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, inv.no. 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, Inv.no. 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, inv.no. 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. Archaeology.lk [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 Archaeology.lk 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

Questioning Heritage – Interview with dr. Jos van Beurden

By Bente de Leede & Deborah de Koning

Jos van Beurden, from: http://www.josvanbeurden.nl/

Jos van Beurden PhD is an affiliated researcher at the Free University Amsterdam. As a scholar and writer he focuses, amongst other matters, on the protection and restitution of cultural heritage. He was one of the speakers at the event ‘Who own(s?) Heritage?’ held at the Dutch National Archives in Den Haag, November 2019, which was organised by Stichting Nederland-Sri Lanka. In this interview, young ambassadors of the Stichting, Deborah de Koning and Bente de Leede, ask him about his experience of the event and his work in the heritage sector.

Q. On the 5th of November you were the first invited speaker to deliver a presentation at the event ‘Who own(s?) Heritage?’. Your presentation was about the current debate on restitution of cultural objects from a colonial context. What was the main purpose of your contribution to this particular event?

‘There were two very specific reasons why I wanted to contribute to this event. The first was that I wanted to place the debate of restitution of cultural objects in a larger context – not limited to Sri Lanka. The second reason was that my presentation was a tribute to Pilippi De Silva, who was a predecessor to dr. Sanuja Kasthuriarachchi, the present director-general of the department of National Museums in Sri Lanka.’  Van Beurden elaborates on the former director-general: ‘De Silva has made an incredible contribution to the cultural restitution debate by visiting museums all over the world and making a museum inventory of cultural objects from the colonial period. At least two copies are also in the Netherlands, in Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It is on the basis of this book that Sri Lanka made a list of cultural objects the country would like to see returned.’

Jos van Beurden at the ‘Who Owns Heritage?’ event, 05/11/2019.

Q. So you would say the initiative to discuss restitution lay primarily with Sri Lanka?

‘Yes. A similar kind of process happened in Indonesia. When, in 1975, Indonesia and the Netherlands discussed new cultural relations, Indonesia presented a wish-list with around 10.000 cultural objects in Dutch public collections that it wanted back. After tough negotiations this number was reduced to several hundreds of items that have been returned in the following years. There is a serious desire inside several former colonies to retrieve some cultural objects from former colonisers.’

Q. In your research you focus on cultural objects from a colonial context. What does that mean, exactly?

It means that an object is of significant cultural and historical importance to the country of origin, and that it has been lost in the colonial period. I make a division between three types of these objects, the first being for example war booty, objects confiscated by missionaries and objects smuggled by colonial administrators, soldiers, scientists, traders and so on. Secondly, there are many cultural objects deliberately produced by craftsmen, sometimes on demand, with the purpose of selling them to colonisers. These objects were handed over for money or by barter, and can be considered as a win/win situation. There is however a large grey area, a third group between these two categories: there are many objects of which we do not know their story and origin. For these objects we need provenance research [herkomstonderzoek, red.].’

 Q. Following our question of what Van Beurden considered the most interesting contribution or presentation during the Heritage Event, he recalls:

‘One was a remark of Paul Russell – who works as a lawyer on, amongst others, cultural heritage: “When you have stolen something, you have to return it.” He worded that very straightforward, strong and clear, there is not much to discuss about that. What we see now, is that it takes the Rijksmuseum several years to go through this process of research and possible restitution. How long will it take then for all the other thousands of objects?’ In this context, Van Beurden thought dr. Sanuja Kasthuriarachchi’s remarks on the Blue Canon were also particularly interesting. When the Canon was discussed, Kasthuriarachchi suggested that objects such as the canon could also be researched, or exhibited, by a Sri Lankan museum.

Q. The ‘Blue Canon’ was a common thread in several presentations on November 5th. For those who did not attend the event: can you explain what this debate is about?

‘VOC soldiers captured the Blue Canon during the 1765 Kandyan war. It was obviously war booty’, Van Beurden argues. ‘The war was caused by Dutch agitation over the increase of cinnamon prices. The Dutch took the canon and several other objects and even returned one, a silver and gold holder of the relic of the tooth of the Buddha. The canon was stored in the Royal Cabinet of Curiosities and ended up in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam at the end of the nineteenth century. There it is currently on display. The canon was on the aforementioned inventory list of cultural objects and Sri Lanka asked for it in 1980, but the museum nor the Dutch government reacted positively.’

There are different positions in the present debate on restitution of cultural and historical objects from colonial contexts, Van Beurden emphasises, though his view on the matter is clear: ‘For some objects it seems obvious that they should be returned to their country of origin, especially when they are war booty. In 2017 the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam started a project on the provenance of several of its objects with complicated histories. In 2019 researchers from the museum went to Sri Lanka, but to do more research on the background of the objects, not to discuss restitution. Why did it take two years for the museum to include Sri Lanka in this provenance research-project? In my opinion, the information exchange with Sri Lanka began two years too late. The Netherlands should admit that, from a 21st-century point of view, they should not have confiscated the Canon. Communications and relations between the Netherlands and Sri Lanka should be one of as much equality as possible.’

Q. Does it make a difference for you, in the restitution debate, if the country that asks for the object will have a place to conserve the cultural and historical objects in a secure way (for instance in a museum)?

‘Not in the first place. In my opinion, a restitution process should have three steps: firstly, the former colonising country should admit that from its present perspective, it was wrong to take the object(s) concerned during the colonial era. Secondly, the former coloniser should make clear that it wants to build a new relationship, based on mutual respect and equality. The physical return of the object is the third step, but the two parties might also even agree that this step will not be necessary. Some countries are not so much interested in the object itself, but mainly want the former colonising country to include the complete story in their museums. In such instances, the first two steps are enough. They are just as important for a fruitful conversation about these objects.’

Van Beurden brings forward another restitution debate, that he compares to that about the Blue Canon: the Benin objects have been the subject of many restitution discussions.  In 1897 British soldiers took thousands of objects from present-day Nigeria during a violent clash with the king of Benin. Around 140 of these ‘Benin objects’ are in the Netherlands. In 2010, the Benin Dialogue Group started, consisting of the government of Nigeria, the Royal Benin court and the Edo State, where the court is located, next to a number of European museums, such as the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures. One of the goals of the group is to make the objects accessible in Nigeria in, for example, permanent exhibitions. Van Beurden: ‘Looking at these examples of war booty from Sri Lanka and Nigeria, European countries and museums should start returning this type of objects. It is obvious how there were acquired. I do see indications that Nigeria wants all of the thousands of Benin objects returned, and the European participants should recognise that the African partners are more entitled to them. We should avoid a neo-colonial position by demanding certain conditions of how the former colony should treat the object after restitution.’

Q. Most of the objects we have discussed here are kept inside of museums. Are there also objects like these outside of museums, and do you have an example of how restitution works in these cases?

Van Beurden gives an example from the Dutch East Indies, current Indonesia, where Governor-general of the Dutch East Indies, Mr. J.C. Baud, received several gifts during his time in office. ‘He once received the pilgrim’s staff of prince Diponegoro, national hero in Indonesia and leader of the anti-colonial Java War (1825 – 1830). The heirs of J.C. Baud still owned this staff. In 2015, the family decided to return it to Indonesia, where it is exhibited at the National Gallery, since they felt that it belonged in Indonesia more than in their home. An interesting, rare and very clear case: the family was not obliged to return it, it was not war booty but a gift – but they decided to return it themselves.’

Queen Juliana is also known for returning some gifts. ‘The Dutch royal family owned several paintings and drawings from Indonesian artist Raden Saleh. The painter had given some of his works to the royal family, because they had provided him the opportunity to study in Europe. Queen Juliana decided to return some of the paintings to Indonesia in the 1970s. Since these drawings were private gifts as well, there was no legal obligation to return them.’

Van Beurden continues: ‘A dilemma surrounding both the pilgrim’s staff and the paintings, however, is that they were received by people in their function as public officials. I think, it raises the question whether the possessors of such objects can fully decide by themselves to sell it. Both the Baud family and Queen Juliana have solved this in a constructive way. In 2014, another Raden Saleh painting, Boschbrand (Forest fire), was auctioned off by Juliana’s grandchildren to the highest bidder, the National Gallery in Singapore. This raised serious objections with Dutch art historians [and the Dutch Parliament red.] in 2016, and Dutch museums argued that, since the painting is part of Dutch history and heritage, they would have wanted the opportunity to purchase it first.’ Van Beurden, amongst others, asks however, ‘would Indonesia not have been a more fitting residence for this show piece?’

Q. As colonial encounters are border-crossing, how do you think the current COVID crisis affects the processes of restitution?

While no objects or people can travel, ‘there is time now, for reflection and research.’ Van Beurden also remarks that in global heritage research there has been enough experience in long-distance, digital communication. ‘People working in museums and involved in this debate are used to international communication. I myself of course miss the presentations and meetings abroad, but I do notice among colleagues an increased willingness to help each other out with information.’

Q. You have worked on return of cultural heritage in many countries, do you have any specific experience with this process and discussion in South Asia – or Sri Lanka – specifically?

‘My focus is on the global level – that is why I could contextualise the discussion we had about Sri Lanka at the Heritage Event.’ Van Beurden does have personal experience in South Asia though: ‘I have lived in South Asia, mainly Bangladesh, for three years in the 1970s. At that time I was traveling through Asia with my partner.’ He adds: ‘In South India we wanted to cross the Palk Strait to Sri Lanka, but due to the monsoon we had to take an airplane. Since we had no money for that, we decided to travel to Bangladesh. One simple moment prevented me from traveling to Sri Lanka!’

Q. As a final question, are you yourself involved with specific restitutions too, or do you mainly study the debate?

‘I have a role in a few cases, but a very informal one’, says Van Beurden. ‘I am a networker, bringing people in contact with others, advising people working on this subject. I have been involved in this debate for over thirty years now!’

We thank Jos van Beurden for his willingness to speak to us regarding his reflections on the restitution debate.

An Urban Buddhist Temple in Times of Covid: Ritual Exposure on Social Media and Community Service

By Deborah de Koning

Figure: Decorated palanquin with statues of Suddhodana and Mahamaya taken around in procession at the temple premises in a previous year. Picture taken by author, 21-03-2018, Colombo.


As Sri Lanka has faced a lock-down due to the Corona virus in the past months, I wondered what happened to Buddha and the deities at several Hindu and Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka: did some of the rituals at famous sites continue to take place and how? I assumed that monks took care of the rituals to Buddha as they often live on the temple premises. But what about the rituals to deities at shrines that are taken care of by lay-priests who often do not live at or close to the shrines? The restriction to travel in times of Covid formed an even more challenging problem for lay-people – devotees – as they would be prevented from conducting rituals to deities and demons, while these beings are considered to be able to both protect and bring misfortune upon people – important traits in time of crisis. A central principle of the Sinhalese Buddhist pantheon is the principle of mutual interdependence of deities, semi-divine beings, demons, and lay-people: humans seek the protection of deities or semi-divine beings for daily matters (as the Buddha is often considered too exalted to be involved in worldly matters) and by the offerings performed by lay-people to the deities as reward for the alleged protection, deities or semi-divine beings gain merit and enforce their status in the pantheon.

It happened that at the urban site of my research the connection between ‘deities’ and Covid became prominent in a ritual. The head monk of this Buddhist site in Colombo where I have conducted extensive research (see for more information my article on this temple) had decided that – despite the full lock down at that moment – he would organize a small perahera (procession). This procession took place around the temple premises and involved several volunteers.  Recordings were made of the procession and posted on Facebook. The head monk walked in front of the procession with a relic of the Buddha and while holding the casket he expressed the wish that ‘the pandemic that unfortunately embraced Sri Lanka and the fear of death that is spreading through the world would be dismissed by the power of Buddha, dhamma (Buddhist teachings), and sangha (monastic order) and by the power of pirith that is chanted continuously at the temple site.’ On the procession palanquin that immediately followed him the statues of Mahamaya and Suddhodana (Buddha’s parents) and Ravana were taken around. As the head monk further explained, the procession was a tribute to Mahamaya and Suddhodana and the dynasty of kings under the great monarch Ravana.

This procession that was organized at the time of the full lockdown, led to heated discussions in the media. But soon after the procession was held, media started to spread other news items about the same temple in Colombo, that ultimately would dominate the frame through which the temple was seen by the general public. As it turned out, the Mahamaya shrine at the site was now used as storage place for red onions, the meeting room was filled with bags of rice and volunteers helped to distribute the food items to the houses of the needy. Facebook posts explained that the monk had sold a BMW 7 series – which was his private property! – to use the money to feed the poor during the lockdown. A police officer/public health inspector praised the priest on TV saying that this temple had set an ideal example of how Buddhist monks should serve the community as they did in the past.

The news items on the food distribution that has been initiated (and financed) by this Buddhist temple illustrate two key-characteristics of Sri Lankan Buddhism that have risen into prominence during the twentieth century Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka:  it first of all shows the social engagement of monks: this monk decided to organize a perahera – probably to a large extent to show off in the media as he explicitly focused on the digital message at the time he walked around with the casket. Also, he took the initiative to distribute food among the poor people in his neighborhood. These examples both illustrate the importance of lay-people for the ‘success’ of an urban Buddhist site – by posting the monks’ messages online and by actually distributing the food. As I learned over the years, those volunteers form a close-knit community of people who meet each other on a regular basis. The dynamics between lay-people and monks in joint activities as food distribution are important in order to rethink what urban Buddhism on a grassroots level actually means to people in Sri Lanka in the twenty first century. This Buddhist temple shows that urban temple sites do not only provide ‘food for the soul’, but also create social structures that allow monks and lay-people to work together in times of crisis, in order to take care of the needy.


Deborah de Koning