Everyday Lankan History

Global and Local Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka between the global and the local

The eighteenth century in Sri Lanka is a period full of paradoxes. It is an age of globalization in trade, politics, religion and art, but also a period in which society became increasingly constrained by local Dutch, and Kandyan interests. The violent war between the Dutch and Kirti Sri Rajasinha of Kandy between 1762-1765, led to the destruction and brief occupation the capital and palace of Kandy by the Dutch.  It was a decisive moment in the formation of internal and external boundaries, whereby the Dutch came to control the entire coast. 

While the island’s borders became more closely defined, people from Europe, Africa, South and Southeast Asia were brought to the island along the vectors of the Dutch empire. Lankans meanwhile found their way in the opposite directions. The eighteenth century was a period of cultural exchange, but one that is thwarted by expanding notions of religious, ethnic and social identities. Dutch frantic registration and identification of social groups for the purpose of colonial exploitation played a role in this (see thombos: lives, land and labour). It was in the eighteenth century that boundaries were also carved out more deeply in the island’s social landscapes.

In Sri Lankan public memory the local Dutch history has become the age of Breudher cake, of governors, forts, churches and graveyards. Dutch colonialism has somehow been difficult to grasp and to recognize, as it was shaped locally and its legacies became invisible as they were absorbed into British empire. In the Netherlands this colonial past is more or less forgotten entirely. Many of the life stories on this website showcase how Lankans experienced and at times used invasive Dutch institutions such as the legal courts and the Reformed church. This longread sketches the broader context of that paradoxical world of the eighteenth century, centralized on the seemingly contradictory trends of globalization and localization.


Sri Lanka’s has always had a particular position in global and regional networks of trade, religion and politics. Its high quality cinnamon, its central location in the Indian Ocean and its proximity to mainland South Asia secured a continuous flow of traders and travelers throughout history, which were welcomed by the respective kingdoms on the island. This, together with long-standing political and religious ties with South and Southeast Asia resulted in cross-cultural exchange at many levels of society. This situations persisted well into the eighteenth century, the age on which this website focuses. In the words of Gannanath Obeyesekere: “The interplay between the local and the foreign is not simply a phenomenon of Nāyaka [Kandyan] rule but existed in different shapes and forms in Lankan history and, one might even add, in the history of other nations.”

But by the eighteenth century the global and regional networks that shaped Sri Lanka were further extended by the global network of the Dutch colonisers. Sometimes these new vectors created opportunities such as when in the 1740s the Kandyans made efforts to revive the Sangha, the Upasampada by bringing in monks from Arakan. Kandyan envoys made use of Dutch shipping network. This connection with Java might not have been new, but through the Dutch it became political and hierarchical: it was in Batavia, present day Jakarta, that the High Government of the VOC was settled, and the government of Ceylon was directed from there. Sometimes Sri Lankans used this vector to petition to Batavia to appeal against the injustice they experienced through the Dutch administrators. On various occasions Kandy sent ambassadors to Batavia on to discuss political affairs.

But it was also through Batavia that the Dutch collected gifts from all over Asia, that they  used to pay tribute to the King of Kandy: porcelain from China and luxurious textiles from India; birds from Maluku and horses from Persian cloves from Ternate and sugar from Java. It was also through Batavia that the Dutch banished and transported Southeast Asian princes, ‘troublemakers’ in the view of the Dutch, to Sri Lanka. Some of their descendants still live in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankans themselves too were deported from the island through newly established vectors: the new connection with Cape Town, South Africa, was largely characterised by the forced deportation of local convicts and other ‘unwanted subjects’ and at times enslaved persons from Sri Lanka were sold at the Cape. As you can read in Kedu’s life story, slavery formed an integral aspect of the Dutch empire across Asia, and was omnipresent in Dutch Sri Lanka. People were brought in from all corners of the empire, but most particularly from Bengal and Kochi and island Southeast Asia. Besides the enslaved persons and the banished princely families, Dutch colonialism brought Asian soldiers and sailors Sri Lanka as well as Dutch men and women. The towns of Galle, Jaffna and Colombo became cities with a diverse population. These people carried their cultures, religions and habits with them, and lived in close proximity to each other in cities like Colombo, Galle and Jaffna.

Occasionally Sri Lankans also found their way to the Dutch Republic. Sometimes enslaved or as servant, but sometimes as student. Over the eighteenth around twenty Sri Lankans studies theology at Dutch universities, to become a minister in the Dutch Reformed church in Sri Lanka or elsewhere in Asia. Willem de Melho was one of them. The Dutch reformed religion was the state religion, and conversion was part and parcel of Dutch colonialism on the island, more can be read about that here.


Processes of globalization that were enhanced under the Dutch thus encompassed the world of religion, culture, politics and labour. But strange enough it was not globalization that characterized the shape that Dutch colonialism took on the island. In fact, Dutch colonialism took a highly localized form.

The Dutch very quickly adapted to the local system of service labour, that was bound to caste and land ownership. Not only labor, but also local taxes were quickly appropriated by the Dutch: the long read on lives, labour and land tells you more about how the Dutch operated. This blending of local bureaucratic knowledge and practice with a Dutch system of colonial extraction is typical of Dutch colonialism at the time. They borrowed and blended bureaucratic and legal instruments to optimise their control over revenue and labour. Dutch offices responsible for this bureaucracy, such as that of the Dutch Disava, were shaped locally. Local titles like that of the disava are like a disguise, it was always a Dutch merchant who performed this office. The titles that the Dutch used for their offices are confusing: a merchant (Koopman) could function as a local chief, while the Dutch title of schoolmeester (schoolmaster) was always executed by local village-men. And while these schoolmasters were also engaged in training kids in the Dutch Reformed faith, they actually played a crucial role in the Dutch bureaucracy. In the Dutch empire, things are never what they seemed to be at first sight: a local schoolmaster was a bureaucrat, a merchant could be as a local chief.

This situation of blending and of localization of the Dutch, has made it difficult to grasp how Sri Lanka was impacted by Dutch rule in the long run. The subsequent layer of British colonialism has made much of the Dutch legacy invisible, time has done the rest of the work. Yet legal legacies are found in the application of Roman Dutch law, the Dutch reformed church is still active. Dutch burghers and some of the Malays trace their lineage back to the Dutch period. The Sinhala and Tamil languages carry Dutch linguistic influence. Our focus on the lives of the people who experienced Dutch colonialism from the inside, allows us to re-imagine the local impact of Dutch rule in all its capriciousness.