Mapping Sri Lanka: Heritage

Mapping Sri Lanka: Heritage

An introduction to the shared past of Sri Lanka and the Netherlands.

The Sri Lankan history is rich in close encounters with many nationalities. Different traditions, faiths and ethnicities have mixed. It was during the first half of the 17th century that the Dutch first set foot on Sri Lanka with the arrival of the Dutch East Indian Company (VOC) in the early seventeenth century followed by the hegemony over the coastal areas in order to monopolize the export trade of Sri Lanka.

What remains today of the Dutch Period is a shared heritage that evolved from interaction and exchange between the Sri Lankan and Dutch cultures. This had an effect on the social, cultural, religious, economic and political spheres, resulting in influences on both the tangible and intangible heritage of Sri Lanka.

A shared history of Sri Lanka and the Netherlands

The Dutch presence in Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) lasted 150 years, officially from 1658 when the Dutch expelled the Portuguese, until 1796, the year of the British occupation.

However, the first encounter with the island dates back to 1602, when Joris van Spilbergen arrived on the eastern coast. Ceylon was known to produce the best-quality cinnamon. In addition, the Dutch East India Company (‘VOC’) achieved the monopoly on the trade of tamed elephants directed to the Indian market. The VOC was a leading supplier on the intra-Asiatic shipping market, and that meant that the Dutch had to deal diplomatically with the King of Kandy, in the interior of Ceylon, where cinnamon and elephants were found. The Dutch needed to control the islands’ coasts, as well, particularly the harbours of Colombo and Galle. After Batavia (now Jakarta), Galle, as the departure point for loaded ships sailing directly to the Netherlands, was the most strategic VOC hub in Asia. It had a natural bay to give shelter to ships, but reefs made entering the harbour dangerous. Many shipwrecks are still lying on the bottom of the bay waiting to be recovered.

In the 16th century, the coastal areas of Ceylon were subject to Portuguese influence, while the indigenous kingdom of Kandy in the interior was cut off from the sea. The majority of the population was Sinhalese, followed by Toepas, Muslims, Portuguese and Mestizos (descendants from mix marriages).

During Dutch rule in Sri Lanka, no major migrations took place, other than some isolated episodes like the Javanese and Ambonese soldiers that were sent around 1650 to fight against the Portuguese and later, after 1760, against the King of Kandy.

Among the VOC personnel in Ceylon, many settled down with and married indigenous women. The descendants of this mixed group were identified as Dutch Burghers. Dutch Burghers formed an elite to a certain extent, but by 1948, when Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain, they were being forced to learn the Sinhala and Tamil languages and many chose to leave the country. In present times, the tendency has been reversed, and some Burghers are returning to their motherland.