The Sinhalese under Dutch rule

| by Kamalika Pieris

( December 29, 2012, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Sinhalese had a difficult time under the Dutch. The Dutch were interested only in company profits. They were indifferent to the needs of their subjects. Dutch Governor Pyl (1680-92) reported that the Sinhala soldiers in the Dutch army had said that the Sinhalese enjoyed more freedom under the Sinhala king than under the Dutch. Governor Van Gollenesse (1743-1751) said that the Sinhalese ‘would much rather see us leave the island entirely.’
Life under the Dutch was not comfortable. The administration was corrupt. Officials oppressed the natives when collecting revenue. The special officer appointed to supervise coffee trade was so rapacious that the Sinhalese protested, and the office was abolished. There were shortages of food and clothing due to Dutch bungling of the import trade. As late as 1784, there was a famine in Matara. The Dutch obstructed chena cultivation and devised lengthy and cumbersome procedures when giving permission for a chena. Cattle were forcibly seized by the Dutch, as the Sinhalese would not part with them for slaughter. The tombos of 1760 and 1766 showed a high death rate for women and children and a significant decline in population. In Kahambilihena numbers had reduced in all families. In two of the families, the numbers had reduced from 7 to 3 and 14 to 7 within this period.
The Sinhalese lost some of their traditional lands to the Dutch. .Lands suitable for cinnamon were transferred to the Dutch East India Company on death of the present owner. Service tenure lands held in families for generations were affected. A large number of persons lost their inheritance and became landless. Some migrated to the Udarata, many became vagrants. Tombo refer to them as ‘loafers’ .There was much litigation over these matters and the lands subject to dispute lay uncultivated for many years pending a decision. The Dutch also relocated villages situated in cinnamon lands to places considered unsuitable for cinnamon.
The Dutch wanted to see the cinnamon forests enlarge in size, so they prohibited any agriculture on lands which could affect the cinnamon forests. Due to this, large tracts of potentially productive land lay idle. The policy prevented village expansion and the founding of new villages. It affected the chena cultivation on which the villagers depended for their food, as well. Once it was found that cinnamon could be grown in plantations, the Dutch went into reverse gear. Cinnamon was now planted wherever possible. Agricultural lands were inspected, their existing cultivation destroyed and cinnamon substituted. In the Alutkuru korale, 72 gardens mainly planted with coconut, were condemned to be destroyed.
The Dutch imposed all sort of taxes on the Sinhalese. They taxed coconut products, arrack, and the transport of coconuts. They also took a tenth of the yield of all coconut trees. There was a tax on the fish catch, as well as on fishing boats and nets. There was a garden tax on fruit bearing trees, mainly coconut and jak. Lands without a single areca tree had to supply a fixed quantity of nuts. Any deficit was carried forward to the next year. The Sinhalese therefore preferred to abandon their lands. Tax collection including paddy tax, was farmed out to the highest bidder. The Dutch also auctioned the revenues of the villages.
Arasaratnam observed that it was not pleasant to work under the Dutch. He said inhabitants withdrew into the interior and lived at a bare subsistence level when the Dutch took over the east. Elsewhere, inhabitants had complained that they had to go to Giruwa pattu, a few miles from Matara, to cultivate paddy, leaving their own villages and taking their own cattle with them. They were made to live in such unhealthy conditions that many of them died of various diseases. They had to transport the harvest paddy with their own oxen and deliver it to the Disawa. Tombos indicated a great deal of migration to Udarata.
The Sinhalese did not accept Dutch rule meekly. They got the second tax on coconut trees and the demand for extra cinnamon abolished. When the garden tax was increased, they destroyed their gardens and its fruit trees. Governor Imhoff (1736-39) withdrew the garden tax. Governor Schreuder reintroduced it and again there was trouble. There was strong resistance to the prohibition of chena. The tombo commissioners also met with strong resistance and the tombo entries carried the tenant’s claim and the counter claim of the tombo commissioners. Tombo work was opposed and obstructed. . The tombos of the Matara disavani were completely destroyed during the insurgency of 1761.
In 1790 men from Matara disavani marched into Matara to protest that their headmen were forcing them to work on a canal in Magampattu when they already had to work on the cinnamon plantations of the governors, mudaliyars and headmen. They objected to working as coolies. Also, they did not want to spend time working for the Dutch East India Company or the headmen because they were expecting a good harvest on their own lands. Governor Van Gollenesse (1743-51) complained that when he tried to do an elephant kraal at Musalipattu, the workers vanished to Udarata, bag and baggage, and the kraal had to be given up.
KM de Silva notes that the Sinhalese in the Dutch areas were in a state of simmering tension for much of the 18th century. Peasant riots occurred in Salpiti korale in time of Governor Domburg (1734-36).. The entire southwest erupted in rebellion in 1757 over the Dutch policy on cinnamon lands. This rebellion ended in 1758. In 1759 Kirti Sri Rajasinghe received complaints from the inhabitants of Matara disavani, and the Siyana, Hapitigam, Alutkuru, and Hevagama korales regarding injustices done to them by the Dutch .Kirti Sri had his officials investigate the matter and speak to the Dutch officials.
But that does not seem to have solved the problem because in 1760, there was an open rebellion which spread rapidly through the Dutch territories, seriously threatening Dutch rule. There was violence from Negombo to Matara. Wimalaratne says for several months the country was in the hands of a riotous mob that burnt down schools and rest houses and destroyed the Landraad building in Galle. The Landraad was hated because the Sinhalese were summoned there to prove the land claims. Kirti Sri tried to use this opportunity to oust the Dutch .He sent Galagoda rala to take over the Matara disavani and the area up to Hevagama. Other disavas were sent to the other provinces. The campaign failed.
In the 1780s the Dutch expanded the cultivation of cinnamon, coffee, pepper, arecanut plantations and the timber forests. The Sinhalese had to clear, plant and maintain these newly cultivated lands, in addition to their other duties. The Matara disavani rebelled in 1790. Those inquiring into the rebellion said that the Matara inhabitants had objected to the additional work they had to do in fortification and plantation work. Many heavy, unusual and previously unheard of services had been imposed on them. The inhabitants had also complained that the Dutch demanded the services of all able bodied members of a family, whether the number was five or ten, unlike in the time of the Sinhala king.
The writings of S. Arasaratnam, K.M. de Silva, N.R. Devasiri L. S. Dewaraja, D.A .Kotelawele, P.E.Pieris, A. Schrikker, K.D.G.Wimalaratne and Memoirs of J.S.Van Gollenesse were used for this essay.

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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