After weeks of organising and practise, on September 24th 2017 the last remaining Afro-Sri Lankan’s commemorated what they believe to be their 500 year anniversary of their presence on Sri Lanka, when they believe the first African slaves arrived, brought by the Portuguese and 200 years since the Abolition of Slavery on the island.
Such an event had never been organised on the island by the community and its cultural importance was vital for this rapidly shrinking group.
Held at their local Catholic church, almost one thousand local people gathered to watch as the small, separated pockets of Afro-Sri Lankans came together for the first time in decades and celebrated their culture, traditions and delicate existence.
Out of all communities of African diaspora that surround the Indian Ocean those of Sri Lanka are by far the smallest and most fragile, first brought by the Portuguese, the Dutch and eventually the British as slaves.
After the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed in the British Parliament in 1807, the process of putting an end to slavery began in British controlled countries. On being emancipated most Africans stayed, married and became part of Sri Lankan society. A century later, at the beginning of the 20th Century the Afro-Sri Lankan population was believed to be around 6000 strong. Today that number has dwindled to less than 500.
Inter-marriage with local Sri Lankan’s over generations has led to a dilution of their population as once they marry a Sinhalese they are no longer classed as Afro-Sri Lankans, or ‘kaffir’ as they are officially and locally known, a term that doesn’t carry the negative connotations in Sri Lanka as it does in South Africa. This dilution is something that some of the population have intentionally sort believing their children will have a better chance in life if they inter-marry due to continuing discrimination and prejudice associated with their African appearance. But as a result the population has gone past the point of recovery.
However, there are some certain people from the Afro-Sri Lankan community that takes extreme pride in their heritage and are trying to preserve their culture by forming the Ceylon African Society in 2012. It is likely this tiny population will disappear within the next generation but until it does they are making sure that their presence is known.This project was produced with a Reporting Fellowship from the South Asian Journalist Association (www.saja.org)