The Tales around a Painting: The Kandyan Ambassadors’ Audience in Dutch Colombo, 1772

Dr Srilal Fernando in Melbourne, reproducing the firs t part of an article that arpperas in THE CEYLANKAN, The journal of the ceylon Society of Australia, Vol25/3, August 2022. Its full title therein is as follows: “The Story of a Painting. Governor Falck’s Audience to the Kandyan Ambassadors in 1772drawn and painted from life by C F Reimer, Surgeon.”









A group photograph is part of a visual record of a modern day conference. What did they do in 1772, long before the advent of photography? A skilled artist was commissioned to paint the scene as it happened. The occasion was the visit of 3 Kandyan ambassadors to attend a meeting with the then Dutch Governor , Iman Willem Falck in Colombo.

The Artist

The artist was Carl Frederick Reimer. Just like Shakespeare in his time Reimer spelt his name in several similar sounding ways. He arrived in Ceylon in the service of the VOC in 1768. He served in the medical service as a third surgeon.  In 1777, he was transferred to the Surveys branch and functioned as an Engineer and Land Surveyor. He was posted to Batavia in 1783 and died in 1796 after rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel of Engineers. It was clear that he was a multi-talented person with skills as a painter and had great powers of observation. The painting shows a facial likeness of each of the individuals depicted.

The Context

Kirti Sri Rajasinghe was the king in Kandy. The Dutch Wars with Kandy were concluded and the Dutch controlled the coastline with the King not having direct access to the sea routes. However there were frequent skirmishes in the border areas. There were issues of trade of cinnamon that grew wild in some areas belonging to the Kandyan kingdom. The annual visits of the Ambassadors from Kandy had been established, where some of these issues, and exchange of presents took place.

This painting allows us for the first time to visualize the Chieftains of Kandy. Though there have been descriptions, there was no proper way to see what they looked like. A later painting by Jan Brandes in 1785 is available for comparison, when a similar event occurred in the same hall, but  drawn from a different angle during the time of Governor de Graaff.

The People in the Painting

The main participants are as follows. The Dutch Governor Falck sits at the head of the table on an elaborate chair. He was known by the nickname “The Crow” due to his dark appearance most likely from his mother who was from Semarang. He was born in Matara where his father was Dessave and educated in Ceylon and in Holland. Rising rapidly in the service of the VOC, he was considered one of the more enlightened Governors.

The three Kandyan Ambassadors are painted ‘Face On” and the first towards the Governor was Mahamotier Dodanwela Ralahamy. In the middle is Mohandiram Iriyagama, and one furthest away is Mideniya Ralahamy. The attendants of the Kandyan Ambassadors are seen standing at the opposite end of the room holding what looks like elephant tusks, but on comparing this reproduction with the Brandes painting we can say that they are most likely ceremonial swords.

On the Governors left between the Governor and the Ambassadors is the Maha Mudaliyar who is the chief Government interpreter and most likely Don Juan Illangakoon. At the back of the Governor are his three Dutch Attendants, and behind  them, stand two low country Mudaliyars yet to be identified.

On the right of the Governor are the members of the Dutch Council. In order they are Bartholomeus Jacobus Raket the Hoofd Administrateur,  Godfied Leonhard de Coste  the Dessave of Colombo, Jan Jacob Cocquaart the Major commanding the forces, Jan Hendrik Borwater the Fiscal,  Gerrit Engel Holst the Paymaster, Cornelis de Cock the chief warehouse keeper, Jacobus de Bordes the trade commissioner, and Martinus Merken the Political Secretary.

On the other side of the table and partly obscured are the three members of the commission specially appointed to arrange  the reception, and to wait on the Ambassadors during their stay .

A more detailed description of the participants is given in The Dutch Burger Union Journal. Some of the descendants settled in Ceylon, and names like Mooyart, Holst, Van Sendan, Van der Spar, Rosemale Cocq, and Toussaint are mentioned in this article.

The picture also shows the elegant figure of a bearer of refreshments, probably of mixed Javanese and Indian descent.

The Dress

The costumes of the participants are depicted in bright colours and is a topic that would warrant further detailed analysis in the future,

The Dutch Governor wears a black Three cornered hat and is the only figure wearing one. The Dutch Council members wear Blue, Black or Red coats, with Gold Braid, White stockings and Shoes.

The native Mudaliyar facing the picture is seen wearing a coat, a ceremonial Kastane sword and sash, a ceremonial hat in his left hand and bare feet. The hair is kept in place with a horse shoe shaped comb. ( Nemi Panawa).

The Kandyan ambassadors are seen wearing a red hat embroidered in gold and crowned with a tassel ( Borale) in gold. The jackets are in white except the one away from the Governor. They wear elaborate gold necklaces and pendants ( Mala Padakkam). The sleeves extend half way down the arms. A white muslin Mante (Tippet) protects the jacket from soiled by the oiled hair. The feet are not shown but probably went unshod.

The Place

The scene takes place at the large audience hall of the Dutch Government House. This now forms part of St Peter’s Church . The building then included the Oriental Hotel on one side and the General Treasury on the other.

The walls have three large mirrors in ornate frames and a number of small mirrors which would have amplified the light from  the magnificent chandelier and the 3 hanging lanterns. On the walls are two pictures with oriental scenes and another over the door depicting a Dutch village.

The table is covered with a white cloth with frills along the sides and a red cloth with elaborate white corners.

On the table top are small spittoons and a large silvered one in the foreground near the Governor. This suggests that chewing betel was common at the time.

The Rug on the ground is designed in red blue and white with a border, laid on a red carpet.

The Logistics

The three Kandyan chiefs were accompanied by a retinue of 552 people including 42 Modliars, 4 Korales, 46 Araatjes, 28 vidanes, 74 appuhamys , 15 appo’s and 6 clerks. In addition there  were three Vedaralas, sundry staff like messengers, laundrymen, and service providers. It appears that everyone was on the bandwagon and  pales into insignificance the entourage that accompanies the present day politicians on jaunts abroad .

Louis Coerea was the caterer and purveyor to the embassy. 266 Bushels of rice, maldive fish. Karawadu, Tobacco, and betel with total bill amounting to 273 Rix Dollars. Business and political privilege going hand in hand is not new.

Other Similar Paintings

Sir Paul E Pieris presented a large oil painting to the Colombo Museum depicting the same scene. This was a painting that Sir Alexander Johnstone had taken with him to England and presented to the Royal Asiatic Society. It is thought to be a copy of the original in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The Johnstone painting has a citation which incorrectly dates it as 1766. Later research has shown that the 1766 embassy consisted of five Kandyan Chieftans and not three. Further Reimer arrived only in 1768 , two years after. The Johnstone painting is in the Dutch Museum in Colombo.

Another 19th century copy , a water colour by an unknown artist is in the SriLanka Archives but varies in detail from the original, in the Rijksmuseum.

The Owners

It may be the lack of an exact copy that prompted Leslie de Saram to commission a Dutch Artist, Ina Schoh  to visit the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 1938 and provide an exact copy of the original..

At the back of the painting is inscribed Copie Door INA SCHOH 1938.

It is not out of place to digress and provide a profile of Leslie William Fredrik de Saram. He was an important figure at the time: well known as a lawyer, collector and philanthropist. He was the senior partner of the oldest law firm in Ceylon founded by his grandfather F J de Saram snr in 1841.

His parents were F J de Saram jnr and Maud Nell. He was born in 1877 and died in Canberra in 1961.

His Colombo residence was called “ Brentham”. This was purchased by the Australian Government and housed the Australian High Commission for many years. It is now the property of a business tycoon in SriLanka. The historic Tudor style mansion is no more.

Leslie was a connoisseur of Art, Books and Furniture and coins.

In 1942 during the second world war Dr R L Hayman founded St Thomas’ College Gurutalawa on land and building donated by Mr and Mrs Leslie de Saram. The property called “Orange Farm” consisted of 45 acres and a number of buildings. When a plaque was set up the de Sarams did not want their name on it choosing to be known as well wishers.

He was also a generous donor to the Peradeniya University. The donation amounting to 1384 items including Dutch period furniture and his collection of books was the largest donation at the time. The books were catalogued by M A Gunapala of the Peradeniya library .

He donated his collection of coins including rare Greek Gold coins to the University Library in Colombo.

The provenance or the line of ownership of a painting adds value and provide another dimension to any work of art.

When Leslie de Saram decided to leave Ceylon, the well known architect Geoffrey Bawa purchased this painting. He would have long admired it as it appears to be the only painting that he purchased from Leslie de Saram. Geoffrey Bawa is a household name in Sri Lanka and does need any further description.

Geoffrey Bawa ….  (

 The next in the chain was Dr R K (Rajpal) de Silva the expert on Dutch and British Period Paintings of SriLanka. The older generation of members of the Ceylon Society may remember him for his presentations to the Society on his visits to Sydney and Melbourne.

At that point he was preparing his book the “Illustrations and Views of Dutch Ceylon 1602-1796. “This was the best out of a number of books that he produced. They were outstanding examples of scholarship , brilliantly presented. He chose this painting as the one to go on the cover of his book. While admiring this painting in his house in London, some years ago he remarked that he had to part with “an arm and a leg “to purchase it from Geoffrey Bawa.

Like most works of art, owners are only temporary custodians.

While the original painted in 1772 lies deep in the stores of the Rijksmuseum, away from view, it is heartening to note that an exact copy by a professional artist is available to view and admire.

Further reading

Dr R K de Silva: Illustrations and Views of Dutch Ceylon 1602-1796Pages 275-279

P E Pieris: “A Dutch Painting 1766. “ JRAS CB, vol 38, no 105. 1948

J H O Paulusz: Dutch Painting of Kandyan Embassy. JRAS CB, 1953 vol 3, no 1 pp. 70-71.



Filed under accountability, art & allure bewitching, authoritarian regimes, cultural transmission, ethnicity, governance, historical interpretation, Kandyan kingdom, landscape wondrous, life stories, paintings, politIcal discourse, sri lankan society, unusual people

4 responses to “The Tales around a Painting: The Kandyan Ambassadors’ Audience in Dutch Colombo, 1772

  1. The painting in the Rijksmuseum is a watercolour measuring 43 x 28cm. Details here:

  2. K. K. De Silva

    An informative, interesting & in depth presentation. The use of spitoons today would be considered an embarrassment, but has been acceptable at the highest levels then . Every ancestral house in Sri Lanka will probably possess one or more.

  3. Where is the copy now?

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