Book Review: The Gentiles, A History of Sri Lanka 1498-1833

The Gentiles, A History of Sri Lanka 1498-1833
Author: Agnes P. Thambynayagam
 
Mr. Andrey Bilko
“ This is a very curious book about the history of Sri Lanka, which was ruled by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British for over four hundred years. One of the main points of the book is to look at influences of western culture on the Sri Lankan people. Even though, it is obvious that influences of colonizers are vast, there are not many systematic studies that address this issue. The author looks at pertinent historical archives and aims to interpret them in order to answer questions about Sri Lanka and its people. Most of the time, the author uses lesser-known sources of history, which were not used in previous studies. And of course, with interpretations and more obscure sources comes controversy, since some speculations and assumptions have to be made, which may not be appealing to everyone.
 
The subject is very personal to the author, since she was born and grew up in Sri Lanka. Most of the research for the book was done, while at the University of Oxford. The book is well-written, easy to follow, and full of beautiful color images, which include maps, drawings, and photographs. Covering about 350 years of history, starting with Vasco da Gama in 1498 and finishing with British in 1800’s, the author structures the book really well in focussing on the effects of the “gentiles” (who are Portuguese, Dutch, and British) on the development of social institutions, transformation of religious practices, evolution of language, and establishment of educational system. The text is an excellent piece of research (with extensive bibliography), which is not boring to read and can be appreciated by a wide audience of readers with some interest in learning more about colonization and its effects on an island Sri Lanka. Looking at current American foreign policies and U.S. government’s attempt to change and influence lives of people in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, it is critical to learn more about past experiences with imperialism and spread of western culture.” (24 April 2010)
Mr. Andrey Bilko for RebeccaReads, Austin, Texas, USA
 
Midwest Books
“Sri Lanka has a truly unique history. “The Gentiles: A History of Sri Lanka: 1498-1833” covers the history of the island from their first contact with Europeans in the fifteenth century and their unique relationship with the Portuguese, Dutch, and British through the years. With plenty of maps, drawings and photographs, “The Gentiles” is a fine addition to any history collection focusing on Southeast Asia”. (8 December 2009)
Midwest Book Review, Oregon, WI, USA.
 
Mr. Ron Standerfer
“ 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 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.”(16 November 2009)
Mr, Ron Standerfer, Retired Air force Colonel and the author of ‘ The Eagle’s Last Flight’ Reviewed for Reader Views, Austin, Texas.
 
Rev, Dr. Vito Perniola
“ The peace of Christ, Thank you for the book, the fruit of so much labour and … so   many years. Are you still going on your work of research? It looks as if you have reproduced all the maps of Sri Lanka that have been published. I counted 23 maps! By the way, what do you mean by the word Gentiles?” (21 Nov 2009)
Rev. Dr. Perniola, SJ (96 yrs old): Former Rector of St Aloysius College, Galle and Professor of Pali at Aquinas University College, Colombo; Author of the books (20 volumes), ‘The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka’.
 
Professor Alison Richard
“ We were happy to receive your book, Agnes, which we have been reading with interest and appreciation. Now we await yours, Michael, though whether we’ll be able to understand it as well is another matter! This has been a particularly busy year, celebrating the University’s 800th anniversary. It will turn 801 years old in a few days!” (29 December 2009)
Prof. Alison Richard: The Vice-Chancellor, Cambridge, UK
 
Dr. David Washbrook
“ Dear Agnes, Very many thanks for the book, which I have just received since returning to Oxford. I was in India in December on a research trip. It is a great achievement and you should be very proud.” (29 January 2010)
Dr. David Washbrook: Professor of South Asian Studies at Trinity College, Cambridge and Supervisor to the Author, Agnes Thambynayagam, at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, UK, from 2001-2007.
 
President Neil A. Salonen
“According to the reviews, it is a well-written book and it is evident you did a splendid job in conducting your research and documenting your findings. Congratulations!
Please know we at the University of Bridgeport are very proud of you and we wish you continued success in all your future endeavors.” (1 March 2010)
Mr. Neil Albert Salonen: President, University of Bridgeport, Connecticut, USA.
 
Professor S. Ratnajeevan Hoole
“ I am enjoying your book. The photos alone make it a worthy addition to my archival collection (that is books I keep forever).” (July7, 2010)
Prof. Hoole: Former Vice Chancellor, University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka

Professor Bernard Bate
"Thanks very much for letting me know about your book. It looks fascinating. I’ll be sure to get a copy. Congratulations and all the very best.” (June 30, 2010)
Prof. Bernard Bate of Yale is the Author of ‘Tamil Oratory and the Dravidian Aesthetic’.

Professor Richard Delacy
 
“ I will take a look at your book with great interest. I actually lived in Sri Lanka once, so its history is a subject close to my heart” (July 11, 2010)
Prof. Richard S. Delacy of Harvard is the Author of several books on Hindi and Urdu
 
Professor Walter Anderson
 
“I look forward to reading this study and thanks for sending it to me. It is a fascinating and important topic.” (July 23, 2010)
Prof Walter Anderson, Acting Director, South Asia Studies, Johns Hopkins University, USA.
 
Professor Francis X. Clooney
 
“Agnes, greetings, good to hear from you – and congratulations on your book! I am sure it is a great feeling to see it in print, and to receive such positive comments. I am at Harvard, I think you know, and keeping busy as Director of CSWR. I have not been back to Oxford since 2007.” (June 16,2010)
Prof. Francis X Clooney, S.J., Director of the Centre for the study of World Religions, Harvard.
 
Dr. Mieke Beumer
“ Your book looks fine! The illustrations turned out very well. Friday and yesterday, I have been reading in it. What struck me most is the personal touch you gave it and the love for your parents and ancestors, and for the people of Sri Lanka in general.
A very special treat and surprise is the letter by Dr. Perniola that you reproduced on page viii. I didn’t know he is still living in Kandy. You must have made him very happy with your book.” (24 January 2010)
Dr, W, G, Mieke Beumer of University of Amsterdam: Co-Author, ‘ Illustrations and views of Dutch Ceylon 1602-1796’

Professor Francois Houtart
“Coming back from Latin America, I found the book and immediately I began to read it and to look at the pictures. I am very happy to have received it and to be able to read it. It reminds me so many things. Many thanks really.’ (20 February 2010)
Professor Francois Houtart: Professor Emeritus of Louvain University, Belgium
 
Dr. David Selbourne
“ I read your book on Sri Lanka’s ‘gentiles’ with interest. I think you did well to indicate that Sri Lanka’s population, cultures and institutions are an amalgam of influences; would that such obvious truth occupied the heads of those who command one of the most vicious (and racist) regimes in today’s world, a regime which has visited untold suffering on the Tamils, who – in almost every sense – are the brothers of the Sinhalese who torment them, as you show.” (27 March 2009)
Dr. David Selbourne: A British Political Philosopher, Social Commentator and Historian: Professor at Ruskin College, Oxford 1966-1986.
 
Dr. Evert Jongens
‘Yesterday, I received a copy of your very interesting book, ‘The Gentiles, A History of Sri Lanka 1498-1833’. Before receiving your book, we already announced it in our quarterly bulletin of February, but we intend to discuss it in more detail in our May bulletin.” (12 February 2010)
Dr. Evert Jongens: Director of the Stichting Nederland-Sri Lanka, formally worked for the Netherlands Universities Foundation for International Cooperation (NUFFIC). Dr. Jongens is the Founder of the Netherlands Alumni Association of Lanka (NAAL)
 
Professor Murugesu Sivapalan
“It was a pleasant surprise to receive your e-mail – I wonder how the news about a hydrologist came your way, a historian/anthropologist. The Sri Lankan Tamil community is quite highly connected!
Thanks for your email and congratulations. I appreciate it. In fact I did buy your book, after being alerted by amazon.com, and I believe I have completed reading it. Great book. The family history was quite amazing and illuminating.” (July 16, 2010)
Prof. Murugesu Sivapalan of University of Illinois, USA won the International Hydrology Prize for 2010
         
Ms. Giesele Gauthier
 
“I received ‘The Gentiles: A History of Sri Lanka 1498-1833’ yesterday and I’ve just about finished reading it already! It’s a real “page-turner”!
I was completely taken aback at the quality and beauty of your book. The text, brought to life with personal mementoes, is as pleasant to read as the photos, pictures and antique maps are to look at. Thanks to you. I’m learning plenty about your fascinating homeland. It would make a great companion book for students studying the Portuguese and Dutch regimes of Sri Lanka.

It would also be interesting to Portuguese and Dutch historians. Genealogists would be very interested in this background work.

My heartfelt congratulations on work well done!” (July 6, 2010)
Gisele Gauthier, a French Canadian, is a writer

Mrs Terry Wykowski
 
“ Your book is outstanding! What a wonderful contribution to the history of Sri Lanka, to the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British and to the Church! Mainly, it is a gift to a civilization and to the indigenous people. You did a splendid job of research digging for the truth around the globe and presenting a very clear argument, which transcends politics, religion and popular folklore. Well done! I hope you get all the recognition you deserve. I particularly like the way you invite discourse, acknowledge so many people who were with you on this journey and have made a potentially dry subject come to life. Your passion for truth and justice have led the way for you and you are modest about the many hurdles and challenges you overcame in writing this book.” (27 January 2010)
Mrs. Terry Wykowski: President, Houston Oxford Society, Texas, USA
 
Mrs. Nancy Brown
“ Your book is an important contribution to the history of Sri Lanka. Bill and I have both been studying the maps and photos that you included. He is very interested in history of Sri Lanka. And he has found the book to be very compelling. I plan to read it thoroughly this weekend. You can be rightfully proud of your creation.” (29 January 2010)
Mrs. Nancy Brown: Secretary, Houston Oxford Society, Texas, USA
 
Mr. M. C. Francis
“ I read through your book during the Christmas holidays. Your book brought in number of new interpretations, which were not touched by previous authors. For the first time I was able to think of the population statistics. If the population in 1821 was about 800,000, the population in circa 1400 would have been about 50,000 and very much less in the times mentioned in Mahavamsa.
Tamil community should be proud of you for bringing out a new focus on the history of Ceylon. You have included many maps and pictures. I think there are many more unpublished pictures, which can be brought out as an album. Tamils in various countries should search the archives and publish all related articles and pictures that are relevant to our history.” (7 January 2010)
Mr. M. C. Francis: Retired Zoology Teacher of Jaffna Hindu College and Author of several books including ‘General Science books’ for 6th, 7th & 8th grades in Northern Sri Lanka.

Dr. Eugene Joseph
“ When I received an email from Ferdi regarding the publication of a book I decided to order a copy, mostly out of curiosity. However, now having read the book I am really glad that I did get a copy since this book is one of the better researched and documented books on the history of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) during a given time period.
The book is extremely well researched and the list of reference provided by the author is phenomenal. The author has taken great pains to visit libraries and museums in different countries to gather original information in foreign languages and have that information translated into English by reliable translators. The information that was presented for example, ancient maps of Ceylon, pictures of various dignitaries and photographs of common friends was a delight to see and was also of excellent quality. While some of the ideas suggested by author may appear controversial, it motivates the reader to “dig” deeper and read more in the specific area. This is definitely a book worth having in all Sri Lankan homes purely for its excellent reference value.” (6 February 2010)
Dr. Eugene Joseph: Research Professor, Institute of Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS) / Chemical Engineering, Virginia Tech, USA & an Old Boy of St. Patrick’s College, Jaffna, Sri Lanka.
 
Mr. Robert Saunders
“ I have finished reading your book! Excellent. Very well done.
You have carried out a lot of research on this as is evident all the way through. Am I right in thinking that a complete history in the manner you have carried it out has never been published before? You have certainly made some interesting discoveries, some of which contradict accepted history handed down. Strangely enough, I found chapter 4 particularly interesting because it gives an insight to standards elsewhere in 1498. We don’t really envisage there being civilised existences in East Africa at that time.
I was rather surprised at the sub-chapter on pagodas. I have to say that the description did not correspond with my understanding of Pagodas.
I must admit that I had never associated the cock at the top of a spire with religious meanings. I always took it to be part of a weather vane. So, I have done a little research. It seems that the cock emblem was formulated in Roman times to represent St. Peter’s downfall. The emblem means ‘be on your guard’ or ‘be alert’. Apparently early Christian Churches adopted this emblem.
The good thing about reading books like yours is that it stimulates further investigation. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your book.” (4 January 2010)
Mr. Robert Saunders: Retired Accountant of St. Ann’s College, Oxford and a Table Tennis Player, Abingdon, UK.

Mr. Noel Vethnayagam
“ I just finished reading your book. It was a pleasure reading it, though some of what you say might be construed as controversial. You have done extensive research and well documented.

Your sources of information give a lot of credibility to back your views. I found a photo of you with H.L. Seneviratne. He is a batch mate of mine (at Univ. of Peredeniya) and recently we got in touch by email. Sarath Amunugama was also in the University during my time but Junior. Gananath Obeyesekere was a well-known lecturer during 4 years in the University. I saw the review of your book where the writer says the word Gentiles is normally refers to people who are not Jews.” (29 November 2009)

Mr. Noel Vethanayagam: Former Regional Manager, Bank of Ceylon, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
 
Mr. Shan Nalliah
“Your book is great! It is very useful for History Students/ Teachers/Readers.
Keep up your Good Work!” (1 April 2010)
Mr. Shan Nalliah, writer, Author and Gandhiyist, Norway
 
Mrs. Lalitha Brodie
“ I finished reading your book last night – Congratulations on your extensive research and excellent writing – it is amazing and I don’t know how you managed to sift through so much to write your views precisely.” (1 April 2010)
Mrs. Lalitha Brodie, writer, Author and Broadcaster Tamil Radio, Canada
 
Rev., Dr. S. J. Emmanuel
 
Congratulations on your achievement! I’m happy to read so many well-known people appreciating your work. Your father Francis master will be proudly looking at your dedication (from heaven) to a noble cause of explaining to the world who these Tamils are. (26 March 2010)
Rev. Dr. S. J. Emmanuel: Former Vicar General, Jaffna Diocese and Former Director of St. Francis Xavier Seminary, Jaffna, Sri Lanka.
 
Rev, Dr. Anton Matthias
“I’m so happy that your book has come out great! Congratulations!
I’m sure you will be happy to have contributed your share for the cause of our people. Keep going and God be with you.” (October 25, 2009)
Rev. Anton Matthias, Professor of Religious studies, University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka; Author of “The Catholic Church in Jaffna”.
 
Rev. Sr. M. Sophie
“ This is to Congratulate with great joy and happiness in publishing the fruit of your labour. It is really a big effort and I am proud of you. I don’t know how can you manage to produce such a big research in spite of your other engagements”
(7 January 2010)
Rev. Sr. M. Sophie: Former Provincial Superior of Holy Family Convent, Jaffna

Mrs. Ann Mahes Ramalingam
"Congratulations for all your labour and effort to fulfil your ambition to sit and complete the book – Well done Agnes! Margaret teacher (English teacher at Jaffna HFC) should have been living to see her students’ work to write a book & publish it – Thank God. All will be proud of you.” (21 January 2010)
Mrs. Mahes Ramalingam: Retired Upper School Art & Craft Teacher of Jaffna Holy Family Convent, Northern Sri Lanka. Mrs. Ramalingham taught the Author in the 6th & 7th grades.

Miss Nirmala Louis
“I went through your book and it made me really proud! So many scholars have appreciated your production. It is to be applauded. As to me, since I’m no historian, it filled me with a personal admiration for you, as I kept remembering you as a student. I didn’t have to read it with a critical eye, as a historian! Congratulations dear Agnes! And Congratulations to your family who helped you emerge as a writer of repute!
I was surprised to find that you know Fr. Perniola so well. How wonderfully he corresponds at his age!
Agnes, I wish you & Michael all the good things in life. You share God’s bounty with everyone. That’s what we are all supposed to do. But few of us do. All the best.” (27 June 2010)

Miss Nirmala Louis: Retired Upper School English Teacher of Jaffna Holy Family Convent, Northern Sri Lanka. Miss Louis taught English to the Author in the 11tth and 12th grades (G.C.E. Ad. Level).
 
Dr. Maria R. Ariyaratnam
“Many Congratulations on your book published. It’s a great milestone, only a handful have achieved. Well done! I have read your book, not completed yet. It’s very well written and the illustrations are amazing. You have done a lot of hard work.” (23 December 2009)
Dr. Maria Rajini Ariyaratnam, Ex President, Jaffna Holy Family Convent, Alumni, UK.
 
Mrs. Francista Segarajasinghe Jeganathan
“ Congratulations Agnes! Familians are proud of you. Our Very Best Wishes on your future endeavours” (1 November 2009).
Mrs. Francista Segarajasinghe Jeganathan: Ex President, Jaffna Holy Family Convent Alumni, Canada.
 
Dr. Sybilla Kumar
“ Well done Agnes! Your book looks very good & a lot of hard work has gone into it” (29 December 2009)
Dr. Sybilla Kumar, Secretary, Jaffna Holy Family Convent Alumni, UK
 
Mrs. Ann Lourthunayagam
“Congratulations Agnes! I bought your book and read it. It is a wonderful book with sincere research work.” (27 March 2010)
Mrs. Anne Immaculate Ratnasingham Lourthunayagam, Old Girl, Jaffna Holy Family Convent and Author’s class mate at HFC school
 
Mr. Raja Manmathan
“There are two schools of thought. One is very appreciative of the hard work and the fantastic book bearing of fruitful facts. The other one is an extension of a family tree which brings out a lot of facts about our caste, race, religions and the people – Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims.” (26 January 2010)
Mr. Raja Manmathan: Civil Engineer, UK & an Old Boy of St. Patrick’s College, Jaffna, Sri Lanka.
 
Dr. Nanthakumar
“Congratulations Pathmini! I have glanced through your book but I have to read in detail. It is a historical document. You did a good job writing it.” (22 February 2010)
Dr. Nanthakumar: President, International Medical Health Organization, Texas, USA
 
Mr. Raymond Santiago
“ I got your book. I haven’t completed it yet but I am very much impressed and amazed at the amount of work you must have put in to complete this book. I am very proud of you. It is a pleasure to have known you and your family.” (6 March 2010)
Mr. Raymond Santiago, Old Boy, St. Patrick’s College, Jaffna, Sri Lanka.
 
Mr. Jeyarajah Asservatham
I read your book and it was very informative. History was my weakest subject at school. Still I enjoyed your book.. I have kept it in my sitting room so that when Sri Lnkan visitors come, they can have a look at it and order a copy if they are interested. May God Bless you all.
Mr. Jeyarajah Asservatham, an accountant, writer and Former SPC Math Teacher, is the son of Late Aseervatham Master of Aseervatham Press, Jaffna.
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