Catalogue of the Archives of the Dutch Central Government of Coastal Ceylon, 1640-1796

Fonds Specifications


Biographical History

The establishment of Dutch power in Ceylon
One of the most striking developments in the history of European expansion overseas began to manifest itself in the closing years of the sixteenth century - the entry of those successful rebels against the might of Spain, the Netherlanders, into the eastern seas. These waters had been for nearly a century the strict preserve of the Portuguese, who had now fallen under the yoke of Philip II. The Netherlanders had hitherto profited greatly from the distribution of spices and other articles from the tropics brought by the Portuguese to Lisbon. Now they themselves determined to force their way into the East, to which end companies were founded in towns and provinces, and daring pioneers set out on voyages of trade, exploration and adventure. It was the inspiration of Johan van Oldenbarneveldt which was to combine these scattered efforts into one grand enterprise, and on the 20th March 1602, the "Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie" the V.O.C. received its charter.
Shortly before this date the voyage began which was to make the first contact between the Dutch and the island of Ceylon, and Joris van Spilbergen landed at Batticaloa in April of that same year. He immediately set out on a visit to the king of Kandy in his capital city representing himself as ambassador from the "stadhouder" Maurice of Nassau, prince of Orange.
The purpose of the voyage of van Spilbergen was primarily commercial: from this point of view it was not particularly successful, but he brought back most valuable information as regards the military, political and commercial situation of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean.
After his return to Holland he wrote an account of his voyage, which was published in Amsterdam in 1604. [1] His book not only attracted the attention of the board of merchants, but undoubtedly stirred the imagination of the general public as well. This was particularly the case with the part dealing with Ceylon: the story that the King in his anxiety for the expulsion of the Portuguese went so far as to state that he himself, with his wife and children, would carry stones and mortar for the erection of a Dutch fortress [2], must have stimulated Dutch ambition to establish themselves there in place of that nation. Already before van Spilbergen's experiences became known, however, the newly-founded V.O.C. had decided to equip an expedition with this as one of its objects.
This new expedition was led by Wybrant van Waerwijck, and a part of his fleet, under vice-admiral Sebald de Weert, called at Batticaloa towards the end of that same notable year. He made his way to Kandy, where he was received with enthusiasm by king Vimala Dharma Suriya I, who gave him so hearty an embrace that he "creaked". [3] He did not attempt to explain that he was the representative of the newly-founded company, as such an explanation might have been difficult; but he was able to establish his credentials by showing the King a ring with the crest of the prince of Orange. The Vice-Admiral projected the capture of Galle, with the assistance of the Kandyan sovereign, and to this end went off and obtained help from the main fleet, returning in the company of an ambassador from the king of Achin [4]; but owing to his lack of self-control, and his ignorance of the customs of the country, he brought upon himself the wrath of the King, resulting in his murder, together with forty-six of his men. This took place on 1st June 1603. [5]
Despite this unfortunate occurrence, relations were not broken off, and the new vice-admiral, Cornelis Pietersz van Enkhuizen, not only succeeded in obtaining a cargo of cinnamon at Matara, but somewhat daringly sent Jacob Cornelisz on a visit to Kandy. Though he returned safely, the Vice-Admiral,who in the meantime had explored the bay of Weligama, decided not to risk a continuance of the negotiations. So he departed leaving a message with the Kandyan ambassador that if future trading relations were desired, the best method would be for the Kandyans to have stores of merchandise on the coast ready for trading. [6]
At this period, and for some time to come, there was a definite division of opinion as to whether it would be better to place the rendezvous for Dutch shipping and the headquarters of the V.O.C. in Ceylon or further East. It was de Weert who first put forward the claims of Ceylon, and the idea seems to have persisted for about sixty-five years after the founding of Batavia, as may be seen in a scheme set forth by Rijckloff van Goens, the Elder, in a letter to "Heeren XVII" of 1670. [7] The question was finally decided in favour of Java by governor- general Coen, but before the final decision was made two more voyages to Ceylon were undertaken. In the first, captain Willem Jansz sent Carolus de Lannoye to Kandy: little is known about this beyond the fact that he concluded some kind of agreement with king Senaratna at Kandy on 13th April 1610, [8] and this agreement may be regarded as the basis of that made later between admiral Westerwolt and king Raja Sinha II. The second expedition was sent in 1612 by the governor-general Pieter Both from Coromandel, under the command of Marcellus de Boschhouwer. An agreement was reached [9] with the intention of establishing closer relations between the two parties, but it proved abortive owing to the extraordinary conduct of de Boschhouwer after his prolonged stay at the Kandyan court and his return to Holland. [10]
As Coen had in 1619 decided in favour of Java as the rendezvous, little more was done by the Dutch as far as Ceylon was concerned for more than twenty years, except that occasional calls were made on the coast during voyages further east.
In 1636, however, contact was renewed on the initiative of the Kandyan court. The young king, Raja Sinha II, was bitterly hostile to the Portuguese; he therefore determined to solicit the help of the Dutch, and to this end he addressed a letter dated 9th September [11] to the Dutch commander in Paleacatte, Carel Reiniersz. The latter, having no major Official position, sent the letter on to Batavia. It had already been delayed for about six months at Jaffna, so that it was not until 20th October 1637, that, in accordance with the instructions of the governor-general Antonio van Diemen, Reiniersz sent a favourable reply. [12] This was conveyed to Kandy by Jan Thijssen and Andreas Helmont [13], who were guided through this unknown country by Jan Albertsz van Embden, who for some time had been an officer in the employ of the Kandyan monarch. The letter was well received, and on 28th November Raja Sinha wrote another letter [14], this time to Adam Westerwolt then besieging Goa, again asking for help against his enemies. The Portuguese, well aware of these negotiations, and realising the increasing pressure of Dutch power, decided to minimise the danger of an alliance between the Dutch and the Kandyans by a determined attack on the latter. Kandy was captured, and the King's palace sacked, but Raja Sinha retaliated, and heavily defeated them at Gannoruwa. [15]Admiral Westerwolt sent Willem Jacobsz Coster to the Kandyan monarch with a message of goodwill; and when his work on the west coast of India was completed, followed it up personally. He captured Batticaloa, which had been fortified by the Portuguese [16], and on 23rd May 1638, entered into a treaty with Raja Sinha. [17]This treaty laid down the lines on which future relations were to subsist between the Dutch and the Kandyans. But these good relations did not long persist, and the fact that article 3 of the version of the treaty drawn up in Batavia, in Dutch, differed from that of the Portuguese copy given to Raja Sinha was an unhappy augury of unpleasantness to come. Disputes broke out after the capture by the Dutch of Trincomalee, when they refused to hand it over at Raja Sinha's request, and according to the terms of his version of the treaty; after the capture of Negombo and Galle there was an open breach. The treaties between the Dutch and the Portuguese, of 10th November 1644 [18], 10th January 1645 [19], and 9th March and 25th May 1645 [20], served to increase the suspicion with which Raja Sinha had come to look on his new allies; and although friendly relations were temporarily re-established by a fresh agreement on 6th August 1649 [21], they deteriorated again in consequence of the bitter quarrel which was the result of the capture of Colombo in 1656. The Dutch were desirous of placing their claim to the maritime provinces of Ceylon on a legal basis. [22]. This they found in the gift of these lands by the Sinhalese king Don Joan to the Portuguese. [23] on 12th August 1580. They claimed that they had succeeded to the rights of the latter by virtue of their victory in a righteous war; they dated the official beginning of their settlement from the capture of Batticaloa in 1638, but its effective beginning was the capture of Galle in 1640, and it was not completed until that of Jaffna eighteen years later. Although the Dutch possessions were limited to the coastal lands, it is interesting to note governor Schreuder's comment in his memoir of 1762 [24]: "there is no place or comptoir in the whole of the west of the Indies, where the Company possesses so much territory and of which they are sole masters to such a degree as here...".
Rijckloff van Goens the Elder seems to have overrated the importance of this Island to the Company, but a more accurate view was that set out by Hendrik Adriaan van Reede [25] this was the point of view generally adopted, as may be seen from the memoirs of various governors, and from the description of Ceylon by Pieter van Dam in 1701 as "the difficult burden" of the Company. This was due to the constant trouble with the Kandyan kingdom, not really overcome until the treaty of l4th February 1766 [26], which brought to an end an exhaustive war lasting for five years. Towards the end of that century, the Dutch may be said to have been their own enemies, for the administration was becoming less efficient and more corrupt.
The above short summary briefly reviews the course of events which led to the establishment in the maritime provinces of Ceylon of the authority of the V.O.C., and indicates the nature of the relations which were to subsist between the Company and the Kandyan kingdom. It also serves to point out the relative importance of Ceylon to the Dutch as compared with their greater possessions further east.
The full details of the later developments are to be found in the Dutch archives in the possession of the government of Ceylon, to the first systematic catalogue of which these words form an introduction. It is to be hoped that future scholars, particularly in Ceylon itself, will pursue their historical researches into what is practically an unworked field, and throw light on this comparatively unexplored section of the Island's history.