A Colonial Administration in Transition: Policy, Theory and Practice of Dutch and British Colonial Rule in Maritime Ceylon, c. 1780-1815
For almost 150 years, from 1658 to 1796, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) ruled over coastal Ceylon and monopolized the island’s trade. In 1796 the British East India Company (EIC) took over the government of the Dutch in Ceylon. What did this transition from Dutch to British government entail for Ceylon?
We now know that in the end the British subjected the whole island and that Srilankan society changed radically as a result of British colonial policy. An important step in that direction was the British conquest of the centrally situated kingdom of Kandy in 1815. They ruined the monarchy in Kandy and therewith made an end to the last independent native kingdom on the island. The political situation on the island had changed so much by then that the British were forced to introduce radical administrational reforms.
However, it is not clear whether the British, in the twenty years before they conquered Kandy, introduced radical reforms on the colonial administration, or whether they generally followed Dutch policy. The reason for this is that in the literature, not much attention has been given to the development of the colonial administration in the last decades of Dutch rule. To what extent did the alterations, caused by the change of power in 1796, have an impact on the various social groups living in coastal Ceylon? Which of those alterations can be understood as a result of earlier launched Dutch policy, and which can be seen as reforms for which we should only hold the British accountable? Did the British takeover imply a modernization of the colonial administration?
These questions correspond with a broader historiographic discussion about the nature of Dutch and British imperialism in this period. According to historians like Bayly and Marshall, the period 1780-1820 was crucial in Great Britain for the rise of a new British imperial ideology, which developed under influence of the growing British nationalism and the Enlightenment. These new ideas led to a more aggressive British expansion overseas, but they also played a part in the development of modern ideas about colonial administration. Generally Dutch colonial policy in those days is seen as backward in comparison with the British. However, there are indications that even in VOC times, the Company’s officials were attracted to such modern ideas as well.
It is my hypothesis that the transitional period 1780-1815 from Dutch to British administration in coastal Ceylon is characterized by continuity in the practice of colonial rule, despite the formal change of power in 1796. My analysis of the Dutch and British administration concentrates on three connecting themes. 1) The relation between the king of Kandy and respectively the Dutch and British administration. 2) The Dutch and the British view on their own presence and territorial power on the island. 3) The practical organization of the colonial administration and the relation of the two European powers towards the native elite and the Eurasians in coastal Ceylon.
Dr. Lodewijk J. Wagenaar
Prof. Dr. J. Leonard Blussé