François Valentijn’s Description of Ceylon

Thiru Arumugam in The Ceylankan Vol 26/3, August 2023, where  the title reads “François Valentijn wrote a 462 page ‘Description of Ceylon’ 300 years ago … Part 2” ……… Part 1 having appeared in The Ceylankan J 102 Vol 26(2) May 2023, pp 24-25. …..  also by Thiru Arumugam

First and Second Chapters [Geography] For his sources of information about the geography and history of Ceylon up to the Portugueseperiod, Valentijn relies on the Portuguese writer Diogo do Couto’s Ceylon section of his books Decadas da Asia (Decades of Asia)5. Couto was Chief Keeper of the Records in Goa from 1595 to 1616. Goa was the Asian headquarters of the Portuguese. Valentijn also took information from the Dutch writer Father Philippus Baldeus6, who lived in Jaffna from about 1656 to 1665. For the description of the interior of Ceylon he relies on Robert Knox7, as the Portuguese and Dutch had limited access to these areas. There was a pirated Dutch translation of Knox’s book by S de Vries published in Utrecht in 1692 and Valentijn would have used this translation. Valentijn plagiarised freely, sometimes copying entire sections from these books. In those halcyon pre-copyright days, the printed word was considered public property!

As regards the ancient name of the country Taprobana, although he quotes writers who place this name for the island of Sumatra, he agrees with Ptolemy who places it opposite Cape Comori (Cape Comorin, the southern tip of India) and it must therefore refer to Ceylon. The in- habitants call the country Langkauwn [Lankava] “which some say means the world, others that it means Paradise8”. (For 124 alternative names for Ceylon see M Asoka T De Silva’s comprehensive article in the May 2022 issue of this Journal).

The island is divided into six kingdoms and the names of these are: Candi [Kandy], Cotta [Kotte], Sitavaca [Sitawaka], Dambadan [Dam- badeniya], Amorayapoere [Anuradhapura], and Jaffanapattam [Jaffna]. The land in the interioris divided into 34 Corles [Korales] or Districts which are named. Besides these large Districts there are 33 smaller districts. The names of important cities are also given.

Valentijn then proceeds on a geographi- cal tour of the island starting from Galle which he describes as a neat city with beautiful houses and gardens and is half the size of Batavia, the Dutch regional capital. There are underwater rocks in the sea approach to the harbour (Fig. 4) and all ships have to use a local pilot. From Galle he proceeds north along the coast passing Gintota, Bentota and then Kalutara which has a fort with earth walls. Proceeding further north one comes to Galkissa [Mount Lavinia] and then to Colombo.

 Figure 4 – Punto de Galle (Harbour)

 This beautiful city is situated near the mouth of a river which originates near Adams Peak. At the heart of the city is a large fort which has a fine arsenal. There are many beautiful buildings in the city but the finest is the Governor’s house, which is the best in the Indies. The Dutch Governor’s res- idence in Colombo can be seen in Fig. 5. Colombo also has a fine hospital, church and orphanage. The harbour is exposed and has no protection from the monsoons.

 Figure 5 – Dutch Governor’s Residence Colombo

 North of Colombo is Mutuwaal [Mutwal] and pro- ceeding further for six hours by land is Nigombo [Negombo]. Here there is a beautiful fort with four bulwarks. Further north is Chilauw [Chilaw] and beyond that there is an island called Calpen- tyn [Kalpitiya] about five miles long and a mile broad. North of that is the village of Aripo with a small fort. The task of the troops here is to prevent unauthorised pearl fishing in the pearl banks which stretch up to Mannar.

Mannar has a fort, beautiful houses and a church. It is on an island and to the west there are shoals which lead to Ramanncoil [Rameswaram] in India where there is a famous temple. The pearl banks of Mannar were fished by the Portuguese and abandoned but the Dutch recommenced pearl fishing in 1666 with great success. Proceeding north from Mannar we pass Mantotte and finally reach Jaffnapatam [Jaffna].

In Jaffnapattam we find a great fort with four strong bulwarks and two round towers. It is much larger than the castle in Batavia and has a garrison. The city is very large and neatly built and has fine streets and beautiful buildings, a church (Fig. 6), a hospital and large residences with gardens. Offshore there are several islands such as Cays [Kayts], Delft [Nedunthivu], Mid- dleburg [Punguduthivu], Donna Clara [Anala- thivu] and Hoorn [Iranathivu].

Figure 6 – Jaffna Church

[Tangalle] which is a base for elephant hunts. When proceeding further we are back to Galle, having roamed around all the coastal places belonging to the Company [VOC], all under the authority of the Dutch Governor of Ceylon.

Valentijn then proceeds to describe the interior of the island, but not in great detail because of limited sources of information as Dutch travellers to the interior were liable to become prisoners of the King of Kandy. He does rely on Robert Knox7 for information and describes places like Candi [Kandy], Mavilganga [Mahaweli Ganga], Alauw [Alawwa], Anaragiepoer [Anuradhapura], Adams Peak, Denuaca [Denuwaka], Nilobe [Nilambe] and the difficult of access royal city of Dietlicke [Diyatilaka] where the Kandyan King Raja Sinha II held court after the abortive rebellion of 1664.

Third Chapter [Society and Nature]

This Chapter is about the inhabitants of Ceylon who are Cingalese [Sinhalese], Weddas [Ved- dahs], Moors, Malabars [Tamils], Portuguese and Dutch.

From Jaffna moving south to the mainland is the land of the Bedas [Veddahs] and following the coast is Trinquenemale [Trincomalee] which has a fort with a large garrison which serves to keep others out of this place. It has one of the most beautiful large bays in the whole of Ceylon. In this bay is the town of Cotjaar [Kottiyar]. Valen- tijn’s map of a part of the east coast can be seen in Fig. 7.

Figure 7 – Trinco and Batticaloa map

 Proceeding further south is the town of Baticaloa [Batticaloa] where a river flows into the sea. There is a large fort here with stone walls and 100 soldiers. Going south there are several villages and then the Kumboken Oye [Kumbukkan Oya] which is a day’s journey from Batticaloa and three days journey from there to Mature [Matara] which has a fort, having passed Tangale

Valentijn gives a detailed description of the cinnamon tree and the manner in which the bark is harvested. It has a double bark, the outer bark is peeled off and discarded and the inner bark, which is the real cinnamon, is peeled and dried in the sun until it dries and curls up. The real cinnamon is found nowhere else but in Ceylon and is a major source of revenue to the Dutch VOC.

The customs of the people are described and the manner of their dress. The men have long hair and wear a piece of cloth made into a jacket, or a loose coat or a cloth which they wrap around their middle, pull through under the legs and let it hang down to their feet. The women wear white skirts stitched with red or blue flowers which hangs down to their knees or lower according to their status.

Also described are the types of trees, shrubs, plants, herbs and flowers. The types of animals and birds in the island are also listed as well as the precious stones such as pearls, rubies, sapphires, topazes, garnets, emeralds, cat’s eyes and many others. The most important goods found in the country are listed as cinnamon, pep- per, cardamom, elephants and their tusks, ebony wood and precious stones.

They are ruled by a King who holds court in Dietlicki [Diyatilaka]. His revenue is very large because three times a year his subjects must bring him tribute. Next to him there are two Adigars [Chief Judges]. Each District in the kingdom is administered by a Dessave [Dissawa]. They are nobles who also have to collect the King’s income.

Fourth to Seventh Chapters [History of Ceylon to 16th century]

The fourth chapter details with the early history of Ceylon from the time of Vigea Raja [Vijaya] up to the reign of Gaja Bahu I in the second century AD. It is not clear what was the source of information for Valentijn’s early history of Ceylon but it is possible that it was the Rajavaliya. Arasaratnam says that manuscript copies of this work were available in temple libraries and both the Portuguese and the Dutch had access to it and had it translated9. Information also appears to have been taken from Diogo do Couto’s book5. This fourth chapter covers the history of Ceylon up to the second century AD.

The fifth chapter commences with the reign of Gaja Bahu I in the second century AD and continues to the seventh century and the reign of Kuda Akbo (Aggabodhi II) but at this point there is a gap of seven centuries in the nar- rative because it jumps suddenly to the fourteenth century10 and the reign of Ariacsi Chaccara- varti [Ariya Chakkaravarti] in Jaffna. The fifth chapter ends with the arrival in 1505 of Laurens D’Almeida, being the first Portuguese to arrive in Ceylon.

The sixth chapter describes the conflict between the kingdoms of Kandy and Kotte in the 15th and 16th centuries and the progressive interference by the Portuguese. In this chapter a list of 93 kings of Ceylon starting with Vijaya is given, ending with Wira Praccaram Narendra Singa [Viraparakkama Narindasiha] whose reign commenced in 1707 and was still ruling when Valentijn’s book was published. There are errors and omissions in the list. For comparison, over the same period the Culavamsa lists 182 kings, but this includes kings whose reign lasted only for a few days.

The seventh chapter describes the arrival of the Portuguese in Ceylon. In 1505 the Portu- guese Viceroy of Goa sent his son, Don Laurens D’Almeida with nine ships on an expedition to the Maldive Islands. They were, however, caught in a storm and landed in Galle. He went and met the King in Kotte and signed a treaty with him in which the King had to pay an annual tribute of 250,000 pounds of cinnamon and in return the Portuguese would give protection against enemies.

In 1518 Lopes Suaar Alvarenga the Governor of Portuguese India, arrived with 19 ships and proceeded to build a fort in Colombo. The Portuguese extended their control of the maritime areas and were interested in control of the pearl fisheries of Mannar which was achieved in 1536. In 1560 they made their first attempt to seize control of Jaffna. Their repeated attempts to seize the Kandyan kingdom were unsuccessful. Their greatest defeat was at Gannoruwa where the Portuguese soldiers were routed.

Arasaratnam considers that Valentijn’s description of the history of Ceylon from 1453 to 1658 is more factual than any that preceded him and many that succeeded him until well into the nineteenth century and that British writers on Ceylon such as Pridham and Emerson Ten- nent used him as a primary and sometimes only, source of information11.

Eighth to Tenth Chapters [Arrival of the Dutch]

The eighth chapter starts with the arrival of the Dutch in Ceylon. This chapter is based on the Journal of Admiral Joris van Spilbergen who ar- rived in two ships in Batticaloa on 29 May 1602. He proceeded to Kandy and met King Vimala Dharma Surya. He said that he had come to pur- chase cinnamon and pepper and he assured the King of full Dutch support in the wars with the Portuguese. This pleased the King who gave the Dutch permission to build a fort anywhere in the country.

The ninth chapter states that in 1612 the Dutch signed a treaty with the King of Kandyin which they agreed to help each other against enemies particularly the Portuguese. The treaty permitted the Dutch to build a fort in Kottiyar, near Trincomalee. The treaty also limited the King to sell cinnamon only to the Dutch.

The tenth chapter is based on information mainly from Baldeus6. In 1623 the Portuguese built a fort in Trincomalee on a promontory. They also built a fort in Batticaloa. They now had seven forts in Ceylon and thereby cut off all trade by the King of Kandy with other countries.

In 1638 the Dutchman Westerwold commanded a fleet of five ships and attacked the Portuguese fort in Batticaloa. Within a few hours the Portuguese surrendered and fled. Based on this success Westerwold signed a treaty on behalf of the Dutch with the King of Kandy. This treaty permitted the Dutch to trade anywhere in the country without paying duty and no other Euro- peans could trade with island. The King of Kandy was to send annually to the Dutch one or two shiploads of cinnamon, pepper, cardamon and indigo. In 1640 the Dutchman William Jacobs- zoon Coster with a fleet of three ships attacked the Portuguese fort in Galle which they overran in a few hours.

In 1642 Portugal broke away from the King of Spain. The new King of Portugal entered into a ten year peace treaty with the Netherlands and all hostilities between the two countries ceased worldwide, including in Ceylon.

Eleventh and Twelfth Chapters [Portuguese – Dutch wars]

The eleventh chapter states that Francois Ca- ron, who was the head of Dutch forces, in 1644 attacked and captured the Portuguese fort in Ne- gombo but the fort in Colombo was still held by the Portuguese. In 1646 the Dutch Commander Adrian van der Stel was surrounded by King Raja Sinha II’s forces and put to death and 688 Netherlanders taken prisoner. To resolve matters, Maatsuyker, the Dutch Governor of Ceylon wrote to Raja Sinha that the Dutch had no desire to take possession of land but all that is required is for the King to honour the treaty signed in 1638. The Dutch were prepared to hand over Negombo fort to the King provided their expenses of the war against the Portuguese were paid. The Dutch prisoners were finally released in 1649.

The twelfth chapter describes the final days of Portuguese occupation. In 1652 the ten-year truce between Portugal and the Dutch expired and hostilities resumed. Gerard Hulft (Hulftsdorp means Hulft’s village) came to Ceylon in 1655 as Commander of the forces with additional ships from Batavia. On 9 November 1655 the Portuguese fort in Colombo was first attacked. The Dutch Governor van der Meyden resumed the attack on Colombo and on 12th May 1656 he seized the city after a siege of the fort of six months.

On 10 January 1658 Rijckloff van Goens arrived with reinforcements of 450 soldiers and twelve ships and on 20 February Mannar fort with 600 Portuguese soldiers was surrounded and captured. On 01 March a siege of Jaffna fort com- menced. The fort in Kayts fell on 27 April and on 22 June 1658 Jaffna fort was captured. Thus ended about 150 years of Portuguese occupation of Ceylon. Arasaratnam’s translation of Valentijn’s book ends at this point.

Thirteenth to Seventeenth Chapters

None of these chapters has been translated by Arasaratnam. The reason given is that chapters thirteen to fifteen (211 folio pages) consist largely of reproduction of Dutch reports, memoirs and instructions (190 folio pages) and are omitted because they are available elsewhere. Many of these memoirs have been previously translated and published, e.g. Selections from the Dutch Records of the Ceylon Government, translated by E Reimers, 1927-46. The fifteenth chapter concludes with a list of Dutch Governors and Commanders in Colombo, Galle and Jaffna up to 1723.

Chapter sixteen (43 folio pages) de- scribes the traditional religions in Ceylon: Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. Valentijn’s source of information about Buddhism appears to be Sinhalese versions of Pali Buddhist literature. Places of worship are described including Adams Peak. There appears to be some confusion between Adams Peak and Mulgirigala in the Southern Province because the sketch of Adams Peak shows two distinct peaks. Buddhist vihares and devales are described and distinction made between bhikkus, kapuralas and kattadiyas. Peraheras are described as well as the Sacred Bo Tree in Anuradhapura12.

The section abut Hinduism includes a list of 65 ancient major Tamil literary works spread out over fifteen centuries, with brief notes about each of them. Hinduism is described in detail in the section of the book about Coromandel on the south-east coast of India. Islam is also dealt with in detail in other volumes of the book.

The seventeenth chapter (54 folio pages) is about Christianity in Ceylon, both Roman Catholicism and Protestant Christianity and it includes a list of Dutch pastors in Ceylon up to 1725 in Galle, Negombo, Matara, Jaffna and Colombo. Colonel Mackenzie has translated the description of indigenous religions13.

This brings us to the end of Valentijn’s 462 page ‘Description of Ceylon’. He ends with the sentence quoted below, which loosely translated means “With which we have completed the description of Ceylon in its entirety, and now proceed to the description of Malabar” [which is the south-west coast of India]…………………. “Waar mede wy de Befchryving van Ceylon in ‘t geheel bcfluyten,om nu tot de Belchryving van Malabar over te gaan”.

References (numbering continued from Part 1)

  1. English translation by Donald Ferguson is in ‘Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society’, Vol XX, No. 60, 1908.
  2. Baldeus, Philippus, ‘Description of the East Indian Countries of Malabar, Coromandel, Ceylon etc.
  3. Knox, Robert, ‘An Historical Relation of the island Ceylon, in the East Indies’, London, 1681.
  4. Arasaratnam, “Francois Valen- tijn’s Description of Ceylon”, The Hakluyt Society, London, 1978, p 101.
  5. Ibid, p
  6. Ibid, p
  7. Ibid, p
  8. Ibid, p
  9. Ibid, p

Picture credits: All pictures [other than the first] are from Valentijn’s book “Oud en Nieuw Oost-Indien”, Vol. 5, Dordrecht, 1724-26.

Thiru Arumugam       





Filed under authoritarian regimes, centre-periphery relations, Colombo and Its Spaces, Dutch colonialism, economic processes, ethnicity, heritage, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, island economy, landscape wondrous, life stories, military expenditure, politIcal discourse, sri lankan society, transport and communications, travelogue, unusual people, VOC, world events & processes

4 responses to “François Valentijn’s Description of Ceylon

  1. Mo Marikar

    What a great literary effort by Thiru. Thank you Sir.

  2. Lam Seneviratne

    The many battles between the Portuguese and the Dutch from 1602 to 1658 for the capture of Ceylon are enlightening. I now understand why the Dutch totally destroyed all the Portuguese churches.My own church St Paul’s Church, Milagiriya was built in 1848 by the British where formerly stood the Roman Catholic Church built by the Portuguese in the 16th century. It was then called Nossa Senhora dos Milagres (Our Lady of Miracles). Milagiriya is the Sinhalised name for the Portuguese word ‘milagres’, meaning miracles. There was a well next to the Church during this time which was reputed to have miraculous healing properties and the sick were brought here from all over the island to drink of it.

  3. Lam Seneviratne

    The many battles between the Portuguese and the Dutch from 1602 to 1658 for the capture of Ceylon is enlightening. I now understand why the Dutch totally destroyed all the Portuguese churches. My own church St Paul’s Church, Milagiriya was built in 1848 by the British where formerly stood the Roman Catholic Church built by the Portuguese in the 16th century. It was called Nossa Senhora dos Milagres ( Our Lady of Miracles). Milagiriya is the Sinhalised name for the Portuguese word ‘ milagres ‘, meaning miracles. There was a well next to the Church during this time which was reputed to have miraculous healing properties and the sick were brought here from all over the island to drink of it.

  4. Pingback: Placing Valentijn’s Book in Its Context | Thuppahi's Blog

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