Everyday Lankan History

Kobywattege Annika

clashing customs

One field of colonial impact was marriage. Dutch marriage legislation was imposed on Sri Lankan marriages – but it clashed with existing traditions.  Misunderstanding could lead to serious consequences for Sri Lankans, such as loss of property, income and livelihood. Women, it seems, were particularly vulnerable to all sorts of abuses of the colonial marriage system. Yet sometimes women, like Annika, cleverly navigated Dutch church, courts and registers to find a way out of this.

Kobywattege Annika’s marriage misunderstanding

In 1735, Kobywattege Annika and Rammenayke Matthees married in the Dutch Reformed village church of Talpe, near Galle. Or at least, they assumed they had been officially married: they ‘put up the banns’, which meant they announced their marriage in public in church, had their intentions registered by the schoolmaster running the church, and moved in together. They were married for seventeen years, conceived two daughters, and then, sadly, Matthees died. Years later in September 1769, Annika would realise that according to Dutch law, she actually had never been officially married to Matthees. Their marriage had not been formalised by the blessing of a minister. This misunderstanding would have grave consequences for Annika, and her daughter Christina.


Marriage Misunderstanding

Traditionally in the Sinhalese villages, the most important elements of marriage were that the families and the community approved of the marriage, that specific rituals were performed, and that the couple were of the same (sub)caste. Before children were born or a union was formalised through community approval, short-term unions, including sexual intercourse, were – at least in some communities – accepted. Under specific circumstances divorce too was accepted.

According to Dutch colonial law anyone registered and baptised as Protestant Christians – over three hundred thousand people in the eighteenth century – was subject to Dutch legislation regarding marriage. This official Dutch Reformed marriage was highly bureaucratised and consisted of many steps, such as: producing one’s baptism certificate or ola in order to get permission to marry from the church; ‘putting up the banns’ in church to get community approval; and having this process registered by the schoolmaster. After all steps were taken, the couple had to wait for a protestant minister to visit their village church and have him consecrate the marriage. Then, and only then, in Dutch view, the marriage was formal, official and registered into the marriage rolls. These complicated regulations, and differing Sinhalese and Dutch marriage traditions, gave leeway to all sorts of unclarities and misunderstanding on both sides.

Although local marriage traditions and norms clashed with that of the Dutch, there was some overlap in the procedures. The emphasis on community approval of a marriage through ‘putting up the banns’ was such a similarity. As a result, many Sri Lankans who tried their hand at a Dutch legal marriage, simply skipped the final step – having it consecrated by the minister – on purpose or by accident, because the process took too long or was complicated. Though to Sri Lankans such marriages were formal and intentional, they were considered immoral by the Dutch. They criminalised these marriages by calling them ‘massebaddu´. This word originates from the eighteenth-century Portuguese word mascabado for dishonourable.



Massebaddu is what had happened to Annika and Mathees. In hindsight their marriage was considered illegitimate by the Dutch and therefore Annika and Matthees’ daughters were considered as such. Annika’s eldest daughter had passed away by 1769, but the youngest, Christina, had been married herself now. Unaware that her marriage had not been established on paper, Annika was subsequently confronted with a terrible consequence of Dutch marital- and property laws. Any child born outside of a union that was fully registered, was considered illegitimate – a concept, a dichotomy, that barely existed before European colonialism in Sri Lanka. Illegitimacy limited a child’s access to baptism, education and (property) inheritance in the Dutch colonial system.
In Annika’s case, illegitimacy legislation directly affected her and her daughter’s chance of survival. After Mathees’ death, Annika expected to live off some of the lands he had worked on. What complicated the matter was that Matthees had been a widower when he married Annika and had had daughters from his previous marriage. These daughters from his first marriage were seen as his legitimate children and so they were registered in the thombos of 1760 as his only legitimate heirs. After Matthees passed away, these women inherited the lands that Matthees had obtained through their mother’s family – which was Sinhalese custom. Only by then, after Matthees’ passing, Annika was told that the Dutch administration had never recognised their marriage. Suddenly, Annika and her daughter Christina were losing the parts of Matthees’ property they had been considering themselves the heirs of, and as a result they were living in grave poverty.


Registered resolutions

The Landraad was the court that presided over Matthees’ thombo registration – it was the court Annika needed to convince that she and Christina were the legal heirs of parts of his lands. But at the heart of that problem lay the illegitimacy. And so, Christina approached the School Board, pleading her case. The School Board was a church institution that presided over the Dutch Reformed schools, and also handled these types of marriage disputes as well as the registration of the school thombo.
As proof that she had been Matthees’ long-term partner, Annika brought forth the registration of her marriage ‘banns’ as well as five, Christian, witnesses. The witnesses were all over fifty years old, and three of them were also from Talpe. They all attested in front of the secretary of the Board and his Sinhala translator: that they had known Annika for over 35 years, that Annika and Matthees had always lived together as husband and wife, and that they had conceived and raised Christina and her sister together. Ramenaykege Domingu, a 51-year-old lascorin soldier, stated that he had even been there that day in 1735, that he had heard and seen the schoolmaster announce and register Annika and Mathees’ upcoming marriage himself.
These testimonies, along with Annika’s dire circumstances and her request for only a part of Matthees’ lands convinced the School Board to make an exception. On 4 July 1770, her and Matthees’ marriage was posthumously recognised as an official, legitimate, and registered marriage. It was registered as such in the church records, and consequently could be adjusted in the land thombos as well. Given the close connections of the School Board with the Landraad – they shared a secretary – the alterations of the records were quite easily arranged. It was registration that made Annika’s happy, committed marriage suddenly illegitimate, her lands taken from her; and it was registration that now secured the access to her inheritance. Most of all, it had been Annika’s perseverance and courage in navigating the colonial religious, moral and legal institutions, that now hopefully would provide her a better life.