This article addresses a need for refinement and greater conceptual clarity about non-white British identity in the British Empire and its aftermath, by focussing on the Tamils of Jaffna in northern Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Tamils from socially and intellectually elite backgrounds exemplify the nuances of a particular type of non-white ‘British’ identity, which are explored here as variously functional, ascribed, and emotional. ‘Functional’ refers to modes of identification in which Tamils attempted to call on a British moral and intellectual heritage in order to achieve political goals. By contrast, ‘ascribed’ denotes a Britishness that was imposed on Tamils by other colonial subjects as a result of their perceived affiliation with British authority and power. Finally, ‘emotional’ identification with Britishness refers to residual or outmoded forms of attachment to a shared imperial identity, which were expressed by Tamils in the aftermath of the British Empire. While Tamils never simply self-identified as ‘British’, this article considers how Tamils were able to define themselves - and were identified by others - as such. What emerges from this enquiry is a broader and more nuanced conception of Britishness, which centrally positions colonial transitions in the formation of post-colonial identities.
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