Everyday Lankan History

Thombos: lives, land and labour

registring lives, land, and labour in early modern Sri Lanka

One of the biggest collections of early modern land and population registers in existence today can be found in the Sri Lankan National Archives in Colombo. During the second half of the eighteenth century bureaucrats employed by the VOC recorded tens of thousands of plots of land and hundreds of thousands individuals that could be found in the territories claimed by the Company. For the Colombo region alone well over 200 volumes of these registers, collectively called thombos (named after the Portuguese registers which preceded and influenced the Dutch thombos), have survived the test of time and can be consulted. 

These population and land registers contain immensely detailed accounts of the families that lived in the area around that time and the lands they considered their property. So much so, that to this day they are renowned in Sri Lanka for the information they contain for contemporary families to trace the genealogies of their ancestors and the lands they own. Similarly, they are now offering historians and historical demographers the chance to study an early modern South Asian society and its social, economic and demographic trends and have as such been hailed for the unique and intricate data they contain.

Unravelling the thombos  

Despite their reputation, until recently very little was known about the actual processes of bureaucratisation and registration that allowed for the creation of these thombos. Even less was known about how those that were registered, the local families and communities, had responded to this process and – perhaps even more importantly – what kind of effect these registers may have had on their everyday lives. On the one hand the documentation of people and property may have allowed for them to be recognised by documents of the colonial government, while on the other the same registers were created and used by the same government with the purpose of exploiting agricultural produce and labour in the form of taxes and (caste-bound) service duties from said people and property. Additionally, the thombos were far from the only registers in existence at the time: a long tradition of land and population registration already existed in Sri Lanka at this time, which has hardly been studied in the past. In short, the question that remains is, what did the process of registration look like from the ground, how were they influenced by local practices and people, and what were the workings of said registers for those that were registering and those that were registered?

In this long read we shall take a closer look at the significance of land registration in early modern Sri Lanka. Based on recent research, we shall look specifically at the significance of land ownership, social status, and the registration of both for society at the time. We shall start at the traditions surrounding genealogical recordings at the village level, before moving on to the act of registration by state bureaucracies and finally concluding with a segment on the impact of the documentation of individuals, family and land on the communities inhabiting eighteenth-century coastal Sri Lanka.

The social worth of land

Like in many pre-modern societies, land was one of the most important commodities in early modern Sri Lanka. Not only because land was used for subsistence agriculture, but also because agricultural surpluses could be sold on both local and transregional markets. Because of this, land was directly connected to one’s social status. Both because large plots of land could bring economic wealth, but also because one’s caste-bound social status could be used to acquire or hold additional land. In many cases, land ownership was connected to a caste-bound labour duty or service – with the lower caste groups (including many artisan castes) providing menial labour in exchange for their landed property, and higher castes performing political or administrative duties (e.g. as a village chief, administrator, or in a military role). Obviously, the higher the status of the duty, the more land was granted for it. While in theory such land grants were gifted to people by the local king (and later by the colonial government), in practice this system was largely organised locally. This, combined with the fact that both male and female family members could inherit equal shares to a family’s estate and most caste-bound duties were inheritable as well, necessitated proper administration of people and their (landed) property.

Initially, and also after the arrival of the European colonisers, much of this administration was kept locally. Village scribes (kanakkuppillai) recorded the families in their villages, their property, and their caste-bound status, rights, and duties. They did so on dried palm leaves (olas), and created a plethora of deeds, wills, registers, and other documents that were continuously used until at least the nineteenth century. Local chiefs were responsible on the ground for the management of labour, the division of land, and for resolving potential conflicts regarding the aforementioned. On a daily basis these chiefs would have used the wide array of ola records created by the kanakkuppillai. Local families similarly used these documents to keep track of their property, their estate, and the inheritability of both. Altogether, local systems of registration and administration were widespread and continuously used, before, during, and despite of the arrival of the respective European colonial governments.

Seeing like a state?

Not coincidentally, land, labour and the registration of both were not just important for local society, but also for the governments claiming hegemony over it. The Portuguese and Dutch colonisers were initially attracted to the island’s exclusive products like cinnamon, elephants, gems, and other spices ripe to be sold on different Eurasian markets. However, over the decades they became increasingly interested in the agricultural produce and labour that could be exploited through local systems of social organisation and land tenure. These colonial governments were not the first that attempted to rule, regulate and register these systems from the top down. The pre-colonial Sinhalese kingdoms in the southern regions of the island had over the centuries created a land registration system where all land claimed by these kings was recorded on olas, along with the individuals or temples that had been (either temporarily or permanently) granted the land in question. The resulting volumes, the lekam miti, were translated and copied by the Portuguese when they conquered much of the coastal territories of Sri Lanka and stood at the basis of their tombo registers, which they used to gain insight into the agricultural produce they could tax, and the caste-bound labour duties they could exploit.

The Dutch thombos can be seen as the end result of this process of administrative convolution. While on paper and in Dutch, and inspired by a Portuguese predecessor, the VOC registers were largely based on information provided to the colonial bureaucracy by local agents, and it used Lankan social, tenurial, and cultural categories to record people and land. The ‘thombo committee’, headed by a European official, would in some cases travel the regions they registered, and in other cases have local communities come to them. But in either case local chiefs provided them with pre-recorded lists of the plots of land in the region they governed, the agricultural produce that could be found on these lands, and the individuals who performed labour duties. During this process, local landowners could try and have their land registered and recognised in a way that was fruitful for them, for example through the ‘paraveni’ category, which literally translates as ‘ancestral land’ from Sinhala. This category was used in the thombo to mark land owned by local families that was exempted from taxes, and could be sold or gifted to others by its owners. Naturally, many local families tried to have their property recorded as such. Similarly, local people looked to have their social status and caste-bound lineage recorded properly by the Company bureaucrats to gain access to certain rights, or even tried to be recorded with a higher standing or rank than they actually were – much to the dismay of the VOC. So while the registers were intended to be used by the Dutch colonial government to exploit land and labour, their content and utility was very much influenced through local action and interaction.

Recognition through registration?

Over time, the registers became increasingly appropriated by the society that was recorded in them. The registers were more and more frequently used to have one’s property, estate, genealogy, lineage or social status recorded and recognised. This recognition could be vital when one found themselves in a conflict with a rivalling family member, neighbour or superior. Taking a civil conflict to the colonial courts and using the thombos as evidence to back one’s claims was a widely used and successful strategy to protect (or challenge) property or social standing, which you can read about in the story of Francisco Farnando. Like in other regions in South Asia , there is also evidence families kept personal archives which were filled with both locally produced documents and copies and extracts from the colonial bureaucracy, such as copies from their entries in the thombos. People could approach the ‘thombo keeper’ (the official maintaining the thombos) to get such copies, a practice which continued even after the VOC bureaucracy disappeared. During (and even after) British colonial rule, people continued to consult the thombos to find out about the histories of their family and property. Both before and after independence archivists had a hard time keeping up with all the requests to produce (translated) copies from the Dutch-Lankan registers.

Altogether, it is clear the history of population and land registration in Sri Lanka is layered, complex, and highly fascinating. While the impact of colonialism on this history is undeniable, Lankan agency very much shaped this history and the registers resulting from it. More than just an instrument for governments (either colonial or not) to rule with, registers afforded people to have themselves and their estate recorded for their own reference too. This was useful when facing litigation, but also when simply wanting to consult their family history. Because of this, Lankan people made the (colonial) registers their own, a practice that continues to this day.