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

Fonds Specifications


Biographical History

The development of the administration.

The Governor.
Whatever else may have altered, the position of the Governor remained practically the same from the beginning. The Governor was the highest authority in the Island and on the coast, his title being "Gouverneur en Directeur van het eiland Ceylon met dies onderhoorigheden", and he would almost invariably be a member, ordinary or extraordinary [1], of the council of the Indies in Batavia [2]Like his colleagues in the other comptoirs, he was appointed in Batavia, for an unspecified period, which appointment would later be sanctioned in Amsterdam. The higher status of the governor of Ceylon as compared with the governors of the other western comptoirs was indicated by the fact that he was allowed to correspond directly with the Lords and Masters in Amsterdam [3], which privilege was not allowed to such governors as those of Coromandel and Surat. Theoretically he would only have to follow the orders contained in the letters from Patria and Batavia. In reality, however, in the Island his position was very similar to that of the Governor-General in Batavia [4]Anything of importance, whether it dealt with Colombo or with the outstations, with the church, justice or defence, passed through the Governor. It was entirely left to his discretion whether a matter should be brought up in his advisory council. Governor van Imhoff wrote to his successor that to explain what subjects had to be referred to the Council and what were normally decided by a governor on his own responsibility, would be alike impossible and unnecessary. "Experience will be a sufficient guide. Indeed, the general principles of caution would counsel any prudent governor to take upon himself the minimum of sole responsibility. Moreover, if he is a wise man, he will recognise that, apart from this, one should trust oneself as little as possible and not disregard any advice whatsoever, still less ignore those whose function it is to tender it, or not to accept it when it can be had". [5]
In his dealings with the people of the country, in matters, such as the issuing of "plakkaten", signing of death penalties [6], and gifts of land, the Governor acted, though on the advice of the Council, as the sole representative of the Governor-General in Batavia. The Governor indeed brought up most matters before the Council, and the minutes of its proceedings, annexes and other documents are sufficient proof of the fact that in the major part of the business transacted the Council did give its advice.
As far as we know, the Governor did not maintain separate archives of his own, the documents kept in the secretariat being all documents of the Governor in Council. Even the secret correspondence and that addressed separately to the Governor would be retained in the secretariat, and the word "secret" was only an indication that the document would not be read before the Council but preserved separately as long as the Governor thought it necessary to do so. Ordinary reports and other documents, even if they were addressed to him, would be dealt with in the Council; nearly all the reports received are referred to in the council minutes resulting from its meetings. Much ceremony was observed, particularly in his dealings with foreign affairs and in his direct dealings with the islanders. In this respect, the procedure in regard to the relations with Kandy. [7] and the yearly reception of the ambassadors of the Kandyan king are of interest: the policy which had to be adopted was prescribed in Batavia, but the carrying out of the same was, of course, left to the Governor. [8]
In consequence, the character of the administration depended to a great extent on the personality of the Governor. Several able and strong minded men held this high office; three of them, Maetsuycker, van Goens and van Imhoff, were summoned to fill the role of Governor-General, which was the most responsible of all the offices of the V.O.C. Some well-known men, like Mr. Joan Simons, the legal specialist, and Johan Gideon Loten, the naturalist, are to be found among the Dutch governors of Ceylon. The position of the Governor indicates that it would be quite reasonable to divide the period of the Dutch administration according to the tenure of office of the various governors. Even the unfortunate period of Petrus Vuyst and some of his successors cannot affect to any appreciable degree the general impression that on the whole the choice of governors was fortunate.
After the capture of Colombo, the Dutch removed the main seat of their administration from Galle to this place, where it remained till the end of the Dutch period. Rijckloff van Goens, that ardent believer in the importance of Ceylon as the centre of the Dutch Indies, tried to induce the Lords and Masters to remove it to Jaffna, after his successful e pedition to India. It was his desire that Ceylon should be united with Malabar (Cochin), Madura (Tuticorin) and Coromandel (Negapatam), and that Jaffna should be the capital of this extensive domain, so that in a short time Ceylon would become "the navel of the East" [9]. Although Malabar was placed directly under Ceylon for a period of three years ( 1661 - 1663), the Lords and Masters in Amsterdam decided otherwise, and in the end only the southern point of India (Madura with Tuticorin) remained directly under Colombo. In the early years of the Dutch administration the town of Colombo had a special "commandeur ", who acted as the Governor's deputy, [10]Pieter van Dam [11]mentions his designation as such, but it is clear that he refers to the functions of the officer who was otherwise known as the "hoofdadministrateur". Of all the towns in the Island, Colombo alone stood directly under the command of the Governor.
The Governor lived in a building which, though reduced in size and greatly marred in outward appearance, is the present St. Peter's Church. [12]The secretariat, where the archives of the Governor in Council were preserved, and the rooms of the "raad van justitie" (court of justice) adjoined his lodgings. The marked centralisation of the government is also apparent in this method of housing.