Effeminate Cingalese in an Island of Women: Edward Sullivan Visits Ceylon.

In 1854, Edward Sullivan publishes a book based on his travels to the island of Ceylon titled The Bunglow and the Tent. It is, by all means, an interesting read for its densely Euro-centric obnoxious location of the island and its inhabitants; not to mention Sullivan’s superior, elitist and uncompromisingly orientalist preoccupations in threading his narrative. Sullivan’s perspective is more or less on par with a colonialist expatriate one may encounter in an E.M Forster novel — a regular Turton or a Burton — only that the present writer is more wholly characterized by his own pen and preoccupation, in his confident passing of judgment on an island colony annexed to the British Empire 39 years prior to his arrival.

Sullivan’s representation of Ceylon is done in essentially “feminizing” terms. The imperialist narrative of the West often located within its “oriental” counterpart elements of effeminacy, which were diametrically opposed to the European character which energized its “masculine” narratives of imposition and control. The island of Ceylon, for Sullivan, is a synthesis of deception, betrayal, lethargy, dubiousness, villainy and the like: negative binaries of sorts which, in a Saidian reading of the Occidental construct of the “Orient”, are highlighted as significations of the Western imperial project.

Landing in Ceylon, cautions Sullivan, is an ordeal of its own: an ordeal which is followed by sights of the following nature:

“On landing…you are beset by a nondescript and anomalous crowd, attired in scanty petticoats, reaching to the ankles, parasols in their hands, and their long hair drawn off the forehead, and turned up behind with a high tortoise shell comb” (Sullivan, 18).

41iZZwBHzuL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Says Sullivan, that the “peculiarities in dress, together with their full busts and effeminate features and the waddling gait caused by the restrains of the petticoats impress the traveller with the idea that he has landed among a nation of women” (18). The use of the word “petticoat” instead of “sarong” is an intriguing usage, because as such, Sullivan — as authorizer — is centrally engaged in transmitting his prejudice against the Ceylonese, in an ongoing construction process of a “female-like” population. It is by no means an innocuous usage, and has to be marked for the deliberation with which a prejudiced mind works.

When this first misconception of having landed on an island of females begins to cede, says Sullivan, a second thought emerges in the mind of the bewildered (European) traveller: “when assured of their masculine gender, the similarity amongst them all is so great that he immediately jumps to the conclusion that, on the other hand, there are no women at all…and it is not till he has had some days’ experience that he begins… to discriminate between the male and female portions of the community” (18-19). Hence, the dilemma of Sullivan and the Sullivan-like.

Sullivan’s meditation on effeminacy is extended in his location of the Sinhalese community, which is presented as follows: “the Cingalese are without exception the most unnaturally effeminate race in appearance that I have ever seen; and even after several months’ residence in the island one is continually confounded and disgusted by the appearance of creatures from the age of ten to fifteen, whom, but for the certain knowledge that they were men, one would certainly conclude to be women” (19; italics mine). The “disgust” the narrator feels for the “creatures” of this island — effeminate as they may be to the alien eyes and the Euro-centric eye balls — assumes a superior, imperialist high seat; from which Sullivan doesn’t waver for the rest of the journey.

A further devastating reference on Sullivan’s disgust of the native’s effeminacy: “I have always considered that the trade of the hair merchants in France, who attend fairs for the purpose of persuading the peasant girls to dispose of their locks for a few paltry livres is so unnatural and so cruel that, like the slave trade, it ought to be repressed… but if these said merchants could visit Ceylon and, either by persuasion or by force deprive these long-haired nondescripts of their top-knots, it would, on the other hand, be a benefit to society in general” (20-21).

The French — Sullivan’s European neighbour — is saved, then, at the expense of the lesser, meaner, primitive Ceylonese “creature”. The total disregard for any form of relativism in the assessment of cultural relevance makes Sullivan’s text a treatise of ethnocentric supremacy. At its very best, it mirrors the cultural undermining of the colonized terrain by a superior expansionist force such as what the English brought here in the 19th Century; while, at its worst, Sullivan’s is a testimony of contempt and ridicule a man who perceives his self and culture as “superior” would feel among perceived inferiors and imbeciles.

SRI LANKA. Old man with his hair in a knot or 'konde'.Sullivan, as stated at the outset, demonstrates a not too infrequent motif in colonial narratives of the “Orient”. But, what is more intriguing is how bestiality located in the Ceylonese leaves no space for redemption; nor is there any scope for salvation for any of the Sinhalese whose servitude and primitive function within an “over-powering” destiny is perceived and reinstated as a fixed certainty. They are essentially seen as politically, socially as well as morally condemned from generation to generation: a sub-human status that is injected, naturalized and is passed down the genes.

Sullivan dedicates his book to his mother, Lady Sullivan with “affection”. It is an interesting read — even a humorous read — if considered uncritically and read without a political perceptiveness; but, in other ways, too, its value is premium, as the text renders us a “colonial gaze” as channeled through an uncontrived, unabashedly sincere (therefore “politically incorrect” and “testimonial”) narrative of an alien Englishman on Ceylonese soil. I understand that Sullivan’s writing style is a neat amalgam of satire, humour and ridicule, but his uncompromising maneuver as an “all mighty” civilized European and the self assurance he derives from (his knowledge of) that fact far neutralizes the desired impact of his intended humour.     .


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