Everyday Lankan History

Anthony Gomes

Anthony Gomes: catechist turned capitalist

In the eighteenth century Lankan lives became bound up with Dutch colonialism in unexpected ways. The Dutch reformed church and the legal courts could function as stepping stones for individuals and families to secure status and property and to accumulate wealth. Following Anthony Gomes’ life course we see how this washerman from Kollupitiya reinvented himself after each setback in life. And how he turned from catechist into capitalist.


Anthony's school of life

Anthony’s  request

June, 25th 1751. 21-year-old Sinhalese Anthony Gomes stepped into the damp meeting room of the Wolvendaal Church in Colombo. Young Anthony cleared his throat, and asked the council members what could be a career-defining question: ‘Would you perhaps appoint me as the replacement native catechist of the midday services in the Reformed Church?’ Waiting for the Church Council’s answer, we can imagine Anthony standing there in front of them, murmuring behind the table in the background. In seconds that seemed to last hours, he might have looked back on all the moments that led to this crossroads in his young life.  

Kollupitiya in 18th century, H on the map says “wassers negorij” or settlement of the washermen. I. is the schaggerij, where crowds came to drink arrack. B is Colombo Fort and A is the Pettah. Map from Leiden University library. 

The youth of a whiz kid

Born in 1733 and raised in the village of Kollupitiya just south of Colombo, Anthony was the oldest son of a family of eight children. His father Frans Gomes was an indigenous chief of the washer caste, and Anthony enjoyed early life as member of a relatively well-to-do family, with several plots of land. Being part of a Christian
Sinhalese family, Anthony had been baptised in the local Dutch church, specifically for the washer caste. Years later, he went back to that church building to receive a proper education. He still recalled that crucial moment in December 1743, when Christian minister Wermelskircher visited his school to and subjected Anthony and the other pupils to an examination. As a bright student Anthony stood out, and was chosen to follow Wermelskircher to the Seminary of Colombo as a boarding student, amidst the chaos, caused by the passing of his mother and the fraught relationship with his father’s second wife Bastiana.

With his relative low caste background, Anthony might have felt somewhat out of place next to his 24 fellow students at the Seminary that were recruited from well-to-do indigenous families, often from the circles of chiefs and interpreters. It had been quite an accomplishment for the boys to learn not only to read, write and speak Dutch, but also read Greek and Latin. Anthony had been engrossed in Classical authors such as Tacitus or Plato, and had learned about the history of that far away Dutch Republic. His studiousness had again attracted the attention of the Reverend Wermelskircher, who chose him as his personal clerk.

Falling out of grace

With his training barely complete, Anthony stumbled once again upon an opportunity. One of his teachers in the Seminary, Nicolaas Fernando, was old and had been sick for quite some time now. Anthony had already filled in for him several times during midday services, lecturing and assisting with the formalities of baptism and marriage. Anthony wanted more than that: a formal recognition as replacement catechist by the Church Council could mean the start of his career. It was an opening to even bigger and better paid jobs within the Church, or otherwise the Dutch government in Sri Lanka. So here he was, standing in front of the Church Council to ask for this replacement job.  “Mr. Gomes?” The murmuring had finally stopped, and Anthony looked up. “We are pleased to inform you that we will suggest you as replacement catechist to the government, congratulations”.


Celebrations aside however, barely a couple of years after his appointment as catechist, Anthony’s career at the Dutch Reformed Church seemed over before it had even started. After losing his mother at a young age, Anthony had to let go of his father as well, in September 1753. Subsequently, as oldest son, Anthony got stuck in a nasty family feud with his stepmother Bastiana over his father’s inheritance.

Anthony would even drag his stepmother before the Colombo court of justice for thievery, accusing her of holding back part of their inheritance. Things got out of hand, and church reports mention that in September 1754 Anthony even abducted the niece of his stepmother. Pending further enquiry into this case, Anthony was excommunicated by the church. Occupied with the court proceedings, and increasingly involved in trading in arrack as a side job, Anthony asked to be relieved of his duties as catechist in 1755. Even though Anthony and his siblings stepped out of the courtroom as victors almost a year later, his reputation as trustworthy catechist within the Church was damaged beyond repair.

Anthony’s twist

If this would be the end of Anthony Gomes’ story, it can on the one hand be read as that of a talented young man, who consciously took the opportunities offered by Dutch institutions to further his own interest and that of his family. Anthony was a gifted student, who was trusted by the highest Dutch religious officials on the island, went to their schools and was given job opportunities. On the other hand, this part of his life offers us tragic glimpse into what happened if that contact with the church soured. After a complicated court case, his consequent excommunication after an abduction story and his resignation from the position of catechist, Anthony seemingly fell out of favor.

This was, however, not the end of his story. Just like he overcame tragedy and loss early in his life, Anthony was able to emerge from these personal and professional crises. He formed a successful partnership with his younger stepbrother Louis, son of Bastiana. From 1771 onwards they leased the expensive rights to tax the taverns in Colombo Fort for fourteen years in a row, an unparalleled feat in those days. And significantly, while his failure to hold onto a promising career in the Church must have stuck with him as a painful memory, Anthony kept looking back proudly on his time at the Seminary, signing referring in each and every one of those leases to himself as ‘Anthonij Gomes, former teacher’.