The Dutch Period in Ceylon 1602–1796

Portuguese Finally Defeated

Shortly after the conquest of the Galle fort and after a quarrel with the King’s courtiers, Coster and his four escorts were murdered as they returned from the capital Kandy. This event made a strong impression on the Dutch. ‘An impious reward indeed for his great service, the more so as Coster yielded to the Raja Trincomale and its inhabitants and the taxes of the lands of Galle and Mature’ remarks Dutch Reverent Philippus Baldaeus in his famous Journal of 1672. This second murder of an important Dutch commander was a strong reminder for the VOC that the relations with the Kings of Kandy were unstable.

In the meantime, Portugal had broken off its union with Spain and had entered in 1642 into a firm ten-year truce with the Dutch Republic. In Ceylon there was still sporadic fighting but a stalemate prevailed between King Raja Singha, the Portuguese and the Dutch for some ten years.

At the end of the Truce the Dutch resumed open warfare against the Portuguese who were still firmly established in the forts of Colombo, Mannar and Jaffna.

In November 1652 King Raja Singha definitively allied himself with the Dutch when the Portuguese wished to bring Prince Viyajapala from Goa to replace him. Fighting continued while the Dutch constantly strengthened their land and sea forces. In September 1655, a Dutch fleet twenty ships strong under the command of the young General Gerard Pieterszn Hulft reached the island.
His mission was to crush the Portuguese utterly. After some initial victories he stormed the Fort of Colombo in November 1656 but was repulsed with heavy losses.

After this Hulft saw no other way than laying siege to the fort with the result that by February 1656 an average of ten to fifteen persons in the fort were dying of hunger daily. Hulft, not only being a good soldier but also a skilled diplomat, was in constant contact with King Raja Singha. During the siege the King rendered the Dutch with all the possible assistance in expectation that he could take over the fort when the Portuguese were defeated. On the 10th of April, 1656, whilst directing his troops in the galleries near the fort, Hulft was killed by the unfortunate discharge of a Portuguese musket. His name still lives on in Colombo today: part of Colombo’s old town is still called Hulftsdorp.

The Dutch continued the siege after Admiral Rijckloff van Goens had taken over command, swearing that he would avenge Hulft’s death. On May 12th, 1656, the Portuguese surrendered. They had fought like devils. Only ninety men came out of the Fort, still carrying their swords and muskets. The Hollanders witnessed the scene with stupefied amazement and even admiration. The Portuguese had held out for six months under continuous bombardment.
The fall of Colombo ended 150 years of Portuguese presence in the city. In 1658 Admiral Van Goens advanced north and captured Jaffna and Mannar, the last Portuguese strongholds on the island.

As soon as the Dutch were in possession of Colombo, they barred King Raja Singha’s troops from entering the city. The King was furious and demanded the delivery of Negombo and Colombo to him, as promised by Hulft and also in (the Sinhalese text of) Westerwolt’s Treaty of 1638. In compliance with the Treaty, the Dutch presented their bill for the costs of the war, amounting in their opinion, to 7,265,460,- Dutch Guilders, a sum which King Raja Singha was clearly unable (and unwilling) to pay. Formally the Dutch kept the Portuguese possessions as collateral security until the Kandyan King would repay the costs of the war. The real raison, however, was their fear that in their turn they would be driven off the island by a King they did not trust.

Willem Jacobz Coster † 1640

General Gerard Pietersz. Hulft (1621–1658).
Painting by Govert Flink

 Dutch forces occupying
Mannar under Van Goens (1658)