The Kaffirs (Kapiriyo in Sinhala, and Kapili in Tamil) are a Sri Lankan ethnic group of African origin, mostly descendants from Bantu slaves deported by the 16th-century Portuguese slave trade. The Portuguese name “Cafrinhas” is a diminutive of “Cafre”. The underlying Arabic term “Kaffir” means “non-believer”, though most Sri Lankan Kaffirs were Muslims originally. The word “Kaffir” was once used in English to designate natives from eastern and southern Africa. Unlike South Africans, Sri Lankans of African origins do not consider the term “Kaffir” offensive.
The presence of Africans in Sri Lanka has been documented as far back as the 6th century, when Ethiopian traders stopped by the island. Arab merchants already traded slaves from Africa, this was intensified by the Portuguese seafarers in the Indian Ocean. With the arrival of the Dutch, arch rivals of the Portuguese, the Kaffirs worked on their cinnamon plantations. Those Kaffir slaves often were chained up. The Dutch forced some of them to serve in their army. In the early 19th century, the British brought additional African soldiers, not slaves any more, to Sri Lanka to fight against the King of Kandy. Those days the Kandyan army also employed descendents of runaway African slaves from previous African immigration waves. During the 19th century, the British colonial administration recruited laborers mainly from South India, marginalizing the Kaffirs` significance. Many Kaffirs have been denied education.
Many Kaffirs have assimilated and intermarried with the lower castes of various Tamil and Sinhalese communities. Others left the country. But some Kaffir groups survive in pockets, mainly at coastal regions such as Trincomalee and Batticaloa at the east coast and Puttalam and Negombo in the west. Near Puttalam is a village with 50 families, most of them work as menial labourers. Though originally Animists and later on Muslims, many Kaffirs converted to Buddhism and Christianity, most Kaffirs being Roman Catholics today. Kaffirs are a very small community, even many Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lankas don’t know anything about them and are sometimes surprised to hear people with darker skin, thicker lips and curly hair speaking Sinhalese and to learn they are citizens of Sri Lanka.
Kaffirs are of Sri Lankan nationality now but aware of their African background and proud to have some African traditions, dancing and singing performances being their strongest elements of African culture. Kaffirs today fear that their culture is dying and could be of a bygone era very soon. Their dance styles are called Kaffringna and Manja, and their dance music is Baila. The term is adapted from the Portuguese verb “bailar” meaning “to dance”. Baila is popular in Sri Lanka in other communities, too. Though its of African origin, Baila was later amalgamated with European instruments and combines eastern and western rhythms.
Kaffir families have orally recorded histories about their ancestors, many of them claim to be from Mozambique. Kaffirs have their own language, which is a mixture of Sinhalese and Tamil today and was much more influenced by Portuguese in the past.
all Sri Lanka blog articles
by region, by topic
and A-Z here...