Sri Lanka possesses a recorded history of over 22 centuries. How and where the evidence to this long history was preserved during the first 15 centuries is an open question. Was the lineage of the Sinhalese monarchs maintained in a Royal Archives, did Ven. Mahanama make use of any archival material when compiling the Mahavamsa, [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

National Archives – Memory of the nation gets extended space


Sri Lanka possesses a recorded history of over 22 centuries. How and where the evidence to this long history was preserved during the first 15 centuries is an open question. Was the lineage of the Sinhalese monarchs maintained in a Royal Archives, did Ven. Mahanama make use of any archival material when compiling the Mahavamsa, the ‘Great Chronicle’ or did he mainly rely on tradition? These are some of the questions still unanswered in relation to the historiography of ancient Sri Lanka.

Listing the lineage of Sri Lankan monarchs commenced in Anuradhapura and ended in Kandy in 1815. ‘The Constitution of the Kandyan Kingdom’ collated by John D’Oyly immediately after the fall of Kandy in 1815 provides us an elaborate system of government but failed to usher the reader to any repository or archives either attached to Royal Palace or elsewhere.

The archives of the Sinhalese monarchs that came down from the time of Anuradhapura would have suffered the ravages of time and arson. The kingdoms shifted from the North Central Province to the Western lowlands by abandoning the seats of government mainly due to sporadic foreign invasions and several other reasons. The perishable material usually disappeared due to natural causes leaving lithic and metal records as they were durable and longlasting. Internal disturbances, warfare and negligence affected the existence of archival material. In some other instances the manuscript collections were destroyed to root out the ideology of one sect or the other.

Nevertheless, we are fortunate enough to reconstruct the Royal Archives to a certain extent from 16th century onwards from the outward correspondence of the Sinhalese monarchs with the help of the records available with the National Archives at Lisbon and in The Hague. A considerable number of records are available among the Dutch archives in the National Archives of Sri Lanka as well.

The beginnings of keeping archives for administrative purposes in keeping with the western line of thinking date back to the Portuguese administration that was established in the middle of the 16th Century. Information relating to archive-keeping and the buildings in which they were deposited are not known to us. However, it is possible to construct a relative picture of the period of their administration with the help of existing records in Lisbon and in Goa. Very few of the Portuguese archives survived the six months siege of Colombo in 1656.

Their terms of surrender made no provision to cede the Portuguese archives to the Dutch. The majority were destroyed in order to prevent them falling into the hands of the enemy.

The Dutch were more methodical and kept their records meticulously. They took proper care of archives and the Record Room was maintained adjacent to the Council Chamber of the central administration in Colombo Fort. During the early British period this building was converted to the Chief Secretary’s Office and when Sri Lanka became a Republic, this building complex came to be known as ‘The Republic Square’. When the new Secretariat was built in Galle Face to accommodate the State Council in 1931, a section was used as the ‘Record Room’.

The official papers relating to the administration were essential to the new order, to safeguard the rights of the government. The pioneer British administrators therefore, included a special clause as no. 4 of the Treaty of Capitulation of Colombo (1796) which reads, ‘all papers should be faithfully delivered over’. Since then they were compelled to provide shelter to the Dutch archives they inherited. It was considered vital property for them to establish their administration in the island. The Chief Secretary of the government was simultaneously functioned as the first archivist appointed during the British rule. Thus the archives were housed attached to the Secretariat.

Successive Governors continued to resort to the archives for solution to problems on a variety of subjects. Governor Thomas Maitland (1805-11) in 1806 wrote, “we have consulted all their [Dutch Governors] memoirs for the last forty years …”. However, no reference has been made to any settled home for the archives under the British but several migrations followed each other in quick succession. During 1808 the archives were shifted from place to place no less than twenty times. Several volumes of the collection suffered damage or were lost. At this time Sir Alexander Johnstone removed to England a large and valuable mass of maps from the Record Office. Seventy years later these were recovered and found a new home in the Surveyor General’s Office.

In 1859, a special committee appointed to report on records found that their state of preservation was a reproach to the government. It stated that ‘up to the middle of 1859 the greater part of the records were kept in the room near the St. Peter’s Church and in a damp dark cellar which was dignified with name of ‘the Record Office’- a place admirably adapted for the destruction of papers; but one more unsuited for the preservation it is impossible to conceive…’.

But the events to follow tended towards the provision of a central home that settled the future for the archives. The committee of 1859 had already caused the Dutch records at the Colombo Kachchery to be taken to Chief Secretary’s Office facing ‘Gordon Gardens’ presently a part of the President’s House in the Fort. In 1880, a part of the general records of the Galle Commandement were placed side by side and arranged by the Asst. Chief Secretary.

The Secretary of State in England watching the new developments in Europe sent out a circular in 1901 to various parts of the empire to organise their documents on a scientific manner. As a result an extraordinary attention was drawn to the archives and R. G. Anthonisz was appointed to the permanent position of ‘Archivist and Librarian’ on the 1st January, 1902. His office and record room was attached to the Chief Secretary’s Office.

Since then the Archives has remained a part of the Chief Secretary’s office right up to 1947. With the declaration of independence, the need of state papers for administrative purposes and historical research were entrusted to a separate Department of the ‘Government Archivist’ created under the Order-in-Council of 1946. This event marked the taking over of the Dutch and the British records by the Government of Ceylon.

A major part of the Archives was then shifted to a building in Nuwara Eliya in 1942 in fear of being destroyed by the Japanese bombardments that took place in Colombo during the Second World War. The cry for shifting the Archives back to Colombo grew, and in 1962 they found a new home in the newly constructed ‘Sri Sumangala Building’ of the then Vidyodaya University at Gangodawila. The Cabinet in 1967 decided to allocate a four acre block of land from the former Havelock Race Course in Colombo.

In the 1970s the National Archives received its permanent home followed by a solid legal base for the functions of the Department with the National Archives Law No. 48 0f 1973. The foundation for the first phase of the new building project was laid on May 2, 1970. This was completed within six years and the entire archives shifted from the Vidyodaya University to the new building in Colombo. The new building was declared open by the then President of Sri Lanka, J. R. Jayewardene on August 15, 1986.

Over the years, the volume of archives waiting to be preserved increased by an unprecedented number and a need for a new building was imminent. Considering all aspects including, the modern methods of archive administration, digitalisation, maintenance of electronic records and the volume of books and newspapers, the present Director Dr. Sarija Wettasinghe pursued a project to construct an extension to the existing building. It was expected to be completed within 30 months nevertheless the work has been completed three months ahead of schedule. The new extension has a floor area of 74000 sq. ft. to accommodate audio visual and electronic records together with maps and outsize documents. It is equipped with an expanded research area to facilitate 32 users and an auditorium with over 300 seating capacity.

The entire cost of this project amounting to Rs. 603.89 miilion was borne by the Sri Lankan Government.
The building will be declared open by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on December 18, 2012.

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