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  • Introduction
  • Shoshana Keller (bio)

Historians have paid a great deal of attention to the dialectical dance between imperial metropole and colonial periphery, during which colonized peoples formed into nations and in turn shaped the national identity of the colonizers. The mingling of cultures, especially at the level of everyday life, was beyond the control of any government or political movement. Children were among the unanticipated results of this mingling. The existence of mixed-race children was a minor embarrassment to imperial powers and nationalists alike, and their lives have attracted little scholarly attention. Kumari Jayawardena argues that, in the case of Sri Lanka and other British colonial territories, these "Euro-Asians" (Jayawardena's coinage) played a central role in bringing modern, and occasionally radical, ideas into South Asian societies. She wrote this book as a celebration of their progressive influence.

I would argue, however, that the very modernity these Euro-Asians fostered in Sri Lanka, Calcutta/Kolkata, and Singapore (the areas that Jayawardena discusses) is as much responsible for the "erasure" of Euro-Asians from the historical record as is national prejudice. It is a commonplace that nations are a product of modern methods of ordering society. Benedict Anderson's famous trio of census, map and museum are tools for defining, counting, locating, and categorizing groups of people so that the state can control and manipulate them more easily.1 Unintentionally on the part of the colonial powers, these tools also aided the development of local national movements that eventually took control over their own states. The Soviet Union, which tried to establish itself as the mirror image of European colonialism, pursued the paradoxical policy of creating nations as a necessary first step toward international proletarian class unity. Whether capitalist or communist in form, whether imposed by the politics of national liberation or imperial governance, the building of modern social structures meant defining clear boundaries between groups, so that [End Page 244] everyone knew what group they belonged to. This process also defined out of existence cultural ambiguity, overlap, and local self-definitions that did not conform to state needs. Historian Kate Brown examines this aspect of nation-making in her delicate study of the complex borderland region between Poland and Soviet Ukraine, where nationalists, communists, and fascists modernized backwardness until they had physically eliminated the "polluting element" of ambiguous people and replaced intricately mixed cultures with a Ukrainian heartland.2 Given the need for nations to define themselves as unified against something else, it is not so surprising that mixed-race people tend to get "erased" from the triumphant post-colonial nationalist narrative.

Jayawardena's book itself is a hybrid, being partly a history, partly a cultural study, and partly a work of recovery in the tradition of feminist scholarship of the 1970s. The author, who is herself a Sri Lankan Euro-Asian, sets forth her agenda very clearly: "This book does not claim … to be a history of the Euro-Asians … It is rather an attempt to highlight the radical achievements of the Euro-Asians and the reasons why these have not been recognized." Her statement suggests that the concepts of marginality, modernization, and national purity are central to understanding the contributions of Euro-Asians and the reasons why they have been so little acknowledged, although Jayawardena does not structure her analysis around these concepts. Indeed, while she acknowledges that "Many Euro-Asians had a sense of angst about not being fully accepted by either the colonial power or local society" (12), she also denies that they were marginal in the sense of being of little importance to their societies. Instead she focuses on the centrality of radical Euro-Asians as pioneering transmitters of progressive political ideas to all of South Asia.

Jayawardena organizes her material thematically within a rough chronological structure. Sri Lanka was first colonized in the early sixteenth century by the Portuguese, who were pushed out by the Dutch in 1656. Both groups left behind mixed-race communities, the Portuguese by deliberate policy (to create a loyal client population) and the Dutch because the Dutch East India Company did not allow employees' wives to accompany their men. By the time the British took over in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 244-247
Launched on MUSE
2010-12-16
Open Access
No
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