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

Fonds Specifications


Biographical History

The development of the administration.

The Colombo Dessave.
Another member of Council who was in charge of a department and had several functions besides was the Colombo dessave. He was a European officer entrusted with an office which was of Sinhalese origin, which has no equivalent in other parts of the Company's territory.
Several instructions dating from various periods ( 1661, 1707 and 1792 [1]), are found in the archives and throw light on the development of his activities in the entire district bounded by the rivers of Caymelle [2]and Alican [3], and the sea on the western side and the King's territory on the east. These were of an administrative, judicial and military nature. The coastline of his district extended from Kalpitiya to Bentota: it consisted of the Alutkuru, Hewagam, Salpiti, Rayigam, Pasdun, Siyane and a part of the Walallawiti Korales. [4] Only the town of Colombo itself was beyond his jurisdiction. In many respects his position could be compared with that of a "commandeur". Whereas the "hoofdadministrateur" was an officer of the Central Government, the dessave was a local authority, whose sole connection with the Central Government lay in the fact that he was a council member.
He sometimes acted as its representative when receiving annually the Kandyan ambassadors on their arrisal in the Company's territory, of which he was in charge, and by escorting them from Sitavaka to Hanwella and from Hanwella to Sitavaka, at their departure.
The dessave was often deputed to be the Governor's ambassador to the Kandyan court: he would negotiate with the native dessaves of the Three and Four Korales, who were the chief officers of the Kandyan king. It is owing to the variety of his functions and the distances between the scenes of his various activities that almost every report on the Colombo dessavony and several of the memoirs mention how unsatisfactory it was to entrust these manifold duties to a single officer.
In the early days of the Dutch administration a lieutenant dessave was appointed to assist the dessave, but when objections to his appointment were made on grounds of expenditure, the office was abolished. This happened on more than one occasion, with the result that the dessave would be left single handed.
Since 1741, when the Colombo "landraad" was instituted on the recommendation of governor van Imhoff [5], the countless little disputes between the country folk, which were previously attended to by the dessave, were brought before this new court, which, presided by the dessave, also maintained close contact with the officers who were in charge of the tombo and the garden descriptions [6]. Copies of the court documents, as well as of those on the tombos and gardens, were sent to the Central Government, but very few, especially of the court cases, have been preserved.
Once or twice weekly the dessave would come to the fort of Colombo to report personally to the Governor.
He had his residency in Hulftsdorp, just outside Colombo, where too the "landraad" assembled. Here his records were preserved, and like the controllers of the other cormptoirs, he sometimes sent a list of the existing documrents down to Colombo. Unfortunately, at the end of the 18th century, a fire occurred in his office, which destroyed a considerable part of the archives left by this official. [7] From what is left, and from other sources, it appears that, apart from attending the meetings of the Council regularly and being the chairman of the Colombo "landraad", he presided over the board of "scholarchen", a body of persons who inspected the schools and the churches in the entire district - educational and ecclesiastical affairs being then almost entirely governmental business. He also presided over the native board of orphans, and was curator of the Colombo seminary at Hulftsdorp, which was a training school for native clergymen of the Dutch Reformed Church.
Though it may well seem that the above duties would keep this officer's time fully employed, his chief duties of a dessave, those of an agricultural nature, have not been mentioned yet. He supervised all the work connected with the land and its produce in the Colombo dessavony. He was responsible for the transport to Colombo of the chief product of the Island, the cinnamon, which was left in charge of a special official called the "opziender", i.e. overseer, the pepper and the sapan [8]. The elephant hunts were also arranged by him. He was also responsible for public works in his district, such as the repair and construction of roads, bridges and Company's buildings. The waterways and irrigation works were looked after by him, and as if all this were not enough, he was in charge of the renting out of the Company's paddy fields and fruit gardens during the various seasons. Finally, being also a military authority, he was in charge of the fortresses of Negombo, Kalutara and Hanwella, the captains of which places had to keep in touch with him at Hulftsdorp. The officers administering these places corresponded directly with the Central Government as well as with the dessave.
It is obvious from the above that he must have controlled a large staff of permanent and temporary labourers. [9]