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

Fonds Specifications


Biographical History

The development of the administration.

The Secretary.
In 1713, on the 28th of April, a "plakkaat" was issued at Batavia, ordering that the secretaries of the councils in the outstations should not be allowed to be members of the same. [1] It is quite probable that this order was observed in Ceylon, and that the secretary had no vote, but in the council minutes his name regularly appears in the headings showing the persons who were present at the meetings, and there is nothing to indicate that the status of the secretary differed in any way from that of the other members. For some unknown reason, however, his name does not appear in this manner between 1756 [2] and 1761. [3]
As far as we are aware, no regulation prescribing the entire functions of the secretary of the V.O.C. government of Ceylon has ever been drafted. Like the functions of so many other officials, it developed according to circumstances, and although he must have been one of the important officers of the government, the secretary acted as the man behind the scenes. His functions can be reconstructed through the medium of the documents themselves. All the drafting and official writing was done by his office. In days when the printing of official communications was an exception - the Ceylon printing press originated in 1734 and for some time it was used almost [4] exclusively for the printing of religious publications - the clerical staff was of great importance.
The council minutes, the central documents of the administration, had to be copied at least three times in orderto keep Patria and Batavia in touch with the state of affairs here. The same applies to the correspondence: in fact the Dutch records as we know them today are only a comparatively minor part of the activities of the Dutch secretariat.
While the secretary was in charge of all the drafting and copying done on behalf of the Central Government, he was also in charge of several series of records kept as routine administration [5] and he was responsible for the Colombo diary and its compilation [6] and for a collection of daily papers in the secretariat [7]. With its variety of documents, it is difficult to understand why this last series was arranged in the manner in which it is preserved. On handing over his office, the secretary made an inventory of the contents of the buildings and as the documents were also counted and described, these lists preserved at the secretariat are of great value: they are, in fact, old catalogues of the archives. [8]
Besides being the secretary to the Governor and the Council, as in all V.O.C. comptoirs, this officer also performed the duties of public notary. [9] Two lists, one of 1794 and one of 1795 [10], are left, in which the clerks and their respective duties are enumerated. One "assistent" and two apprentices were in charge of the documents and were, even at that time, designated as "archivists". Carelessness in handling old documents was regarded as misconduct, as in the case of Gerrit van Toll. The fact that as secretary he had allowed the Portuguese tombos to be destroyed militated against him in his case before the court of justice. [11]
The clerks starting their clerical duties as "soldaten bij de pen", i.e. "soldiers of the pen", were after a few years con- firmed in their appointment by being made assistant, clerk, sworn clerk and finally first sworn clerk. After the post of assistant they generally entered the ranks of the "boekhouders". It was, of course, not everyone that could reach this stage, but in the days when handwriting was so important, it was a point very much in a clerk's favour if he was reported to be "skilled with the pen", which was of such essential value to this office.