Dyson Seminars in the Humanities and Social Sciences
New York City campus • Fall 2021

Monday, October 4, Bianco Room

Navigating Empire: Migration and Social Mobility of Jaffna Tamils in Malaysia, 1800-1948


Kristina Hodelin, Pace University

Dr. Kristina Renee Hodelin received her Bachelor’s in Anthropology and Sociology from Pace University in New York in 2011. The following year, she was awarded a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Malaysia. From 2013 to 2015, she completed a dual Master’s degree from Columbia University and the London School of Economics’ joint program in International and World History. In September 2016, she joined Radboud University as a PhD staff member funded by the Radboud Institute for Culture and History (formerly Historical, Literary, and Cultural Studies). Kristina’s main research interests includes migration, identity formation, and the making of minorities under colonial rule in the Indian Ocean world. She has published in the international peer-reviewed Journal of Interdisciplinary Economics. Forthcoming work will appear in an edited volume on Jaffna and in a special issue with the Indian Journal of Asian Affairs.


The speaker unravels migrant navigation of empire through the position of a middling group- the Jaffna Tamils- and their notions of belonging across locales under colonial rule. Over the course of the late 19th into mid-20th centuries there was small scale migration between two locales of the British empire: migration between Jaffna and the frontier colony of Malaya. The Jaffna Tamils were a white-collar migrant group working in the civil service of the frontier colony. At first glance, their position of privilege compared to other groups evokes the image of positive relations between colonizer and colonized. However, by reviewing letters between British officials and prominent Jaffna Tamils, as well as, civil service records, government gazettes, petitions and cartoons we can get a more complex account of how the British saw Jaffna Tamils vis-à-vis other groups in the colony. How did this affect subsequent migration between the old colony of Ceylon and the new colony of Malaya? How did Jaffna Tamils respond to challenges against their favorable status and how did this color the British view of the group? By analyzing the outcomes of interaction between the British and Jaffna Tamils, we can come to understand that colonial rule was a dynamic project encompassing the agency of both colonial officials and those inhabiting their colonies.