For hundreds of years, the island of Sri Lanka was a crucial stopover for people and goods in the Indian Ocean. For the Dutch East India Company, it was also a crossroads in the Indian Ocean slave trade. Slavery was present in multiple forms in Sri Lanka—then Ceylon—when the British conquered the island in the late eighteenth century and began to gradually abolish slavery. Yet the continued presence of enslaved people in Sri Lanka in the nineteenth century has practically vanished from collective memory in both the Sinhalese and Tamil communities.
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 the wake of abolition. She tells the stories of Wayreven, the slave who traveled in the palanquin of his master; Selestina, accused of killing her child; Rawothan, who sought permission for his son to be circumcised; and others, enslaved or emancipated, who challenged their status. Drawing on legal cases, petitions, and other colonial records to recover individual voices and quotidian moments, Wickramasinghe offers a meditation on the archive of slavery. She examines how color-based racial thinking gave way to more nuanced debates about identity, complicating conceptions of blackness and racialization. A deeply interdisciplinary book with a focus on recovering subaltern resistance, Slave in a Palanquin offers a vital new portrait of the local and transnational worlds of the colonial-era Asian slave trade in the Indian Ocean.
Nira Wickramasinghe is Chair Professor of Modern South Asian Studies at Leiden University. Her books include Metallic Modern: Everyday Machines in Colonial Sri Lanka (2014) and Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History (second edition, 2015).