Saturday, October 08, 2011

Dutch sovereignty in Sri Lanka

Courtesy -  The Island By Kamalika Pieris

A treaty was signed in 1638 between Rajasinha II of Sri Lanka and Westerwold, acting on behalf of Frederic Hendrik, Prince of Orange and the States General of the Netherlands. The Dutch were granted monopoly in cinnamon, pepper, wax and ivory. In return, the Dutch would help Rajasinha take back the Portuguese occupied territories. The Dutch would fight alongside the Sinhalese and Rajasinha would foot the bill. Rajasinha had deliberated for several days with his chiefs before he agreed to the treaty.

This treaty, written in Portuguese, specified that forts captured from the Portuguese would be garrisoned by the Dutch only ‘if the king (Rajasinha) thought fit’. .The Dutch thought otherwise, they planned to take full possession of these forts. So, they made a Dutch translation of the treaty where the phrase ‘if the king thought fit’ was left out. Goonewardena and Dewaraja say the omission was deliberate and well planned

The Dutch took Galle without Rajasinha. Then they took Negombo, jointly with Rajasinha, but instead of handing it over, repaired and garrisoned it. When Rajasinha objected, he was shown the Dutch translation. Rajasinha rejected this outright and demanded back the forts. Galle and Negombo were in the cinnamon producing region and the Dutch had no intention of ever letting them go. So they pointed to another clause in the treaty, which said that the forts would be garrisoned by the Dutch till Rajasinha paid their expenses. Rajasinha promptly asked for a statement of expenses and did not like the statement when it came. The costs had been inflated. Rajasinha knew to calculate the cost of a war. The payments on the other hand, were under stated. Substantial quantities of cinnamon and pepper already given as payment had been left out.

When Rajasinha offered to pay the full debt in cash, he was told that the payment had to be made in kind. After which, the Dutch reduced the price for cinnamon. They wished to keep the king in their debt as long as possible. Rajasinha’s "debt" to the Dutch for the war campaigns kept increasing year by year and appeared in the accounts of the Dutch East Indies Company as one of their permanent assets. In 1650, Rajasinha again wanted to know what he still owed them, pointing out that he had made this demand many times before. The Dutch avoided the issue.

Having said that they were only holding the forts until war expenses were paid , the Dutch could not claim outright possession. This made their position weak. Rajasinha was aware of this and insisted that all Dutch possessions were his. The Dutch were forced to go along with him, as they had been instructed not to anger Rajasinha. Rajasinha forbade the Dutch from fortifying any part of the island ‘without my license.’ He demanded back Negombo fort. He wanted to raze it to the ground. When the Dutch asked for the rich Matara disawani, Rajasinha refused, saying ‘I am the lawful king of these lands’. All the Udarata kings, starting from Rajasinha II addressed the Dutch governor as ‘my governor in Colombo’.

Portugal signed a truce with Netherlands in 1641. This was implemented in 1645. Portuguese possessions from Bentara ganga to Girawa pattu extending into Kolonna korale were transferred to the Dutch. The Dutch also got the stretch from Weligampitiya to Madampe and Alutkuru, Galu, Valigam, Moravaka and Dolodas korales. In 1652, when the truce ended, the Dutch acquired Kalutara, Pasdun and Valiviti korales. Rajasinha pointed out that some of these lands belonged to him, not the Portuguese. He also noted that though the Dutch assured him that the Dutch possessions were really his, the Dutch had substituted their own name in the treaty.

The Dutch strengthened Galle fort in 1644 and took over the cinnamon districts around Galle. They drove out Rajasinha‘s disawa from Matara and ordered Matara to pay its dues to them. The Dutch took Colombo in 1656, without Rajasinha’s help and refused to return it saying the debt had not been settled. Rajasinha declared that this was a violation of the treaty. The capital shifted from Galle to Colombo. The Dutch took Mannar and Jaffna in 1658 followed by Kalpitiya (1659), Trincomalee (1665), Batticaloa and Kottiyar (1668.). However they had not control over the districts adjoining the ports.

The Dutch-Sinhala boundaries became fixed in the time of Wimaladharmasuriya II (1687-1707). But Udarata remained watchful. The Dutch were not allowed to increase their fortifications. In 1736, when the Dutch started a fort at Attanagalla, the disava of satara and sat korale drove out the Dutch troops and burned down the structure. They also got the Dutch camp at Malwana removed. When the Dutch were preparing to fish for pearls off the north-western coast, in 1749, Udarata objected. The company watch post of Tambalagama near Trincomalee was attacked and burned and when the Dutch protested Udarata replied that the Dutch had no right to have a watch post there. There was another protest when, in 1763, the Dutch Governor referred to the ‘lands of the Dutch ‘

The Dutch were anxious to get legal rights to their territories and kept repeatedly asking for a new treaty which would give them legal possession of the lands they were holding. In 1687 the Dutch hopefully suggested that since they had held the lands for so long, they now had prescriptive rights. Rajasinha II took no notice. In 1762, the Dutch got a jolt. Kirti Sri Rajasinha had met with British envoy, Pybus. Fearing that a Sinhala –British alliance was coming, the Dutch moved fast. They got reinforcements from abroad and invaded Kandy in 1763. This failed, so they went up again in 1765. They didn’t stay long, but Udarata agreed to a treaty. .

The treaty of 1776 gave the Dutch legal right to lands acquired before 1762. The Dutch East India Company became the ruler of the disawanis of Matara, Galle, Colombo, Jaffna and the districts of Kalpitiya, Mannar, Trincomalee and Batticaloa. . The Dutch were also ceded land measuring one mile wide all along the coast. The king signed it at Hanguranketa. The request that is also be signed by the ministers was rejected. The king said his signature was sufficient. The Sinhalese translation of the treaty was examined word for word by the Dutch.

Arasaratnam says the Sinhala king renounced all rights to these lands and was recognized only as king of Udarata, not the whole island. But Roberts points out that the preamble stated that the treaty was between the king of Sri Lanka (Sri Lankadhisvara) and the ‘utum balasampanna diptimatvu’ Dutch East India Company. Article 1 referred to ‘His Imperial Majesty, the chief sovereign of Lanka’ and Article 8 said that the Dutch could peel cinnamon in all the ‘low country belonging to the Kandyan king.’

Mendis says the 1776 treaty was a humiliating acceptance of all Dutch demands. Udarata got nothing out of it. Dewaraja thought the Dutch gains were quite out of proportion to their performance. The two Dutch expeditions to Kandy had been failures. The Dutch were militarily weak and could never sustain a long war with Udarata, let alone destroy it. Also, they lacked the strength to control the new territory, specially the strip of sea around the island. The Netherlands was in decline, both in Europe and in Asia and the Dutch East India Company was nearing bankruptcy. Udarata did not seem to know any of this.

Immediately after signing the treaty, Kirti Sri Rajasinha announced that the treaty was inequitable. He objected to the loss of his sea coast and said he would make further representation to Batavia. He was not prepared to abide by the treaty and tried to hinder its implementation. There was endless haggling over the new frontiers, specially the exact amount of sea coast to be given to the Dutch. Opinion differed regarding the Sinhala mile of coast In 1770 Kirti Sri Rajasinha started to ask back these coastal lands and assert his authority over them.

The treaty became a dead letter. The Sinhalese in Dutch territory continued to respect the Sinhala king. His status, in their eyes, remained unchanged. The Dutch could not stop this. The Dutch did not respect the treaty either. The revenue from the ceded districts was never paid to the Udarata as promised in the treaty. The Sinhalese were not allowed free access to the salterns, as agreed. They could only take away a limited amount. But salt was smuggled into Udarata and the lascarins sent to guard the salt pans fraternized with the Sinhala army and sold their ammunition to them.

The Dutch East India Company lost many of its Indian possessions to Britain in the fourth Anglo-Dutch war (1780-1784). In 1795, France conquered the Netherlands. Stadtholder William V, ruler of the Netherlands, fled to London and asked Britain to look after the Dutch holdings in Asia. In 1796, Britain took over all Dutch possessions in Sri Lanka. In 1802, these territories were permanently ceded to Britain at the Treaty of Amiens.

The writings of T.B.H. Abeyasinghe, S. Arasaratnam, Chandra R de Silva, Colvin R. de Silva, L.S. Dewaraja, K.W. Goonewardena, D.A.Kotelawele, V.L.B. Mendis, P.E.Pieris, M. Roberts and A. Schrikker were used for this essay.