- Recasting The Half-Caste
In Sri Lanka, serious book reviews are not only few and far between, but authors also do not usually reply to reviews of their books. So while it was a real windfall to receive four reviews simultaneously, to comment briefly in reply is a rather unusual task. However, I really appreciate the reviews, and thank Shefali Chandra, Hilary Jones, Shoshana Keller, and Emma Teng for their perceptive insights and for opening up this discussion.
On a personal note, my academic background is multidisciplinary. I am not a "historian" with a degree in history, but a political scientist who specialized in industrial relations. My interests moved on to feminist history and I continue to be active in the women's movement. Using these experiences, I have written on several issues ranging from working-class agitation to ethno-nationalism, feminism, peasant rebellion, and the rise of capitalism in Sri Lanka. In this book, I combine many of these themes, and as Shefali Chandra noted, I deal with "race, caste, class, sexuality, and nationalism"—a wide sweep, using examples from several countries.
I should also make it clear that my book is not a history of Euro-Asians, but a political study of the roots of colonial dissenting movements, including feminism, and the role of Euro-Asians as pioneers of struggles for democratic rights and against semifeudalism in South Asia. The word "Euro-Asian" is coined to include persons of mixed European and Asian origin in the maternal or paternal line. Emma Teng calls this "an important contribution" and states that the "highly fraught" issue of nomenclature "has been of great symbolic importance for those struggling for recognition,"—especially, if I may add, since those of mixed origin have historically been referred to by derogatory names. In Sri Lanka, the Euro-Asian "public intellectuals," who had been educated in English, were inspired by the French Revolution and the European "Enlightenment." As Benedict Anderson has written, this had unintended consequences: "Vietnamese youngsters could not avoid learning about the philosophes and the (French) Revolution and Magna Carta … and the Glorious Revolution, glossed as English history, entered schools all over the British Empire."1 Radical Euro-Asians in the colonies became the earliest advocates of protonationalism, secularism, democracy, and pluralism, as well as the rights of women, peasants, and workers. These forgotten historical figures were, moreover, opponents of the caste system, religious intolerance, oppressive laws, unjust taxes, and harmful social practices—all this many decades before the emergence of [End Page 263] leaders celebrated today in the region as "national heroes." The Euro-Asians' critique was thus political and social but their contribution to South Asian national history was erased. The issues the Euro-Asians raised, however, were taken up by later dissenters.
The importance of the social critique can be seen in Euro-Asian writings deploring ethnic and religious division and especially against the caste system, which still plagues South Asia. In the 1820s in Kolkata (Calcutta), the leading Euro-Asian iconoclast, Henry Derozio (1809–1831), a teacher, poet, and admirer of Byron, was inspired by the French Revolution and the movements for freedom in Greece and Italy. He promoted patriotism, rationalism, free speech, women's rights, and social criticism, sparking off the emergence of the Young Bengal movement, described as "a youthful band of reformers who … like the tops of the Kanchenjunga were the first to catch and reflect the dawn." A group of Hindu students, followers of Derozio, who, according to Sivanath Sastri, "broke asunder the shackles of caste and ate with their Eurasian friend."2 In mid-nineteenth-century Sri Lanka, at a time when the Sinhalese and Tamil intelligentsia generally accepted the status quo, it was a Euro-Asian lawyer, Frederick Nell, who wrote of the "leprosy of caste." In addition, Charles Lorenz and his radical Euro-Asians of the Young Ceylon group were persistent critics of colonial rule, articulating demands for political and social change.3
It is no wonder then that these Euro-Asians were denounced as "subversive hybrids" by British rulers in the colonies, who derogatorily referred to them as "half-castes," vagabonds and mischmaschvolk. Some ultranationalists in Sri Lanka also...