Rise of the Karava in the pre Plantation Economy

The rise of the Karava during a time of expanding commercial opportunities

From the time of the Portuguese/Dutch rule and the early decades of the British occupation, the restrictive policies of the colonial state imposed a serious check on the enterprise and accumulation. Within this confines of this rudimentary colonial economy and given the prominent position that some foreigners occupied in the trade of the country, there existed only a limited opportunity for capital accumulation by Sri Lankans. There were however a few areas where indigenous middlemen and traders were able to participate in some significant way in economic activities, namely the Indian, coastal and domestic trade, contracts to provide goods, services and transport to the government and the renting from the government of certain rights to collect taxes and tolls and to retail liquor.

In the Indian and coastal trade, some karava  families of the south and west coast were shipbuilders and owners involved in the trade. Roberts sites the two families of Hendrick Pieris and Telge David Peries who were engaged in trade with India. As inland travel was restricted due to non-existence of roads, trade was concentrated on the coastal areas and transport was done in ‘dhonies1’ owned and operated by the ship owning families. Transport by Cart was also to become a profitable venture, especially after the coffee plantations opened up in the central regions and roadways opened up to the central part of the country. An early pioneer in this trade was Jeronis Soysa, a karava  of Moratuwa who went on to become the foremost capitalist in the country. Artisans mainly of the karava caste from coastal areas, who specialized in carpentry and boat building, also had an opportunity of accumulating wealth by supplying their services to the governments.

The Farming of Rents however was the main source of wealth to many people. The term farming of rents is used to describe the process of the auctioning of the rights to collect certain taxes, tolls and rents by the government. This was advantageous to the government as they collected the rents up front, and its own officials were not involved in the risky process of extracting the taxes from the peasants. Although there was rents for paddy, fish other minor rents and the toll rents at roads and ferry crossings, it was the liquor rents that made the breakthrough in the rapid rise of certain families.

The arrack industry was based in the south and west coastal areas and the retailing was tightly controlled during the Dutch times and was in the hands of a few Dutch Burgher citizens. The British opened this to the local bidders. There is evidence that the distillers in general were small investors operating with limited capital and were not a prosperous group. The wholesale dealers fared better and later successfully ventured into the retail trade as renters, making large profits from the western and central province renting. Renters in the costal regions were mainly Singhalese from the karava  and goigama  castes, who were influential people in their localities. What is significant about the ownership of arrack rents in the years up to 1830 is that no one person or group dominated the rents. Very few also survived in to the new era. Families of the period before 1835, who continued to be prominent in renting in the new era, were those of Vidanalage De Mel, Talge Peiris, Weerahennedige Fernando, Mahamarakkalage Perera and Balappuwaduge Mendis. Those of the coastal regions dominated rents in the Kandyan regions, as the kandyans were reluctant to participate in new avenues of business. Being landowners they lacked mobility and skills necessary for commercial enterprise.

In the first decades of British rule, two broad categories of Sri Lankans, benefited from the opportunities that became available through trade, contracts and renting. They were the minor government officials (vidanes2) and the groups of artisans, contractors, distillers, ship owners and renters. In the 1830s, two important policy changes affected these people. The change from renting on a tavern basis to renting by administrative division, eliminated most of the weaker renters. The crucial shift occurred in 1832 when the commissioner of Revenue issued a circular banning government officials from becoming renters. It was this important prohibition that effectively eliminated the many goigama  headmen (vidanes) from renting. The advantage was reaped by the karava  renters, who swiftly moved and dominated the arrack rents for the following periods. The following year, the entire Kandyan region (province) went to a single renter of the karava caste Jeronis Soysa, who achieved remarkable success as a renter.

Karava  families, mainly from the southwestern coastal areas became prominent capitalists in the following periods. Some of these successful business clans were the Lindamulage de Silva family, Balappuwaduge Manakulasuriya Mendis family and Vidanalage de Mels all of Moratuwa, the Telge Peiris family of Panadura and the family of Warusahennedige Soysa, who went on to become the wealthiest of the Sri Lankan families of the 19th century.

Caste and Class:

It might be useful at this stage to refer to a question that has been raised by many scholars in recent times – the dominance of the karava  caste in new economic activities. According to Michael Roberts the community’s “involvement in the fishing industry…provided the Karavas with a training in market operations” and that a specific and traditional large net fishing operation known as madal3 (seine) fishing which necessitated an entrepreneur and a large group of fishermen, was more conducive to the evolution of “organisational forms needed for business concerns in the nineteenth century than most other occupations of the pre British period” (Roberts 1979:201 & 213 citing Evers 1964; and Roberts 1982: 251-9). Roberts also suggests that, since many karava  were carpenters and cart wrights, “the Karava artisanate” may have developed ideas of capital accumulation backed by achievemental motivations and workaday industry,” and that the karava advances were secured by their “dominating role… in the arrack industry from the early 19th century (if not earlier)” (Roberts 1979:202).

What the evidence shows, however, is that the karava were not the first in the field nor the dominating group in the early 19th century. Many castes and ethnic groups took advantage of the new economic opportunities and even ventured into the remoter parts of the island as speculators and renters. What was occurring was not the rise of the karava, but the early beginnings of the bourgeoisie class. However this was not to be in the post 1832 period where the karava  dominated the renting business.

Since distilleries were located mainly in the southwestern coastal belt, where the karava community were dominant, it is not surprising that members of this caste were active in the liquor trade as distillers, wholesales and renters. Although the goigama  minor government officials combined their official duties with renting activities in the period before 1832, karava  traders and renters seldom had similar outside commitments. While many other renters did not survive long in the arrack trade or took their investments elsewhere, those karava  renters (who were full-time traders) were able to outpace their goigama  rivals (who were part-time) and get an important head-start in the large-scale arrack trade that developed in the post 1832 period. 

Author’s Note: The excellent book by Kumari Jayawardena cited in the Bibliography, is the base for this write-up. This book explores the rise of a bourgeoisie class who acquired wealth during a time of capitalist development in the 19th and 20th century colonial periods. The De Fonseka families however failed to make use of these emerging economic opportunities. Most of the Mudaliyar class made use of their position to good use, investing in rentals, crown lands and other opportunities. The aristocratic De Fonsekas/D’andrados  initially looked down on the ‘New Rich’, but were to marry into these families in later years . 

(1) Dhonies – A Cargo vessel with one mast.  (2) Vidane – A Village Headman or official: maha (chief) vidane.  (3) Madal – A Large fishing net.


1 – ‘The Karava of Ceylon’  by M D Raghvan.
2 – ‘Nobodies to Somebodies – The Rise of the Colonial Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka’ by Kumari Jayawardena.