An Echelon Media Company
Monday September 25th, 2023

Shocking parallels in abolishing slavery and protectionist exploitation in Sri Lanka: Bellwether

ECONOMYNEXT – A story doing round in Colombo these days is that when Sri Lanka’s captains of rent – sorry industry – were asked about the possibility of freeing the people from high import duty exploitation at a finance ministry meeting, they asked for 10 years of gradual reduction.

The modern-day resistance to economic emancipation is reminiscent of the calls of native slave-holders of Ceylon, and the challenges resistance faced by the British administrators when they set about abolishing slavery in Ceylon.

Unlike India, which was under the British East India Company for a long time, Sri Lanka was directly administered by London a few years after taking over the island from the Dutch and many freedoms won by British liberals were implemented in Ceylon early, and in rare instances even before the UK.

Free Freedom

Because Sri Lankans did not have to struggle for many key freedoms and they were given on a platter due to the actions of activists in Britain (female vote, adult franchise to name a few, an independent civil service and judiciary, free trade) no one realized its value.

There were no native abolitionists to fight for the freedom of slaves or activists to push for religious emancipation or free trade. Eventually nationalists taught Sri Lankans how to hate minorities, using tools such as printing, newspapers and the popular vote, that became available in the latter half of the 19th century, just like in Europe, such as in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

British civil administrators began to dismantle many of the monopolies originally built by the Dutch East India Company and inherited by the British East India Company, economically emancipating native residents.

Colebrooke and Cameron, who led a Royal Commission in 1829, initiated some of the most far reaching freedoms, including first steps to a legislative body, introducing Ceylonese to the civil service and overall improvements to rule of law.

Colebrooke, a classical-liberal, helped end rent-seeking Mercantilism giving economic freedoms to many, while Cameron, a utilitarian, started many of the legal and administrative reforms.

It was easier to dismantle Mercantilist oppression at the time, as most of the privileges were held by the state.

In recent decades Communist countries like Vietnam were also able to move into free trade easily, as there were no politically connected private enterprises and oligrachs like in Sri Lanka to oppose them. It was the state and military that dominated Vietnam’s crumbling economy in 1984 when the Doi Moi (renewal) freedoms were initiated.

Cameron also effectively created the unitary state ending the previous federal style structure in Ceylon.

Mercantilism did not re-emerge fully until after self-determination from the British in 1948, when state monopolies and then import-duty-protected private firms began to systematically exploit the population by selling overpriced goods under cover of import duties.

Mercantilism and Slavery

While the British dismantled Mercantilism fairly easily, ending both slavery and serfdom (Wadawasam or service tenure) was more difficult as it involved natives, just like the protectionist industries of today that want to preserve privileges and exploit the people.

Though British activists including the Africa Society and Abolition movement thoroughly researched and exposed the plight of slaves in the Americas and the Caribbean, no such research took place in the East.

Available records of slavery in Asia mostly relate to documents from European rule and a few rock carvings and the like. This is why there is a weak understanding of slavery in South Asia and practices like indentured child labour (like kamlaris in Nepal) still exists in the region.

In a more dangerous trend goin behyond mere mere ignorance, a state education system and centralized syllabus in this country meant that young people could be brainwashed into growing up with a revisionist nationalist history which has little to do with reality, just is happened in Eastern Europe.

The abolitionists in UK ended slavery in the British Empire gradually. Britain itself did not have slavery and by going to court, activists had obtained a determination that there was no ‘positive law’ giving effect to slavery and that any slave setting foot in the UK would be free.

First, the British abolished slave trading, then they emancipated the children and women. Finally after the passage of a number of years slavery was abolished altogether.

Sri Lanka had several types of slaves by the time the British arrived. Slaves in Colombo and other former Dutch territories (some of whom were imported), slaves in Jaffna AND Trinco made up of Covia, Nallua and Palla castes and slaves in the Kandyan provinces.

Slave raiders in South Asia (and later the Portuguese and the Dutch themselves) exported slaves from Bengal/Arakan regions, Indonesia, New Guinea and Philippines and Madagascar as well as South West India proper.

These slaves were natives of the regions and not Africans. During Dutch rule Ceylon was a major receiver of slaves, as well as Batavia, and they were used by the VOC to build fortifications while private citizens also owned slaves.


People in South Asia were enslaved through traditional practices through several means.

Internal wars in Indian among warring leaders (such as between Mughals and Hindu areas) as well as famines led to ‘slave booms’. For example in 1659 and 1661 due following conflicts between Bijapur and Tanjore the VOC is said to have purchased over 8,000 slaves from Nagapatnam and Pulicat, most of whom were sent to Ceylon.

According to Hindu practice a person could be enslaved in several ways. These include capture in war, in return for food (usually in times of famine), purchase, inheritance, children given away by parents, in lieu of a fine, a lost wage or non-payment of debt. The Muslims recognized, in addition to those born into slaves, parents, purchased from traders, those taken in war or given as tributes from vassal states.

In Sri Lanka also, people could sell themselves into slavery voluntary in times of famine, or be enslaved by force for not paying debt.

According to available information, VOC may have emancipated their slaves several times in Ceylon or sold them out to residents, when work finished or revenues fell, making it difficult to maintain slaves.

When the British came, Dutch Burghers, Sinhalese, Muslims, Tamils all owned slaves dating back from ancient times or newer ones.

When emancipation started in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) under British rule, in the so-called Maritime Provinces, the Dutch Burghers took the lead in freeing slaves, prompted by then British Chief Justice Sir Alexander Johnston during the tenure of Governor Robert Brownrigg.

A perusal of the correspondence between Colombo and Downing Street shows how the British abolished slavery in Ceylon and what a painstaking task it was.

Voluntary Emancipation

Several hundred slave owners of all communities in Ceylon, voluntarily agreed to emancipate all children of slaves born after August 12, 1816, the birthday of the then Prince of Wales.

Johnston noted decades later that the conduct of these Ceylonese was exemplary and deserved recognition and their example could be used to persuade other countries to free slaves.

Slave Registration

However, not everyone was willing to voluntarily give up slaves, which was a time honoured practice dating back centuries. In a typical monarchical or feudal system slaves ranked lowest in society, followed by serfs, the merchant class, nobles and royals. In South Asia the system was further complicated by caste.

In order to systematically end slavery the British first required all slaves to be registered. Slave registration was the first step to emancipation. When slaves are registered, no new slaves could be created or imported secretly from India, Bangladesh, Indonesia or Africa for that matter.

A salve registry was first ordered in 1806 by Governor Maitland but was not implemented for several years. London ordered again to start the registry.

Local officials had delayed registration, as slavery was breaking down in the coastal cities which were becoming increasingly commercialized, and registration had led to speculation that compensation would be paid (British Empire paid compensation for emancipation in several possessions including Ceylon) also fearing dissatisfaction among traditional slaveholders in Jaffna, where the institution of slavery was particularly strong.

This is the same as the current administration fears blow back from powerful businesses in shoes, building materials and as well as farming interests, in taking down import duties to free the poor.

The British later went forward to systematically abolish slavery by regulation. After registration a deadline was given to combine ownership of slaves to a single person, when one slave was apportioned among several persons or families. Such slaves had to work in several households when called upon. It is not clear whether this was a practice peculiar to Sri Lanka.

Buying Freedom

Then the British government ‘purchased’ the kids paying two to three Rix dollars to the slave masters, using tax revenues. These tax revenues were probably among the best used moneys by any administration in this country other than that used in the hospital system.

The kids continued to be under the care of the mothers.

One of the most interesting aspects of the abolition in Sri Lanka took place in the former Kandyan Kingdom, which was administered as a separate federal-style territory after the British took over in 1815.

The Board of Commissioners of Kandy which included John Doyly, put the number of male slaves at 1,443 and females at 1,456 at the time.

The British had freed all the slaves in the Kandyan Royal household as soon as it passed on to the ‘government’.

But many Kandyans, especially the chiefs, owned slaves. Negotiations and persuasion was delicate and had been tried by several Governors.

In the wake of the suspected ‘conspiracy of 1834’ following the abolition of serfdom (service tenure) British officials expressed nervousness is pushing hard on slavery in the Kandyan area.

(The British East India Company which ran India was also reluctant to push hard on slavery at first fearing retribution from the native slaveholders. But a group of Hindu residents wrote to say that they had no objections since most poor Hindu girls were being enslaved by rich Muslim rulers. Unlike in Ceylon, where the slave population was not growing, slave trading itself was rife in India).

The British officers noted that slavery in Kandy was ‘very mild’. While the owner could still sell the slaves at will (…can be disposed of in any way the proprietor may think proper…) slaves were allowed to own their own assets, and could will their property to others. But if a slave died his property went to the owner.

Some of the slaves in Kandy dated back from ancient times while newer ones were

The slaves in Kandy were either descendants of slaves or were sold into slavery during bad times ("acquired by purchase of children from their parents in times of great scarcity) or were enslaved for debts (in satisfaction of pecuniary claims), the British civil servants noted. However the enslavement of new persons by these two methods had stopped after the 1818 insurrection.

Then 60, Now 10

The Kandyan chief asked for 60 years to abolish slavery, like the rent-seeking, duty-protected captains of rent who are now asking for 10 years to free the poor from protection.

(Translation of a reply from Kandyan chiefs)

Meanwhile the Kandyan chief also asked for the services of the emancipated female slaves (mostly in attending to funeral rites which they claimed that not even low caste ‘gahalayas’ would carry out), be available to them through some "suitable rule," and that slaves remain submissive.

This attempt to preserve and extend an exploitative institution is eerily reminiscent of modern day ‘safeguards law’ and ‘anti-dumping laws’ that seeks to preserve protectionist exploitation when the poor is emancipated economically.

The British did not agree to 60 years but they did give more time.

Sri Lanka finally abolished slavery in 1844, much later than the rest of the British Empire which was under Civil Service rule, though it was before the USA and many other countries that were not part of the British Empire.

Neither did the British give a tool for the slave owners to have a permanent hold on the slaves.

But after abolition, indentured labour started. It took decades for liberals to fight the practice.

Sri Lanka’s current administration is giving ‘safeguard laws (which are temporary)’ and an anti-dumping law, which is permanent to extend the protectionism.

The anti-dumping law will institutionalize protection and allow rent-seeking businesses to continue to exploit the poor and the general population though various pretexts.

It must be noted that many countries had tried to abolish slavery in history but it did not last.

Emperor Ashoka abolished slavery. But when the British came slavery and slave trade was thriving in India and the rest of South Asia.

Emperor Ashoka’s Emancipation and the mid-night gazette

Though the British cut import duties to low levels they were ratcheted up again after self-determination in 1948.

With a midnight gazette, where import duties are hatched in secret (sometimes by the controversial cost-of-living sub-committee) no trade freedom can last. It is also a tool for increasing corruption.

To make low import duties last and not follow the fate of Ashoka’s Emancipation, the mid-night gazette, through which taxes are raised, must be abolished.

The vague nature of anti-dumping laws and how they are easily manipulated in countries like the US, is becoming increasingly clear now.

If Sri Lanka’s anti-dumping law is to go ahead which will protect the rich and powerful rent seekers, there must be safeguards for the poor and ordinary citizens.

It should either be a sunset law to expire in a short time, or it should have a clear safeguard on behalf of the poor to say that no anti-dumping claimed will be entertained on any product that has an import duty above 5 percent. Along with freight, a 5 percent duty should be a sufficient profit margin for domestic industries.

If some such provision is not made, the poor will be caught in a pincer between high import duties and anti-dumping laws.

This column is based on ‘The Price Signal by Bellwetherpublished in the November 2017 issue of the Echelon Magazine. To read Bellwether columns as soon as they are published, subscribe to Echelon Magazine at this link. The i-tunes app can be downloaded from here.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Leave a Comment

Leave a Comment

Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sri Lanka sells 2028 bonds at 14.52-pct

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka sold all offered bonds in 2026 and 2028 maturities raising 220 billion rupees from an auction Monday, data from the state debt office showed.

The debt office sold 135 billion rupees of 1 June 2026 bonds to yield 15.64 percent.

Another 85 billion rupees in 01 July 2028 bonds were sold to yield 14.52 percent.

The 2028 bond is offered on tap at the weighted average yield. (Colombo/Sept25/2023)

Continue Reading

Sri Lanka’s stocks end down on Monday after slow day of trading

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka shares were down at close of trading on Monday.

Turnover was 550 million rupees.

The main All Share Price Index was down 0.36 percent or 40.02 points to 11,216.50, while the S&P SL20 was down 0.44 percent or 14.07 points to 3,164.52.

Trading in the Capital Goods Industry (174,037,134) drove turnover.

Commercial Bank, Expolanka Holdings, and Aitken Spence plc saw losses, while National Development Bank, John Keells Holdings and Melstacorp saw gains in the day’s trading.

The market saw a net foreign inflow of 13 million rupees, while the yearly net foreign inflow was 429 million rupees. (Colombo/Sep25/2023)

Continue Reading

Sri Lanka rupee closes at 324.75/324.90 to the US dollar

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s rupee closed at 324.75/90 to the US dollar on Monday, from Friday’s close at 324.70/325.00 dealers said.

Bond yields were up.

A bond maturing on 01.07.2025 closed up at 15.55/15.70 percent on Monday, after closing at 14.95/15.30 percent on Friday.

A bond maturing on 01.08.2026 closed up at 15.50/15.65 percent up from 14.95/15.10 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.09.2027 closed up at 14.75/15.50 percent from 14.55/15.00 percent.

A bond maturing on 01.05.2028 closed up at 14.25/14.60 from 14.00/14.30 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.05.2030 closed stable at 13.00/13.50.

A bond maturing on 01.07.2032 closed at 12.95/13.45 percent from 13.00/13.45 percent. (Colombo/Sept25/2023)

Continue Reading