Dutch historian Dr. Lodewijk Wagenaar has spent nearly three decades documenting  various aspects of the Dutch period in Ceylon.  In his book published in 2016  titled  “Cinnamon & Elephants”- Sri Lanka and the Netherlands from 1600, Dr Wagenaar has used archival material at the Rijksmuseum –the National Museum of the Netherlands – to recreate the Dutch period in Ceylon and piece together some fascinating details of what life was like for both the colonizers as well as the indigenous population during the period.

He has framed the Dutch period in Sri Lanka   into three categories- Arrival (1602), Conquest (1638-1658) and Loss (1796) - the latter being the year the British arrived and took control of the country’s Maritime Provinces.

There is no doubt that the study of the period continues to generate interest among historians in both the Netherlands and in Sri Lanka and new details continue to emerge about the period. It was mainly in the search for cinnamon and other spices that the Dutch sailed across the seas, eager to take control of trade in the area as it was becoming increasingly difficult to depend on other traders to get them adequate supplies across to Holland with several wars waging in the European continent.

The Dutch , upon their arrival had moved quickly to contact the King of Kandy and the King in turn, weary with the Portuguese occupiers, invited the  VOC to help him expel them. Once the Portuguese were ousted, the Dutch were in no mood to leave and turned the tables on Raja Sinha II who had sought the help of the VOC  telling him,”   We are here to help you Sire but we will not leave until you reimburse the cost we incurred by waging war for you.”  They set the amount at millions of guilders which the King was not able to pay. From then on   for nearly a century  and a half, the Company ,having taken control of almost the entire coastal line of the country, consolidated itself on the island and while the initial aim was only to export cinnamon,  the “VOC moved swiftly to open up  the entire territory for financial gain.”

Dutch soldiers kneeling before the King of Kandy Rajasingha II

What followed was an uneasy truce  during most of this period between successive rulers of Kandy and the VOC with the Dutch using their military might to coerce the local rulers into several agreements which gave  them a free hand to trade and exploit the resources in the coastal regions while they also used soft diplomacy to appease the kings with annual emissaries sent to the Kandyan Kingdom bearing gifts.

For the Dutch, as for all European colonisers, cinnamon was the major attraction, the best quality of which was on the island and fetched high prices. First the Dutch increased the cultivation of cinnamon in the coastal areas and then ventured   about a kilometre interior from the shore and here too they experimented growing the spice and found it to be a major success.

With almost the entire coastal areas under their control, the Dutch used all kinds of ways to coerce to King to allow them to expand the plantations into areas where the King’s writ ran and also to ensure that the local population worked as laborers without whom the cinnamon trade would have collapsed.

Besides cinnamon, the Dutch also exported elephants. Though not as lucrative as the cinnamon trade, sale of elephants also fetched them a handsome amount.

“Five elephants, presented to the Company by the King as a gift or in return of expenses, arrived (in Matara), large and fine, will fetch a high rice,” says a letter sent to the VOC directors in the Netherlands on 18 December, 1639.

An elephant kraal 

The  elephants were procured mainly from Matara and Galle and were marched along the coast to the North where they auctioned them off to to Muslim merchants from South India. The animals were then taken across the Palk Straits on dhow vessels to be sold to temples, for work as well to be presented to the Maharajas in India.

Unlike the cinnamon trade, the trading of elephants was fraught with dangers as well as great risks as capturing them and transporting the animals across hundreds of miles was an arduous exercise. A series of drawing by a famous Dutch artist Jan Brandes (1743-108) is included in the book by Dr.Wagenaar which gives a rare glimpse into how the animals were captured and then tamed before being taken for the auction.

The drawing shows the animals being driven by men carrying flaming torches, shouting, and beating drums into large kraals that had been erected using wood. Once the animals were trapped, they are restrained using rope and mahouts employed to tame them. Then they were led out of the kraal one by one .At least 20-30 elephants were exported each year with tuskers fetching higher prices.

Despite the general mistrust between the local ruler and the foreign occupiers, there were occasions when the two sides worked together to their mutual advantage.  One such accession was when King Vimala Dharma Suriya (1687-1707) requested the VOC ships to take Kandyan emissaries to Arakan (now Rakhine in Myanmar) for the delegates to verify if there existed the pure form of Buddhism in that land and if so to request a delegation from there to return to Ceylon to be ordained here .The mission was a success and the VOC ship returned with 33 monks and a upasampadha (higher ordination) was held for them.

“Cinnamon & Elephants is a reflection on the shared history of the people of Sri Lanka and the Netherlands with Dr.Wagenaar giving his interpretation using visual representations such as paintings, maps and artifacts as well as written sources drawn mainly form the archives of the Rijksmuseum, where he once served as its curator.