The Gentiles: A History of Sri Lanka 1498-1833
Reviewed by for Reader Views (11/09)
There is nothing I enjoy more than reading a book that is described by the publisher and critics as “controversial” or “provocative.” “The Gentiles: A History of Sri Lanka 1498-1833,” a carefully researched and well-written book by Agnes Padmini Thambynayagam is such a book. As you may have guessed by her name, Ms. Thambynayagam was born in Sri Lanka and spent her growing up years there.
Sri Lanka, which was formerly called Ceylon, is a relatively small island with an area of approximately 25,000 square miles, located just south of India. These days its population of approximately twenty-million people consists of a rich melting pot mainly classified as Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, and Burghers. This population came about due to the occupation and settlement by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, and other Europeans between 1505 and 1832. In fact, Ms. Thambynayagam asserts that, “the consequence of such an evolution over three hundred years has resulted in not only much variation in appearance and skin colour, but in the language, religion and culture of those now living in Sri Lanka.” This assertion runs contrary of all norms of traditional teachings and beliefs on the subject which is why the book will be considered controversial by many.
At this point an explanation about the word “Gentile” in the book’s title may be in order; because I suspect I am not the only reader that associates that word only as a definition of a non-Jewish person. In the context of this book, the Gentiles were Christians who settled in India and Sri Lanka from countries surrounding the Mediterranean and Red Sea before the sixteenth century. From a sales and marketing point of view, it is unfortunate that the word is used prominently in the book’s title. Searching for the book on Amazon using variations of the word Gentile, for example, could present the reader with well over six-hundred titles (I stopped counting at 600) to sort through depending on the books positioning. I point that out because I want the book to succeed; so when you search for the book, by all means use the full title or the author’s last name.
“The Gentiles: A History of Sri Lanka 1498-1833” by Agnes Padmini Thambynayagam is not only an excellent read, but a first-rate piece of academic research as well. It is meticulously documented with footnotes and bibliographies; and contains a treasure trove of maps, drawings and photographs — many of the latter of friends and family of the author. Reading this book will take you on a fascinating journey through a charming and exotic country hitherto mostly unknown save for news coverage of a civil conflict that appears to now be resolved.