Reading the geography of Sri Lankan island-ness

Colonial repetitions, post-colonial possibilities

by Tariq Jaleel
 Reprint from Contemporary South Asia


(May 12, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) This article focuses on the cultural dimensions of Sri Lanka’s island geography. In particular it argues the importance of regarding the geography of Sri Lankan island-ness as a representational and imaginative trope repetitively and textually inscribed over time. I trace the contours of a topological enclosure that seem so matter-of-fact, natural and characteristic of the Sri Lankan island-state. Inviolability and historical-territorial integrity have become eponymous with the very sign ‘Sri Lanka’, but these ways of imagining and mapping Sri Lankan island space have European, colonial and post-independent spatial histories that are textual and representational. In reading a range of disparate texts that inscribe and map these insular geographies, the essay argues the importance of placing Sri Lanka’s island geographies, and its civil war that had the contested island imagination at its core, in a critical postcolonial and spatial historical context. By tracing and loosening some of the misplaced concreteness surrounding settled geographical imaginations and understandings of a Sri Lankan island-state, the essay intervenes in that spatial discourse thereby gesturing toward the political possibilities of thinking and imagining island space differently.

 On 17 May 2009, the Sri Lankan government formally declared victory in its 26-year war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In his victory speech to the nation via Parliament two days later, the President, Mahinda Rajapakse, made clear the paramount importance the government attached to restoringSri Lanka’s territorial and sovereign integrity by stressing that: “For almost three decades the laws enacted by this legislature were not in force in almost one-third of our land. When I won the Presidential Election in 2005 there were LTTE police stations in the North and East. There were Tiger courts. What was missing was only a Tiger parliament … Today, this session of Parliament opens in a country where the writ of this august legislature spreads equally throughout the 65,332 sq. km of territoryof Sri Lanka …’ (Rajapakse 2009)As President Rajapakse’s remarks attest, Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war was fundamentally about territory. Specifically, it was about contested claims over the island geography of the Sri Lankan nation-state. As the government holds, Sri Lanka’s geographical and political island-ness is a matter of fact; one that the LTTE has violently contested since its formation in the mid-1970s, but nevertheless a fact recognized by the United Nations, and one that has now been militarily secured. In this essay, however, I depart from the premise that to merely assert Sri Lanka’s inviolable and unitary island-territoriality as fact is to dehistoricize the fact itself.

In his speech, just a few lines after stressing the importance of Sri Lanka’s territorial cohesiveness, President Rajapakse went on to assert that:
We are a country with a long history where we saw the reign of 182 kings who ruled with pride and honour that extended more than 2,500 years. This is a country where kings such Dutugemenu, Valagamba, Dhatusena and Vijayabahu defeated enemy invasions and ensured our freedom. As such Mother Lanka fought against invaders such as Datiya, Pitiya, Palayamara, Silva and Elara in the past, we have the experience of having fought the Portuguese, Dutch and British who established empires in the world. (Rajapakse 2009)
If Sri Lankan history here is configured as a litany of invasion and defence, repeating and recycling over the last 2,500 years, what remains static, natural, and ahistorical in Rajapakse’s narrative, is the simple spatial, territorial and national fact of the Sri Lankan island on which this history has unfolded. In this configuration, we are told that the national and the island have been commensurate since time immemorial; both are ontologically naturalized and collapsed into one another.
Like all geographical facts, however, the Sri Lankan island is also a mapping; a way of seeing and imagining space that itself has a representational history. This is not to deny the materiality of island form, but it is to stress that the common-sense reality of Sri Lanka as inviolable, self-contained and unified politico-cultural island space is a fact that has been enabled by particular ways of writing ‘Sri Lankan space’. It is to the representational consolidations of Sri Lankan island-ness as fact that this essay pays close attention. Specifically, I engage the geography of Sri Lankan island-ness as a representational and imaginative trope that always returns as repetition, foreclosing alternative constellations and imaginations of the arrangements of society and space. I show the representational contours ofSri Lanka as island territory to be prevalent in colonial and postcolonial contexts, arguing that what so often seems to be a natural mode of insularity synonymous with the sign ‘Sri Lanka’, is in fact the accretion of particular ways of imagining, writing and representing island space, repeated and rewritten over time. The contours of Sri Lankan island-ness, this essay argues, are a repetition that haunts the parameters on which a debate on ‘Sri Lanka’ can necessarily take place.
The aim here is not to disavow the Sri Lankan island, in favour of, for example, the LTTE’s demand for Eelam. To do so is to swap one nationalism for another. Instead, I aim to bring the precise contours of Sri Lankan island-ness into sharper focus as an historical and cultural geography whose construction speaks of a mode of geopolitical enclosure that is textual and representational (see Vasudevan et al. 2008). In what follows, drawing particularly on Edward Said’s (1978; 1983) arguments about the weight of the past in the textual present as well as in any new beginning, I argue firstly that the topologies of Sri Lanka’s island-ness be understood precisely as textual and imaginative repetition. Secondly, I closely trace these imaginative and repetitive geographies as they appear through three historically and intellectually different texts: Robert Knox’s An Historical Relation of Zeilon (Alias Ceylon) (1681), journal entries from American missionary Samuel Newell (1813-1814), and a recent critical intellectual intervention into the culture and politics of Sri Lankan identity by the Political Scientist Jayadeva Uyangoda (1998). The very disparity of the texts means this essay makes no claims to comprehensively piece together a spatial history of any sorts. Rather, it is posed more generally as an intervention into the familiar contours and matter-of-factness of Sri Lankan island-ness. Other arguments around the geographies of nationalism could no doubt be made had other texts been chosen. But I have chosen these three texts, firstly, because none proclaim nationalist (Sinhala, Tamil or otherwise) intent, and secondly, even though Uyangoda’s critical intervention is aimed at the nation-state, all three texts in different ways, as I show, make visible some deep-seated and wider assumptions regarding Sri Lanka as unitary island-object. In the last section of this essay, I juxtapose what have become the contested and chimerical dimensions of Sri Lankan island-ness that have emerged through a 26-year civil war and beyond that has had island-ness at its very core.
Central to my thoughts here is the trope of repetition. The very utterance ‘Sri Lanka’ cannot sidestep the island-shaped repetition in which this essay intervenes. For Edward Said (1983, 114-15), repetition is the fundamental process through which facts are given their historical factuality, their accordance, and reality its existential sense. Repetition makes reason from raw experience, turning events into history as the present and emergent acquire the contours of the familiar in the imagination. Thought this way, narrative fiction is a ‘filial device of handing on a story through narrative telling’ (Said 1983, 117); stories depend on a repetition of sorts, even as a novel’s hero or heroine distinguish themselves, they must do so against an otherwise familiar backdrop repetitively inscribed in the imagination. For Said, a crucial dimension of repetition is the blurring between filiation and affiliation, where filial – that is to say parent-child – relationships held together by natural bonds (like obedience, fear, love, respect, for example) slide into transpersonal forms of social and cultural affiliation revolving around consciousness, consensus and the hegemony of a dominant discourse (Said 1983, 20). The move from the filial to the affiliative order marks the naturalization of the social, and what falls away from view with this kind of movement, as this repetition gains momentum, are real questions about origins. Not questions about the origin of an object, for as we can see from President Mahinda Rajapakse’s very certain declarations about Sri Lanka’s embattled history, assertions about those kinds of origins gain sway as we endlessly repeat an object’s actuality. What falls away from view rather, are real questions about how an object ever emerged as an object in the human imagination, questions about the origins of ideas, about our concrete assumptions of human and natural existence and the (con)textuality of that existence: ‘The repeating patterns of which human and natural existence seem to be composed gain credibility as their origin loses it’ (Said 1983, 120).
As an utterance ‘Sri Lanka’ is a repetition that hands on a spatial story affiliatively, it references a known object whose representational genealogy is often occluded. For ‘Sri Lanka’ (the nation-state’s name since 1972) derives from the Sinhala language – which infamously replaced English and superseded Tamil as Ceylon’s official language in 1956 – and (insubstantially) translates as ‘Venerable/Holy Lanka’, where ‘Lanka’ was the Sinhala term used in (Orientalist translations of) Sinhalese scriptures to refer to the island territory. ‘Sri Lanka’ is insular and exclusive island-ness, rewritten and repeated (see Carter 1987, xiii-xxv), which is to assert that in language particularly the past weighs heavily on the present (Said 1983, 123). The thoughts in this article are posed as a modest intervention into this repetition. Part of the discursive aim here is merely the elaboration of a reminder thatSri Lanka’s inviolable island-ness is a repetition; a reminder that the natural Sri Lankan island is just as historical, contingent and representational.
It is a geopolitical fact that island-ness remains the spatiality cognate with hegemonic discourses of Sri Lankan nationhood. At the same time, island-ness is one of the most taken-for-granted, yet heavily contested, of geographical imaginations in the context ofSri Lanka’s 26-year civil war. Indeed as I have indicated, each time we utter the very words ‘Sri Lanka’ we re-inscribe, we repeat, the island form imaginatively and discursively. Subsequently it is unsurprising that to many, island-ness seems so natural as to be interchangeable with the sign ‘Sri Lanka’. But in this context, we should remember that as recently as 200 years ago the physical island played host to a medley of coexisting colonies and kingdoms dispersed across its length and breadth. Only in 1815 did British troops conquer the interior lyingKandyanKingdom, thereby bringing the whole island under a single English speaking administration and creating for the first time a (violently) ‘unified’ island polity; the colonial state that became the nation-state. As Nira Wickramasinghe remarks, European colonization marked the transition wherein ‘Sri Lanka, from being a cluster of centre-based overlapping societies – galactic states, as it were – became a boundary-based society where the sea played the main role’ (2006, 8).
However, to conceive of 1815 as an originary moment in spatial terms is only partially useful. Whilst we must recognize colonial encounter as the violent, spatially and materially transformative (not to mention contested) moment that it is (see Pratt 1992), the spatial/material result of 1815 had an imaginative and representational, imperial pre-history. In these terms, 1815 was less originary moment than the instantiation/inscription of a repeating imperial geographical imagination. Writing of British India in ways that are just as useful for understanding the inception of colonial Ceylon, Matthew Edney remarks how ‘The creation of British India required the prior acceptance by the British of “India” as signifying a specific region of the earth’s surface’ (1997, 3). ‘Ceylon’ – an actually existing island polity that emerged geopolitically in 1815 – was the production and articulation of an idea, or an imaginative geography. British ‘Ceylon’ was an island mapping before it ever emerged as material colonial space.

The British establishment of island-wide rule then, was as much about realising an imperial island-imagination whose roots lay variously in medieval European Mediterranean isolario mappings and island fantasies (see Cosgrove 2001, 90-95), as it was about strategic and mercantile imperialism. It is not my intention here to exhaustively piece together a European cartographic history of the island known as Ceylon, though I do want to point out that prior to the British arrival, Portuguese and Dutch colonizers controlled a varying array of fragments, chunks and formerly autonomous kingdoms across island space. It is clear, for example, that Dutch colonizers never controlled the Kandyan Kingdom and hence anything approaching the whole island. In fact, they brokered a treaty in 1766 that delineated political boundaries between the king of Kandy’s territory and Dutch controlled coastal areas (Barrow 2008, ch.1). Whilst this strips bare the fact that centralized island territoriality did not exist materially as Dutch possession, it is not to deny that island-ness existed as a geographical imagination for the Dutch. Imaginatively the island existed as representational object, to-be-divided geopolitically. An early British minute on Ceylon by Hugh Cleghorn in 1799 reveals a similar imaginative cartography: ‘Two different nations [Sinhalese and Tamil], from a very ancient period, have divided between them the possession of the island … . These two nations differ entirely in their religion, language, and manners’ (quoted in Rogers 2004, 633). HereCeylon is conceptualized as a divided unity from the outset; the natural schema ofCeylon’s cohesiveness as integrated whole island-body structures the way that Cleghorn minutes the place.
This kind of singular and contained island-ness is a representational and imaginative legacy that was not so much handed on baton-like to the British by the Dutch, but rather one that percolated through the very fabric of European geographical knowledge since Iberian imperialism, which itself drew upon the maps of ‘Taprobane’ that were based on Claudius Ptolemy’s second-century BCE Geography. That Taprobane was believed to be the place of the Antipodes is of less interest in this context than the intense visual referentiality to an insular, self-contained island space that emerges from Ptolemy’s Geography (see Stevenson 1991 [1932]). Images of Taprobane use a simple whole page depiction of a space marked by one continuous yet heavily shaded line dividing land and sea. In the sea, scrawl like waves are etched on the page and interspersed by a ring of satellite islands, all of which surround and contain the territory marked Taprobana that is positioned centrally on the page. In Ptolemy’s Geography, and maps subsequently based on his books, regions of the earth were rendered chorographically. They were drawn without concern for their precise relationship in scale or location to larger geographical patterns, but instead with substantial visual attention and detail to be able to render what it was thought was the character of a place. As Denis Cosgrove writes, chorographic images like Ptolemy’s Geography sought to ‘give a visual impression of the actual look of the land’ (Cosgrove 2008, 24). If chorographic images sought to depict, describe and map, they did so impressionistically, through spatial stories. Taprobane’s insular and introverted island-ness was one such spatial story.
With such stories in mind Vasco de Gama set sail east in the sixteenth century. These voyages themselves produced and consolidated vast geographical information systems from new Portuguese navigational and cartographical sciences and arts that Nihal Perera (1998, 16-33) suggests were tantamount to new ways of seeing the world. But crucially, if they were new ways of seeing – beginnings in terms of geographical knowledge – they were also repetitions that drew on a pre-history of chorographic spatial knowledge written by the likes of Ptolemy. The emergent ability to circumnavigate a land mass by sea, to co-ordinate eye and hand with imperial mastery and draw the coastline, and with Apollonian effort to plot geographic information from above, proved powerful, effectively consolidating and (re)producing the chorographic and representational space of the Ceylonese island in the European imagination; a space contained by the line with which it was cartographically marked (also see Carter 1999).

Sri Lankan island-ness as text

The island form was a representational and aesthetic repetition for the British because the lure of island-lore had figured strongly in Britain’s own imperial imagination. From the appearance of Thomas More’s Utopia (2003 [1516]) through Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (2003 [1719]), and Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island (2000 [1883]), for the colonizing British the island emerged as the perfect form; defensive, secure and compact, even Edenic (Jazeel 2003). Crucially, territorially the island was also an autonomous space, a self-contained world, independent, insular and distinguishable as a whole entity that emerged from undifferentiated aquatic space. And in this sense, it provided the colonizing imagination with an opportunity to locate Gardens of Eden, Arcadias and other mythological or Utopian imaginations in a ‘geographical reality’ (see Grove 1996, 32-47). Of course, much real colonial effort and industry was required through nineteenth and twentieth century colonial British encounter to achieve the centralization of power required to turn the representational space of the Ceylonese island into material geography: the construction of island-wide communication structures, a ‘national’ urban system based around Colombo, the organization of the island into a spatially contiguous system of Provinces for administrative purposes, and most importantly the forced subjection of the Kandyan kingdom in 1815 (see Perera 1998), not forgetting the subsequent development of a ‘national’ franchise (Scott 2000). This is to stress that before British involvement in administration of the colony, there is much evidence that island space was characterized through uncentralized, scattered modes of power and social organization (see Rogers 2004).
But despite these many encounters through which the colonization of island space was performed and built (as well as contested), what is notably absent from the colonial archive is any sense that Ceylonese space could ever have been, or could ever be imagined as, anything other than unitary and territorially contained by its island-ness. As Hugh Cleghorn’s minute suggests, if Ceylonwas thought a politically divided entity, spatially it was always imagined as unity. In this section, then, and in this essay more generally, it is precisely the power of an archive of knowledge vis vis Ceylonese/Sri Lankan island-ness on which I want to focus in order to emphasize the textuality and history of what is today a familiar and very concrete spatial rhetoric that positions the sign ‘Sri Lanka’ as eponym for inviolable island geography.

In the rest of this section then, I turn to three disparate texts of varying types and notoriety amongst Sri Lankan-ists that offer glimpses of a geographical imagination repeated, congealed and underwritten by inviolable island-ness: Robert Knox’s An Historical Relation of Zeilon (Alias Ceylon) (1681), journal entries from American missionary Samuel Newell (1813-1814), and a recent critical academic intervention into the culture and politics of Sri Lankan identity by the Political Scientist Jayadeva Uyangoda (1998). To be clear, and as I have emphasized in the introduction, these three texts are chosen neither to rigorously piece together the constructedness of Sri Lankan island-ness with any authority or completeness, nor are they chosen to trace the occurrence of a rather sticky geographical imagination through British colonial encounter solely (indeed only Knox might be construed as part of that particular colonial archive). I use these three texts, moreover, to make a simple point about an archive of (geographical) knowledge in more general terms. More specifically, I use the texts to stress how the unitary island form has become a powerful and matter-of-fact assumption, the likes of which emerge so regularly and unproblematically through contemporary cultural mappings and politically inhere in the spatial discourse that underpins President Mahinda Rajapakse’s speech, for example. I read these texts with the intention of showing how the insular island form is a way of seeing that has produced the backdrop of the normal (but not uncontested) state of things in the context of contemporary Sri Lankan politics. In this way, I piece together a narrative argument about the textual emergence of Sri Lankan island-ness.

Englishman Robert Knox’s writings on his twenty years of captivity in the KandyanKingdomwere published in 1681, just 38 years before Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Indeed, many critics have argued that Knox’s text acted as a source for Defoe’s narrative fiction (see Jayawickrama 2004, ch.6), the very recognition of which positions Ceylon within the discursive regime of imperial Britain’s fascination with the island (see Grove 1996). But it is through Knox’s An Historical Relation of Zeilon that one can read that discursive regime of (spatial) power through whichCeylon’s over-determining island-ness was crystallizing. Knox’s text is notable for the kind of spatial tension I have already highlighted, in as much as it cleaves between describing the cluster of centre-based overlapping societies dispersed across the space in which Knox finds himself, and an imaginatively unified island territory bounded on all sides by sea. Its attention to the particularities and distinctions of lived spaces conveys a sense that politically, in material terms, a unified sense of island-ness meant little to the various inhabitants and monarchs of those spaces, not just at the time of writing, but at any time up to that point. For example, Knox describes separately the ‘Inland Parts of it hitherto unknown’, which were then under the control of the king ofKandy, and ‘The Chief Places on the Sea-Coasts’ then under Dutch administration (1957 [1681], LXXXI). Of Kandyan country, Knox is also quick to point out that ‘It is convenient that we first understand, that this land is divided into greater or less shares or parts’ (1-6), called Provinces or Counties, all of which he stresses are separated by thick woods. In part two of the text, Knox writes of the political jurisdiction of the king ofKandy, suggesting sovereignties shared differentially and spatially dispersed. Given Dutch control of the coastal towns and regions, the ‘Countrey’ of which Knox writes is clearly the interior ‘country’ of Kandy (52-8), which in fact, he also stresses, was formerly divided into nine quite autonomous dynastic territories.

Yet Knox’s subhead to this section speaks of ‘The Government of this Island (52, my emphasis), providing a clue to the spatial tension that underpins his text. For Knox’s writings, transcribed and published in 1681, are framed by a colonial discursive field that pre-supposed the Island of Ceylon a good 100 or so years prior to any British colonization of territory there; this is the place of which he writes, not the medley of materially and geopolitically distinct and meaningful spatialities within and across a block of land that had only been mapped, named and represented as Ceylon by European cartographers. More accurately, his tales transcribed and published in London were pitched to a public who wanted to know Ceylon, a sign that named an island. Tellingly, the full title of Knox’s original text is: An Historical Relation of Zeilon (Alias Ceylon): An Island in the East Indies. Knox’s text was positioned within these wider discourses of emergent geographical knowledge, a discourse that not only inflects much ofCeylon’s colonial archive, but whose traces are also present in President Mahinda Rajapakse’s retroactive historiographical narrativization of the anti-colonial Sri Lankan national.
Some 150 years later in 1813, a young American Protestant missionary named Samuel Newell secured passage to Galle on the Portuguese brig Generozo Almeida only a year or so after having been ordained as ‘Missionary to the heathen in South Asia’ in Salem, Massachusetts (Goonetileke 1975, 2). His journal entries about an episode in his life that sowed the seeds of the establishment of the Ceylon Mission in 1816, are fairly unremarkable and typical of European and North American travellers to Ceylon in the early nineteenth century. Spatially, however, it is precisely the unremarkable and ordinary taken-for-granted-ness with which Newell writes Ceylon as island object at a quite particular historical conjuncture, that is significant for tracing the repetition and consolidation of an insular imaginative geography. The spatial question to be asked of Newell’s travelogues – published in 1815, a year or so after he left Ceylon, in the American The Panopolist and Missionary Magazine – is simply, what kind of imaginative geography did his travel writing both repeat and help produce? 1
Newell’s text, his description of a short 10-month stint in British Ceylon, is notable for its persistent, unremarkable references to the island as a cohesive territorial article. From his early entries he is clear that the places he visits belong to, and are contained by, the proper noun ‘Ceylon’. In one entry, for example, he describes engaging ‘passage on … [the brig Generozo Almeida] for Point de Galle in Ceylon’; making land on ‘the southern promontory of Ceylon’; and proceeding ‘to Colombo, the capital of the island‘ (Newell 1975 [1815], 5-6, my emphasis). The points and places to which he refers all quite categorically belong to the larger territorial entity revealed as island. And this is unsurprising given that his travelogues also betray a strong sense that as an American his welcome on the colony is solely at the discretion of the Governor and Commander in Chief of the island of Ceylon, General Brownrigg. That is to say, his reference to places and parts of the island of Ceylon are iterations of not just an imperial mapping, but an emergent colonial structure of governance across what was imagined as a joined up, territorially coherent, island-colony, even if – and this is the point – in 1813 that joined up territorial integrity did not yet materially and geopolitically exist as colonial possession. It was forcibly achieved two years later in 1815. Newell’s iteration was in every sense an imaginative geography.

Newell’s activity in British Ceylon triangulates between three places:Galleon the southwest coast, the colonial coastal capitalColombosome seventy miles north, and the port-townJaffnain the far north. Having traversed the coastal road fromGalletoColombo, Newell sails toJaffnawhere his missionary intent for the instruction and improvement of the people is sated upon the discovery of a congregation of Protestant, native Christians. What emerges from his descriptions of his own mobility from point to point around the island’s coastline is a sense of the smoothness and singularity of this imagined island geography. For example, Newell frequently refers to both colonizers and ‘natives’ in Jaffna as people from ‘this part of the island’, at once cementing an imagined, joined-up, wholeness that Newell himself can up to this point only access by semi-circumnavigation. When at last he does travel through the island’s interiority – a seven-night overland palanquin journey fromJaffnaback toColombo- island space emerges materially as anything but joined up:
Oct. 22d, I set off fromJaffnato go over land, three hundred miles, to meet the brethren at Point de Galle. I was obliged to go in a palanquin, the only mode of journeying in this part of the world.
Most of the way between Jaffna and Colombo is either a barren heath or a desert, filled with wild elephants, wild hogs, bears and tigers. Travellers are obliged to carry all their provisions with them, even to the article of water. My train consisted of fourteen persons; twelve for my palanquin, and two for my baggage. I travelled in the night, as is usual, on account of the heat of the day, when you are obliged to rest. My bearers carried torches, and kept up a great noise to keep off the wild beasts. (Newell 1975 [1815], 10)
Newell’s collection of travelogues reveal a way of seeing a space in which he spent ten months. Ceylon is written as an island shaped container for this brief period of his life, even if his own physical access and mobility across island space is anything but smooth and easy. As he narrates this period of his life, he also unwittingly narrates a geography, specifically the cohesive object, the territorial island integrity named as Ceylon, insulated from activity beyond its coastal borders and unperturbed by what was at the time a large cartographic blind spot in the middle of this not-yet island-colony: the Kandyan Kingdom. Because in 1813, when Newell was writing, the British had yet to forcibly conquer the interior Kandyan Kingdom and depose king Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe. Iteratively, discursively and textually though, an insular Ceylonese island-ness already existed and Newell was a part of such geographical inscription, repetition and performance.

Knox’s and Newell’s narratives are but two of a vast multitude of representational performances that have repeated and (re)inscribed Ceylon’s island-ness over the years. Today, the inviolable and singular orientation of Sri Lankan island-ness is so ubiquitous, so persuasive, that all must negotiate it somehow, either physically or imaginatively. However, part of the intent of this essay is to stress how its roots lie firmly in colonial encounter, imagination and authority. The familiar contours of Sri Lanka’s island-ness are historical, political and representational, not natural and ontologically immutable. In his exploration of Australian spatial history, Paul Carter (1987, xv) uses the metaphor of the theatre to entertain the notion that in seeing Australia today, we partake in the perpetuation of an illusion, consolidated each time we see again; we see a play of sorts. Similarly, when we see Sri Lanka today we see a play of historical facts repeated and rewritten, not merely blank space. Sri Lankan island-ness is the prism through which all that pertains to the nation-state is refracted. It is how we see the postcolonial nation-state, and it is also the most obvious example of how colonial encounter in Sri Lanka has produced what Jane Jacobs has referred to as, an enduring ‘politics of identity and power that articulates itself through space and is, fundamentally, about space’ (1996, 1). Indeed, the premise of this very essay can also be no more than a repetition and reinscription thought in these terms.

It is with such unavoidable and overdetermined repetition and spatial antecedence in mind that I turn to Jayadeva Uyangoda’s own, very recent critical intervention into the culture and politics of identity in Sri Lanka. Uyangoda is a prominent political scientist currently based at the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka, whose own history involves leftist student leadership and activism, and whose forthright scholarship has positioned him as one of the most strident and influential critics and interventionary scholars of the politics of Sri Lankan nationhood and identity. In a collection of essays, entitled Culture and Politics of Identity in Sri Lanka (Tiruchelvam and Datthathreya 1998), Uyangoda penned a chapter entitled ‘Biographies of a Decaying Nation-State’ that offered a perceptive, insightful and characteristically provocative interrogation of the totemism of nation-state thinking in the Sri Lankan context. Reminiscent of Fanon’s warnings about the trajectories of anti-colonial nationalism (1965), his essay makes a postcolonial political theoretical intervention by arguing that it is precisely the Sri Lankan nation-state’s characteristic attributes (fixed sovereignty, fixed territorial borders, fixed citizenship demands, and majoritarian political democracy) that has inflicted and sustained violence on its citizens.

Island-ness is not absent in Uyangoda’s piece. In posing a critique of the nation-state’s ‘fixed territorial borders’ he does of course implicate his own critical impulse toward the island form. At one point, for example, he compares the process of creating the modern nation-state to ‘an immensely arbitrary exercise that is like brick-making’:

When a craftsperson places a wooden mould on a pile of clay, only that amount of clay can fill the mould that would ultimately make a brick. The modern form of political association is moulded as the nation-state, and communities are the clay utilized in making the brick of the nation-state. The excess clay, as a matter of practice is thrown away. (Tiruchelvam and Datthathreya 1998, 174-5)

Such a metaphor works well to describe the modern Sri Lankan context. The mould, vessel-like, contains its clay contents; it clearly separates inside from out by virtue of its natural, immutable shape. Like the island. As a metaphor it works upon the premise of impermeability, and as a metaphor of Sri Lanka, impermeability describes the topologies of its island-ness. But Uyangoda’s essay also does not fully realize island-ness as the crucial point of critical and deconstructive intervention into Sri Lankan nation-stateism that it is; as something to trace. His essay stops short of reflectively addressing why his wooden mould metaphor works so well to describe the Sri Lankan context. This is to say that Sri Lanka’s problem of ‘fixed territorial borders’ is the problem of island-ness thought in a particular way; that is, where the sea contains rather than connects. In this sense, Sri Lanka’s island-ness haunts Uyangoda’s piece as an implied topology about which it seems there is no discourse; an imagined, inviolable territorial geography naturalized such that it seems needless to actually go into in any critical depth because we all know, and cannot change (imaginatively or otherwise), its impermeable contours. That is the point that interests me in reading Uyangoda. It is precisely the rather refracted and implied trajectory of island thinking – an echo of Knox and Newell – that speaks of a misplaced concreteness, an endless repetition. In truth, Uyangoda merely repeats the iterative dilemma that all ‘Sri Lankan-ists’ fall into, whether we know it or not: that of opening spatial possibilities that are ultimately unworkable (in non-nationalist terms) precisely because they are all too immediately precluded under the overdetermining sign ‘Sri Lanka’.

Though the tone and orientation of Uyangoda’s critique offers possibilities and potential for the critical Sri Lankan studies scholar, it remains tethered to a particular spatial imagination that equates Sri Lanka with fairly concrete assumptions vis vis its island-ness. In other words, to equate so firmly the critique of nation-stateism with Sri Lanka’s ‘fixed territorial borders’ runs the risk of naturalizing the current and hegemonic geographical imaginations that revolve around the Sri Lankan island form (its defensive, inviolable insularity). It is to imply that the geography of the Sri Lankan island can only be imagined in the way that currently pervades the textual field surrounding the sign ‘Sri Lanka’. Though Uyangoda does urge that we ‘once again critically look at the representations as well as the essence of the nation-state’ (1998, 179), his critique stops short of tracing and unpicking the colonial textuality of Sri Lanka’s spatial history and thereby showing that the meaning of the sign has itself been written and cemented through power relations and authority that can be located within European and anti-colonial fields of vision and encounter. Neither should he, that is not his task. But what I stress here is that re-reading the overdetermined textuality of Sri Lankan island-ness reveals the contours of that spatiality to not be immutable, and to also not (necessarily) have an umbilical relationship with nation-stateism in the Sri Lankan context. It is to pose that just as Sri Lankan island-ness has been written in a particular way, its textuality and imaginative geography might be repeated differently; perhaps with less inviolability and fixity woven into its discursive fabric. Put simply, postcolonially this is to ask whether Sri Lankan island-ness can be re-imagined outwardly, dynamically, and relationally: postcolonially, where the ‘post’ marks a progressive departure from colonial textualities and European ways of seeing?

A contested and chimeric spatiality?

Despite my emphasis here on the representational history of Sri Lanka’s island geography, the modern territorial island-state does exist and acts in powerful ways. As Uyangoda has reminded us elsewhere (2006; also see Scott 2000), post-independent Sinhalese nationalism is still embedded in a world of ethnicized majoritarian democracy; a world that this essay has suggested is expressed and performed through an island-ness that has roots in colonial encounter and European vision. Today Sri Lanka’s island-ness is fuelled by potent historical and religious elements. Through the second half of the twentieth century, Sinhalese nationalism matured to pronounce the island a sacred space in which the Sinhala race has a responsibility to preserve Therevada Buddhism in its purity; an idea known as the ‘Dhamma Deepa’ (see Thiruchandran 2003). As stressed above, the very sign ‘Sri Lanka’ – cemented constitutionally in 1972 – derives from the Sinhala language and roughly translates as ‘Venerable/Holy Lanka’. Since independence then, Sinhala nationhood has crept to the very perimeters of the island-space-as-container. But if this kind of movement has been an expression of the anti-colonial national, it has been achieved within space already written by colonial encounter. Constitutionally and geopolitically Sri Lanka is recognized within the framework and norms of an inter-state system. In the international political community this, of course, legitimates the existence of a modern and sovereign Sri Lankan nation-state (Taylor 1993, 159), such that not just domestically but internationally also, island-ness remains a pre-eminently powerful geographical imagination cognate with the very nation-state itself. Island-ness is fact.

But Sri Lankan island-ness is anything but uncontested, which should remind us of the importance of its imaginative and representational dimensions. In this very respect, I recall a conversation in 2006 with a Tamil man in the eastern city of Batticaloa, which area was claimed by the LTTE at various points during the war. The Batticaloa district occupies a spit of low lying land, surrounded by lagoon and sea on all sides, and connected to the mainland by bridges, the principal one being the Kallady bridge. The man told me how, given the unsafe conditions in the area particularly during the 1980s, his German son-in-law had asked him whether he would ever consider leaving the island. His resolute response was to tell his son-in-law that whenever he drives home to Batticaloa from the south, when he crosses the Kallady bridge he feels he has left the island.
Less anecdotally, since 1983, the Sri Lankan nation-state’s social order and domestic politics has resulted in the flight of over half a million ‘citizens’ from the nation-state itself (Marshall 2003). Implicated in the nation-state’s spatial order is the containment, hegemony, and inviolability characteristic of the island rhetoric so far traced in this essay. In Sri Lanka, island-ness is a geography through which considerable power is disseminated. During 26 years of civil war, the effects of a dominantly Sinhala state power exercised over and within the space of island territoriality have been painfully felt by those Tamils who have either been killed, forced away from their homelands, or into refugee camps. There have also been appalling Sinhalese casualties in the civil war and through LTTE attacks that have indiscriminately slaughtered Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burgers. Island-ness has been central to these violent contestations of nationhood and identity. Despite its fixity, its naturalization, unthought repetition and misplaced concreteness, it is precisely contestations over the integrity of a postcolonial spatial imagination of the island state that lie at the heart of such violence.

Throughout the war, the LTTE fought to secure a Tamil homeland, Eelam, whose spatiality and imaginative geographical contours fracture that very taken-for-granted, cultural not natural, inviolable island imagination. The geography of Eelam unites the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka with Tamil Nadu in southern India, constructing a trans-oceanic region where cultural, historical, ethnic and even geological notions of shared Tamil-ness supersede hegemonic notions of either Sri Lankan-ness or Indian-ness and their relative social, cultural, geo-political and ultimately national autonomy. It is worth stressing, however, that the provincial boundaries around which the LTTE mapped Eelam, have their origins within early nineteenth century colonial exercises of administrative province boundary demarcation that took as one of their aims the centralization of governance of the island colony (Rogers 2004; Perera 1998). Inscribed and defined through these colonial boundary lines, Eelam is non-insular, transnational, bordered by land and sea, a territory defined by its flows to and from southern India, mapped precisely as a fracturing response to any notion of Sri Lankan island integrity. As a contested or alternative spatiality then, Eelam is iteratively marked by its oppositional difference from hegemonic templates of Sri Lankan island-ness; it is only enabled in relation to all that geopolitically and representationally has gone before it. It then is also a repetition of sorts; inverted, the other of Sri Lanka’s exceptional island geography. An opposite in some senses. As President Rajapakse’s victory speech maintained, at varying points and for varying durations throughout the civil war, the LTTE have controlled the Jaffna peninsula in the far north of the island, running their own law courts, police force, banks, tax collections and even operating a different time-zone half an hour behind Colombo. And their control has definitely not been uncoercive (see F glerud 2009). Effectively the LTTE have attempted to perform their own geography that fractures the island integrity synonymous with Sri Lankan sovereignty.
One of the results of the LTTE’s continued contested geographical inscription is that despite the pervasive repetition of a territorially integrated, whole-island imaginative geography, in recent history it has never materially emerged as anything more than a chimera; an on-paper island mapping that bares little relation to the lived experience of those located variously across island space. In May 2009, GOSL (Government of Sri Lanka) forces militarily secured that geography by defeating the LTTE and, as Rajapakse stated, taking control of all territory across the island form. But for the moment at least, whether or not island-ness emerges in a genuinely sustainable and accessible way, as anything more than imaginative geography that is, seems very much dependent on a continued militarization of territoriality. Indeed during the war, only during a 4-year ceasefire agreement between 2002 and 2006 were people freely able to travel between the far-north and deep-south, between west coast and east coast, as both the far north and east of the island have been variously either unsafe frontline battle zones or occupied LTTE territories. Even then, the unhindered freedom of movement across island-space has never been a privilege enjoyed by all in Sri Lanka. The militarization of roads and the regulation of movement through island space via the draconian and racialized discrimination of the security checkpoint, severely curtail access to the whole island for most (especially Tamil) Sri Lankans (see Hyndman and de Alwis 2004). An entire generation of Sri Lankans born post-1983 (Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims) have grown up knowing a fragmented, patchwork, militarized territorial ‘integrity’, where insular, exceptional and inviolable island-ness persists precisely as discourse, as textual assertion, far more than geopolitical object. Put this way, though much has changed since the time of Robert Knox’s writings (1681), the lived actuality of fragmented island space remains the same; the difficulties that Newell encountered travelling from north to south, Jaffna to Colombo, in 1813 have only increased.

It is telling that, at the time of writing this, only in that brief window from February 2002 to April 2006 when the ceasefire agreement held and the LTTE signalled intent to talk, did island-ness actually became anything more than an exclusivist Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist spatial imagination. Despite neglected infrastructural links, lingering political uncertainties and LTTE administered taxes people were able to move freely from south to north and vice versa. This materialization of island-ness was fuelled by a geographical awakening of sorts, an opening up of the heterogeneous political possibilities that an enlivened spatial imagination (see Massey 2005) vis vis island-ness might offer. It was the ability of both the UNP government at the time and the LTTE to enter into a process of political conversation about their respective spatial imaginations in ways less uncompromising than ever before that led closer to the materialization of a less introverted and hegemonic mode of post-independence island-ness than previously existed; an island-ness in which it was not impossible for the state to also conceive of relative northern and eastern political devolution and historical/cultural connections to South India, and an island-ness that it seemed the LTTE thought not antithetic to these goals. Thinking and imagining the topologies of Sri Lankan island-ness differently, it seems, offered new prospects and postcolonial possibilities for some kind of a peace rendered through the glimmer of heterogenous spatial possibilities. The resumption of hostilities in 2005 suggests that, if anything, that enlivened spatial imagination was not imaginative enough, and it remains to be seen whether the government’s military victory in 2009 will signal the beginning of spatially as well as politically heterogenous processes going forward.

Concluding thoughts

I have argued that the concrete matter-of-factness underpinning conceptions of Sri Lankan island-ness be placed within historical and textual context. If Sri Lankan island-ness is a geography, one that inheres in the very sign ‘Sri Lanka’, then its precise topologies – territorial inviolability and historical naturalization – are textual, representational and imaginative inscriptions that, though synonymous today with (anti-colonial) Sinhalese nationalism, have their roots in colonial encounter as well as European modes of vision that long pre-date British imperialism. ‘Sri Lanka’ is island-ness, rewritten and repeated in a particular idiom, some of whose spatial and representational antecedence this essay has committed to making visible. As Paul Carter (1987, xxi) argues with respect to spatial histories, treating space as ‘natural’, passive, objectively ‘there’, has the effect of draining what is most characteristic about any place – its historical content, its litany of repetitions, reinscriptions and rearticulations. Sri Lanka’s island-ness, at times so apparently non-discursive, objectively there, is an imaginative geography shaped representationally, shot through by text.
Part of the task of this essay is to conceive of cultural and political histories as spatial histories; by connection to treat cultural politics as spatial politics. Treating Sri Lankan island-ness as trace and repetition is in some sense then a methodological exercise intent on unstitching the seams of spaces so tightly woven through colonial encounter, because as the geographer Jenny Robinson has written: ‘Space does stand still, refuse to budge, enable entrenched divisions and conflicts, … keep people very far apart’ (2003, 649; also see Massey 2005, pt. 2). Accordingly then, another intention of this essay has been to intervene in those familiar inscriptions and iterations of Sri Lankan island-ness precisely through the work of critical reading. As Qadri Ismail (2005, xvi) has written with regards the production of knowledge about Sri Lanka, the place is not merely object existing outside of the investigating subject. Each time knowledge is produced about Sri Lanka, the place itself is reiterated, re-produced slightly differently. As well as geopolitical object then, Sri Lanka is also subject existent in language, in knowledge, in our representations. If this essay has worked to undo some of the tightly woven seams of Sri Lankan island-ness, it also poses the possibility that island-ness might be reassembled differently; reassembled in ways that are not coerced into choosing either inviolable and territorially containing island-ness orits binarized other, the separatist, territorially divided mapping of Eelam. As Ed Soja and Barbara Hooper have written with regards geography’s own possibilities to be in some sense resistant:
In the new cultural politics of difference, the aim is neither simply to assert dominance of the subaltern over the hegemon in a rigidly maintained bipolar order, nor even to foster some specified combination of opposing traits and traditions. It is to break down and disorder the binary itself, to reject the simple structure of closed dualisms through a (sympathetic) deconstruction and reconstitution that allows for radical openness, flexibility and multiplicity. The key step is to recognize and occupy a new alternative … different but not detached entirely from the geographies defined by the original binary oppositions … (Soja and Hooper 1993, 187)
An enlivened spatial imagination holds much potential in Sri Lanka, particularly vis vis the geography perhaps most associated with the nation-state itself, and most contested within the nation-state: the topologies of island-ness. If, as I have argued, it is true that we cannot avoid repeating island-ness each time we utter ‘Sri Lanka’, each time we enter into its textual field we can intervene by repeating it slightly differently; as outward and relational perhaps, but irrespective, most urgently in ways that reorient and pluralize Sri Lanka’s binarized cartographical possibilities.

I would like to thank Maite Conde, John Zavos and the two anonymous reviewers for their comments and encouragement with this paper.
1. On the geography of travel writing more generally, see Mary Louise Pratt (1992), and James Duncan and Derek Gregory (1999).

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