Low Fertility in a Polyandrous Society, Sri Lanka/Ceylon 17th and 18th Century

Jan Kok, Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen
Fabian Drixler, Yale University

The Sinhalese of Sri Lanka are among the few people in the world practicing polyandry, at least they did so until the mid-20th century. The practice has been associated with the land fragmentation caused by partible inheritance, which included daughters. Dutch colonial extraction policies made it difficult to expand farm land as this would come at the cost of the cinnamon forests, which the Dutch had claimed as their own. To relieve the pressure on the family estate, brothers had several options: they could share a wife, kill some of their infants, or move away from the family estate to marry uxorilocally. The result were very low male fertility rates. We study this fertility regime by analyzing the population registers the Dutch created for coastal Ceylon, which have been preserved for 1695 and 1760-1770. These so-called thombos describe the family estates in great detail: not only rice acreage and number of fruit trees, but also the type of ownership and the labor services and taxes due to the Dutch East India Company. Furthermore, the individuals living on the land are mentioned by name, gender, age, caste, disabilities and kin relations. The sources allow us to study consumer-producer ratios per estate, which can help us to distinguish between estates or villages with high and low pressure on the land. This, in turn may help us to understand what conditions favored polyandry and infanticide. As births as such were not registered, we have to reconstruct fertility history by combining age and number of surviving children with estimates of age-specific mortality. This Own Children Method is commonly applied to mothers and children. In our chapter, we apply it to fathers to reconstruct fertility from the equally salient perspective of men.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 229. Various aspects of Fertility