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The Netherlands - Ceylon Heritage



Four hundred years of relations between The Netherlands and Ceylon/Sri Lanka



Thanks to the Dutch Foundation "400 years VOC", it is now widely known in The Netherlands that this first multinational company was officially established during a session in the Ridderzaal (Hall of Knights) on the 20th of March 1602.


It is practically unknown, however, that on the 30th of May in the same year Admiral Joris van Spilbergen became the first Dutchman to set foot ashore in the neighbourhood of Batticaloa. From there he undertook a journey to Kandy, where he met the Ceylonese King Wimala Dharma Suriya.

The relations between the two countries go back to that year. During the VOC period (1656-1796) these relations were close, but often strained.

As a trading company the VOC was mainly interested in making a profit. The administrative and judicial reforms, expansion of agriculture and horticulture and construction of canals were carried out in order to promote trade.

The most coveted product was cinnamon.  Rev. Baldaeus who was employed by the VOC, wrote: "especially in this island grows the finest cinnamon, that Helena and costly bride, who during many years has been contested for both by the Portuguese and the Dutch".

Galle, in an old Dutch printing.


A Touch of History


The Mahawamsa, written by the monk Mahanama at the end of the fifth century A.C. carries the story that Prince Vijaya with a group of 700 followers arrived at Ceylon from India in 543 B.C. According to the legend Vijaya was a descendent of a lion, in Sinhalese called Sinha. Thus his descendants are called Sinhalese, still the name of the largest section of the island population.

Against the sons of lions stand the Tamil tigers who since 1983 have been fighting for an independent state in the north and east of the country. Now they are striving for an autonomous status.


In 270 B.C. Mahinda, the son of the Indian emperor Asoka, introduced Buddhism to Ceylon. The sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha was first brought to Anuradhapura and became a symbol of the state. When the kingdom was shifted to Kandy, the Tooth Relic was placed there in a palace called Dalada Maligawa. As a result Kandy became the centre of Theravada Buddhism. Every year, ten days before full moon day in the month of August, the Tooth Relic is being taken in perahera along the streets in Kandy. It is the largest national procession in which more then 80 elephants are taking part along with countless dancers, torchbearers and drummers. This unique three-hour procession attracts tens of thousands of devotees and numerous tourists.


The country prospered under Parakramabahu who reigned between 1153 and 1186. Then the capital was Polonnaruwa. Important irrigation works were constructed during this


Together with the older capital Anuradhapura these two cities form a great tourist attractions of modern Sri Lanka. The old monuments in these cities and surroundings have been restored with the help of UNESCO under the Cultural Triangle Project. A few years ago a new museum was established in Polonnaruwa, which annually attracts some 100,000 visitors. Roelof Munneke, the then curator of the State Museum for Ethnology in Leiden, played an important role in the establishment of this museum.





The prosperous period gradually came to an end. Tamils from neighbouring India invaded the country in large numbers. Malaria was another reason why the Sinhalese moved to the west and south of the island.


It was not difficult for the Portuguese to settle down along the west coast from 1505 onwards.

They showed a fanatic religious zeal. Numerous Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic sanctuaries were leveled to the ground. The intruders had a special grudge against the descendants of Arabs whom they called Moors. From the 12th century onwards they had established as traders along the west coast.

Many Moors escaped to the territory of the Sinhalese king who had shifted his seat of government from Kotte to Kandy in the hill country.

In 1638 King Raja Sinha entered into an agreement with the Dutch on the understanding that they would help him to oust the Portuguese in exchange for trade benefits. Cinnamon was the main attraction for the VOC.


In 1640 the Dutch captured Galle, the largest city in the south, followed by Colombo in 1656 and two years later Jaffna, the capital of the north. Just as the Portuguese predecessors and the English successors the VOC dominated the Maritime Provinces for about 150 years.

In 1795 the French were welcomed as liberators in The Netherlands and Prince William V had to take refuge in England. In Colombo, the Dutch Governor Van Angelbeek received instructions from William V to hand over the possessions to the English. As a result the VOC surrendered to the English in 1796. Initially the English limited themselves to the Maritime Provinces, but in 1815 they invaded the interior and occupied Kandy, putting an end to the Ceylonese monarchy, which has existed for 2300 years.


Ceylon was gradually prepared for independence. In 1930, universal franchise was introduced, followed by independence in 1948. In 1973, the country adopted the name Sri Lanka, which means "Splendid Island". It is splendid indeed: the country with its glittering beaches, old ruined cities, VOC buildings and a hospitable, friendly population attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year.


The Dutch Period: 1656 - 1796


The Ceylonese King Raja Sinha (1635 - 1687) who had welcomed the Dutch in order to get rid of the Portuguese soon discovered that the new situation did not make any difference. The VOC tried to win over the King by regularly sending beautiful gifts and writing or addressing him in flattering terms. That was necessary in order to obtain permission to peel cinnamon in his territory. In the 18th century the Company commenced planting cinnamon in the area under their control. The quarter in Colombo called ‘Cinnamon Gardens’ reminds of that activity.


When the principal cities Galle, Colombo and Jaffna fell into the hands of the Dutch, they did not return them to Raja Sinha as stipulated in the treaty of 1638, because the costs of war had not been paid. These were exaggerated so much, that the King could never have settled the dues.

Understandably Raja Sinha did not resign himself to this situation. Repeatedly he incited his subjects against the VOC or applied scorched earth tactics. The Company therefore was forced to construct fortresses in the coastal region as well as on the borders of the kingdom of Raja Sinha. Many of these forts are still in a reasonably good state of preservation. This holds for the forts of Galle, Matara, Trincomalee and Batticaloa. The impressive fort of Jaffna was seriously damaged during the recent conflict. The Dutch Reformed Church within the fortress, dating back to 1708 was also destroyed.

In front of the coast of Jaffna we find the fort called Hammenhiel. The name means ‘heel of a ham’, with which the Dutch compared the shape of Ceylon.

The islands around Jaffna formerly had Dutch city names, like Leiden, Rotterdam and Delft. Only the name of Delft is still in use.


The situation considerably improved for the VOC after a long war against Kandy (1761 - 1765), when the King recognized the Dutch sovereignty in the coastal regions after the treaty of 1766.




Galle - Velsen


In 1640 the Dutch occupied Galle, the most important city in the south and the main supply point for merchantmen on the route from and to the Dutch East Indies. The city now has 75,000 residents, 2,000 of whom live in the Fort. One can still see the city gate with the VOC monogram bearing the date 1669.



The warehouse now serves as the National Maritime Museum. The Akersloot Bastion, situated close by, is named after the birthplace of Commander Coster who captured Galle from the Portuguese.

The Leynbaan (Ropewalk Street) indicates that Galle for its shipping activities set up enterprises like ropewalks.

As the harbour was full of rocks several ships went down. The Avondster was one of them.

In the context of the Mutual Heritage Programme this vessel was lifted. After the tsunami much material of the Avondster got lost.







Impressive in the Fort is the Oriental Hotel, partly dating back to the Dutch period. Prince Claus, the late husband of Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands, stayed there when he visited Galle. It was Nesta Brohier who wielded the sceptre in the hotel until her death in 1995.

The descendants of the Dutch colonists are called here Lansi, derived from the word ‘Hollanders’. In 1881, grateful citizens of Galle erected a clock tower in memory of Dr. Anthonisz.




During a meeting of archaeologists in Amsterdam in April 2006 which was attended by the Underminister of Foreign  Affairs , Mr.Nicolai , it was decided to set up an institute looking after the restauration of Dutch monuments abroad. Remarkable is the beautiful Dutch Reformed Church (1752), which is being restored with financial assistance from The Netherlands. The pulpit was already repaired with the help of The Netherlands Department for Conservation. Since nearly all the Dutch Burghers left Galle, the church has not been used for public worship. Its architecture and interior attract many tourists.

While walking along the ramparts tourists are inevitably approached by coin sellers. There is a nice story about an Englishman, who gazed at the inscription ‘VOC’ on a coin and asked,

“What does it mean?"

"Very Old Coins, Sir”


A Dutch canal is not missing in Galle. Canals were constructed along the entire west coast for transport of merchandise, mainly cinnamon, but also rice and coconuts. When the price of petroleum increased, road transport became expensive. About 30 years ago, late Peter Keuneman, a Minister in the then Government, commenced restoration of the old Dutch Canal between Colombo and Puttalam. Unfortunately the project was never completed.

Galle and Jaffna are undoubtedly the cities where most reminiscences of the Dutch period are found. In 1988 Galle Fort, which is in a reasonable state of preservation with many buildings dating back to the VOC time, was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.


The mayor of Galle wanted to establish contacts with modern Holland. A twinning program with a municipality in Holland seemed a good method to fulfill this wish.

In 1976, when the 100th anniversary of the North Sea Canal between Amsterdam and Velsen was commemorated, the Municipal Council of Velsen accepted a proposal for twining that city with Galle. In March 1978 Velsen organized a successful Sri Lanka Week. In 1980, Galle organized a Netherlands Week, which was attended by the then Mayor of Velsen, Pieter Molendijk.

Dutch Church in Galle

Modest-scale programmes of development co-operation, such as housing projects for less privileged people and two sewing centers for unemployed girls, were launched,. A slum area of Galle, now called Velsenpura, was provided with sanitary facilities and a community centre. The sewerage system, dating back to the VOC time, was restored. The Public Library received equipment from a library in Velsen and regular subsidies for acquisition of books. The Buona Vista Home for the Aged was also helped.


During the past few years there was an exchange of delegations between both municipalities, while some residents of Galle received training in factories and institutions in Velsen with financial assistance from the Union of Municipalities in The Netherlands.

Recently a large ICT project for schools in Galle was launched, initiated and supervised by the Nova College of Velsen.

Rotary Club of Velsen held a successful fund raising campaign for the acquisition of a fire brigade van. It was built in India and arrived in Galle in July 2003. Last year, a waste disposal project was set up in Galle as well as a sports training programme with financial assistance and advice from Velsen.

Exhibitions of children's drawings from Galle in the Town Hall of Velsen attracted crowds of admiring visitors.

All the projects are coordinated and supervised by the Netherlands Alumni Association of Lanka (NAAL).

The shopping centre of a new quarter in Velsen is called Galle Promenade and the surrounding streets are named after Sri Lankan cities.

In a brochure written by Marjan Hendriks, titled Ver weg, dichtbij  (Far away, close by), the origin of these street names is explained.


The relations between Galle and Velsen are described in the book Verbonden door Water (United by Water) by Guus Hartendorf, which appeared in 2001 on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the town twinning.

Lodewijk Wagenaar, senior curator of the Amsterdams Historical Museum gives a good picture of life in Galle around 1760 in his book Galle, VOC-vestiging in Ceylon (Galle-VOC Fort in Ceylon) for which he was awarded a doctorate by the University of Leiden.


Norah Roberts, who was the directress of Galle Library from 1940 to 1982, published a book titled Galle as quiet as asleep, while E. F. C. Ludowyk wrote on his childhood in Galle: Those long afternoons, childhood in colonial Ceylon.





©2008 Stichting Nederland-Sri Lanka