history/Dutch Reformed Church (1642–2010)

The Dutch Educational System

The Dutch administered areas were divided into parishes, and each parish or village had a school. The parish schools were rather small, with mostly two schoolmasters, the older one being the Headmaster. The latter was an important Government official, selected from among the local gentry, who could command the respect of the people. Dutch policy was that all teachers should profess the Dutch Reformed faith. Many of the teachers, however, were nominal Christians, attracted by the prestige and the salary attached to the post.

The purpose of the parish schools was to provide, at low cost, a rudimentary education to the newly converted people so as to prevent them from relapsing into their former convictions. The schools were not merely centres for Christian instruction, they also provided instruction in reading, writing and basic mathematics. The Government made school attendance compulsory, and parents were fined for neglecting to send their children to school. The fines were imposed indiscriminately on Protestants, Catholics and non-Christians.

Contrary to the Portuguese, the Dutch Government at no time transferred to responsibility for education to the Church. As discussed previously, this gave rise to bitter disputes, but a compromise was reached. Educational institutions were placed under a special commissions the ‘Scholarchale Vergadering’ (School Boards), which catered to both religious and secular instruction. All students fell under the authority of one of the three Boards, which were established in Galle, Colombo and Jaffna. In the Boards both clergy and laymen were represented.

The Church established two Seminaries for higher learning, one in Jaffna and another in Colombo. The Colombo Seminary became the leading institutional institution of the country under the able leadership of Dr. Petrus Synjeu who stayed 21 years on the island.

The primary objective of the Seminary was the training of native preachers. The curriculum was almost entirely Western in outlook. Latin and Greek were also introduced in the lower classes because the medium of instruction in the higher theology classes was Latin. When Governor Gustaaf Willem, Baron van Imhoff (1736 – 1740) visited the Seminary in 1740, nothing pleased him more than the perfect manner in which Latin and Greek were imparted to the younger pupils. ‘It was astonishing to hear the little black fellows chatter in Latin and construe Greek when they hardly knew Dutch’, he said. Some of the students performed so well that the VOC undertook the cost of sending them to complete their studies in Holland. Two of the best known native youths were Willem Jurgen Ondaatje (family of the well known Burgher writers Christopher and Michael Ondaatje) and Hendricus Philippus Panditharatne, son of the Maha Mudaliyar (highest native official) in the Dutch territories. Both became native Ministers with the same status as the Dutch born Predikants.