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Chatting Sri Lanka: powerful communications in colonial times

Siefert, Justin (2016) Chatting Sri Lanka: powerful communications in colonial times. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.


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The thesis argues that the telephone had a significant impact upon colonial society in Sri Lanka. In the emergence and expansion of a telephone network two phases can be distinguished: in the first phase (1880-1914), the government began to construct telephone networks in Colombo and other major towns, and built trunk lines between them. Simultaneously, planters began to establish and run local telephone networks in the planting districts. In this initial period, Sri Lanka’s emerging telephone network owed its construction, financing and running mostly to the planting community. The telephone was a ‘tool of the Empire’ only in the sense that the government eventually joined forces with the influential planting and commercial communities, including many members of the indigenous elite, who had demanded telephone services for their own purposes. However, during the second phase (1919-1939), as more and more telephone networks emerged in the planting districts, government became more proactive in the construction of an island-wide telephone network, which then reflected colonial hierarchies and power structures. Finally in 1935, Sri Lanka was connected to the Empire’s international telephone network. One of the core challenges for this pioneer work is of methodological nature: a telephone call leaves no written or oral source behind. Thus the work will have to use a broader body of sources, advertisements and films and ‘read between the lines’ about the nature and content of telephone conversation. The telephone was more than a crucial part of the island’s colonial business structure or a useful tool to call for help in situations of distress, but beyond this primary purpose, it offered the opportunity to communicate and chat with other members of your peer group, which was particular important for women. The telephone was also an expensive commodity and consumption was the first step for the indigenous elite to challenge the colonial power. The thesis argues that the telephone played a role in the processes of political and identity building during colonial times.

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