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Arthur Johnston’s forgotten descendents in Sri Lanka
Dutch and French ancestors of Sri Lankan burgers
Jean Francois Grenier was the French Commandant of the Star Fort in the south of Ceylon, in Matara. He had fought in the Seven Years War, reached the Corammandel Coast in the eighteenth century, took service under the Dutch V.O.C. and finally sailed away (on the outbreak of hostilities between the Dutch and the British) in the Bay of Bengal never to be seen or heard of again. Like Arthur Johnston, he too left one child behind, a son, Jean Francois Grenier, a Boekhouder in the Sea Customs at Jaffna.
© by Jean Arasanayagam
The memorialists — The secret that would have gone to the grave

On the 31st December 1828 Adriaan Jansz, the fourth son and the youngest son of Adriaan Jansz who served in the Dutch East India Company in Galle and the Elazabet de Seilwe married Susan Johnston at the Wesleyan Chapel, Dam Street, Colombo. This union produced eight children, four sons, four daughters. Joseph Edward born March 1848 was my maternal grandfather. Not one of those eight children ever set eyes on their maternal grandfather, Captain Arthur Johnston (later Lieutenant Colonel by Brevet) who had left for England on the 11th May 1811, became a Professor in the Royal Military College and finally settled down at Shalden where he died on June 6th, 1824 of some disorder of the throat. He had married Martha Smith daughter of Thomas Smith of Shalden after his retirement from the Army. Capt. Arthur Johnston and Martha Smith had no children.

Susan, by the Captain’s Burgher wife was the only child and only daughter and it was this very same Susan who was to become part of the Jansz family history. Born most probably in the year 1808, Susan died in Galle at the age of 89 on May 16th, 1898, and was buried in the Dutch Presbyterian Cemetery in the family vault of the late P. Bulkhuysen. The death entry shows her as a Burgher. "Her mother was most probably a Burgher lady, whose name we have not been able to trace" (Johnston’s Expedition to Kandy 1804 D. P. E. Hettiarachchi, Journal. R.A.A. Ceylon Vol XXX). Her maiden name remains a mystery but I am inclined to think that it may have been "Godert", a Dutch name. One of Susan’s sons was named Henry Godert.

Dutch and French ancestors

Susan Johnston was just another name in a family genealogy loaded with colonial racial strands. A predictable and natural result of European conquest in the island from the 16th to the 19th century with descendents who had to accept the fact of their hybridity. While there were well documented accounts of this European inheritance there was a bloodline which very few family members ever spoke about. It was always the Dutch and French ancestors who were spoken of, if ever they were indeed mentioned by the numerous aunts and uncles in the Grenier-Jansz enclave. Inheritance and identity were taken for granted and not politicized to create ethnicity or foreground European connections.

These links were not mythologised either. It was my own curiosity that led me along the unknown routes of history to both investigate and interrogate that inheritance. Idiocyncracies, quirkiness of manner, behaviour, volatile temperaments were all put down to the complex racial strands in our birth and ancestry. The generalogies were historically recorded, documented and preserved in family trees and wapenherauts. As I grew up I realised how political those ancestors were. They represented the Imperial theme of the colonizer/ colonized with all the attendant negative aspects of sharing the blood of the colonizer. What were they like, those ancestors? I could see them in the faces of my maternal grandparents and of my aunts, uncles, cousins. There was one other of whom I thought little about until I encountered his picture in a history book on the British Period in Ceylon, written by a Catholic priest, Father S. G. Perera.

Architectural landscapes

As for Adriaan and Francois, I drew their portraits in my mind and imagination. I was able to identify them against the background of the architectural landscapes of the maritime areas they lived in, Galle, Jaffna, Matara. There were relations of my mother who took pains to document their European ancestry, to even prove that they were "European" procuring the right to call themselves ‘European’, sanctioned by Governor North himself. The French connection was made much of, tracing Francois Grenier’s ancestry linking his bloodline to nobility with a Court of Arms, heraldic signs and emblems to enhance the credibility of the left behinder.

These names, the exploits the personal histories, laid the foundations of the Burgher community - the "allerlie," the mixed pickles pungent and spicy of our ancestry. The Burgher identity was born out of a mix of colonial relationships in the island. We were seized out from that historical net. Adventurers - the Dutchman. The Frenchman. There was also a Jew somewhere along the line in my father’s family who was supposed to have set out from Amsterdam and jumped ship somewhere along the way.

Jean Francois Grenier was the French Commandant of the Star Fort in the south of Ceylon, in Matara. He had fought in the Seven Years War, reached the Corammandel Coast in the eighteenth century, took service under the Dutch V.O.C. and finally sailed away (on the outbreak of hostilities between the Dutch and the British) in the Bay of Bengal never to be seen or heard of again. Like Arthur Johnston, he too left one child behind, a son, Jean Francois Grenier, a Boekhouder in the Sea Customs at Jaffna.

In 1824 he was appointed Secretary of the Provincial Court there. He married on 30th November 1800 Charlotta Pietersz (born 27th November 1785) and he had by her nine children one of whom was the father of Charlotte Camille, my maternal grandmother. He was William Jacob Grenier. The colonial strands were knit together in the French, Dutch and British connections. Jean Francois Grenier belonged to the French nobility as some of his descendents were proud to prove, a fact important in tracing European descent and illustrious forebears in the Dutch Burgher lineage.

Post colonial vision

They did not view history through the post colonial vision. However, even in those far-off days there appeared to exist a subtle politicization of those ancestors necessary in their eyes, to create the ethnic identity of the Dutch Burgher enclave and connect it to European ancestry. Captain Arthur obviously did not proclaim the fact that he had left behind his legacy of an all important bloodline. It was only his military narrative, the 1804 expedition to the Kingdom of Candy (Kandy) and that famous Retreat that are the living records set against the turbulent politics of the times when the British sought to be masters of the entire island. It was during that period that Captain Arthur was thrust violently and dramatically into the forefront of events.

Even while engaged in political manoeuvres of those warring epochs those men had time to bed with women and bring forth children. Adriaan had four sons. Francois, one. That was a sufficiency and gave rise to a generation that proliferated. As time passed and the political changes began to affect life, I began my private exploration of my beginnings. I was part of those private and personal dynasties stemming albeit from genealogies that were both historical and political. My concerns had centred round the Dutch ancestor since I belonged to that enclave of Dutch Burghers. It was my discovery of the written narrative of the Irishman, Capt. Arthur Johnston that made me take another route.

Unembellished facts

Where Arthur Johnston was concerned, a few bare, unembellished facts were lodged in my mind for years to come from the time my mother first spoke of that ancestor. I began to search him out and finally tracked him down to Shalden in Hampshire. What disturbed me most now from the point of view of being a direct descendant of Captain Arthur was that his marriage and the existence of that only child was very much a hidden cypher in that colonial agenda of marriage alliances and relationships of the early 19th century. My search became a personal and lonely search with facts that surfaced by chance. Susan was still alive when my mother was a little girl. No doubt my mother had even met her.

My aunt Eleanor Jansz and some of the other siblings most certainly would have known her and heard the story of their great grandfather from her. Captain Arthur was necessary to me in the exploration of my identity when I began questioning the responsibility of colonialism. I needed him. So little was known about Susan. Nothing about her mother, the first Burgher wife. In a paper by D. P. E. Hettiarachchi which appeared in the R.A.S. (Ceylon) Journal Vol XXX. No. 78— 1925, I finally found the authentification of the facts of that marriage. It was something arthur Johnston himself had left no record of, records lost or forgotten, while the birth of that only child received little notice. Was it a secret happening in Arthur Johnston’s life, one that he did not want his world to know about, that he even wanted to forget? And what was to become of Susan who was only a very little girl when her father left the island never to be seen by her again?

Oral narrative

The oral narrative of my mother had lain dormant for many years in my mind and surfaced once more after I read my great, great grandfather’s account of the expedition to Kandy in 1804 and of that famous retreat from the capital resulting from the confusions of countermanded orders. I began to search him out. It became a kind of historical sleuthing. What intrigued me was that it appeared to be a secret that would have gone to the grave had I not resurrected it. This man, Arthur Johnston, and there was not a history book that did not carry his name, had played an important role in the history of Britain’s colonial history in the early years of the nineteenth century. He was no exception to the rule in that context of conquest and subjugation. I not only read through his narrative closely questioning the priorities and prerogatives of that colonial power but also asked myself the question of that ultimate responsibility of colonialism.

The only child he left behind the only daughter he left behind, how responsible was he for that human life engendered out of his personal and private saga? He went away forever, left her behind. Who cared for her and brought her up? Susan Johnston was very, very young when her father went back to England. Did he never think of her again, write to her, keep in touch, care about her welfare, provide for her? He appears to have gone about his life unaffected by that momentous and dramatic event, his relationship with the Burgher lady whose history was never to be known.

It was the advent of Justice Henry Matthews into Susan’s life, a sensitive and intelligent man, who realized Susan’s potential and had taken her to his home where she was not only tutor to his children but also nursed him with loving care, ‘his constant nurse and attendant’ before he died on 20th May 1828. Justice Henry Matthews was described as "a brilliant humorist and author of "The Diary of an Invalid". He was born in 1789 and was the fifth son of John Matthews of Belmont, Herefordshire. He was to become a judge and a traveller.

He received his education at Eton and afterwards became a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge where he graduated BA in 1812 and MA in 1815. He suffered from ill-health and left England for the continent. On his return he published the "Dairy of an Invalid". It was the Journal of his tour in Portugal, Italy, Switzerland and France in the years 1817, 1818 and 1819, London (two editions) 1920 8 VO. This work ‘attained much popular favour’ and was reprinted 2 volumes 1822 8 VO and reached a fifth edition London 1935 8 VO.,

Promoted to Judicial Bench

In 1821 he was called to the Bar and was appointed Advocate - Fiscal of Ceylon. He fulfilled the duties of that office till October 1827 when he was promoted to the judicial bench there being a vacancy after the death of Sir Harding Giffard. Henry Matthews died in Ceylon and was interred in St. Peter’s Church, in the Fort of Colombo. Henry Matthews was married to Emma daughter of William Blount esq., of Oreleton Manor, Herefordshire. He had an only son, Henry Matthews born on 13th Jan. 1826 in Ceylon. Susan was already in the Matthews household when he was born. After the death of Justice Matthews, Mrs. Matthews left for England with her children. Susan had been indispensable during the illness of her husband, Emma Matthews being too distraught to be of any assistance. "Susan had been of the greatest comfort, Mrs. Matthews being too much distressed and overwhelmed with grief." Emma Matthews had offered Susan Johnston a passage to England but she had refused it and soon afterwards married Adriaan Jansz.

And how had Susan come into the life of the Matthews family? In an article which appeared in the Journal, R.A.S. (Ceylon) Vol xxx titled "Johnston’s Expedition to Kandy in 1804" by D. P. E. Hettiarachchi there appears the following account. "There is a striking anecdote that has not received the publicity it deserves. It is connected with the family of the Hon’ble Henry Matthews in Ceylon. And our authority recounts it in this fashion. During his official career Justice Matthews had occasion to visit Galle frequently and during these visits he was entertained by Mrs. Gibson of Buona Vista fame. Here Justice Matthews became acquainted with the only daughter of Lieut. Col. Johnson, Miss Susan Johnston. Justice Matthews offered her a place in Mutwal to teach his children on a liberal allowance. She accepted the offer and for about two years was in the family. Mrs. Gibson is believed to be the wife of William Carmichael Gibson who was Master Attendant of Galle from 1796 - 1803 and at Colombo till 1916 but resigned "to follow mercantile pursuits".

It is my surmise that he would have followed these pursuits in Galle as well as in Colombo and that he had established himself at Buona Vista. Susan Johnston may have come into the life of the Gibsons during this period for it is stated that it was there that Justice Matthews became acquainted with Susan Johnston. Susan perhaps had no one else in the world to help her. She had grown up to be a young woman with qualities of strength and resilience quite unafraid at the age of eighteen to venture out into a new life. She would have obviously known the story of her father from those to whom the Kandyan wars were well known.

Dramatic retreat

Lieut. Col. Johnston himself had made history through that dramatic retreat from the Kandyan capital. Arthur Johnston would also have known William Carmichael Gibson well in Galle since it was the harbour and port of call. To have received the kind of education afforded during that period one wonders whether her upbringing had been entrusted to the Gibsons. To be tutor to the children of Justice Matthews and Emma her background, her abilities, talents and gifts had to have a kind of appropriacy or suitability for the household. Be that as it may, Henry Matthews became acquainted with ‘the only daughter of Lieut. Col. Johnston, Miss Susan Johnston found herself in Mutwal, a suburb of Colombo.

In Mutwal the Matthews family must have occupied one of the villas overlooking the bay. The military officers had their garrisons and quarters in the Fort but the residences occupied by the English were in the environs in the Cinnamon Gardens in coconut groves that bordered the shore and in the ‘hamlet’ of Colpetty. Those residences were large with broad verandahs supported on columns and cooled by Indian punkas. Their floors are tiled, doors and windows formed of Venetian jalousies opening onto gardens covered with flowering trees, creepers, fruit trees. Sir James Emerson Tennent in his account of the Island of Ceylon (1859) speaks of one of these residences, at Elie House, a mansion built by Mr. Anstruther his predecessor in office. "It stands on the ridge of a projecting headland commanding a wide prospect over the Gulf of Mannar, and in the midst of a garden, containing the rarest and most beautiful trees of the tropics, tamarinds, jambus, nutmegs, gauvas, mangoes and oranges, the graceful casuarinhas of Australia, and the beautiful travellers palm of Madagascar".

It was in a residence such as this that Susan spent two years, from 1826 - 1828. Her own father Lieut. Colonel Johnston had died in the year 1824 in Shalden. How different that quiet country village must have been compared to his life in the Crown Colony of Ceylon. It was a life that Susan was never to know of. It was in Mutwal that Justice Matthews’ only son was born in the year 1826. At the age of two he was taken back to England with his mother and sisters. Susan who had been friend, tutor, constant companion was left behind to make her own life.

The young Henry Matthews was educated at the University of Paris, graduating in 1844 and at that of London, B.A. (Classical and Mathematical honours) 1847, LLB (with honours) 1849, Barrister (Linc. Inn), going to the Oxford Circuit 1850. He had a distinguished career and rose to be MP for Birmingham East and Secretary for the Home Department from 1886 - 1922 and in 1895 was raised to the Peerage as Lord Landoff. He died unmarried at his residence, 6 Carlton Gardens, 3 and was buried 9 April 1913 at Cleyhanger Co. Hereford, aged 87, when his peerage became extinct.

Susan Johnston, now Jansz had not ceased to have connections with her "benefactors family" however. One of my grand uncle’s, Charles Alexander Jansz had papers in his possession that Susan had been in communication with the Right Hon’ble Henry Matthews, when she was a widow. She had addressed a Memorial to His Excellency Sir Arthur H. Gordon KCMG on 15th March 1890. In the Memorial she says:

Duly applauded

"Your Excellency’s Memorialist is the only daughter of the later Col. Johnston by whose marvellous bravery Kandy was captured for the British in 1804. The glorious possession of honours he had so splendidly won was duly applauded by the Commander of the Forces as will appear from the two following extracts from letters furnished by your Memorialist by the Right Hon’ble Henry Matthews, Home Secretary, dated respectively, 8.9.1804 and 22.2.1805.

a) The Commander of the Forces directs me to say he has received the report of an attack you made on the Kandyans under the Dissave of Uva and highly applauds the gallantry and judgement of it. The success arouse entirely from your activity and conduct which was exactly what the Commander of the Forces expected at your hands.

b) I am directed by the Commander of the Forces to acknowledge your letter stating your attack on the enemy who received it with warmest terms of approbation".

All these missives go to show that Lieut. Col. Johnston was fully aware of his role in the military history of the Empire but of his only child there is a vast and echoing silence. Arthur Johnston’s portrait still remains, carefully preserved in the National Museum, Colombo but of Susan and her mother there is not a single portrait. "Our endeavours to secure a photograph of this lady who linked with the past of Ceylon proved unsuccessful, though we have come across a photograph taken on her funeral day. As the photograph is much faded and her facial lineaments are not quite visible, we gave refrained from reproducing it here." (Johnston’s Expedition to Kandy in 1804. By D. P. E. Hettiarachi, Journal R.A.S. Ceylon Vol, XXXI). In the Jansz genealogy it is shown that Susan’s fifth son, George Edward, married Eliza Fredrica Balkhuysen and it is probable that Susan spent her last days in Galle where the Dutch connections of her husband had its origin. For me this search will be a vindication for that unknown great, great grandmother who as "probably A Burgher Lady."

Important memorial

The most important memorial to Lieut. Col. Johnston was the bloodline he left behind in Ceylon, not openly acknowledged until this point of time. In a village churchyard in Shalden there is yet another memorial set up by his second wife Martha Smith.

Sacred to the Memory of Lieut. Col. Arthur Johnston

Of Clare in the county of Tyrone, Ireland, formerly of the 19th Regiment of Foot, and 2nd Ceylon Battalion, late of His Majesty’s Regiment of Royal Corsican Rangers, and Assistant Commandt. at the Royal Military College at Farnham.

His services in Ceylon, (where he signalized himself on many occasions, but particularly in the command of an Expedition to Candy in the Year 1804, which place he captured under difficulties the most appalling), laid the foundation of a disease which after many years of severe suffering terminated his life on the 6th of June 1824.

He was born on the 7th of July 1778, and married Martha Daughter of Thos. Smith Esq., by whom this tribute of affection is erected to his memory.

There were other memorials too Colonel Geoffrey Powell quotes...

"A source I did use is the list of Officers of the Green Howards (formerly the 19th foot) — Johnston (e)’s regiment. This states that he was born at Lifford Co. Donegal on 7th July 1778, eldest son of John Johnston (e) of Clare Co. Tyrone. It also gives details of his military career and quotes:

In relations of private life the energy of his intellect, the moral dignity of his principles and the nobleness of his feelings through acknowledged with esteem and respect of those who knew him, can only be appreciated by those who also earned his love. He lived in the exercise of many noble virtues and died with a purity and fervour of Christian faith which, whilst it soothes the remembrance, cannot but influence the lives of those with whom he was connected (Annual Obituary and Register 1826).

This excellent officer fell a sacrifice in the service of his country, during his residence in Ceylon, the effects of which baffles every effort of human power to overcome (Gentleman’s Magazine)".

For me, one of Lieut. Colonel Arthur Johnston’s forgotten descendents it is necessary to record the memorials of his first wife, that unknown Burgher lady and of his only child and only daughter, Susan. That is the source of the true historical saga. They too, including myself, are the memorialists of that period of colonial history. As for myself, I am the post-colonial narrator of those events who looks upon the past with a different eye.

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