Sir Alexander Johnston Historic Letter on Sri Lanka Muslims (1827)

Following is a historic letter about Sri Lanka Muslims written and read by Sir Alexander Johnston to the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland on February 3rd 1827. Muslims are referred as “Mohammedan” as was the custom during the early days of British rule in Sri Lanka.

Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland


A letter to the Secretary relating to the preceding inscription (see Appendix B


Sir Alexander Johnston, Knt., V.P.R.A.S. 

(Read, February 3rd 1827)


I, some time ago, had the honour to send you the facsimile of an ancient inscription found at Trincomalee, on the east side of the island of Ceylon; I now have the honour to send you the facsimile of one found at Colombo, on the west side of that island.

The second is of importance, as connected with the plan which I submitted to Government also in 1806, for restoring the same (northern, eastern and western) provinces to their ancient state of commercial prosperity, by establishing free ports in the most convenient parts of the island, by repealing many taxes which, without being productive to Government, were peculiarly obnoxious to the Mohammedan traders of Ceylon, and by inducing the Mohammedan capitalists of the coasts of Malabar, Coromandel, and Malacca, to make Ceylon, in modern times, what it was in ancient times, the great emporium of their trade in India.

The latter was the result of an equally laborious iniquity which, with assistance of the most learned and enlightened of the Mohammedan priests and merchants, as well of Ceylon, as of the coasts of Malabar, Coromandel, Malacca and Eastern Islands, I instituted into history of the ancient commercial establishments of the Mohammedans on the coasts of India and Ceylon. As the latter inquiry, from the character and the nations of the different persons whom I consulted afforded me much curious information relative to the manner in which the trade had been carried on by the Mohammedan merchants in Ceylon, from the end of the ninth top the beginning of the fifteenth century, and as that information may serve to fill up a portion of the chasm which exists in the history of the trade of India between those two periods, I shall avail myself of the present opportunity, while explaining to you the circumstances by which I was led to the discovery of the accompanying inscription, to submit to the Royal Asiatic Society, a short account of the state of the Mohammedans, and of their trade in Ceylon, from the time of their earliest establishment on the island to the present period.

The first Mohammedans who settled in Ceylon were, according to the tradition which prevails among their descendants, a portion of those Arabs of the house of Hashim who were driven from Arabia in the early part of the eighth century by the tyranny of the Caliph Abd-el-Malek (Abdul Malik) Ben Marwan, and who proceeding from the Euphrates southwards, made settlements in the Concan, in the Southern parts of the peninsular of India, on the Island of Ceylon and at Malacca. The division of them who came to Ceylon formed eight considerable settlements along the north-east, north, and western coasts of that Island viz one at Trincomalee, one at Jaffna, one at Mantota and Mannar, one at Coodramale, one at Puttalam, one at Colombo, one at Barbaryn, and one at Point-de-Galle. The settlement at Mantotte and Mannar, on the north-west part of Ceylon, from its local situation with respect to the peninsula of India, the two passages through Adam’s Bridge, and the chank and pearl fisheries on the coasts of Ceylon and Madura, naturally became for the Mohammedans, what it had before been for the ancient Hindu and Persian traders of India, the great emporium of all the trade which was carried on by them with Egypt, Arabia, Persia and the coasts of Malabar, on one side; and the coasts of Coromandel, the Eastern Moluccas, and China on the other side. On this part of Ceylon, at an equal distance from their respective countries, the silk merchants of China, who had collected on their voyages aloes, cloves, nutmegs, and sandal-wood, maintained a free and beneficial commerce with the inhabitants of the Arabian and Persian Gulfs; it was, in fact, the place at which all the goods which came from the east were exchanged with those which came from the west. Although the Mohammedan traders who were settled in Ceylon had acquired great wealth and influence very early in the eleventh century, and although they continued to possess a most extensive and lucrative trade in its ports till the end of the fifteenth century, it was during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that they attained the highest degree of their commercial prosperity and political influence on that island. During that period the great Mohammedan merchants of Mannar and Mantotte received into the immense warehouses, which they had established at this emporium, the most valuable produce of the island from their subordinate agents, who resided at the different seaports which were situated in the neighborhood of those provinces, where the various articles of commerce were produced. From their agents at Trincomalee they received rice,and Indigo; from those at Jaffna the chaya root or red dye, the wood of the black palmyra tree, and the seashells called chanks; from those at Coodramalle pearls; from those at Puttalam arecanut for chewing with betel leaves, ebony, satin, and calamander wood for furniture, and sappan wood for dyeing; from those at Colombo cinnamon (L*) and precious stones; from those at Barbareen cocoanut oil and coir; and from those at Point-de-Galle ivory and elephants.

By means or armed vessels, which they maintained at their own expense near the island of Mannar, they commanded the only two passages, by which vessels of any size could pass through the ridge of the sand-banks which extends from the southern peninsula of India to the Island of Ceylon, and is known by the name of Adam’s Bridge. By means of the wealth which they circulated through the country they enabled the inhabitants of the adjoining provinces to keep their tanks or reservoirs for water in a constant state of repair, and their rice fields in a constant state of cultivation. In the days of their commercial prosperity, the great tank or artificial lake within a few miles from Mantotte, which is called the giants tank, and which is now quite out of repair, and completely useless, was in perfect repair, and most extensively useful; and the three adjoining provinces of Mossele, Mantotte and Nannetan, which are now almost a desert, were then extremely populous and most highly cultivated. By means of their different establishments, in the southern peninsula of India, they introduced from thence into Ceylon, between six and seven hundred years ago, the first body of cloth weavers that ever was settled on that island (R*)

By means of the intercourse, which they kept up through the Persian Gulf and Bassorah, with Baghdad and all the countries under that caliphate, on the one side, and through the Arabian Gulf and Egypt, with all the Mohammedan powers settled along the coasts of the Mediterranean, and of Spain on the other side, they introduced from these countries into Ceylon many original works in Arabic on Mohammedan law (S*) and many translations into Arabic of the most valuable of the Greek and Roman classics upon medicine, science, and literature (T*). By means of the influence which they possessed with the sovereigns of Ceylon, they obtained from them the important privilege, that in the different ports in which they carried on their trade, all commercial and maritime cases in which a Mohammedan merchant, mariner, or vessel was concerned, should be tried at the port itself, without delay or expense by a tribunal which consisted of a certain number of Mohammedan priests, merchants, and mariners, and which was bound to proceed according to a maritime code of laws which universally prevailed among the Asiatic Mohammedans (U*).

The Portuguese, on their first arrival in Ceylon at the conclusion of the fifteenth century, found that the Mohammedan traders still monopolized the whole export and import trade of the island, and that they were, from their commercial and political power in the country, the most formidable rivals whom they had to encounter. From the beginning of the sixteenth century, the trade and affluence of the Mohammedans on the Island of Ceylon have been gradually, though constantly, on the decline; owing, in some degree, to the general decline of trade and influence of the Mohammedan traders in every part of India, but more particularly to the systems of policy which have been respectively adopted by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English Governments of Ceylon, and to the great improvement which has been made within the last three centuries in the science of navigation.

The Mohammedan population on that island now consists of about seventy thousand persons, who are distributed in every part of the country. The Mohammedan traders still have establishments at Puttalam, Colombo, Barbareen and Point-de-Galle, from whence they carry on an export and import trade with the coasts of Malabar and Coromandel. A great many of them possess small capitals with which they also carry on a comfortable portion of the retail trade of the country, and rent from Government the several duties which are annually farmed out by the different agents of revenue. They are of the sect of Shafei. Their book of religious instruction is an abridgment of the Koran, called Umbda, written in Arabic by a learned man from Arabia who visited Ceylon about the close of the twelfth century. The commentary on the Mohammedan law which is most in use amongst them is called the Amali (Mahalli). The whole of it is written in Arabic, the text in the old Arabic of the Koran, and the notes in modern Arabic Their laws of marriage and inheritance are a modification of the laws of marriage and inheritance which prevailed amongst the Arabs who were subject to the Caliph of Baghdad at the time their ancestors emigrated from Arabia. Their maritime and commercial laws bear a strong resemblance both to those maritime and commercial laws which prevail amongst the Hindu maritime traders of India, and to those which prevail amongst the Malay maritime traders of Malacca and the eastern islands.

The conduct which they, as a body, invariably observed with respect to the different measures which I adopted while I was Chief Justice and President of His majesty’s Council in Ceylon, gave me a very favourable opinion of their intellectual and moral character. In 1806 when I called upon their chiefs and their priests to assist me in compiling for their use, as I had done for that of each other classes of inhabitants of Ceylon, a separate code of laws, founded upon their respective usages and customs, I derived the most extensive and valuable information from their local experience. In 1807 when I consulted them as to the best mode of improving the education of their countrymen I found them not only anxious to co-operate with me on the occasion, but willing to make, at their own expense, retain the most liberal establishments in every part of the Island, for instructing all the children of the Mohammedan religion in such branches of science and knowledge as I might think applicable to the peculiar state of society which prevailed amongst them. In 1811, when I publicly assembled them to explain the nature of the privilege of sitting upon juries, and of the other privileges, which I had obtained and secured for them under the great seal of England, by His Majesty’s Charter of 1810, I received from them the most useful suggestions, both as to the manner of rendering the Jury system popular amongst their sect, and that of attaining the real ends of Justice, without militating against any of the feelings or even the prejudices of the people. In 1815, when on my proposal they adopted the same resolution, which all the other castes in Ceylon had adopted, of declaring free all children born of their slaves after the 12th of August, 1816. I had every reason to applaud the humanity and liberality of the sentiments and views, which they not only expressed but acted upon, in the progress of that important measure.

In 1806, while collecting, as I have already mentioned, the various usages and customs of the Mohammedan inhabitants of Ceylon, I directed my inquiries particularly to those customs and usages which could throw any light on the history of their early settlements and former commercial prosperity on that island, and their intimate connection and constant communication with the Caliphs of Baghdad, during the eleventh and twelfth centuries; and I was referred by all the Mohammedan priests, merchants, and mariners, by whom I was assisted in my inquiries, to the Cufic inscription of which the accompanying is the facsimile, as the oldest record on the Island which alluded to the intercourse that had subsisted in former days between the Caliphs of Baghdad and the Mohammedans of Ceylon.

The following is the tradition which prevails in Ceylon as to this inscription. That it is supposed to be the most ancient Mohammedan inscription on the island. That the Caliph of Baghdad, in the beginning of the tenth century, hearing that the Mohammedans, then established as traders at Colombo, were ignorant of and inattentive to the real tenets of their religion, sent a learned and pious priest from Baghdad to Colombo, with instructions to reform the Mohammedans of that place, by explaining to them the nature of their religion, and by making such establishments and erecting such a mosque at Colombo, as were likely to ensure for the future, their strict observance of the real spirit of Mohammedan worship. That this learned and pious man, after having erected a very extensive mosque at Colombo, and accomplished the object of his mission, died, and was buried at Colombo, close to the mosque he had erected. That after his death some learned persons were sent from Baghdad to Colombo by the Caliph, for the express purpose of engraving this inscription on his tomb-stone, and that this stone had remained on his grave undisturbed for nearly eight hundred years, till the Dutch Dissawa, or collector of Colombo, about forty years ago, removed it, along with some other stones, from the Moorish burying-ground near Colombo, to the spot where he was building a house, and placed it, where it now stands, as one of the steps to his house. The English of it was made by the Rev Samuel Lee AM, professor of Arabic at Cambridge, who is so celebrated all over Europe for the profound knowledge he possesses of the Hebrew, the Arabic, and other Oriental languages.

I remain


To the Secretary of
The Royal Asiatic Society
The Notes above referred to

(L*) The cinnamon generally grows in the south-west part of the maritime provinces and in the interior of Ceylon. In tghe maritime provinces the cultivation and preparation of the cinnamon are carried on by a particular caste, which consists of between 24 and 25 thousand persons, who are said to be descended from 7 weavers that were introduced into Ceylon by a Mohammedan merchant of the town of Barbareen, about the end of the twelfth or beginning of the thirteenth century.

(R*) I have a copy in my possession of a very curious and very ancient grant in copper, made by one of the Cingalese kings of Ceylon, about six or seven hundred years ago, to a great Mohammedan merchant who was then residing at Barbareen, and to his descendants forever, or certain privileges and immunities in consequence of his having introduced from the opposite coast of India the first weavers of cloth who were established in Ceylon. By virtue of this grant, the lineal descendants of that merchant now enjoy under the British Government a portion of the privileges which were granted to their ancestors by the ancient Cingalese government of the country, and which were successively confirmed to them by the Portuguese, Dutch, and English Governments in Ceylon. The chief of this family was appointed by me in 1806, native superintendent of the medical department under the control of the Supreme Court. He was considered by the natives of the country as one of the best informed of the native physicians on the island and possessed one of the best collections of native medical books, most of which had been in his family between seven and eight hundred years, during the whole of which period it had been customary for one member of his family, at least, to follow the medical profession. This same person made me a very detailed report of all the plants in Ceylon, which have been used from time immemorial for medical purposes by Mohammedan native physicians on that island. The cultivation and improvement of these plants, as well as of all other plants and vegetables on the island which might be used for food or commercial purposes, was one of the great objects for which His Majesty’s Government, at my suggestion, in 1810, established a royal botanical garden in Ceylon.

(S*) While investigating questions relative to the laws of marriage and inheritance between Mohammedans of Ceylon, I have frequently been referred by them for my guidance to notes which they possessed, of decisions given in similar cases by the Qadi’s of Baghdad and Cordova, which decisions had been observed as law amongst the Mohammedans of Ceylon for seven or eight hundred years.

(T*) One of the principal Arabic works on medicine which they introduced into Ceylon was the work of Avicenna; they also introduced Arabic translations of Aristotle, Plato, Euclid, Galen and Ptolemy, extracts of which were frequently brought to me while I was in Ceylon by the Mohammedan priests and merchants, who stated that the works themselves had originally been procured from Baghdad by their ancestors, and they had remained for some hundred years in their respective families in Ceylon, but had subsequently been sold by them, when in distress, for considerable sums of money, to some merchants who traded between Ceylon and the eastern islands. Three very large volumes of extracts from the works which I have alluded were presented to me by a Mohammedan priest of great celebrity in Asia, who died about twenty years ago on the island of Ceylon. These three volumes, together with between five and six hundred books in the Cingalese, Pali, Tamil, and Sanskrit languages, relating to the history, religion, manners, and literature of the Cingalese, Hindu, and Mohammedan inhabitants of Ceylon, which I had collected at a considerable expense were lost in 1809, in the “Lady Jane Dundas” East-Indiaman on board of which ship I had taken my passage for England.

(U) The maritime laws and usages which prevail amongst the Hindu and Mohammedan mariners and traders who frequent Ceylon, of which I made a complete collection while presiding in the Vice-Admiralty Court of that Island, may be classed under four heads; First, those which prevail amongst the Hindu mariners and traders who carry on trade in small vessels between the coasts of Malabar, Coromandel, and the island of Ceylon; secondly, those which prevail amongst the Mohammedan mariners and traders of Arab descent who carry on trade in small vessels between the coasts of Malabar, Coromandel, and the island of Ceylon; thirdly, those which prevail amongst the Arab mariners and traders who carry on trade in very large vessels between the the eastern coasts of Africa, Arabia, the Persian Gulf, and the island of Ceylon; fourthly, those which prevail amongst the Malay mariners and traders who carry on trade between the coasts of Malacca, the eastern islands, and Ceylon.

The first are in some degree modified by the tenets of the Hindu religion and by Hindu law. The second, the third, and the fourth, are modified in a great degree by the tenets of the Mohammedan religion, and by Mohammedan law.


1. APPENDIX A – Sri Lanka Geneology Website by Fazli Sameer

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