A review of the National Archives of Sri Lanka (Colombo, Sri Lanka).
Since 2009, I have used the archives of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) kept at the National Archives of Sri Lanka (SLNA). The VOC left behind over seven thousand volumes of Dutch documents in the late eighteenth century, after about hundred and fifty years of controlling Sri Lanka’s coastal areas. They span a wide range of administrative material and are invaluable for historians, as archives in the vernaculars of that period are considerably smaller.
Among these documents are the thombos or land registers, which contain socio-economic information on Sri Lanka’s eighteenth-century inhabitants and their property. Likened to the Domesday Book, the thombos may be unique in the world for the wealth of information they convey about a pre-1800 Asian society. They were primarily a basis for better taxation, and record personal details of shareholders and details of the property held. Family ties in relationship to property; the nature of property rights; partner choice; and mortality; migration;, marriage patterns; illegitimacy; and diasporas can be studied through them. In studying the Landraad, a district court set up by the Dutch that is the focus of my PhD research, a close look at the thombos was inevitable. I analysed the nature of property rights recorded in the thombos. Importantly, issues arising out of the registration process had to be dealt with by the Landraad. This analysis reveals a number of legal concepts regarding what gave men and women rights to land.
The inventories for the Dutch documents from 1640 to 1796 are M. W. Jurriaanse’s catalogue of the Dutch central government in Colombo, S. A. W. Mottau’s inventory of the Galle, Matara and Jaffna documents, and Diederick Kortlang’s inventory of loose papers. Apart from the Dutch material, which I’m most familiar with, the archives have a wide range of documents spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including those created under British rule on the island (until 1948) and documents generated in the post-independence era. Archival Holdings is a good starting point for an overview of this material, valuable for a wide range of subjects.
Location, Registration and Research
The SLNA is located at No. 7, Philip Gunawardena Mawatha (Reid Avenue), Colombo 7 and is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays. For those not familiar with Colombo, travelling to the archives can be a challenge, except if one takes the more expensive but reliable radio cabs, such as Kangaroo or GNTC. Fast-moving three-wheelers are a popular means of getting about in the city now that they’re almost all metered, but if you’re unfamiliar with the roads, you could be taken for a ride, literally. Further, bear in mind that roads around the archives are one-way. If you get on bus numbers 138 or 120 from the Pettah, ask to get down at the Cinnamon Gardens Police Station, across from the archives. Three-wheelers should be directed to the same location.
When you enter the building from the main door, which is in front of a large lawn, you will need to produce your passport or another form of identification at the reception, before being directed to the Public Relations Office (PRO). A letter from your institution would help at this point, but was not essential at the time of writing. You will be given a form to fill, and once you have obtained a slip with a unique number, you can proceed to the reading room in the new wing of the archives. At the entrance to this wing you will have to sign-in with the security guard, after which you will be sent on to the reading room, further inside.
The reading room and the facilities around it were opened to the public only in 2014; this is a vast improvement on the long narrow room (charming, in some ways, and known to many a researcher around the world) in the original building. The director must be praised for her dedication in developing comfortable facilities with smart new furniture and reliable air-conditioning (it can get cold though—so bring a jacket or shawl).
At the service desk of the reading room you can produce the slip from the PRO to the officer in charge of the reading room, who will ask you to sign yet another register (remember your unique number for future use). S/he will also give you a key to store your belongings in lockers located right outside the reading room door. Pencils, notebooks, laptops, and cell phones (not to be used for talking inside the reading room) are allowed; cameras, water, food and bags are not allowed. You may be required to obtain permission from the director for use of the laptop, and will be required to pay Rs 50 for the first hour of charging the laptop and Rs 20 thereafter if you’re a citizen, but higher rates if not. Wi-Fi is not available.
It’s best to have done as much background reading as possible and know what you’re looking for, but you can also obtain help from the reading room officer in locating your material. The staff is generally helpful—but your own specialised knowledge will go a long way. Inventories are not available in electronic form in the reading room and a researcher often needs to go through hundreds of index cards (erratic in their content) of a particular record group. The staff will help you request archival documents, for which a hand-written form must be submitted for each volume of a record group.
These days, documents usually arrive in approximately half-an-hour, although this is not a rule; occasional delays are likely. That time can easily be used to go through inventories or the volumes of printed material in open stacks in the reading room. A good rule of thumb is to order your next lot before you finish with the documents you already have. Six archival documents per day (usually in two batches of three) from the repositories are allowed. If this number is exceeded charges apply (Rs 50 and Rs 100 per extra document for citizens and non-citizens respectively). However, this limit does not seem to apply to printed material available in the reading room, which includes Blue Books, Civil Lists, Administration Reports, Sessional Papers and the Hanzard (parliamentary reports). It is possible to reserve documents as well, but it is best to ask the staff.
Some material, especially old newspapers, are microfilmed; these can be examined in a separate room. This room has limited facilities and you cannot save any microfilmed documents you look at on microfilm on to your pen drive, nor print them. No material is available in digitised form, except for a limited thombo index available on the SLNA website. Some volumes may be unavailable if they’re being microfilmed—but if they had been sent for microfilming months ago, it is possible that they have been misplaced when returned to the relevant repository. If you have time, the staff may be able to locate the document for you.
Picture-taking is not allowed except under payment and supervision in a room outside the reading room. A flat charge of Rs 250, and a charge of Rs 10 per page of standard archival material, are levied (maps are more expensive). Scans of documents, including microfilms, can be obtained on CD or in black-and-white on paper. A flat charge of Rs 135 per CD and Rs 20 for each side of a scanned page applies, while each printed page is Rs 50. However, only a limited extent of each archival volume can be photographed or scanned. The researcher must mark the page ranges clearly with strips of paper provided in the reading room, and fill in a special copy request form that can be used for multiple volumes. Payment for this must be made at the Public Relations Office before 3 p.m. Till then, the material will not be sent to the scanning staff. If you’re on a tight schedule, speak with the staff about obtaining the scans as soon as possible. Otherwise, it may take between two to three weeks, depending on the amount of scans applied for. As of 2014, the scans have been of a fine quality, but beware that with the rotation of staff that occurs regularly at the archives the quality of the service is not guaranteed. Give yourself time to check the scans, sometimes against the original if the volume has unnumbered pages.
For more research material, consider also the National Library of Sri Lanka, which is adjacent to the archives, and the Colombo Museum Library, within walking distance. The National Archives also has a smaller branch in Kandy in the hill country, which has other documents of the British administration. Further details of this can be obtained from the Colombo headquarters.
For your lunch break, there is a subsidised cafeteria that serves the archives, overlooking a pond and racecourse grounds from yesteryear, now used as a rugby field (Rs 100 for a fish rice and curry). Similar fare is available at the cafeteria of the National Library next door. More upmarket options are available in the Colombo Racecourse complex next door (Ceylon Tea Moments has your local rice and curry, the Dutch lamprais and great tea, but insist on not serving coffee) or the Arcade food court located in a recently-renovated colonial building that once housed an asylum. The much smaller Avirate Café across the road from HSBC provides coffee, tea, juice and a quick bite. The Independence Square just down the road is a great place to relax.
Accommodation options can be best seen in the Lonely Planet or booking websites that show you the distance to the archives. If you’re within walking distance, you’ll have a fairly pleasant walk to and from the archives.
Institute of History
Image: Inside the Department of National Archives, Sri Lanka. Photograph: Johannes Odé.
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