François Valentijn’s Book on Ceylon in 1724-26

Thiru Arumugam, in The CEYLANKAN, 2023, where the heading runs thus: “François Valentijn wrote a 462 page ‘Description of Ceylon’ 300 years ago” 

Part 1: Francois Valentijn (1666–1727), Fig. 1, was a Dutch Calvinist Minister employed by the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie or VOC) which established its Asian base in Batavia, which is present day Jakarta in Indonesia. Between 1724 and 1726 he published a book in Dutch titled Oud en Nieuw Oost-Indien1 (Old and New East Indies) which was in five volumes and eight books in all. The book describes various countries including Ceylon. His description of Ceylon is in Volume 5 and is 462 pages long. The interesting point is that he never set foot in Ceylon!

D98PE4 Ds. Francois Valentijn, famous for his voluminous work on the Dutch East India Company, a clever compilation from essays or studies, written by others. His book contains a lengthy chapter under the heading ‘Descriptions of the Cape of Good Hope’, 1726.


Valentijn was born on 17 April 1666 in Dordrecht, Holland. He entered the University of Leiden at the age of sixteen where he studied theology. In 1684 at the age of eighteen he qualified as a Minister of the Reformed Church and was appointed as a Minister in the service of the Dutch East India Company and was posted to the parish of Victoria Castle in Amboina which is part of the Molucca Islands in present day Indonesia. He sailed from Holland on 13 May 1685 and arrived in Batavia on 30 December 1685.

In Batavia he met many Dutch residents including Rijckloff van Goens Jnr, who was previously the Dutch Governor of Ceylon from 1675 to 1679 and was now a Councillor in Batavia. His father, also called Rijckloff van Goens, was Governor of Ceylon in 1660/1, 1663 and again from 1665 to 1675. It is very likely that Valentijn’s meetings with Rijckloff van Goens Jnr sparked off his interest in Ceylon. Valentijn left Batavia at the end of February and arrived in Amboina on 30 April 1686.

Valentijn settled down to his duties in Amboina. He started learning Malay and within three months he was able to deliver a sermon in Malay. A few months later he started translating the Bible into Malay. In 1692 he married Cornelia Snaats. She was the widow of a wealthy Dutch businessman who owned many ships which Cornelia inherited. She had four children from her previous marriage and the new couple in due course had two more children. The marriage was a big boost to Valentijn’s ambitions as he now had financial independence as well as research assistance from Cornelia in his translation of the Bible as she was very fluent in Malay. By 1694 his contract of service with the VOC had expired and he decided to return to the Netherlands, arriving there with his family on 24 August 1695.

He spent his time in Holland completing his Malay translation of the Bible. The Church authorities were not interested in publishing it because they said that it was in ‘low’ or colloquial Malay whereas they preferred a translation in ‘high’ or literary Malay. He was unable to convince the authorities that ‘low’ Malay was understood by all whereas only a few would understand ‘high’ Malay.

He decided to return to the East Indies and he arrived in Batavia with his family on 27 December 1705. He was posted as an Army Chaplain and left with the troops to East Java on 22 June 1706. It was a difficult expedition with the army constantly on the move. He fell seriously ill with dysentery and had to return to Batavia a few months later. In March 1707 he was posted back to his former station of Victoria Castle in Amboina. He worked there until 1713, all the time collecting material for his proposed book about the East Indies which was going to be his magnum opus. In 1713 he decided to return to Holland with his family, arriving there on 04 August 1714.

He settled in his birthplace of Dordrecht and immediately started work on the manuscript in Dutch of Old and new East Indies. The first part was published in 1724 and the eighth part came out in 1726. It is in five volumes (eight books). In total there are 4631 pages and over 1500 illustrations. Valentijn took selected territories and described the lands, cities, ports, customs of the people, trees, products, land and sea animals, and secular and religious matters from earliest times to the present with illustrations and maps. The territories covered include Molucca islands, Celebes, Amboina, Banda, Timor, Solor, Macassar, Borneo, Bali, Tonkin, Cambodia, Siam, Java, Surat, China, Formosa, Coromandel, Persia, Malacca, Sumatra, Ceylon, Malabar coast, Japan, Cape of Good Hope and Mauritius.

It must be noted that out of the territories described, Valentijn had only been to Amboina, Banda, Java, Cape of Good Hope and Batavia. For all other territories, including Ceylon, he relied on existing travel descriptions, material from the VOC’s papers including Governor’s reports and information from those who had been to those territories. In the case of Ceylon he acknowledges information from Adam van der Duyn, Cornelis Joan Simmonsz (Dutch Governor of Ceylon 1703-1707) and Rijckloff van Goen (father and son, both Dutch Governors of Ceylon)). 2200 copies of the books were printed and sold out in advance but the books were never reprinted. His Malay translation of the Bible was never published. He died on 06 August 1727 and was buried in Dordrecht.

Valentijn’s description of Ceylon was a closed book to those studying Ceylon history, except for the very few who were fluent in Dutch. The situation changed in 1978 when Professor Sinnappah Arasaratnam published his book “Francois Valentijn’s Description of Ceylon2in which he translated and edited the first twelve of the seventeen chapters of Valentijn’s description of Ceylon. Arasaratnam’s book is a prime source of information for this article. As Arasaratnam says3:

It is only in the 20th century when Ceylon produced their own historians, desiring to know of their past heritage, that Valentijn was rediscovered and subjected to a closer examination as a source book on the 16th and 17th centuries. Today no scholar researching on that period can afford to ignore the documents and the commentaries of Valentijn.

The Publishers of Arasaratnam’s book, The Hakluyt Society, London, have this comment: “The volume now published with an introduction and explanatory notes is many things for many people: a geographer’s manual, a naturalist’s handbook, an anthropologist’s collection of caste and custom, an antiquarian’s record of tradition and a chronicler’s narrative of history. One of the most informative writings on Ceylon is made available, for the first time, to the English-reading public.”

 The Translator: Professor Sinnappah Arasaratnam

Sinnappah Arasaratnam (1930-1998) was born in Navaly, near Jaffna Town. His schooling was at Jaffna College and in 1947 he entered the University of Ceylon in Colombo. He graduated with a First Class Honours degree in History in 1951 and was appointed Assistant Lecturer in the same University. In 1954 he proceeded to the University of London for post-graduate studies in History. He was awarded a PhD in 1956 for a dissertation titled “Dutch Power in Ceylon 1658-1687” and returned to the University of Ceylon and was promoted to the post of Lecturer. In 1961 accepted the offer of the post of Lecturer in the University of Malaya and in 1968 he was promoted to the post of Professor.

When he was in the University of Malaya he decided to publish an English translation of the Ceylon section of Francois Valentijn’s Dutch book ‘Oud en Nieuw Oost-Indien’. He contacted the Hakluyt Society in London and they agreed to publish his translation. The Hakluyt Society was founded in 1846 and publishes records of voyages, travels and other geographical matter. It is named after Richard Hakluyt (1552-1616) a collector and editor of narratives of voyages. To date, the Society has published over 200 editions. In 1955 the Society agreed to publish the second edition of Robert Knox’s Historical Relation of Ceylon by J H O Paulusz, but withdrew the offer in the 1970s when they found that progress by the writer was slow.

Before Arasaratnam could make substantial progress in the translation of the Dutch book, he moved to the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales, Australia in 1973 as Professor of History and this disrupted progress in the translation. Work on the book had to take third place after teaching and administrative tasks. Arasaratnam’s book Francois Valentijn’s Description of Ceylon was finally published in 1978.

Arasaratnam retired in 1995 and passed away suddenly in 1998. Associate Professor Don Beer has this to say about Arasaratnam’s 22 year stay in the University of New England4:

“Arasa was the ideal academic. He was an outstanding scholar. He wrote 15 books and 93 articles/chapters, an astonishing corpus of high-quality work that is the more remarkable for the fact that most of it was produced while he was heavily engaged in other activities. His distinction in this respect was shown by the prestigious international invitations and other honours he received regularly in his lifetime. Of these the most notable was the Smuts Fellowship in Commonwealth Studies, Cambridge, the highest honour available to a scholar in his field, which he held in 1977.

Arasa also took his teaching seriously. He was not flamboyant, but he had a way of inspiring students, who seemed to have responded to his personality – the gentle and dignified manner, the humility with which he carried his immense learning, his lack of pretension, his helpfulness and consideration. Many former students remember him with deep affection and respect.

The translated Text of Valentijn’s book

The Ceylon section of Valentijn’s Dutch book has 17 Chapters and 462 pages and includes 31 illustrations and has a large fold out map of Ceylon about 18 in by 14 in. (Fig. 2). The translation of the caption on the top of the map is “New Map of the Island Ceylon drawn by Francois Valentyn”. There are similarities between this map and the 1692 Dutch map of Ceylon which is on the front cover of the May 2022 issue of this Journal. However, Valentijn’s map has more details in place names and has the boundaries of Korales marked out and also shows Rameswaram island in South India. During the governorship of Rijckloff van Goens Jnr efforts were made by the Dutch to map Dutch held territory in Ceylon and this information was available to Valentijn.

The first page of the text of the Ceylon section of Valentijn’s book is reproduced as Fig. 3. The translation of the large Dutch words on top is: “Description of the Island Ceylon. Eighth Book. First Chapter.”.                       

The Introductory section is titled “Names of the Native Officers in the Villages of Ceylon”. The Corale [Korala] is an Overseer of a Corle [Korale] who has under him several deputies Attacoreleas [Atukoralas] who have under them soldiers and messengers. The Cariecoranno [Kariyakaranno] is the chief of a village. Valentijn then goes on to describe various officials starting with Lianno [Liyanna] the writer who records everything including the quantities of grain harvests.

Valentijn then describes the caste system starting with the Caraeuw [Karava] caste. Among them they have Modeljaars [Mudaliyars], Mohamdirens [Muhandirams] and Araatsjes [Arachchis]. This caste has nine divisions, ranging from Caraeuw to Indimal-Keulo [Indimal Kevulu] and each of them have their own modes of fishing to which they are restricted.

He then describes the toddy tapper caste which has ten divisions going from Doerawo [Duravo] to Agoenmady [Agunmady]. The Goy [Goyigama] caste has four main divisions. They are Bandares [Bandara] or Adassing [Adahasin] who are counts, princes and courtiers; Mantrioenoe [Mantriunne] who are counsellors in the court; Maendellyperoe [Mudali peruva] who are Mudaliyars, Adigars and Dissaves and in the military; and Goyperoe [Goviya peruva] who are in the military or are cultivators.

He then proceeds to give detailed descriptions of the various other castes such as wood cutters, tom-tom beaters, smiths, silversmiths, carpenters, turners, engravers, cabinet makers, stone cutters, painters, tailors, shoemakers, barbers, potters, cinnamon peelers, plasterers, washers, musicians, dancers and so on. His information about these castes and sub-castes three hundred years ago is considered very valuable as many of them do not exist nowadays as caste divisions.


  1. Valentijn, Francois. “Oud en Nieuw Oost-Indien”, 5 Vols. In 8 books, Dordrecht, 1724-26.
  2. Arasaratnam, Sinnappah. “Francois Valentijn’s Description of Ceylon”, The Hakluyt Society, London, 1978.
  3. Arasaratnam, pp 56/7.
  4. Don Beer in ‘Obituary, Emeritus Professor Sinappah Arasaratnam’, University of New England Newsletter, Vol. 13, No. 19, 23 October 1998.

Picture credits:   Fig. 1 is courtesy of Alamy, Fig. 2 and 3 are from Valentijn’s book“Oud en Nieuw Oost-Indien”, Vol. 5, Dordrecht, 1724-26.

 …………………  To be continued in the next issue of The CEYLANKAN

Leave a comment

Filed under authoritarian regimes, centre-periphery relations, cultural transmission, Dutch colonialism, economic processes, ethnicity, European history, governance, heritage, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, landscape wondrous, life stories, literary achievements, politIcal discourse, Portuguese in Indian Ocean, power politics, religiosity, sri lankan society, transport and communications, world events & processes

Leave a Reply