Everyday Lankan History



Gimara’s life was turned upside down when her husband Daniel passed away. He had been a foot soldier or lascarin, and her sons had taken over his service after his death, as well as the land attached to the position. The lands they owned produced enough food to feed Gimara’s family. But after Daniel’s death, her late husband’s siblings, Johan and Jantje, created trouble. They teamed up to push Gimara off her land, claiming Daniel had been an illegitimate child. They said that Daniel should not have taken up the service of foot soldier. Johan and Jantje laid claim to both the service and the accompanying land. Daniel’s siblings had brought the case to court, which had decided in their favour. However, Gimara did not let her in-laws get away with this, and appealed the case to the highest court in the district of Galle. And so Gimara and her two sons, Dinees and Mathees, travelled to the town of Galle in April 1790 to plead their case.

Gimara asked Johannes and Jantje in her plea why they were disputing her husband’s inheritance now, after he had passed away. She pointed out that his father had had Daniel registered in the thombo as his legitimate child back when he was eight years old. With such a line of questioning Gimara aimed at unveiling the inconsistencies in the claim of her in-laws. But the real question she indirectly raised was: In whose eyes was her husband deemed illegitimate? Gimara stood up, not only against her in-laws, but also against the Dutch judges who presided over the court.

Gimara's battle

Family ties

Daniel’s father Philippu had been a lascarin, and along with that service came duties such as carrying messages, serving summons and keeping guard for high officials. Being a lascarin would have added to Philippu’s social status in the village and it came with the attraction of inheritable rights over arable land. Daniel was Philippu’s only son and he was born out of Philippu’s union with Jibika. Philippu must have been relieved to have Daniel as his heir, as this secured the family’s well-being. After all he had plenty of mouths to feed, as his marriage with Jibika’s sister Juliana had brought him three daughters. The multiple gardens and paddyfields yielded them the necessary basics. When in 1751 the thombo writer registered the lands, Philippu made sure that all his properties were described as such and that Daniel was entered as his rightful son.

After Philipu’s death Daniel followed in his father’s footsteps. Daniel married Gimara and must have felt blessed with their two sons, Dinees and Mathees, securing the lascarin service and the livelihood of the next generations. Juliana’s three daughters meanwhile also got married, and moved out of the village. Eventually, two of their husbands, Johan and Jantje, returned to trouble Gimara.

Philippu’s deceit?

When Philippu had Daniel entered as his offspring with Juliana, either he had deliberately lied when the thombo writer registered the village in 1751, or the thombo writer accepted Philippu’s union with Jibika and did not object to recognising Daniel as his offspring.

The situation would eventually haunt Gimara. Philippu had entered Daniel as his legal son in the thombo to safeguard the family lands, while his union with Jibika was by Dutch standards out of wedlock. After Daniel’s death Johan and Jantje decided to take Gimara and her two sons to court because they disputed the legitimacy of their claims to Daniel’s lascarin service. In fact, in their view, Daniel had not been the rightful heir in the first place. When the case was heard first in 1788, two Dutch and two local members of the Landraad were present. They ordered an investigation in the village. The keeper of the thombo, members of the Landraad, the village headmen and all the heirs were required to be present.

It is not difficult to imagine the spectacle in the village, when the investigation took place. Fellow villagers would have been intimately acquainted with the details of the case. At the inquiry, Jibika confirmed Daniel’s nonmarital birth. Daniel’s brothers-in-law Johan and Jantje played their trump card: documentary proof that Daniel had been baptised under his mother’s name! Jibika, they claimed, had not known till after Philippu’s and Juliana’s death that her son had been entered in the thombo as their son. Philippu had secured the family’s patrimony, but his sons-in-law Johan and Jantje now turned against Daniel’s offspring. By framing Daniel as ‘illegitimate’ they presented themselves as the rightful heirs to both the lascarin service and the lands.

Trumping the in-laws

Gimara was cornered by her in-laws, but she would not give up. She produced a lascarin deed of Philippu’s from 1769. But her own trump card took the form of a Sinhalese report from the Landraad councillor Don Balthasar Abeysinghe himself. Don Balthasar was an influential man in the region, being son of the ‘gate mudaliyārNicolaas Dias Abeysinghe. Had she known the man prior to the court-case? Was she connected to his family? We can only guess.

Rijksmuseum, possibly Nicolaas Dias.

However, as it turns out, having this one powerful man vouch for her in the Landraad, was not sufficient. All the Landraad members agreed that Daniel was an ‘illegitimate’ child. Luckily for Gimara the members disagreed on the consequences, and eventually it was decided by majority vote that the two parties were to share the service and lands.

On 1 July 1789 the thombo-keeper was instructed to insert a note in the registers that Daniel was ‘illegitimate’, which we can still read to this day. On the service and lands, the entry further specified they would be enjoyed in turns by male descendants of Philippu’s ‘legitimate’ daughters and Daniel’s children.

The eye of the beholder

Still, Gimara was unable to let go, and she appealed to the High Court in Galle. Here only European men presided, but Gimara was not intimidated. The ties among Philippu, Jibika and Juliana were common from her point of view, and therefore she openly questioned the idea of illegitimacy in court. Illegitimacy was an irrelevant concept, if a father publicly designated his son as his heir. This is what Philippu had done when entering Daniel into the thombo.      

But little did Gimara know, that through her honest appeal, she would set in motion a process that spun out of her control. Rather than just labelling him as illegitimate, the appellate court concluded that Daniel was ‘born of incest’, and noted that Jibika and the village headman had confirmed this without restraint. Partnering with a spouse’s sibling was banned as incestuous by Roman-Dutch law, in a bid to prevent polygamy. But that was not all, as the judges also decided that in hindsight, Daniel should never have been a lascarin “due to his illegitimate birth”. Philippu, they said, was not survived by any male heirs; so they withdrew the service from the family altogether.

As a result, the original thombo note was struck off and followed by a new note dated 17 April 1790: the service paddy-field was now appropriated by the company. [pic new entry]. The Company as the most powerful player in the field had trumped both litigating parties.