The 1934-1935 Malaria Epidemic in Sri Lanka, by Eric Meyer (Inalco, Paris, France)

Avec cette étude, nous commençons la publication d’une série d’articles et de documents inédits portant sur l’histoire sociale de la période moderne à Sri Lanka. Ces travaux pourront être cités en respectant les règles de la licence Creative Commons Attribution énoncées dans cette page.

This paper is the first in a series of hitherto unpublished articles and documents dealing with the social history of modern Sri Lanka. These papers may be quoted according to the rules of Creative Commons Licence

 

The Malaria Epidemic of 1934-1935 in Sri Lanka*

 

‘The remedy for malaria is in the pot’ (an Italian proverb)

 

In a country in which epidemics were less common than in India, especially after the beginning of the 19th century, the sudden outbreak of epidemic malaria which probably killed one hundred thousand people, mostly children, created a national trauma. It contributed to shatter the already battered traditional local powers, it hastened the process of formation of a ‘welfare state’, it led the elites to ‘discover’ the peasant condition, and initiated among the villagers the first signs of self assertiveness.

From a more theoretical angle, the epidemic, which can be defined as a social crisis within the economic crisis, raises a series of issues connected with the controversy about the dramatic decrease in mortality rates after 1945, which has been attributed either to anti-malarial measures, or to a social policy raising the rural standard of life.[1] To what extent was the epidemic the result of climatic, epidemiologic, economic or human factors? The question is not limited to the Sri Lankan case: interesting parallels can be drawn with Mediterranean areas before the 18th century, with contemporary South and South East Asia and other Indian Ocean countries such as Mauritius.

This preliminary study is partly based on printed reports published as Sessional Papers just after the epidemic by the Director of the Ceylon Medical and Sanitary Services (Dr Briercliffe), by a malariologist from India sent by the Colonial Office (Col. Gill), by the Special Commissionner for Relief of Distress (H.E. Newnham) and by the different Government Agents and their Assistants in the affected areas.[2] But the same officials provide more detailed and more authentic informations in their diaries and private papers: those of Newnham which are kept at Rhodes House, Oxford, and are also available in the CO 54 series at Kew, are very useful; those of the GAs and AGAs are unequal but in any case very revealing: the best are D.B. Seneviratne, Special Assistant for Kurunegala, and F.C. Gimson, Assistant for Kegalla. The Colombo press, the relations of the debates in the State Council, and the minuted correspondence between the Governor and the Colonial Office provide useful information on the political impact of the epidemic. At the grass root level, an unsystematic attempt has also been made to collect some oral evidence in affected localities in the Kegalla district, but the epidemic seen by the people it affected is still to be researched and would certainly alter the incomplete picture which is offered in this paper.[3]

 

The epidemic in stages

In 1934, after five years of economic depression, a very severe drought affected the coconut triangle, its northern fringe, and to a lesser degree the hill region and its western fringe – the rubber belt. Paddy cultivation came to a halt for want of water, just as vegetable cultivation, which had been much developed by villagers during the depression years to replace casual estate employment. Many coconut trees withered and broke down. In the North Central province, most tanks were dry, buffaloes starved to death. Impoverished Kandyan villagers who had gone there during the depression years drifted back to the south.

Malaria, which was endemic in the dry zone, became more severe than usual, and it combined with the failure of harvests to result in deaths of undernourished children and elder people by mid-1934. In September, malaria progressed southwards in the Kurunegala district but remained unnoticed by the authorities, in spite of the fact that the Medical Services had just then started a ‘resurvey of malaria incidence’ among school children.[4]

The malarial outbreak of October 1934 was sudden, simultaneous and general. Although medical services tabulated the sudden growth in the number of out-patients at rural dispensaries, they were slow to realize its nature and extent. During the first week of October, the epidemic developed in the Maha Oya basin and the localities at the junction between the north-south and the east-west roads, such as Alawwa, Polgahawela and Warakapola. But the Government Agents and their assistants were informed only between the end of October and mid-November, and for a couple of weeks they considered that the situation did not call for special action. By the end of November, the epidemic extended towards the Colombo and Kandy districts, and in December it reached the Ratnapura district, probably from the South East where malarial endemicity was as high as in the North.[5]

The decision to organize relief was taken at Kegalla on 4.12.34, at Kurunegala on 7.12, at Kandy and Matale on 10.12, at Ratnapura on 15.12. Rice distribution was started at Kurunegala on 18.12. At that stage, the epidemic began to be perceived as a national calamity: the press which mentioned it first on 16.11, monitored its development after 4.12, when State Councillors raised the question at the Assembly; newspapers gave it prominence at the end of December, when various social workers and young Colombo students went to the affected districts to provide assistance.[6]

They were struck by the tragic sight of whole families, even whole villages, down with fever, of undernourished babies and children carried off by hundreds, especially where owing to illness or distance no one could visit the affected people.[7] Even those who could be carried or dragged themselves to local dispensaries were a pathetic sight: they were huddled together around, shivering with fever, wrapped in gunny bags, waiting for hours under the sun. They came back with small quinine bottles, which they shared with the family and neighbours, but many could not bear the strain of the journey back and laid on the roadside, where they could hardly get any help, because trade had come to a standstill, and foodstuff could no longer be purchased on credit at the boutiques.

By January, the drought still prevailed, and contrary to the soothing pronouncements of the colonial authorities, mortality increased and reached a peak which was considered as ‘unprecedented’. At that stage, patients were affected by their third or fourth fit, and worse, cases of deadly cerebral malaria became common. Hospitals were unable to cope with the sudden influx of people, and undernourishment was general in the affected areas, in spite of rice distribution by the authorities. In some localities, restiveness and even revolt erupted, because of discrimination and harshness in the provision of relief: with the support of the press and of some members of the State Council, people denounced the apathetic and corrupt behaviour of the headmen and of some members of the medical and sanitary services.

The epidemic became a political issue and the situation called for a political answer: a special Commissionner for Relief, H.E. Newnham, was therefore entrusted with the task of coordinating relief operations by different services, of touring the affected districts and issuing communiqués for the press. Relief works (on roads, tanks and channels) were organized, free midday meals provided for school going children, milk centres opened in some villages. By early April, the authorities fearing the development of what they called a ‘dole mentality’, attempted to stop rice distribution and to put more people to relief works. The epidemic seemed to subside, and the people celebrated avurudda in a misleading atmosphere. Suddenly by mid-April the epidemic was again on the increase and many deaths occurred due to lung complications; it subsided after a few weeks in the malarial epicentre (Kurunegala, Kegalla) but took a virulent form in hitherto unaffected areas of the Central Province (especially Kotmale), Ratnapura, and Uva. Relief camps became malarial hotbeds, where unfeebled workers were an easy prey to the disease.[8]

During the last six months of 1935, mortality slowly decreased, but local outbursts occurred in the Kegalla and Ratnapura districts, and Matara was eventually affected in 1936. Elsewhere, by early 1936, better harvests and the resumption of employment in the plantations restored more normal conditions. But the impact of the epidemic was not to be forgotten, especially during the forthcoming 1936 election campaign.

 

The selective impact of the calamity.

As a rule in such a case, there is a tendency to interpret or even rig vital statistics to suit a political agenda: while the raj attempted to minimize the disaster, the nationalist press did the reverse. However, the data tabulated by the General Registry and checked by the Relief Commissionner are generally regarded as reliable, with perhaps an underestimation of deaths among the underpriviledged and the inhabitants of out of the way hamlets. Belated registration of births and infant deaths must have been rather frequent during mortality crises. But on the whole, population statistics were the second best in Asia after Japan. The registrars were paid according to the number of notifications they received, and heavy fines were imposed in cases of non-registration – during the epidemic, there were even examples of such penalties inflicted on helpless survivors.[9]

The malaria zone was populated in 1934 by about 3 million people, about 55 per cent of the population of Ceylon. Out of them, about half were affected by the disease: in health centres, 4,290,000 consultations were registered in excess of previous years. From September 1934 to December 1935, 254,968 deaths were registered in the island, 68 per cent more than the average figures of previous years: this represented about 100,000 excess deaths.[10]

The impact of the calamity was very unequally felt, according to geographic areas, to economic sectors, to age, gender and social status.

Medical authorities trying to explain the epidemic by purely natural causes stressed its location in three river basins (Deduru Oya, Maha Oya, Kelani Ganga) and they claimed that its seriousness was proportional to the proximity to these rivers – which is inaccurate: many seriously affected ‘Village expansion allotments’ were located in the interfluves. Others pretended that villages off the main roads were the worst hit – but roadside bazars were the first and most affected spots and might have diffused the infection. Available data is not detailed enough to give a definite answer at the village level, but at the division (korale) level, the picture is clear enough. When compared with the 1931 census, and taking into account the outmigration of a proportion of the estate population between 1931 and 1934, the core area of the epidemic is made up of Galboda and Kinigoda korale (in Kegalla), Weudawili hatpattu (in Kurunegala), and Tumpane korale (in Kandy).

According to socio-economic sectors, mortality among local villagers was much worse than among plantation workers – the reverse of the situation prevailing before the depression (see table 2). This feature was noticed by many contemporaries and it fuelled controversies regarding the origins of the epidemic and the repective merits of village economy and estate economy.[11]

Epidemic malaria is a killer of infants and children. The food situation for many of them was already marked in ‘normal times’ by deficiency diseases (notably skin infections before the main paddy harvest in January). During the epidemic, mortality of babies (less than 1 year) more than doubled (from 172 to 370 per thousand) in the whole of the island. In the core area, the massacre was terrific: during 1935 almost 50 p.c. of the newborn babies perished in the Kegalla district, and in the Kurunegala district more than seven out of ten. Later enquiries held in 1937-38 in Kurunegala on a random basis gave similar or higher figures (863 per 1000 for 1935, 311 per 1000 in 1936). Mortality of children between 2 and 5 years increased more than five times during the six worst months of the epidemic.[12]

Excess mortality of women was hardly noticed at that time but is in evidence in the statistics: while the female percentage in the number of registered deaths was usually between 49.5 and 50 per cent in normal years, it reached in 1935 53 p.c. in Kegalla and Kurunegala.[13]

For want of reliable class and caste statistics in colonial Ceylon, it is very difficult to assess the differential social impact of the epidemic in a scientific manner, but qualitative and micro-level data is not lacking. Class-wise, it is clear that the poorer village families who used to live on credit without spare foodstuffs were the most affected; recent migrants who had severed their everyday solidarity links with the family and village to settle in new peasant allotments (often without proper irrigation facilities) were especially hit by drought and illness.[14]

Caste-wise, the picture is more problematic, but the issue is certainly challenging.[15] Anyone familiar with the local characteristics of the mid and up country Kandyan districts cannot fail to notice a correlation between the core area of the epidemic and the districts with the largest non-Goyigama groups.[16] The large paddy cultivating villages, especially in Kurunegala and Kegalla, were very often populated by different communities loosely categorized during the colonial period under the large term Duraya or more restrictive term Batgama, but actually differentiated into specific endogamous subgroups according to locality or occupation. Many of the smaller villages located in the hills, with little paddy cultivation but extensive chena and palm tree tracts, were populated by members of the more homogeneous Vahumpura caste, especially on the borders between the Central, the North Western and the Sabaragamuwa provinces. The first affected villages in the Kurunegala and Kegalla district, located between Potuhera and Rambukkana, were all Vahumpura and Batgama. In the Kegalla district, in a list of 50 most affected villages compiled by the Assistant Agent, approximately 15 were mainly Goyigama, 20 Batgama, 8 Vahumpura, 5 multicaste and 2 undetermined. The villages thus mentioned were also those where discontent and request for help were most openly expressed. It is likely that villagers belonging to Goyigama families in the same areas were no less affected, but that they were better supported by headmen and that caste pride may have prevented them from claiming for public relief (a feature very apparent in the accounts of the 1868 epidemic mentioned in the next section). Superior headmen who acted as intermediaries with the colonial authorities were always of the Goyigama caste in the Kandyan areas, and every available information, including that provided by government sources, give numerous examples of open discrimination (which could affect as well Goyigama families belonging to adverse coteries).

But whatever glaring inequalities might have existed, they were not of such a magnitude as to create social upheaval or collective panic as in mediaeval and modern Europe: contrary to plague and cholera which are mainly urban calamities, malaria is a rural killer. Poor people died unnoticed in their huts, not in town streets; the scourge was first perceived as a collection of individual dramas rather than a global tragedy; it became an ‘event’ when outsiders and the media came in.[17]

 

Epidemiological factors

The epidemic is generally attributed to the conjunction of a dominant natural factor (an exceptional drought), of an underlying economic factor (poverty resulting from the depression in plantation areas), sometimes of a purely epidemiological factor (the cyclic activity of the blood parasit), and rarely of a migratory factor. But when one attempts to disentangle the interplay of these various causes, serious difficulties arise: every epidemic is a unique and complex event, and epidemiology is not of course an experimental science.

To start with, a summary description of the specific processes of malarial transmission in Sri Lanka is necessary.[18] Human malaria is caused by the development of plasmodium, a blood parasit, which reproduces itself in the organism of certain mosquitoes (anopheles culicifacies in Sri Lanka) the lifespan of which is short (one week to one month), the flight autonomy restricted (about one kilometer), but the reproductive power enormous under certain conditions. As a result, malaria is mainly an endemic disease, usually transmitted on short distances. It can take different forms according to the type of plasmodium involved: vivax can live in the human body for a couple of years, and its reproductive cycle is quick (three weeks); falciparum is less resistant (a few months if there is no reinfection) but is deadlier: it is responsible for cerebral malaria usually present in sudden outbursts.

The change from the endemic to the epidemic form happens when a large number of potential and actual human carriers is suddenly in contact with a large number of insect carriers, through the multiplication of mosquitoes, the weakening defences of human carriers or the exposure of people hitherto unaffected and lacking acquired resistance. Most epidemiologists in the 1930s considered that mosquito breeding was the only significant factor and was enough to account for the number of cases observed during the epidemic, but this view has been seriously challenged by later authors.

Breeding conditions had been meticulously analyzed well before the epidemic by two malariologists, Carter and Clemesha. They showed that culicifacies usually lives in dark corners and thatched roofs and lays its eggs in sunny shallow stagnant waters, especially the ponds left by dried up streams – a regular feature in the ‘dry zone’: when these characteristics extend to the rivers of the so called ‘intermediate zone’ and ‘wet zone’ as a result of the failure of the south west monsoon, an epidemic is likely to develop; stream irregularity is increased by heavy silting such as that resulting from the felling of forests for plantation development in the Kelani, Maha Oya and Deduru Oya areas especially after 1880.

Malarial eco/etiology is not only regulated by the habits of the mosquito, but also by those of the human carrier. Endemicity feeds itself: peasants when weakened by recurrent fevers tend to neglect cultivation and the upkeep of irrigation works; they reap short crops, and the resulting undernourishment lowers their defences against the parasite, while tanks and channels in disrepair are again breeding places. Plasmodium therefore lives as a parasit ot only in human blood, but also, metaphorically, in the channels of the paddy economy as a whole. Malaria is the specific scourge of rice ecology.

 

Some precedents of an ‘unprecedented epidemic’

It is not intended here to review the role played by malaria in the abandonment of the dry zone and the drift to the South West. What is significant for our purpose is that the establishment of malarial endemicity at the border between the dry and the wet zone represented a permanent menace for the population of the latter zone: most witnesses of the pre- and proto-colonial era, from Robert Knox to John Davy, noticed and often experienced to their cost the sudden changes in some salubrious localities turned into most unsalubrious places.[19]

Every epidemic was considered by its contemporaries as ‘unprecedented’, but the descriptions are actually very similar and this is rather an interesting case of repeated amnesy. For example, a detailed search into the Kegalla diaries and records reveals a deadly epidemic in 1854 after a drought in 1853 (the administration took no measures and the Agent congratulated himself for having collected the paddy tax as usual!)[20] The next serious outburst occurred in 1868: the Colombo press was informed by Baptist missionaries, and relief measures were taken for the first time, the acting Governor himself toured the affected districts (the eastern part of the Western Province then including Kegalla) and recorded his findings in an unpublished report.[21] The similarities with 1934-35 are quite striking : a severe drought followed by a sudden outburst of fever affecting two thirds of the population in mid-country areas, mostly children and women; ‘low caste’ people thronging the roads asking for help; entire families prostrated, people eating leaves and roots for want of rice, deaths resulting from combined illness and famine. As in 1934, the economic situation provided an aggravating factor: the opening of the Colombo-Kandy railway caused extensive unemployment among carters and other people living on the old road. Government help was organized on principles prefiguring 1935: rice distribution by headmen, opening of road relief works, the setting up of a fund to collect private donations, and an apprehension that aid would encourage ‘native laziness’. But medicalization was of course less advanced, although a few poorly managed temporary hospitals were set up by mudaliyars (notably the Dias Bandaranaikes), and most of the patients were treated by local vederalas. The event had a political impact – the reports published in the Colombo press had an echo at the House of Commons. Another interesting feature is that the question of the underdevelopment of villages as compared to plantation development was already raised – the answer suggested by the authorities being at that time that villagers should be encouraged to seek employment in the coffee estrates during the slack season of paddy cultivation.

A later and less serious epidemic is mentioned in 1874 in the Maha Oya valley, and the Government Agent of the Western province was blamed for his niggardly organization of relief.[22] The scourge again appeared in 1884-85 in the same valley, after a very severe drought and the failure of paddy crops. The Assistant Agent at Kegalla, Le Mesurier, prided himself of having quickly reacted, organizing rice distribution, opening road relief works, and encouraging planters to temporarily employ villagers on newly opened tea estates. After the epidemic, Le Mesurier again raised the issue of village development, stressing this time the usefulness of garden cultivation in case of paddy failure, notably in areas which had been reserved as timber and fuel reserves for the railway.[23]

His suggestions were not heeded, and a more serious epidemic broke out in 1892 in Kegalla after a bad harvest. When mortality was at its peak, it was said to be 67 per cent higher than in normal years. This time, the economy of the district had been transformed by the sudden development of ‘low-grown’ tea, but the villagers had little benefitted: most high land had been sold by the government or by various middlemen (including headmen) above the head of the villagers, and deforestation for the opening of estates had resulted in intensive erosion and the silting up of streams.[24] This favoured mosquito breeding, while the regular arrival of large gangs of Tamil workers who came through the most malarial areas of South India and Ceylon increased the number of potential human carriers and the frequency of reinfections. This time, the plantations were the hotbed of the epidemic and the working population on some estates was almost wiped out. Relief measures in 1892 did not match the seriousness of the crisis, the local administration took a fatalistic stance and blamed weather conditions – so that another outburst occurred in 1894.

During the next forty years (1894-1934), none of the malarial outbursts in Kegalla and surrounding districts were as serious as those of the previous forty years (1854-1894). Serious increase in mortality linked with undernourishment, malaria and also ankylostomiasis (which was not distinguished from other diseases before that time) and influenza, is mentioned in 1899, 1906, 1909-10, 1918-19, 1922-23, 1925, 1927-28 and 1931. For example, the superintendent of Trafford Hill estate in Kurunegala informed the G.A. that “malaria in 1925 was exceptionnally severe, not only on the estate, but in the surrounding villages (…) practically all the villagers have been striken down and many have died”[25]. In 1928, unusual cases of cerebral malaria were reported, and in 1931, seasonal malaria was said to be aggravated by the impoverished condition of the villagers.[26]

In spite of the rather impressionistic nature of the information on these precedents, some inferences can be drawn:

– the calamity of 1934-35 was by no means unprecedented in the wet and intermediate zones of Sri Lanka, where epidemics were rather frequent;

– mortality became less serious after the beginning of the 20th century, the village population being less dependent on their own paddy cultivation and more dependent on imported rice purchased with the sale of their labour or garden products;

– spatial limits of the epidemics were often the same, with the Maha Oya valley as the core area;

– drought and failure of paddy harvests were a necessary precondition; however, the available precipitation figures for the town of Kurunegala do not reveal a neat correlation between the failure of rains and malarial outbursts (see statistical appendix);

– at least in two cases, an economic factor was at play;

– a brutal disruption of ecological balance, and immigration of South Indian workers, played a role at least after 1880;

– relief operations were grudgingly started, often under the pressure of public opinion, by the administration which feared the development of a ‘dole mentality’.

Then where is the specificity of the 1934-1935 epidemic? First in its date: in the general context of the 20th century, a catastrophe of that magnitude seemed unlikely: more diversified economic resources appeared to provide a bulwark against weather vagaries, and a strict medical control of Indian immigration had been set up, the prevailing idea being that India, seen as the mother of epidemics, could no longer infect the island: nobody would believe that the island itself could shelter the germs of a calamity. Then in its size: never before had an epidemic extended over such a vast area and affected such a large number of people. Last and not least, in its repercussions in the public: it was the first time in Sri Lanka that an epidemic was represented as a major event.

 

Economic factors and climatic factors

In the malarial etiology, the weakening of human carriers is now considered as a decisive factor. If malaria actually receded in the intermediate/wet zones before 1930 because of better living standards and not of better weather conditions, then the economic depression of the 1930 which was most severe in the rubber and coconut areas would have upset the new balance between population growth and economic development, and allow the old sequence to get again moving, with a violence increased by the long time lag since the last epidemics. The recession brought about a regression of the peasantry to a state of vulnerability to climatic cycles. In a way, the epidemic would have resulted from a double drought: the crisis first dried out the supplementary resources drawn by the villagers of the wet zone from the plantation economy; they were thrown back to a condition similar to that of the dry zone villagers; then a non unusual climatic accident dried up the lands in the wet/intermediate zones, further weakening the peasantry and allowing increased mosquito breeding.

The estate sector in the epidemic zone was less exposed to the disease neither because the plantations were located far from the streams (they were actually the worst sufferers in previous epidemics), nor because estate workers were not in touch with malarial villages (the ‘dual’ structure of the economy is largely a myth, at least in these areas), but because of the better medical and sanitary facilities (including anti-malarial preventive work) in many estates after 1920, and owing to a regular system of food distribution set up or controlled by the plantation managers.[27]

While economic factors were stressed by several observers as a cause for the epidemic, including the Governor who linked the increasing rural poverty and malnutrition to landlessness as well as to the depression, the staff of the Colonial Office in London rather blamed population growth in a typically Malthusian style. [28] On the other hand, medical officials and some local administrators insisted on the primacy of epidemiological and climatic factors, which of course cannot be overlooked: the Galle district for example was spared both by the drought and the epidemic, but not by the depression. The Kegalla Agent argued that there was no abnormal distress in his district during the first half of 1934, as many rubber estates had resumed their operations and garden cultivation was not a failure there: according to him, the widespread distress in the villages could be attributed to the fact that the workers owing to their illness could no longer go to work.[29]

However, local cases from different districts contradict his views. In Kegalla itself, certain areas such as Walgam pattuwa (north of Rambukkana) were severely affected by unemployment since 1931; E.A.P. Wijeratne had obtained that Village Expansion Schemes would be set up there but in 1933 he had failed to get the road relief works he asked for; these areas were the worst hit by the epidemic in the district: there was a significant correlation between the list of localities most affected by unemployment in 1932, and most affected by the epidemic in 1935.[30]

In the Ratnapura district, well before the epidemic started, the Government Agent noticed the anaemic condition of children when opening a school at Palawela, a locality where unemployment resulting from the closing down of estates was at its maximum and where Duraya people were predominant. Ten months later when he returned from Europe after the epidemic, the Agent found that Palawela had been the most affected spot: the physical sequels of malaria and famine were still obvious and Newnham, who accompanied him, reported the opinion of the Headmen “who appeared to think that this was and should be the nomal condition of people of that caste”.[31]

Some up-country tea districts which had always been free from malaria were affected for the very first time: such was the case of the sparse villages of upper Bulatgama, close to Ginigathena, and of the denser rural population of Kotmale: in both areas, the villagers before the depression used to grow tea bushes, sell their leaf to bought-leaf factories, and do extra work on large estates to supplement their paddy: these activities completely broke down as a result of the Tea Restriction Scheme and the sale of coupons benefitted only the well-to-do landowners. In the Badulla district further east, conditions were different, but the result similar: the epidemic started in July 1935 in the area between Welimada and Bandarawela where the villagers had been deprived of their lands by estate development and were never able to raise their standard of living.[32]

The best example of the interplay between economic, social and climatic factors is provided by the case of the landless peasants of the Kegalla, Kurunegala and Matale districts, generally belonging to depressed castes, who were pushed out of their villages by unemployment in the coconut and rubber estates. They sought employment in the dry zone but came back by hundreds in 1934 to escape the drought, which eventually caught them up in the south. They might have been infected by plasmodium during their stay in the north, and could have played an important role in its diffusion.

The migration causal hypothesis was advanced by some authorities on tropical medicine in London and was taken up by a few local observers such as H.R. Freeman, MSC for Anuradhapura, and H.E. Newnham, Commissionner for Relief but it was soon rejected without serious examination.[33] During the 1920s and 1930s, Sri Lanka witnessed an impressive development of its transportation system: the railway network was completed, bus companies sprang up everywhere, and transport between the wet and dry zones became cheap and easy; people in increasing numbers went to the dry zone to look out for work or to visit sanctuaries such as Anuradhapura, Madhu and Kataragama. The secondary malaria wave of April 1935 might have been due to migration of human carriers to unaffected areas, possibly in connection with New Year celebrations. Another festive occasion might have contributed: the British had restituted to Ceylon the regalia of the last King of Kandy, which were exhibited in the ancient capital between the 24th and the 27th of September 1934, attracting about 100,000 visitors – a few weeks before the outburst. The actual connection remains highly problematic; but the interest of the event lies in its interpretation: people were quick to attribute the scourge to the malediction of Sri Wickrama who had come back to haunt the scene of his crimes (on which British propaganda had always insisted to justify their rule).[34]

To sum up the interplay of causal factors, one can argue that the malarial crisis was the by-product of the failure of a colonial mode of development, which in Sri Lanka had not been able to sustain economic growth in the peasant sector: it became useless in shielding the village population against the usual climatic fluctuations as soon as economic fluctuations prevailed.

 

Relief administration between paternalism and welfarism.

” I am not surprised that the long sin of omission on the part of the Government of Ceylon in regard to malaria has at least brought upon the island the inevitable Nemesis.” [35]

In this radical indictment, a former Undersecretary of State privately writing to his successor raised the issue of the responsibility of human errors even before it was openly taken up by Ceylonese and British politicians. It was generally admitted that the medical and sanitary services in Ceylon were not up to the reputation of the island as a ‘model colony’: they were highly bureaucratized, they gave scant attention to prophylaxy, and the cuts in public spending after 1930 made them rather stingy. In 1928, the same Ormsby Gore had reported after a tour of the Federal Malay States and Ceylon, that while in the former anti-malarial work was well organized, in the latter it was ” the most inadequate organization [he] had ever met in any tropical country: the mentality of Europeans and Cingalese [sic] in this matter was still 19th century. From the Governor downwards, they still regarded medical services as expensive provision for treatment of the sick and the minimum provision for preventing the people from becoming sick(…) Of course there is an antimalarial organization in Ceylon, tabulating varieties of mosquitoes and so on (…) but as for practical field measures (…) the anopheles mosquito in Ceylon is as effectively preserved and pampered as the sacred cow in India.”[36]

Other officials in London however tended to lay the blame at the doors of the Donoughmore system of administration and of the State Councillors who decided to reduce public spending on anti-malarial measures (43,350 Rs in 1931, 30,900 Rs in 1933).

But bureaucratic inaction and even bungling had a large share of responsibility in that state of affairs: for example, the oiling of rivers was done in the rainy season while mosquito breeding was maximal during the dry season; no general assessment of anti-malarial work was ever made, except in the plantations which had enlisted a retired member of the Indian medical service, Col. Clemesha. This specialist, as well as his colleague Dr. Rustomjee, director of the Antimalarial campaign, had warned the authorities by early October that a malarial outburst was likely to occur owing to the drought and that field dispensaries should closely monitor the situation: but their advice was not heeded and many sanitary inspectors continued to write fictitious reports. [37]

Once the epidemic started, the medical authorities were left with little means to fight it. According to optimistic reports, such as that of Col. Gill, a medical expert sent by London to cross-check the official view of the Director of medical and sanitary services, the “quick and complete mobilization of all the available resources was a remarkable and unprecedented feat”. On the other side, according to the testimony of E.A.P. Wijeratne, MSC for Kegalla, the work of the medical services, “though well intentioned, was desperately inadequate”.[38]

Grass root level information culled from unpublished diaries of officials on the spot tend to confirm the pessimistic view. The medical services pretended to be unable to bring relief (quinine and food for infants) to the doors of the people, for want of personnel, but they sent sanitary inspectors to the villages every ten days just to report: they came empty-handed because the Director considered them unfit to distribute medicine in accordance with a hierarchical view of medical power.[39] Considering that no relief centre was more distant than three miles from any village, he used it as an argument to refuse to issue more than small quantities to each patient, fearing leakage and corruption, while according to most testimonies valid villagers actually shared with neighbours what they got. Medical services discouraged every offer by welfare organizations or even planters of what they considered as amateurish assistance. Government Agents themselves had to use their authority to compel medical administrators to give milk powder to mothers unable to bring their prostrated babies to health centres, and the Commissionner for Relief eventually prevailed on the Director of Medical and Sanitary Services to allow the distribution of milk without medical prescription.[40] A constant preoccupation of the Director was to soundly manage his budget, which meant to manage it with extreme parcimony: he persistently refused to open eight badly needed temporary hospitals in the Kurunegala district. The local relief committee then decided to start them on its own funds, and an able Sri Lankan civil servant, D.B. Seneviratne, eventually succeeded in convincing his own superior (who was curing his health in the hill country) and the Director (whom he could join only at his Colombo club), to take them over…[41]

The subaltern staff was no better in many cases. Absenteeism, very frequent transfers, the refusal to stay on in the field after office hours, residence with the family in Colombo were common features, extortion was not unknown. Among obvious cases of bungling one can cite the Sabaragamuwa province district medical officer who reported on November 17th 1934 that the epidemic was over and no further aid was needed; and his colleague at Kurunegala who in March 1935 implemented an ambiguous circular of his Director in such a way that all the male patients of the temporary hospitals of the province were discharged, whatever their state of health: some had to wait in the streets for hours, some fainted on their way back home: D.B. Seneviratne who reported the incident had to compel the doctor to check with his superior in Colombo the meaning of the circular.[42] The failures and shortcomings of the official services paved the way for a flurry of private initiatives which were usually coldly received by the authorities. The chief medical officer at Kurunegala reported against the sanitary conditions at a private temporary hospital, which was found by the Relief Commissionner to be in a better state than most government centres. These private centres were generally started in localities where the government had decided that the situation did not warrant for the opening of dispensaries. When they were popular, the authorities wanted to take them over: such was the case at Kehelwatte (Kegalla district) where the take over of an hospital started by the Ceylon Buddhist Congress was vehemently and successfully resisted by the local villagers. The authorities criticized what they called the “rather primitive management” of the hospital, but it is obvious that what patients appreciated so much were the daily rounds of relief volunteers in the villages and the active presence of bhikkhus with a practical knowledge of ayurvedic medicine.[43]

In rural areas of the wet zone quinine was universally accepted as a remedy against fevers and there was no opposition to western medical practices as such. At the same time, a revival of traditional medicine was noticeable since the beginning of the century: it was linked with the Buddhist revival, and upheld by a section of the nationalist urban elite as an essential component of their ‘imagined’ tradition; while in the countryside, actual use of herbs was still practiced not in opposition, but in concurrence with that of quinine. Europeans generally regarded ayurveda with the utmost disdain, while South Asian civil servants were more open minded.[44]

The most significant and tragic episode of the attempt, to use the words of David Arnold, at ‘colonizing the body’, was the experiment of a new remedy for malaria (Atebrin Mussonate) by a group of European doctors working for the German firm Bayer (which was to get a bad name some time later with the experiments in Nazi camps). The Ceylon authorities gave them a free hand to use the very poor Batgama villagers of Madawa (in Kurunegala) as human guinea pigs. Out of its 246 inhabitants, 59 were already dead and only two children under two years were alive when the European party came on the stage: five doctors and their wives, soon followed by civil servants and journalists. On the very first day, a five years old girl died just after inoculation: women and children fled screaming; the ladies of the party brought them back … with sweets and chocolates – and a callous Government Agent commented: “I dont remember whether the experiment included children under five but in any case there were very few of them left…Of course the child was doomed before and the injection merely gave it [sic] the final shock.” A few days later, a surexcited journalist reported to the Commissionner for Relief a tremendous change in the village with exalted villagers singing the praise of the good doctors. During the next month, the London gutter press gave its own version of the event: German doctors and their wives became white heroes braving death in the heart of thick jungles to save unfortunate natives. But the experiment ended in utter failure with deadly relapses: in the words of the Director of Medical and Sanitary Services, Atebrin was a dangerous and useless hallucinogen which was in no case to be given to empty stomachs and to children.[45]

The above quoted cases do not entail a condemnation of the medical system as a whole, they rather demonstrate the contradictions between its unefficiency in a case of emergency and the rising expectations of the public for a full fledged Welfare State.

 

A reluctant experiment with welfarism.

Early 20th century colonial administrators were still mainly Revenue Officers with growing tasks of supervision (roads, schools and hospitals) but little direct involvement in welfare activities which were left to private initiative. In a few weeks, by the end of 1934, these principles were radically but reluctantly altered and colonial administrators became involved in relief operations concerning 55 per cent of the population, for which senior officers were ill prepared, while some of their junior subordinates, especially South Asians, were more enthusiastic but still rather ill equipped.

The Kurunegala district provides the best example of that state of affairs: with its 5,000 villages, it was among the most difficult to manage and indeed poorly administered and often rebellious until the latter part of the 19th century. With the rapid development of coconut cultivation, there were tremendous changes: active landgrabbing, mostly by the emerging bourgeoisie, immigration of workers from the coastal areas and of various groups of traders and moneylenders, such as the Nattukottai Chettiar from Ramnad. But the administration was not up to the challenge: it was interfering as little as possible (except in the case of the Land Settlement Department) and Kurunegala was by no means a coveted post for civil servants. The GA in October 1934, Harrison Jones, did his best to ignore warnings (such as that of Dr Marcus Fernando, on October 12th) and even facts: at the end of the month he noted in his diary: ” It will be dangerous to start relief works from Government funds here as there will be great demand if malaria spreads.” On November 16th, he wrote: ” My work has been lighter this week as I have ever known it. This is partly because I have had very little circuit work, partly because of the reduced output of work from the clerks, several of whom have been suffering from malaria.” So he found the time to go hunting with planters and to attend a reception in honour of Baden Powell in Colombo. In December, the meeting of the Sanitary Committee of the Province kept silent on the epidemic and its “most important task was to reduce the very high salaries [sic] proposed for the Polgahawela conservancy labourers”. On the 10th, the GA received relief funds and not knowing how to spend them he asked his junior colleague at Kegalla for advice. He eventually decided to distribute foodstuffs “in spite of the serious consequences these distributions can create”, but he warned his headmen “to be hard and keep the lists small so that the really needy only get enough to keep body and soul together.” The results went beyond his expectations: some superior headmen cut the lists by half, others suggested to their subordinates that they would be rewarded if they reduced or stopped altogether food distribution.[46]

Even if other senior administrators were of a more competent and kinder type, the epidemic generally acted as a revelator of the inadequacy of the old style and of the increasing scepticism among elder officers deprived of their absolute power by the Donoughmore system. In the younger generation generally prevailed a dynamism born of the belief that they were building the future of the country. D.B. Seneviratne’s diary offers a sharp contrast with that of Harrison Jones: he had a previous experience as assistant settlement officer, which gave him an intimate knowledge of and direct access to rural society, an ability to by-pass the vanishing authority of headmen and to discount their reports. In a way, his style which was symptomatic of an assertive State welfarism, was no less authoritarian than that of his elders: he organized along quasi-military principles a large relief work camp at Ridi Bendi Ela – the first of that size in Ceylon.

In such a political context, the nomination of a special commissionner for relief was a significant step on the part of government. H.R. Freeman who had a long experience in the dry zone thus expressed the duties of Newnham: ” He will need to be in great measure a dictator, generous, and to say yes yes rather than no no. He will find a great fear of audit and general orders and will need to dodge these if he hopes to overcome the food need and the sickness”. As soon as he was commissioned, Newnham noted in his diary with a sarcastic humour: “My new job is likely to be that of a whipping boy in chief”. His reports and diary are indeed the best guides to follow the gestation of a new policy and to get a critical and balanced assessment of the shortcomings of a century of colonial raj.[47]

Warding off famine was his first aim. Never before 1934 was rice distribution by the State organized on such a scale. In rural society, mutual aid was the usual engine for social security and the usual tool of influence of dominant family groups who could manipulate debt links to their advantage. In 1935, the State took over that function from the rural elite whose wealth had been drained off by the depression or by its inability to preserve its command over men in a context of population increase, diversified occupations, and mounting influence of Low Country immigrants. Rice distribution became a sensitive issue, closely watched by the elected members of the State Council, who were very often people from Colombo with little links with the local elite. They denounced the delays in setting up relief operations, the ‘stop and go’ strategy adopted by Newnham and the general concern to distinguish between needy and greedy which led him to stop too early wholesale distribution.[48]

Among the most significant aspects of food distribution stands the role played by the school network. From that period onwards, schools became places where children received not only intellectual but also bodily nourishment. Schooling was already much more developed in Ceylon than elsewhere in South Asia (a rate of 50 per cent at the primary level is generally assumed); teachers were respected members of the community and at the same time independent from the headmen system. The distribution of midday meals started in May 1935; it had spectacular results: one could find out at first sight whether a child attended school or not. But soon problems cropped up: some meals were inadequate; reciprocal charges between teachers and headmen became common; common eating was frowned upon by the most caste-conscious families; and relief money was always short.[49]

Providing employment was the next task. The opening of relief works was satisfying in terms of financial principles, but it was criticized by those who wanted to prevent the ‘coolyfication’ of the Kandyan peasantry, and by others who on the contrary considered that these works unfairly competed with estate employment.[50] These considerations led the authorities to keep the pay under the level of the estate workers wages, but the pressure of public opinion and the state of destitution of the villagers often led to relax these rules.

Minor relief works were started before the epidemic in drought-affected areas, but large scale operations were undertaken only after February 1935. In July, almost 80,000 people were on the rolls (they were not simultaneously employed): the State thus became for the first time the largest employer after the planters. The popularity of relief works astonished many observers who had predicted that the Sinhalese villagers would soon bolt off and prefer enduring hunger to accepting work discipline. The stark reality was that, in the words of Kegalla villagers in May 1935, ” if we dont work, we shall starve to death “. Moreover, most relief works were socially and psychologically acceptable just as casual work on plantations because they were fitted to the rythms of village life, they provided small sums every day or week, there was no enforced attendance, they were within walking distance of village homes. Workers could understand and control the finality of their activity: they built roads and canals for local use; byways which had been neglected for ages were being repaired and expanded (825 miles of new local roads built in a year, ten times more than usual), and that especially in areas where plantation expansion had often hemmed-in the villages.[51]

There was an enthusiastic response at the opening of the works: the people came with their tools, village proprietors gave strips of land for road building free of charge – an unusual move which was explained by the authorities by the enhanced value of roadside ground. But there were more compelling reasons to counter the peasant’s obsessive love for land litigation: a new sense of collective action for a common cause, which was lacking among non-resident owners who generally claimed compensation (some villagers clubbed together to pay it themselves). Most works locally employed less than 100 people, but there was one attempt at developing a large scale camp near Nikaweratiya, at a site where the Irrigation Department had been planning for years to irrigate about 4,000 acres by a derivation of the Deduru Oya (Ridi Bendi Ela). The camp set up by D.B. Seneviratne employed up to 1,650 men (1,300 residing in the camp), well paid, housed, fed and entertained in a typically European camp style of the 1930s. The idea was to check leakage, corruption, jobbing, trafficking, which were becoming rife in small scale operations: some traders publicly boasted that all the relief money would eventually find its way into their pockets. And the flow of relief money led to local inflation so that the Relief Commissionner had to pass a deal with the principal rice importer in Colombo (Adamalee) to keep the prices down.[52]

The dynamics of relief works survived their stoppage by government: for example they were continued in the Puttalam area at the initiative of a local Village Committee member who employed 200 people for road repairs, and in some localities they might have been perpetuated through shramadana. To counter the plans to close down relief works, some villagers began to defend their rights: demonstrations were held before government offices in Kurunegala and Nuwara Eliya districts (in the latter case, 1,500 people from Kotmale were present). At that stage it was no longer the distress resulting from the epidemic but rather from the depression which was at stake. Relief committees by the end of 1935 were all confronted with the same problem: the epidemic had laid bare the roots of rural poverty; public opinion was set in motion; policy makers could no longer ignore it; there were political problems ahead.[53]

In a lenghty report dated 25.03.1935, Newnham clearly formulated the issues and suggested answers which at that time appeared innovative, but are now generally accepted as the standard approach to encourage rural development. According to him, the State could neither be permanent employer nor food supplier, but it should tackle the roots of underdevelopment and fight on several fronts at the same time. Undernourishment, poor health conditions, stagnant technology, fatalistic state of mind were linked together in a ‘descending spiral’ (a concept close to Clifford Geertz ‘agricultural involution’ and Daniel Thorner ‘built-in depressor’). The fight should be coordinated and planned at the district level by bringing together the different government services which tended to act independently. Finally Newnham falled in line with the new thinking of the 1930’s which put village before estate as the leading factor for the economic development of the island.[54]

 

Epidemics and politics.

” It looks as though [the peasants] will not be content to starve unnoticed in future.”[55]

While the depression – an insidious phenomenon – had never been felt as an event by the peasantry (contrary to plantation owners and workers), the epidemic initiated a contagious consciousness in large sectors of the rural society of Sri Lanka. The movement was helped by the growing politicization linked to the introduction of universal franchise; it largely contributed to the demise of the class of ‘walauwa’ people who had hitherto been associated with the colonial system of administration. But it never resulted in the assertion of strong and independent peasant interest groups.[56]

The first reaction of people faced up against such a calamity was utter despondency, especially in areas where they were not familiar with malaria. Observers often met people who were so dejected that they refused to move to relief centres and preferred to die where they were. Some waited for a miracle, others prayed local deities such as Pattini, others organized pirith recitations by monks, but the available sources do not disclose any large scale movement of religiosity. More significant was the elaboration of myths to account for the event: some were grafted on odd news transmitted by the press or local gossip, others on traditional beliefs (the ban on beef consumption or the use of black umbrellas were said to have been broken), other on astrological computations; the interpretation attributing the epidemic to the return of Sri Wickrama’s ghost has already been mentioned.[57]

But political reactions went far beyond any other consideration after mid-December 1934. They were initiated by a motion laid before the State Council by A. Ratnayake, the member for Dumbara (6.12.1934), and seconded by E.A.P. Wijeratne, the member for Kegalla. The next day the press was full of details on the epidemic, and on the 8th, letters to the editors poured in. Just before Christmas, with the eye reports of journalists and social workers, there was a new wave of protest, which transformed itself into an anti-headmen movement.

In most of the recorded cases, the discontent was expressed with the assistance of outsiders and revolved around discrimination in the distribution of relief by headmen; in many cases, members of the Vahumpura and Batgama castes were the chief complainants. The most significant case is that of Talampitiya detailed in the appendix, but many similar incidents are reported in the diaries: when the member for Nuwara Eliya incited villagers against headmen, the bulk of the demonstrators were Batgama. In the Kegalla district, the people of Hewadiwela, Diwela, Atugoda and Dimbulgomuwa, all Batgama, were among the most assertive (in the latter case a demonstration was led by the local midwife); non-Goyigama villagers in the Ruanwella electorate complained loudly of the poor quality of relief rice, and were very receptive to the message of the Suriya Mal Society: when the LSSP was formed they would vote en masse for Dr N.M. Perera at the 1936 polls.

Such a readiness of these groups to demonstrate was not new, it was already noticed during the 1868 epidemic. But the socio-political context of the 1930s was quite different. They were given for the first time, with the vote, the feeling that their grievances could be seriously taken up; some families had become wealthy and had educated their children (such as N.H. Keerthiratne, who contested and lost in the Kegalla district); some openly claimed admission to the posts of superior headmen and police officers, from which they were traditionnally barred.[58]

The headmen system was not only contested on caste grounds; it had become unpopular among larger sections of the peasantry, possibly because with increased monetarization it had become more extortive, corrupt, arbitrary and servile; and the urban elite generally considered it to be adverse to its interests. The findings of different commissions found a welcome confirmation in Newnham’s reports: in the words of the editorialist of the Ceylon Daily News (16.03.1935): ” The latest report of the Relief Commissionner ought to convince the most stubborn sceptics (…) It is a severe indictment of the old system of government under which the Government Agents and Headmen were eulogized as the best friends and protectors of the Goiyas. The myth about patriarcal government will get a rude jolt from this painful disclosure.”

Officials as well as outsiders in the field during the epidemic were flooded with complaints against headmen, who usually pleaded ignorance for their inertia: such was the case in Rambukkana, where the Ratemahatmaya omitted for one month to report the outbreak, or in Hiriyala Hatpattuwa, where the Ratemahatmaya turned a blind eye to the suffering of entire villages and refused to visit the houses of some families who belonged to adverse coteries or depressed castes.

In other cases, minor headmen conveniently ‘forgot’ to inform certain co-villagers of the opening of relief works, or to tell them that no guarantee and no payment was required to obtain seed advances from government. A glaring example of such an attitude took place prior to the epidemic in Nikawagampaha, the remote northern corner of Hiriyala, where the villagers lived partly on irrigated paddy, partly on chenas which were always allowed free of charge. In preparation for a settlement which was planned for 1930 but was constantly postponed, the korala was to issue free chena permits, but he asked for fees, which the extremely poor villagers were unable to pay: a famine situation developed in 1934, and when a relief party visited the villages in December with a lorryload of foodstuffs, the survivors were reduced to eat boiled leaves and lotus bulbs.[59]

The behaviour of certain headmen was denounced well before 1934, usually by members of rival coteries who had their eyes on the post and never scrupled to use slander: many feuds ended before the Courts after affrays or even murders. What was new in the 1930s was that the rural representative institutions (Village Committees) were no longer under the exclusive control of the traditional dominant families: there were members of an emerging rural elite such as traders, small planters, petty civil servants and teachers, who were increasingly vocal. Clever Government Agent were able to make Headmen and Village Committees cooperate for relief operations. But most of them still favoured their Headmen and refused to associate Village Committees to relief work; they treated the opponents as “healthy rascals who menaced honest chiefs who refused to accede to their demands”, and in the reports meant for publication they were full of praise for their “unpaid headmen who kept the balance between heart and mind”. Unpaid was the crux of the matter: the cost of paying a rural police would have been prohibitive, and its dishonesty and inefficiency would possibly have been worse. But as Newnham wrote it in his diary (17.05.1935), “supervision of the activities of village headmen in such areas by the normal machinery of government is impossible in an emergency.”

Of course every headman was not inefficient and corrupt: some played a major role in the opening of temporary hospitals, others were present when the Relief Commissionner and the Assistant Agent of Nuwara Eliya were greeted in the Kotmale valley by an unusual and peaceful demonstration of about 1,500 people who asked for work and succeeded in persuading the authorities that their claim was just and sound.[60] In many cases headmen must have been convenient scapegoats for the shortcomings of the colonial administration as a whole.

 

The ‘discovery’ of the peasantry

“The distress has focussed public attention on the condition of the peasantry and it seems now to be more generally admitted that their normal condition in the past has been far below what was satisfactory. Presumably this was known before but it is difficult to point to any comprehensive and concerted effort to do anything about it.”(Newnham) [61]

“Believe me, we had not up to this moment realized the poverty of our people (..) In more than 50 per cent of the houses the belongings of the whole household are not worth ten rupees. That shows that they have been living a hand to mouth existence, and the fact had not been brought to our notice.”(E.A.P. Wijeratne) [62]

Members of the ruling elite, British as well as Ceylonese, tended to ignore the actual condition of the people until the epidemic brought it at their doors, with the exception of a few outstanding personalities such as Dr.S.A. Wickremasinghe. In many cases, their ‘discovery’ was dramatized, consciously or not, for reasons of expediency in the socio-political context of the 1930s. As for planters, they opened for the first time estate dispensaries to nearby villagers, and sometimes started their own relief works or the distribution of food (for example in the Ginigathena area, and at Golinda south of Kegalla). Their new attitude was linked with a realization that the planter’s raj was over, that they had to live with their time and bridge the gap with the villages to get access to local labour and maintain local influence (but resentment among Kandyan peasants about the loss of their land could not be easily erased).[63]

The ‘discovery’ of the peasantry by the sons and daughters of the Ceylonese elite originated in a more genuine concern for their people. For most of these young people still at Colombo high schools or freshly returned from universities abroad, this was indeed a revelation and a shock, which led many of them to opt for radical positions. The Suriya Mal Society which was started as a nationalist organization to help Ceylon veterans soon transformed itself into a well organized group of dedicated social workers. Many of them were among the founding members of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, and they gained during the epidemic a first hand knowledge of peasant life which gave them a lot of arguments to denounce the collusion of what they called the ‘feudal class’ with the colonial raj and the conservative sections of the Colombo bourgeoisie.[64]

On the other side, elite families who had obtained a share of power under the Donoughmore constitution were anxious to disclaim all responsibility and save the newborn parliamentary system. Such was the case with D.B. Jayatilaka who tended to explain the calamity by the law of karma, and with D.S. Senanayake, who kept a low profile during the epidemic until the projects of rural reconstruction which fitted well with his ideas were set in motion with his full support. But the deadliest attacks against the Donoughmore system came from London and not from the radical left: they were led by a section of the Conservative press which charged the Ceylonese ministers with inefficiency or worse. The exchange of despatches between the Governor and the Secretary of State shows that they were really anxious that the system itself could be imperilled.[65]

The long-term sequels of the epidemic are well known: malaria became public enemy number one, and as soon as the financial situation was better and the technical means were available, by the end of the Second World War, the authorities enforced the plan delineated by Newnham by combining the extensive use of DDT with a social policy aimed at raising the standard of living in the villages.

Appendix:  The Talampitiya case. [66]

Talampitiya was a very large village (nearly 3,000 inhabitants in 1934) located on the borders of the Kurunegala and Kegalla districts; its lands were among the largest and most fertile paddy tracts of the region. Most of the villagers belonged to the Batgama community. Their ancestors must have been settled on these rich lands by the kings of Kotte or Kandy, to serve as bonded labourers and soldiers. These villagers had the reputation of being as hot headed as their Vahumpura neighbours but they were considered by the authorities as more depressed, and during the colonial times they were targeted by a host of rival Christian missions: Anglicans of the Ceylon Missionary Society came first and were rather unsuccessful; then Salvation Army officers tried to moralize people known for their addiction to toddy and arrack and their propensity for cattle stealing; Ceylonese Catholic priests were the last to come on the scene and they were more successful as they had no links with the British; however most villagers remained Buddhists.

The odd situation of missionary rivalry, which split up the solidarity of the powers, led the people to put forward their claims in an unrestrained manner and they eventually found in the Catholic priest, Father Fernando, an efficient spokesman. An educated priest (he spoke fluent English) coming from the assertive Karava community of the Negombo district, he had been residing for the previous ten years in nearby Hewadiwela where he was very popular for his powers of healing (he treated his patients free of charge). One of his successors who took up the neighbouring Kudagama shrine rose to fame in the 1970s (see his fascinating story in R.L. Stirrat’s excellent Power and religiosity in a post-colonial setting, Cambridge, 1992). His strong character put him into conflict with headmen, who depicted him as an agitator of loose morals, and with Rev. Walmsley, the head of the Ceylon Missionary Society for the Kandyan regions, who literally execrated him.

Talampitiya was located at the epicentre of the epidemic: official and private donations soon flowed through the channel of the Ceylon Missionary Society and of the President of the Village Committee who resided close by. But in January the system was changed and the local headmen were put in charge; a misunderstanding ensued, which resulted in most villagers being deprived of relief for one full month, precisely when the epidemic was at its worst. The headman seems to have reduced the list of beneficiaries along caste considerations, tretaining only 1/10th of the families (his favourites) and  forcibly putting to work 150 villagers, following the orders of the Government Agent who had noted (diary 6.01.1935): “It is true that poverty is exceptionnally great there and sickness has been as bad as anywhere: but they are people who must be got to relief work early”.

The discontent was so strong that for once the Catholic priest, the Buddhist monk, the Salvation Army officer and even the Anglican catechist went to the Kurunegala kachcheri to plead for the villagers on February 4th. The Government Agent then asked for a report from the very headman who was responsible for that state of things. A few days later, when the headman started rice distribution, the villagers, at the instigation of Father Fernando, refused it outright and decided for a mass demonstration at Kurunegala. On February 16th, 200 half-starved peasants headed by the priest walked to the kachcheri where the Relief Committee was sitting, and asked for an interview with the Government Agent, who refused to listen to their claims and dismissed them forcefully. The next day he sent to Talampitiya his assistant, D.B. Seneviratne, who found that the villagers had sufficient grounds for complaining. Rice distribution had actually been erratic, and the dispensary, where they were supposed to be treated, was closed, the health officer in charge having just left the drugs in the building. Hovewer the Government Agent did not act resolutely on this report and tried to water down the reponsibility of his headmen. At this juncture, the priest wrote to the press to give his version of the incident, and his letter attracted critical rejoinders by the Government Agent and Reverend Walmsley. Ultimately, the case was mentioned at the State Council, where strangely and unfairly D.B. Seneviratne was chosen as scapegoat and called ‘brown bureaucrat’.



* This paper was presented at the Sri Lanka International Conference held at Kandy in August 1997; the organisers are thanked for authorising its publication here. The Director and the staff of the Sri Lanka National Archives, especially Mrs Muttuwatte have been helpful in making their records available. An ealier and more extended version of this study appeared in French in 1982: E. Meyer, ‘L’épidémie de malaria de 1934-1935 à Sri Lanka: fluctuations économiques et fluctuations climatiques.’  Cultures et Développement  , 1982 n° XIV (2-3) pp. 183-226 and (4) pp. 589-638.

[1] P. Newman, Malaria eradication and population growth, with special reference to Ceylon and British Guyana, Ann Arbor 1965; S.A.  Meegama,  The decline in mortality in Ceylon since the end of the 19th century, London, Ph D, 1968 ;  idem, ‘Malaria eradication and its effects on mortality levels’, Population Studies 21(3)1967.

[2] Ceylon Sessional Paper (hereafter: SP) 22 of 1935 (2 vols); SP 23 of 1935; SP 5 of 1936.

[3] Newnham diaries and papers are in Colonial Office Records, Kew (hereafter CO) series 54/925 and at Rhodes House, Oxford. Government Agent’s (GA) and Assistant Government Agent’s (AGA) diaries are at the Sri Lanka National Archives (SLNA), Colombo and Kandy branch (Kurunegala, Kegalla, Puttalam-Chilaw, Matale, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Ratnapura have been studied in detail). The Settlement Officers (SO) diaries are also full of information for that period; the Ceylon Hansard, the Ceylon Daily News, the Ceylon Independent and the Times of Ceylon have been gone into.  Some information can be gathered in the private papers of E.A.P. Wijeratne, M.S.C. for Kegalla (SLNA), and in the interviews of the Michael Roberts Oral History Project. I have collected myself some oral information between 1977 and 1983 from Dr N.M. Perera (Colombo), Mr N.H. Keerthiratne (Rambukkana)  and some villagers in the areas south of Kegalla. On the historiography of the disease and on the colonial, nationalist and peasant discourses on malaria in Sri Lanka, see the recent critical contributions of K. T. Silva, ‘Malaria eradication as a legacy of colonial discourse: the case of Sri Lanka’, Parassitologia 36,  1994, pp. 149-163, and idem, ‘ “Public Health” for whose benefit? Multiple discourses on Malaria in Sri Lanka’,  Medical Anthropology 17, 1997, pp. 195-214, the latter not being available to me when preparing this paper. The references to material used in the present paper were given in more detail (in French) in E. Meyer, op. cit. (1982)

[4] Administration Report (AR) North Central Province 1935, Newnham Report p. 7, Kurunegala diaries, october 1934; SLNA 38/196, circular of DMSS to GAs, 21 september 1934

[5] Kurunegala and Kegalla  Diaries, october, november and december 1934, Newnham and Briercliffe reports, passim.

[6] Idem and Ceylon Daily News, december 1934

[7] Diary of the Assistant settlement officer Navaratnam, 6.12.1934: ” An old man who was lying prostrate on a veranda got up with difficulty, approached us and said: – Sir, give me some medicine, I am very ill (…) A woman came out of a house and said: – We are eight here and all down, there is no one to get us medicine.” see also Gimson Report appended to Newnham report, Sir Edwin Wijeratne papers at the SLNA, and Ceylon Daily News, January 1935.

[8] Diaries Kegalla, Kurunegala, Ratnapura and Nuwara Eliya for 1935 and Newnham report.

[9] Administration Reports of the Registrar General, 1930 to 1936; diary Kegalla, 18.07.35

[10] Briercliffe, Gill and Newnham reports

[11] Administration Reports of the Controller of Labour and of the Registrar General, 1935

[12] Briercliffe Report, p 39-45; Ceylon, Ministry of Labour, Report on the Economic Survey of Villages n°10 (1940), Kurunegala district.

[13] The remarks of a State Councillor (A. Rajapakse, MP for Dumbara) are up to the point: ” In the villages the practice when they have obtained some food is to give the lion’s share of it to the breadwinner. What is left is given to the children. And if there is something left, it is consumed by the mother” (Hansard 1935 p. 64). Compare with the callous and chilling comments of a GA (Kandy Administration Report 1936 p. B1): “The inapts have been wiped out” !

[14] Kegalla diary, december 1934 and january 1935; Newnham and Gimson reports, passim.

[15] see the controversial analysis of Janice Jiggins, Caste and family in the politics of the Sinhalese.  Cambridge, 1979.

[16] especially the following areas: Hiriyala south, Weudawili, Matale west, Tumpane, Yatinuwara, Bulatgama, Dolosbage, Kotmale, Kinigoda, Galboda, Paranakuru, and many parts of the Ratnapura district. Information compiled from the Kegalla, Kurunegala, Nuwara Eliya  and Ratnapura diaries

[17] Interview with the elders in the villages of Atugoda and Talewala, 10 miles south of Kegalla, in August 1979

[18] Sessional Paper 7 of 1927 (H. Carter, Report on malaria and anopheline mosquitos in Ceylon); W. Clemesha, ” Brief account of the natural history of malaria in Ceylon”,  Ceylon Journal of Science, D 3 (3), 1934

[19] R. Knox, A historical relation of island Ceylon, 1681, repr. Dehiwela 1958, p. 213; John Davy, An account of the interior of Ceylon and its inhabitants, 1821, repr. Dehiwela 1969, pp 57 and 266.

[20] Atherton report for the district of Kaigalle, 1854 (SLNA 10/177)

[21] CO 54/436, OAG Hudgson to Secretary of State, 10.08.1868, enclosure 4. See also Administration reports 1868 for Kegalla, Colombo and Ratnapura.

[22] Times of Ceylon, end of 1874; CO54/496, 4.02.1875

[23] Administration Report and diary Kegalla, 1885

[24] Administration Reports and diary Kegalla, 1892 to 1894; E. Meyer, ” From Landgrabbing to Landhunger: High Land Appropriation in the Plantation Areas of Sri Lanka during the British Period.”  Modern Asian Studies  26, 2, (1992) pp. 321-361. idem: ” Forests, chena  cultivation, plantations and the colonial State in Sri Lanka (ca.1840-1940).” in Richard Grove and Satpal Sangwan (eds.) Nature and the Orient, Essays on the environmental history of South and South East Asia. Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1998.

[25] SLNA 38/196, Holloway to Tyrrell, 17.01.1926

[26] On these 20th century outbreaks, see Briercliffe and Gill reports; in 1931, “relief measures became necessary where whole families were affected and the lack of ready money in the villages made the assistance which in normal circumstances is given by the neighbours difficult or impossible” (Administration Report Western Province 1931 p. A5)

[27] Gill report, passim; W. Clemesha, op. cit.; A. Meegama, op. cit.; Administration Report Controller of Labour, 1935; Newnham report § 16-19.

[28] “The population has increased under the Pax Britannica out of all proportion with the normal means of subsistence: the result in an unusual epidemic of that kind is an unavoidably heavy mortality” (Minute by Cowell on Newnham diary, 2.2.1935, CO54/926; see also CO54/926, despatch dated 31.01.1935)

[29] Administration report Kegalla 1934; Briercliffe report p. 27.

[30] Diary Kegalla August 1931, June 1932, February 1934; SLNA 25/20/19: Letter of E.A.P. Wijeratne to the AGA Kegalla, 31.01.1934; Hansard 1935, p. 19.

[31] Diary Ratnapura September 1934, July 1935, October 1935. Newnham diary September 1935.

[32] Briercliffe report p. 19;  Newnham diary February, March and July 1935; Administration Reports Nuwara Eliya 1925, 1934 and 1935; Uva, 1928.

[33] ” There is another reason for the spread of malaria. When people ill nourished as they have been for years owing to unemployment, that reason is that since 1929, hundreds of people from the wet zone, including especially Kegalla district, Kuriunegala district, Polgahawela, and many other coconut and rubber areas, have each year drifted to the malarial dry zone, especially Anuradhapura town, in the vain hope of employment. They have stayed there a day or two, a week or a month or two, and had to be sent back. The same thing has happened to them as to the stranded pilgrims and colonists from land settlement schemes and timber felling contracts in the NCP. These sick and demoralized people must have been a great source of propagation of malaria.” (H.R. Freeman in Times of Ceylon, 15.01.1935). See also the comments of Newnham on the plight of the Minneriya and Manampitiya colonists who were hit by the fall of paddy prices and came back to Kegalla and Matale (Newnham diary, 6.03.1935)

[34] on the history of transports in Sri Lanka, K.M. de Silva ed. History of Ceylon vol III, pp. 303-316; on migrations and malaria, C.L. Dunn, Malaria in Ceylon, an inquiry into its causes.  London 1936; R. Mansell Prothero, Migrants and malaria. London, 1965; on the celebrations in Kandy: Ceylon Daily News,  September and October 1934, Administration report Kandy, 1934.

[35] CO 54/924: private letter of Lord Ormsby Gore to Sir Cunliffe Lister, 18.12.1934

[36]  ibidem.

[37] Briercliffe report p. 71 appendix 2; Clemesha, op. cit.; notes by E.A.P. Wijeratne in SLNA 25/20/14

[38] Gill report p. 9, Newnham report p. 49, Wijeratne notes quoted above.

[39] on medical power see M. Foucault, The birth of the clinic: the archaeology of medical perception, New York, 1973; K.T. Silva op. cit. (1994 and 1997); and in the Indian colonial context, David Arnold, Colonizing the body,  Berkeley, 1993, which is by far the best work on the subject, but says little on malaria. Instructions of the DMSS are in his unpublished report of 10.1.35, CO54/925

[40] Diary Kegalla, January and February 1935; Newnham diary, January 1935; Newnham report p. 48

[41] Seneviratne diary, February 1935.

[42] Diary Kegalla, November 1934; Seneviratne diary, March 1935

[43] Diary Kegalla and Ceylon Daily News,  February 1935. On the use of ayurveda against malaria in dry zone Sri Lanka, see K.T. Silva, ” Ayurveda, malaria and the indigenous herbal tradition in Sri Lanka “,  Soc. Sci. Med. 33, 2 (1991)

[44] compare the remarks of the European GA at Kurunegala on the ayurvedic hospital (“In accordance to long standing custom, dying patients are removed to government hospital”) to those of his successor, an Indian “At least it served to revive hope when owing to repeated relapses faith in quinine treatment was at a very low ebb” (Diaries Kurunegala, March and April 1935)

[45] Memorandum on the use of Atebrin by the DMSS, 10.05.35 in CO54/925; Diaries Kurunegala, 27-28.02.1935; Diary Newnham, March 1935; Ceylon Daily News,  28.03.1935

[46] Kurunegala diary, October 1934 to February 1935; Administration Report Kurunegala, 1935; Times of Ceylon, 15.01.1935 (letter of E.W. Jayawardene); Ceylon Daily News, 17.01.1935

[47] Newnham diary, 16.01.1935; State Council Debates reproduced in Times of Ceylon, 15.01.1935.

[48] Kegalla diary, December 1934; Newnham diary, January and February 1935; Gimson report annexed to Newnham report, p. 45.

[49] Newnham diary, February, April and June 1935; Senaviratne diary, January and May 1935.

[50] Puttalam diary, May 1935.

[51] Newnham report, p. 35 and 50; see also E. Meyer, ” ‘Enclave’ plantations, ‘hemmed-in’ villages and dualistic representations in colonial Ceylon”. Journal of Peasant Studies  19 (3 & 4), 1992 p. 199-228. Republished in E.V. Daniel, H. Bernstein and T. Brass eds, Plantations, Proletarians and Peasants in Colonial Asia, London, Cass, Library of Peasant Studies n° 11, p. 199-228.

[52] Seneviratne diary, April-May 1935; Newnham diary, April-May 1935.

[53] As expressed by the Ratnapura Agent in his diary (9.09.1935): ” We were like doctors prescribing medicine for a patient they had never seen and each of whom had different ideas of the disease. There was one thing however all were agreed on: all these educated men no longer young did not want to see the educated man still very young as the guide, philosopher and friend of everyone.”

[54] CO54/925 Report to the Home Minister on rural reconstruction by H.E. Newnham, 25.03.1935; Newnham report, p. 43; cf C. Geertz, Agricultural involution,  Berkeley 1956; D. & A. Thorner, Land and labour in India,   London, 1962.

[55] Newnham diary, 6.03.1935

[56] Mick Moore, The State and Peasant Politics in Sri Lanka. Cambridge, 1985; E. Meyer, ” Rural Society and the Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka, 1880-1940.”  South Asia Research , 11,1 may 1991, pp. 40-59.

[57] Administration Report Registrar Cooperative Societies 1935, Kegalla diary, January 1935, Times of Ceylon & Ceylon Daily News,  January 1935

[58] Interviews of N.M. Perera, N.H. Keerthiratne, A.B.C. de Soysa by the author (1977-1978)

[59] Kegalla diary November 1934, Kurunegala diaries, December 1934 and January 1935, Seneviratne diaries, December 1934 to March 1935

[60] Newnham diary, and Diary Nuwara Eliya, February 1935. The Report of the Commission on the Headmen System, published as SP 27 of 1935, quotes several instances of oppression and corruption, and contributed to the general feeling that the system was ‘incorrigibl corrupt’ and definitely doomed.

[61] Newnham report p. 42 § 210.

[62] E.A.P. Wijeratne, speech before the District Planters Association of Kegalla, Ceylon Daily News, 22.02.1935

[63] Many details in Newnham diary; summary in Newnham report p. 28

[64] Kegalla diary, June 1935; Y. Amarasinghe, Trotskyism in Ceylon, Ph D London 1974; G. Lerski, The Origins of Trotskyism in Ceylon,  Stanford 1968.

[65] CO54/924 & 925; Ceylon Daily News,  15.01.1935.

[66] Kurunegala diaries of the GA (Harrison Jones), AGA (Bond), AAGA (Seneviratne), January to March 1935; Report of the GA published in Ceylon Daily News,  6.03.1935, letters to the Ceylon Daily News by Father Fernando, Rev. Walmsley and President of Village Committee, 26.02.1935 to 28.03.1935

Citation: Meyer E., 2013, The 1934-1935 Malaria Epidemic in Sri Lanka, in Sri Lanka & Diasporas (http://slkdiaspo.hypotheses.org/1251)

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1 réflexion sur « The 1934-1935 Malaria Epidemic in Sri Lanka, by Eric Meyer (Inalco, Paris, France) »

  1. I would like to follow up with Dr. Meyer about this subject, but cannot find a way to reach him. Could someone kindly provide an email address or other means of communication?

    Thank you.

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