Research School for Economic and Social History


20 April 2023
Radboud University Nijmegen, Auditorium (Comeniuslaan 2, Nijmegen) and via livestream

PhD defence Luc Bulten (Radboud University Nijmegen)

On 20 April 2023, Posthumus alumnus Luc Bulten will publicly defend his dissertation titled ‘Reconsidering Colonial Registration. Social Histories of Lives, Land, and Labour in Eighteenth-Century Sri Lanka’. The ceremony will be held at the Auditorium of the Radboud University, but can also be followed via a livestream ().

Luc’s dissertation considers roughly a century and a half of Sri Lanka’s history, with special attention for the second half of the eighteenth century. During this time, a significant segment of the population of this South Asian island found themselves governed by the self-appointed reign of the Dutch East India Company. In their reign, the Company in practice had to count on the activities of a true army of clerks, servants and bureaucrats who, on their behalf, registered thousands of indigenous families and their lands. This process of registration was aimed at exploiting the caste-related labour duties that these families had to perform, and the agricultural products (such as rice) that traditionally had to be supplied to the state. However, this thesis shows that such registration processes, and bureaucratisation in general, were anything but unidirectional developments. Local actors, customs, and categories each had a significant impact on the way people’s lives, land, and labour were documented. Moreover, the documents resulting from this process of bureaucratisation – such as the ‘thombo’ land and population registers – were used by local agents to secure their social status, their possessions, and their estates, especially when utilised as evidence in legal conflicts. This case stands to show the extent to which Lankan communities could take advantage of, or even appropriate, colonial institutions like the thombo registers, the rural courts, and the offices of VOC officials in an effort to make the colonial system work for them.