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A facet of the European heritage comes alive
Two new books published by the Sri Lanka National Archives

The Sri Lanka National Archives, which traces its beginnings to the 1880's, is performing a yeoman service by bringing to the notice of both the General Public and the country's intelligentsia, important material. As the repository of the written and published portions of the Nation's cultural heritage it is doing a tremendous job in conserving priceless documents that include rare Ola leaves. It is well patronized by a broad spectrum of people-from those searching for old land titles to academics researching facets of the country's historical heritage-ancient, colonial, and modern.

The first person to be made chief government archivist was the late Richard Gerard Anthonisz who began in 1881. In 1899 he was appointed 'examiner of the Dutch records,' and in 1902 this was changed to 'archivist and librarian' and in 1911 to 'chief government archivist.' He served from 1899 to 1921 and virtually created the Department from scratch. He was assisted by such notables as H.C.P. Bell, Donald Ferguson, F.H. de Vos, Paul E. Peiris, Fr, S.G. Perera and H.W. Codrington-all persons with an enduring interest in things Sri Lankan. He was also assisted up to 1915 by George H. Gratiaen and also by Sophia Pieters from the Netherlands (who eventually became his wife). Others who followed were Edmund Reimers, J.H. O. Paulusz, S.A.W. Mottau, S. Arasaratnam, Haris de Silva and K.D.G. Wimalaratna. In addition to Miss Sophia Pieters there were also Miss Maria Wilhelmina Jurriaanse (who compiled a monumental Catalogue that bears her name) and J.G. Wigboldus, all from the Netherlands. Today, Dr. Saroja Wettasinghe is at the helm ably managing the diverse and complex affairs of the Archives.

It is to the Dutch that the credit should go for establishing the first printing press in the island. "About 1725, the Superintendent of the VOC Arsenal, Gabriel Schade set to work on experiments in casting Sinhalese types and moulding the required machine parts," Archivist J.H.O. Paulusz has stated.

"By 1737, his efforts had paid off, as Dutch Governor Gustaaf Willem Baron Van Imhoff (1736-40) states in his memoir, ".........Therefore the printing press established during my administration will be a useful instrument. I will not detain Your Excellency by a discussion relating to the first beginning of this important work ..........Although it was only in May, 1737 that a commencement was made with the type, yet already have been published a Sinhalese prayer book, a booklet in the same language for the instruction of those who wish to partake of the Lord's Supper, catechisms in Malabar, and the four Gospels in Sinhalese ...."

"It can be presumed that Schade, also called the Baas of the Arsenal, designed the first movable type printing press in Sinhala and Tamil. In keeping with the Dutch policy of propagating their religion, the first 40-page Sinhala book, Singaleesch Gebeede-Boek contained the Lord's Prayer, morning and night prayers, grace before and after meals, the 12 articles of the Creed and the Ten Commandments. "

This great tradition has been kept alive by Dr. Wettasinghe and her highly-specialized team.

Therefore, now a part of the European heritage that Sri Lanka is heir to has been brought out by the Sri Lanka National Archives in two new books just published. Superbly translated and edited by Sri Lanka's only master of Old Dutch, Professor K.D. Paranavitana: The first is the Memoirs of Daniel Overbeek, Governor in 1742-43 and the other is the Memoir of Liebrecht Hooreman, Commandeur of Jaffna 1748.

Each of these translations from the Old Dutch into modern English paints word pictures of the Dutch administration from their perspective as rulers-by-default as well as 18th century corporate executives of the world's first transnational corporation: the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie-VOC-or the United East India Company of the Netherlands.

The following Memoirs have been translated in the past by a line of archivists and one university academic. Richard Gerald Anthonisz, the first Government Archivist of Sri Lanka, with the assistance of Miss Sophia Pieters had translated and published namely, Rijcklof van Goens - 1679 [1910], Thomas van Rhee -1697 [1915], Jan Simons - 1707 [1914], Hendrik Becker - 1716 [1914], Christiaan Pielat - 1734 [1905], and Gustaaf Willem, Baron van Imhoff - 1740 [1911] without the Dutch text. Subsequently, the second archivist Edmund Reimers translated and published the Memoirs of Johan Maetsuijiker - 1650 [1927], Rijcklof van Goens - 1663 and 1675 [1932], Johan Gideon Loten - 1757 [1935] and Jan Schreuder - 1762 [1946], with their original Dutch texts. After a lapse of a considerable period Professor Sinappah Arasaratnam translated the Memoir of Julius Stein van Gollensse -1751 [1974]. The present volumes are the latest in the series published after a lapse of 34 years from the previous one.

Several Dutch Governors wrote these Memoirs as guides for their successors in office and to ensure that the Company's tenure would continue as smoothly as circumstances would permit. The VOC ostensibly 'acted' for and on behalf of the Sri Lankan king in Kandy as his 'agents and secretaries' in the coastal districts captured at the behest of the King by force of arms from the earlier Portuguese who held those territories.

Each Memoir deals in meticulous detail with the chief interests of the Company and its overriding need to maximize revenue and reduce costs by economizing as much as possible-a skill at which these Dutch administrators were most assuredly accomplished. Each aspect of their day-to-day operations is carefully explained leaving no room for those under their purview to mislead their successors in office. However, working with the Vanniars in the Jaffna Commandment wasn't easy and they had many problems and one Commandeur recommended that the carrot was better than the stick in dealing with these rather contrary chieftains. Some excerpts from Professor Paranavitana's translations illustrate the invaluable character of these two publications:

A. Governor Daniel Overbeek, 1742-43

1."On the cultivation of silkworms no special report can be made except that it remains impracticable so long as the inhabitants do not undertake the breeding and maintenance of these useful little creatures."

2."We have then only to consider the King of this country or rather his avaricious courtiers instigated by a party of Chitties and Moors, all of them accustomed to fill their purses by smuggling, especially at such times. But a beautiful string of pearls of No. 1 quality will soften their resentment and especially His Majesty would be made to understand in significant terms how much more beneficial and profitable it will be both for his own subjects and those of the Company to remain at their work; not to speak of the evils that are avoided by the influx of strangers being stopped."

3."With regard to the Mahawibadde as the chief clerk to the farming of the Girruwapattu fields is called, it is certain that this individual is most useful to the Company. He must therefore be upheld in his authority. The Dissave Kersse has been more than once reminded of the necessity for this, and the author of this Memoir at his own expense did present the Sinhalese officer with a gold medal and chain to be worn in public according to the custom of the country. This is an honour greatly appreciated by the native Chiefs. This was done both with a view to encourage him in promoting the interests of the Company and also to give him greater influence among his own people, descended from a priestly family bearing the title of Gahanse, and left the Kandyan Court to take service under the Company. He has also visited Batavia."

4."Concerning the native kings, and especially that of Kandy and his courtiers, there is no need to say much, because of God's mercy we are living in harmony with them……"

5."In the papers relating to Madura you will also see to what extreme hostilities the Madura Court has come with the Company. It would be well to be somewhat indulgent in these difficult times or better to pretend to be so, and to pay off that jungle lord in proper time for his misconduct. A rupture with him at present is quite undesirable, as the Kandyan King, who is also a Malabaar, and therefore most likely associated, with the Theuver, might take offence. He is continually urged to hostile actions by the trouble-some community of Chittys and Moors, whose interest it is to fish in troubled waters."

B.Commandeur of Jaffna Liebrecht Hooreman, 1748.

1."It is obvious, and this fact Your Honour will also experience, that the collection of such dues from he lazy inhabitants of Jaffnapatnam goes accompanied with much difficulty and a good deal of worry."

2."It is well known that they conceal a lot of information, have sinister practices and many frauds have been detected for those people do not mind and persist in those practices without any shame in spite of all penalties put upon it"

These two and all the previous memoirs published by the National Archives make absorbingly interesting reading particularly for objective researchers delving into this country's colonial past. That is because the advent of the Europeans was pivotal in changing this country from a medieval polity to a modern one. The institutions created and developed since that era sustains all facets of Sri Lankan life.

Indeed, with the launch of these two Memoirs a facet of the European heritage has come alive.

J.B. Müller

 

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