history/The Dutch Period in Ceylon 1602–1796
Mercenaries, Intrigue and Surrender
In the period 1788 – 1795 there was no cordiality between the Dutch and the British. The British had planned after their conquest of India to take over a dozen Dutch possessions in the region, with Ceylon as the biggest prize. Their chance came when in the winter of 1794/95 Holland was overrun by the French army and Prince William V, the Dutch Stadtholder (nominal Head of State) had fled with his family to England. The States General was replaced by the so called Batavian Republic under control of the French. This situation was used by the British to cripple the Dutch trade and to gain possession of its colonies.
The leadership in Colombo was uncertain what to do. If they vested in the new Batavian Republic they were a potential target of British attack. If they remained loyal to the exiled Stadtholder the attitude of the British would be more difficult to assess.
In the meantime Governor Falck had died in 1785 after a short illness. He was succeeded by Willem Jacob van der Graaff (1785 – 1793) who turned out to be an aggressive expansionist and attempted to extend Dutch control well beyond the established limits. In 1792 Van der Graaff was ready for war with the Kandyan Kingdom. But the VOC Council of the Indies in Batavia realised the dangers of such action and ordered the Governor to abandon his venture. In protest Van der Graaff resigned and was succeeded by the wavering Jan Gerard van Angelbeek, who would became the last Dutch Governor of Ceylon.
Under strong pressure from the British Foreign Minister, Lord Grenville, Prince William V issued in February 1795 orders to Van Angelbeek to put his forces, forts and warships under British ‘protection’. He should consider the British troops ‘… belonging to a power that is in friendship and alliance with their High Mightinesses (the Governors of the VOC), and who come to prevent the Colony from being invaded by the French’. After the war, the English Government promised to restore the Colony to the Dutch. Van Angelbeek first accepted Prince William’s letter and agreed with the British presence on the island.
Later however, after aggressive military pressure from the British, Van Angelbeek and his Political Council took the fateful decision that as the Batavian Republic was considered the sovereign of the colonies and their troops should be ordered to resist the British occupation. But the Dutch Governor did not realise that British intrigues had already irreparably undermined his military capabilities. The defence of Dutch Ceylon was undertaken mainly by European mercenaries, in particular the De Meuron Regiment, 1000 men strong and for two-thirds consisting of Swiss soldiers. In an extraordinary act on the 30th of March, 1795, the British secret agent Hugh Cleghorn signed a contract with the proprietor of the Regiment, Count Charles-Daniel de Meuron to transfer his regiment into British service for the sum of ₤6,000. This sealed the fate of the Dutch in Ceylon. After a token resistance Van Angelbeek gave up. Many Dutch officers and soldiers felt betrayed by their own Governor and at the end of the siege of Colombo turned their heavy guns on the Governor’s palace. In vain; on the 14th of February, 1796, the Dutch forces surrendered with minimal bloodshed. Pierre-Frederic de Meuron, brother of Count Charles-Daniel, changed his blue Dutch uniform for a red English one and became Military Governor of Ceylon in September 1797 until he was relieved by Frederic North, the first British Governor.
The Maritime Provinces of Ceylon became British never to be returned to the Dutch. In January 1816 the last Candyan King Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe, the youngest Nayakka prince to have ascended the throne of the Sinhala Kingdom was banished from Ceylon. He was relocated in the little Indian coastal town of Vellore as a state prisoner of the British, together with his family and relatives. He died in 1832 at the age of 52. His son, the rightful heir to the throne, never left the shores of India and died as an unknown in 1842.
Ceylon remained a British Crown Colony for the next 150 years.