Portuguese Colombo in 1662 via the Sketches of Esaias Bourse

Chryshane Mendis, in The HistoryFreek, 4 May 2020, where the title reads “Colombo in Transition 1662: Through the Eyes of Artist Esaias Boursse

This short essay serves as an introduction to a rare collection of sketches of Colombo and its environs in the year 1662.

Sinhalese soldier and labourer

Esaias Boursse was a servant of the VOC who made over hundred sketches of daily life in Colombo, mainly focused on the People and the work they were engaged in. This collection is called the “Tijkenboeck” and is held by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. This album containing 116 sheets of drawings came into the possession of the Rijksmuseum in 1996. Its value outweighs the poor quality of some of the drawings in that it captures scenes from within a city which was being transformed from its Portuguese outlook to the Dutch; thus some scenes depict street views of Portuguese Colombo- a phenomena never before captured in drawing except for textual descriptions.

An introduction to this extremely unique pictorial source was written by Lodewijk Wagenaar and Mieke Beumer under the title “Esaias Boursse’s ‘Tijkenboeck’: A Pictorial Catalogue of People Working and Living in and around Colombo, 1662” and published in The Rijksmuseum Bulletin, Vol. 67, No. 4 (2019), pp.312-331.  Notes for this essay are taken from this publication, which can be accessed in JSTOR.

Former Franciscan Monastery inside the city

Esaias Boursse (1631-1672) was born in Amsterdam and trained as a painter, however unable to find work, he enlisted in the VOC as a midshipmen in 1661 and sailed for Batavia (Jakarta) in October that year. Arriving in Batavia in March 1662 he was soon transferred to Colombo where he served for few months. It is not known in what capacity he served in here. After this brief stint in Colombo he left in December 1662 back to the Netherlands. He died at sea in December 1672 on his way to Ceylon after having once again joined the VOC.

In 1662 Colombo was in transition. When the Dutch had captured the city from the Portuguese in 1656, much of the fortifications and buildings along the eastern front of the city were in ruins. Although initially the Dutch decided to refortify the Old Portuguese ramparts, they began a total demolition of the Portuguese city and rebuilt a completely new city. These large scale demolitions and remodelling took place from the late 1650s till about the 1670s. In 1662, much of the Portuguese buildings were still around. The following is a description of Colombo by Wouter Schouten in 1661:

“Whilst thus riding at anchor off Columbo, we found an opportunity to go and see this old and famous town. Many fine buildings, even whole streets, were lying in ruins, partly from age, partly from sieges and wars, and many of the ruins were covered with grass and brushwood. Nevertheless, we found in the town fine buildings, lofty churches, wide streets and walks, and large houses in great number. They were built spacious, airy, and high, with stone walls, as if meant to stand for ever, according to the Portuguese manner of building.”

Apart from textual descriptions like the above, there is no pictorial depiction of Colombo during this period; and for that matter no painting exists of what Portuguese Colombo looked like from inside. It is this fact that makes these drawings by Esaias extremely valuable as they offer a rare window into Portuguese Colombo from within. The depiction of the Franciscan monastery is a first-time look into the church architecture of Colombo during the Portuguese period. This monastery is frequently mentioned in textual sources and marked on vague maps. It was one of the few buildings to survive the initial Dutch demolished and was used by them for some time. It stood in the location of the present Gordon Gardens in Fort.

Many of the other drawings also capture scenes of buildings and houses but the precise location of them are hard to determine (whether within or outside the city). The main focus of the artist was clearly the people, which he captures with minute detail especially the dress. The various ethnicities too could be identified from the drawings. As almost all the people depicted are engaged in manual labour possibly associated with removing earth, this the authors of the paper above hypothesize that they must be all engaged with the large construction work associated with the demolition and remodelling of the fortifications during this period.

South India labourers


People near a well – wall to the right looks part of a ruined building
Street view inColombo


Filed under architects & architecture, authoritarian regimes, colonisation schemes, cultural transmission, economic processes, heritage, historical interpretation, Indian traditions, island economy, landscape wondrous, life stories, military strategy, politIcal discourse, population, Portuguese in Indian Ocean, religiosity, sri lankan society, travelogue, unusual people, working class conditions, world events & processes

2 responses to “Portuguese Colombo in 1662 via the Sketches of Esaias Bourse

  1. I went to the Historyfreek blog with the intention of following it, but there was no provision to do so and not much information either. If the author of the blog is reading this, his or her comments are welcome.

    • Chryshane Mendis

      I am the author of thehistoryfreek blog, thanks for your suggestions. I haven’t been able to properly organize it and had planned to do so in the near future. Will take note to include such a provision and add more content. Cheers,

Leave a Reply