Dutch period in Ceylon

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Dutch colony


Flag Coat of arms
Capital Colombo
Languages Sinhala, Tamil, Ceylon Dutch and Dutch
Political structure Colony
 -  1640 Willem Jacobsz Coster (First)
 -  1794-1796 J. G. van Angelbeek (Last)
Historical era Imperialism
 -  Dutch annexation of Colombo 12 May 1656
 -  British annexation of Colombo 16 February 1796

Ceylon was a governorate of the Dutch East India Company between 1640 and 1796 on the island currently known as Sri Lanka.

At the dawn of the seventeenth century, the young Dutch Republic was emerging as one of the more — if not the most — enterprising and dynamic forces among the European nations. The Dutch were distinguishing themselves particularly as seafarers venturing into unknown seas and lands. In 1602 the V.O.C. or United East India Company was established. Within a few decades it controlled vast territories in South Africa, Ceylon, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and established a considerable number of settlements in India, Malaysia, Japan and China.

In the early 17th century, Sri Lanka was partly ruled by the Portuguese and the Sinhala kingdom, who were constantly battling each other. Although the Portuguese were not winning the war, their rule was rather burdensome to the people of those areas controlled by them. While the Dutch were engaged in a long war of independence from Spanish rule, the Sinhalese king (the king of Kandy) invited the Dutch to help defeat the Portuguese. The Dutch interest in Ceylon was to have a united battle front against the Iberians at that time.


The Portuguese[edit]

In between Muslim and Mughal conquerors, and below India's kingdom, Ceylon was under the protection of China[citation needed]. In return, Sinhalese kings had to pay 'Kappam' taxes just before the Portuguese came. The Dutch were invited by the Sri Lankans to liberate the country from the Portuguese. They signed the Kandyan Treaty of 1638 with Rajasinghe II and soon embarked on a war against their common enemy. As such the Dutch were appointed as a protector of the country.

Meanwhile however, Rajasinghe II approached the French and offered them the Trincomalee fort as a check against Dutch power. The Dutch captured Trinco from the French and controlled all the maritime provinces of the island. Rajasinghe and the Dutch were both playing a double game trying to outwit each other, and the treaty of 1638 was never implemented. The Dutch ruled all the Tamil provinces and brought Tanjore Tamil slaves to work in the Cinnamon gardens in the Western Province and tobacco farms in Jaffna. The capital of Dutch Coromandel was in Pulicat and they brought needed manpower from the Indian colonies.

SENARAT had divided his kingdom between his own son Rajasinha, to whom were allotted the `Five Countries above the mountains,' practically the modem Kandy District, with the title of king, and the other sons of Dona Catharina, Kumarasinha and Vijayapala, who obtained Uva and Matale respectively. Kumarasinha was poisoned by Rajasinha before Senarat's death, which took place in 1635, and the youngest prince became sole king as Rajasinha II. (1635-1687). The treaty of 1634 was not very strictly observed, and the new sovereign speedily called in the assistance of the Dutch in 1636, offering them a fort at Kottiyar or Batticaloa and guaranteeing the expenses of the fleet. The authorities of the East India Company at Batavia, who already had their eyes on the Lanka cinnamon trade, seized the opportunity and instructed their Admiral, Adam Westerwold, who was setting out to blockade Goa, to call at Lanka on his return voyage. Meanwhile envoys were sent to Rajasinha, at whose court they arrived in 1637. After some negotiations they in company with three Sinhala went on to join Westerwold off Goa, and were witnesses of an action between the Dutch and Portuguese fleets, in which the latter was worsted on January 4, 1638. The Admiral then decided to send in advance of himself the Vice-Commandeur Coster with a small squadron, which arrived at Trincomalee on April 3.[1]

The Dutch and the Portuguese[edit]

Portuguese rule was always in the maritime provinces and the people whom they converted were the coastal folk. They were their backbone of their power. Many of the Princes they converted had either died or were no longer Catholic. The rest of the Ceylon remained in the Buddhist-Hindu religion.

The Dutch were used by the Sinhala king to take revenge on the Portuguese who wanted to expand their rule. The coming of the Dutch ensured that the Portuguese had two enemies to deal with, so that finally the Portuguese were forced to sign a treaty with the Dutch and come to terms with their open economies. Finally, the Portuguese left Ceylon.

The war with Portugal was against their ruler the King of Spain. Once Portugal obtained its freedom from Spain the Netherlands settled for peace with Portugal. Then they divided the occupied areas of Ceylon amicably under a treaty signed in Goa. Slowly, the Dutch became the rulers of coastal and outer areas of Ceylon and Indonesia, and the Portuguese were left with small pieces of territory compared to the Dutch and the English.

Dutch–Portuguese War[edit]

From the time that Christopher Columbus discovered America there was a significant Iberian challenge facing large parts of the world for Spain and Portugal in conquering the Americas and many other territories around the world. In the east, Portugal held territories not only in Ceylon but in India and what is now Indonesia, then referred to as the East Indies.

From 1580 to 1640, the throne of Portugal was held by the Habsburg kings of Spain resulting in the biggest colonial empire until then (see Iberian Union). In 1583 Philip I of Portugal, II of Spain, sent his combined Iberian fleet to clear the French traders from the Azores, decisively hanging his prisoners-of-war from the yardarms and contributing to the "Black Legend". The Azores were the last part of Portugal to resist Philip's reign over Portugal.

The Netherlands meanwhile were in open revolt against their Habsburg overlord and declared themselves a Republic in 1581. Prior to 1580 Dutch merchants had procured colonial produce mostly from Lisbon, but the Iberian Union cut off this supply. Survival of the fledgling republic depended on their going into the colonial business themselves.

With two global empires to rule, and with a growing colonial competition of the Dutch, English and French, the Habsburg kings neglected the protection of some of the Portuguese possessions around the world. In this period Portugal lost a great number of lands to the new colonial rivals.

A map of the lands of the Habsburg kings in the period of personal union of Portugal (blue) and Spain (red/pink) (1580–1640)

During the Twelve Years' Truce (1609–21) the Dutch had made their navy a priority in order to devastate Spanish maritime trade — upon which much of Spain's economy depended — after the resumption of war. In 1627, the Castilian economy collapsed. Even with a number of victories, Spanish resources were now fully stretched across Europe and also at sea protecting their vital shipping against the greatly improved Dutch fleet. Spain's enemies, such as the Netherlands and England, coveted its overseas wealth, and in many cases found it easier to attack poorly-defended Portuguese outposts than Spanish ones. The Spanish were simply no longer able to cope with naval threats. In the Dutch–Portuguese War that followed many erstwhile Portuguese possession fell into Dutch hands.

Between 1638 and 1640 the Netherlands even came to control part of Brazil's northeast region, with their capital in Recife. The Portuguese won a significant victory in the Second Battle of Guararapes in 1649. By 1654, the Netherlands had surrendered and returned control of all Brazilian land to the Portuguese.

Although Dutch colonies in Brazil were wiped out, during the course of the 17th century the Dutch were able to occupy Ceylon, the Cape of Good Hope, and the East Indies, and to take over the trade with Japan at Nagasaki. Portugal's Asiatic territories were reduced to bases at Macau, East Timor and Portuguese India.

Admiral van Spilburgen[edit]

In that same year, on 2 June, the Dutch Admiral Joris van Spilbergen arrived in Ceylon with three ships from the Dutch port of Veere after a 12 month voyage. Visiting Kandy, the seat of King Vimala Dharma Suriya, Spilbergen and the King developed cordial relations. The King’s admiration for his new-found friend was so deep that he begun to learn the Dutch language saying ‘Kandy is now Flanders’. They discussed future relations, focussing on possible Dutch military assistance to expel the Portuguese from the coastal areas as well as the trade in cinnamon and pepper. As a token of his friendship, the Dutch Admiral left in the King’s service two versatile and skilled musicians: Erasmus Matsberger and Hans Rempel.

Second Fleet and the Massacre at the Batticaloa Beach[edit]

Shortly after the successful visit of Van Spilbergen, a second Dutch fleet under command of Sebalt de Weert arrived on the island. De Weert was a very skilful commander who discovered the Falkland Islands during the attempt of Dutch Admirals Cordes and Mahu to find an alternative route to the East Indies through Cape Magelheas in 1598. After an initial agreement with the King of Kandy, he returned in 1603 to Batticaloa with a fleet of six ships to take part in a joint effort to oust the Portuguese from the island. During his stay he took four passing Portuguese ships but released the Portuguese crews who had surrendered to the Dutch on the promise of quarter. The King was very angered by this action and after further heated discussions, De Weert and 50 of his compatriots, who happened to an on shore, were unexpectedly killed by the King’s men. The Dutch Council of the Indies considered this assassination as a treacherous murder and held the King accountable.

First Victory at Batticaloa[edit]

Dutch Colombo, based on an engraving of circa 1680

After this unhappy event, the Dutch concentrated on organising their trade with the East Indian spice islands. It took more than three decades before the Dutch again undertook action to expel the Portuguese who had arrived some 150 years earlier and were firmly established on the island. After many bloody wars with the Portuguese, King Raja Singha II became convinced that lasting peace with the Portuguese was not possible and he invited the Dutch to force them off the island. At that time the Dutch were still at war with Portugal, which was part of the Spanish Empire. The Dutch Council of the Indies in Batavia (Dutch East India) complied with this request and in 1637 sent four ships to the island under Captain Jan Thijszn Payaart who signed a treaty with the King. On 4 January 1638 a decisive sea engagement took place off the coast of Goa between Portuguese and Dutch naval forces. The Portuguese fleet was decimated following this battle and the victorious Dutch Admiral Adam Westerwolt decided to attack the Portuguese fort at Batticaloa on Ceylon with a fleet of five ships and 800 men. In coalition with strong Singhalese forces he conquered the fort on the 18th of May, 1638.

Five days later, following this victorious conquest, Westerwolt in the name of the States General, His Highness Prince Frederik Hendrik and the Dutch East India Company agreed a new Treaty with King Rajasingha in his Palace in Batticaloa. The Treaty was a landmark and set the tone for future relations between the Kandyan Kings and the Dutch. Under the Treaty the Dutch were to have a monopoly over all trades except elephants. The forts captured from the Portuguese would be garrisoned by the Dutch or demolished, as the King thought fit. The crucial clause ‘as the King thought fit’ was however only included in the Sinhala and not in the Dutch text of the Treaty. This later gave rise to much disagreement between the two parties. The same goes for the clause stating that the King would pay any expenses incurred by the Dutch in the war effort against the Portuguese.

Slowly but surely the Dutch land and naval forces continued to oust the Portuguese from parts of Ceylon. In February 1640 the Portuguese fort of Negombo, a short distance North of Colombo was captured by Philip Lucasz. Following his sudden death, the command was devolved to the capable Willem Jacobz Coster who earlier fought under Admiral Westerwolt at the east coast. Against overwhelming odds he attacked the strong fort at Galle. After storming the city on 13 March 1640, he became master of it within a few hours. For the next 18 years Galle would remain the centre of Dutch power in Ceylon.

After the Sri Lankans' betrayal of the Dutch, the Dutch invaded parts of Sri Lanka. They retained an area as compensation for the cost of war and gradually extended their land. As a result of the Kew Letters, the Dutch relinquished the territory to the British.

Dutch conquest[edit]

Vimaladharmasurya I receiving Joris van Spilbergen, 1603

In the 17th century, the Dutch were firmly established in Java at the time when the Portuguese were firmly established in Ceylon. The Portuguese had brought Western culture into Ceylon. The Kandy kings were educated by Portuguese teachers, and their royal court had Portuguese ministers as advisers. But King Rajasinghe was not happy with the Portuguese, who originally came to trade with the Ceylonese and conquered them. The trade commodities the Portuguese sold, such as spices, were bought at minimum prices, giving them a huge profit in European markets.

The Ceylonese were unhappy about losing their freedom and lands to the Portuguese, who forced them into the Portuguese way of life. They wanted religious freedom and political freedom from Portugal, so Holland, a powerful enemy of Portugal, came to their aid. Even Denmark offered to help the king of Kandy as there was a Dutch–Portuguese War raging on.

Dutch ships came and landed in Batticaloa and talked with the king of Kandy for allied action against the Portuguese. Rajasinghe immediately seized this opportunity to remove the Portuguese out of Sri Lanka.

Dutch ships and their captains came several times, expanded their friendship with the King of Kandy and jointly plotted plans to liberate the forts around the coasts of Ceylon. The treaty signed between the Ceylonese and Dutch (Kandyan Treaty of 1638) paved the way for new horizons in their relationships. After the treaty the King betrayed the Dutch by offering the fort at Trincomalee to the French. As a consequence, the Dutch captured Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Negombo and Galle.

Double dealings of the Dutch and the Nayake kings[edit]

Rajasinha II is well known to Sri Lankans today from his correspondence with the Dutch, as edited by Donald Ferguson, and from the account of the Kandyan kingdom written by the Englishman Robert Knox, detained there with his fellows as a captive from 1659 to 1679. He was a strong ruler who united his dominions, rectifying the disastrous division made by his father by poisoning one half-brother and driving out another. He was despotic, tyrannical and suspicious, yet very farsighted, and kept his chiefs as hostages at his court. He had no remorse in ravaging and depopulating his subjects' lands when it seemed to be to his political advantage. He was a master in craftiness and double dealings, but met his equals in diplomacy in the Dutch, who found it impossible to act otherwise with an ally who is so shifty. He was acquainted with the Portuguese, and probably had a somewhat wider outlook than his successors. In military matters he was in no way the equal of his namesake of Sitawaka, whom he wished to emulate; his troops, excellent at guerrilla warfare, and their presence at Colombo rather hindered the Dutch. The Sinhala proverb, 'Like giving ginger and getting pepper' ("to get worse"), illustrative of a bad bargain, was applied to his ousting of the Portuguese by means of the faithful Hollanders, and due to this, his invitation of a strong power only resulted in the isolation of his kingdom and its removal from all progressive influences.[2]

Dutch Capture Portuguese Forts[edit]

Forts in Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Negombo and Galle were liberated with the help of Ceylonese Army and Dutch Navy. In reality these forts were in marginal areas where Kotte Kingdom did not exist at that time. It was Tamils who lived around these forts except in the case of Galle fort. as such the Portuguese were unable to defend it with the mercenaries whom they have recruited from Cormandel and western Indian coasts.

As such these forts became the property of the Dutch East India Company. King Rajasinghe wanted to demolish all of them. But Dutch were not paid off their dues against the war against Portuguese and as a result the Dutch did not want to demolish them. The Dutch Sinhalese treaty had conditions where the Sinhala king has to maintain and support the Dutch forces as they were waging war on behalf of the Ceylon/Kandy King against the Portuguese.

The treaty had two copies and the Dutch copy had a clause for the Dutch to own and operate the seaports. The Kandyan copy did not have this clause. The King was not abiding by the treaty as his copy was interpreted as saying that the ports would go back to the King of Kandy. King was fulfilling his part of the obligations. Dutch took all the ports and forts and rest of the lands and replaced the Portuguese. As such the Dutch never left Ceylon and replaced Portugal and started ruling the parts where they seized power as the agents of the king. The people were Tamils and they accepted their new ruler without much reservations. Only in Galle and Negombo the chance of a Portuguese attack remained a real threat.

Rajasinghe always wanted to get rid of both the Portuguese and the Dutch by setting one against another. At times when the Dutch officers or commanders offended him, he ordered their assassination. At times he massacred a ship load of Dutch for minor misbehaviors of their captain. This kind of cruel and crafty behavior made the Dutch to keep the forts and vast amount of land they captured.

Rajasinghe and his courtiers did not offer the help they should. As such most of the battles were waged by the Dutch and the Dutch suffered heavy losses. But when it came to share the loot from the captured forts like Galle, Kandyan king and his forces were there for the occasion and the Dutch gave half the war assets to Kandyan king.

Treachery in Kandy[edit]

After capturing the Galle Fort Coster, the Dutch Commander went to Kandy and met Rajasinghe. He wanted the King to pay for the wars waged against Portuguese, but the Kandy did not have the gold to pay for that war. The Kingdom has entered into a tricky treaty which would bankrupt the Kingdom.

The meeting with the King of Kandy was a disappointment for Coster. None of his demands were met by the King. The King became very angry that he wanted to do away with Coster. King plotted and planned with some Mudaliyars to assassinate Coster on his return journey.

Coster accompanied them without any suspicion, as they showed friendly; but the next day, arrived at the village Niligala, when he was in the act of entering a hut for rest and refreshment, he was suddenly and stealthily attacked from behind with some two score lances and spears. He fell, and then one of the men cut off his head. Those of his suite who attempted to defend him were also killed, eight persons in all, including the surgeon. The rest were disarmed, stripped, bound, and cruelly beaten. They were eventually released and sent over to the Dutch in Batticaloa.

Thus died Coster. He had given up Trincomalee to the King, although it had been conquered without his help, and he transferred to him his rights to the lands surrounding Galle and Matara, which he might have retained by right of conquest.[3]

Implications of Dutch rule in Ceylon[edit]

The Dutch started ruling and expanding their areas. Now the King of Kandy searched for another party of power to help in the war. For this, they approached France. Finally, England replaced Holland by diplomatically taking over Dutch colonies during the Napoleonic wars.

The Dutch settled several Malay soldiers and policemen in Ceylon as a way of ruling the native population.

The Dutch were republicans and brought the ideals of republicanism to Ceylon and as such enabling the larger communities to dominate.[4][5]

The Batavian government was more popular among the Dutch population than was that of the Prince of Orange. This would have been because it was the product of a genuine popular revolution. This was evident during the Anglo-Russian invasion of Holland in 1799.

As a French vassal state, the Batavian Republic was an ally of France in its wars against Great Britain. This led to the loss of most of the Dutch colonial empire and a defeat of the Dutch fleet in the Battle of Camperdown (Camperduin) in 1797. The collapse of Dutch trade caused a series of economic crises. Only in the second half of the 19th century would Dutch wealth be restored to its previous level.

Dutch Governors of Zeylan (1640–1796)[edit]


The islands of Palk Straits were renamed during Dutch rule in Dutch as Leiden, Kayts and other cities of the Netherlands. Dutch priest Philippus Baldeus has written a great historical record similar to Mahavamsa on the Jaffna people and their culture and it was immediately published in Dutch and German with several beautiful pictures. At the Point Pedro Market Square a granite stone inscription still marks the place where Rev. Baldeus preached to the Tamils under a big tamarind tree. This tamarind tree was uprooted during the cyclone of 1964.

Future of Dutch diaspora in Ceylon[edit]

Much of the Dutch Burghers migrated to Australia after British rule ended in 1948 whilst taking advantage of the White Australia policy due to their European descent. Some Dutch Burghers would prefer the Netherlands or some Germanic country. As in South Africa some of them have large plantations and may not leave the country.

See also[edit]


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