Vol 9 - No. 6



A Brief History of the Tamil People and 
Their Contributions to the Colonial Regime


European colonial powers, especially Britain, have had a great influence in shaping the history of Dravidian Tamils. During colonial rule, the Tamils, either willfully migrated or were taken by force to far flung British colonies where they contributed immensely to the British Empire. The empire benefited from the skilled workforce of more than 10 million Tamils throughout the former British colonies; this is especially true in the tea estates, sugarcane farms, minefields, and public service positions. Although they worked hard for the British, these Tamils are now living in abject poverty in several of the former British colonies, where they were abandoned. They do not enjoy the same rights as other citizens in these countries; this has been especially true in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. Division among under-privileged, suppression of minorities and problems with national unification continue to be the legacies of colonialism.

Language and Peoples  

Research has proven that the Dravidian languages can be traced back to 5000 B.C. Excavations at the ancient sites of Harappa and Mohenjodaro show evidence of their presence. Dravidian languages actually comprise of 23 different languages. Many Dravidian languages, as distinct from the Austro-Asiatic family of languages, have been identified among the tribal languages of central India, extending almost to the borders of Bengal.  They are spoken in the southern, central, and northern parts of India.  Beyond India, these languages are also spoken by people of northeastern and central Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, Fiji, and Mauritius.  On the Indian subcontinent, the Brahmi language (one of the Dravidian languages), is spoken in the hills of Balochistan (near the Sindhu River), bordering the countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran.  The northern reaches of this family of languages have been located in isolated settlements in Nepal and Pakistan. 

Tamil is one of the Dravidian languages and it is considered to be the oldest of the 23 languages. Tamil is a language that has a unique script and a literary history that dates back to at least 3000 B.C. The people who use this language are referred to as Tamils. South India and Sri Lanka have been homelands of the Tamils since the beginning of recorded history. They had direct or indirect contacts with Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia, before these countries came under Muslim reign.  Aboriginals of Australia and New Zealand had their roots among the Dravidians in the Indian subcontinent.   In fact, thousands of years ago, while the Mongols migrated deep into the northern and western parts of the world, including North America and Finland, the Dravidians migrated as far as Australia, New Zealand, and some oceanic countries in the Indian Ocean.  During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Tamils migrated to some British colonies, including Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius, Fiji, and South Africa.  Since World War II, Tamil professionals have moved continuously to the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.  

Due to the civil war in Sri Lanka, especially after war broke out between the Sinhalese and Tamils in 1983, tens of thousands of Tamils fled their homes.  They are now settled in about 20 countries; large numbers live in Canada, Germany, France, Switzerland and the UK.  Therefore Tamil has, over the decades, become a truly global language because of these Tamil settlers in almost all parts of the world. In a way, the sun never sets in the world of Tamils.

Early History of Tamils  

The Tamils had their own kingdoms in southern India, long before recorded history.  These Tamil kingdoms were first conquered by Muslim kings moving down south after occupying the kingdoms in northern India. Their collapse was brief and these kingdoms rose again after a short time only to fall again, this time into the hands of the British Empire. The colonials managed to infiltrate Tamil lands under the pretext of trading.   Recorded history of the four south Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and the union territory of Pondicherry dates back to about 6000 years.  The Tamils, who lived close to rivers, including the Sindhu River, were isolated before the Christian era.  The present-day states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh of India constitute the Dravidian culture.  The Dravidians lived in modern-day India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. 

According to historians, the Dravidians were pushed back into the deep south of the subcontinent where they ultimately settled.  According to some other theories, people were separated when the Indian Ocean swallowed parts of the continent and people in Africa, Australasia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Arabia were separated due to these catastrophic natural events. After they settled down in the southern part of the subcontinent, they rose again. 

The first Sangam (academic) age was recorded around 600 B.C.  The state was founded by the first Pandyan king, Kulasekara, and its capital during the Sangam age, Madurai, remained the capital until the Europeans took control of it. Various kingdoms, such as those of the Pallava, the Chera, the Chola, the Pandya, the Chalukya and the Vijayanagara constituted Dravida Nadu, of which modern Tamil Nadu formed a part. The Pandyas were great in trading and learning.  They negotiated trading contacts with Greece and Rome.  They sent shipments of valuable goods, such as ivory, gems, and spices, to Europe.  The Tamil ships were too big to cross the Red Sea and the Romans and the Greeks would send small vessels to the Red Sea to exchange the goods brought by these Tamil ships. Tamil literature describes Kaverippumppattinam as an important trading port, with a huge warehouse, on the Coromandel Coast; the king’s tiger emblem was stamped on incoming and outgoing goods, in order to certify payment of duty. 

The early Cholas reigned between the 1st and 4th centuries B.C.  The first and the most famous king of this period was Karikalan, who built the Kallanai (kall - stone, anai - bund), a dam, across the Cauvery River; the dam is considered to be an engineering marvel of that time. The Cholas occupied the present Thanjavur and Tiruchirapalli districts; they excelled in military exploits. 

During the later half of the 4th century, the Pallavas, great temple builders, rose to prominence and dominated the south for another 400 years.  From their base, Kanchipuram, they ruled a large portion of Tamil Nadu.  In the 6th century, they defeated the Cholas and reigned as far as Ceylon (Sri Lanka).  Dravidian architecture reached its epitome during Pallava rule. 

The Cholas again rose to power by the 9th century.  Under Rajaraja Chola and his son, Rajendra Chola, the Cholas rose as a notable power in India.  The Chola Empire stretched as far as central India, Orissa, and parts of West Bengal.  Rajaraja Chola conquered the eastern Chalukya kingdom, defeated the Cheras in south India, and controlled parts of Sri Lanka. Rajendra Chola went beyond, occupying the islands of Andaman Nicobar, Lakshadweep, Sumatra, Java, Malaya, and those of Pegu with his fleet of ships.  The power of the Cholas declined around the 13th century. 

With the decline of the Cholas, the Pandyas rose to prominence once again in the early 14th century.  This was short lived, for they were soon subdued in 1316 by Muslim Khilji invaders from the North.  Then the Muslim Empire came to an end following occupation by the Europeans.

Europeans in the Colonial Era  

In 1609, the Dutch established a settlement in Pulicat.  In 1639, the British, established a settlement further south, in present-day Chennai (Madras).  In order to expand their sphere of influence, the British incited petty quarrels among the provincial rulers by using a policy of ‘divide and rule’.  The British fought with the various European powers, notably the French at Vandavasi (Wandiwash) in 1760 and the Dutch at Tharangambadi (Tranquebar); they drove the Dutch away entirely and reduced the French dominions in India to the modern-day Tamil Union Territory of Pondicherry.  The British won over the kingdom of Mysore, which was under the control of Muslim king Hyder Ali and his son, Tipu Sultan.  This led to the domination of India’s south by British forces and they consolidated southern India into the Madras (Chennai) Presidency.  Some notable chieftains who fought the British East India Company as it was expanding included Veerapandya Kattabomman, Pulithevan and Maruthu brothers. The first British settlement in India, known as the Coromandel Coast, was established at Machilipatnam in 1611.  The Tamil union territory of Pondicherry was purchased by the French in 1762. 

For many years, the English and French traders lived side by side peacefully in Tamil lands. Then, the Austrian Succession crisis in Europe kindled a flame of hostility between them.  In 1746, Chennai was forced to surrender to La Bourdonnais.  Fort St. David was the only settlement that remained in English possession in southern India.  By the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, Madras was restored to the English. British influence was generally able to secure the favor of rulers of the Carnatic and Tanjore kingdoms, while the French succeeded in placing their own nominee on the throne at Hyderabad.  In the end, Joseph Francois Dupleix rose to be the temporary authority over the fate of southern India, but he was overthrown by Robert Clive, whose defence of Arcot in 1751 forms the turning point in Indian history. In 1760, the crowning victory of Vandavasi was won by Colonel Coote, over Lally, and in the following year, despite help from Mysore, Pondicherry was captured. 

Tamils made contributed a great deal to these European colonial empires. The British escorted millions to Sri Lanka and to the Malaya peninsula, where they were forced to work in estates. More than four million Tamils from southern India worked in tea estates in Sri Lanka.  More than two million Tamils worked on the sugarcane farms in Malaysia, and nearly a million Tamils worked in the gold mines in Africa.  Nearly 100, 000 Tamil professionals were taken from northern Sri Lanka to the Malaya peninsula to work in the British administration. In addition, the French took hundreds of thousands of Tamils from Pondicherry to countries it controlled; the French also reaped the benefits of their labor.  

The present situation in Sri Lanka is a classic example of how the British policy of ‘divide and rule’ worked effectively to create ethnic divisions.  The British favored the Sri Lankan Tamils because their English-language skills were better and they had easier access to higher education than the Sinhalese locals.  The highly-educated Tamils dominated governmental and academic jobs, especially in the fields of medicine, science, and engineering. After Sri Lankan independence in 1948, the Sinhalese majority implemented changes in the state’s post-secondary education admissions policy; changes that gave the Sinhalese an unfair advantage in gaining access to higher education, specifically to science admissions. Even Tamils who received a grade of A+ were denied access to post-secondary studies, while those Sinhalese who received considerably lower grades managed to get past.  As a result of this discriminatory policy, many Sinhalese entered post-secondary institutions and managed to get into the fields of medicine, science, and engineering. As a result, Tamils failed to continue their excellence in medicine, science, and engineering in Sri Lanka.  The colonial legacy of unequal access to education and, therefore, jobs spawned distrust and conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils.  The distrust created civil war conditions in Sri Lanka, where over 80,000 Tamils were killed and over 40,000 combatants on both sides died in the two-decades-old war since 1983.


The influence of Europeans in the colonies created a major shift in world history.  It created conflicts caused in part by dominant groups enacting and enforcing governmental, economic, political, and other social policies that distribute resources unequally.  The conflicts in the world today are part of the post-colonial trauma that came as a result of disputes over providing privileges to some groups over others, over territorial boundaries, over the treatment of indigenous populations, and over the uneven distribution of wealth and local governmental infrastructures.  However, European colonialism meant that the unification of nations in India or Sri Lanka faced enormous problems.  Tamil lands were unified under India. Tamil lands were unified under one Sri Lanka.  When the British administrators left these countries, the Tamils were abandoned and became minorities. Therefore, the European colonial rules have led to enormous problems that remain unresolved and that may continue to be unresolved for the next decades, or centuries, or millennia.   

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily of the Globalom Media or its associate media organisations or related companies.


Satheesan Kumaaran holds B.Sc. (Biology), Honours BA (Political Science) and MA in Integrated Studies  with the specialization in International Law and International Relations. This was first published in The Tamil Mirror. E-Mail:


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