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THE CHALIAH CASTE IN CEYLON. Both the written and traditional accounts of the origin and ancient state of the Chaliahs are blended with incredible fables. The accounts they possess of their modern condition and employment are sufficiently probable. They assert that their progenitors came from the peninsula of India, at the request of a king of Kandy, and that, for a long period, they followed the profession of embroidering cloth, and practised the various arts connected with the manufacture of gold and silver thread. This pursuit becoming unprofitable, they resorted for a livelihood to the weaving of plain cloth.
Our information respecting the administration of public affairs by the Kandyan government was, until lately, both scanty and inexact. One part of its policy, and one of much importance, is well ascertained: the division of the people into castes. Neither the written records nor the traditions of the indigenous inhabitants of Ceylon have the most distant allusion to a different state of society.
The revenue of the king of Kandy, from time immemorial, may be arranged under three heads : 1st, revenue paid in kind and delivered into his storehouses ; 2d, personal services; and 3d, a small money-revenue, collected from individuals who purchased situations under his government.
The Portuguese, on their acquiring some of the maritime provinces of Ceylon, appear to have continued the policy which had been practised by the Kandyan government, of dividing the people into castes with peculiar duties and privileges. They seem likewise to have continued, in a great degree, the manner of collecting the revenue practised under the native government. In the allotment of the peculiar services of the different castes, the Portuguese taxed the Chaliahs with the collection and preparation of cinnamon. The chief portion of this caste appears to have resided, at that time, in the provinces acquired by the Portuguese. In consequence, it is said, of the profitableness of the cinnamon trade, the department for collecting cinnamon was styled muhu-buddu, from the Singhalese words muhu, ‘great,' and buddu,
revenue.' The people employed in the preparation of cinnamon were known by the appellation of muhu-buddu altu, 'persons of the muhu buddu,' more frequently pronounced maha-badde. From the allusions made to the state of the Chaliahs under the Portuguese colonial government, in the Dutch records, it would appear that these people were then subjected to a rigorous servitude, approaching to slavery, and that they endured the most oppressive exactions.
The Chaliahs are attached to the soil, and, like the villeins of feudal times, have been transferred, without a mitigation of their bondage, to every succeeding conqueror. The overthrow of the Portuguese in Ceylon, and the possession of the maritime provinces by the Dutch, produced a change of masters, but no alleviation of the rigours of servitude under which the Chaliahs laboured.
The early Dutch policy, with regard to the Chaliahs and the collection of cinnamon, is but imperfectly known. Official documents relating to the caste and the collection of cinnamon, framed while the Dutch ruled in Ceylon, supply, however, soine information of importance on the subject. The following statements are furnished from papers of undoubted authority; they however follow no regular series ; many of them are isolated and unconnected, but from the specimens exhibited, some idea may be formed of the spirit of the Dutch government, and a tolerably exact inference may be drawn of the oppressed condition of the Chaliahs.
In a code of instructions, addressed to the superintendent of the cinnamon department, by the colonial government, bearing date 27th April 1707, a brief exposition of this branch of the public revenue is given. This document is found in Valentyn's great work upon Ceylon and some parts of India. We are informed, by this code of instructions, that the cutting and preparing of the cinnamon was imposed upon the Chaliah caste as a tribute or tax. The code states that the caste was divided into four classes or subdivisions, each having different duties to perform.
The first class furnished all the head.men, or overseers; some of the men of this class were employed as messengers, and in picking, sorting, and baling cinnamon. The number of this class, at that time, was 583. The second class, or Lascoryns, were likewise employed as messengers, letter-carriers, &c.; they were sometimes called upon to perform a kind of military duty. This class amounted to 495 men. The third class were coolies, or labourers; their duty was to carry loads, and to perform any heavy labour directed by their superiors. This class reckoned 305 men. The men of the fourth class are the cinnamon-peelers; they amounted to 1,365. This class was considered inferior in rank to the preceding three classes. The impost levied upon it was much heavier than that exacted from the others. The sense the Chaliahs entertained of the oppression they suffered, with the means they adopted to elude the heavy exactions, may be inferred from the tenor of the directions issued to the superintendent of the cinnamon department. He was ordered to keep an exact register of all the males of the Chaliah caste, but particularly of this subdivision; he was warned to be extremely cautious how he performed this part of his duty; he was informed that, should be exempt any individual from the duties belonging to the caste, whether from favour or bribery, &c., he would be answerable for his conduct to his superiors, and incur the severest responsibility. Collusion, or any fraudulent compact of the superintendent with the people of this caste, was rigorously forbidden. The superintendent was directed to adopt the most rigid precautions to prevent the children of this class from being introduced into the families of the other classes of Chaliahs and fostered by them, for such means of partial emancipation seem to have been frequently attempted.
To increase the number of the Chaliah caste, it was ordered that their offspring, whether male or female, by individuals of any of the other castes, were to be treated as Chaliahs, and liable to the servitude imposed upon the caste. The children joined that class of the caste to whom the Chaliah parent belonged. A similar measure was adopted to increase the number of the fourth class, or peelers. By a government-regulation, it was commanded that the offspring of Chaliahs, if the parents were of different classes, should be comprehended in the class of the parent who occupied the lower rank. This rule was permitted only when the progeny was legitimate. The illegitimate children of all classes of Chaliahs belonged to the peeling-class.
The first and third classes of the Chaliahs paid an annual poll-tax, in money, independently of the personal service imposed upon them. Individuals of the first class began paying this tax at eleven years of age; the amount was three pice (about 3d.) annually, which sum was increased to forty-eight pice. The tax was reduced gradually, according to the age and infirmities of individuals, until it reached three pice, which every male of the class was obliged to advance, however old he might be. The males of the third class commenced paying three pice about eleven years of age; this impost was annually increased until it reached thirty pice; it was then reduced by degrees and according to
circumstances to three pice. The second and fourth classes did not pay this tax.
The males of the peelers, or fourth class, were registered in their twelfth or thirteenth year, and the task of preparing one pingo (56 lbs.) of cinnamon was imposed upon them. In some instances, a pingo was reckoned 65 lbs. This task increased one pingo annually, until a peeler produced eleven pingos. The cinnamon produced in this manner was denominated angebadde,* and the labours of the peelers in collecting it seems to have been considered in the light of a poll-tax.
When the angebadde became inadequate to complete the quantity required for the markets in Europe, America, &c., the peelers were each, in addition to the angebadde, taxed with the annual preparation of from one to eight pingos, according to their age and strength. The cinnamon thus collected was called gelt caneel (money-cinnamon). For each pingo of gelt caneel the peeler was paid six pice (6d.). The native headmen were held responsible for producing the gross amount of the taxation, both angebadde and gelt caneel. When a peeler failed to produce the exacted quantity, he was obliged to pay four fanams (about Is. 4d.) for each pingo wanting, whether the deficiency was in the angebadde or gelt caneel. Repeated or great defalcation of the task imposed upon the peelers was prevented by punishing defaulters at the will of the superintendent. Flogging, confinement in chains, and hard labour, were the penalties directed to be inflicted upon defaulters. The same punishment was ordered to be inflicted upon deserters when seized. Coarse or badly-prepared cinnamon was thrown into heaps, and used for the distillation of oil. No credit was given to the peelers, in the books of the department, for this quality of cinnamon; they were obliged to deliver their task in cinnamon of a good quality and well-prepared.
Each peeler was allowed from government four parahs, or about 180 lbs., of rice annually. To prepare the amount of the task assigned to each peeler, it required his uninterrupted labour from six to nine months annually. In the early part of the eighteenth century, the Dutch divided the period for cutting cinnamon, in each year, into a little and a great harvest. This division was abandoned, and subsequently there was only one harvest.
Such is a brief abstract of the code of instructions, by which the superintendent of the cinnamon-department was to be guided. The oppressive and vexatious nature of the services imposed upon the peelers has not, perhaps, been equalled under the most arbitrary government. To render the Chaliahs sufficiently subservient, the Dutch degraded them to the utmost. They were crushed by a system of disabilities, so as effectually to check improvement in mind and fortune. Neither property nor talents could emancipate a Chaliah from the thraldom imposed upon him. The enormous tribute which was exacted required the unremitting labour of about two-thirds of the year.
Notwithstanding the abject state of these people, and the sense of selfdebasement that long-continued oppression, hereditary prepossessions, and habits had induced, they on more than one occasion evinced an ardent desire to emancipate themselves from the severe exactions of their tyrants.
In 1716, they quitted the maritime provinces, and emigrated into the interior of the island. The colonial government, with the aid of the king of Kandy, succeeded in obliging the Chaliahs to return to their native villages.
In 1723, the peelers declined complying with the orders of government to • Valentyn informs us that, under the Kandyan government, angebadde were the poll-taxes which the lower castes paid to the king: each individual of these castes was liable to this imposition, from the age of sixteen to sixty.
proceed to the woods and prepare cinnamon as usual, assigning as reasons the degraded state of the caste and the number of exclusions and disabilities they laboured under ; they stated that personal security and personal liberty had lately been more infringed than ever; that the task or tribute demanded of them was beyond their power to perform; that the general and frequent cutting of the cinnamon shoots and trees, for a number of years, had greatly reduced the quantity of cinnamon in the jungles; that in consequence of the scarcity of cinnamon trees, and particularly of shoots fit for cutting, they had extreme difficulty in procuring good cinnamon; that to complete the task imposed upon them for one year would require the incessant labour of from twelve to thirteen months, and that the quantity they were ordered to furnish caused them to live in the woods “like wild beasts, without being able to visit their families, or to contribute to the support of their wives and children;" they earnestly begged permission to proceed to the interior of the island, that they might state their grievances to the king of Kandy; and they stated that, should this request be refused, they anxiously solicited to be allowed to withdraw from the island of Ceylon.
I have seen no document recording the issue of this remonstrance; but it may be presumed that the Dutch made some apparent concessions : the colonial government, on many occasions, dexterously managed the weakness and ignorance of this people to its own advantage, while the poor Chaliahs were deceived into a belief that their rulers had sacrificed something to their liberties, and that their burdens had been lightened.
From about this time, it became customary to permit the peelers to appear annually before the government, immediately after the termination of the cinnamon-harvest. The Dutch claimed great credit for permitting this annual assemblage ; ostensibly it seemed to evince a readiness to hear public complaint, to which the people had not been accustomed, and the avowed motive of this measure was to afford them an opportunity of laying their grievances before the governor, who promised redress. In practice, this annual assemblage does not appear to have tended to lessen their burdens or to ameliorate their situation. The apparent condescension of the government flattered the self-esteem of the Chaliahs, and pleased their vanity,--passions found in all ranks, in all states of civilization, and in all degrees of slavery ;-but it had no permanent effect, in this instance, in bettering their condition.
To excite them to greater exertions, rather than to conciliate their goodwill, the government occasionally, at these general assemblages, bestowed a present of a small piece of cloth to individuals who had prepared a large quantity of cinnamon. The present varied in quantity, according to the successful industry of individuals ; in general, it consisted of about six yards of coarse cotton cloth, and was valued at 2) Ceylon florins, about 2s. 7d.
The burdens and exactions, which continued to be inflicted upon the defenceless peelers, produced, in 1735, indubitable evidence that they felt their wrongs. A large body of them left the maritime districts and retired to two villages situated in the Seven Corles, a province then belonging to the Kandyau government. They declined acceding to any proposal made to them by the Dutch for their return. A long-continued series of oppression seems to have inspired them with the resolution of despair. They declared that nothing but an order from the king of Kandy would make them return to their villages; they refused even to meet the Dutch commissioner appointed to hear their complaints. Their reply to the messages from the colonial government was couched in very strong language. They stated that they would not return to
the maritime provinces “even though the government should destroy their property, burn their wives and children, and present them with the ashes,”
On the defection of the peelers, the government addressed the king of Kandy, in a supplicating memorial, informing him of the revolt of the peelers, and of their having taken shelter in his dominions. They prayed the Kandyan monarch to command the refugees to return to their allegiance and comply with their accustomed exactions; they solicited his Majesty that, in the event of the peelers failing to obey his orders to evacuate the Kandyan territory, he would, in consequence of the friendship existing between the two governments, direct the refractory peelers to be seized and sent bound to the limits of the maritime provinces, where they should be received by the agents of government.
This supplicatory document was presented to the king of Kandy by native messengers, to whom his majesty verbally replied by stating that he was well aware of the existence of the circumstances set forth in the memorial. He likewise informed the messengers, that he had already directed the peelers, who had taken refuge in his territory, to return to the coast, and that he would repeat his commands should it be found necessary.
The Dutch degraded themselves by this step, without effecting any thing. The peelers did not return to the coast; and their progeny now form an isolated colony, in the place they first occupied, encircled by people of other castes.
In the same year, the peelers, who remained in the maritime provinces, refused to commence the collection and preparation of cinnamon. They complained that the tax levied upon them was enormous, and that, in consequence of the scarcity of cinnamon trees, they were unable to collect the quantity the government exacted. They stated that they found extreme difficulty in collecting even that portion of the burden imposed upon them, which was denominated angebadde, and begged that the amount of the exactions under other denominations might be reduced. The peelers, at the same time, stated their disgust at the conduct of the superintendent of the mahabadde and his interpreter, and entreated that they might be both removed from the situations they held in the cinnamon-department. They closed their representation by declaring, in the most peremptory and explicit terms, that, unless the govern, ment conceded these essential points, they would not resume their former servitude.
Arbitrary governments seldom concede but from impotence; their concessions are usually the effects of fear, not the consequence of any thing generous in principle. The Dutch, fearing a more extensive defection, acceded, in some degree, to the prayers of their memorial. But as the fraudulent depend chiefly upon fraud to promote their ends, the Dutch, under the pretext that a number of the peelers were in arrears with their tribute, increased the weight of the pingo of angebadde from 55 lbs. to 65 lbs., and required the usual number of pingos to be delivered. To conciliate the favour of the peelers, the superintendent and his interpreter were both removed from their situations, and for the purpose of gaining the obedience of the peelers, they were permitted to nominate a person to succeed as superintendent of the department.
By subsequent regulations, it appears that, among the measures that were taken to wring from the peelers an increased quantity of cinnamon, one was, to offer a premium, consisting of a few cubits of coarse cotton cloth, which was to be given to those who produced a certain quantity above the amount of their tax or annual task. Other regulations, calculated to operate through the Asiat.Journ. N.S.VOL. 12.No.48.