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Colony (Dutch)


Flag Coat of arms
Capital Colombo
Language(s) Sinhala, Ceylon 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

Dutch Ceylon is a term used synonymously for the period, and the area of Ceylon or Sri Lanka that was controlled by the Dutch from 1685-1798 and their rule.

In the 1600s, Sri Lanka was partly ruled by the Portuguese invaders 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. The Dutch were engaged in a long war of independence from Spanish rule. In that background, Sinhala King (Kandyan King) 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.

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. The Dutch gained control of the coastline, but later the colonial British rulers succeeded them. The Dutch and British each ruled for approximately 150 years.




The Portuguese

Asia was facing a Muslim invasion from the West and a Mongol invasion from the East. Ceylon was under the protection of China and Sinhalese Kings were paying 'Kappam' just before Portuguese came. Dutch were invited by the Sri Lankans to liberate the country from the Portuguese aggression and forced conversions. They followed the Laws of the Nations by signing 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.

The people in the island came to respect the Dutch, but Rajasinghe 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. The capital of Dutch India 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. (A.D. 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 in 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 Conquest

Dutch were firmly established in Java at the time when Portuguese were firmly established in Ceylon during the 16th Century. Portuguese brought the western culture into Ceylon. The Kandyan Kings were educated by the Portuguese teachers. The Kandyan Royal Court had Portuguese ministers as advisers. But the King Rajasinghe was not happy with the Portuguese. The Portuguese came to trade with Ceylonese. Because of the foolishness of the natives Portuguese became their masters. The trade commodities like spices were bought at minimum possible prices and Portuguese made a huge profit selling the spices at European markets.

The Ceylonese were unhappy about losing their freedom and lands to Portuguese and they were totally distressed at seeing a government from Lisbon hijacking the country. A beautiful country and culture being vandalised by the Portuguese and Catholicism and Portuguese language being forced down their throats. They wanted religious freedom and political freedom from Portugal. They wanted Holland, a powerful enemy of Portugal to come to their aid. Even though Denmark offered to help King of Kandy wanted the help of the Dutch as there was a Dutch-Portuguese War raging on.

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

Dutch ships and their captains came several times and 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 Dutch attacked and captured Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Negombo and Galle.

Double Game of the Dutch and the Nayake Rulers

Rajasinha is well known to us from his correspondence with the Dutch edited by the late Mr. Donald Ferguson, and from the account of the Kandyan kingdom written by the Englishman Robert Knox, detained there with his fellows as a captive froth 1659 to 1679. He was a strong ruler and united his dominions, rectifying the disastrous division made by his father by poisoning one hall-brother and driving out the other. He was despotic, tyrannical and suspicious, yet very farsighted, and kept his chiefs as hostages at 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 craft and double dealing, but met his equal in diplomacy in the Dutch, who found it impossible to act otherwise with so shifty an ally. He was acquainted with the Portuguese, and probably had a somewhat wider outlook than his successors. In military matters he was in no wise 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' (meaning to get worse), illustrative of a bad bargain, was applied to his ousting the Portuguese by means of the faithful Hollanders,' and his invitation of a strong power only resulted in the isolation of his kingdom and its removal from all progressive influences.[2]

Dutch-Portuguese War

From the time that Christopher Columbus discovered America there was a significant Iberian challenge facing large parts of the world. Spain and Portugal went on to conquer the Americas and many other territories around the world. In the east Portugal held territories not only in Ceylon but 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.

With two global empires to rule, and with the 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.

In the Americas, the Portuguese expansion continue beyond the west side by the meridian set by the Treaty of Tordesillas. Portugal was able to mount a military expedition, which defeated and expelled the French colonists of France Équinoxiale in 1615, less than four years after their arrival in the land. On April 30 of 1625, the fleet under the command of Fadrique de Toledo recovered the city of Salvador de Bahia to the Dutch. The square was composed by 22 Portuguese ships, 34 Spanish ships and 12,500 men (three quarters were Spanish and the rest were Portuguese).

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

However, 1627 saw the collapse of the Castilian economy. The Dutch, who during the Twelve Years’ Truce had made their navy a priority, devastated Spanish maritime trade after the resumption of war, on which Spain was wholly dependent after the economic collapse. 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. Thus the Dutch-Portuguese War came into being.

Between 1638 and 1640 the Netherlands 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.

Dutch Capture Portuguese Forts

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 2 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

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]

The Dutch and the Portuguese

Portuguese rule was always in the maritime provinces and the people whom they converted into their religion were fisherman. These were their backbone of their power. Rest of the Ceylon remained in the Buddhist-Hindu religion.

Dutch were used by the Sinhala King to seek revenge on the Portuguese who wanted to expand their rule. Coming of the Dutch ensured that the Portuguese had two enemies to deal with. as such finally Portuguese were forced to sign a treaty with the Dutch and come into terms with the open economy. Finally Portuguese left Ceylon.

The war with Portugal is 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.

Implications of the Dutch Rule in Ceylon

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.

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

The Dutch were republicans and brought the ideals of republic to Ceylon.[4][5]

The Batavian government was more popular among the Dutch population than was the prince of Orange. This was apparent during the British-Russian invasion of 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)


The islands of Palk Straits were renamed during Dutch rule in Dutch as Leiden, Kayts and other cities of the Netherlands. Dutch priest Rev 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. Still at the Point Pedro Market Square a granite stone inscription marks the place where Rev Baldeus has 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

Much of the Dutch Burghers in Ceylon have already migrated in large numbers to Australia and America. Some Dutch Burghers would prefer the Netherlands or some Germanic country. Like in South Africa some of them have large plantations and may not leave the country.

See also



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