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GHCC annual lecture 'The Murder of a Dutch Fiscal in 1723, Colombo: Interrogating the Categories of ‘Slave’, ‘Black’ and ‘Kaffir’

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Location: H0.60

Prof Nira Wickramasinghe, Leiden University


There is an enduring belief in Sri Lanka that at some undetermined point in history ‘kaffir’ slaves rebelled, creating such havoc in Colombo that it led to them being severely suppressed and then confined to a ward of the city, that then became known for posterity as ‘Slave Island’. There was in, fact, no slave rebellion. The less well known murder of the Dutch fiscal, Barent de Swaan and his wife by their Asian domestic slaves, in the city of Colombo in 1723 is intimately connected to this apocryphal story. The reverberations of this violent event across three centuries, offer a key to tracking shifts in the manner in which ‘slaves,’ ‘blacks’ and ‘kaffirs’ were represented and their lives and deaths recorded during successive colonial and postcolonial regimes. This presentation will explore the gradual blackening of slaves in texts and in the collective memory of the people of Sri Lanka. It addresses the re-writing of history around the space called ‘Slave Island’ in Colombo where a murder committed by Indonesian slaves gets transformed into a ‘kaffir’ slave revolt in popular memory and guide books. This lecture will explore the social and political conditions that produced taxonomies and the political and moral projects that were served by the appearance and disappearance of certain categories of classification.

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