WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

The Dutch in Sri Lanka

(@ http://members.lycos.nl/krane/ceylon/ceylonhistory.htm)The Dutch, in perpetual search of trade, appeared in Ceylon for the first time in 1602. To evade the Portuguese they entered by the backdoor, near the present day Batticaloa on the east coast. They were to stay there, fighting hard to drive out the Portuguese, for the next 200 years. They gradually took control of the whole coastline of the Big Island, as they called it, growing the precious cinnamon for huge profits, and trapping the Empire of Kandy in the mountainous interior. By the close of the 18th century, when they had the island in a heavy colonial grip, they were smoothly and bloodlessly replaced by the British, who volunteered to protect their colony while Holland was occupied by Napoleon, but once in control decided that this arrangement was deserving of a more permanent status.

The beginning of this period was clearly the most interesting. The first expedition of three ships, the Sheep, the Ram and the Lamb, was led by Van Spilbergen, the well-known admiral of many expeditions intoVan Spilbergen meets the King of Kandy unknown seas and territories. After landing on the east coast of Ceylon Van Spilbergen undertook an arduous journey on foot through the jungle and the mountains to the court of the King of Kandy. It turned out to be well worth it because they returned with a treaty with the King, who was glad to welcome a third party who could be played against the Portuguese, who had been there since 1505.

Only three months later however, a second expedition arrived in Ceylon, independent of the first one, under the command of the old sailor Sebald de Weert. He recieved as hearty a welcome from the King as his predecessor, and on his request drew up a plan to take the important trading port of Galle, on the west coast, from the Portuguese.

It has never become clear what happened next exactly, but de Weert and 46 of his men were killed by Kandyan soldiers, either because of subtle but fatal transgressions against the complicated ceremonies to be observed at the court, or because they were outrageously drunk. The relations between the Dutch and Kandy were set back to zero.

Raja SinghaOnly in 1637 did the new King of Kandy, Raja Singha II, turn to the Dutch again for help against the Portuguese who were bent on conquest with a view to religious conversion and an end to the rule of independent Singalese Kings. A letter was despatched to the Dutch Governor of the Indian Coromandel coast, which was forwarded to Batavia. Batavia had become the headquarters of the United East-India Company, the VOC, the largest and most powerful multinational the world has ever seen, which had the capacity to wage war and enter into treaties with governments. The Company ordered a fleet that was engaged in blocking Goa to send some ships to Ceylon. Their commander, Coster, helped the Singalese to capture the Portuguese fort at Batticaloa in exchange for two shiploads of cinnamon. In the meantime the enraged Portuguese had marched on Kandy and had sacked it, though on the way back their army was decimated by the guerilla warfare of the Kandyans. The Dutch and Singalese now decided that the Portuguese had definitely overstayed their welcome and made a treaty to expel them from the King's country. The Dutch started to wage war against the Portuguese forts and took Trincomalee in 1639, and Galle in 1640. After the conquest of Galle Coster went to Kandy to talk business, but around this time the King was beginning to wonder whether what was happening was not simply one intruder being replaced with the next. Coster was rebuffed, and after expressing anger at this he was removed from the court, and murdered on his way back to Galle. As a contemperary historian noted: 'An impiousThe death of Coster reward indeed for his services'. In 1642 Portugal ended her union with Spain and entered into a ten-year truce with Holland, which calmed things down considerably. However, European treaties, as firm as they might seem in Europe, deteriorated in status to the signatories in direct proportion to the distance they were from home, and the Dutch still managed to capture the forts of Negombo and Matara in 1644, the Portuguese holding out at Colombo. After the truce ended a fleet of twenty ships under Gerard Hulft was sent from Holland to settle matters once and for all. Like all the struggles between the Dutch and  the Portuguese in the tropics, the fight was long and viscious, and Hulft, a highly educated and intelligent man, who had just been appointed to the Council at Batavia, made a celebrated visit to Raja Singha at Kandy to seal their cooperation and remove any misunderstandings that had occurred between the two parties in the past. After a long siege, in which Hulft himself was killed, Colombo was finally taken in 1656. Hulft lives on in the name of the present day Colombo neighbourhood Hulftsdorp. When by 1658 the last of the Portuguese had been expelled from Jaffna in the North, the Company had the island for itself.


On the terms of the treaty Raja Singha had to compensate the Company for the costs of their military campaign and the subsequent garrisoning of the conquered forts, and the Company was required to share all war booty equally with Raja Singha. Raja Singha claimed that the Dutch governors had promised to hand over Colombo to him if it was conquered. It's not clear whether this was true. It certainly wasn't in the treaty, and, not surprisingly, it did not happen. Raja Singha had not sufficiently reimbursed the Dutch and, now the Portuguese were definitely gone, was not intending to. The Company had no enthousiasm to give up the Colombo Fort either, and had prepared a bill for Raja Singha that he would never be able to pay, even if he wanted to, and which kept getting bigger the longer the Dutch were occupying the forts. From now on the Dutch would keep on trying to get the Kandy Kingdom to officially accept this state of affairs, giving them full legal posession of the forts in exchange for remission of the King's debts, but the Kingdom would never agree. Relations between the Kandyians and the Dutch deteriorated. Periods of peace alternated with hostilities. Attempts by the Kandyians to disrupt trade and starveRijcklof van Goens the Dutch by plundering and depopulating the lowlands were answered by the Dutch closing the port of Kalpityia and thereby stopping the Kandyian trade with the outside world. Raja Singha regretted bitterly the death of his friend Hulft, and had to deal now with the new Governor, the empire builder Rijckloff van Goens, who tirelessly strove to expand the Company's power and territory and sought to persuade the Council at Batavia, even going over their heads to the Directors at Amsterdam, to allow him to go to war with Kandy. But the eternal struggle within the Company between merchants who were interested in trade and thought in terms of cost-benefit, and merchants who were interested in empire and thought in terms of military power was always won by the former. The Company above all had to be prudent.

The monopoly on the cinnamon and the limit on its production was enforced with a heavy hand, to make sure the price did not go down. It was not allowed to grow cinnamon privately anywhere on the island. Ships of other nations that were caught at sea carrying cinnamon were confiscated. Everything depended on the monopoly on the cinnamon trade, and it guided all Dutch policy in Ceylon. Already by 1670 the Company controlled most of the coastline of the island, making it impossible for their European competitors to break into the trade. After the expulsion of the Portuguese it was the British who had become the new adversaries, whose attempts to surreptitiously contact the King and start trading with Kandy via the east coast had failed once the Company had established itself there too. The French too tried to wrestle the Dutch out of their monopoly. In 1672, when Holland was at war with France, the French occupied Trincomalee for a while and sent a mission to Kandy which met with a very unfortunate end. Everyone was flogged and imprisoned for violating imperial etiquette. That nonetheless some trade was carried out by outsiders was always suspected by the Company, especially after some small broken bits of cinnamon were found in a dillapidated warehouse in Batticaloa.

Cinnamon from Ceylon was of very high quality. It grew wild all along the west coast, from Chilaw down to Matara, with the highest quality to be found near Negombo, and deteriorating slowly from north to south. Another kind of cinnamon was found in Malabar, the present day Kerala in South India. This was really a low quality substitute but still it could damage the Company's monopoly, so it was necessary to control Malabar as well. By 1663 the Portuguese had been expelled from there too by van Goens, and the Company was firmly established at Cananore, Cranganore, Quilon and Cochin. It entered into treaties with all the Rajas of the region, and depending on the Raja's power, prohibiting him to peel cinnamon, or else prohibiting him to sell it, or binding him to exclusively sell it to the Company at various prices. The Company would buy the cinnamon and then destroy it. The English factories reported that the Dutch in Cochin had even uprooted the cinnamon trees.

Cinnamon in Ceylon was traditionally peeled by a low caste, the Chalias, who were obliged to peel a certain amount for the landowner whose landChalias collecting and peeling cinnamon they held in tenancy. When the Portuguese conquered these lands they continued the practice, and so did the Dutch. As a consequence they practically got their cinnamon for free. The Chalias only had to be given food while they were working and not tending their fields. Naturally the Chalias did not much like this tradition and at regular times 'spies' from Kandy stirred up feelings against the Dutch to make them stop peeling the cinnamon. The capacity of the King of Kandy to disrupt the peeling of cinnamon in the Company's lands determined the Dutch policy towards him. When it was felt his power was small he was treated badly and his lands infringed upon. When it was felt he could do damage he was pacified and pampered.

Most of the cinnamon was first brought to Batavia, as central marketplace, and only then transported to Europe, which was rather a waste but was never changed. Roughly a fifth was traded around the subcontinent: the west coast of India, the Coromandel coast and Bengal.

A curious aspect of the cinnamon trade, to a modern mind, is that its huge profit was not allowed to be charged to the accounts of Ceylon, but only to the accounts of the Company as a whole. This was done to remove any temptation to the local administration to tamper with the accounts for personal profit. The Ceylon Government could only charge a small allowance for peeling and packing, and, since the cinnamon lands were only held till the King reimbursed them for their expenses made in garrisoning the forts, it was deducted from the King's debt to the Company. A debt which of course kept increasing all the time he didn't pay.

So the Ceylon accounts needed to be balanced by all other trade and economic activity, like pearl fisheries, and trade in areca nuts and elephants. In all the years the Dutch possessed Ceylon these activities could never quite make up for the costs of upkeeping the forts and the garrisons, so in the books Ceylon nearly always operated with a loss, and the Governors were continuously strapped for cash.

For long years the cinnamon was grown and peeled, brought to the ports, laden into the big ships and carried to Europe to be sold at high prices. From 1720 the Company started to plant coffee too. A long series of Governors ruled Ceylon, competent, incompetent, dull, exciting, weak, strong. Some were benevolent, like van Imhoff and Falck. Others were warlike, like van Eck, who in 1765 finally led an army to Kandy and sacked the King's Palace, sending him into refuge in his mountain hideout. One went mad, like the cruel and quite unique Peter Vuyst, who imagined a conspiracy to commit mutiny among his soldiers, and executed a number of them, before he was deposed and executed himself. A precarious peace was upheld with the King of Kandy by diplomacy and pretense. The Dutch pretended to the Kingembassy.jpg (38996 bytes) they were protecting him from his enemies, and made yearly journies to his court offering him presents, but were de facto ruling the country, keeping the King prisoner in the interior, cutting him off from the sea. The King pretended the Dutch were his loyal subjects, calling them his 'coast protectors', but sent out spies to the coast who tried to foment rebellions among the Chalias, sometimes with success, and tried to hinder the transport of cinnamon and the elephants that the Dutch shipped and sold to the Maharajas of India. That the Kingdom of Kandy managed to stay independent for so long can be explained by the inaccessibility of the forest-covered mountains of the interior, as well as the climate there, which was extremely unwholesome to Europeans. Invading armies were usually decimated by disease by the time they got to Kandy, and killed off one by one by guerilla warfare on their way back to the coast.
In 1739 the Singalese dynasty that had ruled Kandy came to an end, and was replaced by a dynasty from Madura in India called the Nayakers, who had married into the Kandyan royal family. Consequently relations between the Kandy Court and the Company worsened. The new Kings, who all took the name of Raja Singha, were more inclined to pursue anti-Dutch policies than their predecessors. The suffocating economic and geographical embrace of the VOC obstructed the Kandy Kingdom's development and kept its people in poverty. The VOC, being a private company, had little interest in raising the standard of living of the people in its territories, other than where it brought them benefit in one form or the other. In 1760 this led to the first serious revolt against the Dutch, under the watch of Governor Jan Schreuder, or as he put it: 'The pitcher which had gone so often to water became leaky by degrees and broke to pieces in my hand at a wrathful push of the Court'. The fort at Matara was besieged and had to be given up by its garrison, which escaped by boat. The Hanwella Fort garrison was massacred. The rebellion spread to other districts and was openly supported by the King, who at the same time started talking to the British East-India Company in Madras, which sent a mission to Kandy that however led to nothing. Schreuder was replaced by van Eck, who sacked Kandy in 1765, and took the silver karanduwa which covered the Sacred Tooth of Buddha with him to Colombo. The Tooth itself had been kept safe by the Kandyans. Soon after that van Eck died, probably of malaria, which had killed many of the Dutch troops during their stay in Kandy, and was replaced by Falck, who sent the karanduwa back to the King and pursued a policy of reconciliation. Falck stayed in office for almost twenty years.

In 1793 the Napoleonic wars broke out in Europe. In 1795 the French occupied The Netherlands, and the Dutch Stadtholder, William V, sought refuge in England. The two nations had become close allies against Napoleon. The British had been having designs on Ceylon for a long time though, especially on the perfect all-season harbour of Trincomalee, and they appeared at Ceylon with a fleet and a letter signed by William V, empowering them to take temporary posession of the island to prevent it from falling into the hands of the French. By February 1796 all of the Dutch posessions in Ceylon had become British.

The Kandy Court actively supported the British in their occupation of the Forts. It had for some time been in touch with the British East-India Company who had already sent three missions from Madras for negotiations with Kandy prior to the British invasion. History repeated itself for the Kandyans, who had once been happy to see the Portuguese expelled from their country by the Dutch, and then discovered that a weak foreign power had been replaced by a strong one. As in their turn the Dutch were replaced by the British, the Kandy Court would soon learn that this transition was of the same nature, and would not only lead to the end of diplomacy and the beginning of war, but ultimately to its own end.

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka