The 1915 pogrom: Where were all the women?

Wednesday, 21 August 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


The 1915 anti-Muslim pogrom in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) is usually analysed through the lenses of ethnicity, religion, or class. Gender – and specifically women – appears to be absent in the narratives on this colonial-era conflict. Such absence is also evident in other narratives on colonial conflicts beyond Sri Lanka. 

For example, Antoinette Burton highlights the tendency of the colonial archives to favour male versions of events. She claims that Colonial Office representatives ‘generally did not interview African women and seldom reproduced their translated testimonies in correspondence, let alone reports’.1 Burton cites the ‘relative invisibility’ of local, indigenous women in contrast to white European women.2 These tendencies are reflected in the historiography on the 1915 anti-Muslim pogrom, which reflects a gendered interpretation of events.

Focusing on gender offers an alternative lens to analyse historical events; it can also challenge orthodox narratives. In what Philippa Levine describes as a ‘masculinist approach’, ‘women's femininity was seen to derive in large part from their lack of physical prowess, their delicacy, and nervousness’.3 

Women appear in the historiography on the 1915 anti-Muslim pogrom as victims, lacking agency, or reduced to a mere statistic. However, there is scope for greater understanding of the complex roles women often play within conflicts – at times, even as accomplices to and instigators of violence. This article examines previously unused archival material to explore the role of women in the 1915 anti-Muslim pogrom. 

As victims

In the historiography of the 1915 anti-Muslim pogrom, women are typically portrayed as ‘victims’. The oft-repeated statistic of four Moor women being raped during the pogrom is the only detail provided on the experience of women during the pogrom.4 We do not know who these women were, nor do we know who their attackers were. We are unlikely to discover whether they ever received justice. 

Yet by delving deeper into archival material, we can learn more about the experience of Moor women during the pogrom. For example, in a letter dated 19 June 1915 to Governor Robert Chalmers, Mohammed Macan Markar claimed that in Weyakada, ‘Moorish women and children had fled, to the jungle, where they had remained for three days helpless.’5 

It was not just Moor women who fled their homes in panic-stricken circumstances. Governor Anderson described the concerns of the European community during the pogrom – claiming that European women and children living in the Kegalle District had been evacuated to Colombo for their safety (Ceylon Sessional Papers, 1916). This evacuation was due to the growing fear among the British in particular that they would be targeted in what they (wrongly) perceived as a broader anti-colonial uprising, as opposed to a purely anti-Muslim attack.

The last group of female ‘victims’ that we can identify were the Sinhalese women, whose husbands were executed by representatives of the State’s military for their alleged participation in the pogrom. 

Armand de Souza, writing in 1919 as a contemporary observer, noted that when the houses of these men were searched, the officers were said to have physically harassed their wives, and even stolen jewellery and money.6 These women are not referred to in the existing historiography on 1915. However, there are significant details on their hardships in the colonial archives.

The testimonies of wives of 10 Sinhalese men who were extra-judicially executed are featured in the notes of evidence provided to a Shooting Inquiry Commission. These previously ignored testimonies provide an insight into these women’s experiences following the pogrom: the violent retribution they faced for their husbands’ alleged involvement in rioting, and their desperate economic situations thereafter. 

For example, in Polwattege Podihamy’s testimony she describes fleeing to the jungle (not dissimilar to the experience of certain Moor women) to escape persecution from State officials and accompanying Moormen. She claimed, ‘when we got to the jungle we were almost senseless, and we remained there three days without anything to eat. After three days we emerged from the jungle in a distance village.’ 

Noni Jayasinghe Hamine claimed that after her husband was shot, she had to start a tea boutique at which she would ‘bake hoppers from a measure of rice’. Lellopitiyage Sophihamy maintained a tea boutique too, but she still managed to ‘take only one meal a day’.

It is worth noting that the Commission raised the question of whether compensation should be paid by the colonial State to the widows of the 10 men, as they were undoubtedly ‘in want of pecuniary help’. However, this all-male Commission only called attention to such a need; they ultimately did not recommend financial assistance for these women.

As accomplices and instigators

Although women of many ethnicities were undoubtedly victims in the 1915 pogrom, some women played more active roles in the pogrom. In fact, some were accomplices to the rioting in 1915. 

De Souza notes the appearance of a number of women, sometimes accompanied by children, at the scene of attacks on Moorish boutiques in Colombo. Many stores were dynamited, but many were first emptied of their contents before being set on fire. While the stores blazed in the background, the women looted – collecting and carrying away goods that were strewn on the ground outside the boutiques.7 

The anti-Muslim violence spread from Kandy in the Central Province to four other provinces, within a matter of a week. Towns as far apart as 160 miles from the north of the Kurunegala district to Galle in the south were affected. The pogrom took place during a period that preceded the widespread use of the telephone. Thus word of mouth is likely to have contributed to this rapid spread of information.

The role of rumour in fuelling deadly, ethnic riots has been discussed by scholars such as Donald Horowitz and Stanley J. Tambiah. In the context of 1915, Michael Roberts claims the Moors were ‘cast as the dangerous ogre threatening specific and/or generalised targets’. According to A.P. Kannangara, the ‘commonest rumour was that the Moors…were advancing on the Sinhalese, intent on the destruction of Buddhist temples, and on murder and rape.’8 

The pervasiveness and persuasiveness of these rumours were confirmed in reports in newspapers during and after the pogrom, and by a number of witnesses. For example, Kannangara cites an advisor to a district government agent in Kandy, monks and officials at temples in Kandy, and a police magistrate in Gampola as having given evidence regarding a rumour ‘that the Muslims had attacked or were about to attack the Dalada Maligawa’. 

There is no concrete evidence on who instigated these rumours. Yet it is likely that both men and women contributed towards the generation and dissemination of these rumours. It is therefore possible to surmise that women may have played some role in the instigation of violence against Moors in 1915. 

We know that women did not actively engage in physical violence or rioting against the Moors. However, their likely role as instigators – as purveyors of rumours that fuelled the violence – ought not to be discounted. Such a narrative contests the orthodox narrative that women were only passive ‘victims’ during the pogrom. Michael Roberts, in an interview, speculated that both the ill-conceived prejudices and the legitimate fears of some women could have added to the furore and paranoia surrounding the pogrom. 

Rather than restricting women to a passive position as victims lacking agency, delving deeper into archival material reveals the more active roles women may have played during the pogrom. We can identify women either as secondary actors supporting the criminality of their male counterparts, or as potentially fuelling conflict and violence through rumour. 

Due to the gendered nature of the colonial archive, women’s voices have typically been excluded from the record. However, by reading against the grain, we are able to discover a valuable new dimension to the 1915 pogrom – one in which women are recognised for their multiple, and often complex roles as victims, accomplices and instigators.


1Antoinette Burton, ‘Archive Stories: Gender in the Making of Imperial and Colonial Histories’, in P. Levine (ed.), Gender and Empire, (2007: Oxford), p.287.

2 Ibid.

3 P. Levine (ed.), Gender and Empire, (2007: Oxford), p.5.

4Michael Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, (1994: Reading), p.117, A.P. Kannangara, ‘The Riots of 1915 in Sri Lanka: A Study in the Roots of Communal Violence’, Past & Present, 102, (Feb., 1984), p.158, Ameer Ali, ‘The 1915 racial riots in Ceylon (Sri Lanka): A reappraisal of its causes’, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 4:2 (1981), p.2.

5 ‘Correspondence relating to disturbances in Ceylon’, Cd. 8167, House of Commons Parliamentary Papers Online.

6 Armand de Souza, ‘Hundred Days’ in Ceylon under Martial Law 1915’ (1919: Colombo), p.44.

7 Ibid, p.25.

8 A.P. Kannangara, The Riots of 1915 in Sri Lanka: A Study in the Roots of Communal Violence, Past & Present, No. 102 (Feb., 1984), p.156.