The cinnamon peelers and the DutchAugust 4, 2012, 5:43 pm
by KAMALIKA PIERIS
The Dutch East Indies Company depended heavily on the cinnamon from Sri Lanka. The Dutch employees in Sri Lanka had to send as much cinnamon as possible in order to please their superiors. So they pushed the cinnamon peelers very hard. The cinnamon peelers started working at the age of 12 years providing just one pingo of cinnamon. This gradually increased to 11 pingos and then decreased to 1 pingo ‘till the peeler died’. The peelers tried to wriggle out of cinnamon peeling and tried to keep their children also out of it. The Dutch then ruled that the children of cinnamon coolies and peelers would always remain coolies and peelers.
The peelers were expected to provide two lots of cinnamon, one for their rajakariya and another for tax. Arasaratnam notes that this meant that the Dutch got the cinnamon almost free. Peelers also had to provide a third consignment of cinnamon known as money cinnamon, delivered compulsorily for a small payment. The Dutch had created an additional tax called ‘huvandirama’ for which the peelers had to provide a further consignment of cinnamon. The peelers refused and the Dutch had to abolish this tax. Arasaratnam says the Dutch would have dearly loved to re-impose this tax, but were afraid the peelers would revolt.
The cinnamon peelers were sure of the ownership of their lands. This was guaranteed. But they found the work of cinnamon peeling very difficult and unpleasant. The peelers complained that the labor demanded from them was excessive and the work was arduous. They had to spend many months of the year in the forests. When they were advised to peel the whole amount in one harvest, the peelers said they preferred to peel in two harvests. They feared that if they did it all in one harvest, the Dutch would impose further burdens on them at the next harvest.
The cinnamon peelers had contact with the Udarata kingdom. They were sent regularly to obtain cinnamon from Udarata because the cinnamon available in the Dutch territory was not enough. Some of the best cinnamon came from the Pitigal and Katugampola korales of the Udarata. These visits to the Udarata were used by the Sinhala king to establish contact with the peelers and the peelers, in turn established contact with Udarata officials.
When the Dutch pushed them too hard, the .peelers simply abandoned peeling and ran to the Udarata. They did so in 1696, 1699, 1701 and 1716-17. The Dutch had to ask the king to send them back. Those left behind also tried to wriggle out of peeling. There was much absenteeism and the Dutch found it very difficult to get the peeling done. Arasaratnam says the entire energy of cinnamon department (Mahabadde) went into mobilizing the peelers. Dutch Governor Van Gollenesse (1743-1751) complained that the cinnamon peelers were a very difficult group. He said they often refused to peel. He had tried gentle methods and strict methods but could not change their ways. ‘They peeled very little or they went missing,’ he said.
There were several major rebellions by the cinnamon peelers. The peelers fled to Udarata in 1692, complaining of oppression by their officers. They said that their work was most arduous and that it was dangerous working in the elephant infested forests. In 1734, the peelers of Sat korale went on strike and refused to work unless the complaints against their officers were enquired into and the extreme demands of the Dutch abolished, especially the extra cinnamon they had to collect. Cinnamon peelers in Tun korale struck in sympathy. Then it spread to Galle and Matara districts.
The revolt started in Hina korale, followed by Salpiti, Pasdun, Alutkuru and Hapitigam korales, then Colombo and southwards into the Matara district. . Udarata encouraged the rebellion and urged the cinnamon peelers not to work. Siyane, Hevagam and Salpiti korales declared themselves under the protection of the Sinhala king. The masterful disava of Tun and Satara korale, Levuke rala led the rebellion. The Dutch forces sent to Siyane korale were attacked and pursued back to Colombo, chased by the excited Sinhalese as far as Peliyagoda. Matters were so serious that the Dutch asked for 300 Malay troops from Batavia. The Sinhala king when asked to intervene stated that according to his inquiries the trouble was due entirely to the misrule of the Dutch
In 1735 a group of cinnamon peelers who went to Sath korale refused to peel cinnamon unless ordered to do so by the Sinhala king. The king’s men made contact with the peelers, who presented a petition to be given to the king for whom they also wove an embroidered cloth as a gift. The peelers complained about the way they were administered by the Dutch and the chiefs. They also complained about the Dutch land and taxation policy, Cinnamon peeling declined and only one third of the expected quantity was available for export. .
Udarata used this as an excuse to enter the Dutch territories. The Dutch fort at Katuwana was attacked. Udarata also attacked the Dutch watch posts in the Trincomalee district. Cinnamon peelers at Sabaragamuwa were taken by the Udarata chiefs and released only after two months. In Matara district, influential local chiefs incited the people in the king’s name against the Dutch. Governor Van Imhoff wrote to the Sinhala king in 1736 ‘humbly beseeching the king’ to remedy the situation. Arasaratnam observed "This conciliatory letter showed the dependence of the Dutch on the good will of the Udarata government for peace and prosperity in its own territories."
In 1736, there was another rebellion, conducted in the name of the Sinhala king. Peelers who fled to Udarata were allowed to stay there by King Narendrasinha, who told the Dutch that they should administer the peelers in a better manner. Van Gollenesse reported that in his time, about 500 cinnamon peelers had simply upped and gone to Udarata. They had beaten up the messengers sent by Van Gollenesse. Van Gollenesse said that the peelers recognized the Sinhala king, not the Dutch as their ruler. He had to repeatedly appeal to the Udarata chiefs, to use their influence with the peelers and persuade them to come back and fulfill their obligations. ‘If we add all the peelers who have run away in the past 10 or 20 years, it is a lot,’ Van Gollenesse observed.
There was a lengthy rebellion by the cinnamon peelers from 1757 to 1758. Cinnamon prices had gone up and the Dutch demanded increased production. The peelers could not deliver and the Dutch punished them. Some ran away to Udarata and the rest resorted to open rebellion. This rebellion led to revolts elsewhere and eventually, the entire southwest erupted. The Sinhala king seized the opportunity to send in his men, saying that he was investigating the complaints that had been made to him.
(The writings of S. Arasaratnam, K.M. de Silva, D.A.Kotelawele, P.E. Pieris, M Roberts and Memoirs of J.S.Van Gollenesse were used for this essay.)
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