Muslims in Dutch Ceylon (1640-1796) – A Dark Period in Muslim History

Dutch Ceylon was a Governorate established in Sri Lanka by the Dutch East India Company. It existed from 1640 until 1796. It was also one of the darkest chapters in the Sri Lankan Muslim history.

In the early 17th century, Sri Lanka was partly ruled by the Portuguese and Sri Lankan kingdoms, who were constantly battling each other. At this time in Europe, the Dutch were engaged in a long war of independence from Spain (which was in union with Portugal 1580–1640). So the Dutch were invited by the King of the Kandy Kingdom to liberate the country from the Portuguese.

Beginning from 1638 Dutch fought and took control of all Portuguese strongholds and territories in Sri Lanka. The Portuguese ports of Galle and Negombo fell to Dutch in 1640. After extensive fighting, the Portuguese surrendered Colombo in 1656 and Jaffna, their last stronghold, in 1658. Superior economic resources and greater naval power enabled the Dutch to dominate the Indian Ocean.

The Dutch ultimately presented the King of Kandy with such a large bill for help against the Portuguese that the King could never hope to repay it.

After taking political control of the coaster areas of Sri Lanka, the Dutch proceeded to monopolize trade. Control was vested in the Dutch East India Company. It was a joint-stock corporation, which had been established for the purpose of carrying out trade with the islands of Indonesia but was later called upon to exercise sovereign responsibilities in many parts of Asia.

dutch galle fort

Aerial view of the Dutch Galle fort in 2011. Testimony to Dutch strength. First built by Portuguese and extensively fortified by the Dutch during the 17th century from 1649 onwards. Image Credit: Wikimedia

Dutch Dealing with the Muslims

When the Dutch had dispossessed the Portuguese of their territory in Ceylon, there commenced one of the darkest chapters in the history of the Sri Lankan Muslims. Although the Hollanders’ primary interest in this country was trade, the rigor of their persecution of these unfortunates exceeded that of the Portuguese, who for the most part were actuated by religious prejudice. Dutch chief concern was buying and selling.

Finding experienced rivals in the Moors, from the very start, the officers of the Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie entertained a dislike for the former which soon developed into hatred. They considered that the Moors were constantly interfering with what the Hollanders regarded as their special monopoly.

This jealousy led to the enactment of many iniquitous laws calculated to destroy trade and to harass and eventually exterminate the whole race of Muslims. The numerous Dutch records in the archives of the Colonial Secretary’s Office, leave no doubt on this point, whilst on the other hand they clearly outline the policy of the Dutch towards their subject races.

Hardly two years elapsed after their arrival in the Island, when a regulation was passed prohibiting the residence of Moors within the gravets of the towns of Galle, Matara and Weligama. This was at the time that Galle was the chief port of call for the island, and the difficulties which this law imposed on the trade of the Moor is easy to imagine. Matara and Weligama were also important trade centers, so that it was sought wherever possible to ruin the business of their rivals. It is suggested that the Netherlanders jealously guarded their rights and were anxious to conceal from their enemies the extent of their trade and the nature of their military strength and fortifications.

As a result of this law a large slice of the trade of the Moors with South Indian ports passed into the hands of the Dutch Company. As a retaliatory measure the Moors endeavored to , and partially succeeded in controlling the export trade from their position as the middlemen who bought from the Sinhalese producers inn the interior districts and sold to the Dutchmen who were now the actual exporters. In order to prevent them from deriving the benefit of their position as the medium of business, the avaricious Hollanders afforded every encouragement to the Sinhalese which would tend to foster a better understanding and direct exchange with the Company’s merchants. No very material results accrued from this arrangement and this enraged the disappointed Dutchmen all the more.

On their part the Moors employed every artifice to circumvent the operation of these restrictions. They diverted their commercial activities to other ports in the country to which the regulation did not apply, thus finding an outlet for their accumulated stocks of arecanut and other produce and checking the decadence of their vanishing export trade. Further, the Moors sought to avoid suspicion or detection by conducting a considerable part of their business through the Malabars or Gentoos whose language and customs they had gradually assimilated. This move on the part of the oppressed Moor is supposed to have been the occasion for a second regulation. According to the new law not only the Moors, but the Malabars as well, were prohibited from owning houses or grounds and residing within the Fort and outer Fort of Colombo.

By means of this law, the Dutch Coopman was enabled to go into occupation of the storehouses and godowns of the Moors in the prohibited area-particularly in Bankshall Street, Colombo, where the Harbor-Master’s offices and warehouses of the Dutch authorities were situated.

It was hoped that these stringent measures would render living in Ceylon so intolerable to the Moors that they would prefer to return to the land of their origin, or to Kayalpattanam, in South India where was a large Moorish colony already. In order to ascertain to extent to which the foregoing regulations had acted as a deterrent to permanent domicile in the country, a census of the Moors was taken in 1665. A proclamation was issued making it compulsory for every Moor to register himself under pain of banishment.

In the same year, another law prohibited the sale of lands in any part of the Dutch territory to the Moors. By these means a campaign of systematic persecution was carried on from the earliest days of Dutch occupation. Each successive law was more oppressive and humiliating than the previous one. The harshest measures which were carried out to them and not even their religious observances escaped attention for instructions had been issued to the Dutch Governors of the Colony not to permit the Moors to exercise the rites of their faith.

According to a translation, by Sophia Pieters, of the instructions from the Governor General and Council to the Governor of Ceylon 1656-1665:

“Only agriculture and navigation must be left open to them as occupations and they are prohibited from engaging in all other trades, within this country, either directly or indirectly and with a view to gradually exterminate this impudent class of people, Their Honours have prohibited any increase to their numbers from outside. The Dessave must not permit the Moors to perform any religious rites nor tolerate their priests either within or without their gravets.”

On their part, the Moors did not give in to these iniquitous conditions. This was the occasion to elicit the most enduring traits of their character and staying power against odds that would have broken men of lesser stamina. Their dogged perseverence under difficulties, their remarkable resourcefulness and unfailing ingenuity only provoked more ruthlessly deliberate persecution from the enemy who pursued its quarry.

In 1744 a law was passed by which every Moor who was unable to furnish a certificate in proof that he had his taxes or performed the services due from him to the Company, was liable to punishment and to be put in chains, They were not allowed to posses slaves, and any Moor who committed adultery with a Christian slave was liable to be hanged. In addition to the other services to the State which were demanded of them, they were forced to perform undignified menial duties and were employed as porters in the transport of cinnamon belonging to the Company, and as palanquin-bearers.

However, after many years had elapsed, the persecution was relaxed in proportion to the realization of the indispensable worth of the Moor as an economic unit in the society of the Colony and as a source of revenue. In later years, Wolf in his “Life and Adventures” has following in regard to the value of the Moor:

“These Moors have the art of keeping up their credit with the Company at large as well as with particular care among the Europeans, and a Moor is hardly ever known to be brought into a Court of Justice. The Company often makes use of their talents, particularly when it wants to buy a tax upon any article of commerce. Nobody understands the value of pearls and precious stones as well as they do, as in fact they are continually employed in the boring of pearls; and the persons who are used to farm the Pearls Fishery always rely on their skill in this article as well as in arithmetic to inform them what they are to give for the whole fishery.”

Whilst natural hatred and arrogance always formed a barrier between the Dutch and the Moors the inside history of the Dutch government of Ceylon reveals the true commercial instinct of the Hollander, as the following translation by Mr. R.G.Anthonisz, of the “Resolutions and Sentences of the Council of the Town of Galle,” shows:

“Whereas Adriaen Pietersz, of Madelbeek, Corporal in garrison here, stationed at the point of Vriesland, at present a prisoner, did, without torture or any threats of same, freely confess, and it has become sufficiently evident to the worshipful Council of this Town that, unmindful of the previous misdemeanour and the punishment consequent thereon, he did again last Friday, being intoxicated, buy a piece of cloth of a certain Moor (outside the town gate) for * ……..stivers, wishing to give him a*….in payment, on condition that the said Moor should return the same to him, which the said Moor was unwilling to do; upon which the prisoner having no linen or doublet upon him, told the Moor to go with him into the town to his house, where he promised to hand him the said doublet; then together going into the town and coming near the house of ensign Leuwynes, the said Moor caught the prisoner by the sleeve, insisting on being paid the four stivers immediately, upon which the prisoner and the Moor having got into words, and the prisoner having pushed him away from his body, the said prisoner drew his cutlass, intending as he says to give the Moor a blow on the back with the flat of the said cutlass, and struck him on the arm and severely wounded him;”

“All of which being matters of very dangerous consequence, for as much as by them, the Moors, whom we ought to befriend in all possible ways, seeing that they are of great service to us, might easily be estranged from us, and begin to sell their goods to other nations and thus leave us altogether unprovided.”

“Which should not be in the least tolerated in a place where justice and the law are administered, but should as an example to others be most rigorously punished;”

“Therefore the Lord President and his Council, having considered all that pertains to this matter and has been allowed to move their Worships’ minds, administering justice in the name of the Supreme Authority, have condemned and sentenced the said prisoner, as they condemn and sentence him by these presents, to receive a certain number of lashes at the discretion of the Council, and be made to mount guard in heavy armour; also to pay three pieces of eight to the Moor in lieu of the pain he has suffered; cum expensis.”

This incident is typical of the mercenary instinct of the Dutchman who was anxious to gain all the advantages along the line, when it appeared that the Company’s coffers were likely to be affected. In many ways the Moors were a source of revenue. Apart from their usefulness as tradesmen, a certain amount of money was derived from them by the sale of licenses which permitted them to reside in their villages. According to an extract from the Wellesly manuscripts published in the “Ceylon Literary Register”, Vol II, the takings from this source in 1794-95 amounted to 1,340 Rix-dollars or Pound 100 Sh. 10. Besides this, the Moors were liable according to the laws of the land to render certain services to the Dutch Government, but the majority of them preferred commutation by the payment of a certain sum of money.

In the last days of Dutch rule we find the first mention of the Moors as an organised military body. Although there is reference to their participation in active warfare in earlier periods, there is very little detail available of the actual part which they played on those occasions. Owing to this fact there has been some difficulty in gathering much evidence relative to the composition of the Moorish troops.

In regard to the Dutch period, however, the list of the garrison of Colombo at the time of its capitulation to the British on February 16th, 1796, gives the following details concerning the Battalion of Moors:

The Battalion was commanded by Captain Beem and was composed of three companies.

First Company Lieutenant Brahe commanding; one drill sergeant, one captain,

One Lieutenant, three sub-Lieutenants, 94 sub-officers and men.

Second Company , Lieutenant Kneyser commanding; one drill sergeant, one captain, one Lieutenant, one sub-Lieutenant, 31 sub-officers and men.

Third Company, Lieutenant van Essen commanding; one drill sergeant, one captain, one Lieutenant, one sub-Lieutenant, 72 sub-officers and men.

The Moors were also admitted into the artillery regiments and several of them served under Major Hupner who was the Officer Commanding this section. There were altogether 134 of them, divided as follows:

First Company, under Captain Schreuder, amongst other officers and men, 28 Moors.

Second Company; under Captain Erhard, 34 Moors.

Third Company; under Captain Duckrok, 38 Moors.

Fourth Company; under Captain Lagarde, 32 Moors.

The following is an example of the nature of the ranks conferred on the Moors during the later stages of Dutch rule:

“Whereas the Moor, Seyde Kadie Nainde Mareair Lebbe Naina Mareair was by us recently appointed Joint Chief of the Moors of the Town of Galle, and as now the other Chief of this community in the commandments has appealed to us that he being the oldest in the service should have preference over the other, we therefore in consideration of the request made by him, the said present Chief, deem it desirable to appoint him First Chief over the Galle community of Moors residing within the four Gravets with authority to employ the Moor, Ismail Lebbe Meestri Kader as his Canne Kappel.”

“Wherefore one and all to whom it may concern are commanded to regard-respect, and obey, as it behaves them, him the said Aghamdoe Lebbe Sinne Lebbe Marcair as First Chief of the Moors.”

Colombo, 28th July 1757.

The above extract was taken from the “Report on the Dutch Records in the Government Archives at Colombo,” by Mr. R.G. Anthonisz, the well known antiquarian and Dutch scholar.

[*These words are omitted in the translation, perhaps because the original manuscript had been moth-eaten in these places.]


We would like to thank Mr. Fazli Sameer for generously giving us permission to use all material contained in his, “Sri Lanka Genealogy” websites and blogs.


1. Dealing with the Dutch

2. Dutch Ceylon

3. Sri Lanka History – The Dutch Period

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