Tamara Fernando (University of Cambridge)

The National Archives of Sri Lanka (SLNA)

Fishery PetitionFishery petition
In my research on the environmental and labour history of the pearl fishery in the Gulf of Mannar I rely heavily on material from the National Archives of Sri Lanka, which are a rich repository for the economic and social life of the Indian Ocean world. The main building is a stately construction in the heart of Colombo. When you first visit, you are directed to a Public Records room to fill out a registration form, and upon approval (usually immediate), issued with a reader card. When you next visit, you will have to sign in, provide your card and exchange a form of identification (national ID or passport) for a ‘visitor’ tag.

The collections are strong on official, colonial material, beginning with sixteenth-century Portuguese tombos [land registries], followed by Dutch material (1638-1796), and subsequently, copious British colonial records (1796-1948), continuing up to more recent government data. They also hold a collection of historic English, Sinhala, Tamil and Malay newspapers on microfilm (although the quality of these is highly variable), as well as other private collections (the Hussainmiya Collection on Malay history, for instance). For those interested in twentieth-century history, the Ceylon Times Newspaper collection of photographs is digitized and can be consulted via computer terminals in the main reading room.

Fishery PetitionFishery Licence Application
The official archives are sorted by ‘lots’: for instance, I used Lot 31, which pertains to the Mannar region. The main reading room, is well-lit and air-conditioned and has a descriptive catalogue of these holdings.You will then have to use an index card catalogue to find individual items to request. The reading room also has many official publications on open shelf including the Ceylon Blue Books, and Ceylon Sessional Papers. Photography is permitted for a fee, and laptops are allowed. Note that the condition of the material varies dramatically based on which time period you are interested in.

In addition to its branch in the capital SLNA has another repository in Kandy in central Sri Lanka. Scholars wishing to consult material held in Kandy (such as Lot 20, on Jaffna) should register in Colombo first and obtain the director’s permission before travelling to Kandy. The Kandy branch is located behind the Temple of the Tooth in the centre of town.

Fishery PetitionMap of Chanks (species of Indian
ocean mollusks) around Ceylon
Helpful Links:
National Archives of Colombo Website
Overview of SLNA written by Haris De Silva
(former Director)

American Institute for Lankan Studies (AISLS)
AISLS Guide to Research Libraries in Sri Lanka




September 2020