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

Fonds Specifications


Biographical History

The development of the administration.

The Council.
It was in the Governor's residence that the Council, the advisory board of which the Governor was chairman, assembled for its meetings. Since the year 1727, it was generally known as the "Politieke Raad", and this assembly, "with the Governor as its president, or in the absence of the Governor, the next person in authority, represents the govern- ment of this Island" [1]. In earlier times, there was a Council of Ceylon, which, however, was seldom summoned. [2]. Its records are found among those of the "Politieke Raad", and there does not seem to have been any material difference between the two [3].
To represent the original "Politieke Raad" of Colombo as being merely a local body under a commandeur, similar to those in Jaffna and Galle, does not seem to be correct. The Colombo council minutes definitely deal with matters concerning the general management of the whole Island. If the Governor was present he always signed the minutes. Moreover, the fact that the early council minutes kept in Galle and Negombo were brought to Colombo after the capture of that town in 1656, in order to complete the series of decisions by the Central Government, as indicated in the old Dutch lists [4], is ample proof that practically from the beginning the Colombo council was regarded by the Dutch as their Central Government, whereas the decisions taken in Jaffna, Galle and elsewhere were regarded as those of local bodies. Nevertheless, some local features were characteristic of the Colombo council. Both the "hoofdadministrateur" and the Colombo dessave had their equivalents in Jaffna and Galle (the Matara dessave) who were subordinate to the "commandeur" in charge. In Colombo, however, these two staff officers were placed directly under the Governor and were members of the Central Government.
The term "Political Council" is not really a satisfactory translation of the name "Politieke Raad". It can more accurately be styled " Council of Polity ", in accordance with governor van Imhoff's definition of that word: "Polity is not craftiness, nor statesmanship as interpreted by many who fail to grasp the full value of the words they use and confound it with politics. Much rather is it that civic prudence, strengthened by executive authority, which can maintain in good order everything that makes comlunal life advantageous, easy and agreeable". Therefore, the simple word "Council" is more expressive of its functions to the modern mind than the term "Political Council".
The Council consisted of eight members besides the Governor, sometimes less but never more, elected from among the highest officials, including those holding the rank of "koopman" . [5]It must be borne in mind that the administration of the V.O.C. was an ordered hierarchy. The civil servants had their respective ranks, which were expressed in terms corresponding to the degree of importance of the office held, with the designation "koopman" as a unit. "Onderkoopman" (under-merchant), "koopman" (merchant) and "opperkoopman" (chief-merchant) were the ranks of the officers: their posts and stations were assessed accordingly. Whenever the "commandeurs" of Jaffna and Galle happened to be in Colombo, they took their seats in Council in order of precedence next to the Governor as second and third respectively. They were high officials: some of them even held the rank of "Raad- Extraordinaris" in the Council at Batavia. The position of the "commandeur" at Tuticorin, which was originally on an equal footing with those of Jaffna and Galle, deteriorated in the early years of the 18th century, to increase later on in importance again.
From its minutes, it is clear that the Council met in ordinary and in secret session. The latter, although three earlier files of its mirutes are extant, do not start regularly until 1737. The same persons were present at both the ordinary and the secret meetings. In the ordinary series a division is observed in the latter half of the 18th century. On the 18th April 1787, a proposal of the Governor was carried through unanimously, "to treat both here as well as in the outstations by separate resolutions everything regarding the government of the country, and that these resolutions and their annexes will be bound in separate volumes which will be described as minutes or annexes touching the department of the interior". A further division was made on 2nd September 1790, when the Governor proposed in Council "to treat and to cause to be treated in future all matters regarding the military department or matters of defence by separate resolutions, and to indicate such letters and treat them as secret papers, regarding which decision a circular will be sent to all subaltern comptoirs of the government." This is the reason why, at the end of the Dutch period, two other series of council minutes appear next to the existing series of ordinary and secret council minutes. The separation is not of much more than administrative importance, and the new administrative sections are called the "binnenlandsche" and the "militaire" departments. [6]
Quite different to these was the position of the Secret Committee, which was established during the war with Kandy from 1762-1766, on an order from Batavia. It was selected by the Governor on the 5th October 1762, out of the council members and, "entrusted with all matters of policy and war", it was superior to everyone except the Governor. This Committee, although closely linked up with the Council, has been dealt with in the catalogue [7] as a separate body.