The Dutch rule in Sri Lanka

The Dutch rule in Sri Lanka

The Sinhalese Kingdom of Sinhale during the Dutch occupation in Ceylon.


Rajasinghe was de jure emperor of the whole of Ceylon or Sri Lanka, but de facto he was only able to hold those parts of Ceylon to which the Dutch Company could not assert some claim, and those from which he succeeded in keeping the Dutch out.

This was by far the greatest, though not the most important or the most fruitful part of the island, and consisted of the following: first, the principalities of Kotte, once held by the Portuguese and now covered, namely the seven, four, and three Korales, Alutgama, and Sabaragamuwa; secondly, the principalities brought under the sway of Kandy during the decadence of the Kotte kings, namely Nuvarakalaviya, Matale, Tamankaduwa, Bintenna, Vellassa; and thirdly the Ratas of which the kingdom originally consisted when it was a small sub-kingdom, namely: Udu Nuwara, Tumpane, Harispattuwa, Dumbara, Hevaheta, and Kotmale.

Of these the first and second set was disavanis, and bordering as they did on Dutch territory, they were of great importance. Valapane, Matale and Uda Palata were also afterwards styled disavanis. The others were ratas.

The constitution

The king’s power was supreme and absolute. He alone made peace or war; he alone had the power of life and death. Yet he was expected to be guided in his government by the institutions of the country and the customs of the ancestors. For instance, before making any important change he was expected to consult the principal officers and chief priests. His royal power was exercised through many officers to whom he delegated a limited jurisdiction, civil, judicial, military, over definite portions of the realm or over different classes of people.

Adigars and Disavas

The foremost of these officers were the two adigars or maha nilame, called respectively Pallegampaha and Udugampaha adigars or first and second adigars, who had each a general and viceregal supervision over half the realm. They were the highest in birth, rank, and honour, and conducted the important affairs of state and festivals, repaired temples, superintended elephant kraals and public works. Subordinate to them were the disavas or governors or governors of the disavanis, the lateral as or the governors of ratas, and vidanes or headmen of the villages. These had charge of the collection of revenue, the exaction of service and rajakariya, the building and repair of public edifices, roads, and rest-house for the king when he travelled, each within his own territory. The two adigars generally held the dasavaship of one or more of the chief disavanis.


Next to the territorial chiefs were the chiefs of departments or lekams of the atapattu or public works department, kottal badde or artificers department, the kuruve or the elephant department, the madige or carriage-bullock department, who had jurisdiction, not over definite districts, but over persons subject to the service of the department and dispersed in various provinces. The provincial and departmental chiefs lived at court and conducted their administration through subordinate chiefs nominated by them.

Remuneration of officials

Adigars, disava, lekams, vidanes were chosen for birth and rank and had to pay dekum or gifts to the king on the first nomination and then annually. They held lands (nindagam) for their maintenance and were entitled to certain dues and services from the people under their jurisdiction, who moreover had to give them dekum on the first appointment and annually and whenever they had need of the services of the officials.


The king was the fount of justice and exercised his rights when, where, and how he, please. The adigars, disavas, and vidanes adjudged all suits, civil and criminal, within their territory, but an appeal as allowed to a higher chief and ultimately to the king, who alone could pass sentence of death. They received presents from both parties to a suit, and any fine that was imposed was the prerequisite of the judge. There was a great council of justice, the maha naduva, composed of the chiefs and presided over by the king. The disputes on caste and custom were decided in a rate sabha or country council, presided over by a chief; and the affairs of each village were settled in a gamsabha or village council.

Land tenure

All lands in the kingdom belonged to the king and were by him gifted to temples, viharas, devalayas, or chiefs or to people in return for services or payment of dues in kind, or were reserved for the king himself and cultivated for him by tenants. All liabilities were attached to the land which could be sold or alienated, but subject to the dues and services, and no man was bound to any service unless he held land. Besides the dues and services arising from the tenure of lands, the people had to pay maralas or death duties, dekum of gifts, to chiefs and king. The presentation of the taxes took place at a perahera or muster of forces at stated times, as once in Kotte, when the different appointments were made.


The lands were not cultivated for the market, but only for personal consumption or for the king or for the dues for barter for salt, fish, and cloth. Thus all the products that could be sold were the product of the lands that were paid as dues to the king or the chiefs. If a man cultivated anything good, it could be claimed by the king or the chief, and the cultivator would be further obliged to carry it to the king or chief. There was also little money in the country, and all that the people needed was obtained by bartering the produce of the land at Puttalam, Kottiyar or Batticaloa or with the itinerant Muslims who exchanged cloth, salt, and salt fish, for the produce of the country which they sold at the ports.

The pattern of Dutch rule in the island

The regime of the Dutch East India Company had lasted well over a century. It was not a government by the Dutch nation or by a Dutch sovereign, but government by a commercial company, the V.O.C (Vereenigde oost-indische Compagnie, Unite East India Company) which administered the lowlands of Ceylon, not in the interest of the Dutch residents, but purely and crudely in the interest of the company.

The company governed its possession just as an estate proprietor runs an estate, making the most of it, improving and developing its natural resources, and caring for its inhabitants in so far as they could be of service. The proprietor’s will was the law, his interests the supreme concern, and his profits, the reward.  All other things, law, politics, religion, and education were subordinated to the one single aim of directly or indirectly increasing the profits of the company.  But unlike an estate proprietor, it had no higher power to take it to the task or to enforce its duties or point out its evils.

Dealing with the sovereign

It’s dealing with the natural sovereign of the country was dictated by the same principles of self-interest. It first offered its services to the king against the Portuguese merely to obtain the exclusive control of the products of the lands. Without minding the murder of de Weert or Coster, it continued to pursue that end. When the company became suspicious of the king, it did not hesitate to break its promises and retain the lands in payment for the services, pacifying the king withal by flattery and presents. After the death of Rajasinghe, it put forward the claim that it held the lands by right of conquest and alternatively fawned on the kings or bullied them, according as they were able to help or mar the trade of the company, and the company at the same time put up with insult and humiliations to avoid the expenses of a war and to possess the lands in peace.

Dealing with people

Its attitude towards the inhabitants was also actuated by commercial interest. The company found the people divided into castes and subject to a system of land tenure and rajakariya, and it made very good use of the systems and turned them to its own advantage. The company’s officers were most rigorous in exacting services and customary dues, but when such exaction provoked revolts they were ready to make concessions so as not to let rebellions mar their trade. The company never employed the people of the country in any salaried administrative post, but only in subordinate offices in the collection of revenue, which were remunerated by grants of land without any burden to the company. Those who were not Sinhalese or Tamils, such as Muslims and Chetties, though born and bred in the island, it regarded as foreigners and exacted uliyam service from them and subjected them to many vexatious restrictions.

Benefits of the Company’s rule

But the rule of the company was in many ways beneficial to the king, the people and country. During its rule, the king of Kandy was waited upon and honoured as he had never been before or since; his kingdom was generally free from invasion and his subjects undisturbed. The people living in Dutch territory had peace and stable government and courts of law to protect their life and property. They were given many opportunities of increasing their substance by participation in the many industries and agricultural enterprises which the company promoted.

Beneficial institutions

The printing press, the leper asylum, schools and seminaries were beneficial institutions, though the last-named were mostly intended to educate catechists and proponents to make up for the absence of clergymen; and the schools taught the Christian Catechism of the reformed religion to forced pupils and little else.

Development of Communications

By far the greatest service which the Dutch rendered to this country was the development of its agricultural resources and industries. Roads for wheeled traffic connected the chief towns, bridges spanned the smaller rivers, and boats ferried the travellers over the larger ones; canals gave cheap and easy facilities of transport, and the irrigation of dry areas and the drainage of the marshy lands helped the people. The company also introduced many new agricultural products or gave better facilities for the cultivation of older products. Thus the cultivation of coffee, pepper, cardamoms and coconut was greatly encouraged, and the industries of weaving and dyeing of cloth were introduced and fostered. The company itself bought the products of the land or procured markets, thus adding to its own profits as well as stimulating the people to trade and industry.

Administration of Colombo

For purposes of administration, the Dutch divided their territories into three “commanderies” with a disavani depending on each. The commandery of Colombo included the fort and Old town and was under the immediate command of the governor who resident in Colombo.

Depending on the commandery of Colombo was the disavani of Colombo which extended from the Maha Oya to the Bentota River and landward to Malwana, Hanwella, Anguruwatota and Pitigala. The disava lived at Hulftsdorp and had the civil, judicial and military control of the vast district, which included parts of the four and Seven Korales and Sabaragamuwa. In it was the two forts of Negombo and Kalutara, and it was the richest of the disavanis.


The commandery of Jaffna consisted of the town and fort of Jaffna administered by a commander who was also lieutenant-governor. Under his direction was administered the disavani of Jaffna which extended from Mannar to Trincomalee and included the Vanni and the islands. Mannar was regarded as the key to Jaffna and had a fort and garrison to protect the pearl fishery and the straits. To it was attached the adjoining lands of Mantota, Musalipaate and Setticoulang, in which was the port of Arippu.

The Vanni

The Vanni was an extensive territory under the rule of the certain headman, called vanniyars, who had to pay a number of elephants as a tribute. But the vanniyars were not tractable, and the Dutch did not dare to press them for the present, for fear they would resist and place themselves under Rajasinghe. The islands were thirteen in number, Karativu, Tandativu, Punkadativu, Nediuntivu, Neynativu, Analativu, the twin-island of Iranativu and five other uninhabited ones.

The Galle Fort, the administrative capital of Futch and Portuguese administration. Today this iconic tourist attraction is a UNESCO world heritage site and visited thousands of travellers on their Galle tour. Galle Fort is also part of most Sri Lanak trips such as 5 days Sri Lanka tour to southern coast.

Galle and Matara

Galle was the third commandery, under a commander of Galle who was also a lieutenant- governor and resided in the fort. The dependent disavani was still called by the old name of the disavani of Matara and the disava resided at Matara. His jurisdiction extended from the Bentota River to the Valawe, and landwards to Pitigala, Beralapanatara, Mapalagama and Katuwana.


The commandant of Colombo was governor and director of the island of Ceylon and its dependencies. He was nominated by the governor-general resident in Batavia and confirmed by the directors of the company in Holland. He was the supreme authority in the island and was assisted by a council.

For the development of trade and the cultivation of the lands as well as for collection of revenue and the civil, judicial, administration, each disavani was entrusted to an officer who was called by the customary name of disava and was assisted by overseers, one for each of two korales, and by mudaliyars in Jaffna.

The commercial and civil administration was in the hands of a number of officers, called upper-merchant, merchant and under-merchant. The army was under the command of the disave and majors, captains, lieutenants, captain lieutenants and ensigns. The lascarins were under mudaliyars and arachchies and were divided into ranchus.


The company also exercised judicial power. The statutes of Batavia, which consisted of the jurisprudence of Holland modified to suit the conditions of the country, were enforced in Ceylon, without having ever been enacted by any legislative authority. Under these statutes, there was established a high court of justice at Colombo, Jaffna, and Galle. From the decision of the courts of Jaffna and Galle, appeals could be made to that of Colombo and if necessary to Batavia.

For civil cases, there was also a civil court in Colombo, Jaffna and Galle and a landraad for land cases in the disavanis, presided over by the disava and other officers, Dutch and Sinhalese, conversant with the customs of the country, sitting as assessors. Less important civil suits and petty crime were judged by a fiscal, verbally in the fort, and by the disava in his territory. The fiscal was the public prosecutor in cases of serious crime. Very few, if any, of these judicial officers, had any legal training, not being lawyers by profession, but only civil and military officers of the company.


Elephants were hunted in Matara from May to September, and the vidanes of the Kuruve or the elephant department had to deliver to the Company 30 elephants and nine tuskers on behalf of those who held the Kuruve villages. The Vanniyas paid as tribute 80 elephants a year and the Company, moreover, held hunts of its own in the Vanni, and received elephants from Batticaloa and Trincomalee. These were sold either in Galle or in Jaffna to traders from South India. The proceeds of the sale were sheer gain, and the company realized on an average 200,000 guilders a year from the sale of elephants.

Land revenue

The revenue from lands was levied by the Company which claimed all the royal villages in Raigam, Hevagam, and Siyane Korales, cultivated for the Company. Tools, taxes, leases, maralas or death duties, added to the sale of chank and choya root and the revenue of the pearl fishery, together formed very ample revenue. Agriculture was looked upon as a matter of the utmost importance.  As many lands were depopulated, the company imported slaves from Tanjore, branded them with the company’s mark and set them to cultivate the fertile lands, promising them their liberty, if they acquitted themselves creditably.


The ancient Rajakariya or royal service which the people performed In return for holdings in land, supplied the Company with free labour for the construction of public works, fortifications, canals, and roads. A road was soon opened from Matara along the coast to Mannar via Galle, Kalutara, Colombo, Negombo, Chilaw and Puttalam. Smaller rivers were bridged larger ones were provided with ferry boats; ambalams or rest houses were built at convenient distances; and all this, being done by free labour and kept in repair by the same means, cost the Company nothing.

Thus the East India Company was able to give its shareholders extraordinary large dividends after deducting the vast expanses of the organization, the pay officials, military and naval officers, and allowing for depreciation of stock, wastage and funds for further developments. The company once paid so high a dividend of 132% in three instalments! In 1624 it paid 50% often 40% which was the case in the six consecutive years 1715-1720. But soon the Company wisely avoided high dividends so that the average for 96 years 24% “which is so considerably a thing that it must have laid the foundation of a great many private fortunes in Holland.”

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