Introduction to the Newsletter: Ideas of Slavery

Right side of the ‘Hulde der Koloniën’ panel on the Golden Coach, designed by Nicolaas van der Waay.

Is the white man with the beard about to assault the brown man, who seems to look utterly confused? Is the woman who seems to be restraining the white man his wife? Or is she the virgin? Who can say!  This is a segment of the right panel of the widely debated ‘golden coach’, which is now being exhibited at the Amsterdam Museum. This is a segment in the controversial panel “Hulde der Koloniën” (‘a homage to the colonies’) made by Nicolaas van der Waay in 1898. Thus far the centre and left part of the panel used in the golden coach are described in the media, with the ‘Virgin of the Netherlands’ taking centre position.
I must confess that I have not dug deeper into figuring out what I am seeing in this section of the panel.  But I can certainly invite  any person who is reading our present newsletter, touching on the topic of ‘slavery’, to drop us a line explaining what we are seeing.  It could be valuable to our audience and we shall post this on our website.

Few would dispute the fact that ‘slavery’ has been around for thousands of years, is still with us and will certainly remain in the years to come. To ask the question “what exactly is slavery?” is to impose on the inquirer the obligation, amongst other things, to consider the social relations and the concepts that govern these relations. We may consider invoking concepts such as Freedom, Justice, Equality and even should not shy away from posing the question, what is a good life? I am aware that these are subjects far beyond the scope of the present newsletter. It is the intention of our Netherlands Sri Lanka Foundation to organize conversations with regards to the subject of ‘slavery’ that would explore new perspectives and complement the ongoing excellent work on the Transatlantic, Asiatic and maybe even other parts of the world like the Middle East ‘slavery’.

In this newsletter we start our conversation on ‘slavery’ in the context of the Dutch East India Company (VOC)’s period of rule in Sri Lanka. We present two items that may be of interest to our readers and could be informative. First I’d like to introduce the item ‘Tracing bonded lives: Stories of enslaved individuals from the archive’ written by Kate Ekama, who is a postdoctoral researcher at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Kate shares her research into the lives of the so called ‘enslaved persons’ in the city of Colombo in Sri Lanka during the VOC period. The second  item is authored by Doreen van den Boogaart, our young ambassor, titled ‘A new light on a Sri Lankan made betel box’. She explores the links between the role of one specific artefact – The Betel Box – in the life of the ‘enslaved’. The third item we present is by Georg Frerks, Em. Professor Utrecht University and Netherlands Defense Academy and the chairman of our foundation. Georg has several decades of academic work experience in Sri Lanka. For this newsletter he ventured to undertake an exploratory  exercise, based on a limited number of academic and other sources,  and discusses the phenomenon ‘slavery’ in Sri Lanka.  His contribution is titled “Slavery in Pre-colonial Sri Lanka: What the literature reveals”. In my opinion it sets the stage for the previous two items about ‘slavery’ in Sri Lanka and also future conversations on the subject.

Finally we are pleased to announce that we plan to organize an event that would broaden the scope on ‘slavery’ from purely the historical to the philosophical and religious perspectives as well – precisely because Sri Lanka’s religious diversity makes them so relevant. The objectives would be to improve, or at least problematize, our current understanding of ‘slavery’ from philosophical and ethical angles. Thereby we are also hoping that we can widen these conversations to the more practice oriented themes such as ‘Responsible Business Practices’ and Post 2015 agenda of ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ of the United Nations, and facilitate connections between historical and contemporary manifestation of forced labor. We welcome any ideas and suggestions with regards to these topics. In due course we shall provide more information and an invitation for the event.

Dilip Tambyrajah – Member of Board, Netherlands Sri Lanka Foundation 

Slavery in Pre-colonial Sri Lanka; What the literature reveals

By: Georg Frerks


Most current discussions on slavery focus on the colonial period and the transatlantic slave trade from Africa. Less attention is paid to slavery in Asia or slavery as a domestic or indigenous practice. This contribution discusses the existence of slavery in Sri Lanka before the arrival of the colonial powers and in the Kandyan Kingdom till it was captured by the British, and is based on the perusal of a limited number of relevant academic sources.

The practice of slavery was brought to Sri Lanka from India and is documented in various ancient manuscripts and inscriptions and also subject of research by a variety of academic scholars. Slavery in Sri Lanka is a complicated subject because it is is enmeshed with a wider, complex system comprising different degrees and forms of servitude, peonage and bondage, and a caste system that demanded customary rajakariya services to be provided by lower castes to royals, nobility and king’s office holders, next to services provided to temples and the Sangha. In fact there was a continuum with one servile status overlapping into the other Yet, there is consensus that slavery per se existed, as slaves (in vernacular dasa/dasi or vahal) were owned as personal property and could be transferred, given away, sold and punished by their owners as they liked. There is, however, little evidence that slaves were traded as a commodity for profit in pre-colonial Sri Lanka. They were used for domestic and agricultural labor and underlined the high rank and status of their owners. Enslavement could happen through various means: born as slave in the house, bought for money or captured during war or as a punishment. A frequent reason for enslavement was poverty and the inability to pay back debts. There is fairly broad consensus that slavery in pre-colonial Sri Lanka was relatively mild compared with the exploitative, commodified and harsh forms implemented by the European colonial powers. Slaves were often treated as adopted dependents or as faithful domestic servants. Sometimes slaves could also possess own lands and live in their own family and community which enabled the owners exacting a range of services from the group for generations, without taking on the costs of providing for their daily existence. The relatively mild treatment of slaves is attributed to the moderating influence of Buddhism and the fact that the slaves were of the same ethnic group and sometimes caste as their owners. Unlike transatlantic slave trade, the slave in pre-colonial Sri Lanka was not a total stranger of different color, race and origin in a foreign social and cultural environment without kin. Slavery was formally abolished in the Island in 1844, but it took several more years before the laws were fully effectuated. At present the only legacy of slavery is the existence of a vahal subcaste, and villages of which the inhabitants are recognized as descendants of slaves in ancient times.

For the full text of this contribution, click here: 2021 Juni 29 Georg V2 Main Slavery in Precolonial SL-1

A new light on a Sri Lankan made betel box

By Doreen van den Boogaart

Figure 1: Betel box, anonymous, c. 1750, NG-1994-14-02, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

On display in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam is an object that is inventoried as a betel box. Specific elements on the silver ornamentation on the box point to a workshop in Sri Lanka, mid-eighteenth century. Inside the box are compartments containing the ingredients needed for rolling a betel chewing quid; areca nuts, ginger gum, limestone chalk and betel leaves from the Piper ‘betel’ pepper plant. These leaves are known in Sri Lanka as bulath in Sinhala and vetrilai in Tamil.

During his tour around the island, James Cordiner noted in his A Description of Ceylon, that the habit of chewing this mild stimulant was completely prevalent among the Sinhalese. ‘At all hours and on every occasion the mastication of those articles prevails; and two persons seldom meet without opening their boxes and exchanging a portion of their contents.’ Cordiner also noticed that ‘many of the old Dutch ladies in Ceylon have attained a relish for this practice, which they observe as regularly and enjoy as much as the native.’ From the seventeenth century onwards, also the colonial elite turned to betel chewing, it became primarily a women’s affair.

And this brings us to another story that can be told with the Rijksmuseum betel box. A story one will not usually read about on the museum label. Who the maker, purchaser and owners of this specific box were, is unknown. What is certain however is that betel boxes like this Rijksmuseum box, were at times carried by enslaved girls and women. These servants followed their Eurasian mistresses with all the needed ingredients in a box, so the latter had always their inseparable bulath available. This situation is described by Robert Percival in his The Account of the Island of Ceylon. He also noticed the hostile treatment by their mistresses during social gatherings:

“To these visits they go attended by a number of slave girls, dressed out for the occasion. These girls walk after them carrying their betel-boxes, or are employed in bearing umbrellas over the heads of their mistresses, who seldom wear any head-dress, but have their hair combed closely back and shining with oil. Their chief finery consists in these female attendants, and their splendour is estimated by the number of them which they can afford to keep. These slaves are the comeliest girls that can be procured, and their mistresses in general behave very kindly to them. With that caprice however, which always attends power in the hands of the ignorant and narrow-minded, the Dutch ladies frequently behave in a very cruel and unjust manner to their female attendants, upon very trifling occasions, and in particular on the slightest suspicion of jealousy.”

Captured in the Indian Ocean area or born into slavery, these attendants were forced into subordinate positions. In the Dutch colonial records people like them were defined as ‘slaaf’ (slave) or ‘lijfeigen’ (bonds(wo)man). Enslaved persons were often listed as property in personal of governmental documents, like inventories and wills. In the Dutch colonial empire, the colonial powers adopted existing forms of unfree labour, but also introduced a system of lifelong slavery in which people were reduced to a commercial property. Due to this involuntary position, enslaved people could be traded and forced to perform labour.

Enslaved servitude, one of the many forms of slavery, is exemplified on the drawing below. The church-going party displays what was thought to be necessary to bring to church: two enslaved servants, a fan, Bible, betel box and cuspidor. The latter was meant to spit the finished betel roll into. Being seen with enslaved servants was a way the colonial elite showed their wealth and status. On the drawing a man is carrying a payung (parasol) to shield the woman. Carrying a parasol was often a marker of slavery for (young) men in urban colonial Dutch East Indies. Likewise, bearing a beautifully decorated betel box and cuspidor marked the position of (young) enslaved women.

Figure 2 Churchgoing on the Coromandel Coast. ‘Mestiessche vrouw, in staatsie naar de Kerk gaande’, by Reinier Vinkeles after J. Haafner, Reize in eenen palanquin Special collections, University Library Amsterdam

Instead of looking at the exquisite craftmanship of the Sri Lankan made betel box, the attention in this blogpost went to the relationship of this object to colonial slavery. Even though it is not certain if this specific box in the Rijksmuseum was carried by an enslaved servant, it does open up for unfolding the lives of enslaved female servants. However, the colonial archive does not reveal much about them, as the information that the archive contains depended on what the owner or colonial government wanted the world to know. The beliefs, sentiments or experiences of enslaved people were not thought to be important. By using snapshots of their lives from colonial records, but moreover going beyond the written records and engaging rituals, arts, music, oral tradition and also the senses or possible experiences in the reconstruction of the lives of enslaved peoples, their humanity can be retrieved.

In that way, we can wonder if the smell if the ingredients in the betel box remind an enslaved servant of her situation and her freedom that was taken from her. Or did she maybe chew bulath herself, like many enslaved women did? Did it perhaps even feel as an act of protest as she mirrored the one that she had to call mistress? One of her most important tasks was following her mistress and carry her betel box, but for the enslaved woman, a talisman or amulet might have been the most valuable object she was wearing. A reminder of her family tradition or the religion she was secretly adhering. We can think about what social contacts and relationships she was having. We can also try to emphasize with her feelings as she was unjustly threatened. With these kinds of efforts, one refuses to accept the one-sided way enslaved persons were presented in colonial records where their humanity is rejected.

A recent example of this historical project is the exhibition on Slavery in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. The exhibition tells ten true personal stories about people who were enslaved as well as people who kept slaves. Objects that on the first glance do not have a direct connection with the lives of enslaved are used to tell their stories, the exhibition also present sources that have never been displayed in the museum before, like items that were cherished by enslaved individuals or oral histories. The exhibition can be visited online via this link:

Figure 3: Excerpt from Jan Brandes’s Tea visit in European house in Batavia, 1779 – 1785, NG-1985-7-2-15, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

Tracing bonded lives: Stories of enslaved individuals from the archive, by Kate Ekama (Stellenbosch University, SA)

Excerpt from: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, “Indische haardracht, volkstypen op Ceylon, Jan Brandes, 1785 – 1786”, the artist’s inscription translates as: “clothing of women and (female) slaves on Ceylon”.

The first time I visited the beautiful island Lanka, in 2011, I spent many hours in the archive reading about and collecting details of the lives of enslaved people who lived in Colombo when the port city formed an important node in the world of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in the Indian Ocean. I was confronted by the variety of experiences of the enslaved: violence, dislocation, intimacy (chosen and unchosen), death, freedom, inheritance, family life, resistance and loyalty. More than 350 years after the Dutch had conquered the city from the Portuguese, I sat in the archive, poring over the old papers, tracing the lives of many people who have mostly been forgotten over the centuries.

The Dutch East India Company documents which have been preserved offer rich and detailed insights into the experiences of men and women who were enslaved, who lived and worked in coastal areas of the island in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There are of course many silences and gaps in the archives – at least in part where documents have been lost or not survived the passing of time. The textual sources that still remain range from snapshots of named individuals who appear for instance in the last will of the man or woman who claimed ownership over them, to far more detailed accounts of lived experiences when, for instance, an enslaved man fled from his owner and was on the run for days, which tale he recounted after his recapture.

What we can glean from the variety of records is that during the eighteenth century, owning enslaved people was a common occurrence in Colombo. Slave-holdings were not large, certainly not in comparison to plantation slavery in the sugar islands of the West Indies for example, but nevertheless, men and women across the city of a variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds were slave-owners. And the enslaved themselves were from diverse Indian Ocean origins. Based on the way in which they were recorded in Company sources, we can trace at least the place from which they were transported, if not their place of origin. Through names such as Apollo from Makassar, Itam from Goda (Java), Augustus from Cochin, and Modest from Sumbawa we can trace the shipping networks along which routes of forced migration these people travelled (see the map below for most of the locations within the Dutch empire). VOC Ceylon was both a destination for these forced migrants as well as a departure point. Sources from the same period but a very different location – the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa – recount the lives of enslaved people such as Andries of Ceilon who lived and worked on a Cape farm, along with Ceres of Madagascar, a woman named Louisa and her mother, all of whom were owned by the same Cape family.

Primary Dutch and Portuguese settlements in Asia, c. 1665., Map by English Wikipedia editor The Red Hat of Pat Ferrick, originally uploaded there as File:Dutch and Portuguese in Asia c. 1665.png on 28 April 2008, Public Domain,

Through these old documents, we can see that slave-ownership was widespread and we can trace some aspects of individual enslaved people including their names, a guess at their age, and some part of their journey to or from the island. Other sources reveal more details of their everyday lives, and this is especially true of the enslaved men and women who were named in manumission deeds and in court cases.

Manumission was the process whereby an individual enslaved person or a few individuals were declared free. Some enslaved people purchased their own freedom, others were freed on the death of their owner, or as a reward for ‘good and faithful service’. For instance, Kastoerie and her daughter Thomasie purchased their freedom from their owner Manuel Adam Fernando; Breana and her son were manumitted by their mistress Christina van Angelbeek for the ‘exemplary loyalty’ which they had shown.

Over the last few years, a number of scholars have emphasized the need to move away from the binary conception of slavery as the opposite of freedom, a way of conceptualizing slavery that those who study the Indian Ocean world have inherited from the excellent scholarship on the Atlantic but which sits uneasily in Asian contexts, where European colonial empires faced long local genealogies of bonded labour. The intersections and overlaps between forms of bonded labour – including caste and corvée – remain little understood in the histories of slavery in Asia. In exploring the history of slavery in Sri Lanka under the Dutch East India Company, and in particular the sources, it is revealed that the lines between a condition of slavery and living in freedom were certainly blurred. This was true not only in terms of lived experience but also before the law. Through a mid-eighteenth-century court case involving a family and those people who claimed ownership over them, we get some insights into these issues of slavery and freedom, and the spaces between these legal categories which individuals inhabited.

Rijksmuseum, View of Colombo from Slave Island, Jan Brandes, 1785. Click here for a full version

Sabina who lived in Colombo was a mother, a wife and at some points in her life was enslaved. She was also a litigant who spent years in the VOC courts contesting the claim that she was enslaved. The dispute began in dramatic style when a widow barged into a man’s wedding, halting proceedings. The man was Christoffel, Sabina’s son, and the widow claimed to be their owner. The widow’s claim was based on unpaid debts and the case appears to have revolved around whether or not Sabina’s husband, Anthonij, had repaid money borrowed in the past. But what was the connection between his debt and Sabina’s slave status? When Sabina was manumitted she received proof of her freed status, which proof Anthonij used as collateral on a loan. If he could not pay, Sabina and her children would be re-enslaved to cover the outstanding debt. It was Sabina’s freedom and that of her children that was at stake. The resolution of the case has been lost in the intervening years but whatever the outcome of the dispute, it is clear that freedom was precarious, and that even before the law slave and free status were not clear cut.

Over the last few years, since my first trip to Colombo, there have been a number of wonderful books and articles published based on sources including those documents which I pored over in the archive. Most recent among them is Nira Wickramasinghe’s fantastic Slave in a Palanquin. There is of course still much to be done and many lives and experiences of these historical individuals to uncover. Through a variety of academic projects and heritage partnerships, this work is underway.


Kate Ekama is a postdoctoral researcher at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Her work on slavery in the Indian Ocean focuses on Sri Lanka and the Cape, spanning the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. The work discussed in this post refers to documents housed in the Sri Lanka National Archive in Colombo and to recent published research in the Journal of Social History. You can contact Kate at  

Event: PhD defense Niels Terpstra

Niels Terpstra (@nielsterpstra) | Twitter
Niels Terpstra (@nielsterpstra) | Twitter

On 23 April 2021 Niels Terpstra will defend his dissertation on the armed conflicts in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Niels wrote his dissertation at the History of International Relations and Conflict Studies section of the Faculty of Humanities at Utrecht University. The PhD thesis was supervised by prof. Georg Frerks and dr. Nora Stel. The title of his dissertation is: Rebel Governance and Legitimacy in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. In this social-historical research project, Niels explored the role of non-state armed actors, service provision, and civilian compliance during the armed conflicts in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

Galle: A Heritage city under threat– Interview with dr. Uditha Jinadasa

Interview by Doreen van den Boogaart & Luc Bulten

Aerial view of Galle, ©Uditha Jinadasa

In Spring 2020 Dr. Uditha Jinadasa defended her dissertation ‘Changes in the Cultural Landscape and their Impacts on Heritage Management: A Study of Dutch Fort at Galle, Sri Lanka’ and earned her PhD from the Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University. The fortified town of Galle is a living heritage city, but this status is threated by gentrification. Dr. Jinadasa researched what has happened to the architecture, demography, economy, and city culture since the Fort has become UNESCO World Heritage in 1988. Luc Bulten and Doreen van den Boogaart, young ambassadors of the Netherlands Sri Lanka Foundation, interviewed her about her thesis and her view on heritage management in Sri Lanka.

Q: In your PhD thesis you note that on the one hand the current ongoing gentrification of Galle fort has caused many local inhabitants to be forced to leave, while at the same time it provides a stable method of income for the local community. We were wondering, who could stay, and who had to move, and why?

‘In the gentrification process of the fortress, I identified three waves. It all started with the Galle Fort’s UNESCO World Heritage recognition in 1988. The land prices gradually went up and the local people sold their properties. These were the ordinary people in need of money in that very moment. During the second wave the middle class started to sell their properties too, for better prices as the land increased in worth. In contrast to what happened during the first wave, the residents saw the economic benefits as from 1988 foreign investors bought properties in the Fort. People sold or rented out their properties, others started business to meet the wishes of the influx of tourists. In the third wave none of the local community sold their properties; they stayed, started tourist business, or leased out their houses. In thirty years, the number of residents in the town decreased by two-thirds.’

The text continues after the documentary made by Uditha Jinadasa in which she speaks with several (former) residents of the Fort.

‘Unfortunately, the residents of Galle Fort who moved out in the earliest wave, are hit twice as hard.’ Jinadasa puts her attention to the impact of the gentrification of Galle Fort on the former residents. ‘They regret losing their houses and if they had sold their land later on, they could have sold it for a far better price.’ The feeling of loss is a recurring topic in the documentary ‘Another Story of Galle Fort, A UNESCO World Heritage City’. One of the main characters is a person who sold his house to a foreign investor in 2011. He regrets selling his property in the Fort, because his former house at the Pedlar Street contains a lot of his memories. ‘Not only the ones moving out are sorry for the changes the fortress goes through.’ Jinadasa continues, ‘The influx of tourists and (foreign) investors changed the environment in the city. However, in 2019, the majority of the local residents were earning their living in the tourist industry, with B&Bs, souvenir shops, restaurants, etc.T hey experience the financial benefit of the current situation and accept it.’

‘Despite the changes, the (former) inhabitants still like the place. Some people who moved out still visit the fort in the evenings to look at the sunset. Many have a very personal connection to the city, which has not faded away after they left. Others, like a banker Jinadasa asked what Galle meant to him, never wants to leave. He spoke about the Fort as gama (village): ‘I was born in this place, I worked in this place and I want to die in this place.’

Q: Next to the people, a large part of your doctoral research focused on the buildings. Your research pointed out that a minority of the buildings within the fort is still true to the original colonial architecture (36%, opposed to 44% that can no longer be considered as such), would you argue that the influx of domestic and foreign tourists is the prime factor contributing to this ‘loss’?

Yes, there were around 350 buildings in 1988, now there are nearly 500, including the subdivisions and the new infill. Foreign and local investors moved their attention to Galle. Not to live there, they needed space for their business. The buildings consequently developed towards the tourist industry: they became luxury villas, hotels, shops, galleries. You must not forget’, Uditha Jinadasa explains, ‘that the buildings were very old, which do meet the modern living requirements. These buildings had to the building development regulations of Galle Fort. Experts had identified several colonial elements of Galle, like verandas, pillars, internal courtyards. As a result, around 40 percent of the buildings were developed, many according to the regulations and the rest were illegal developments.

A comparison between the original house, and the building it was replaced with within Galle fort. ©Uditha Jinadasa

Q: In the documentary the (then-)director of the Department of Archeology mentions that they cannot stop the gentrification from taking place, as you cannot deny people from selling their property. Do you believe there is a way the local authorities could negate this process and allow local people to stay?

‘We could shift to a community-centered approach and encourage people to stay. For example, by giving people the (financial) support to develop their property. Developing property is very expensive as accordingly to the regulations an architect needs to be consulted, whose service fees are to high. In any case we should make laws that are community friendly and not laws that are beneficial for investors.’

Q: Is it at all important for historical heritage sites like Galle to maintain its ‘authenticity’? Or should it predominantly serve the contemporary purpose of tourism, education, and recreation? In other words, is it that bad if the original architecture is lost if it contributes to its economic function [e.g. swimming pools for hotels]?

‘Let us take the canal area of Amsterdam as an example: People visit the Canal Ring precisely because of its historic buildings. If there are no historic buildings left in Amsterdam or Galle Fort, why do we still visit the places then? Moreover, since the fort is a living heritage site, the local people should benefit from it and be able to enjoy the place as it was before. So yes, the authenticity needs to be preserved to a certain extent.’

Q: In several other cases in Sri Lanka, particularly in Colombo, old and decaying heritage was rebuilt and repurposed – particularly into (high-end) shopping malls like Dutch hospital and Arcade Independence Square – often saving it from demolition. Do you think this is a good way to save historical buildings and heritage?

‘Sri Lanka has a long history of old preserving buildings and monuments. The Department of Archeology issued the antiquities ordinance already in 1940. According to the law buildings over 100 years can be regarded as a monument. Now people are considering monuments, either local or colonial, as something to be preserved. Looking at it as an ordinary person, I would say that it adds diversity to Colombo with it colonial, traditional, and modern buildings. You should look at it like it is in the Netherlands; people visit the city of Rotterdam as one can find there very different buildings than in other big Dutch cities. In that way tourists and locals enjoy visiting former colonial places in Colombo.’

Q: Learning from the aforementioned examples, and other such situations worldwide, what would be the ideal method to ensure that the heritage site would get a sustainable, yet economically feasible purpose that would be beneficial to local communities without it losing its historical value? Could perhaps name some examples of near-perfect practices surrounding heritage site around the world?

‘The World Heritage program started in the 1970s,’ Jinadasa explains, ‘Many World Heritage listed historic cities experience gentrification today. An example to successful heritage site with regards to the local communities is said to be the City of Vigan, in the Philippines. However, a good start does not guarantee a good outcome. And the other way around is true as well!’ Dr. Uditha Jinadasa ends on a happy note: ‘We should make use of the best practices that are introduced in our time, such as a community-centered approach and see what happens…’


Uditha Jinadasa was born in Bulathkohupitiya, Sri Lanka in 1979. In 2005, she completed a bachelor’s degree in archaeology with First Class Honours at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. Since its completion, she has worked in the local and national heritage sector and trained as a researcher at the Central Cultural Fund, the country’s second most important heritage institution, which manages its state-owned World Heritage-listed cultural sites. In 2009, she completed a MSc in GIS, GPS and Remote Sensing at the University of Peradeniya. In the same year, she joined the Sri Lanka Department of Archaeology—the country’s national archaeology institution—as a research officer. Uditha started her PhD in October 2014 at the Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, funded by the Dutch organisation NUFFIC. She completed her PhD in March 2020 and currently serves as a lecturer at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka.

A Footnote in History: the life of Willem de Melho

By Bente de Leede

This story is about a boy who travelled from Sri Lanka to Amsterdam in the eighteenth century. He was not the only one to do this, and certainly not the most famous one. Willem lived a short life and suffered a tragic fate, though his story is worth telling, not in the least because so many elements of Sri Lankan-Dutch connections are reflected in it: from Tamil translators, community conflict, to Christian religion and Dutch revolution! The interaction of Sri Lankans and Dutchmen during the Dutch colonial period was not just contained to Asia, and to politics and economics. Over the course of 150 years, Sri Lankan people also travelled, studied and lived in the Netherlands. Around 20 of them were students of theology, trained at the Dutch seminary in Colombo, pursuing a doctorate at the universities of Leiden and Utrecht, and returning to a career in Dutch Colonial Asia. Willem, however, never left the Netherlands to return to Sri Lanka: he was buried here.

Translators and Ministers

Willem was born in Sri Lanka in 1761 as Wilhelmus Philippus Simon de Melho, in a Tamil-speaking Chettiar family. He was reportedly a keen and amiable boy. Willem’s grandfather Simon was, together with the Ondaatjes – another well-known Chettiar family – part of a clan of which many members worked for the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the Dutch Reformed Church in Sri Lanka. Within the Chettiar community they formed a faction that clashed with other members of their community, one of the reasons being Simon’s presumably low status as an illegitimate child of a formerly enslaved woman. Within the colonial government, Simon climbed the social ladder quickly though, seizing the opportunity of making himself indispensable to the Dutch as the chief Tamil translator for the VOC. His son, Philip de Melho, Willem’s father, was soon a rising star within the Dutch Reformed Church. Philip married Magdalena Ondaatje and they had several children, among whom two sons. The church considered Philip to be extremely talented and devoted. He attended the seminary, became a junior minister, and also wrote and translated several books in Tamil to explain and defend the Dutch protestant faith to his congregation in Jaffa. And while it was mandatory for all ministers within the Dutch church system to have studied theology at a university, and thus to have to travel to Europe, Philip de Melho refused. It was exceptional, especially since the Dutch governor-general had specifically arranged for him to go to the Netherlands. Was Philip scared to travel to Europe for such a long time? Was he confident enough in his own ability as a minister? Whatever his reasons were, he became one of the greatest exceptions in Dutch church history, and especially in colonial Sri Lanka, since he was even ordained as a senior minister – a predikant – without a university degree.

Cut-out of a map of Amsterdam in the 18th century, with resepectively the Bantammerstraat (left) and the Oudezijdskapel (right) circled by author.
This map is oriented southwards, the harbour below is on the northside of the city. © Plattegrond van Amsterdam ca. 1726-1750 .RP-P-AO-20-55-3, Rijksmuseum. Anonymous artist, Reinier Ottens (I) & Josua (publisher).

To Amsterdam

Knowing that Philip de Melho had refused to go, it is at least remarkable that he did send his youngest son Willem to attend the Atheneum in Amsterdam, and after this preparatory school to continue his theology studies at university. His oldest brother had died before being able to take that trip, according to some from ‘studying too hard’, which sounds daunting, but perhaps mainly suggests he was a zealous student. It must therefore have been hard for Philip, and Willem himself, that the only remaining son was leaving the family for Europe. Fortunately, he was not alone: he travelled with his cousin Pieter Ondaatje, who was three years older and whose mother Hermina Quint was from Amsterdam. In 1773, the boys travelled to Galle first, where they boarded a ship to Amsterdam. In Galle, Pieter and Willem stayed with their aunt, whose late husband Petrus de Silva had been predikant as well. A familiar theme in this family be now, uncle Petrus himself had also studied theology in the Netherlands. On November 16th, together with several hundreds of sailors, soldiers and merchants, the boys travelled the Indian Ocean, rounded the Cape, and arrived in Amsterdam about seven months later, on 10 June 1774. There they were awaited by an unfamiliar face, but a familiar name. Pieter Quint, Pieter Ondaatje’s maternal grandfather, would be their legal guardian during their stay in the Netherlands, and the boys were to live at his house. Pieter Quint was a church elder and merchant, living in the Binnen Bantammerstraat in Amsterdam, close to the docks. This street still exists, its name refers to a region in West-Java, and this has over the centuries been a neighbourhood where many Asian travellers in Amsterdam have settled.

Of Pieter and Willem’s time in Amsterdam and attending the Atheneum Illustre not much is known. Pieter decided after four years to continue his studies in Utrecht, starting with theology, and later switching to law, resulting in doctorate degrees from both the Universities of Leiden and Utrecht. He became part of the official historical canon of the Netherlands, as one of the key ideologists and charismatic leaders of the Batavian Revolution in the Netherlands.

The record of Pieter Quint in the burial records, stating his address in the Binnen Bantammerstraat. From 1791. ©Stadsarchief Amsterdam, DTB Begraven 5001, 1066, akte no. 1066 p. 101.

Archival memories
While this story might feel like it’s just getting up to steam, this is where the engine suddenly comes to a full stop. Unlike his cousin, Willem never got a degree. One of the only archival remains of Willem where he is not in the slipstream of his famous cousin or father, is his record in the Burial Registry in the Amsterdam Municipal archives. This is where I first met Willem, by reading about his death. The house at the Bantammerstraat had been struck by tuberculosis and Willem did not survive. And so, at age nineteen, not quite graduated from school and after being in the Netherlands and away from his family for seven years, Willem de Melho passed away on February 23rd 1780. The plans were ambitious, but had worked for most of his relatives: getting a degree in the Netherlands and return to Sri Lanka to work in the Reformed Church, next to his father. On February 28th, Willem was buried in the Oudezijdskapel, or St. Olof’s Chapel, at the Zeedijk, close to the harbour and the ships returning to Sri Lanka. Ten years later, Willem’s guardian Pieter Quint was also buried there. Pieter Ondaatje could not attend that funeral, as he was exiled in France. Would the death of his grandfather have reminded him of his deceased cousin? On his grandfather’s wish, and showing how much the men had meant to each other, Pieter took Quint’s name, and is nowadays remembered as Pieter Quint Ondaatje.

The signature of Pieter Quint on his Last Will, in which he leaves his books to Pieter Quint Ondaatje, and mentions both his son-in-law ánd Philip de Melho in Sri Lanka. ©Stadsarchief Amsterdam, Notariële Akten 5075, 16683, Akte no. 408118.

In the margins of his family members’ histories Willem might seem only a footnote, but in all these stories his memory does live on. On the picture below is Willem’s burial record. He is referred to as

Wilhelmus Philippus Simon de Melho, the only son of Philippus de Melho, servant of the Holy Gospel in Jaffanapatnam [Jaffna], on the island Ceylon.

It is striking, and significant for the history of Dutch colonialism and the connection with Sri Lanka, that the administrative and physical remains of these Sri Lankan men, Willem, Philip and Simon, can still be found in Dutch records and churches in Europe.

©Stadsarchief Amsterdam, DTB 5001, 1066, p.58.


To read more from the world of the Ondaatje and De Melho families in Sri Lanka during the Dutch period, read Herman Tieken’s Between Colombo and the Cape. Letters in Tamil, Dutch and Sinhala, Sent to Nicolaas Ondaatje from Ceylon, Exile at the Cape of Good Hope (1728-1737). Delhi: Manohar 2015.

Invented Heritage: The Last Sri Lankan King’s Prison Cell in Colombo, by Chryshane Mendis

A stroll down the old streets of Colombo’s Fort district would no doubt remind one of the city’s colonial past, with many of its buildings giving out their European descent through their architecture. Amidst this cluster of British and even Dutch heritage buildings and monuments is a small curious monument in the carpark of the Ceylinco House building in the shape of a prison cell. Tradition has it that it once held the last king of Kandy, the last independent native kingdom of Sri Lanka, and indeed so reads the inscriptions on the monument, which is also a protected monument by the Department of Archaeology.

While exploring tidbits of Colombo’s past, my curious mind noticed an inconsistency in this narrative, that academically it was known that the king was not imprisoned here, but placed in a large house and well looked after until his deportation. Then which narrative is true? And then what exactly is this monument? In 2018 I decided to investigate this and produced a research article with a surprising conclusion which I disseminated in online and print media. It turned out that the academic narrative was right and that the present monument was constructed in the 1950s! I attempt here to give a summary of this and take a step further by exploring on a question I ended with in the previously published article; why the conception of such a narrative and monument?

The present monument (Author, 2018)

The popular narrative goes that the king was kept in a cell within the fort of Colombo before his departure, but is it the actual story? In the February 1815 British campaign to oust King Sri Wickrama Rajasingha from the throne; the king who fled the capital was captured on the 18th February 1815 and transferred to Colombo. Arriving in Colombo on the 6th of March the king and his family remained there till the 24th of January 1816 when he was deported to Vellore in South India.

My research showed that according to the Official Government Gazette and the writings of Dr. Henry Marshall, he was kept in a house and placed under house arrest, and not in a cell.

To quote the Gazette No. 704, Wednesday, 15th March 1815:

“On the Monday following Major Hook with the Detachment under his command escorting the late King of Kandy and his family entered the Fort…He is logged in a House in the Fort which has been suitably prepared for his reception and is stockaded round to prevent any intrusion on his privacy”

Dr. Henry Marshall, a contemporary to the event gives a detailed account of the last King, his appearance, his character and a very impartial look at his rise and fall. In his book he states that:

“the prison or house provided for him was spacious, and handsomely fitted up. He was obviously well pleased with his new adobe, and upon entering it, observed, “As I am no longer permitted to be a King, I am thankful for the kindness and attention which have been shown to me”

The writings of Dr. Marshall further confirm beyond doubt, of the king being placed within a house in the fort and not in a prison cell.

Then where was this house? Here is where the site of the monument and the narrative of the housing of the king comes together. R. L. Brohier states that the king was housed in a Dutch house which was later occupied by the Darley Butler building, and later by the present Ceylinco House – the current site of the monument. My historical survey showed the present location indeed used to be a block of houses during the Dutch period which would have no doubt been there in 1815, just 19 years after the takeover of Colombo by the British.

If the king was in a house, then what is this present monument? The Darley Butler building was established on the site of the house prior to 1860 and was later demolished in about 1960 when the Ceylinco House was being built between 1955 and 1962. A significant change to the built landscape around the Darley Butler building occurred in the mid-19th century, where the ramparts of the fort were taken down and a military barracks complex termed the Echelon barracks was built  in 1875 – just adjoining the Darley Butler building. A study of a detailed plan of 1904 at the National Archives showed a small box shaped structure just bordering the Darley Butler building to the south which appears to have been a guardroom with an entrance to the barracks facing Queen’s Street. This was confirmed by an old photograph of around the 1920s, which clearly shows the guardroom as square shaped with a tiled roof. Suspecting a relationship between the guardroom and the present monument, further comparative analysis was done with maps and aerial images, which identified the site of this guardroom and the present monument as the same.

Photograph of Queens Street, ca.1920s. RED circle clearly shows the Guard house with entrance (Extract from Sea Ports of India and Ceylon, 2005)             

As both the guardroom and the present monument fit to the same location, there appears to have been a modification or complete remodeling made to the guardroom by 1960, as a photograph of that year clearly shows the present monument next to the Darley Butler building together with a still-under-construction Ceylinco House.

Photograph from Baurs building, 1960. RED circle shows the present monument (The Faithful Foreigner, 2015)

Then comes the big question, why? Why create this structure and associate it with the false narrative of the king in a prison? Since its appearance from 1960, it has consistently been associated as a monument of heritage; an authentic prison cell from 1815 where the king was purportedly held. Was this a case of mistaken identity? No. The results clearly showed the narrative of the imprisonment as false and the monument as a reconstruction of a much later guardroom. Hence it could be considered a case of invented heritage; a deliberately ascribed narrative to a ‘new’ structure.

While I wasn’t able to find out why and by whom such a monument was created, it is interesting to explore this question through a socio-ideological lens, not in a sense to find an answer but to explore the possibilities.

Taking an overview of the built heritage of Colombo fort, it is a space of colonial heritage, with built heritage sites from the Dutch period through to the British; however with this present monument being the only indigenous heritage monument in Colombo Fort. If a question is asked of representation in the heritage space, it fits in quite well; it is a monument associated with a Tamil king of a Sinhala kingdom, a representation of the two dominant ethnic cultures of Sri Lanka within the predominantly European space.

If looked at from this perspective of indigenous-colonial representation in heritage space, was this a part of a larger process of decolonization in a post-colonial nationalism-oriented Sri Lanka? Or was it simply a personal whim for a hoax or an adding of extra value to real-estate?

The change from guardroom to prison cell appears to have been made in the late 1950s when the Ceylinco House was being built. This falls within the first decade after independence from the British in 1948, a time of active nationalism and decolonization by indigenizing colonial space. Colombo being the center of colonialism was actively being decolonized; Victoria Park was renamed Viharamahadevi Park in 1958, Queens House renamed to Janadhipathi Mandiraya (Presidents house) and its adjoining Queens Street to Janadhipathi Mawatha, and Gordon Gardens renamed to Republic Square, to name a few. It is therefore tempting to ponder if this ‘prison cell of King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe’ was  a monumental reproduction of the last Kandyan king for a post-colonial Sinhalese identity project amidst colonial European heritage monuments; a form of re-appropriation of heritage space.

Key References:

Brohier, R. L., 1984. Changing Face of Colombo. Colombo: Lake House Investments.

Diessen, R. V., Nelemans, B., 2008. Comprehensive Atlas of the Dutch United East India Company Vol. IV. Cakovec: Zrinksi Printing & Publishing House.

Macmillan, A., Extract from Sea Ports of India and Ceylon, 2005.

Marshall, H., 1846. Ceylon, a general description of the island and its inhabitants. Tisara Prakasakayo (reprint 1969).

Mendis, H.M.C., 2018. Truth behind the Prison cell of the last King in Colombo Fort. [online] Available at: Truth behind the Prison cell of the last King in Colombo Fort

Perera, N.,1999. Decolonizing Ceylon: Colonialism, nationalism, and the politics of space in SriLanka. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Ranasinghe, D., The Faithful Foreigner, Thilo Hoffmann, The Man Who Saved Sinharaja, 2015


Chryshane Mendis

Chryshane is a Sri Lankan graduate student residing in Amsterdam. He has just completed his MA Archaeology in Landscape and Heritage from the University of Amsterdam with a thesis on a GIS inventorying and mapping of Dutch and Kandyan fortifications. He has conducted a comprehensive survey on the archaeological remains of the Fort of Colombo and has since been invited to and delivered lectures to numerous organizations including the Sri Lanka Navy and published both locally and internationally. He is also the author of an upcoming book documenting the history of Colombo’s fortifications which will be published through The National Trust Sri Lanka. His academic interests are on Sinhalese warfare, military history & architecture, military landscape heritage and plans to pursue doctoral studies in Conflict Archaeology. He was also researcher and coordinator of through which he has published numerous articles.

New Research Project: ‘Towards a Virtual Slave Island’

by Alicia Schrikker & Bente de Leede

Figure 1: Slave Island 19th century, origin unknown

A project that connects history to the present by studying colonial heritage, is the recently started, titled: Towards a Virtual Slave Island. Contested Space and Everyday Life in Colombo, ca. 1700 – present.

This one year project aims to support ongoing activities of heritage and social activist concerned with the demolition of Colombo’s historic Slave Island (Kompannavidiya). Its goal is to unearth and visualise the area’s socio-cultural history and heritage. It is a collaborative project between Sri Lankan professionals in the field of architecture, history and sociology and historians in the Netherlands.  In the past decades, the Colombo Metropolitan area has become of the fastest-growing cities in South Asia. The ongoing developments might herald modernity for some, they also change the spatial and social fabric of downtown Colombo. In Slave Island – despite heritage initiatives and activism – countless historical buildings are demolished to make way for a new high rise, and families that have lived there for generations on Slave Island are dislocated to the city’s outskirts.

Figure 2 View of Beira Lake and Slave Island, © Creative Commons License

The main objective of the project is to document and visualise the forgotten, multicultural and -religious history of Slave Island, which houses a multi-ethnic community whose collective genealogies trace back to seventeenth and eighteenth-century Colombo. The end result of Towards a Virtual Slave Island will consist of an online interactive map of Slave Island’s current and historical transformations. The map will have five layers of ‘snapshots’ of Slave Island’s daily life and allows visitors to travel back in time: from the present-day evictions via early days of Independence over the industrialisation under the British, to the settlements of Indian Ocean slaves, soldiers and exiles during Dutch rule. The goal of the map is to go beyond architecture, as it puts life stories of past and present inhabitants of the suburb on the foreground.

The project will digitally preserve a city that is rapidly changing, but the team also wants to raise awareness. By producing new historical narratives accessible to a broader audience, it hopes to generate curiosity and foster new projects, both from Sri Lankan heritage organisations and professional historians. Towards that goal, the narratives on the website will be made available in English and Dutch, and will be translated in Sinhala and Tamil.

Project members and advisors in Sri Lanka: Iromi Perera (Right to the city) Varuna De Silva (University of Moratuwa) Ramla Wahab Salman (AISLS) and Vagisha Gunesekera (AISLS)

Project members in the Netherlands: Alicia Schrikker (Leiden University) and Dries Lyna (Radboud University)


The project is funded by:

A new beginning

After a very long pause the Netherlands Sri Lanka foundation revives its newsletter. Nothing to do with COVID19 but thanks to our young ambassadors, who introduce themselves further in this newsletter. At our event on 5 November 2019, “Who Owns Heritage?” held at the National Archives of the Netherlands we announced that the foundation plans to continue and engage further, with interested people and organizations, on this fascinating and important theme and more general issues of interest with regard to Sri Lanka.  At the November event, Martine Gosselink (formally at Rijksmuseum now at Mauritshuis) presented the story of a blue cannon from Kandy, Sri Lanka. The study into the provenance of this cannon is continuing but the research activities related to the cannon in Sri Lanka is slowed slightly for a reason that needs no mentioning. The renovation of the Dutch Period Museum in Colombo is progressing to plan.
COVID19 has not prevented us from reflecting and discussing how we should proceed further with our activities in 2020 and beyond. Being optimistic, we intend to maintain communications, hopefully in two ways, via our newsletters; and by other means of course. Our objective is to widen our reach and scope of activities. So please do let us know if there are topics or issues that you wish to share with us or for us to address in strengthening the relations between the Netherlands and Sri Lanka.
Georg Frerks, Chairman and Dilip Tambyrajah, Member of the Board