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