Fraternal Polyandry in Ceylon in Dutch Times

Jan Kok, Luc Bulten and Bente M. de Leede:

“Persecuted or permitted? Fraternal Polyandry in a Calvinist colony, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,” a work published by Cambridge University Press, 2022 … presented here in Thuppahi in synopsis

Abstract: Several studies assume that Calvinist Christianity severely undermined or even persecuted the practice of polyandry in the Sri Lankan areas under Dutch control. We analyze Dutch colonial policy and Church activities toward polyandry by combining ecclesiastical and legal sources. Moreover, we use the Dutch colonial administration of the Sinhalese population to estimate the prevalence of polyandry. We conclude that polyandry was far from extinct by the end of the Dutch period and we argue that the colonial government was simply not knowledgeable, interested and effective enough to persecute the practice in the rural areas under its control.


Readers of Thuppahi and Sri Lankan aficianados should note that Robert Knox provides descriptions of the polyandrous practices among the Sinhalese of the Kingdom of Sihale in the 17th century on the basis of his prolonged incarceraion in villages therein.

Likewise some readers may wish to dip into Michael Roberts, Facets of Ceylon History through the Letters of Jeronis Pieris, 2nd edn, Colombo, Bay Owl Press, 2020, pp. 31, 32, 37-38, 135-36.

They will find that Hannadige Jeronis Pieris, being from an ardent Christian family, was appalled by these long-standing practices among the Kandyan Sinhala people when he came across such patterns of life during his trading and planting days in the Kandy District.

52=Kandy Town in the Mid-19th Century An Overview

Likewise, this book devotes a modicum of space to the British assaault on these pracices via the Kandyan Marriage Ordinance of 1858. This reformative measure, strangely (or maybe not so strangely), was taken in response to requests from some members of the Kandyan aristocracy. The pronouncement essayed by the British judge Thomas Berwick in this regard is a classic of its kind; and I encourage all students of modern life in our era of capitalism to erea  … and re-read …. Berwick’s pronouncement on page 37 of this book.

A Kandyan lady depicted in Knox’s book (1681)




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4 responses to “Fraternal Polyandry in Ceylon in Dutch Times

  1. Sachi Sri Kantha

    Thanks Michael, for this information on the latest study on fraternal polyandry in Ceylon.

    To elicit additional information, I did a Google check, and found out that, last year a 25 page paper had been published by the same authors in the journal ‘Continuity and Change’ 2021; 36: 31-355. This is an Open Access paper. For those interested more details, the pdf link of this paper as follows:

  2. Ana Jung

    That is a -very- interesting paper, Sachi Sri Kantha! (I found it at ).

    I’m no historian at all (most especially not around Sri Lanka) but am given to understand the Dutch have long been known as pragmatic operators (still seen today in re: cannabis is ILLEGAL in the Nederlands…but also is regulated-n-taxed). I can vividly imagine the colonial Dutch giving a certain amount of ‘lip service’ to one-on-one-Churchly-Sanctioned Monogamy, while at the same time being…Practical.

    According to this paper’s sources, a plain gender imbalance may have been in existence; for instance in Galle in 1695, there were over 1,200 men per 1,000 women. Aside from issues of land inheritance (and being ‘pressed’ into off-premise labor ‘projects’), what could have been -more- PRAGMATIC (to avoid socioeconomic…”disorder”) of the Dutch than to turn a deliberately blind eye to polyandry?

    Say for instance, in a certain district there are 1200 men of marriage-able age, and 1000 women. And say for instance, that monogamy -was- preferred by most citizens (for whatever reason)? As the paper posits. Perhaps 800 men marry 800 women…there are then 400 men and 200 women; looks to me like a certain amount of polyandry would add to societal stability.

    In passing, I also found this quote to be Piquant: “A Portuguese captain who lived in the southwestern part of the island in the first half of the seventeenth century noted that polyandry was the ‘rule’ and that ‘a woman who is married to a husband with a large number of brothers is considered very fortunate, for all toil and cultivate for her and bring whatever they earn to the house and she lives much honored and well supported’.” 🙂

    But on the other hand, paper asserts “Tambiah also notes that relations between the brothers joined in marriage remained very formal and hierarchical, whereas their relation to their common wife was quite unemotional.” So THAT seems perhaps Less Than Optimal…

  3. A NOTE from Michael Roberts as Editor Thuppahi, 11 January 2023:
    “Thank you Ana Jung. Your comments are as illuminating as penetrating (aha… aha….).You have deployed high-flown English that is on the mark and educational as writing form.

    Coming, as I do, from within the walls of the Dutch fort of Galle, the fact that polyandry prevailed in the south-western coastal districts is news to me …. but not a surprising fact.

    Apropos of these practices one must also wonder if the infanticide of female infants was a practice as well?…. AND, jumping centuries forward, one can look critically at the crusty morality of the Western-educated Ceylonese and all Sri Lankans who sneered at the illegitimate or de facto progeny of British/European planters and officials ( for e.g. Le Mesurier) and called them “tea bushes.”
    On the latter topic: type “Braine” or “Hermon” or Blake” PLUS “Thuppahis” to locate recent items in my web site. ….. and HERE I write as a quintessential Thuppahi anda person IN-BETWEEN.

    • Ana Jung

      Why, you are most extremely kind to Say, yon Michael! I did enjoy your original post as well as SSK’s response, and wished to treat the topic respectfully.

      The author of the paper SSK references did speak of female infanticide (which topic I consciously chose to avoid) as the cause of observed gender imbalance. But perhaps the ‘missing women’ might have emigrated in search of Men-Who-Have-ACREAGE (she-says-playfully)?

      I’ve enjoyed perusing here-and-there around your blog; I -always- like Good Writing, plus is a Real Benefit to me to get out of the navel-gazing USA news cycle, even if just for a bit of time. I intend to read more about Kandy, after noting that its central location in Sri Lanka allowed it to remain independent until 1815, yes? “Niiiiice!”

      Your suggestion re: having a look-see around topic ‘tea bushes’ (Braine/Hermon/Blake) is gratefully acknowledged.

      Cheerful Regards,


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