From the sixteenth century through the ninetieth century, slaves, soldiers, and domestic workers from East Africa were bought to Sri Lanka by the Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch and the British. Kaffir is a name used to label this particular ethnic group of Sri Lanka. We are familiar with the term Kaffir because it is a racial epithet in South Africa. In Sri Lanka, the term came into being via the Arabs as Qafr meaning unbeliever or mystic, because they refused to convert to their oppressor’s ways, later the Portuguese adopted the term and pronounced it as Cafre. The British began to label this particular group of people as the Kaffir when they counted their census between 1871 and 1911. The Kaffir continued to pass down their African history through oral traditions as they were enslaved by the Arabs and Portuguese, as well as, their enlistment as soldiers, slaves, and domestic workers by the Portuguese, Dutch, and English.
Culturally, the traditions of the Kaffirs began to fade as time passed and the people were introduced to new traditions from other cultures. The culture they do have was brought with them from East Africa and is mostly maintained by the elders. Outside cultural influences have also had an impact on the Kaffir’s religion; their elders have somewhat maintained their original religious traditions, while most of the Kaffir are now Roman Catholic, Buddhist, and Muslim. Music is another facet of the Kaffir culture that has changed as their elders continue to hold on to their African traditions, Kaffrinha/Bailas is a popular form of Sri Lankan music created by the Kaffir which includes African, European and Asian elements. Today the total number of Kaffir is estimated to be around fifteen hundred people, they can be found throughout the Sri Lankan island in various cities. It is believed that when the Kaffir was brought to Sri Lanka their numbers were around 20,000 people, numbers that are vastly different from the number of Kaffir living today.
The Kaffir originally spoke a form of Portuguese creole which included linguistic elements from Africa, Asia, and Portugal. The Kaffir has contributed to Asian culture and Sri Lankan culture through their music and craftsmanship; the assagai is a metal tip spear that was widely used in battle and is an example of the Kaffir contribution to Sri Lanka. These people were brought to Sri Lanka by force or as a source of labor, either for war, cleaning or building; like many other African people, they also were victims of Arab and European colonization. The Arab slave trade has existed for over two-thousand years and it still exists today. The slave trade is one of the reasons the Kaffir from Ethiopia, Mozambique and various other East African countries exist in Sri Lanka today. Similar to African people being dispersed throughout the Americas via the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, African people were dispersed throughout the Asian continent via the Arab Slave Trade, as well as, European colonization. The Kaffir are another example of the extent of the African diaspora; African people have traveled and civilized the world on their own or by force. To the Kaffir of Sri Lanka, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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