Tuesday, 21 July 2015 00:18

Sri Lanka National Archives: The Memory of a Nation

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There is a building located near the restored Colombo Racecourse Grandstand shopping mall. It overlooks the scenic Colombo Cricket Club grounds and is adjacent to the National Library and Document Services Board. It's not the prettiest of buildings, having a stark, basically triangular seven-storey central section. But it is what's inside that matters, and which makes this a most significant building on the Island, for it houses the Sri Lanka National Archives, a vital repository of information. It is, as the institution suggests, "The Memory of a Nation".

The establishment of the National Archives of France occurred in 1794, those of Egypt in 1828, and the Public Record Office in Britain in 1838. Sri Lanka's historic Kandyan Kingdom rivals such dates, for the British, the first to capture Kandy in 1815, discovered a Royal Archives maintained by a Maha Mohotti or Chief Secretary, who had started work during the 18th Century.

Portugal, the earliest European colonial power to encounter the Island in 1505, ruled only some maritime districts. Of interest is that the Portuguese maintained the indigenous system of record keeping. Unfortunately, before their territory was captured by the Dutch, they destroyed most of their records, among them the essential thombo, a land registry compiled to provide details of property ownership.

The Dutch continued the thombo tradition as they realised it had administrative usefulness. These registers remain of practical use, especially in court cases concerning land disputes, and also genealogical research. However the Dutch did not embrace the indigenous system entirely, for they introduced Western systematic archive keeping. Their meticulous archives-"seek particularly for surveys or plans to have them bound in cartridge paper, then to form indices and have them stitched up with them"-were housed at Galle from 1640, but moved to Colombo in 1656.

In 1796, the British seized the Island from the Dutch, who did not destroy their records. So in 1803 the post of 'Keeper of Dutch Records' was created. However, in 1808, by which time the records had been shifted 20 times during British rule, they were in bad condition. Furthermore, there was attrition. Sir Alexander Johnston, the Chief Justice of Ceylon (1807-1811), and founder of the Royal Asiatic Society, removed to Europe a selection of Dutch maps and documents. H.C.P. Bell, Archaeological Commissioner (1890-1912), cut out sections of documents relevant to his research.

In 1899, after a century of British rule, a claim on Crown land finally made the government aware of the importance of the thombo and other Dutch documents. An enthusiastic Ceylonese civil servant, R G Anthonisz, assisted by like-minded British colleagues, gathered together as many Dutch records as they could. Anthonisz, untrained but with an instinct for the task, managed to safeguard the Ceylon Dutch records, although the appropriate cataloguing and repairs were executed by a later generation of archivists.
When International Researchers And Writers Visit Sri Lanka The National Archives Are Invariably A Priority

By 1901, the British had their own accumulation of records so fledgling archives began in Colombo. In 1948, when Ceylon gained Independence, the archives became the Department of the Government Archivist, re-named the Department of National Archives in 1966. The present building was built between 1970 and 1976; subsequently the archives were painstakingly transferred there; and the National Archives began its service as the main repository, and a centre for the dissemination of information to the public, in 1986.

In contrast to the exterior, the large entrance hall is neo-classical. It's also breathtaking as it contains a visual archival display of great magnitude: on the ground floor there are displays from ancient maps to pioneering newspapers, dominated by a lofty board containing a montage of images. Higher up there are portraits of prime ministers and presidents, and behind the arches of a first floor gallery, paintings of colonial governors.

Researchers have their requests processed and then proceed to the Search Room, situated in a new wing opened in 2012. It's a far cry from the cramped, old Search Room I remember. Special attention has been paid to lighting and providing a pleasant, spacious working environment. Various aids are available: inventories, summary lists, and indices, which refer to records as well as newspapers. Laptops can be used with the permission of Dr Saroja Wettasinghe, Director of the National Archives.

In the Search Room can be found government records such as gazettes, the so-called Blue Book (census and statistics), civil lists, administration reports and Hansard (proceedings of Parliament) dating from the early to mid 19th Century. Other research material such as newspapers can be brought to the room.

A division of the National Archives is the Registration of Books and Newspapers. Five copies of all publications must be sent by printers to the National Archives, one of which is retained for legal purposes. The other four are distributed to the National Library and Documentation Centre, National Museum Library, and the libraries of the universities of Peradeniya and Ruhuna.

The Education Division is of prime importance as the National Archives cannot effectively serve as "the repository for preserving The Memory of a Nation" until there is better awareness regarding the importance of archiving. So five-day seminars and one-day lectures are held to inform mid-level and top-level administrators of the public sector on the requirements of the National Archives Act of 1973.

The Records Management, Conservation, and Preservation Division possesses six repositories. Deposits include the Dutch records from 1640 to 1796; the British records from 1796 to 1947; documents of government institutions from 1948, newspapers published since 1832; periodicals and books since 1885; historical, handwritten documents; private documents; and maps.

An audio visual section of this division includes films and videos of political material, tapes of folk songs from villages, and black-and-white photographs of murals in historic temples on the Island. There are microfilms of Portuguese and Dutch records, and Sinhala, Tamil and English newspapers published in Sri Lanka. The early Sinhala newspapers microfilmed, from 1864, are Lakminipahana and Lakrivikirana, while the early English newspapers are Colombo Journal (1832), Ceylon Daily News (1840), Ceylon Observer (1841), and The Times of Ceylon (1846).

Of relevance is the National Archives' "Times Collection", based on the archives of the Times of Ceylon Press from 1946-1985. It's a major photographic and paper cutting collection with 785,000 items that is being digitized to ensure preservation and accessibility.

The National Archives publishes manuscripts from the Dutch period. The English translations of the Memoir of Daniel Overbeek, the 26th Governor of Ceylon from 1742-43, and the Memoir of Librecht Hooreman, the Commander of Jaffna, 1748, are examples. These memoirs were not written for personal communication but to assist the officers' successors. Of academic interest is The Dutch and Sinhalese Dictionary, compiled between 1695 and 1697 by clergyman Simon Cat.

When international researchers and writers visit Sri Lanka, the National Archives are invariably a priority. During the past decade several acclaimed biographical authors have used the (old) Search Room. One, Victoria Glendinning, studied the Leonard Woolf Collection for her biography of Woolf, a Ceylon civil servant and author of The Village in the Jungle (1913); the overshadowed husband of doomed novelist Virginia Woolf. It is titled Leonard Woolf: A Life (2006) and in the acknowledgements Glendinning thanks "Dr Saroja Wettasinghe and staff of the National Archives of Sri Lanka".

There are curious treasures within these walls. I make my exit with one for the reader to savour. During the American Revolutionary War, a French fleet under Admiral Pierre André de Suffren and a British fleet commanded by Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes were involved in four indecisive maritime encounters in 1782, the last known as the Battle of Trincomalee. There were insubordinate captains among the French, and at one point when it appeared the battle was lost, the Admiral's ship's log was tossed into the sea, probably by Suffren, only for it to be picked up by an English officer.

See more at: http://serendib.btoptions.lk/
Words Richard Boyle Photographs Indika De Silva

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