Event Completed: Web Seminar: To Give or Not to Give it Back to Sri Lanka: Considerations, Concerns and Actions regarding the artefacts of colonial period

on Wednesday 24 May 2023, 12:30 to 14:30 hrs Netherlands and  16:00-18:00 hrs Sri Lanka time.

To commemorate 70 years of diplomatic relations between the Netherlands and Sri Lanka, the Netherlands Sri Lanka Foundation of the Netherlands and the  LDE Centre for Global Heritage and Development, Leiden University has and will organise  web seminars delving into different aspects of Dutch-Sri Lankan collaboration in the fields of research such as Heritage, Cultural Artefacts, Conflict & Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation and similar themes.

The present seminar will address issues related to restitution of artefacts of the colonial period. The demands for the restitution or return of cultural artefacts to their country of origin is surrounded by lots of controversy. However, there is potential for mutual learning, understanding the historical context and the significance, meaning and value of cultural artefacts of the colonial period. 
This seminar is about the Colonial Collections of Sri Lanka in the museums of the Netherlands. The speakers will provide an update on the state of affairs of restitution activities in the Netherlands and the general sentiments in Sri Lanka; touch on the (lack of or limited) provenance research and documentation of some these cultural artefacts. The processual concerns with regards to restitution and return. Finally the discussions will focus on the considerations and concerns that may be, or need to be, addressed so progress and actions are  encouraged in enabling the potential restitution/return of the cultural artefacts.

We have top speakers dealing with the highly debated topic of restitution of colonial artefacts.

There will be 1 expert from Sri Lanka and 1 from the Netherlands. The session will be moderated by Her Excellency Ms. Mr. Drs. Bonnie Horbach, Ambassador of the Netherlands to Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

Full details of programme HERE

Thank you for participating.

Event complete Web Seminar: Exploring Heritage, Sri Lanka – Netherlands Relations

Thursday 20 October 2022

To commemorate 70 years of diplomatic relations between the Netherlands and Sri Lanka, the LDE Centre for Global Heritage and Development and the Netherlands the Sri Lanka Foundation of the Netherlands have organised a web seminar delving into different aspects of Dutch-Sri Lankan collaboration in the fields of research and heritage.

The audience will be welcomed by Her Excellency Ms. Dr. Bonnie Horbach,  Ambassador of the Netherlands to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, and Her Excellency Mrs. Aruni Ranaraja, Ambassador of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. During the web seminar, renowned scholars from the Netherlands and Sri Lanka will offer the audience a unique opportunity to look at the outstanding and multifaceted Sri Lankan heritage from different perspectives.

3 top speakers from Sri Lanka and the Netherlands would deal with 3 topics within the context of Heritage.

For details of speakers and topics please click here

Dutch Forts in Sri Lanka

Banners of the exhibition

The banner exhibition ‘Dutch Forts in Sri Lanka’ was developed in cooperation with the Department of Archaeology of Sri Lanka, the Galle Heritage Foundation and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Colombo, with the support of the Foundation Netherlands-Sri Lanka, The Hague, and the Foundation Documentation Monuments VOC, Amsterdam.

The exhibition is authored and compiled by Lodewijk Wagenaar, Amsterdam.

The official opening of the exhibition by Her Excellency Tanja Gonggrijp, Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Sri Lanka was on Tuesday 22 March 2022 at the Jaffna Fort.

To view the banners please click here.

Dutch Forts in Sri Lanka

A banner exhibition:

The banner exhibition ‘Dutch Forts in Sri Lanka’ has been developed in cooperation with the Department of Archaeology of Sri Lanka, the Galle Heritage Foundation and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Colombo, with the support of the Foundation Netherlands-Sri Lanka, The Hague, and the Foundation Documentation Monuments VOC, Amsterdam.
The exhibition is authored and compiled by Lodewijk Wagenaar, Amsterdam.

The official opening of the exhibition by Her Excellency Tanja Gonggrijp, Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Sri Lanka will on Tuesday 22 March 2022. The opening venue will be the Jaffna Fort.

The main banners:

1. Dutch forts in Sri Lanka

2. Ally against the Portuguese, 1638-1658

3. An occupied coastal area with many forts

4. Construction and maintenance

5. Administration and exploitation of a colony

6. Batteries and sentry boxes

And special banners on: Galle, Matara, Jaffna, Mannar, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Colombo (Sri Lanka)

For additional information in English text please click here

For additional information in Sinhala text please click here

For additional information in Tamil text please click here

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: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/stories/slavery

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4000291

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 kateekama@sun.ac.za.  

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.