The Dutch community in Sri Lanka in the 17th century was known as the ‘Hollandische Natie’. The familiar word ‘lansi’ comes from ‘Hollandische’. This ‘Hollandische Natie’ consisted of two categories of Europeans. Firstly, the employees of the Dutch East India Company known as ‘company servants’ and secondly, the ‘vrijburger’ or ‘free citizens’ who came out on their own for adventure or to better their prospects. The Dutch also took in the Portuguese who had been left behind. They were called ‘mechanics’.

Historian C.R. Boxer says the company employees sent to Asia were the dregs of Dutch society, persons treated with contempt in the Netherlands. The upper and middle class Dutch did not take service under the Company. But he notes that the employees had good prospects in the Company and a chance to better themselves and rise in life. The ‘vrijburgers’ were given liberal grants of land and permission to open shops. They helped with the administration, including service in the Town Council but did not serve in the militia. The ‘vrijburgers’ were under the authority of the Company so they were not completely ‘free’.

The Dutch brought in sailors and soldiers. Boxer said the sailors were rough and uncouth. They were mostly from Scandinavia and Germany. The Dutch army also had a high proportion of foreigners. There were German, Swiss, French, English, Scots, Irish and Danish soldiers. Goonewardena said the soldiers were very insolent and overbearing towards the natives. Pieris says the Dutch had also found Sri Lanka to be a convenient spot where blockheads, libertines and bankrupts connected to those who had influence with the Company directors in the Netherlands, could be easily dumped.

The Dutch had planned to create Dutch settlements in its Asian territories and attempted to found a Dutch colony in Colombo, a ‘New Netherlands.’ They tried to plant a colony in Galle as well. The settlements were to consist of company servants and soldiers, who were retiring as ‘free burghers’ together with Dutch families got down from the Netherlands. Some soldiers were also permitted to leave and settle as colonists. The colonists were to work as butchers, bakers, tailors, shopkeepers, shoemakers, carpenters and glaziers. The plan did not work. Only a handful of employees left the company’s service. At one stage, only five families of colonists came from Holland, consisting of farmers, shoemakers and a carpenter. Arasaratnam said the colonists were mostly discharged soldiers, sailors and clerks. Goonewardena said they were mainly ex-soldiers. Some colonists did well but most did not. The Company did not want them meddling in trade so they had to turn to agriculture, but they did not know to grow rice.

There was a strict status ranking among the Dutch. Only those born in Europe were officially called European. Children of marriages between Europeans and Asians were classed as natives and were known as ‘mestici’. (When this was challenged by R.G .Anthonisz, P.E. Pieris had pointed out that his observations were based on the memoirs of Dutch Governor Van Imhoff). The mestici were paid a lower rate than the Europeans.

Intermarriage was frowned upon by both Sinhalese and Dutch. Rajasinghe II strongly objected to it. Pieris says it is doubtful if a dozen Sinhalese of position took Dutch wives. However, Goonewardena noted that the Dutch soldiers were marrying native women ‘at a rate’. They married Sinhala women from the lower strata of society, also women of mixed parentage, mainly half-Portuguese. These half Portuguese women had been strongly exposed to Portuguese culture. They spoke Portuguese and were Roman Catholic. The soldiers came under their influence, not the other way round. The women continued to speak Portuguese and husbands fell in line. The children took after the mothers not the fathers. Goonewardena observed that due to this, instead of Dutch culture, a new Indo-Portuguese colonial culture developed.

The Burghers had been put in charge of the arecanut trade and the cloth trade and they had bungled both. The Burghers were good at opening taverns however. The Dutch were addicted to drink. There was ‘a lot of drunkenness,’ and about 116 pubs in Colombo towards the end of Dutch rule. The Dutch could not be taken off drink, so the Burghers had tried to manufacture a mild, wholesome beer from paddy. Pieris observed that the Dutch did not take any interest in educating the sons of its European servants and therefore the ‘Ceylon born Hollander’ degenerated rapidly and his ambition did not extend beyond eating and drinking.

There were sizeable Dutch settlements with ‘a distinct urban life’ in Colombo, Galle and Jaffna. The largest settlement was in Colombo. Colombo was redone in 1656. The fort was separated from the old city by a broad stretch of marshy ground terminating in the moat into which the original outlet of the lake had been converted. It was protected on three sides by the lake, the sea and the bay. Facing the bay was the Governor's house, close to the house reserved for the Sinhalese ambassadors. On east and south the town was defended by ramparts and a lake which teemed with crocodiles.

The residential suburb was known as the Pettah. . This had clean and shaded streets laid out in a rectangular grid, with long receding rows of slender pillars on either side. Ives, a British naval surgeon who visited Colombo around 1757, noted that Colombo streets were very wide, with beautiful rows of trees, smooth and regular pavements, elegantly placed. The houses were one storied buildings with low pitched roofs and pillar fronted deep verandas with wooden trellises. The gardens were at the back. The buildings were chiefly of Portuguese construction. There was a public market and the seashore was used as a fish market. Water was scarce and the Dutch went to public wells for baths. The entrance to the settlement was on the north east corner by the Negombo gate. Outside, there was thick jungle running in the direction of Wolvendaahl.

The situation in Galle was different. Schrikker says it must have been a very unhealthy place, because in 1784 at least a quarter of the garrison was infected with a contagious disease and the town was full of beggars who were also suffering from the same disease. There was ‘street robbing’. Governor De Graaf (1785-94) tried to clean up the place. He set regulations for street lights and for picking up garbage. He reduced the number of pubs. He constructed a pipeline from Unawatuna, to obtain clean water for Galle.

The writings of S. Arasaratnam, C.R. Boxer, D. Brohier, R.L. Brohier, R.K. de Silva, J.M. Flores, , K.W. Goonewardena, P.E. Pieris, A. Schrikker and K.D.G. Wimalaratne were used for this essay.

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