Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Moddeley Tambi – the Father of Vellalaism

The story of Moddeley Tambi of Jaffna deserves a place in Tamil history because he challenged the might of the Dutch who dared to diminish the power of the Vellalas – the entrenched political force of Jaffna that ruled Jaffna as second tier of governance beneath the colonial powers. He created quite a stir in his time by leading a revolt against the Dutch. Yet, he has been blacked out by Tamils exploring their history. He is not even a foot note in Tamil history. It is a name that is buried in the archives of the Dutch. He was a rebellious Vellala Cannecapul (a writer/clerk) attached to the Commander of Jaffnapatnam, Hendri Zwaardecroon.

He figures prominently in the memoirs of Zwaardecroon, who sacked him. All hell broke loose after that. Zwaardecroon had committed the big crime of sacking a Vellala Cannecapul and appointed another from the rival Madapally caste. Mark you, the Madapally’s held the same status as the Vellalas in the caste hierarchy. But, as usual, the Vellalas, considered themselves to be superior. The sacking of a Vellala Caannecapul was a threat to Vellala supremacy. And no one escapes the wrath of the Vellalas. The Vellalas mobilised their forces against Dutch. Moddeley Tamby rounded up the powerful Vellalas, and with some extra help from the Vanni, led the first Vellala revolt against the Dutch – all because a Vellala was sacked from Government service! The meaning of this revolt, however, runs deeper than the sacking of a Government servant.

History repeats

There is no doubt that Moddeley Tambi’s revolt shook the Dutch administration. What the Dutch did not know was that anyone daring to meddle with the jobs of Vellalas in Government service was asking for trouble. Even a perception that a Vellala job in Government is threatened is good enough to start a riot. Moddeley Tambi’s story contains practically all the elements that gathered later in the 20th century, on a massive scale and dragged Jaffna all the way to Nandikadal. It was a case of Vellala history repeating itself. It was the first instance of the Vellalas challenging the power of the Dutch colonial master to downgrade the caste status of the Vellalas.

The resistance put up by the Vellalas symbolises the entire political culture that ruled Jaffna. The Moddeley Tambi incident brought out for the first time the political contours that defined Jaffna. Into this historical episode is packed (1) the overwhelming power of the caste factor in Jaffna politics, (2) the Vellala drive to capture power at the centre, (3) the determination of the dominant Vellalas to retain their supremacy, (4) the obsession of the Vellalas to grab a disproportionate share of jobs in the administration, (5) the ambition of the Vellalas to acquire influence by maintaining their links to the profitable centres of power, (6) the manipulation of the outsiders to consolidate internal Vellala supremacy, and, (7) resorting to violence, if necessary, to achieve their goals. In short, the very first organised political move of the Vellala thirst to dominate Jaffna politics was demonstrated in this incident.

Sharp eye

The Vellala thrust to capture power and dominate the administration was worrisome to the Dutch. They knew that caste was at the root of the problem. They kept a sharp eye on it. Zwaardecroon’s report on Tambis riot is an accurate characterisation of Vellalaism that came rolling down to our time. He presents a clear view of the prevailing caste politics, particularly the power of the Vellalas and how well entrenched they were in the system, even during the time of the Dutch.

In his Memoirs Zwaardecroon says that the Vellalas had the virtual monopoly of the jobs in the Dutch administration. The tax collectors, Majoraals, (minor village officials), Cannecapuls, Arachchies and so on, came from the Vellala caste. For instance, Don Philip Sangerapulle, “from Cannengray, a native of evil repute”, had “obtained during the years 1689 and 1690 all the advantages he desired for his caste and for his followers.

This went so far as to the appointment of even schoolboys as Majoraals and Cayals from the time they left school.” The Vellala monopoly was not welcome by Zwaardecroon. He brought it to the notice of Governor Thomas van Rhee who authorised him “to make the necessary changes, that so many thousands of people should no longer suffer by the oppression of the Bellales, who are very proud and despise all other castes, and who had become so powerful that they were able not only to worry and harass the poor people, but also prevent them from submitting their complaints to the authorities.”

He adds that “it has always been a rule here not to restrict the appointment to these offices to the Bellales, but to employ the Madapallys and other castes as well, to serve as a counteracting influence; because this means the inhabitants were kept in peace and through the jealousy of the various castes the ruler was always in a position to know what was going on in the country.”


Zwaardecroon’s report on the riot of Moddeley Tamby is revealing. He says: “All these reasons induced Thomas van Rhee to give me leave to bring about the necessary changes which have not been introduced. I appointed the Collector of Waddemoraatje as my Cannecapul in place of Moddeley Tambi, whose place I filled with the new Collector of Madapally caste, while also a new Collector was appointed for Timmoraatsche in place of Don Juan Mandala Nayaga, whom the late Blom had discharged from office in one place. I have further transferred two Collectors in the large Province of Wallegamo, so as to gradually bring about the desired change in the interest of the company and that of the other castes; but I heard that this small change created so much disturbance and canvassing that I had to leave the matter alone.

The Bellales, seeing that they would be shut out from these profitable office and that they would lose influence they possessed so far, and being the largest in number and the wealthiest of the people, moved heaven and earth to put a stop to the carrying into effect of this plan so prejudicial to their interests. With this view they also joined the Wannias Don Philip Nellampane and Don Gaspar Illengenarene Mudliyar in their conspiracies, The latter two, also Bellales, well aware that they owe many elephants to the company, as stated at the beginning of this memoir, and known that their turn would also come, organised the riots in which the said Moddely Tambi was the principal instrument.They also probably understood that it was my intention to diminish the influence of the Bellala caste, and were thus induced to take its course to promote the welfare of their caste.”

In many respects Moddeley Tambi represents the Vellahla political culture that dominated the colonial and post-colonial landscape. Understanding Moddeley Tambi is the key to understanding colonial and post-colonial history that flowed from Jaffna. It is the clear that he was fighting for one cause only, supremacy of the Vellalas. He was fighting with the Dutch not because the job of Cannecapul went to a fellow-Tamil. No. He was fighting to grab a key post in the Dutch administration because the Vellalas would “be shut out from these profitable office and that they would lose influence they possessed so far.”

Even ”this small change created somuch disturbance” that Zwaardecroon “had to leave the matter alone.”Moddeley Tambi was fighting to retain the vital administrative power which was in the hands of the Vellalas. Profit, power, position, influence and prestige depended on holding key administrative positions.

Share of power

The Vellalas were conscious of having a share of power in the administration. Losing that grip would erode their supremacy and also the advantages that flow from holding administrative positions. Besides, getting a firm foothold in the administration was another way of sharing power with the rulers, even though at a very minimal level. Vellala politics from the time of Moddeley Tamby was focused on grabbing a lion share of power in the administration, elbowing out any rivals. This is the factor that rose to monstrous proportions in the post-colonial period and dominated the national agenda. This is the factor that led to the cry of discrimination by G. G. Ponnambalam in the thirties when the British were still ruling Ceylon, as it was known then.

Most of all, Moddeley Tambi was aware that Zwaardecroon was out to “diminish the influence of the Bellala caste.” The Vellalas, the most powerful group, were posing a threat to the Dutch colonial interests. Zwaardecroon was rearranging the administrative structure to cut them down to size. Applying the divide and rule policy he was attempting to balance the competing caste claims. His main objective was to reduce the power of the Vellalas. The Vellalas would not brook any threat to their power.

Vellala politics and the Dutch interests were heading for a collision. Moddeley Tambi’s riot is the first of many subsequent Vellala clashes that challenged the colonial and independent states. The last was the Vadukoddai Resolution when the Vellalas declared war against the elected state in May 1976. The underlying objective in the Vadukoddai Resolution was to counter the perceived threat to Vellala supremacy in the administration and the legislature. They claimed that they were induced to take the violent course of action (declaration of war) because of the Vellala supremacy, which they had since historical times, was diminished.


The Dutch period is, indeed, a watershed for the Vellalas because they consolidated their power and position during this period. The rise of Vellalas as a political force in the Dutch period is highlighted by R. F. Young and Bishop S. Jebanesan in their splendid study of Jaffna society, The Bible Trembled, The Hindu-Christian Controversies of Nineteenth-Century Ceylon, (Vienna, 1995). They wrote: “The peninsula became a Vellala domain only in the Dutch era when the coastal Karaiyar caste, the bulk of which had become Catholic in the sixteenth century, was dispossessed from positions of administrative power by Vellalas (Protestants (nominally at least) and Hindus) of untainted loyalty. In gratitude the Dutch granted concession to Vellala landowners, especially those who cultivated tobacco, the region’s most lucrative plantation product. A steady supply of labour had been guaranteed by bonding the Nalava (the regional term for Tirunelveli toddy-tappers) and other subordinate castes to them as “soil slaves”. The Vellalas were, therefore, advantageously positioned to affiliate remuneratively with the British when the Dutch were overthrown.” (p. 104).

Moddeley Tambi’s riot is the first political act of the Vellalas to assert their right to be in commanding position to exert power, even as subordinate agents of the colonial masters. The cries for “50-50”, federalism, separatism and the Vadukoddai Declaration of war came later. They emerged as a formidable political force with the riot of Moddeley Tambi which baffled the Dutch. It forced the Governor to appoint an official DissaweIsaaks, to study the laws and customs of Jaffna.

The result was the Tesawalamai which was codified by the Dutch only after the 12 Vellala Mudliyars had approved it. Tesawalamai was a victory for the Vellalas. It legally reinforced their claim that their privileged position as the ruling elite in the caste hierarchy will remain unaltered. In 1707 the Dutch enthroned the Tesawalamai, the laws and customs of the Jaffna Tamils, as a guide to their rule. This legalised and enhanced the power of the Vellalas to impose their law on the slaves and the other low-castes. Of course, the Dutch too were keen on learning the laws and customs of the natives. The codification of Tesawalamai also helped them to consolidate the position of the Vellala in the caste hierarchy and settle caste rivalries which leads to civil disturbances.

In 1697, Zwaardecroon “had suggested the need for a “concise digest” of those customs which might serve for the instruction of the members of the Court of Justice as well as for new rulers arriving here.” (p.11, The Administration of Justice in Ceylon under the Dutch Government 1656 – 1796, Prof. T. Nadaraja, Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, New Series, Vol XII, 1968.)

Strengthened power

Besides, the land grants given to them by the Dutch, the lucrative trade of tobacco, the mass importation of Malabari slaves by the Vellalas to work their tobacco plantations, their privileged position in the Dutch administrative service and also frequent Vellala violence, were some of the factors that strengthened their power as a political force.

Shaken by the wrath of the Vellalas the Dutch found it necessary to study the pervasive and pernicious caste system for them to govern Vellala-dominated Jaffnapatnam. They also felt the need to balance the caste rivalries if they were to maintain law and order. Governor Thomas Van Rhee drew up the first list of castes in Jaffna. He identified 40 caste groups. He listed the Vellalas as the “most numerous of all castes”. (p.7 – Memoirs). They were also the most influential and rich. Zwaardecroon who had a rather cynical view of the Vellahlas wrote: “It is a well-known fact that the more influential natives always try to oppress the poorer classes, and it will be impossible to prevent their doing this if they are allowed to become stronger than they already are.” (p.28 – Memoirs).

The oppression, cruelty and the injustices of the Vellalas were exasperating to the Dutch rulers. Anthony Mooyart, a successor to Zwaardecroon, wrote: “It is extremely difficult, although quite necessary, to administer even justice in this (Jaffna) Commandment, so as to maintain the reputation held by the Netherlanders for wise and just Government, and at the same time win the hearts of the natives and secure their loyalty. I found it most difficult to protect the poor when they had the right on their side from the peculation of their own (Vellala) countrymen.

Those who have the power and held in estimation by the authorities (i.e., the Vellalas) are like birds of prey, who strip their victims to the bone of everything they have and leave them hardly anything to live. When a poor man brings a charge against an influential Malabaar (i.e.,Jaffnaites were known as Malabars by the Dutch — there were no Tamils those days), or had been injured by him, the latter uses his influence in such a way that if steps be not taken to bring the offender to justice, the offence remain undetected, or if detected, the facts are so perverted that the poor man does not receive the justice which he is entitled to; while again, many others are accused who are perfectly innocent. Powerful or rich Malabaars, and even ordinary Lascoreen, often bring charges against innocent people toward whom they have a grudge, or when they fail to extort from them as much as they wish it.” (p.6 – Dutch Memoirs, Mooyart.)


The Vellala riot led by Moddeley Tambi should be placed against this political background. Throughout the Dutch and British periods, the obsession to grab positions in the Government service was insatiable. Moddeley Tambi was the first to demonstrate the “craze for clerkship” in public service – a phrase coined by the Tamil Bishop of the Church of South India in Jaffna, Sabapathy Kulendra, quoted in S. J. V. Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, 1947 – 1977, A Political Biography, A. J. Wilson, (p. 72). This “craze for clerkship” has been the bane of Jaffna politics. When G. G. Ponnambalam went before the Soulbury Commission and delivered his nine-hour lecture his main complaint was about discrimination in public service jobs – the only growth industry under colonialism. After examining the evidence, the Commissioners dismissed it as stuff and nonsense. In fact, they found the Jaffna Tamils, mainly the English-educated Vellalas, were occupying a disproportionate share of jobs in the public service

The Moddeley Tambi mentality of the Vellalas has been to capture the second tier of power in the administration because that is the next best option available to those who can’t capture legislative power at the peak political hierarchy. And the Vellalas guarded this privileged position in the administration with their lives. Moddeley Tambi rebelled against the Dutch because the Vellala supremacy was threatened and the Vellalas never tolerated any threat to their status. He began as a betel carrier to Sangarepulle “from Cannengray, a native of evil repute.” (p. 24 – Dutch Memoirs, Hendri Zwaardecroon, the Commander of Jaffna.).

That, however, is irrelevant. What comes to fore is that he was first and foremost a Vellala – “the most numerous” and powerful of the 40 castes enumerated by the Dutch. Moddeley Tambi raised the banner of Vellalaism and not any cause of the Tamils. Nor did he raise an anti-colonial, pro-nationalist cry. His main objective was to retain the public service job for the Vellalas. His resistance was to prevent it going to a rival caste, who was also a Tamil, by the way. Keeping Government jobs in Vellala hands is their way of power sharing with the rulers. Power sharing at any level is an obsession with the Vellalas. They would not hesitate to walk over the dead bodies of their fellow-Tamils to get there.


This is why the Dutch had to face a riot. There was prestige and power in a post like a Cannecapul to the Commander of Jaffnapatnam. Giving it to a non-Vellala was an affront to Vellala status and supremacy. Moddeley Tambi steps into this scene as the saviour of the Vellalas. It is Moddeley Tambi’s role as a Vellala political activist, defending Vellahla supremacy, that makes him standout from the rest of his contemporaries. Historically too, he should have come into the limelight because he stands out as the first representative of political Vellalaism which became a dominant political force in the colonial and post-colonial history of Sri Lanka.

He is the archetypal figure that represents the essence of Vellala-centric politics that streamed down from the Dutch period to contemporary times. The Vellala strands of casteist politics that dominated Jaffna had hardly changed since he set the pattern in his riot against the Dutch.

Government service has been a second religion to the Vellahlas, next to Saivism. To the Jaffna Tamils acquiring jobs in the public service was like power-sharing in the administration of the day. Being in the commanding heights of the ruling administration gave them an advantage in policy-making and decision-making at the highest level. They were able to monitor and influence in devious ways politics to serve their interests.

It was the next best thing to running a State of their own. I remember K. C. Nythiananda, the firebrand head of the Government Clerical Service Union, telling me: “You (meaning Sinhalese) govern. We (meaning Tamils) rule!” Moddeley Tambi was the first Vellahla Tamil who had the identical ambitions of Nythiananda, others may govern but the Vellahlas always wanted to rule. In short, Jaffna, as a discrete political force, cannot be understood without considering the internal casteist dynamics that caused Moddeley Tambi to riot against the Dutch for a job in Government service. It is the vaulting ambitions of the Vellahla supremacists to rule that came out of the colonial period and dominated the post-colonial period as a destructive political force.

Political man

In the Dutch records, Moddely Tambi emerges as the first Vellala political man who gave the lead to casteist politics. In time, the escalating power of Vellala casteism spread like cancer eating into the body politic of Jaffna and from there to the rest of the nation. Vellalaism was the driving force behind every move and counter-move that came out of Jaffna. The irony is that the Vellala riot led by Moddeley Tambi and the perceptive analyses of the Dutch rulers never ever reached even the footnotes of mainstream history, either in the north or the south. It remained buried in the records of the Dutch. As far as I know this is the first time that it has been taken out from its obscurity and examined for what it is worth.

At first, I was startled by the fact that the “obedient and obsequious” Vellala Tamils had revolted against the Dutch. And the more I looked into it the more I was fascinated by Moddeley Tambi’s role. I realised that Moddeley Tamby represents more than a Vellala Cannecapul fighting for his job in the Dutch public service. It dawned on me that he was the first of the many Jaffna Tamils who would fight tooth and nail for jobs in the colonial administration. Looking back with all the advantages of hindsight, I could not help note that he was the precursor of cataclysmic events to come.

Moddeley Tambi was driven by the internal casteist dynamics that were to determine the course of events that escalated as it went winding all the way to Nandikadal..

Vellalaism was a politically sophisticated force. They gravitated towards power and would go to great lengths to go to bed with anyone to share power under the cover of minority rights and human rights. The casteist mentality of Moddeley Tambi, focused particularly on capturing seats in the Government, was an obsession with the Vellala Tamils. Prof. A. J. Wilson confirmed this when he wrote: “On the whole, the Tamil Vellalas have dominated Government service and the professions, with the occasional member from the minority caste.” ( p.140 – Ibid). To the Vellala Tamils it was more than dowry-earning, permanent, pensionable job, with railway warrants for free travel. It was, most of all, a political power base where they had the ear of the rulers of the day. Public service became a leading power base of the English-educated, Saivitie, Jaffna, Vellala Tamils. So when Chelvanayakam decided to make the biggest proclamation of his career, the decision to establish a separate state for Tamils, he did not make it in Jaffna, the so-called heartland of the Tamils. He made it at the Government Clerical Service Union, (GCSU) Headquarters in Maradana. On December 14, 1949 he and his lieutenants trooped into a room, upstairs and announced his ambition to be the Jinnah of Sri Lanka.

He had calculated quite correctly that for him to win Jaffna he had to win the English-educated, Saivite, Vellalas public servants. On this day Chelvanyakam manifested himself as a reincarnation of Moddeley Tambi fighting for a greater share of power just not in the administration but in the entire power structure. Christian Chelvanayakam is the Tamil genie that came out of the Saivite-Vellala bottle and took Jaffna for a ride all the way to Nandikadal.

Craze for clerkship

The “craze for clerkship” in the public service began with Moddeley Tambi. His caste-driven riot against the Dutch contains the quintessence of Jaffna politics which informed and determined the politics of Jaffna since then. He was, in short, trying to assert the divine right of the Vellalas to rule. The unbroken continuity in the Vellala forces of Jaffna politics that determined its character throughout the colonial and post-colonial period, finds it first political expression in Moddeley Tambi. He is the primordial source and force of Vellalaism, which first erupted as “a craze for clerkship”.


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