Early Reformed Missions in Ceylon

Palm trees swayed gently against the delft-blue tropical sky as the Dutch admiral, Joris Van Spilbergen, on the 31st May 1602, stepped ashore on the island of Ceylon. He was not the first Christian to set foot on Ceylon soil. Tradition traces the beginning of Christianity in Ceylon back to Apostolic times. The existence of a Christian Church in Ceylon during the sixth century is an established fact, and the stone cross which was discovered recently among the ruins at Anuradhapura witnesses to the early presence of Christianity on the island. However, when the Portuguese Roman Catholics arrived in 1518, seeking “cinnamon and souls,” they found that Christianity had completely disappeared from the island, and no Church had existed in Ceylon for many centuries. During the sixteenth century. Catholic missionaries initiated the spread of Catholicism in Ceylon, and they did this in the manner of pioneers. The significance, therefore, of the arrival of Van Spilbergen and the Hollanders in 1602, consisted in the fact that they were the first Protestants to set foot on the island, and with them began the period in which Protestant missions to the Ceylonese people had their beginning.

Van Spilbergen and the Hollanders who came after him were employed by the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or the United East India Company, which was organized in 1602. This commercial enterprise was granted a patent from the States General of the Netherlands which gave the Company the monopoly of trade with the East. The affairs of the Company were directed in Holland by the Assembly of Seventeen, which represented the local assemblies, called Chambers, of Holland’s chief ports. These were the Chambers of Amsterdam, of Zealand, of Delft, of Rotterdam, of Hoorn, and of Enkhuizen. The directors were known as the Lords Seventeen, and the initials V.O.C. appeared on coins, documents, and churches, as the insignia of the Company.

In the East, the seat of government was at Batavia. The Governor General resided at Batavia, and together with his council he exercised authority like that of a king over the affairs of the Company overseas. The government of Ceylon was under the headquarters at Batavia. When the Dutch eventually established themselves on the island, a Governor was assigned to Ceylon, with the full title of “Councillor Extraordinary of Netherlands India and the Governor and Director of the Island of Ceylon with its Dependencies.”

The United East India Company was a commercial enterprise, and throughout its history the Company remained faithful to its purpose of obtaining commerce, trade, and profit from its dealings in the East. Its patent from the government of Holland allowed the Company to enter into treaties with Indian princes, to wage war, and to build fortresses, to enroll soldiers, and to appoint officers and commanders. The Company, for all practical purposes, played the role of a sovereign state internally, by governing the territories which it occupied, and externally, in negotiations with foreign governments. There were five classes of Company servants, divided according to their functions, viz., Political, Ecclesiastical, Vaval, Military, and Artizan. All employees of the Company were obliged to take the cath of allegiance to the States General. The clergy of the Reformed Church controlled by the East India Company were regarded as Company employees, and the work which they carried on was under the general supervision of the Company’s administration.

The Reformed Church in Holland was hopeful that the military and commercial ventures of the East India Company would provide the opportunity for the establishment of the Reformed faith in Eastern countries. For this purpose, Reformed ministers accompanied the Dutch Beets in their various expeditions, and as soon as a place was conquered a Reformed minister was located there in order to establish the Reformed Church among both the Europeans and natives. There was a strong hope, as one of the Classes in Holland expressed ‘it, that “God may make instrumental the conquests of Netherlands’ arms to the extension of His name and kingdom among benighted nations.”



For one hundred fifty years the East India Company controlled large sections of Ceylon, and as the principal government in power, the Company gave to the Reformed Church the exclusive right to propagate the Reformed faith on the island. During this period, the Reformed Church of the Netherlands had an unparalleled opportunity to turn an Asian nation to the Christian faith.

In a number of ways the prospects seemed extremely good for the rapid spread of Protestant Christianity. When in 1602 Admiral Van Spilbergen travelled to Kandy to visit the Ceylonese monarch, Vimala Dharma Suriya, he found that the king had been educated and baptized by the Portuguese. The king, who had received the Christian name of Don Joan, gave a royal welcome to Van Spilbergen. When the Kandyan inquired of Van Spilbergen concerning the religion of the Hollanders, the latter replied that the faith which they professed differed in certain points from that of the Portuguese. Despite his Catholic background, Don Joan’s reaction was favorable. Pointing to his palace and city, the monarch replied: “All this has God given me.” Had Don Joan’s Catholicism been more staunch, he might have put an immediate end to the Hollanders’ adventures on the island. But instead, the king continued to show great friendliness toward the Dutch, and promised them his cooperation in driving out the Portuguese. The Ceylonese monarch’s friendly attitude could . have proved a decisive factor in the propagation of the Christian faith throughout Ceylon.

Negotiations between the Dutch and the Sinhalese continued during the years which followed. Things did not always go smoothly. A few years after Van Spilbergen’s first meeting with Don Joan, Sebald De Weerd, a Vice-Admiral of the United East India Company. was murdered by the Sinhalese. The Company chose to ignore this incident for the sake of continued trade negotiations. In 1612, Marcellus de Boschouwer arrived in Ceylon and succeeded in establishing a treaty with Vimala Dharma’s successor, King Senerat. This treaty promised the Dutch the desired supply of cinnamon, and both parties agreed to fight the Portuguese. But Boschhouwer later proved disloyal to the Dutch and went over to the King of Denmark. The Danes attempted to make good on Boschhouwer’s treaty with the Ceylonese king but they failed, and for a time the Portuguese were again the only Europeans laying claim to Ceylon territory and trade.

On the 21st October 1637, Jan Thyszoon Pyaart sailed for Ceylon as the Company’s envoy to the new Kandyan monarch, Rajasingha, son and successor of King Senerat. Rajasingha had sent a letter to Karel Reyniersz, Governor of Coromandel in India, asking the Dutch to drive the Portuguese out of Ceylon in exchange for all the pepper and cinnamon they desired. The Dutch were eager to join in such an enterprise, and Pyaart was dispatched to Ceylon with the information that the Dutch would be glad to render Rajasingha the needed military assistance if he would grant them the island’s trade in spices. Rajasingha was asked to correspond with Admiral Adam Van Westerwold, who at that time was engaging the Portuguese off the coast of Goa. Rajasingha complied, Westerwold agreed to attack Batticaloa the following April. At the same time, Rajasingha was requested to have three shiploads of cinnamon ready for the Dutch to take away after Batticaloa’s capture.

The Portuguese fort at Batticaloa surrendered to the Dutch on the 18th May, after a bombardment which lasted about four hours. Rajasingha and Westerwold proceeded to sign a treaty at Batticaloa on the 23rd May 1638. The treaty contained twenty articles, most of which dealt with commercial and governmental matters. The seventeenth article, however, concerned religion, and might have proved to be extremely important for the spread of the Reformed faith. The seventeenth article read as follows: “His Majesty shall under no circumstances whatever, tolerate and entertain within His Majesty’s dominions, any priests, monks, or other clergy, the movers of all seditions and authors of the downfall of kingdoms and countries but order their immediate departure from His Majesty’s territories.” This article was evidently aimed at Roman Catholic clergy, and it gave the clergy of the Dutch Reformed Church a right to expect a free hand in converting the Roman Catholics in Ceylon to the Reformation faith and spreading that faith among the Buddhists and Hindus. While the article could not be interpreted as a ban on all non-Christian clergy, it did, nevertheless, provide a favorable basis for Protestant activity.

Prospects for the spread of the Reformed faith among the Ceylonese people continued to be encouraging during the early years of the Dutch establishment on the island, and the phenomenal growth of the Reformed Church during that period appeared to substantiate an optimistic outlook for the future. Clergymen such as Baldaeus wrote glowing reports telling of baptisms, children enrolled in Christian schools, and Sunday worshippers, numbering in the thousands. Christianity had its strongest foothold in the North, where the Portuguese missionaries had put forth their greatest efforts, and Baldaeus reported that when he left Ceylon in 1665, there were 18,000 school children receiving instruction in the Reformed faith, and more than 12,000 persons had been baptized.

The numerical strength of the Reformed Church continued to grow throughout the second half of the seventeenth century. In 1722, the Dutch clergyman, Valentyn, reported that there were 190,000 Tamil Christians in the Jaffna area, 230,000 Sinhalese Christians in the Galle District and elsewhere, making n total of approximately 420,000 baptized Christians in Ceylon. Had all these converts been true Christians, Ceylon would have been the scene of a mass movement from paganism to Christianity almost unparalleled in the history of the Church since the day of Pentecost.

But all was not well under the surface. and the Dutch clergymen became increasingly aware of this fact. The records of the Dutch, both ecclesiastical and governmental, reveal that the Dutch often had grave misgivings in regard to the sincerity of their converts. Crowds of Ceylonese had been baptized, but few attended worship services. In the year 1760, the rolls showed 182,226 baptized Tamil Christians at Jaffna, but only 64 were communicant members of the Church. Out of the 9820 baptized persons at Mannar, only five were communicants. Among the Sinhalese in Galle and Matara, there were only 36 communicant church members out of the 89,077 who had been baptized.

Rumblings of dissatisfaction began to come from Holland, where reports were being circulated which suggested that the converts in Ceylon were “sine Christo Christiani.” Already in 1700, the Classis of Amsterdam addressed a Ictter to the Consistory of Colombo, expressing concern over the state of the Reformed Church in Ceylon. Nearly fifty years later the Classis of Walcheren made a similar appeal, and for the same reasons. The breakdown of Dutch missionary strategy in Ceylon became increasingly apparent during the eighteenth century, and from every side the fear was expressed that the converts were mostly Laodiceans.

Rapid decline set in from about the year 1750. Disappointments multiplied and led to despair, and gradually the Reformed Church began to restrict its missionary outreach among tho Ceylonese. The Danish Lutheran mission at Tranquebar was invited to lend assistance by supplying the Dutch with types and printers, by educating young men for the ministry in Ceylon, and by sending Danish clergy to assist in the declining labours of the Dutch. The exact number of professing Christians on the island during the latter part of the eighteenth century and at the time of capitulation, is uncertain, since the Consistory Records are significantly silent after 1760. The evidence indicates, however, that the latter half of the eighteenth century witnessed a rapid decline in the numerical as well as the spiritual strength of the Reformed Church in Ceylon. When the British seized control of the island in 1796, the task of Christian missions in Ceylon had to begin afresh.

Fifty years after the transfer of government from the Dutch to the British Sir James Emerson Tennent wrote:

Even in the midst of their own ministrations, the clergy and missionaries of the Reformed Church of Holland were overtaken by discouragement; and it is a remarkable fact, that notwithstanding the multitudinous baptisms, and the hundreds of thousands of Singhalese who were enrolled by them as converts, the religion and discipline of the Dutch Presbyterians is now almost extinct amongst the natives of Ceylon. Even in Jaffna, where the reception of these doctrines was all but unanimous by the Tamils, not a single congregation is now in existence of the many planted by Baldaeus, and tended by the labours of Valentyn and Schwartz; and in Colombo and throughout the maritime provinces there arc not at this moment fifty native Singhalese, even amongst the aged and infirm, who still profess the Conn of religion so authoritatively established and so anxiously propounded by the Dutch.

The bitter frustration which many of the Dutch clergymen must have felt when they saw the shallow results of more than a century of missionary endeavor, is described by Tennent, as follows:

Towards the close of their career, the Dutch clergy had painful experience of this pernicious result (apostasy), and their lamentations became more frequent over the relapses of their converts, first into the errors of popery, and finally into the darkness of heatherism At length, in apparent despondency, and ill painful anticipation of defeat, instead of altering the system on which they had discovered that they could no longer rely, they merely contracted their missionary operations to the narrowest possible limits; cast upon others the labour in which they were no longer hopeful of success; and, at the final close of their ministrations, the clergy of the Church of Holland left behind a superstructure of Christianity prodigious in its outward dimensions, but so internally unsound as to be distrusted even by those who had been instrumental in its erection, and so lInsubstantial that it has long since disappeared almost from the memory of the natives of Ceylon.

The same picture is given in the work by H. Newcomb, A Cyclopedia of Missions. The opinion is expressed that when the Baptist, Methodist, and Congregationalist missionaries began to arrive in Ceylon in the early nineteenth century, their task was to reestablish Christianity on the island, the misSionary enterprise of the Dutch having largely disappeared.

As the various criticisms levelled against the Dutch Reformed missions are examined, it will be observed that not all of the criticisms are equally just and some have been exaggerated. The Dutch were children of their times, and they cannot be condemned on the basis of the more advanced missionary standards of a later generation. Moreover, it must be kept in mind that many of the British missionaries, in their reporting to the churches in England, may have been overly anxious to portray their work as “pioneer” missions in the full sense, and for this reason they reported most of the weaknesses and few of the benefits of their predecessor’s labors on the island.

But on the other hand, even when these concessions are granted, an adequate explanation needs to be given as to the cause of the obvious failure of the Reformed Church to establish a strong indigenous church in Ceylon during the long period of Dutch occupation. The empty pulpits, the gaping doors and windows, the crumbling church edifices: they are there today (or all to see, like ghosts crying to know the cause of their death. A walk through these empty buildings, a view of the rotting timbers, and the sight of goats now housed where once the Word of God was preached, leaves the person who loves the Reformed faith and missions, and the Ceylonese people, with a haunting desire to know the reasons why Reformed missions largely failed during the Dutch occupation of Ceylon.

In this series of historical studies, we will attempt to uncover the basic difficulties which confronted the Dutch pastors and missionaries in Ceylon. We believe that such an investigation will provide at least some small contribution to Reformed missions today.

Last month Prof. Greenway of the Juan Calvino Seminary in Mexico City presented his informative article on the antithesis between “old” and “new” missions, reminding the readers of the centrality of preaching the gospel of our Lord. Now against the background of his service as missionary in Ceylon he draws attention to the history of missions on that island and inquires into the causes for its tragic record. Such a study should be of deep interest to all who love the Christian faith and seek to propagate it throughout the world.