Dutch to British Colony in Ceylon

British rule in Ceylon
British rule in Ceylon

The Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka in 1505 and took over the kingdoms of Kotte and Jaffna, with the kingdom of Kandy, largely because of its geographical position in the center of the island, managing to remain free of their rule.

Thus, when the Dutch admiral George Spilberg landed on the east coast in the early 17th century, he was welcomed by the king of Kandy, who invited the Dutch to settle on the east coast of the island. He saw that this would provide an important counterbalance to the Portuguese.

The first Dutch settlement was established in 1640 with William Jacobszoon Coster as the governor. In June 1640 Coster was murdered and replaced by Jan Thyssen Payart, who had started establishing farms to grow cinnamon for export to Europe.

It was the fifth governor, Adriaan van der Meijden, who decided to move decisively against the Portuguese. In 1658 he managed to drive them off the island, and the Dutch then gradually took over the south of the island, then the southwest and western coast.

When they took over the entire east coast of the island in 1665, even though Kandy remained independent, they controlled all the ports. By 1765 the Dutch were in control of the entire coastline, and Kandy only held the isolated highlands in the center of the island that were too difficult to attack.

Officially the island was a possession of the Dutch East India Company, and it appointed a governor based in Colombo who ruled Ceylon as a colony. Most governors were only in Ceylon for short periods, but some had a lasting effect on the place.

Jan Maetsuyker, governor from 1646 until 1650—before the Dutch took control of the whole island—relaxed laws on mixed marriages to try to encourage Dutch merchants to marry, assimilate, and remain on the island. He felt that this might allow them to compete with local merchants on a much stronger basis.

In contrast, Jacob van Kittensteijn, his successor from 1650 until 1653, regarded the local wives of merchants as being “vicious and immoral.” The situation changed again after the capture of Colombo and Jaffna in 1656–58 with some 200 Dutch soldiers and merchants marrying into the Indo-Portuguese community—many of these being the wives of Portuguese who were unceremoniously deported.

Rijklof van Goens, one of the longest serving governors (who had captured Jaffna), governed 1662–63 and again 1665–75. He encouraged mixed marriages—or indeed any marriages—to try to build up an indigenous Dutch settler population.

However, he legislated that daughters of mixed marriages should marry Dutchmen. This had the result of ensuring that there were large numbers of people on the island with Dutch surnames.

Rijklof van Goens was succeeded as governor by his son and then by Laurens Pijl from 1679 until 1692. These three governors provided much stability for the colonial infrastructure of the island, which was divided into three parts: Colombo, Galle, and Jaffna.

The latter two parts had commanders who reported to the governor, whereas the governor ruled the area around Colombo himself, with the assistance of a small nominated council.

Lower levels of the bureaucracy were staffed by Sinhalese or Tamils who originated from southern India. The Sinhalese nobility kept their privileges, and, with no worry of invasion or civil war, they actually considerably increased their wealth.

The Dutch recognized Portuguese land titles (in contrast to their actions in Malacca and elsewhere), and they widened the private ownership of land, which for the Portuguese had only operated in urban areas.

This resulted in the massive settlement of fertile land, with Dutch and largely Sinhalese businessmen and farmers being able to establish considerable land holdings. There were attempts to codify the local laws, but this proved much more complicated than expected.

The result was that Dutch laws gradually came to apply to the cities and much of the coastal regions, especially in areas dominated by the Sinhalese. Muslim laws applied to Muslims on the east coast, and the The sawalamai laws used by the Tamils of Jaffna were codified in 1707 and used there, although Christians there were subject to Dutch laws.


In the area of religion, when the Dutch took Ceylon there were, nominally, about 250,000 Sinhalese and Tamil Roman Catholics, a quarter of these from the region around Jaffna. The Dutch banned Roman Catholicism, ejected all Catholic priests, and made it illegal for any to operate on the island.

They also set about converting many of the local people to Calvinism. Roman Catholic churches were changed into Reformed churches, and many Catholics converted to Calvinism in name only, while others reverted to Hinduism or Buddhism.

However, a shortage of Dutch ministers held up these plans, and Roman Catholics operated underground, especially from the Portuguese-held port of Goa, in India.

Although the Portuguese had made much revenue from Ceylon, the Dutch set about methodically expanding the revenue base of the country. The Portuguese had relied heavily on tariffs and obligatory labor for a certain number of days each year by the poor (in lieu of taxes); the Dutch maintained these but started establishing large plantations for cinnamon, which rapidly became the mainstay of the Dutch colonial economic structure in Ceylon.

The Dutch East India Company maintained a monopoly not only over the export of cinnamon but also over areca nuts, pearls, and elephants. They were particularly anxious to control the Ceylon economy tightly, and imports from India were so heavily restricted that occasionally there were shortages of rice and textiles in Colombo. Gradually, some private traders were allowed to bring in these and some other goods, but the Dutch East India Company jealously guarded its monopolies.

With the Napoleonic Wars and the French invasion of the Netherlands and the deposing of the Dutch king, the British set about occupying Dutch colonies around the world to prevent them falling into French hands.

As a result, in 1796 the British—strictly speaking the British East India Company—took control of Ceylon, defeating the small Dutch force, which made a symbolic but futile resistance. The British placed the island under military rule and governed it from their settlement at Madras, as they expected to return Ceylon to the Dutch at the end of the war.

However, the British quickly discovered the importance of the island—strategically as well as financially. In 1802 Ceylon was declared to be a British Crown Colony, and the British hold over the island was confirmed by the Treaty of Amiens later the same year.

The initial problem facing the British was the kingdom of Kandy in central Ceylon. Although the Dutch had managed to seize the entire coastline, they had never been able to subdue the independent kingdom. The British had recognized the sovereignty of the king of Kandy, but Robert Brownrigg, governor from 1812 until 1820, had other ideas.

He found that the frontier between British territory and Kandy was a little uncertain in places and to guard it was extremely expensive. Furthermore it would obviously be far easier if the British controlled the entire island, which would remove political insecurity and help with communications around the island.

Some Privileges

An early British attempt to attack Kandy in 1803 failed. However, Brownrigg took advantage of a crisis in Kandy. Making an alliance with some Kandyan nobles, in 1815 he sent soldiers into the kingdom and captured it.

Kandyans were guaranteed some privileges and were able to preserve customary laws and institutions, as well as having religious freedoms. However, many Sinhalese saw the erosion of the independence of Kandy as a part of a wider attack on Buddhism. This led to a large Sinhalese revolt that took place in 1818.

It was suppressed, and Kandy was then integrated with the rest of Ceylon. The British also introduced a new flag for Ceylon. It had a blue field with the Union flag in the corner, as with other British colonies, and a design showing an elephant in front of a stupa to represent Ceylon.

British moves in Ceylon, as with the Dutch, were to increase revenue, and more land was taken as the number of plantations increased, many owned by British companies. As well as growing cinnamon, the British set about cultivating, on a large scale, pepper, sugarcane, and coffee.

They even experimented with cotton. Coincident with this, the British also instituted many reforms. Slavery was abolished, and salaries were now paid in cash rather than in land and food.

The British also relaxed the need for people to provide compulsory labor for the government each year. Many Sinhalese and Tamils, however, especially in rural areas, did resent the increase in missionary activity by British and South Indian church groups.

In 1833 Robert Wilmot-Horton, who had become governor two years earlier, enacted a widespread series of reforms that essentially adopted a unitary administrative and judicial framework for the whole island.

Special rights afforded to particular groups were abrogated; this would massively affect all of Ceylon, whose people gradually came to see themselves as Ceylonese. English became the language of government and also the medium of instruction in schools, which had increased massively in number in the 1820s and early 1830s.

As well as this, Wilmot-Horton reduced the powers of the governor, who could no longer rule by decree. He established executive and legislative councils that would govern. The latter were initially comprised of British officials, but gradually unofficial members were appointed representing business interests.

On an economic front, the British abolished state monopolies and also finally ended the right of the colonial government to demand labor services in lieu of taxes. Crown land was sold to cultivators, and this caused the establishment of many more small plantations and the growth of the coffee industry. From the 1830s until the 1870s there was a massive expansion in the areas where coffee was under cultivation.

The planters survived the collapse in the coffee price in 1847 and gradually, as more coffee plantations were established, there was a need for a cheap labor force, and many Tamil laborers from South India started to migrate to Ceylon, leading to a substantial Tamil population by the end of the 19th century.

Unfortunately, in 1869 a rust disease started attacking coffee crops. By 1871 it had devastated the coffee industry, and there was much discussion about what could productively be done with the land to maintain employment for both plantation managers and their staff.

There had been a small tea industry in Ceylon since the 1860s—largely for local consumption. This was expanded from the late 1870s with tea bushes being grown on slopes of the hill country where the land was able to be drained easily.

Rubber and coconut plantations were also developed but never rivaled the tea industry, with Ceylon tea becoming well-known throughout the British Empire. Later, the tea industry was so identified with the island that it was able to use the traditional lion, from the flag of Ceylon (Sri Lanka after independence), to symbolize Ceylon tea.

Most of the infrastructure of colonial Ceylon was built by the British in the latter half of the 19th century: ports, public buildings, hospitals, roads and railways, schools, and a reliable postal and telegraph system.

However, many of the problems that were to overshadow Ceylon in the late 20th century were already apparent. The cities and towns were fairly modern, with a well-educated population, many of whom spoke English fluently and were politically aware.

Employment was easy for the middle class and the well connected. However, on the plantations large numbers of Tamil laborers lived in very basic conditions, often in hostels for men—without their families—and with family ties back on the Indian mainland.

Outside the urban areas and the plantations, the villages remained isolated from much of the economic life of the island, and people still survived by subsistence agriculture. Gradually roads, and in some cases railways, reduced this isolation.