Why did the British retain Dutch officials after taking over Ceylon?

by damith
March 31, 2024 1:00 am 0 comment 359 views

By P. K. Balachandran

Dutch was the official language in the Maritime provinces, the Dutch official system prevailed, and many Dutch preferred to stay on in Ceylon.

The British conquest of Ceylon from the Dutch in 1796 did not result in the wholesale dismissal of Dutchmen from the various institutions of the government. And the British too found it convenient to employ them.

The reasons for employing the Dutch were basically four: The first was the failure of the early British policy of employing British officials drawn from the Madras Civil service. It was from Madras that the military campaign to take Ceylon was launched and it was a group of Madras officials who called the shots in the first few years.

But the Madras-systems introduced by Robert Andrews, the Superintendent of Revenue, were at odds with the Dutch systems that were in place in Ceylon at that time.

Village headmen

For example, the village headmen, who were all-in-all under the Dutch system, were divested of their traditional role and power. There functions were given to Indian “Amildars” popularly dubbed “Malabar Mudaliyars”. These were expatriate government-appointed revenue collectors. The side-lined village headmen deeply resented these. The new taxes levied by the British were also not liked by the locals.

In 1797, there was a general revolt in the island which made Robert Hobart, the Governor of Madras, set up an inquiry commission.

The second reason for employing Dutchmen was that many Dutchmen had remained in Ceylon even after the British took over. Many were working for the Dutch East India Company which ruled the island, or had lands and businesses. Many were married or had liaisons with local women and were rooted in Ceylon. Many were of mixed descent. Reportedly about 900 families had decided to remain in Ceylon. But they had to sign a document of loyalty to Britain.

The third reason was that many of the government records were in Dutch and court proceedings too were in Dutch.

The fourth reason was that the status of Ceylon was not clear in 1796 despite the fact that the British were the de facto rulers. Ceylon’s status was to be decided by events in Europe. It was only in 1802 that a decision to hand over the Dutch possessions in Ceylon to the British was taken as per the Treaty of Amiens. Given the possibility of Ceylon being returned to the Dutch, many Dutchmen decided to stay on in Ceylon.

Governor Hobart’s Commission which inquired into the revolt of 1797, was headed by Brig,Gen. Pierre-Frederic de Meuron a Swiss mercenary who had earlier worked for the Dutch as Commander of the Colombo garrison. The other members of the commission were Major Agnew (Madras service), Robert Andrews and the Galle collector Robert Alexander.

Hobart accepted Brig.Gen.de Meuron’s recommendation that Dutch officials be employed as they were seen to be “deserving men”. According to Dr. Upali C. Wickremeratne, the author of the “Conservative Nature of the British Rule in Sri Lanka, ” the other recommendation of the commission was that the Dutch language should be used as the second official language as it was better understood in Ceylon than English.

The British did not even insist that the Dutch civil servants should take an oath of loyalty to England.

The second most important thing that the committee recommended was that in the Maritime Provinces, which the British had inherited from the Dutch, the status, duties and privileges of the Goigama and Vellala headmen of the villages must be restored. The implementation of the recommendations of the commission defused the crisis in Ceylon.


When Frederick North took charge as the first Governor of British Ceylon in 1798, he enthusiastically appointed Dutchmen to various posts. In the newly created Postal Department for example, 26 of the new recruits were Dutch. Seventeen of the recruits in the Survey Department were Dutch. The Malay Corps and the Ceylon Native Infantry, set up by North, were officered by the Dutch.

But the top positions in the various departments were given to the British. For example, the Surveyor General was Joseph Joinville. The same was true of the Corps of Engineers and of the medical services. But Dutch names appear in the top echelons of the administrative set up in Galle, Matara, Trincomalee and Meegamuwa.

There was a fair sized translation department in the government which was packed with the Dutch. Governor North set up land courts and civil courts. Here there were British judges from the Madras service as well as Dutch judges. The Secretary of the court and the court clerks and writers were Dutch as indeed most of the clerks in government service as a whole.

One of the reasons for employing the Dutch was the language of the courts and administration at that time was Dutch. After all, the Dutch had been ruling the Maritime Provinces from 1658 to 1796 and had instituted an administrative system on European lines.

But the wide use of Dutch was very disconcerting to the British. If there were no competent translators at a court, case files had to be sent to Colombo for translation. This made Governor North resolve to replace Dutch with English.

In desperation he once wrote: “The necessity of carrying on the business of government in a foreign language and the difficulty of finding a sufficient number of persons at all acquainted with our own to keep the daily business from falling into arrears is by no means a trifling inconvenience.”

However, North was generally very accommodative to the Dutchmen. He had a deep sense of gratitude to them as they helped him run the administration during the transition period. In return, he protected them when his jealous British staff threatened them.

North felt closer to the Dutch also because both were against the Madras Civil Servants. Both felt threatened by them. North was not sent from Madras as Robert Andrews was, but from London.

North’s letter

In a letter to the East India Company’s Court of Directors dated January 30, 1800, North vented his feelings about Madras Civil Servants. He said: “The systematic spirit of opposition and of hatred which has guided them in all their actions and which has made them turn every mark of confidence which I have shown them and every authority with which I have invested them into engines to discredit my person and to thwart my government.”

But North did not have much of a choice as there were not many public servants who were sent from London. It was only in 1802, when Ceylon was delinked from Madras and turned into a Crown Colony, that the Colonial Office began to send officers from Britain.

But North had one major difficulty with the Dutch civil servants. They probably refused to take the Oath of Loyalty to Britain. This was probably because they hoped that the Dutch would come back to rule Ceylon again. According to Dr. U.C. Wickremeratne, they did not approve of the changes in Holland brought about by the French Revolution. They were more nationalistic than the Dutch in Holland.

However, Sir Codrington Edmund Carrington was the Chief Justice of Ceylon he declared that the proceedings of the Court of Equity with Dutch judges would be invalid if they had not taken the oath of loyalty to the British monarch. Upon this ruling, North dissolved the court.

The Dutch clergy in Ceylon also proved to be recalcitrant. Three clergymen Schroder, Meyer and Phillipsz refused to comply with the rule to pray for the King of England. They said that they would incur the displeasure of their constituents if they did so.

Dr. Wickremeratne says that the clergymen persisted in their refusal till at least 1801 when North wrote to the Court of Directors saying that because of “their obstinate refusal to pray for His Majesty he cannot allow them the exercise of any acknowledged authority in the country.”

But according to Dr. Wickremeratne, North did not replace them.

Other Dutch officials were more compliant. As the prospect of restoring Ceylon to the Dutch receded, Dutch officials became more tractable. North himself admitted that the opposition was “much diminished” over time. The Dutch/Eurasian community, also known as Burghers, remained a key element in the British administration of Ceylon.

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