From sovereignty to modernity: revisiting the Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms–transforming the Buddhist and colonial imaginary in nineteenth-century Ceylon

Niranjan Casinader, Roshan De Silva Wijeyaratne, Lee Godden

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    The Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms (1831) have been characterised by David Scott (1995) as marking the transformation of colonial Sri Lanka from one kind of political rationality–that of mercantile sovereignty–to another–that of colonial governmentality. Whilst consonant with the view that the Commission marked a moment when the colonial administration moved away from a strategic reliance on Asokan or Buddhist forms of authority in the earliest phase of British rule, we argue that there is a more nuanced genealogy to this transition. The Reforms, while directed to the administration, judicial and political institutions of the colony, also contemplated extensive commercial restructuring that inculcated a self- improvement mode into ‘everyday life’. Drawing on colonial archives, we show how elements of a logic of governmentality, such as educational, land, and fiscal reform, were utilised at different times by the colonial administration to commence the modernisation of the colony well before 1832. It is also evident that the transformation was partial, and at points strongly resisted by local Buddhist communities. Instead of marking a clear point of transformation, the Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms gave legibility and a national imprimatur to a process already in train, while providing further impetus to a socio-political rationality that had begun to shift decades prior. The secular logic of the colonial State, however, was later to unleash a movement of Sinhalese Buddhist reform and cultural re-valuation that generated, ‘a more modernised Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism to create expanding areas of social, cultural and religious life for the nationalist cause.’.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)34-64
    Number of pages31
    JournalComparative Legal History
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 2 Jan 2018


    • Asokan Persona
    • Buddhism and nationalism
    • colonial education
    • colonial governmentality
    • contract and labour
    • judicial reform
    • land tenure

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