SRI LANKA

JEWEL IN THE OCEAN


o ancient mariners, Sri Lanka was Ratnadipa, the land of gems. By about the fifth century BC peoples from northern India had settled on the island. Legends mention the name of their leader, prince Vijaya. The settlers were called Sihalas--'people of the Lion'--because Vijaya's father was actually believed to have been a lion. Within four centuries most of the islanders had accepted Buddhism, and from 67 until 993 C.E. the city of Anuradhapura was the political and religious centre of the island. Giant reservoirs were built for irrigation. However, it was not rice, but rather cinnamon and the elephant trade that attracted Western traders. To control the Sri Lankan cinnamon trade, the VOC conquered the port town of Colombo from the Portuguese in 1656 and there established its largest colonial settlement in Asia save Batavia (Jakarta).

The Sinhalese name of a specific tree, Calamba, gave the city of Colombo its name and coat of arms
(click image to enlarge)

A Faustian Bargain

n 1638, Raja Singa II of Kandy granted the VOC a trade monopoly on cinnamon in return for military assistance in the struggle with the Portuguese on Sri Lanka. Twenty years later, Dutch power had replaced the Portuguese as the ruler of maritime Lanka, as well as the narrow straits between Sri Lanka and the Indian mainland. Then, in time-honoured tradition, the VOC held onto large tracts of land--most of coastal Sri Lanka, as it happened--as remuneration for unpayable debts. By the end of the 18th century, the VOC exercised direct rule in the coastal area over more than 350,000 Sinhalese and Tamils who peeled more than half a million pounds of cinnamon annually for the Company. The VOC administration entrenched itself firmly in Jaffna, Gale, Colombo, and countless villages in the countryside.

Although the treaty of 1638 did not give the VOC the legal right to the coastal territories, it severely diminished the state of Kandy's sovereignty, and it resulted in an exclusive Dutch monopoly in the cinnamon trade that deprived the islanders of their most important cash crop. Furthermore, the VOC tried to become the main elephant exporter and the sole importer of cloth to the island as well. After taking over most of the Catholic churches of the island, the VOC actively promoted Dutch Reformed Protestantism, which was only countered by continuing Catholic missions from Portuguese Goa and finally a revival of Buddhism during the second half of the eighteenth century. Only a tiny fraction of the large corpus of archival information available has been explored thus far to study
Dutch -Sri Lankan interactions. Unfortunately, few documents from the great Kingdom of Kandy itself have survived. When used in concert with extant Sinhala and Tamil literary works, VOC records provide much information on - to borrow the words of a Sri Lankan historian - 'the rich and variegated history of the island . a history which not only helps us to understand how people lived in the past, but also explains many of the attitudes, policies and aspirations of the people who live there in the present day.'

Coat of Arms of the VOC establishments on Ceylon, c. 1719.
(click image to enlarge)

 


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