Why so many Sri Lankans have foreign names

My father’s first name was Leo (short for Leonard). His three brothers were Reggie (Reginald), Benny (Benedict), and Archie (Archibald) which made them sound like they could be Bertie Wooster’s pals in the Drones Club. How did they come to have such typically English first names? It was because their father (my grandfather) was working as a civilian administrator for the British army in Burma (now Myanmar) at the time they were born. My grandfather was a great admirer of the British and as befitted such an Anglophile, giving all his children English first names (his only daughter was named Eta after an English nun, I believe) would have come naturally to him. He went further and Anglicized his last name from Nallasegarasingam (polysyllabic names are not uncommon in Sri Lanka) to just Singham, relegating the Nallasegara part to a middle initial. While he gave his children that middle name and initial, the subsequent generation (mine) dropped it altogether.

But many Sri Lankans of the ethnic Tamil community to which I belong went even further and adopted English last names in addition to their first names, so that it was not uncommon for people to have names such as James Cooke, Alfred David, and the like.

How did this come to be that one particular ethnic community in Sri Lanka adopted English names to such an extent? The reason is that many members of that community lived in the northern part of the country that became the target of English and American Christian missionaries (England colonized the country in 1796) who established schools in that region and offered scholarships to students that often involved having the children convert to Christianity and be baptized along with them adopting the names of their sponsors. Thus within a Hindu community, there arose a significant well-educated and influential Christian community with English names.

Schools associated with English churches still exist in Sri Lanka, mostly in the cities. I attended a private school associated with the Anglican church that was modeled on British public schools and even during my time, long after independence, the chaplains were still British clergymen, though the practice of conversion of non-Christians and changing their names has long since disappeared.

This article goes into more details of the history and why the missionaries focused their efforts so much in that part of the country.

A significant portion of this effort was made by the American Ceylon Mission (ACM), established by Rev. Samuel Newell in 1813, in Jaffna, in the Tamil-dominated north of Ceylon, as part of the evangelising  effort of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.

These activities resulted in profound changes in the traditional, caste-based Hindu structure of society. An English-speaking, mainly Christian elite emerged in the northern peninsula. The missionaries, when baptising converts, would give them Christian names and surnames, often those of sponsors of the mission. 

These names could be Biblical — such as James, Paul, Simon, and Solomon. Anglicans and Methodists often received English surnames, such as Crossette, Crowther, Handy, Spencer, Williams and Watson. Those baptised by the ACM, however, invariably received the English monikers of eminent American Protestant families, mostly originating from New England. These included Armstrong, Arnold, Barr, Buell, Chapman, Cooke, Cotton, Curtis, Dwight, Hensman, Hoole, Hopkins, Lawton, Lodge, Macintyre, Martyn, Mather, Mills, Nevins, Niles, Phillips, Riggs, Sanders, Stone, Strong, Taylor, Wadsworth and Wilson. 

Catholics were generally named after Christian saints, notably Anthony, Bastian, David, Diego, Emilianus, George, John and Joseph, often tagging “pillai” (child) at the end; or Biblical entities, such as Cherubim.

Generations later, many people reverted to their Tamil names, either out of patriotism, or for expediency. For instance, E.M.V. Naganathan, the eminent politician, was originally Hensman. Several others decided to adopt double-barrelled surnames, with their baptismal monikers connected to their ancestral Hindu handles by hyphens, for example Crossette-Thambiah, Nevins-Selvadurai and Philips-Arasakumar.

“[In fact] all the Protestant Christian Tamils are related or connected,” Sereno Barr-Kumarakulasinghe, a eco-tourism entrepreneur with such a double-barrelled name, told Roar Media. For example, he said, his own family has connections with the Mather, Page, and Phillips families, as well as with Federal Party founder S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, who in turn had Wilson connections. 

Exemplifying these relationships, the Paul family of doctors, originating in Manipay (patriarch, William Paul being one of Green’s first medical graduates), who occupied several residences in Ward Place, has links with the Cooke, Crosette-Thambiah, Edwards, Phillips, Snell and McGowan-Tampoe families. The Cooke family married into the Abraham, Arnold, Black, Francis, Lawrence, Mather, Strong  and Wilson families, while the Page family has ties to the Dwight, Gardiner, Mather, and Strong families.

Oddly enough, some of the most common English names such as Smith or Jones or Brown are absent, for reasons that are unknown to me.

In the south of Sri Lanka where the majority of people are of the Sinhala ethnic community, Catholic influence from the earlier Portuguese period of colonization (1517-1656 CE) was dominant, especially in the coastal areas which were the regions the Portuguese controlled, so that some of the most common names now are Fernando, Perera, and De Silva. Many of these names were adopted along with conversion and baptism into the Catholic faith. Over time, these names have become indigenized, so to speak, and so common are they that these Portuguese names are now perceived as Sinhala names. That higher level of assimilation may be because those names have been around for three hundred years longer than the English names adopted by some Tamils,

Nowadays each set of names conveys different ethnic information from their origins. If one meets someone with the name Fernando (or Perera or De Silva) in Sri Lanka, one can be almost certain that they are not Portuguese but are ethnic Sinhala. Similarly if one meets someone named Watson or Edwards one can be equally certain that they are not English but are ethnic Tamil. During the early post-colonial period after receiving independence in 1948, Sinhala nationalists began a movement to have people reject their Portuguese names in favor of more traditional Sinhala ones but Fernando, Perera, and De Silva still remain the most common names.

There was no similar major effort to change the English names to more traditional Tamil names, though some did do so. Some members of my own extended family have last names such as Mather, Cooke, Edwards, Tampoe, and Martyn and no one thinks of them as foreign names that should be changed. I recall the father of a friend of mine had the name Stanley Mather and had immigrated to the US a long time ago, who said that when he went for interviews for jobs in the US back in the 1950s, the panel would always look startled when he walked into the room because they were clearly not expecting an Asian person of color.


  1. Deepak Shetty says

    >the panel would always look startled when he walked into the room because they were clearly not expecting an Asian person of color.
    Ha. My wife has an Anglicized catholic name -- One of my American colleagues who knew her name did ask me “How did you meet your spouse ?” and I said I worked in India with her to which his question was “What was she doing in India?” — “Uhh she was born there” and he was so surprised that Indians did have western names.

  2. says

    It’s also easy to tell who is from Macao because many have Portuguese names (e.g. snooker player Marco Fu) while those from Hong Kong often have English names as their personal or second anglicized name.

  3. Ice Swimmer says

    Somewhat similar processes are behind Finnish first names, but as they happened already in 1200s, the names have been adapted to our language. This goes for both the Hebrew/Greek/Latin names, which came through the Swedish ruling class as well as some Pagan Swedish / Old Norse names that remained acceptable (Kings, crusaders or Nordic saints). Pagan Finnish names did have a renaissance after the national awakening in 1800s.

    For example from Hebrew Yochanan, latinized Ioannes, the Swedish version is Johan, Jan or Janne and in Finnish it can be Juhani, Juhana, Johannes, Juha, Juho, Jussi, Jukka, Janne or Jani. Similarly from Hebrew Shoshana to Swedish Susanne to Finnish Susanna or Sanna.

    The pagan origin Swedish names also were adapted for example, Erik became Erkki, Olof became Olavi or Olli and Karl became Kaarle, Kaarlo or Kalle.

    Maybe in a few decades or centuries the English names could be similarly Tamilised.

  4. steve oberski says

    I’ve worked with some people from the former Portuguese province of Goa, India and you would run into names like Prashant Abraham, some sort of mash up of Hebrew, Old Testament and what ever other detritus the Portuguese left behind.

  5. Gaya Fernando says

    Oh lovely… I always thought we had the most quaintest selection of Western names such as Ivor, Quintus, Sextus, and the army commanders being Denzil, Cecil, and all the Reginalds, my own late father Percival and his brother Wilfred sisters Florida, Eunice, Doris etc really made the collection rather interesting. I encountered One Mr. Shakespeare once upon a time in Hulftsdorp when I was a lawyer in another life! Cheers for this!

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