Only Time a Slave is Heard

By Priyangwada Perera | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 23 2021
Echo Only Time a Slave is Heard

By Priyangwada Perera 

Not many of us know of the John F. Richards Prize in South Asian History. It recognises the most distinguished scholarship on South Asian history, published in English. In the criterion, South Asia is defined according to the geographic area included in the modern states of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The good news of the prize being won by Dr. Nira Knojit Wickramasinghe is call for celebration. Dr. Wickramasinghe won this prestigious John F. Richards Prize for her book Slave in a Palanquin. 

Palanquins are what we have read in books. My first mental image of a palanquin was as a child, when I read a fictionalised tale of Madduma Bandara. The picture has stayed in my mind. It was a little later that I actually saw one at a Museum. However, what came in the storybook was an instance of the Lankan elites being carried by their servants. Dr. Wickramasinghe’s book carries a subhead indicating her focus. It specifically mentions ‘Colonial Servitude and Resistance in Sri Lanka’, excluding it from what came in my storybook. 

A short description available online on the book says, “Nira Wickramasinghe uncovers the traces of slavery in the history and memory of the Indian Ocean world, exploring moments of revolt in the lives of enslaved people in Sri Lanka in the wake of abolition.” Dr. Wickramasinghe handles an era unexplored. Slave in a Palanquin is said to, “Offer a vital new portrait of the local and transitional worlds of the colonial-eraAsian slave trade in the Indian Ocean.” Published by the Colombia University Press, Slave in a Palanquin is seen as the author’s endeavour to recover what she calls ‘fugitive lives’. 

She is commended for her literature by her contemporaries like Sunil Amrit, author of Unholy Waters. In the eyes of the fellow writers, standing bold and tall in the discourse where the archive of slavery spells of its, “Silences, fractures and unexpected shards of illumination,” Dr. Wickramasinghe’s view is recognised and awarded. Unfortunately, the book is not a metaphorical representation of slavery nor is the palanquin associated with class conscious Ceylonese. It is the weight of pain and injustice, carried by the slaves. 

The book provides insight to a sad story of slavery which is quietly swept under the carpet. Chapters address the unmistakable tragedy of the slaves in this country. Starting with ‘A Dutch Fiscal’s Murder: Interrogating the Identity of Slaves, Blacks and ‘Kaffirs’, the second chapter runs from Colombo to Galle: Enslaved Bodies in an Archive of Violence. Chapter three take a different journey to Jaffna in Early 19th Century. 

Up to Chapter four, The Chilaw ‘Experiment’: Labour for Freedom, are telling enough. The next two are The Plaint of an Emancipated Slave: a Play in Two Acts, leading to Chapter six – Eclipse of the Slave: Traces, Hauntings – the book is an intrigue enough. While it is curiosity for us, it is unbearable sadness in reality. Having once written about the sad status of Kaffirs in Sri Lanka, having spoken to them of their ancestors’ terrifying journey to Ceylon, we only got rare bits and pieces of the descendants of the very people. Dr. Wickramasinghe’s story would be a sterling representation of people forcefully planted here, denied a voice, an identity and even a dignified death.

By Priyangwada Perera | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 23 2021

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