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