“Islanded: Britain, Sri Lanka, and the Bounds of an Indian Ocean Colony” by Sujit Sivasundaram

384 pages | 33 halftones, 2 maps | 6 x 9 | © 2013

How did the British come to conquer South Asia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? Answers to this question usually start in northern India, neglecting the dramatic events that marked Britain’s contemporaneous subjugation of the island of Sri Lanka. In Islanded, Sujit Sivasundaram reconsiders the arrival of British rule in South Asia as a dynamic and unfinished process of territorialization and state building, revealing that the British colonial project was framed by the island’s traditions and maritime placement and built in part on the model they provided.

Using palm-leaf manuscripts from Sri Lanka to read the official colonial archive, Sivasundaram tells the story of two sets of islanders in combat and collaboration. He explores how the British organized the process of “islanding”: they aimed to create a separable unit of colonial governance and trade in keeping with conceptions of ethnology, culture, and geography. But rather than serving as a radical rupture, he reveals, islanding recycled traditions the British learned from Kandy, a kingdom in the Sri Lankan highlands whose customs—from strategies of war to views of nature—fascinated the British. Picking up a range of unusual themes, from migration, orientalism, and ethnography to botany, medicine, and education, Islanded is an engaging retelling of the advent of British rule.


Introduction: Paths through Mountains and Seas
1 Peoples
2 Trade
3 Scholars
4 Sites
5 Gardens
6 Land
7 Medicine
8 Publics
Conclusion: Convolutions of Space and Time

Review Quotes

C. A. Bayly, University of Cambridge
Islanded makes a critical contribution to our understanding of South Asian and Indian ocean history and provides a novel lens through which to review both the British taking of and departure from India. Using a wealth of colonial and indigenous documents, Sujit Sivasundaram’s intriguing argument is that during the first phase of their rule, the British undertook an unfinished process of severing or ‘partitioning’ Sri Lanka from the mainland, so emphasizing its Buddhist and Sinhala character.”

Nira Wickramasinghe, Leiden University
Islanded weaves an elegantly crafted, nuanced account of the recycling and appropriations of knowledges, as well as the movement of peoples, in Sri Lanka and beyond in the early nineteenth century. It firmly entrenches Sri Lankan historiography in the transnational moment, inserting it in wider circles while at the same time ‘partitioning’ it from the dominant Indian frame. The writing is engaging and lucid, a rare quality nowadays. A wonderful read that calls into question many assumptions on the nature of colonial domination.”

Gananath Obeyesekere, Princeton University
“Sujit Sivasundaram’s Islanded is one of the most important historical studies on Sri Lanka on the early colonial period. It deals with the British advent to Sri Lanka in the context of the country’s recent past and its strategic location in the Indian Ocean. It is not simply about governors and rulers and their doings but rather, as the Walrus said, about ‘shoes and ships and sealing-wax’—or, to put it differently, about peoples, places, traders, and such things in the island colony. Islanded is an imperative read for those of us interested in the colonial period in Sri Lanka and South Asia in general.”
The announcement of the book by the University of Chicago Press can be found here:


Sujit Sivasundaram is University Lecturer in World and Imperial History since 1500 and fellow of Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge. He is the author of Nature and the Godly Empire: Science and Evangelical Mission in the Pacific, 1795–1850.

source: AISLS

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