Kaffir the better known as Kapiri in Sri Lanka

Learning about different cultures is an important part of foreign travels. The cultural and ethnic diversity is very high and many ethnic groups are living in Sri Lanka. Most Sri Lanka trip packages include visits to many cultural and historical places, Buddhist temples and cultural triangle cities.

Whether it is a one day Sri Lanka trip of a multi-day Sri Lank tour, the foreign travellers are not forgetting to scratch the cultural aspects of Sri Lanka.

However Sinhalese, Tamil, burgers are some of the leading ethnic groups that guests hear about, during their Sri Lanka holiday. But Kapiri or Kaffir is a small ethnic group, I believe that 99 per cent of foreign travellers, as well as many local travellers, not aware of them. Therefore, I thought of crafting this blog post about this largely unknown ethnic groups in Sri Lanka.

Kaffir is a small community of people who are of African origin, they are mainly found in the North-Western part of the country. Majority of them are living in Puttalam district, “kaffir” is an Arabic term denotes unbeliever and this group of people with African origin is also identified by the same term.

Kaffir arrived in during the colonial period of Sri Lanka and they were brought to the island on several occasions. The first band of Kaffir arrived in Sri Lanka in the 14th Century (during the Portuguese colonial period) and they were originated in Mozambique.

The British had brought the second wave of Kaffir from Mozambique in order to fight against the Sri Lankan armies. Kaffir was popular among the Sri Lankan as Kapiri. “Kapiri hatana” a popular Sinhalese term referring to the regiments of the British army that comprised of Kaffir soldiers. These regiments were playing an important role on behalf of the British in the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century in Sri Lanka.

Dutch colonial rulers have brought a large number of slaves in the coastal belt, which was under their control, at the beginning of the Dutch colonial period. These slaves were used as the labour force for the country during the Dutch rule.

According to Edward Van Goens, a Dutch governor, who had written about these slaves in a descriptive manner mentioned that there were about 4000 of them at the beginning of his term. These slaves were used for building Galle fort and Colombo fort.

After the hard work in these forts they were employed in private service and government institutions and another group of them worked in rice fields. Being unhappy with the conditions prevailing there was agitation among the people of this community.

They had become more violent as the time went on and revolt against their Dutch masters. These revolts had caused a death of a high official of the Dutch East India Company.

The incident changed the manner the way slaves were controlled so far and colonial rulers had become more harsh and stubborn towards the slaves. Separate living quarters were built on a stretch of land for the salves to ensure the safety of their masters. Even though it had been a small peninsula, it was noted as a lij or island in Dutch maps. Today Colombo 2 or Slave Island had been the dwelling areas of slaves during the Dutch rule.

Sirambidiya Kaffir another group of people worked as saves and they were brought from Lisbon in Ethiopia.  Kaffir has an African origin but later on, they have embraced the Portuguese culture. They spoke Sri Lankan Portuguese Creole and they were converted to Roman Catholic. During the last few centuries, they have mingled with the indigenous communities, through intermarriages.

This community is still sticking together; in Sirambidiya they meet once a week at one of the member’s house to practice Chikothi or traditional songs. Creole, Sri Lankan Portuguese language had been their main language but it is only being used for singing Chikothi today, Sinhala has become the main language among the Kaffir.

The community has considerably changed in the previous generations and what is more evident from their African origin is the traditional dance forms. The most striking feature of the dances is the way they shake their hips and movement of arms and bodies.

Kaffir is another small ethnic group in the country that lives in harmony with other ethnic groups for several centuries. They add value to the country being a group of people that contribute to the ethnic and cultural diversity of Lanka.

2 thoughts on “Kaffir the better known as Kapiri in Sri Lanka”

  1. Lokubanda Tillakaratne

    Dear Sanjeeva:

    Your essay on Kaffir is excellent. Not many writings are there in this group of people in Sri Lanka. Keep the good work going.

    Kapiri Hatana you mentioned is not a term. It is a poetry collection about Kaffirs. These poems were found in Tamarawewa village in Nuwarakalaviya by Hugh Nevil at latter half of the 19th century. If you need additional information, I would be glad to provide.
    Lokubanda Tillakaratne

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