Of Cannibals and Colonists: Historical Accounts of the “Untouchables” of Sri Lanka
AN Original
By Sachini Marasinghe

The Rodi community, widely regarded as the «untouchables» of Sri Lanka occupy the lowest rung in the caste hierarchy which, though not as rigidly adhered to as in India, is still an omnipresent force in Sri Lankan society. A group that have had to withstand centuries’ worth of discrimination and ostracism from mainstream communities whose very sight is considered an ill omen and whose very name translates to «dirt» or «filth» (derived from rodda in Sinhala i.e. «filth»), their origins are shrouded in mystery and there remain very few historical records on how they came to occupy such a menial position. Historical accounts are in and of themselves hegemonic in that, more often than not, they cater to the existing socio-cultural and socio-political norms. This is particularly true with regard to socially disadvantaged groups whose entry into the annals of history (or lack thereof) form a part of the hegemonic working of the state.

According to James C. Scott, “the job of peasants is, one might say, to stay out of the archives…What is true historically for peasants has been the case as well for most subordinate groups historically”. When these subordinate groups do make an appearance in history, they have been entered into the records in such a way that reinforces already existing prejudices and stereotypes surrounding them. This is obviously the case with regard to the Rodi community of Sri Lanka whose origins are detailed in two oft-cited historical records, both by colonizing Englishmen.

The English sailor Robert Knox whose An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, in the East-Indies details his experiences in Ceylon, has given following account of the origins of the Rodi community:

The Predecessors of these People, from whom they sprang, were Dodda Vaddahs, which signifies Hunters: to whom it did belong to catch and bring Venison for the King’s Table. But instead of Venison they brought Man’s flesh, unknown; which the King liking so well, commanded to bring him more of the same sort of Venison. The king’s Barbar chanced to know what flesh it was, and discovered it to him. At which the King was so inraged, that he accounted death too good for them; and to punish only those Persons that had so offended, not a sufficient recompence for so great an Affront and Injury as he had sustained by them. Forthwith therefore he established a Decree, that all both great and small, that were of that Rank or Tribe, should be expelled from dwelling among the Inhabitants of the Land, and not be admitted to use or enjoy the benefit of any means, or ways, or callings whatsoever, to provide themselves sustinence; but that they should beg from Generation to Generation, from Door to Door, thro the Kingdom; and to be looked upon and esteemed by all People to be so base and odious, as not possibly to be more.

Their association with cannibalism is brought up yet again in the account provided by British civil servant Hugh Nevill in The Taprobanian, Vol.II (1887) (quoted by Denham):

At Parakrama Bahu’s court the venison was provided by a certain Vaedda archer, who, during a scarcity of game, substituted the flesh of a boy he met in the jungle, and provided it as venison for the Royal Household. Navaratna Valli, the beautiful daughter of the King, discovered the deception, and fascinated by a sudden longing for human flesh ordered the hunter to bring this flesh daily. The Vaedda accordingly waylaid youths in the woods, and disposed of their flesh to the royal kitchen…The facts then came to light, and the king, stripping his daughter of her ornaments, and calling up a scavenger then sweeping out a neighbouring yard, gave her to him as wife, and drove her out to earn her living in her husband’s class.

The vilification of the Rodi community was facilitated by the constant references to their alleged ties to cannibalism, perpetuated through oral lore and entrenched in their written history through the accounts of Knox and Nevill. Cannibalism signifies a move away from what it means to be human altogether, an act outside of the pale of civilization that has been posited as justification for the marginalization and stigmatization of these people with little care for the veracity of these claims. Noteworthy is the fact that both Knox and Nevill were colonizers writing for a curious British audience. Their work constituted propaganda for the colonial project and such gruesomely awe-inspiring tales would have driven home the point that the local inhabitants were in dire need of “culture” and “civilization” à la the West. 

One is reminded of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), wherein colonialism and cannibalism converge most tellingly. After having been stranded on an uninhabited island for fifteen years, Crusoe comes upon a footprint on the sand which throws him into a fevered frenzy. His immediate conclusion is that it belongs to a cannibal, having heard rumours that the inhabitants of the Caribbean islands were cannibals. Crusoe nurtures an obsession with the idea of cannibalism and is haunted for days on end with thoughts of being attacked and “devoured” by these so-called cannibals and ramps up his fortifications. Later on, he apparently stumbles upon a cannibal feast in another part of the island with human remains scattered about and “[gives] God Thanks that had cast [his] first Lot in a Part of the World, where [he] was distinguish’d from such dreadful Creatures as these…”. He is resolute upon the fact that cannibals are out there, not stopping for a moment to come up with a rational explanation for these occurrences. Peter Hulme in the introduction of Cannibalism and the Colonial World claims that cannibalism is “a term within colonial discourse to describe the ferocious devouring of human flesh supposedly (emphasis mine) practised by some savages”. In other words, cannibalism is “merely a product of the European imagination…a calumny imposed by European colonisers to justify their outrages…”. Crusoe’s brushes with the alleged cannibals only serve to swell his egotism and launch him anew on the colonizing mission with the aim of bringing “civilization” to such “savages”.

Likewise, in the case of the Rodi community, their alleged history of cannibalism has been instrumentalized by locals and foreigners alike in order to justify the grossly inhumane treatment afforded them. Historical narratives are rarely innocuous and those that are associated with subaltern groups have often been fashioned in ways that facilitate their use as fodder for the ostracism meted out. A drastic shift in mind-set is essential for society to move beyond such baseless inequality and uncalled-for discrimination. 

Sachini Marasinghe is a writer, editor, and academic from Sri Lanka with research interests focusing on imperialism, colonialism, gender, and identity in the colonial/postcolonial landscape. She graduated with a BA in English (First Class Honours) from the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka.