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

Description of the Subordinate Components

   Local Boards under control of the Central Government.

The "Diaconie".
The "college van diakenen" or board of deacons of the Dutch Reformed Church is one of the oldest surviving institutions in the Island.
As early as January 2, 1666, governor Rijckloff van Goens, in the practical though masterful manner that characterised his method of establishing new institutions, summarily caused his council to frame a code of instructions for the deacons of Colombo. These "general orders" were founded on the same principles that operated in the mother country. But even prior to this, namely, in 1661, four deacons "good men of the Dutch Reformed religion" - were already in existence and discharging the functions of their office. To this number government was destined later to add a fifth, called the scriba, whose duty it was to keep the books. But no comprehensive code of regulations had as yet been devised for the control of the Dutch Reformed Church or for linking up the diaconate with the central administrative system. At this date the Governor viewed with disfavour the appointment of deacons who were also members of the "kerkeraad" or church council - indeed he condemned the vicious example set in this respect by Cochin and issued a warning that a similar practice would not be tolerated in Ceylon. Three years later, however, on the 15th of February 1671, this same Governor framed and transmitted for approval at Batavia a system of general orders for the control and administration of the Dutch Reformed Church in Ceylon, Madura and Malabar. And, it is strangely ironical to find, in the face of his earlier attitude, the inclusion of a clause that two of the deacons should be members of the church council, so as to preserve a balance of opinion as between elders and church ministers. These draft regulations, though never in fact officially proclaimed and introduced, none the less formed the basis of the working of the entire organisation. Moreover, they reveal the manner in which the panels of four deacons were originally selected. At the close of each year the church council would draw up a list containing twice the number of elders and deacons required. These names would be submitted to the Governor in Council, who would discuss and note down the relative merits of the different candidates, and then the Church council chose the new elders and deacons to hold office for the ensuing two years. This was the method pursued till the year 1758 to maintain the membership of the board at the figure four.
In the minutes of the board of deacons preserved here there is evidence that a "new" church constitution introduced at Batavia on 7th December 1643 [1] had some influence between 1746 and 1758 in determining the actual number of persons who were to compose the board of deacons. Subsequent to that period the number was always six, including the scriba. They would take the chair in rotation and their official designations were:
- "mantelbewaarder" (warden of the cloaks), "kassier" (treasurer), "invorderaar of uitdeeler der liefdegaven" (almoner), "boekhouder" (bookkeeper) and "winkelier" (storekeeper or church warden).
From the outset the deacons had been entrusted with the care of orphans and the poor. Children of European fathers were specially commended to their charge, and this included responsibility for their education. The orphanage is mentioned as early as 1676A steadily increasing measure of intervention and control was exercised by government by reason of the growing amounts of money supplied directly by the V.O.C. In consequence when a new series of instructions was promulgated by the Council on the 10th of August 1780 for the control of the orphanage it was considered necessary to include two governmental commissioners belonging to the Dutch Reformed Church to supervise the deacons in their administration of the institute. In addition, the deacons were charged with the relief of the poor. Under the instructions issued to them in 1666they were the sole authority in determining the precise amounts that should be allocated to the various needy families. It was they who compiled lists of the poor who required assistance; nor was any alteration of these lists permitted save with the approval of three-fourths of the board. Governor van Goens wanted a clear distinction drawn between the spiritual and the temporal powers. And the board of deacons, which exercised functions intermediate between both, were made to feel that the Governor did not approve of interference from the church in these purely secular duties. They were accordingly instructed that in forming their decisions as to allotments for poor relief they should pay no attention to any suggestions emanating from the church council or from any other outside body.
In order to provide the money for the orphans and the poor in Colombo, the revenue from the village and lands around Galkissa [2] had been made over to the deacons. But other sources of income were still required. In 1676 the Council decided that the tax on the manufacture of bricks and tiles, the "pannebakkery" should also accrue to the deacons. When this too failed to yield an income sufficient to maintain the activities of the board, still further measures were devised by government for raising funds, such as house to house collections in the old town or Pettah and the sale to the Sinhalese of graves in and around the Wolvendaal church, from which, indeed, a considerable revenue was derived. The deacons were forbidden to give remittances to Roman Catholics or foreigners, or strangers in the town of Colombo. When, notwithstanding all these exertions, the board was still confronted with a shortage and the continued usefulness of the orphanage was being seriously curtailed, it was resolved on 2nd June 1772, that for the future such deficits should be made good by government.
The archives of the Dutch Reformed Church of Ceylon are preserved in the Wolvendaal church and quite properly, form a unit entirely separate from the government archives. This fact has to be borne in mind to appreciate the full significance of the diaconate records. Their main existence, as part of the government archives, establishes beyond all doubt the governmental character of the diaconate - even though the documents were not always preserved here but were possibly transferred from the orphanage (which was the main theatre of the deacons' activities especially in later years), which is supported by the fact that the documents of the diaconate do not appear in the Dutch manuscript list of 1796 [3].
A considerable portion of these records may be considered as lost. Of the minutes of the board meetings which have survived, some are bound up with their annexes, while in the case of others the annexes have been preserved separately. Some part of the correspondence still exists. As regards the accounts, it is difficult to say whether they belong to the archives of the board or to those of the Central Government. Only a single volume of annual accounts, no. 4113, signed by two deacons is extant, but it is purely a matter of conjecture whether it was compiled for the use of the deacons or of the government.