Everyday Lankan History

Legal system

The Dutch legal system in coastal Sri Lanka

Throughout the Asian frontier of the Dutch empire (e.g. current-day Indonesia, Sri Lanka, coastal India), the VOC was authorised by the Dutch Republic to autonomously wage wars, handle diplomatic relations and to govern the territories overseas, the latter including jurisdiction and law. The Company had a central government in Batavia (current-day Jakarta) from which statutes and policies were sent, but throughout the Company’s dominions there was a vast diversity in how these lands were governed and what laws prevailed. Sri Lanka was exceptional in the Dutch empire, in the sense of the vastness of the lands governed by the Company, and because of the relatively early conception of colonial institutions. Already in the seventeenth century a relatively complex judicial system was created and maintained by the Dutch and their local commissioners.

Legal hierarchy

The Dutch judiciary in coastal Sri Lanka was hierarchically structured. At the top of the pyramid there were Councils of Justice (Raad van Justitie) in each of the three provinces of Jaffna, Galle and Colombo that dealt with criminal justice as well as civil cases with significant financial consequences. It is before the Colombo Council of Justice that Anthony Gomes dragged his stepmother, when he accused her of witholding part of his inheritance. The Council in Colombo acted as appeal court for the two others, and thus was the highest court on the island. Challenging judgments of the Colombo Council of Justice had to be done in Batavia, the Dutch seat of power in Asia. Below these three Councils of Justice every city had town councils (Civiele Raad) where petty civil suits of urban dwellers were brought before. In the early 1740s an extra layer of rural courts (Landraad) was added to the bottom of this pyramidal judicial hierarchy in Sri Lanka; these lower land courts mainly dealt with civil suits related to land possession further inland. Just 13 years after it’s inception Francisco Fernando went to the Colombo Landraad to reclaim his mother’s land. Petty disputes outside of the urban centres among non-Europeans were tried by a European governor or dessave in Galle, Colombo and Jaffna.

The colonial courts were chaired by European VOC officials such as the governor, the commanders of Jaffna and Galle, the senior merchant (opperkoopman) or the dessave. Even in the rural judicial Dutch forums (Landraad) presidents, vice-presidents and secretaries were all Europeans. High-ranking Company officials chaired the legal councils, indicating the strong interrelationship between the Company and the legal world in Dutch Sri Lanka. In criminal and civil cases Roman-Dutch law became the steering principle. This was the legal system used in the Dutch Republic in Europe. To support their verdicts, court officers were instructed by the so-called Statutes of Batavia from 1642, a compilation of ordinances and orders issued in the heart of the Dutch Asian empire, which functioned as the legal code of all VOC outposts and factories in Dutch Asia. When this Batavian code was not clear, the common law of the province of Holland was applied. Nevertheless, the administration of justice depended very much on local conditions and the expertise of individual members of the court. In the island’s plural setting, cultural law-making and legal practice in Sri Lanka was hardly a mere top-down process, as lawmakers issued specific local ordinances as well, and indigenous customary law was often integrated. The VOC courts in Sri Lanka did certainly not operate in legal vacuums and had to function within a larger legal pluralistic setting.

Local litigation

As the jurisdiction of these Dutch courts in Sri Lanka gradually encroached from the forts over the suburbs to the hinterland from the early eighteenth century onwards, litigant profiles evermore reflected the social and religious diversity of the island’s littoral regions. Although these courts originally started off as civil courts meant for European sailors and VOC-personnel in the middle of the seventeenth century, these groups never amounted to more than half of the litigants in the 1700s, both in the Colombo and Galle province. These numbers therefore challenge legal historian Lauren Benton’s assertion that the Dutch in their South Asian territories had “legal authority over mainly VOC employees”, which at best was a reality in the seventeenth century. From the lower rural courts through the urban council to the highest appellate court, the number of Sinhalese, Chettiyar and Moorish litigants settling their interpersonal disputes in the Dutch judicial system was considerable in the eighteenth century. The life stories of Francisco, Anthony, Gimara or Kobywattege Annika and their interactions with the Dutch legal system are thuse hardly the exception, but rather the rule. Dutch courts in Sri Lanka can thus safely be considered legal laboratories for reconciling different value systems from litigants across the socio-cultural spectrum, and the extensive Dutch bureaucracy with hundreds of case files, interrogation books, testimonies and other legal documents are invaluable sources to study everyday relationships between inhabitants of Sri Lanka’s coastal territories, as well as their interaction with the expanding Dutch judiciary.