26th October 1997


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During the Dutch days...

The Journal of Spilbergen, an English translation of the account of the first Dutch envoy to Sri Lanka will be presented by the author Dr. K. D. Paranavitana to A. R. C.M. Princen, Ambassador to the Netherlands in Sri Lanka today at the Dutch Period museum. Here Dr. Paranavitana looks at the Dutch conquest of Lanka. The years that are fast drawing to a close will not only mark the turn of the century but also will recall the memories of our colonial past. one of the most memorable events recorded in our annals is the first meeting of the Sri Lankan and the Dutch nationals which took place about four hundred years ago.

The earliest Sri Lankan-Dutch relations commenced with the arrival of the first Dutch envoy Joris van Spilbergen in May 1602. His meeting with King Wimaladharmasuriya I ( 1591-1604) of Kandy has been recorded in detail in the Journal of Spilbergen which was published on several occasions in The Netherlands since 1604. An English translation of the relevant parts of this Journal to Sri Lanka is now available to the reading public. This publication will be the first of a series which will highlight the importance of the meeting of these two nations.

The conquest of Sri Lanka by the Dutch was partly a result of the Dutch-Portuguese struggle over trade supremacy in Asia and partly a result of the wish of the Kandyan kings to exercise their power over the whole island. The Kandyan kingdom alone was not strong enough to resist any foreign power. Realising this situation King Wimaladharmasuriya I solicited the assistance of the Dutch to expel the Portuguese. King Wimaladharmasuriya 1, agreed to trade with the Dutch and the Dutch in their turn agreed to construct forts in strategic ports along the coast line of the island as a measure of defence to the Kandyan kingdom. One year later arrived Sebald de Weert with the hope of establishing solid trade relations with the King of Kandy. His mission was unsuccessful and ended in a disaster.

The Dutch at the early stages of their presence in Asia were more concentrated on Ambon and Banda islands situated within the Indonesian archipelago. 35 years after the arrival of Spilbergen the Dutch again tried to renew contacts with the Kandyan monarchy, mostly for the acquisition of the 'valuable and profitable cinnamon trade'.

The Portuguese writer Garcia da Orta, recorded in 1563 'that 100 lb of Ceylon cinnamon was worth 10 lb gold in his times'.

The Dutch Governor Rijcklof van Goens (Jr) ( 1675-1680), in his memoir left for his successor, referring to the famous cinnamon trade in the island, remarked that 'Cinnamon is said to be the bride around whom they all dance in Ceylon'. The occupation of Sri Lanka was further consolidated by the benefits of controlling trade in the western parts of the East Indies. Sri Lanka possessed a strategic importance to the Dutch by enabling them to resist the Portuguese power based in Goa. In comparison with other similar territories in the East, Sri Lanka was considered to be the key to the western parts of the East Indies.

This time the request for assistance was originated from King Rajasingha Il ( 1635-1687) of Kandy. The King's request led to the signing of a treaty between two parties in 1638. The terms of the treaty were centered on several principal issues. Among them, the King of Kandy undertook to accept the Dutch as his friends, and protectors of his kingdom from the Portuguese.

The King believed that the maritime districts of his realm were unjustly occupied by the Portuguese and expected to win them with the aid of the Dutch. For their part, the Dutch accepted the King's legitimate authority over the whole island and by implication rejected the Portuguese sovereignty over any part of the island. Both parties agreed to share equally the profits or losses in expeditions against the Portuguese in the island. The extent and the status of sovereignty embodied in the treaty of 1638 was ill-defined and subject to confusion for more than a century until it was reaffirmed by the king of Kandy, Kirti Sri Rajasingha, ( 1747-1782) through another treaty signed in 1766.

The Dutch were not satisfied with the response of King Rajasingha 11 to the contents of the treaty of 1638. Their war expenses were on the increase. They therefore, refused to return the fortifications constructed by them to defend the kingdom. Thus the relations between the two parties began to be strained.

The relations between the King and the Dutch further deteriorated when Rijcklof van Goens (Sr) and his son exercised their expansion activities in Sri Lanka, particularly between 1662 and 1675. During this period there were constant battles between the King of Kandy and the Dutch.

With van Goens leaving the island and the death of King Rajasingha 11 in 1687, there was a period of tranquillity and the Dutch began to recognise the King of Kandy as the King of the areas liberated by the Dutch from the Portuguese. The recognition of this status resulted in exchange of ambassadors annually between Colombo and Kandy. The Dutch paid tribute to the king, very often in the form of expensive and rare gifts. The king allowed the Dutch to collect the best and expensive cinnamon peeled in his territory. The king also allowed the Dutch to transport elephants caught in the southern province through his territory to Jaffna for sale.

During the period between King Wimaladharmasuriya 11 (1687-1707) and King Narendrasingha (1707-1739) there was no significant change. The Dutch were considered an accepted nation by the king. Towards the year 1737 the Dutch were of opinion that 'the interests of the king should be given priority together with two other major affairs, namely those of the King's personal interests and that of the religion. The Dutch believed that they had accomplished what was expected from them, namely, the balancing of the power of the kingdom and protection of Buddhism'.

Towards the end of 1750 there was a growing dissatisfaction among the inhabitants of the low country over the new taxes imposed on them by the Dutch. This situation created dissension among the people which aggravated to a rebellion.

The rebellion was naturally supported by the king of Kandy. After an arduous military operation, the Dutch troops invaded Kandy but could not establish their power there for a longer period. Peace talks commenced immediately. After a series of negotiations a treaty was signed in 1766 by which the sovereignty of the Kandyan king was limited to his territory. The Dutch for the first time were empowered by the treaty to acquire the sovereignty to administer their territories in the low country areas. It was expected that an enduring peace would be achieved by signing the treaty in 1766.

At the end of the seventeenth century the Dutch administered approximately 200,000 people in the low country of Sri Lanka, consisting mainly of Sinhala and Tamil, more than in any of their other Asian possessions.

In Ambon and in Molukkas the Dutch administered only about 50,000 people. At the end of the seventeenth century Sri Lanka was the second largest territory in possession of the Dutch in the East. As far as Sri Lanka was concerned, the Dutch realised that they could gain more profits from the trade only if they took over the administration of the low country.

The Dutch had to make use of the native administrative machinery to govern the local population. The Dutch maintained contacts with the people in their territory by coupling direct and indirect administration over natives. The chief who exercised the administrative powers over the natives was called Dissave. All the native headmen functioned under the Dissave.

The Dissave was the head of the province and this position was always held by a senior officer of the Dutch Company. The chief of the Cinnamon Department was also a Dutchman. The native headmen were led by Maha Mudliyar. He conducted delegates to the Court of Kandy. Accordingly the native officers functioned as buffers and mediators between the Dutch administrators and the inhabitants.

The central administrative machinery was headed by the Governor and Council which was stationed in Colombo. It implemented the policies which were governed partly by the internal and partly by the external forces. Externally the Governor-General and Council in Jakarta (Batavia) controlled the expenses and limited the use of military power. Internally, income from cinnamon was not taken into account for the local administration. This means that the government of Sri Lanka was to find its administrative costs from the profit of its local trade, taxes and services. The larger areas referred to as Com-mandementen were administered by a Commandeur with several councillors. In this manner the administrative pyramid was constructed having the Company officers at the top.

The policy of the Kandyan monarch from the time of the Portuguese was to seek foreign assistance to oust any an European power settled in the low country regions in the island. This situation led to the 'substitution of a very powerful neighbour for a weak one'. The Dutch power in Asia was on the verge of deterioration in the last two decades of the 18th century. The Kandyan relations with the Dutch too had reached their nadir after few years from the treaty of 1766. Accordingly the circumstances paved the way for the settlement of another powerful neighbour for the Kandyan Kingdom, that was the British.

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