Celebrating 500 years on Sri Lanka

On Sunday 24th September 2017 the Afro-Sri Lankan community will celebrate their 500 year presence on the island and 200 years since all slaves were freed in Sri Lanka. This event taking place at the Roman Catholic church of St Mary in Puttalam town is the first time they have officially celebrated their heritage.

The Afro-Sri Lankan community at the village of Siriambadiya rehearse their part in the 500 year celebration.

With a lack of historic documentation the exact dates of each anniversary are hard to pin point to a certain day but this is when the community has decided to hold the celebration and is the reason why I have chosen to spend time with them now.

It is widely agreed that the first major influx of African slaves brought to Sri Lanka began in the early 16th century, over 500-years ago, with the arrival of the Portuguese colonizers. Over the next 300 years they were continuously brought by successive colonial powers that followed until the time the British who took control of the island from the Dutch.

Afro-Sri Lankan meet in St. Mary’s church to discuss the 500 year celebration event.

After the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed in the British Parliament in 1807, the process of putting an end to slavery began in British controlled colonies. Sir Alexander Johnston, Chief Justice of Sri Lanka (1806-1819), urged for the gradual abolition of domestic slavery in Sri Lanka and it was eventually agreed that all children born of slaves after 1806 would be freed, thus beginning the end of three-centuries of slavery.

The Afro-Sri Lankan community at the village of Siriambadiya rehearse their part in the 500 year celebration.

The Afro-Sri Lankan community at the village of Siriambadiya rehearse their part in the 500 year celebration. Here they re-enact how their ancestors were taken from their homes in Africa.

These two anniversaries are what has spurred the community to make the event happen tomorrow. It is a very important day for the remaining population of the Afro-Sri Lankans, giving them a chance to celebrate their heritage and make sure that the country will continue to acknowledge their presence as being an important part of Sri Lankan history.

Throughout the week they have been busy preparing and practicing for tomorrow which will see them performing re-enactments of how they believe they were forcibly taken from their homes in Africa, put on to boats that sailed across the Indian Ocean until they ultimately landed on Sri Lanka. After which they will show the contributions that the modern day Afro-Sri Lankan’s have made to Sri Lankan society as nurses, soldiers and other professions. And then of course they will sing and dance the way only the Afro-Sri Lankan’s know how to do.

Afro-Sri Lankan meet in St. Mary’s church to discuss the 500 year celebration event.

This tiny community are the last living remnants of the despicable act of slavery and tomorrow’s event cannot and must not be underestimated for its importance. They have never once received reparations and today they struggle but at the same time are proud of who they are and where they came from.

The Afro-Sri Lankan community at the village of Siriambadiya rehearse their part in the 500 year celebration.

Maria Jasintha practices her dance routine at St. Mary’s church.

This documentary is being produced with a grant from the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA).

Ceylon African Manja perform in Colombo

Over the many generations Afro-Sri Lankans have lived on the island many aspects of African culture have been lost as they became assimilated in to Sri Lankan society. Some however remained especially in the form of music and dance. This trend remains consistent throughout the African diaspora of South Asia with all communities having their own unique music and dance that has real similarities to styles on the African continent.

The Ceylon African Manja group perform in Colombo on 21st September 2017. Copyright Luke Duggleby/The Sidi Project

In fact, not only is their music and dance totally unique in Sri Lanka but it has become a very important source of income with them, often being hired to perform around the country at events ranging from weddings to official functions.

On one such performance I followed one such group from their homes in the village of Siriambadiya to Colombo where they had been invited by the Ministry of Culture to perform at an event celebrating traditional music from around the island.

The Ceylon African Manja group perform in Colombo on 21st September 2017. Copyright Luke Duggleby/The Sidi Project

But what makes Afro-Sri Lankan music so special is that it is still sung in Sri Lankan Portuguese Creole, a language that developed only on Sri Lanka and used exclusively by African slaves, all coming from different tribes and countries, as a common language. Today this is one of the last musical groups that still know the old creole songs.

The Ceylon African Manja group perform in Colombo on 21st September 2017. Copyright Luke Duggleby/The Sidi Project

The Ceylon African Manja group perform in Colombo on 21st September 2017. Copyright Luke Duggleby/The Sidi Project

The Ceylon African Manja group perform in Colombo on 21st September 2017. Copyright Luke Duggleby/The Sidi Project

The Ceylon African Manja group perform in Colombo on 21st September 2017. Copyright Luke Duggleby/The Sidi Project

Here is a sound recording I made of one of their songs on 21st September 2017 during that Colombo performance.

Afro-Sri Lankan’s of Puttalam

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.

Daisy Perela, now 63, holds a photograph of her younger self close to Kalypitiya. September 2017. Original photographer unknown. Image copyright Luke Duggleby/The Sidi Project

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.

Johnson sits in his house in Puttalam town. September 2017. Image copyright Luke Duggleby/The Sidi Project

 

Peter Louis (left) and Justin Savior with his grand daughter attending Sunday Mass. Siriambadiya, September 2017. Image copyright Luke Duggleby/The Sidi Project

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.

Solomon Matthew Linton, 59, sits in a friends house. Puttalam, September 2017. Image copyright Luke Duggleby/The Sidi Project

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.

The wedding photograph of Benedict Vancis Callistis, now 62, who married a local Sinhalese lady. September 2017. Original photographer unknown. Image copyright Luke Duggleby/The Sidi Project

 

This documentary is being produced by a Reporting Fellowship awarded by the South Asian Journalist Association (www.saja.org) in the U.S.

The Afro Turk Community

A very interesting article about the Afro Turk community in Turkey published on ibw21.org. The article written by Alev Scott was originally published on BBC.com. IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to building the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. to work for the social, political, economic and cultural upliftment, the development of the global Black community and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.

Although some estimates put the number of Afro Turks as high as 100,000. (Credit: dpa picture alliance / Alamy)

According to the article there are approximately 100,000 Afro Turks in Turkey but the community remains relatively unknown, especially outside of the Aegean area. They were originally brought to Turkey as slave families and sent to work on the cotton fields near the port of old Smyrna (modern day Izmir) in the 18th Century.

In the villages, Afro Turks are generally accepted as part of the community (Credit: Bradley Secker)

Hatice and her son Esat in the courtyard of their home (Credit: Bradley Secker)

To read the story click here.

All images originally appeared on https://ibw21.org/editors-choice/afro-turks-lost-language-turkeys-african-descendant-population/ and credited appropriately.

 

 

The Sidi Project wins the SAJA Reporting Fellowship

It is with great honor that I am able to announce that this year The Sidi Project was the winning recipients of the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) Reporting Fellowship. Headquartered at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York City and founded in 1994, SAJA serves as a networking and resource forum for journalists of South Asian origin as well as for journalists and others interested in South Asia and the South Asian diaspora. Its mission includes acting as a resource to promote accurate coverage of South Asia and the diaspora.

This grant will allow me to continue The Sidi Project and specifically focus on the Afro-Sri Lankans during the month of September 2017. My self-funded trip in January to the town of Puttalam on the Island’s west coast produced the images you see on this site, but there are other communities on the island that I wasn’t able to visit due to time and financial constraints, who also need the opportunity to tell their story and be seen.

So a huge thank you to South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) for having faith in the project

The Afro-Sri Lankans

2017 promises to see a lot of work produced for The Sidi Project and I will begin the year by visiting the Indian Ocean’s smallest African diaspora community on the island of Sri Lanka. Whilst African slaves were taken as far as Indonesia and China by the various colonial powers the small population of Afro-Sri Lankan’s is the most eastern surviving community of descendants. Brought over as slaves and soldiers by the Portuguese, Dutch and later the British as they jostled for control of Sri Lanka, the diaspora numbers here are small but significant in the historical role that they played on the island. Studied in depth by Professor Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya the Sri Lankan ‘kaffirs’, as they are know locally, are the at the highest risk of disappearing. Its worth mentioning that the name Kaffir on Sri Lanka has no racial connotations like it does in South Africa and the Sri Lanka’s African diaspora call themselves by that name.

 

By the mid-19th century, at least 6,000 Afro-Sri Lankan’s living on the island, but today their numbers have significantly decreased. Their numbers are difficult to assess with no accurate census but it is estimated that approximately 500 live on the island today mostly around the Puttalam area on the west coast but also on the east coast near the town of Trincomalee. However, because the children of Afro–Sri Lankan women who marry Sinhalese or Tamil men are not themselves counted as being Kaffir, thousands of such descendants are less conspicuous in official records, having had their African heritage obscured, if not erased.

I have long wanted to include this small but important community and the project and will finally be able to do so in a few weeks. I will keep the website updated with news from the field.