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

Fonds Specifications


The history of the archives.
In the year 1656,when the Dutch took over the administration of this Island from the Portuguese, they found a number of Portuguese records, a list of which was composed in 1662 [1]. In the same year a list of documents which the superintendent Rijckloff van Goens handed over to secretary Jacob Borchorst, was recorded in the Colombo diary [2]. From the early days of the Dutch occupation until the year 1796, when the adminis- tration including the archives was handed to the British [3], the quantity of documents throughout the Island had been steadily increasing.
In Ceylon, the most important of the "Western Comptoirs", the printing press, as mentioned before, started in 1734. Previous to that year, all government publications, notifications, reports, etc., were written by hand [4] and the archives were used not only as a record office but also as a reference library by the V.O.C. officials. They would find among the files copies of council minutes of the other Western Comptoirs, correspondence and reports on all sorts of subjects collected from various places. The remark by governor Simons that "all documents must be preserved in a careful and methodical manner, and those of importance registered as soon as possible", and "none should be issued without the special order of the Governor, and even then only on the delivery of a receipt" leaves the impression that in the early days the value of colonial records was fully recognised. Reviewing the old administration three groups of "archive-forming" centres may be distinguished.
  • The main collecting centre was of course Colombo, where the Central Government and the central courts were established.
  • The provincial centres, Jaffna, Galle, and Tuticorin, among which Hulftsdorp [5] too could be included.
  • Local centres like Negombo, Kalutara, Matara, Trinco- malee, etc.
Numerically, the collection formed by the Central Government in the secretariat, which was a part of the governor's residence, has survived moderately well. The physical condition of the records, however, deteriorated rapidly during the 19th century through bad storage accommodation and bad handling. It is known which records were left by the Central Government because two index-lists have survived. The first complete contemporary list of the main series was compiled by secretary J. W. Billing [6]. On the 29th March 1785, at the end of which year Billing handed over his office to C.F. Schreuder, and twice subsequently in 1787, when Schreuder handed over to A.S. van de Graaff and when the latter handed over to B.L. van Zitter, this list was revised. A fresh list [7] of the same type was compiled either before or just after the capitulation of Colombo to the British, which brought the list of 1785 up to date as far as the year 1796. The document has not been signed, although it is written in Dutch. From the markings one may surmise that it has been used by the English during the process of checking. Compared with the first list, it is interesting to note particularly that the documents relating to Kandy and those of the Secret Committee appear in the first but not in the second, which was composed ten years later. No trace appears of the Portuguese documents. This however could hardly be expected, since it is known that the late secretary Gerrit van Toll had them destroyed [8]. The fact that a part of the Galle records were used by the Dutch for the purpose of making cartridges during the war against England [9] may be an indication that the Colombo records too were exposed to this form of destruction during that same period.
It is not possible to obtain much information about the history of the archives left over by the central and provincial courts of Ceylon. Very probably, this section consisted of nothing but "liassen", i.e. unbound files. They have been preserved only in so far as they were in the same building as the secretarial documents. They have, at some time or other, been mixed with the secretarial files. They can only be recognised as a separate unit because they have not been included in the lists of the secretarial records by the Dutch administration. Old lists of the Colombo judicial records are no longer in existence anywhere.
A peculiar lack of differentiation between the Colombo central and local governments was the cause of the administrations of several local boards being placed directly under the supervision of the Central Government, and not linked with a provincial government as was done elsewhere.
Of the two large provincial archives in Jaffna and Galle only the documents of the latter have survived and will be catalogued in due course. From the Jaffna records only a few files remain. The tombos and some connected documents were recovered in 1911 [10]. Some files which probably got detached from the main part were, odd enough, found at Hulftsdorp amongst the oldest records of the supreme court.
The south coast of India too was formerly administered from Colombo. A "commandeur", or sometimes only a "hoofd " (chief) with the rank of "koopman" would reside at Tuticorin. Several "residenten" (government agents), at Cape Comorin, Manapar, Allelande and a "hoofd" at Kilkare were his subordinates, being more or less independent officials. They too formed archives, from which, however, nothing has been preserved either in Colombo or in Madras [11].
In this connection, the Colombo dessavony, with its provincial centre, Hulftsdorp, takes a special place. Although the fire of 1793 destroyed a large part of the records, three groups of archives could still be recognised. The old list of the adminis- trative records in this respect was most useful [12]. The place taken by the tombos [13], in charge of the tombohouder, and by the lascarin rolls among these records is not known, as they do not appear in the aforementioned lists. Similarly, the school tombos have been entered under the heading "scholarchale vergadering", although there is no definite indication as to that place.
The local archives, such as those of Negombo and Kalutara, have disappeared almost completely, except for some files which belonged to the Matara records. The Matara depository is known to have suffered twice: once during the rebellion connected with the war against Kandy in 1761, when the early tombos were destroyed [14], and again before they could be handed over to the British [15], by dessave van Schuler. Being the residence of the "landraad" it is probable that it was mostly records of this court which suffered that fate. The same thing happened to the Tangalle collection, which was in charge of that same official.
With the handing over, the period of forming Dutch archives was closed, and that of the British archives began [16]. In order to get itself established the new administration made use of the Dutch records. Even before the appointment of governor North, the governor of Madras, Lord Hobart, issued an order on the 3rd July 1797, constituting a committee of investigation in Ceylon; this was to make a survey of the fiscal resources of the Island from a study of the records of the late adminis- tration, which could only be done by an extensive investigation of the Dutch records. The committee members appointed were superintendent of revenue Robert Andrews, major P.A. Agnew, who had played a prominent part in the events which culminated in the capitulation of Colombo, and brigadier general Pierre F. de Meuron, who, after serving the Dutch, left his former masters and placed his acquired knowledge at the disposal of the British [17].
At that time, there was no official custodian for the main series of records accumulated in the secretariat [18]. Such an officer was appointed in 1798, when Mr. Hugh Cleghorn, who was the first chief secretary to the government of Ceylon, was also appointed the first British keeper of the records in this Island. The creation of this post was in accordance with a clause in the instruction for governor Frederick North [19], the first British governor here, by which he was required "to organise the administration preferably along lines already laid down by the Dutch". In a letter dated 25th May 1798, he was "strictly enjoined to make diligent inquiry and examine such documents" as would afford the fullest material of government legislation and justice, revenue and commerce. The slashing criticism of governor North on the Dutch legislative and judicial methods are mentioned below1; they do not, however, indicate that a thorough prior investigation into the former Dutch adminis- tration had been carried out before the expression of these opinions. When Mr. Cleghorn had to leave office in 1800, interest in the former administration ceased and the post of keeper of the records remained unfilled till the 9th February, 1803, when the Government Gazette announced that Mr. Albert Henry Giesler had been appointed.
It seemed as if the archives, now removed from the direct control of the chief secretary, would become an establishment on their own. The records were far from being preserved in a satisfactory condition. In 1808 [20], Mr. Giesler reported that during the short period of British rule the records, which had been moved more than twenty times from one place to another, were in a very bad state. Just then they had been brought from the old government house to the council chamber and were lying scattered on the ground and threatened to be rendered quite useless by the ravages of white ants and by the dampness of the room. He did not indicate which records they were and whether the archives of the late "raad van justitie" and those of the "landraad" too were among them.
Mr. Giesler, who had been a Dutch "procureur" during the last years of the former administration [21], seems to have been historically interested, since in the list of 1796 notes appear regarding the documents which he removed and returned from time to time. It was during his term of office that Sir Alexander Johnston removed to Europe a selection of Dutch maps and documents belonging to the record office [22]. The maps which according to the list of 1796 were formerly preserved in this office are no longer among the records. Some interesting letters sent by the king of Kandy to the Dutch government in Colombo have been presented by Sir Alexander to the British Museum, but it is not certain whether these too were removed from the archives during his period of office [23].
Successive governors continued to resort to the archives for a solution of their problems on a variety of subjects. The early despatches to the Secretary of State abound with quotations and translations from the Dutch records, which reveal how deeply the contemporary British administration was indebted to the memoranda left by their predecessors. The obligation has been generously acknowledged by Sir Thomas Maitland, who wrote in his despatch of 28th February 1806 [24]: "…we find in all their memoirs for the last forty years when some as able men as are to be met with anywhere, administered the government of this Island, particularly Falck and van der Graaff …".
The fate of the Dutch records after their manifold removals from place to place was for some time in the hands of another keeper of records, named Philip Fretz, and later again of R. Morgan. The latter had a fair knowledge of Dutch, and could make precis or digests from Dutch documents.
The promising future for the records originally foreshadowed by the appointment of Mr. Cleghorn did not, however, fully materialise. A short period of revival is noticeable with the appointment of Mr. Lee, a civil servant who was unusually conversant with foreign languages and especially with Dutch [25]. He was appointed "keeper of the Dutch records", and traces of his activities may still be found in the archives, which he had thoroughly examined. He endeavoured to help governor James Stewart Mackenzie "to turn these Dutch records to account", and when various Indian temples were making claims on the Ceylon pearl banks he was able to give much useful information with the help of the Dutch accounts [26]. The real work of an archivist however, which is custody in the fullest sense of the word, was performed by officers other than the record-keeper, who, moreover, was shortly afterwards appointed postmaster-general (1835). There was no understanding of records in the modern sense of the word. That is the reason why Mr. Lee, totally unaware of any archivistic sin, wrote to the colonial secretary that he had found some "engineers reports by chance whilst clearing this office of much valueless paper in it". He did not know that the papers which he destroyed would be considered as documents of value by later generations. Nor could he be expected to have realised that by removing the engineers' reports [27] and binding them with other British records and translations he was upsetting the original order of the Dutch administration. He had the work done by "clerks of the Dutch records", Mr. van den Driesen and Mr. Fonseka. An interesting list of work to be done by Mr. Fonseka while Mr. Lee was on leave in 1839 is found among the British records [28].
The appreciation of the need for preserving and maintaining such records as priceless monuments for a country's history had not yet been felt in Europe, and it is therefore a matter of great satisfaction that in one of the colonies, where generally there exists a lesser degree of understanding of the humanities than in the West, a man like governor Mackenzie took a definite interest in them. In 1838, he issued a circular with a view to recovering from Dutch Burgher families the lost documents of the former administration [29]. His zeal for studying the Dutch records was not limited to the collections which had remained in the Island as the property of the Ceylon government. It was under his auspices that an effort was made to recover the manuscripts of Sir Alexander Johnston from abroad. When he heard further, that "at Batavia, the supreme Government of the Dutch settlements in the East, many most valuable records, maps, plans, reports by engineers to the governors of those days will be still found", he asked that "Lord Palmerston should be moved to make application to the ambassador from Holland for instructions to the authorities at Batavia to give up to this Government all such public documents …. during the period of this Island forming a part of the Dutch colonial posses- sions in the East" [30]. It is doubtful if this proposal was met with enthusiasm, and nothing resulted from it. Hle also heard that Mr. A. Back, who was interested in the former Württemberg regiment, had stated that a part of the Ceylon records which had been deposited in the Dutch province of Zeeland, had been taken possession of by the British troops during the occupation of the island of Walcheren and brought to England. Here, too, nothing definite seems to have been achieved [31].
During Mr. Lee's absence on leave from 1839, the Dutch records were moved once more, this time to the Colombo kachcheri, where they were placed in the custody of the government agent until the return of the record-keeper. It may be that this move refers to the general records only [32]. It is difficult to make out what exactly is meant by the words "Dutch records". The series of council minutes were separated from the other records which were indicated as "general records". The tradition that a Dutch Burgher should be in charge was maintained throughout.
It was only when the author, Sir James Emerson Tennent became colonial secretary that the very bad conditions under which the government archives were kept, were revealed to the Governor by a memorandum dated 18th October 1847 [33], in which, however, the Dutch archives did not take a special place and from which nothing substantial seems to have resulted. On the contrary, the general situation deteriorated when in 1857, after the retirement of Mr. A.P. de Heer, the post of clerk of the Dutch record was not refilled. The Dutch archives remained in the kachcheri till 1860 when they were brought to the colonial office by the action of the commission, consisting of J. Caulfeild, T. Skinner and J. Bailey, who in 1859 were appointed to report on the records of the colonial secretary's office. The copies of their letters in which they did not try to minimize the scandalous state of affairs were printed [34] and offer most useful information on the subject. Bad storage and negligent handling were the causes and: "It was no wonder that these valuable documents, which were kept by our predecessors with such scrupulous care should have reached this office unbound, tattered and disordered, tied up in bundles, each containing 4 or 5 volumes, without any connection with each other" and further "it is to the want of system, and to the absence of a proper appreciation of the Government Records that the present confusion is to be attributed". Recom- mendations followed: "the Dutch Records … are in a state so discreditable to this Government ... that a sum of money may be specially devoted to their arrangement and preservation". £550.- were recommended to repair the damage done on three thousand Dutch files.
While the volumes were bound many old covers with indications of the contents of the file were thrown away; the value of a knowledge of the language is appreciated when one sees the ignorance displayed by the persons handling the documents. Since they could not read them, no trouble was taken and apart from having the covers with the titles removed, the files were stitched roughly in the order in which they were found, and bound regardless of paging; in some cases this has been done so negligently that it is no longer possible to open them or to read the contents. The difficulties which face the government, possessed as it now is of more appreciation of archivistic values, are due to former mishandling.
Probably the "general records" were once again placed together with the "council proceedings"; to what extent the judicial records, the tombos and the dessave's archives were mixed up with the general records at this stage is impossible to say. In 1867, however, when the registrar general's office was created, the series of Colombo tombos - it is not revealed which of the two series was meant, but it was probably the one maintained by the tombo-houder in Hulftsdorp - and the school tombos were removed to the new establishment because they were thought to be important for registration purposes. Perhaps the secretarial series was deposited there too.
Round about 1880, a fresh interest was taken in the Dutch records, when Mr. H.C.P. Bell, co-operating with the assistant colonial secretary, J.A. Swettenham, entered the scene. His interest was not in the archives as such, but only by reason of the fact that they could provide him with the material for his historical research. Whenever he thought it necessary for his work he removed the documents, had them re-bound, and did not even hesitate to cut out sections which he required for his research. In this way, though he has contributed so much to Ceylon history and archaeology, he has considerably damaged the Ceylon Dutch archives.
In 1880, the Galle records were removed to the office of the colonial secretary, where they were examined and sorted out by Mr. Swettenham. Two years later, however, when the chief secretary's office required more accommodation, the volumes were packed into twelve large cases and removed to the Museum, where they were stored in the godowns. It is quite likely that during these two years a certain amount of mixing up had occurred. In 1881, while working in the colonial secretary's office, Mr. R.G. Anthonisz had found some files [35], which he had labelled but of which he subsequently lost sight.
The great change came in 1899, a hundred years after the British occupation. It was a claim on Crown land, which made the government fully aware of the importance of the documents of the late administration [36]. On the 23rd January of that year after some difficulty Mr. Anthonisz obtained permission to inspect the godown of the Museum where the Galle records were kept [37]. To his great surprise he found in the first and second boxes the records which he had labelled in 1881. In the same year, Sir J.A. Swettenham had written from Malaya to the assistant government agent in Matara about the catalogue of the church records of Malacca, 1642-1898, published by the Singapore government, and Mr. J.P. Lewis suggested that the same type of catalogue should be made of the Dutch records in the Museum, and in the Galle and Matara kachcheries. Now that a general interest was created, arrangements for giving Mr. Anthonisz an opportunity of displaying his talents were quickly made. He was first appointed "examiner of the Dutch records", retrieved the Galle records from the Museum custody, and united them not only with the council minutes and the general records but also with the tombos, which he brought with him from the registrar-general's office, where he had been working before his appointment. In 1902, his title was altered to "archivist and librarian", in which capacity he also had the school tombos removed from the registrar-general's office in 1906 and the remains of the Jaffna records from that province in 1911. Mr. Anthonisz did what he could to repair the damage inflicted on the remnants of the former administration. In spite of the absence of a proper training he showed the interest of a born archivist. Fortunately some able contemporary British historians like H.C.P. Bell, J.P. Lewis, D. Ferguson, F.H. de Vos, P.E. Pieris, Father S.G. Perera and H.W. Codrington, most of whom belonged to the ranks of the civil service, were alive to support him in his work and to profit by his archivistic talents.
It would not be appropriate to refer here to his activities in making lists and translations. Through his interest, the principal object, viz. the safeguarding of the Ceylon Dutch archives, was achieved. The proper cataloguing and repairs were left over to a subsequent generation which could appeal to the public feeling of responsibility for the archives, which being accumulated under a former administration, are a unique source for Ceylon history.