By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
The tiny Malay community in Sri Lanka, officially numbering about 43,000 (according to the 2012 census) and unofficially about 80,000 (according to community leaders), had a very significant role in the political history of the island from the establishment of Dutch power in the 17 th. Century to the second half of the 19th.Century when the British were ruling.
Their role was almost exclusively tied to their martial prowess and the need of the Dutch and British to use them as soldiers in their campaigns against each other as well as the locals. They also dominated the police department in the early stages.
Malay military units played a dominant role in shaping the life, economy and culture of the Malays in Lanka for over three centuries. The uni-ethnic Malay Regiment and the almost fully Malay Ceylon Rifle Regiment (CRR) set the tone for the entire Malay community in the island in every way. Even after the demobilization of the CRR in 1873, ex-servicemen lorded over the non-military Malays called “Free Malays’.
The Malays came to Lanka either as independent conquerors or as soldier- appendages of European conquerors. According to M.M.M.Mahroof (The Malays of Sri Lanka), the 10 th. Century Sinhala King Mahinda V, had Malay levies in his army. However, it was in the 13 th.Century that Malay soldiery made a huge impact with the coming of Chandrabhanu, a Buddhist King of East Asia. He held sway over North Lanka.
It was the Dutch, then based in Java (present-day Indonesia) who brought Javanese or Malays to Lanka. They were soldiers of the Dutch East Indian Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) which had a Royal charter to trade, rule and fight wars overseas. The Malays formed the bulk of the VOC’s forces, says B.A.Hussainmiya author of Orang Regimen: The Malays of the Ceylon Rifle Regimen.
The Malays were recruited because they were exceptionally warlike. Hussainmiya quotes a 1805 manuscript of British observer Robert Percival which describes the Malay as follows: “They are all bold and warlike and prepared for the most desperate enterprises; they hear the commands of their superiors with the most profound reverence, and yield implicit obedience to their most rigorous orders.” Like the Gurkhas of Nepal, once they took out their knives called Kris, they would not put it back without blood on its blade. Rifleman in the CRR carried a kris knife also as they were experts in personal combat.
When the Malays were incensed, they would go around killing people crying amok amok. This cry got into the English language as “running amuck.” The Dutch tacked the problem of running amuck by severe punishments characterized by “excruciating torments.” But the British found that the Malays were running amuck primarily because of manifest injustice meted out to them by the Dutch and brought in a more just system. The British also let the Malays to be disciplined primarily by their own Malay unit commanders, who were often from the respected Malay Princely families.
The Malays proved to be better and more reliable than the Sinhalese, South Indian Sepoys and African Kaffirs. They took part in all the battles waged by the Dutch against the Portuguese and helped take Colombo, Galle, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Jaffna. When the British challenged the Dutch in 1795-96 in Lanka, they found that only the Malay troops were resisting them. The British decided to recruit them when they took over the Maritime Provinces. The Malays proved very useful in the wars against Kandy because the they were able to fight the Kandyan guerillas with their own skills in jungle warfare and close combat. When the British in Madras had to fight the Polygar rebels, Malay troops were sent to subdue them.
Close Proximity To Europeans
Because of soldiering, the bulk of the Malays lived around the Dutch and later the British forts. The oldest Malay settlement is in Slave Island Colombo called Kampung Kertel. It was the headquarters of the almost all-Malay Ceylon Rifle Regiment. Malay troops were so attuned to European ways that they ceased to be barefooted and started wearing heavy military boots as early as 1815.In the second half of the 19 th.Century they had taken to English sports like cricket and billiards. Governor Edward Gregory described them as “excellent cricketers.” The Malays had the advantage of getting an English education in schools run by the CRR, which proved to be very useful when they went for employment in the civil administration in 1833, and more so after the CRR was disbanded in 1873.
However, the Malays were forced to live in miserable conditions. According to Percival, their quarters were 12 ft by 12 ft and were mud walled and thatch-roofed. The huts lacked ventilation. Their settlement in Slave Island was next to a stagnant gutter. Fever and sickness was common. In 1860, the regimental surgeon H.L.Cowen wrote: “I knew about black troops in Jamaica but I do not recollect that they were worse houses or worse fed than the Malay soldiers of the day.”
According to Hussainmiya, married quarters did not have separate kitchens. Food was cooked communally for all, including bachelors, to cut down cost. The soldiers were hard up as the average pay was only 8 pence a day (in 1820). Fifty years later it had risen only by 3 pence. The British were so stingy that they asked the soldiers to make their own uniforms. “After meeting all the expenses, a soldier was left with only 2 shillings and 6 pence in a month to spend on his family,” Hussainmiya points out.
However, there was a Malay Boys’ Regiment composed of the sons of soldiers. These soldier-boys were paid half the salary of an adult soldier per day. Most importantly, the soldiers were entitled to a pension after 20 years of service. A private got 7 shellings 6 pence per month while a Sergeant got 15 sh. 6 d. If a soldier quit earlier, he would get less (4 shillings and 6 pence for a Private and a 9 shillings for a Sergeant).
In Lankan Malay society, the Subadars (Captains) and Jamidars (Lieutenants) enjoyed high status. They were the elite, who presided over community functions and meetings. According to Hussainmiya regimental Malays continued to feel superior to the Free Malays even after the CRR was disbanded in 1873. Furthermore, from 1833 onwards the soldiers had begun to join the newly established police department which paid more than the CRR. The Lankan police was, for decades, a preserve of the Malays.
Culture And Literature
The CRR was also a preserve of Malay literature in Lanka in the 19 th.Century. It had a Malay library, for which books and manuscripts were collected by soldiers who might have been posted in the Malay Peninsula and Singapore for short periods. The books were mostly on Islam and traditional Malay practices. Some soldiers meticulously copied books if they could not buy them.
It was an ex-soldier Baba Onus Saldin who started a Malay newspaper in Lanka called Alamat Langapuri in 1869. In 1895, he launched his second paper containing 80% foreign news which even catered to readers in East Asia. According to Hussainmiya, when Saldin died in 1906, “Malay language and literature (in Sri Lanka) were buried with him.”
With the community of Malay soldiers getting scattered after 1873 due to the need to secure employment in the police and other civilian sectors, the community lost physical and cultural cohesion. Miscegenation with the Lankan and Indian Moors, added to the dilution of the Malay identity. Malay began to be spoken by fewer and fewer people, with the hoi polloi taking to Sinhala or Tamil and the well to do adopting English as their home language.
(The featured image at the top is that of headquarters of the Ceylon Rifle Regiment which is now the Defense Services College in Slave Island, Colombo)