Everyday Lankan History

Our approach

The approach to our research project


The Dutch came to Sri Lanka as traders under the flag of the VOC (Dutch East India Company). It was the island’s high-quality cinnamon that attracted them. To them it was a spice worth fighting for. In 1638 they took their chance:  by then the Portuguese  controlled the cinnamon trade already for over a century and had expanded their power over the coastal areas. The Dutch initially fought the Portuguese in collaboration with King Rajasinhe II (r.1629-1687). After establishing themselves in 1658, they subsequently turned against the Kandyan king. The Dutch insisted on full control of the island’s trade at the expense of Kandy. They eventually occupied most of the coastal areas of the island.  Colombo, Galle and Jaffna became their centers of power and they claimed sovereign rights over its hinterlands. By implementing a system of forced labor and stringent border control, they successfully secured the coveted monopoly in the cinnamon trade. Over time, the administrative structure that the Dutch constructed to uphold their power and trade monopoly expanded far beyond their initial interest in cinnamon.

Colonial Bureaucracy as a Goal in itself 

By the end of the 18th century, the Dutch colonial bureaucracy had grown so vast that the upkeep of this administration had evolved into an independent objective. It was no longer solely centered around cinnamon; instead, taxation of property, trade, and labor had taken precedence as the primary revenue source on the island. Our longreads detail how land ownership and caste-bound services were registered in the thombos for this purpose. Rural legal courts were set up to keep control over this information and to decide on cases  of conflict over property rights. Furthermore, the Dutch Reformed Church was professed as religion, but also used as an instrument to control families, lives and labor. Colonialism managed to permeate Sri Lankan households through unforeseen and disconcerting means

The paper documents of this colonial bureaucracy remain preserved in the National Archives in Colombo, offering us valuable insights into the everyday experiences and worries of ordinary Sri Lankans during the era of Dutch colonialism. These records form the cornerstone of the histories that we present on this website.

Living under Colonialism 

In the towns of Colombo and Galle there is much that reminds us of the period of Dutch rule over the coastal provinces. Think of the forts and warehouses, the Dutch Reformed churches, and the graveyards. Some residents still belong to the social group of Dutch burghers. Their surnames such as Jansz and Vanderdriessen reveal their descent from the soldiers, sailors, and governors, who settled on the island since the mid 17th century and who worked in the service of the VOC. 

But when thinking of the history of the Dutch and the VOC on the island, it is unlikely that you would have thought of Kobywattege Annika, Francina Farnando and Anthony Gomes or Kedu. It is their stories we tell on this website. In the case of Kedu, who lived in slavery in Colombo, it shows how colonialism dehumanised individuals and brought Kedu to a desperate act of violence. For the others, the power of the trading company as ruler on the island was a more distant reality, but one they had to live with. Their stories reveal how local families struggled with the Dutch, but also provides us with examples of how many of them cleverly used the Dutch drive to register to their own benefit.

VOC Archives in Colombo

The evidence of this Dutch administration is kept in the Sri Lanka National Archives in Colombo and has withstood the test of time surprisingly well. These VOC archives consist of more than seven thousand volumes dating from the period 1640-1796, at the end of which the British ousted the Dutch and took over the administration.
For the British, the Dutch administration was an important source of information, and they continued many regulations and practices, including the Dutch codification of Tamil customary law (Thesewalamai) and various aspects of Roman-Dutch law that are still in place today.

But, perhaps most important of all were the thombos. It was in the interest of the Dutch to register property rights in detail. To optimise their revenue, they wanted to know who owned what, and to decide what taxes and labor services the owners owed to the company. In the coastal areas the Dutch installed Landraden, legal courts which applied a combination of local and Roman-Dutch law.

All this resulted in an institutionalised legal structure. It might have been set up for the sake of colonial efficiency, but people could approach it for conflict resolution. And they did! The story of Francisco Fernando who desperately tried to maintain his right to his ancestral land by tricking the Dutch system, shows how Dutch colonialism could be countered from within. The thombos played an important role in his life story. Today, the land thombos are still used as proof in legal conflicts over property rights. 

Colonialism Inside Out

Court cases such as those of  Anthony Gomes, Kobeiwattege Annika and her contemporary Gimara give us insight into the daily concerns of ordinary inhabitants of Sri Lanka in the eighteenth century. The research project Colonialism Inside Out researched this legal practice and the workings of legal courts and church councils, with the purpose of reconstructing lives of ordinary eighteenth-century Lankans; of people whose life stories you can find on this website. Their lives narrate the role that colonialism played in their lives, in all its violent and unsettling forms. Yet it also allows us to look beyond the colonial encounter and get a view of the role that religion had in society, the degree to which individuals were bound by caste and ethnicity and the degree to which inhabitants, settlers and visitors to the island were connected to mainland South Asia, Southeast Asia, or, as we learn from Willhelm de Melho’s story, with the Dutch Republic.

Everyday Lankan History: the website

This website is created to make all these stories available to a wide audience. Here, you can find life stories, long reads, locations and resources. The latter are a glossary, academic publications on the topic and a referral to archives in Sri Lanka and the Netherlands. The life stories are the heart of the website: here you meet people from the eighteenth century and are given a snapshot of their lives, their struggles and concerns. The long reads give a broader background on different aspects of eighteenth century Sri Lanka and Dutch colonialism. On the locations page we have mapped all places that play a role in the stories. These locations form entry points for you to navigate both the stories and the locations themselves, in the eighteenth century and today.