Period

Michael Roberts,

Rohana Wasala’s essay[1] on the Sinhala vocabulary of “nation-ness,” set beside Kumar Sangakkara’s heart-warming emphasis on the multiethnic and multi-religious character of his sentiments[2] within the background provided by the island’s mosaic tapestry, together provide the rationale for this excursion on my part. It is an old journey. I place before you the results of my previous investigation into the use of such concepts as “kin,” “tribe” and “nation” in the practices of the English speaking peoples of Great Britain in the centuries sixteen to eighteen, stretching on to the early nineteenth century. These usages occurred in the temporal context involving wars in Europe and all over the world as England/Britain expanded its possessions in the era of imperial expansion and conflict.
    My researches in this field developed out of my interest in the forms of Sinhalaness in the era preceding the final conquest of the Kingdom of Sīhalē (also Sinhalē) by the British in two steps, the first in 1815 and the second involving the crushing of a sweeping rebellion in 1817/18. These findings were incorporated in a sub-section within a chapter on “Sinhalē, Sinhala consciousness and the British, 1795-1815,” the sixth chapter in my book on Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, 1590s to 1815 (Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2004). The exercise was directed towards deciphering the possible influences of English-language usages around the concept “nation” that impacted on vocabulary denoting collective sentiments utilized by the local headmen and others who interacted with British in the period 1795-1818.I am not a specialist in British history.[3] Thus my presentation of this research must not be seen as comprehensive or definitive. It would be a step forward if a British historian subjected it to critical review. Alas, other than Chris Bayly, Alan Strathern and Sujit Sivasundaram, it is unlikely that any historians of Empire are aware of this excursion on my part.Sri Lanka is too marginal in the cultural productions of the West to attract such attention.

    A further caveat is in order. The development of the concept “Naiton” in the English-speaking world during the early modern period did not move forward in isolation. Th European languages influenced each other and were subject to cross-fertilization. Thus, the vocabulary of “nation” in English usage was influenced by the French, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and other European languages, with French being of particular importance because it was the diplomatic lingua franca of that era. Since I lack competence in the Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish and French languages it follows that my survey is deficient and, at best, constitutes only a beginning.

    This preamble on my part underlines the complexities of language usage. My instinctive reaction to Rohana Wasala’s article was to think that he oversimplified matters and did not allow for contradictory and confusing usages of such terms as jātiya and lānkika within the same body of people – a body of people who are also fractured by class, caste, regional and occupational distinctions. That the English word “nation” lost its synonymous equivalence with the word “tribe” between the 16th and 19th centuries and gained in political worth did not prevent some English speakers deploying the two terms synonymously on occasions when they referred to specific Aboriginal clusters in Australia in the late nineteenth century.

    More vitally, the consolidation of the political worth of “nation” as a mark of valued nationhood did not prevent countless English men and women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from using ‘English” and “British” as equivalents. In this one act the part, that is the more powerful English part ofGreat Britain, swallowed the whole within its jaws …. and did so in unthinking yet powerful fashion. The unthinking character did not lessen its hegemonic significance as major part embracing the whole in ways that imposed a secondary status upon the Scots, Welsh and Irish.

     As I have often argued, some Sinhalese use the terms lānkika and Sinhala as synonyms.[4] Whether this is done in English-speak or in exchanges in the Sinhala language, the import is the same. Even where this usage prevails in taken-for-granted fashion its implications are insidiously powerful. Where deployed consciously as political tool, of course, the practice is an act of ethnic domination that is as raw as it is deplorable. It is in opposition to this tendency that one must align oneself with Kumar Sangakkara’s thrust when he said categorically that “fans of different races, castes, ethnicities and religions [should] celebrate their diversity by uniting for a common national cause. They are my foundation, they are my family. I will play my cricket for them. Their spirit is the true spirit of cricket. With me are all my people. I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan.”[5]

 The Vocabulary of “Nation” [6]

The ongoing relationship between the imperial foreigners and the local peoples necessarily introduced the Sinhala peoples to Western thought-forms and vocabulary, whether institutionalised or otherwise. My capacity to investigate the implications of the Portuguese and Dutch terminology is restricted by my lack of expertise in these languages and the difficulties of accessing primary sources readily. The English usages adopted by the British imperial forces must therefore serve as my principal point of entry to the interaction between the vocabulary of group classification that was utilised by the European colonial forces on the one side and Sinhalese on the other.

    I address the character of the British vocabulary and the manner in which their terminology may have impinged upon the Kandyan leadership as they digested the language in its translated form and slotted the concepts into their own political vocabulary in the dynamic process that one associates with language growth. Of particular significance is the intermittent use of the word “nation” by the British authorities in their correspondence with the Kandyan rulers.

    Now, it has been validly noted that the British in Indiaused “the terms caste, tribe, nation and race … interchangeably and imprecisely” (Susan Bayly 1997: 175). While the word “tribe” hardly occurs in the context of British Ceylon, the other terms do figure in this manner in Sri Lankan officialese as well as middle class communications in the British period. Indeed, the term “class” was used on occasions in the same sense, that is, as “race” and as “category;” while “race” and “nationality” enter the 1871 census as synonyms.[7] The overlapping and ambiguous use of these terms should not encourage one to take a transactionalist position that decrees the words to be “fluid” and, by implication, of little import. It is against such a theoretical stance that this section of my argument is directed.

    My argument is that it may be possible to discern patterns of implication, weightage or association within these shifting usages. Indeed, even a most cursory acquaintance with British history would make one aware that the concept of “nation” was in the process of detaching itself from such synonyms as “tribe” and securing greater value. To dismiss or devalue the practices on the ground of situational variation and ambiguity is to deny the possibility that we can chart such processes.

    It is the concept of “nation” that is of special interest to me here. The term was not an innovation introduced by the British to Sri Lanka. Before them the Portuguese and Dutch seem to have deployed equivalent terms: for instance, the words nacao and natie respectively. The influence of the Portuguese language and Portuguese modes of thinking has been understudied and undervalued in Sri Lanka’s history. Both Vimaladharmasūriya I and his queen, Dona Catherina, had spent some time in Goa. Moreover, the kings of Kandy had “Portuguese renegades” in their service and a few, such as Manuel Dias, held high office.[8] Significantly, Knox found that in the mid-seventeenth century “the Portugueze Tongue … [was] much spoken” in the Kandyan country (1911: 283).

    The meshing of Portuguese usages with those of the Dutch are displayed in striking fashion in the diplomatic exchanges between Rājasinha I and the Dutch as they built up an oscillating and fractious alliance against the Portuguese in the period 1636 to 1656. Through the careful labour of Donald Ferguson (1904 and 1909) one has access to English versions of 28 letters written in Portuguese under the king’s seal. In these communications the Portuguese are presented by Rājasinha as “the enemy” and, on other occasions, as the “wicked Portuguese nation” and the “foreign nation” in Ferguson’s English translation (1904: 227, 191). As significantly, Rājasinha frequently referred to “the Dutch nation” (1904: 186, 189, 201, 205, 206) and used such phrases as “other foreign nations” (1909: 263). It is possible that he was responding to the tendency for the Dutch envoys and administrators from the time of Spilbergen’s first visit in 1602 to use the term as a collective self-reference (Ferguson 1998: 46, 52, 94). It is more likely, however, that the Kandyan ruling class had developed this vocabulary in the course of interaction and conflict with the Portuguese. Indeed, suggestions of a Christian idiom in Rājasinha’s letters[9] encourage the surmise that a Portuguese aide may have assisted the Kandyan courtiers in constructing these important communications.     

    Rājasinha’s frequent reference to nacao, in the sense of a named body of people relationally distinct from other named bodies, is of considerable significance. It must be recalled that a few decades prior to this exchange of correspondence Edirillē Rāla claimed that he was “Liberatador de nacao chingala” or “liberator of the Sinhala nation.”[10] The implications are far-reaching: they indicate that the period of frequent dispute and warfare with the Portuguese from about the 1550s to the 1630s had generated, or reworked, an understanding that the Sinhalese were a collectivity ranged in opposition to the pratikāl nacao.

    The problem is to flesh out and critically dissect, in questioning fashion, the content and form of these self-perceptions and to identify those elements in the Sinhala social order that were bearers of such ideas. Continuing my chronological review of this process, I note here that the word natie (pronounced natzie) appears in passing in Article 13 of the Treaty of 1766 imposed on the Kandyans by the Dutch and is translated as “nationality” in the subsequent English rendering and, more pertinently, as vargaya in the Sinhala version of the treaty.[11] Now vargaya has five meanings of which two overlapping senses could have applied to this instance: namely, its meaning, as one early dictionary puts it, of (a) a “class, tribe, sort, multitude of similar things, whether animate or inanimate,” and (b) “tribe, nation, or class of people” (Clough 1999: 567). In Sinhala, then, vargaya in this usage is synonymous with either eka jātiyē dravvya samūhaya or with kulaya, gotraya or vansaya (Practical SD 1984: II, 1496), that is, with either “category” on the one hand, or “caste,” “tribe” and “clan” on the other. In effect, some measure of ambiguity appears to have been associated with the use of this term natie in 1766 and one cannot, at this distance from that era, easily work out whether the word carried any political and emotional import for those Sinhalese who read the document. An educated guess would suggest that, within the frame of this treaty, an imposed document, it did not.

    Without the requisite language skills in Dutch and Portuguese, I am unable to explore in depth the implications of these practices in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However, the evidence from British sources enables me to grapple with this issue as it informed the Kandyan leaders at the twilight of the eighteenth century and the start of the nineteenth. British officials used the term “nation” every now and then in their correspondence in the period 1795 to 1815, more often than the words “nationality” and “race.”[12] This usage occurred among themselves, that is, in internal correspondence between local administrators or in despatches toBritain, as well as in communications to the Kandyan court. It is the latter that will demand our particular interest, but the whole corpus of correspondence must be mined initially in order to understand the manner in which this term was being employed. Inevitably, such a review must take note of the British scene and outline the meanings attached to the concept of “nation” in eighteenth century metropolitan society.

    The importance of the term “nation” is marked by the fact that British officials in the Maritime Provinces used the word as a form of collective self-reference for the “British Nation” or inserted it within didactic messages referring to the “customs of all Nations,” — that is, the European practice as universal norm — that were part of their diplomatic strategy.[13] Parenthetically I note that there also are occasional references to the “English nation” or “the English.”[14] Indeed, in one instance General MacDowall spoke of the desire for peace among “the English” a few sentences after he had spoken of “the British nation.”[15] Such unthinking, taken-for-granted shifts, a slippage that renders “English” and “British” into synonyms, is of considerable historical significance for those surveying British history.[16] It confirms what we know:England was the dominant force in the institutional complex known as Great Britain.

    Englandhad been the base from which the entity known as the First British Empire was assembled from the late sixteenth century onwards. Even at that stage, as we shall see, the word “nation” was used to describe the English in distinction from other “nations” or “peoples.” Such classificatory terminology and some sense of collective self-perception were invariably attached to the travelling experience of all British/English voyagers in the early modern era of European expansion. Thus, for example, Robert Knox used the term often. He refers on one occasion to “a Bastard Moor by Nation” and talks of the “grievous Mourning … throughout the whole Nation,” that is, theKingdomofKandy, when Rājasinha’s sister died (1911: 67). In fact, he was acutely aware of being a member of “our Nation” when he wrote his memoirs for the English public in 1681 (1911: 235-6). This distinct perspective enters a chapter that is specifically devoted to the experiences of “the rest of our Country-men,” that is the “English” personnel who had either entered the service of the Kandyan state or were held captive in the kingdom. In his tale, “Nation” was synonymous with “People” and understood in a classificatory relational mode:

By the blessing of God our Nation hath lived and still doth, in as good fashion as any other People or Nation whatsoever, that are Strangers here, or as any of the Natives themselves, only the Grandees and courtiers excepted (1911: 235).

   Englandhad been united withScotlandthrough the person of the monarch when Knox wrote. The subsequent Act of Union in 1707 helped createGreat Britainas we know it in modern times. My interest, here, however, is less in the relationship between the two concepts “English” and “British” than in the meanings accruing to the term “nation.” These meanings in the English language developed in close interaction with other European tongues and my summary review begins with a broad statement relating to European history.

    Kenneth Minogue sums up the conventional wisdom on this issue reached by the 1960s when he observes that initially, that is from late medieval times, “nation” was “a serviceable term for a group of people and it long retained its synonymy with ‘tribe,’ ‘people’ and ‘race’.”[17] By the seventeenth century, however, the word was beginning “to stand for the political people of a society.”[18] This transformation was accompanied and buttressed by a developing exegesis on state sovereignty in the work of jurists and political theorists. The decisive step came in the eighteenth century with the French Enlightenment. The American and French Revolutions in the late 6eighteenth century then served to establish Rousseau’s bold linking of the “nation,” “people” and “state.” Thus, the concept of “nation” came to be linked with the theory of popular sovereignty and the idea of self-determination.[19]

    A survey of English dictionaries supports and embellishes this outline. In the medieval period one of the conventional meanings of “nation” was “an extensive aggregate of people closely associated with each other” (Oxford English Dictionary 1993: 30). But by the sixteenth century it could also refer to (ii) “a large number of men (sic)” in the sense of “a host of persons” and (iii) “a particular class, kind, race.” In this third sense it was synonymous with “a family or kindred,” with “clan” and with “tribe.” Significantly, however, the seventeenth century saw its occasional usage to refer to “a country” or “a kingdom.” More frequently, when it was associated with an article as “the nation,” the word described “the whole people of a country.” It is in this manner that Shakespeare, Dryden and later Pope seem to have used the term on occasions.[20] Indeed, we should not forget that in Shakespeare’s King John, he had the bastard Faulconbridge boasting

This England never did, nor never shall,

Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror (Anthony Smith 1972: 10-11).

Even Hobsbawm reluctantly grants that Shakespeare’s “propagandist plays” indicate the existence of “something close to modern patriotism” among the English elites (1990: 75)

    It would seem that this focus on all the people in a particular entity encouraged a relational emphasis in the use of the term. Thus, both Sir Walter Raleigh (late sixteenth century) and Sir William Temple (late seventeenth century) used it to refer to a “people distinguished from another people” (Samuel Johnson via Latham 1872: 291). It would seem to be in a similar sense that Knox deployed the word in the mid-seventeenth century after his experiences among the Kandyan Sinhalese. It is not surprising therefore to find an eighteenth century dictionary in England distilling the latter meanings into an amalgam carrying the meaning “a kingdom or large extent of ground and people under the particular government of a single magistrate or crowned head, whether king or emperor” (Dyche and Pardon 1740).

   Dictionaries offer us piecemeal and de-contextualised usages, but the messages on this occasion are supported by the readings of the European scene offered by scholars such as Minogue, Clark and Pflanze. In summary, then, it is evident that “nation” had multiple meanings in eighteenth centuryBritain. But, critically, it had developed a relational emphasis. This relationality was compounded when the word distinguished (a named) people from another (named) people. And this understanding was compounded into a politicised concept once it was attached to a (named) state in the manner specified in Dyche and Pardon.

    The politicised emphasis was stimulated by a history of intermittent war betweenBritainandFrancein the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This is Linda Colley’s thesis. She argues that “a sense of British national identity was forged” between 1707 and 1837 because of “a much longer and many-layered rivalry” between the two powers. In this view the “prolonged struggle tested and transformed state power on both sides of the Channel” (1992: 1, 3). She is careful to preface her theory by emphasising the degree to whichGreat Britainin 1707 was “infinitely diverse in terms of the customs and cultures of its inhabitants.” This regional diversity could be found within each of the entities that made up the Union: viz.,England, Wales and Scotland. As the century progressed, these disparities were reduced by the advances in means of communication and the growth of trade. But she insists that it was “a strong sense of dissimilarity” from peoples beyond the island shores rather than homogeneity within that “proved to be the essential element’ in forging “an emerging sense of Britishness” (Colley 1992: 17). While noting that “England” was used to refer to the whole island (1992: 13, 116, 162), Colley does not explore this relationship in great detail. Nevertheless, we are indebted to her for highlighting a central facet in the development of England and Britain as a nation.

    The hostility between the British and the French was not a simple one however. French literature and arts were much admired by the literate English/Britons. French was widely spoken by the elites ofBritainand was the diplomatic language ofEurope. Thus, the sense of being “English” developed out of a complex situation. It was not only a question of warring states, but also one of considerable cultural exchange that involved a considerable impact of French manners on life ways inEngland. Indeed, French influences were deemed so great that they generated a backlash, a cultural movement of opposition in the mid-to-late eighteenth century that has been described as “Gallophobia.” That is, Francophilia generated a virulent opposition that took the form of Francophobia. Colley’s work has to be supplemented by that of Gerald Newman (1987).

    Newman shows us that the attack on French manners in Englandhad a class edge to it. It was an attack on the English aristocracy by educated and artistic critics within the privileged circle as well as others from the intermediary layers of English society. These criticisms were expressed in literary and theatrical productions more than political treatises. The satirical engravings, prints and images produced by such figures as Richard Hogarth (1697-1764), the novels of Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett and the dramatic compositions of Sam Foote are among the material utilised by Newman to build a picture of this intellectual current. Hogarth’s “pictorial essays and scattered writings” directed their barbs especially at the cosmopolitan aesthetic elite in Britain, the “connoisseurs” as he called them derisively. They were accused of cultural treason and depicted, to use Newman’s words, “as an alien race polluting the tastes and morality of the people” (1987: 64). Fielding’s stories provided an impetus to the development of the novel as an engine of social criticism. The villains in his novels were French visitors or English persons devoted to French manners. Thus his Joseph Andrews (1742) embodied “an awakening cultural nationalism.” Likewise, Foote’s plays expressed a pronounced antipathy to the intrusion of French values in British society. Their didactic messages voiced one solution and one solution only: “moral regeneration through national rebirth” (1987: 72).[21]

    Newman’s summary of this body of thought in eighteenth centuryEnglandreaches two antithetical conclusions. On the one hand, in a critical vein, he argues that such views were “an illogical tribalistic jumble of beliefs and perceptions combining rude notions of national character, cultural invasion, moral pollution, social transmission, and collective spiritual disintegration.” But on the other hand, he suggests that these strands of protest were characterised by “a sort of symbolic logic, a chain of cultural-social-moral reasoning.” And crucially for our purposes he remarks that this “inner logic was inherently anti-cosmopolitan, anti-aristocratic, and nativist” (1987: 67). From the material Newman supplies I would emphasise a further characteristic: the reasoning was gendered masculine. The figures of speech favoured by these ideologues, such key symbols as “the Englishman” and “the Roast Beef of Old England,” were male-centred. It was entirely in keeping with this bias that the French manners subject to ridicule were often deemed foppish and effeminate.

    Newman, unfortunately, devalues the thrust of his findings by describing these views as “essentially traditional” and as a “pre-nationalist conceptual apparatus” (1987: 80). In my reading this flows from his summary understanding of European nationalism through a survey of the writings of Gellner, Minogue, Kedourie and others in his third chapter, a survey that precedes his delineation in the fourth chapter of the processes of cultural protest of the eighteenth century. This summary leads him to follow the distinction between “patriotism” and “nationalism.” The distinction rests on the argument that nationalism is part of “modern thought.” Specific elaborations of the latter phrase are not offered by Newman. One has to fill in the gap. The distinction appears to rest on (a) the significance of the different institutional framework ushered in after the American and French Revolutions and (b) a conceptual dichotomy between the “traditional” and the “modern.”

   Without adequate specification the latter distinction is as crude as unhelpful. It leaves one open to the sociological determinism attached to Gellner’s work on nationalism.[22] Since Hogarth worked through cartoons and Foote was a dramatist, one would think that the Francophobic expressions identified by Newman reached a segment of the wider populace in evocative ways. In any event Newman’s material indicates that there was an explicit opposition to cultural subordination. This amounts to nativism. Nativism can be the warp and woof of nationalism. In a context marked by periodic war with the state ofFrance and the use of the word “nation” on occasions in the politicised ways that I have delineated earlier, it appears to an outside analyst such as myself that the cultural protest described by Newman has nationalism girding as well as threading it. The only issue is whether there was an explicit theory of self-determination and the democratic emphasis on popular participation. While these elements may have been muted, some would argue that the rhetoric associated with the “True Whig Commonwealthman” and the agitation that developed in the 1760s around “Wilkes andLiberty” provided such a democratic emphasis (email note from Wilfred Prest, 4 June 2001). This is a profound issue that I leave to British historians.

    Newman’s book is about the rise of “English nationalism,” not British nationalism. It reveals the metaphoric emblem John Bull as, at least initially, and certainly in the eighteenth century, very much of an English figure that subsumed the category British by allowing synonymy. His data and lines of emphasis, therefore, fill out the argument in Colley’s work in crucial ways. Taken together, both works enable one to get some sense of the intellectual context from which Britain’s early administrators and military officers in Sri Lanka emerged. They require filling out however, with particular attention to the development of Britishness. From a battery of books in a burgeoning field I pursue economy of effort and restrict myself to Chris Bayly’s lucid summary of eighteenth century Britainin Imperial Meridian (1990). As an Indianist, Bayly brings a breadth of vision that is salutary and encompasses relations between theBritish Isles and all its colonial settings at the same time that he attends to the economic history and socio-political history of the various British peoples during this period.

    Bayly reveals how the economic unification ofBritaingathered momentum from 1730, while noting that “the moral and political unity proceeded [only] by uneven and ambiguous steps” (1990: 77). These trends encouraged some contemporaries to refer increasingly to “the British Empire inEurope.” The loss of the 13 American colonies in 1783 and other military setbacks in the 1780s did not undermineBritain’s developing strength. Trade withUSAactually increased and the period 1780 to 1830 saw the foundations of the Second British Empire being firmly secured. This “new expansion was set in motion by the ferocious reaction of the state and its military apparatus to external challenge and internal revolt” (1990: 102), with what was regarded as French republican imperialism constituting the principal external threat in many regions.

    Thus, “Empire was the expression of re-vivified nation-state operating at an international level according to general principles” (1990: 102). And what were these principles, the imperatives behind the expansive imperialism? They were “the reinvented role of the Crown, the Church and the gentry; the creation of new instruments of control, coercion and audit; and the philosophical and aristocratic doctrine of racial superiority which informed these institutions” (1990: 108).

    One of the conditions for this development was Scotland’s “assimilation” into this formation during the eighteenth century through patronage networks, trading and investment links with both England and the colonies as well as the recruitment of Scottish Highland regiments and other personnel for service in the various European and colonial operations (1990: 100, 81ff). Thus, in my extrapolation, it would seem that both English nationalism and Scottish patriotism could nestle together within the encompassing British collectivity and “English” could operate as a synonym for “British” without raising many hackles.

    A critical aspect of this development was an emphasis on court ritual and the blossoming of staunch monarchical sentiments. Thus, in Bayly’s view, “royalism” was a central feature of “British nationalism” in the era 1780-1830 (1990: 109-15). The ease with which Bayly speaks of “British nationalism” in relation to the late eighteenth century calls into question the position taken by those scholars who identify the early nineteenth century as the temporal moment when the “modern nation,” as a recognised institutional and ideological form, emerged in Europe.[23]

As significantly, the evidence from Britain that has been marshalled here brings into question Anderson’s insistence that one of the critical requirements for the status of nationhood is the existence of an ideology claiming “a deep, horizontal comradeship” among all those belonging to an imagined nation — so that there is a formal equality among its citizens (1991: 9, 37). Can’t we discern a “nation’ when a powerful interest in command of a state proclaims that this state and its people are a nation? Does a sense of oneness have to be horizontal?  Does patriotism to a nation have to rest on the principle of equality as an ideal? In other words, however, important the French Revolution and its principles have been for the trajectory of the nation idea, should an analyst impose her/his twentieth century attachment to the egalitarian principle as an essential feature of nationhood?

    In counterpoint let me refer to wide agreement that the nation state emerged first from within the chrysalis of the dynastic states of the Atlantic seaboard (Snyder 1968: 57-59 and Pflanze 1966: 139-42), and that England/Britain andFrancewere the principal sites in this process. In this context the material presented by Bayly, Colley and Newman suggest that the English/British were a nation in the modern sense by the mid-eighteenth century. Their data add flesh, and, indeed, a good male rump, to one of the dictionary definitions provided by Dyche and Pardon in 1740, viz., to reiterate: “a kingdom or large extent of ground and people under the particular government of a single magistrate or crowned head, whether king or emperor.”

    It was within such a setting that the British stepped on to the shores of Sri Lankain 1795-96 as conquerors of the Maritime Provinces. Leading them were military men and administrators from the gentry class as well as lineages with military traditions. Taking my cue from Linda Colley (personal communication, October 1999), I stress here the occupational culture that seems to have been fostered within this body of personnel. A critical aspect was the monarchical fervour identified by Bayly. “For King and Country” would rarely have been an empty toast in the hearts and minds of these men. Some of them claimed more: they attached grandiose capacities for their nation state and themselves. As William Bentinck landed with his forces at Palermo in Italy in 1811 he proclaimed that “Bonaparte made kings: England makes nations.”[24] However, for all the robust self-confidence conveyed by such statements, one must note that the mood of the British authorities in such vast expanses as India “[oscillated] between moments of superhuman invincibility and moments of deep fear” (Peabody 1996: 203 and Bayly 1990: 100-32).

    As royalists at the confrontational edge of imperial rivalry and/or expansion, it is likely that these men demonised those whom they confronted, whether the French and their Bourbon dynasty in the mid eighteenth century, the French republicans and Bonapartists from the 1790s, a Tipu Sultan of Mysore or a Śrī Vikrama Rājasinha of Kandy. Indeed, contempt was poured on the kings of Mysore as well as the Kandyan ruler for specific acts of alleged depravity.[25] But, in doing so, in a setting in which military defeats had been inflicted upon them by these ‘awful’ rulers, one perceives a recognition that they were not facing a miscellaneous rabble, but a state organised on kingly lines. In brief, for the British in the southern parts of the Indian sub-continent the monarchies of Mysore, Kandy and like others were probably not quite the same category, say, as the amalgam of people called Malabārs or those called Malays. And they were definitely not like the assorted-all-sorts from Africa’s Black population who do not ever seem to have been given the benefit of the word nation-as-adjunct-noun.

    It is within such a setting that I attend to the differential way in which the word “nation” appears to have been deployed by the British ruling elements in British Lanka in the period 1795-1815. As a caveat let me stress that there was no self-conscious classification formulated in this regard by the British ruling elements. What is being presented here is an analytical assembly fashioned by my hand.

    As a tool of classification the British personnel who served in Sri Lanka applied the word “nation” to various collections of people. There are scattered references to the “Malay nation” and “Chinese nation” as well as more numerous references to the “Malabar nation” (Vimalananda 1973: 97, 102, 348, 350, 393). The latter term, “Malabar,” describes the Tamil-speakers and Malayālam-speakers of India and Sri Lanka, for the British followed the Dutch practice in employing this label.[26] Casual references to such bodies of people or individuals as a “nation” indicate that the British administrators were using the word as a synonym for “kind” and “class” on the one hand and as another word for “people” on the other. In this particular Asian setting, therefore, a reference to, say, the “Malay nation” identified them as a “people of a particular, that is, Malay kind” within the broad mass of people whom the British were inclined to amalgamate and look down upon as “natives” or “Asiatics.”

    But as a term of self-reference, as “British Nation,” the word “nation” would seem to carry both an emotional and political emphasis that renders it weightier (e.g. D’Oyly in Vimalananda 1984: 129 and Brownrigg in Pieris 1995c: 263). The English/British were a people with a state and territory, one to which the speakers were attached. Indeed, on at least one occasion a pontifical note was attached to this reference. This was at a critical moment when brewing internal dissension in the Kingdom of Kandy was developing around the figure of Ähalēpola the First Adigār, and was setting the stage for a British intervention directed towards the conquest of the Kingdom of Kandy-as-Sinhalē. “It is the Nature of the British Nation,” said D’Oyly, writing with some pomposity to Ähälēpola, “to sympathize in the Wrongs & Oppressions on the World.”[27] This statement was entirely in keeping with their self-belief in “our national character,”[28] a phrase that, I suspect, was in widespread use among British people during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and was one of the principal carriers of the new idea of nation.

   Since they were confronting the “Kandians” as another set of people with a state and territory in the 1790s and early nineteenth century, the setting of confrontation imbued the descriptive label, “Kandian Nation” with a political loading, albeit without the sentimental hues of hearth and home and even when they were being disparaged as a “Nation” of heathens bereft of humanity.[29] Such a connotation, such an emphasis, the political implications of nation-ness, is lacking in the references to the Malabar nation, Malay nation, et cetera. In other words, I am arguing that there were different weightages, or measures of value, attached to these labels in British usage — though such emphases do not seem to have been reflected upon or evaluated in considered fashion. It is their taken-for-grantedness that gives these emphases insidious force.

                SCALES  OF  EMPHASIS  attached  to  DIFFERENT  “NATIONS”


Casual & Light, a Category:            “Malabar nation;”  “Malay nation;”  “Chinese nation”

Deeper, Weightier: “Kandian Nation;” “Cingalese Nation” (note capital N)

Deepest, Emotive: “English Nation;”  “British Nation”

            Note 1: the “Kaffirs” or “Negroes” were not accredited with the “nation” label

            in the correspondence I have seen.

            Note 2: the capitalised N for some peoples (read within a context marked by the

            widespread capitalisation of nouns).

Thus it is pertinent that there are some references to the “Kandian Nation,” in various spellings, in the limited pool of material that I have seen thus far. Perhaps the most significant is that by General Hay MacDowall as he sat astride the city of Kandy during the initial success of the invasion in 1803.[30] Significantly, some of these references occur at moments that refer to “both nations” or to discussions between “the two nations,” namely, the Kandyan and the British.

    As indicated previously, “Kandy” and “Kandyan” were foreign labels that had emerged in the Portuguese and Dutch colonial periods from their corruption of the first word of a term describing the locality around the city of Kandy, namely, kanda uda pas rata. The entity called the Kingdom of Kandy (Candia) by the British was known among the Sinhalese as Sinhalē (or its variants) and the city of Kandy was conventionally identified as Senkadagala or Mahanuvara. There was a non-correspondence here that is of some import. The English phrase “Kandyan Nation” could not be translated as “Mahanuvara dana or ratun” in the Sinhala language because that rendering is not in accord with Sinhala conventions. Thus, in two of D’Oyly’s letters in the Sinhala language, one finds references to Sinhala ratē ayaval, “the people of Sinhala rata” or Sinhalē ayaval.[31] It can be presumed that D’Oyly understood this to refer to Sinhalē in the restricted sense, whereas it is likely that the Kandyan elites read it as a reference to Tunsinhalaya.

    However, regional distinctions had developed as a result of 250-odd years of colonial rule in the south western coastal districts. This had gained recognition in Sinhala speech through the distinctions uda rata and pāta rata, imprecise ecological terms[32] that served as markers for each region. This was recognised in Sinhala-speech through the term kanda-udayo, which can be translated as “hill men” or “Up Country folk.”[33] But such regional identities would have operated within the confederative pattern of identities described earlier in chapters 2 and 5. It is likely that the vast majority of the Kandyan people who found themselves being addressed by the British as “Kandyan” thought of themselves as Sinhalese (see below: 000). Indeed, as Sinhala-speakers from their childhood and as the people of Tunsinhalaya or Sinhalē, most of them could not but be Sinhalese.[34]

    The British authorities in the Maritime Provinces in the period 1796-1815 were not aware of the historical heritage that I have outlined and the full implications of the label Sinhalē. Facing a distinct and recalcitrant political unit, the general tendency was to imbue the Kandyan people with a specific “Kandyan nationality” and its associated sentiments. This tendency lasted beyond 1815 and the 1817-18 rebellion. Thus, once he had taken office in the city of Kandy as the chief British administrator in 1815 John D’Oyly referred condescendingly, albeit benevolently, to the “Kandyan nation” (Gooneratne 1999: 153). These benign attitudes were quickly erased by the massive rebellion of 1817-18. Thereafter, it was a specific British policy till the 1850s to curb and dissolve the Kandyan collective identity (K M de Silva 1981: 263). The British understandings on this subject are revealed clearly in one of Lord Torrington’s statements in 1849 after the small uprising of the previous year: he spoke of “Kandyan nationality” and defined it as “the feelings, the habits, associations and customs among a people who only 34 years ago were for the first time subjected to our authority.”[35] There is a misreading here. Whatever the perceptions of the small numbers involved in anti-state activity in 1848, Torrington was in error in reading the sentiments backwards into the early nineteenth and eighteenth centuries. The Kandyans who participated in the rebellion of 1817-18 as well as the previous wars against the colonial powers did not do so as kanda-udayo (hill-men) so much as Sinhalayo (Sinhalese). Even where their Kandyan-ness was significant, it would have been, in my surmise, subsumed within a Sinhala consciousness. Thus, I assert that before 1815-18 this sense of distinctiveness was both muted and contained by a sense of being Sinhalese of Sinhalē rather like the people of pāta rata (the Low Country). Indeed, it is my speculative argument that the sense of Kandyan distinctiveness developed sharper connotations after the British occupation in 1815 — in part because of the influence of British perceptions on the lines spelt out above, but also because of the economic forces and migrations that overwhelmed some hill-country areas.[36]

   Significantly, prior to the conquest of 1815, some of the British occasionally spoke of the “Kandians” and the “Cingalese” in synonymous ways. On occasions there was a slippage that is similar to that of the slippage from “English” to “British.” It is my speculation that this slippage was an unthinking British response to the indigenous ways of talking (in the same unthinking ways that so many Sri Lankans — taking their cue from the practices of English/British personnel whom they met over the years — have used “English” as a sign for “British”). In other words, a few British appear to have adopted Sinhala ways of indexical reference without always being aware of the implications.

   Within the body of official documents consulted thus far, such an unthinking association of Kandyan and Sinhalese took place only once. It was a significant moment, involving General MacDowall once again as conqueror of Kandy city in 1803. As he made preparations to install a pliant prince (Muttusāmi) of alleged royal blood on the throne, MacDowall wrote to his superior, the Governor, about the plans he would initiate “should no declaration of the Cingalese Nation in favour of Moottoo Swamy cause any alteration [to] be made” (Vimalananda 1973: 290, emphasis mine). North, however, was more attuned to the confederative pattern of identity and the bonds linking Sinhala-speakers across the frontiers between the Maritime and Kandyan Provinces. In conveying to his superior in Britain a (misplaced) confidence in the ability of the British to win over the Sinhalese people throughout the island, North’s argument in 1804 was prefaced by this preamble:

When I consider … the comparative length of time during which the Kandians have seen the Dutch ruling a great proportion of their own Nation, and when I also consider the great alteration which has been introduced into the habits and sentiments of this very part of the Cingalese Nation within these five years … (Vimalananda 1973: 415, emphasis mine).



Abeyasinghe, T. B. H. 1995b ‘The Kingdom of Kandy: foundations and foreign relations to 1938’, in University of Peradeniya, History of Sri Lanka, Vol. 11, ed. by K. M de Silva, Colombo: Sridevi, pp. 139-70.

Anderson, Benedict 1991 Imagined communities, rev. ed. London: Verso.

Amunugama, Sarath 1997 ‘Ideology and class interest in one of Piyadasa Sirisena’s novels: the new image of the “Sinhala Buddhist” nationalist’, in M. Roberts (ed.), Sri Lanka. Collective identities revisited, Vol I, Colombo: Marga Institute, pp. 335-53.

Bayly, C. A. 1990 Imperial meridian. The British Empire and the world, 1780-1830, London: Longman.

Bayly, Susan 1997 ‘Caste and “race” in the colonial ethnography of India’, in Peter Robb (ed.) econcept of race in South Asia, Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 165-218.

Chatterjee, Partha 1986 Nationalist thought and the colonial world, London: Zed Books.

Clark, G. N. 1950 e seventeenth century, Oxford.

Colley, Linda 1992 Britons. Forging the nation, 1707- 1837, London: Pimlico.

Dewaraja, Lorna S. 1988 The Kandyan Kingdom of Ceylon, 1707-1782, 2nd rev ed., Colombo: Lake House Investments.

De Silva, K. M. 1965 Letters on Ceylon 1846-50.The administration of Viscount Torrington and the “rebellion of 1848”, Colombo: K V G de Silva & Sons.

Ferguson, Donald 1904 ‘Raja Sinha II and the Dutch’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch 18:166-276.

Ferguson, Donald 1909 ‘Letters from Raja Sinha II to the Dutch’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch 21: 259-67.

Ferguson, Donald 1998 e earliest Dutch visits to Ceylon, Delhi: Asian Educational Services. Areprint.

Historical Manuscripts Commission 1937 ‘Letters of John D’Oyly’, ed. and trans by Rambukwellē Siddhārtha Thero, Historical Manuscripts, Bulletin No. 2.

Hobsbawm, Eric 1990 Nations and nationalism since 1880, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Knox, Robert 1911 An Historical Relation of Ceylon, ed by J. Ryan, Glasgow: James Maclehose & Sons.

Latham, R. G. 1872 A dictionary of the English language founded on that of Dr. Samuel Johnston as edited by the Revd. H.J. Todd, M.A., vol.2, London: Longmans Green.

Minogue, Kenneth 1969 Nationalism, London: Methuen.

Newman, Gerald 1987 e rise of English nationalism, New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Peabody, Norbert 1996 ‘Tod’s Rajasthan and the boundaries of imperial of rule in nineteenth century India’, Modern Asian Studies 30: 185-220.

Pflanze, Otto 1966 ‘Nationalism in Europe, 1848- 1871’, Review of Politics 28: 129-43.

Roberts, Michael 1993b “Emotion and the person in nationalist studies” in Japanese in e Shinso, Special edition on Nationalism Today, ed. by T. Aoki, 1993, pp. 127-50.

Roberts et al 1989 People Inbetween, Colomb: Sarvodaya.

Segal, Dan and Richard Handler (eds.) 1993 Nations,colonies and metropoles, being Social Analysis no. 33.

Smith, Anthony D. 1972 ‘Ethnocentrism, nationalismand social change’, International Journal of Comparative Sociology 13: 1-20.

Snyder, Louis L. 1968 The new nationalism, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Strayer, Joseph R. 1965 ‘The historic experience of nation-building in Europe,’ in Karl W. Deutschand W. J. Folz (eds.) Nation building, New York: Atherton Press, pp. 17-26.

Suraweera, A. V. 1976 Rājāvaliya, Colombo: Lake House Investments.

Vimalananda, Tennakoon 1973 e British intrigue in the Kingdom of Ceylon, Colombo: M. D. Gunasena & Co.

Vimalananda, Tennakoon 1984 Sri Wickrema, Brownrigg and Ehelepola, Colombo: M. DGunasena & Co.

Wesumperuma, D. 1995 Indian immigrant plantation workers in Sri Lanka. A historical perspective, 1880-1910, Kelaniya: Vidyalankara Press.

[1] Wasala, “To be truly Lankan,”Island 7 7 *July 2011, reproduced in 2011/07/09/to-be-truly-sri-lankan/

[2] Kumar Sangakkara, 2011 MCC Spirit of cricket Cowdrey Lecture, 4 July 2011.

[3] We did study British history as undergraduates atPeradeniyaUniversity and I subsequently taught the subject in (in Sinhala) as Lecturer in the 1960s and 1970s.

[4] See the signature statement “The Sinhala Mindset” in

[6] This segment is a verbatim repetition of a section covering pages 95-105 in chapter six of Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, 1590s to 1815 (Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2004). The footnote numbers are not the same because adjusted for this web reproduction.

[7] Roberts et al 1989: 49, 51, 53, 125, 142-7, 158, 202-3 and Rogers 1997: 162. In taking up the biological definition of race imposed by the editor of the collection in which his article appears,Rogers tends to equate the concepts of “race” and “caste” (though qualifying it at times by referring to caste as “quasi-biological”). In doing so he falls into the trap thatDumont has decisively criticised (1980: Appendix). In brief, I do not agree with his conflation of the two concepts. A single caste cannot survive as a caste on its own, whereas a “race” can.

[8]Ferguson 1998: 381, 376n, 395-96, 409. Also see Knox 1911: 293-94, 300-01.

[9] For instance, “by God”s favour” in letter dated 14 Feb. 1656 (1904: 226). However, one needs the Sinhala words to draw a definite conclusion.

[10] Abeyasinghe 1995b: 128. It is not clear whether he was speaking in Sinhala or Portuguese.

[11] Dewaraja 1988: 160e & 160k and Vimalananda 1973: 7. Also note the use of a Dutch word translated as “nation” by Greeving, a Dutchman in British service (Vimalananda 1973: 514).  

[12] For a reference to the “Cingalese race,” see Vimalananda 1973: 413.

[13] See the series of letters addressed by D’Oyly to Moratota Dhammakkhanda Unnansē, in CO 54/18, dated 5 Sept. 1805, 3 Oct 1805 and 24 Feb. 1806 as well as Vimalananda 1984: 129.

[14] Vimalananda 1973: 30, 265, 283.

[15] Vimalananda 1973: 222.

[16] It also supports those scholars who have argued that the experiences and relations in the imperial outposts have had significant consequences for British history, for instance, C A Bayly 1990 and Segal & Handler 1993.

[17] Minogue 1968: 8-9.

[18]Clark: 1950: 14, 125, 129.

[19] Minogue 1969: 10; Planze 1966: 140 and Strayer 1963.

[20] Oxford English Dictionary 1993: 30-31 and Samuel Johnson in Latham 1872: 31.

[21] This story seems altogether familiar to readers of modern Sri Lankan history. The Sinhala Buddhist cultural resurgence dating from about the 1870s and crystallising in 1956 was marked by precisely this type of national awakening. Its spokespersons saw Westernised lifeways as contaminating and the English language as a tool of domination. For elaboration of these trends, see Roberts et al 1989 and Amunugama 1997.

[22] See Chatterjee 1986: 4-6, 19, 21-22 and Roberts 1993b: 135, 152-54.

[23] This isPeabody’s reading (1996: 205) of Anderson and Hobsbawm. See Anderson 1991: 81 and Hobsbawm 1990: 38, 64, 14-45. However,Anderson also seems to view the eighteenth century as a critical moment: see pp. 4, 11. Again, there is a measure of ambiguity in Hobsbawm. Though he tries to draw a sharp line between “proto-nationalism” and the modern nationalisms, some of his proto-nationalist cases would seem to have several of the attributes of his modern nations (see p. 75). Ultimately, both Anderson and Hobsbawm would seem to tie modern nationalism to the egalitarian ideology and the bourgeois liberal carriers associated with the phenomenon from the early nineteenth century.

[24] Quoted byPeabody 1996: 209. NotePeabody’s clarification of the distinction, in the thinking of British Indian administrators such as Tod, between those states that “de-nationalised others” and those, that is,Britain, who assisted peoples who had been victimised in this manner.

[25] C A Bayly 1990: 113-14 and North toCamden, secret, 21 Feb. 1805, in CO 54/17 and Maitland toCamden, no. 13, 24 Feb. 1806 in CO 54/ 21.

[26] As far as I can work out, it was not till about the second quarter of the nineteenth century that the British adopted the word “Tamil” as an appropriate label. Here, then, indigenous practice provided a corrective and transformed colonial nomenclature. This reverses the post-Orientalist thesis.

[27] D’Oyly to Ähälēpola, 8 Feb. 1814, encl. in Brownrigg to Liverpool, no. 68, CO 54/51, p. 124. This letter was meant for Ähälēpola only (i. e. he was, here, not acting as agent for the king unlike the letters from 1818 and 1812 quoted earlier).

[28] Utilised by Maitland, for instance, in his letter toCamden, no. 13, 24 Feb. 1806, CO 54/21, p. 3.

[29] “[In] that Heathen Country with a people like the Kandians by which Nation humanity is not known” (Greeving in Vimalananda 1973: 514).

[30] Macdowall to First Adigār, 11 April 1803 in Vimalananda 1973: 325. Also see Macdowall to First Adigār [Pilima Talauvve], 11 April 1803, in CO 54/10, p. 290; Vimalananda 1973: 142, 223, 415, 441; and D’Oyly to Moratota Dhammakkhanda Unnānsē, 5 Sept. 1805, in Maitland to Camden, 19 Oct. 1805, in CO 54/15.

   I confidently speculate that this phrase, “Kandian Nation,” occurred with some frequency in oral communications among the British administrators. It may be significant that D’Oyly began to refer to the “Kandyan people” in his correspondence at a later point — from about 1813. In other words “nation” seems to have been deliberately jettisoned (Vimalananda 1984: 103, 127, 128, 147). He seems to have returned to the initial practice after the kingdom was taken over.

[31] Historical Manuscripts Commission 1937: 4, 6.

[32] The boundaries of Siñhalē in its restricted sense included terrain that was identified as “low,” that is, as pāta rata (Dewaraja 1988: 160k, 8th Article of Treaty of 1766).

[33] Used in the seventeenth century Rājāvaliya (Suraweera 1994: 220) and translated as “hill men” by Gunasekara (Rājāvaliya 1954: 69). It is possible that the word udarätiyan was also utilised.

[34] The two statements above do not apply to the Yon, the Muslims, within theKingdom ofKandy because they seem to have retained a distinct identity, though they spoke Sinhala — in part because their mother tongue was a dialect of Tamil and in the main because of their religious attachments and associated lifeways.

[35] Quoted in K M de Silva 1965: 21.

[36] The reference here is to (a) the impact of Low Country Sinhalese, Moor and Chetty entrepreneurs and traders working within the interstices of the plantation economy as well as (b) the ramifying influence of migrant Tamil plantation workers from southernIndia. See Roberts 1969; Wickremeratne 1975; and Wesumperuma 1995.



Filed under cultural transmission, historical interpretation, world events & processes

11 responses to “The Vocabulary of “Nation” in English in the Early Modern Period

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