Revealing text as well as illustrations of Dutch period

Book facts: Description of Malabar and Ceylon by Philip Baldaeus. Reprinted in 2009 by Lake House Printers and Publishers. Available at Lake House Bookshop, Hyde Park Corner.

We are so often warned not to judge a book by its cover but when you come across a quaint inscription on the jacket that reads ‘A Description of ye East India Coasts of Malabar and Cormandel with their adjacent Kingdoms and Provinces & of the Empire of Ceylon and of the Idolatry of the Pagans in the East Indies’ with an engraving of a Dutch soldier atop a caparisoned elephant with sundry natives in colourful dress, it is hard not to be intrigued.

The siege of Colombo

The book in question is a limited edition reprint of the description by Philip Baldeus, a Dutch minister translated from High Dutch- and printed in Amsterdam in 1672. That we have a reprint at this point in time is indeed noteworthy and the hard cover volume is presented in exactly the same language as the original. While this may require some effort on the part of the modern-day reader who will certainly find himself/herself tripping over the capital letters that pepper every sentence, perseverance is well rewarded.

The language is as to be expected long-winded but Baldaeus was nothing if not meticulous in his observations and there is fascinating detail to be unearthed here, not just of the history of the period but also the social and cultural mores of the people which the author recounts.

Equally of importance in the book are the many illustrations - maps and drawings which in themselves deserve a careful study. Beautifully executed they are as revealing as the text itself and bring us many glimpses of the times- from the costumes of the people to the land itself. Some are of military nature- a drawing of the siege of Colombo by the Dutch for instance is, for instance, a perfect complement to the description of the campaign itself.

The title reads ‘An Account of the Siege of Columbo taken from their own Journals and (for the publick Good) communicated to the Author by Matheus van den Broek, formerly a Member of the Council of the Indies, now Governor of the East-India Company. Faithfully translated from the Portuguese’. If the title is lengthy, so too the chapter. It may be of interest to quote from the first few lines: In the Month of September 1655, 10 Dutch Ships came to an Anchor near Negumbo, two more being out at some distance at sea, having landed 11 Companies of Europeans of 80 Men each: and being join’d by a good number of Negroes, they march’d to the Pass of Betal, but by reason of the Violent Rains were forced to return to Negumbo (Page 761). It continues in similar vein outlining the ups and downs of the siege ‘carried on by Raja Singa, King of Candy and the Hollanders’ till the surrender of the Fortress.

Sketch of church in Jaffna

Baldeus being a Minister naturally also dwells on the affairs of the Church and his account of the churches in Jaffna is indicative of the missionary zeal that characterized those early visitors. He writes, of how in 1658, he introduced and taught the Reforme’d Religion for the first time ( Pg 800) and in 1661 administered the Sacrament to 12 Communicants.

Not lacking is his descriptions too of the nature of the land. Writing of Adam’s Peak, he refers to it being sacred to the people. “… the print of the foot of Adam is to be seen to this day in the Rock, the Draught whereof is kept in the Imperial Court”. He also refers to it as being difficult to access, unless by means of iron chains and iron spikes fastened to the rocks.

The fascination extends to the people, from the Brahmins of Jaffna and their customs to the Cingalese – ‘the Cingalese are naturally active and ingenious, and good workmen in Gold, Silver, Ivory, Ebony, Iron Works etc. Arms inlaid with silver, eloquent, nimble, courageous, fit for Warlike Exploits, sober and watchful’. He comments too on the freedom of worship accorded to the Cingalese and in describing Kandy also refers to the procession, of elephants, dancers and a great number of men, women and children (Pg 821).

Ceylon and the Coasts of Malabar and Coromandel (of lesser interest here) as seen through Baldeus eyes’ is naturally coloured with the author’s imperialist worldview some four and a half centuries ago and so parts of the book may strike the reader as anachronistic. But for those who have the interest, scholars as well as laymen, this is a substantial read and a book that is likely to provide many illuminating insights for at the end, one can only marvel at the diligence and interest espoused by those of Baldeus’s ilk in documenting the territories under their rule. A comprehensive index also adds weight as a handy reference tool.

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