The Afghans in ‘Ceylon’ – Our amazing history

Sri Lanka experienced major waves of immigration during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when throngs of immigrants from India & other British colonies took up residence on the island. Indentured labourers from the erstwhile Madras Presidency & Malabar, who were recruited to work on the central Hill plantations of tea, rubber & coffee, constituted the greatest proportion of this group, followed by Coast Moors, who also came from South India. Presumably, the least known among the surfeit of ethnic groups that settled in Ceylon are the ‘Afghans’, who were originally brought to the Island by the British to work as horse-keepers and indentured labourers and by the turn of the 20th century, many had become full-time usurers and traders in Ceylon. These ‘Afghans’ who were mainly of Pashtun extraction, hailed from Afghanistan & from the North-Western frontiers & Baluchistan Agency of British India (present-day Pakistan) and were popularly identified as “Bhais” in Ceylon,. Their numerical strength according to the population census of 1881 was just over a thousand, extremely insignificant in proportion to the whole population of Ceylon at the time and by 1901, their population had plummeted to 270. The census of 1911 gave them 466 souls, census of 1921 recorded 304 members and by 1946 their number had risen to 551. After which, there has been no mention of ‘Afghans’, in any of Sri Lanka’s population censuses and demographic statistics. The money lending ordinance (1918), citizenship act & the infamous repatriation bill led to their disappearance from Ceylon, nonetheless, there are a handful of families that claim Pashtun ancestry in Sri Lanka. 

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