"Tamil Girls in a Boarding-School," Mary and Margaret W. Leitch,  Seven Years in Ceylon: Stories of Mission Life , New York: American Tract Society, 1890, 117.

"Tamil Girls in a Boarding-School," Mary and Margaret W. Leitch, Seven Years in Ceylon: Stories of Mission Life, New York: American Tract Society, 1890, 117.

"Jaffna," Robert Breckenridge, 1847. Source: Mount Holyoke Archives

Berlin Needlework Sampler, Jane S. Perviance, 1848. Source: Smithsonian Museum

Dissertation project: “Schooling the Master: Caste Supremacy and American Education in British Ceylon, 1796–1855”

Drawing on a diverse array of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century archival materials, from missionary and colonial accounts to hand-drawn maps and needlework samplers, my dissertation charts how colonial education in Ceylon facilitated the construction of a consequential and dominating identity category on the island: the Jaffna Tamil. The dissertation argues that an educational nexus bound members of Jaffna’s land-owning Veḷḷāḷar caste, European and American Protestant missionaries, and the British colonial administration in a set of mutually-supportive education-based relationships. Through an examination of pedagogical transformations, this dissertation uncovers the colonial conditions under which caste domination was facilitated with the unacknowledged support of American missionaries.

The dissertation is structured in two parts, the first charting the arrangement of Jaffna's educational nexus, the second discussing three articulations of the nexus's career. Through an examination of Śaiva poet and teacher Kūḻaṅkai Tampirāṉ's (1699?–1795) tiṇṇai paḷḷikkūṭam, or veranda school, chapter 1 introduces Jaffna's dominant Tamil education model at the turn of the nineteenth century and its interlinkages with Jaffna's Veḷḷāḷars. Chapter 2 follows Christian David (1771–1852), a Tamil catechist and colonial chaplain under the British, in his Jaffna-based educational experimentation to build upon the work of his German Pietist missionary instructors by creating a school designed to create governable Ceylonese subjects. Chapter 3 completes the dissertation's analysis of the foundation of Jaffna's educational nexus by focusing on the expansion of American Ceylon Mission schools from 1816, and the mission's settled decision to allow the operation of caste in the wake of the murder of one of the mission's earliest converts.

Chapter 4 argues that an American national method of geography pedagogy—cultivating nationalism through the drawing of maps—imported into Ceylon and Jaffna a method of teaching colonial modernity. Needlework samplers are, in chapter 5, the subject of negotiation over the appropriate gendered and domestic aesthetics of Protestant Christianity Jaffna. Finally, chapter 6 reviews the flood of printed material issued by the American Ceylon Mission press, and its implications for the development of a Veḷḷāḷar Christian reading public.

This project had its start under a Dean's Fellowship at Columbia University, and has also received generous financial assistance from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program and the American Institute of Sri Lankan Studies.

Project Keywords: Sri Lanka, Jaffna Peninsula, Tamil Social History, Christian Mission, Education, Caste, Gender, Nation, Pedagogy, Cartography, Needlework, Print

Projected Completion Date: May, 2020

A version of chapter 5 was published in 2018 as “Riotous Needlework: Gendered Pedagogy and a Negotiated Christian Aesthetic in the American Ceylon Mission” in Review of Development & Change Vol. XXIII, No. 2 (2018): 60–88.


Detail of Portrait of Philippus Baldaeus and Gerrit Mossopotam, Johan de la Rocquette, 1668, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

"Palampore" wallhanging. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2010.337

Source: "Oldenlandia umbellata," anonymous Indian painter in William Roxburgh, Plants of the Coast of Coromandel, London: W. Bulmer and Co., 1795, Plate 3.

Postdoctoral Research Project 1: The Aesthetics of Slavery: Labor, Textiles, and Caste along the Dravidian Littoral

Crimson textiles, imbued with the bright red color of blood and of life—and highly desirable to both South Asian and European aesthetic sensibilities—were impossible to produce with local ingredients in Europe in the seventeenth century. Between the 1660s and the 1850s, an unassuming plant from the coastal tracts encircling South India and Ceylon was one source of wealth in Europe and the cause of enslavement and resettlement of Tamils from India to Ceylon.

While Oldenlandia umbellata L. was the scientific moniker given the plant by Carl Linnaeus, to the South Asians digging and dying with the root, it was known simply as "dye root"—sāyavēr in Tamil and chirivēlu in Telugu, which was Anglicized to "chay root" or "chaya" in English. Sub-species of dye root were not of equal value: plants from the islands off Ceylon's northern and western coasts were known to be far more effective than roots from the nearby Indian coast. In an effort to meet foreign demand and expand their territory's potential for income generation, in the 1660s, the Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), or the United East India Company, built a Ceylon-based factory for the production of red and indigo wall-hangings and other dyed textiles now commonly called "chintz." The moment coincides with dramatic famines across South India, forcing at least tens of thousands into slavery to feed themselves. Dutch records show that at least some of those enslaved ended up picking dye root in Ceylon as property of the VOC, ownership which was then transferred to the British when they took the island between 1795 and '96. Emancipation from the British came in 1821. 

This project connects botany, art history, and the study of global slavery, to track the journey of a group of Tamil dye root diggers from their seventeenth century enslavement in India to early twentieth century lives in Ceylon. I draw on Dutch and British colonial records, secondary literature from a host of disciplines, interviews with the descendants of the dye-root diggers, as well a botanical mapping project, all to chart one aesthetic contour of global and South Asian slavery.

This project has received generous support from the Hart Fellowship for Tamil Studies.

Project Keywords: Tamil Social History, Slavery, Caste, Textiles, Botany, Indian Ocean, Migration, Dye, Oldenlandia umbellata L., Chintz

Source: Cambridge University Library

Source: Cambridge University Library

Postdoctoral Research Project 2: Analysis of C. F. Schwartz's Catechetical Instructions

Described by Robert E. Frykenberg as India's most important eighteenth-century missionary, the German Pietist Christian Friedrich Schwartz (1726-1796) became known not for his writing, but for his teaching, evangelizing, and diplomacy. Uncovered and digitized by the British Library's EAP971: Jaffna Protestant Digital Archive (info below), Schwartz's Catechetical Instructions is the only known copy of the 386-page manuscript collection of Tamil sermons and instructions to his Tamil catechists, likely compiled in the 1780s. The work offers unique insight into the translation of Pietist Christian knowledge into Tamil and the social worlds surrounding the Tamil catechists critical to the distribution of Protestant Christianity in South India.

The primary translation of Catechetical Instructions is being conducted by Bishop S. Jebanesan, while I am consulting on the translation as well as editing and annotating the work.

Project Keywords: C. F. Schwartz, South Asian Christianity, Danish-Halle Mission, Tranquebar, Pietism, Tamil Social History, Christian Doctrine, Education.

Completed Projects

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The team conducted twelve surveys of institutional and privately-held archives. The black liquid on the floor of this archive is motor oil, spread around the base of bookshelves as rudimentary protection from insects. Photo Credit: Henria Aton

The team conducted twelve surveys of institutional and privately-held archives. The black liquid on the floor of this archive is motor oil, spread around the base of bookshelves as rudimentary protection from insects. Photo Credit: Henria Aton

Distributing project information at Tellippalai church. Photo Credit: Henria Aton

Kirubalini Stephan (center) leading a digitization demonstration during our two-month training program for university students and Jaffna librarians. Photo Credit: Mark E. Balmforth

Kirubalini Stephan (center) leading a digitization demonstration during our two-month training program for university students and Jaffna librarians. Photo Credit: Mark E. Balmforth

Intern Luxsana Balakumaran (right) distributing project information and participating in a door-to-door materials search campaign near St. James church. Photo Credit: Mark E. Balmforth

Jaffna Protestant Digital Archive EAP835/971

Between 2016 and 2018, I managed the Jaffna Protestant Digital Archive, which surveyed and digitized more than 40,000 pages of rare manuscript and print materials from Sri Lanka's Jaffna Protestant community. All materials digitized under the project will be made available through the British Library's Endangered Archives Programme (in English), the Noolaham Digital Library (in Tamil and English), and our project website (in Tamil and English, described below).

The project began as a collaboration between myself, Columbia University Professor E. Valentine Daniel, and our archival partner the Noolaham Foundation, and was made possible through the generous financial support of Arcadia via the British Library's Endangered Archives Programme. The project grew into a six person Jaffna-based team, also led by co-Program Manager Henria Aton, and including Stephan Kanagalingam, Kirubalini Stephan, Sutharshini Ramakirushnan, and Mirusha Kumarakulasingham. 

In addition to the digitization program, EAP835/971 developed a Tamil/English digitization manual and a brochure with basic archival materials handling and preservation advice, developed in collaboration with Noolaham and Jaffna-based preservation expert Jeevaratnam Jeyatheesh. 

At its inception, the project was designed to conduct as rigorous a search possible for materials related to my dissertation research, described above. Due to the overwhelming demographic character of the relevant archives (largely English-language, male, and dominant-caste), our project explicitly sought surviving documentation of underrepresented voices, including materials in Tamil, written by women, and created by community members from non-dominant castes.

Kirubalini Stephan (center) and Henria Aton (right) and Mirusha Kumarakulasingham (far right) distributing project information at Manipay church. Photo Credit: Mark E. Balmforth

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Jaffna Protestant Digital Library

Developed in 2016 to make materials digitized under EAP835/971 accessible to the community, the Jaffna Protestant Digital Library has expanded to collect and exhibit digital primary sources and visual materials pertaining to Jaffna's Protestant history. Henria Aton, the website’s co-manager and archivist, and I are in the process of linking all 40,000-odd EAP835/971-digitized images to the website, searchable in both English and Tamil.

Through the generous support of the Arulampalam family and the Center for Research Libraries, the Jaffna Protestant Digital Library has also undertaken the digitization of two rare, Jaffna-based collections: the papers of Bishop Sabapathy Kulendran (1900-1992) and the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India's holdings of the Morning Star - Utayatārakai (1841-1983) newspaper. Digitization of the Kulendran papers was completed in August 2017, and Morning Star - Utayatārakai digitization will be completed in August 2018. These two collections combined amount to 14,000 images.