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Britain, Sri Lanka, and the Bounds of an Indian Ocean Colony


Britain, Sri Lanka, and the Bounds of an Indian Ocean Colony

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.

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

Asian Studies: South Asia

History: Asian History

History of Science

Religion: South and East Asian Religions


“Sivasundaram’s elegantly crafted and nuanced account of the early phase of British rule in Sri Lanka offers a new approach to this period. Rather than following the conventional narrative about transition, he shows us how transition is shaped by past practices and constrained by context. . . . Islanded provides an important contribution not only to South Asian studies, but also to Indian Ocean and colonial history. It is accessible and engaging and deserves a wide readership.” 

South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies

Islanded, with its welcome range, . . . will be an important resource for scholars of the early years of British colonialism in Ceylon.”

Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society

“[A] fascinating examination of the relationship of kingdom of Kandy with the British colonial process. . . . [P]rovides rich material not just for historians of Sri Lanka, but for comparison on the manifestations of colonialism from a variety of viewpoints.”


Islanded offers a rich and complex account of the process of imperial regime formation in Sri Lanka. It stands in the vanguard of a new wave of scholarship which rejects the false dichotomies of rupture and continuity national and global. Instead, it offers a specific account of what happened in the early colonial life of the place we now call Sri Lanka. For that reason, it deserves to be read, and read widely.”

Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History

“An extraordinary book. . . . It is at once a fine exposition of how connected histories can be written, a fascinating illustration of the making of space—social and territorial—and an innovative interpretation of British rule in Sri Lanka. . . . Undoubtedly one of the most important books to come out on connected histories of empire and colony in the Indian Ocean.”

Indian Historical Review

“A seminal work. It is an original interpretation of historical fact, backed by detailed evidence and perceptive insights. It also questions received wisdom, entrenched narratives and the way we think about our country and ourselves. . . . [This] book is a real delight to read.”

Radhika Coomaraswamy | Daily News (Sri Lanka)

“Beyond its critical import to broader histories of colonialism and the Indian Ocean, this absorbing book challenges boundaries conventional to South Asian history. . . . Impresses in its empirical and conceptual range and depth.”

Indian Economic and Social History Review

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.”

C. A. Bayly, University of Cambridge

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.”

Nira Wickramasinghe, Leiden 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.”

Gananath Obeyesekere, Princeton University

Table of Contents

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

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