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.