For the last week I have been in Sri Lanka furthering my documentation of the Afro-Sri Lankan community living here. First brought by the Portuguese some 500 years ago, African slaves arrived in Sri Lankan over the next 300 years until the British, who were also heavily involved in the Indian Ocean slave trade, voted in Parliament to end it.
Following the Abolition of Slavery all slaves one the island were freed and having no where to return to they remained. Many took jobs in the British administration that controlled the island until 1947 working in various professions from security guards, nurses, labourers to drivers and they gradually assimilated in to Sri Lankan society.
Today, the vast majority of Afro-Sri Lankans live in the Northwest coastal region close to the town of Puttalam and here is where I am spending the majority of my time during this trip. However, a small group made-up of around 3-4 families moved to Sri Lanka’s east coast close to the town of Trincomalee. These families went there with the British, some working as security guards for British companies and others in the POW camp that was located there during WWII.
After the British left these families stayed, having married local Sri Lankan Tamil people and over a few generations the population gradually shrunk to the handful of individuals that remain there today. Sadly interaction with the Afro-Sri Lankans of Puttalam has decreased over the years, hindered by the civil war that made travelling in and out of Trincomalee very difficult and also due to family feuds.
The remaining Afro-Sri Lankan’s of Trincomalee have chosen not to celebrate their African heritage like those of Puttalam who remain proud of where they came from. During a 3-day visit to the east coast town last week some were happy to meet us and tell their stories but other families weren’t. One family even saying they didn’t want their children acknowledged as Afro-Sri Lankan.
As a result it looks likely that through inter-marriage with local Tamils in one generation any remnants of their African heritage will disappear and their culture will become confined to history books.
A few years ago the respected elder of the community in Trincomalee, Mr Mersalin Alfonso, died. Alfonso was a proud Afro-Sri Lankan and with relatives, including his brother, living in Puttalam, he kept the connection alive. It seems that a large part of this small community died with Alfonso and now the Afro-Sri Lankan’s of the Puttalam area are now the only proud holders of this African heritage.
This documentary is being produced by a Reporting Fellowship awarded by the South Asian Journalist Association (www.saja.org) in the U.S.