April 30 was the National Day of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and also the official Birthday of King Willem-Alexander. Over the past 414 years bilateral relations between Sri Lanka and the Netherlands have been maintained in an atmosphere of mutual understanding. The first recorded contacts between Sri Lanka and the Netherlands was on  August [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Keeping in touch with the Dutch


April 30 was the National Day of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and also the official Birthday of King Willem-Alexander. Over the past 414 years bilateral relations between Sri Lanka and the Netherlands have been maintained in an atmosphere of mutual understanding.

The first recorded contacts between Sri Lanka and the Netherlands was on  August 2, 1602 with the arrival of Joris van Spilbergen, the first Dutch envoy to the Royal Court in Kandy. He was given an audience by King Wimaladharmasuriya (1591-1604) at his palace in Kandy. Spilbergen described his successful meeting with the King in his Travel Journal and took many of his experiences in Sri Lanka to the Netherlands which fitted in well with the objectives of the wealthy merchants there. Subsequently, these merchants established the world’s first multinational trade organisation, the Dutch East India Company in the Netherlands in 1602, better known as VOC.

The VOC gradually established its contacts with Asian societies with whom it traded. Its attention was drawn to Sri Lanka in the early 17th century, and it gained control of certain parts of the littoral of the island by 1658. The VOC administered its possessions in Sri Lanka until they were handed over to the British on February 15, 1796. The British administration maintained relatively satisfactory relations with the Netherlands through a Consul or a Trade Representative stationed in Galle and in Colombo. The Colombo and Galle posts were established in 1857 and the one in Galle was closed down in 1899.

Sri Lanka gained independence from the British in 1948 and diplomatic relations were re-established with the Netherlands in 1951. The embassy shut down in 1972 due to budgetary constraints but was re-opened in 1977 with the Ambassador functioning from the Indian capital, New Delhi. An Honorary Consul was appointed in Sri Lanka – Mallory E. Wijesinghe holding the post for a considerable period of time. As a measure of revitalisation of diplomatic ties, a Charge de Affaires was appointed to Sri Lanka. Subsequently, it was raised to the level of an Embassy in 1978.

In the late 1940s the Dutch government opened its educational facilities to Asian countries and many from the newly independent nations had access to education in the Netherlands. The scholars however, faced two main obstacles, i. e. the language barrier and the long duration of studies. The advisory commission instituted by the Dutch Ministry of Education in 1948, recommended that international courses of short duration at the post-secondary level with English as the medium of instruction be held and this helped the foreigners to fulfil their needs.

The Netherlands Universities Foundation for International Corporation (NUFFIC) was founded in 1952 and its educational arm was the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague. The ISS focused its attention on short term international courses in a wide range of disciplines including Hydrology, Hydraulic Engineering, Environmental Studies, Sanitary Engineering, Housing and Construction and Agriculture. The international educational programmes in the Netherlands were then co-ordinated by the NUFFIC which became the Netherlands Organisation for International Co-operation in Higher Education. Around 40 to 50 Sri Lankans follow international educational programmes in the Netherlands annually.

In early 1970s, realising the need for an institution to continue the relationship with the alumni,  Dr. Evert Jongens, the Head of the International Education Division of the NUFFIC ( see box) established a network of organisations in different countries to unite the Netherlands Alumni in order to foster further bilateral relations. The institutions organised accordingly were referred to as the Netherlands Alumni Associations and one for Sri Lanka was established in 1970.

A major part of the Netherlands-Sri Lanka bilateral relations centred around technical and financial cooperation in the sphere of development activities as well as promotion of economic relations. Dutch assistance is concentrated on the environmental sector, especially the integrated resource management programme in the wetlands including the Negombo lagoon area and Muturajawela. Post-war rehabilitation activities with the people in the North and East are also another focus while there is support for the Institute of Policy Studies, the Centre for Human Rights in the University of Colombo, the Law and Society Trust and Human Rights Committee of the Bar Association.

Several years ago the CCF approached Dutch cultural institutions proposing to establish a cultural programme aimed at preserving the built heritage from the Dutch period. Under this programme a Mutual Heritage Centre was established in 1999. A joint policy framework for co-operation between the two countries signed in 2003 strengthened and developed into a cordial co-operation model. The objective was to implement a project to enable the structure and the manner in which the sustainable maintenance and management of the mutual cultural heritage of both countries was sustained.

One aspect was the conservation of built heritage covering all Dutch fortifications in Sri Lanka and other public buildings with utility value such as markets, churches, etc.  Stakeholders of this programme include the Department of Archaeology, Department of National Museums and the Department of National Archives. A programme of underwater archaeological excavations and conservation of maritime archaeological objects of Dutch origin was commenced in the 1990s and a Maritime Archaelogical Unit established in Galle which is considered the major training institution in conservation of Marine Archaeological Objects in Sri Lanka and in South Asia.

Behind the scenes

The driving force behind the Netherlands Alumni Association of Sri Lanka (NAAL) was Dr. Evert Jongens who saw the NAAL as an example to the other alumni associations in the world. He first arrived in Sri Lanka in 1973 and was fortunate to visit the remains of the VOC in the Colombo Fort and Pettah. In Pettah he saw the impressive building with eight colossal columns in front, on Prince Street which was then used as the Pettah Post Office.

It was on the verge of collapse and he immediately realised that it was an ideal place for a Dutch Period Museum. On his return to the Netherlands he started raising funds while making arrangements to bring together the authorities in both countries for this effort. The building was restored and ceremonially opened by the then President of Sri Lanka, J. R. Jayewardene, in July 1982.The farsighted Dr. Jongens believed that there should be a strong and lasting link between Sri Lanka and the Netherlands. He worked for that objective and promoted the project for twinning of the city of Galle with the city of Velsen in the Netherlands. The project was successful and Galle even today is economically benefited by the project. Dr. Jongens was a great supporter of the concept of mutual heritage of 17th and 18th century Sri Lanka. His role in placing the Dutch Fort in Galle in the world heritage list through ICOMOS affiliated to UNESCO is commendable. This mutual cooperation was further strengthened with the construction of the new extension of the city of Velsen called Velserbroek, designed in the shape of the Galle Fort. Its main shopping street is named Galle Promenade and other streets of Velserbroek were named after the Sun, Moon and Aurora Bastions of the Galle Fort. Similarly, Galawilawatta in the city of Galle was improved with infrastructure facilities and a community centre.

He worked to establish a joint venture to channel the funds generated in the Netherlands by the name the ‘Netherlands-Sri Lanka Foundation’ (Stichting Netherlands-Sri Lanka). The Foundation’s newsletter made a considerable silent contribution in carrying a good image of Sri Lanka among its readership.

Dr. Jongens promoted scholars to write more and more on the Dutch-Lankan mutual cultural heritage, and the results of his efforts are witnessed in several university publications including Jan Compagnie as Schoolmaster, Dutch Education in Sri Lanka by Professor Jurrian van Goor of the University of Utrecht, Galle, VOC Fortress in Ceylon by Dr. Lodewijk Wagenaar of the University of Leiden, The Archives of the Dutch East India Company in Ceylon by the writer of this article and the Buddhist Meditation Monasteries of Ancient Sri Lanka by Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya then of the Department of Archaeology. He extended his generous support in raising funds for the publications namely, The Sinhalese Vocables of Dutch Origin by Dr. P. B. Sannasgala, Links Between Sri Lanka and The Netherlands and Wolvendaal Church both by Dr. R. L. Brohier which were sponsored by the Netherlands Alumni Association of Lanka.

Dr. Jongens’ contribution in promoting the bilateral relationship between Sri Lanka and the Netherlands cannot be enumerated in a simple essay of this nature. He was virtually an unofficial envoy to Sri Lankan scholars, and played an admirable role in defending, promoting and establishing good relations between the two countries. In recognition of his contribution to the promotion of bilateral relations between two countries, the Government of Sri Lanka decorated him with the title “Sri Lanka Ranjana”, in 2005. Now 92, he is being cared for in a Comfort Home in the Hague.

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