history/The Dutch Period in Ceylon 1602–1796

The Establishment of Dutch Power in Ceylon

At the dawn of the seventeenth century, the young Dutch Republic was emerging as one of the more – if not the most – enterprising and dynamic forces among the European nations. The Dutch were distinguishing themselves particularly as seafarers venturing into unknown seas and lands. In 1602 the V.O.C. or United East India Company was established. Within a few decades it controlled vast territories in South Africa, Ceylon, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and established a considerable number of settlements in India, Malaysia, Japan and China.

In that same year, on the 2nd of June, the Dutch Admiral Joris van Spilbergen arrived in Ceylon with three ships from the Dutch port of Veere after a 12 month voyage. Visiting Kandy, the seat of King Vimala Dharma Suriya, Spilbergen and the King developed cordial relations. The King’s admiration for his new-found friend was so deep that he begun to learn the Dutch language saying ‘Kandy is now Flanders’. They discussed future relations, focussing on possible Dutch military assistance to expel the Portuguese from the coastal areas as well as the trade in cinnamon and pepper. As a token of his friendship, the Dutch Admiral left in the King’s service two versatile and skilled musicians: Erasmus Matsberger and Hans Rempel.

Shortly after the successful visit of Van Spilbergen, a second Dutch fleet under command of Sebalt de Weert arrived on the island. De Weert was a very skilful commander who discovered the Falkland Islands during the attempt of Dutch Admirals Cordes and Mahu to find an alternative route to the East Indies through Cape Magelheas in 1598.  After an initial agreement with the King of Kandy, he returned in 1603 to Batticaloa with a fleet of six ships to take part in a joint effort to oust the Portuguese from the island.  During his stay he took four passing Portuguese ships but released the Portuguese crews who had surrendered to the Dutch on the promise of quarter. The King was very angered by this action and after further heated discussions, De Weert and 50 of his compatriots, who happened to a on shore, were unexpectedly killed by the King’s men. The Dutch Council of the Indies considered this assassination as a treacherous murder and held the King accountable.


fter this unhappy event, the Dutch concentrated on organising their trade with the East Indian specie islands. It took more than three decades before the Dutch again undertook action to expel the Portuguese who had arrived some 150 years earlier and were firmly established on the island. After many bloody wars with the Portuguese, King Raja Singha II became convinced that lasting peace with the Portuguese was not possible and he invited the Dutch to force them off the island.
At that time the Dutch were still at war with Portugal, which was part of the Spanish Empire. The Dutch Council of the Indies in Batavia (Dutch East India) complied with this request and in 1637 sent four ships to the island under Captain Jan Thijszn Payaart who signed a treaty with the King. On 4 January 1638 a decisive sea engagement took place off the coast of Goa between Portuguese and Dutch naval forces. The Portuguese fleet was decimated following this battle and the victorious Dutch Admiral Adam Westerwolt decided to attack the Portuguese fort at Batticaloa on Ceylon with a fleet of five ships and 800 men. In coalition with strong Singhalese forces he conquered the fort on the 18th of May, 1638.

Five days later, following this victorious conquest, Westerwolt in the name of the States General, His Highness Prince Frederik Hendrik and the Dutch East India Company agreed a new Treaty with King Rajasingha in his Palace in Batticaloa. The Treaty was a landmark and set the tone for future relations between the Kandyan Kings and the Dutch. Under the Treaty the Dutch were to have a monopoly over all trades except elephants. The forts captured from the Portuguese would be garrisoned by the Dutch or demolished, as the King thought fit. The crucial clause ‘as the King thought fit’ was however only included in the Sinhala and not in the Dutch text of the Treaty. This later gave rise to much disagreement between the two parties. The same goes for the clause stating that the King would pay any expenses incurred by the Dutch in the war effort against the Portuguese.

Slowly but surely the Dutch land and naval forces continued to oust the Portuguese from parts of Ceylon. In February 1640 the Portguese fort of Negombo, a short distance North of Colombo was captured by Philip Lucasz. Following his sudden death, the command was devolved to the capable Willem Jacobz Coster who earlier fought under Admiral Westerwolt at the east coast. Against overwhelming odds he attacked the strong fort at Galle. After storming the city on 13th of March, 1640, he became master of it within a few hours. For the next 18 years Galle would remain the centre of Dutch power in Ceylon.





Joris van Spilbergen meeting the King of Kandy 1602

Joris van Spilbergen

Admiral Adam Westerwoldt

Dutch 17th century warship in the port of Amsterdam

Remnants Dutch fort, Negombo