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.
Interview by Doreen van den Boogaart & Luc Bulten
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.
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…’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.