The interesting contribution to the Sunday Times Plus on November 7, 2010 under the heading ‘Rekindling memories of the church in the valley of wolves’ compelled me to write this addendum. What attracted me was the section dealing with the archives of the Wolvendaal Church. Since I am one of the people who went through the entire archives, I wish to share my experience with the readers.
The Portuguese destroyed their own archives to prevent them falling into the hands of their enemy the Dutch. However, we are fortunate in possessing intact a wonderful archival heritage from the Dutch. The archives collection in the Dutch Reformed Church is in many aspects useful to rebuild the contemporary administrative and social order. Although now preserved in two different locations, it forms an integral part of the archives of the Dutch Central Government of coastal Sri Lanka, created between 1640 and 1796, which is now preserved in the National Archives of Sri Lanka in Colombo. Scholars have hardly used the collection of archives in the Wolvendaal Church due to lack of suitable finding aid. Nevertheless, the collection has been of immense use to genealogists in the recent past, especially the volumes dealing with baptisms, marriages and deaths.
|Pic courtesy Wolvendaal.org
The church of the ‘True Christian Reformed Religion’ in Sri Lanka is commonly called the ‘Dutch Reformed Church’. During the Dutch rule in the littoral of the island it was linked with the church organization in The Netherlands.
As a result a considerable section of the archives comprised the correspondence with its principals in The Netherlands. The church organization in The Netherlands at the time was highly influenced by the teachings of the French Theologian, Jean Calvin (1509-1564). Some contemporaries argued that it is the ‘religion of capitalism’. What attracted the Dutch was its freedom and realistic outlook on orthodox Christianity. Prof. C. R. Boxer states that “the reformed religion was the main driving force behind the dynamic Dutch commercial expansion that promoted the ‘love of gain’.”
The Dutch East India Company or the VOC established in 1602 paid no attention to the reformed religion. Profit was its main objective. The VOC charter of 1602 made no provisions for the propagation and maintenance of protestant religious institutions in the East. The Directors of the VOC were not obliged to the propagation of the light of the ‘True Christian Reformed Religion’ on the principle of ‘subordination of the church to the State’. Governor General Joan Maetsuijker in Batavia said that “the nature of the government is such that it cannot suffer two equally great controlling powers, any more than a body can endure two heads.” Accordingly, the civil power controlled that of the ecclesiastical.
The predicants or the clergy administered the church according to the tenets of Christianity and looked after the spiritual concentration of laymen. The temporal or worldly affairs, such as the administration of funds for the poor and other financial matters of the church, were entrusted to a body of laymen called ‘deacons’.
The predicants, who served under the VOC and were hand-picked out of nominees from different ‘classes’, functioned in The Netherlands and were screened by the Board of Directors as they were paid by the company. The predicants had two types of work; (a) to be concerned with the spiritual guidance and preaching for the Company officials during their long sea voyage while maintaining their discipline and morale, (b) work for the propagation of the Reformed Religion among the local inhabitants when stationed somewhere in the East. When arrived in the East they could be called at any moment to serve in a station at the Company’s wish at a very short notice. Nevertheless, capable clergymen who work hard to study and preached in the vernacular spent a long time in their stations e.g. Rev. Phillipus Baldaeus, author of ‘True and exact description of the great island of Ceylon’ served in Jaffnapatnam for eight years between 1658 and 1665.
The ‘True Christian Reformed Church’ in Sri Lanka commenced its propagation activities a few years after the capitulation of Colombo by the Dutch in 1656. Thereafter, Church Councils were established in Colombo, Galle and Jaffnapatnam and Dutch predicants were placed in charge of them. The Church Council in Colombo was the largest and had sub-stations in Negombo, Kalpitiya, Panadura, Alutgama and Kosgoda and in South India, Tutucorin. Matara was placed under the Church Council of Galle whereas Trincomalee and Batticaloa under the Jaffna Church Council.
During the period between 1656 and 1796 there were three archive-generating components under the Dutch Reformed Church functioning in Sri Lanka, namely the Church Council, the Deacons and the School Board Meeting. The Company’s policy towards the Dutch Reformed Church was remarkably distinguished by appointing a government representative called a ‘Political Commissioner’ to the Church Council in Colombo. The Dutch administration acted in the church administration through him and maintained an eagle eye on the church’s activities.
Almost 27 years ago, between March and May, in 1983, I had the privilege of reading through the Dutch Reformed Church archives with the kind permission of the then President Rev. Dunstan Thuring. My first task was to make investigations on previous examinations of this archival collection. According to Colombo consistory minutes dated 14th April, 1757 the first examination had taken place in 1757. Subsequently, Rev. J. D. Palm who had been the President of the consistory for a considerable period of time at the beginning of the 19th century had made use of the archives extensively to prepare his very comprehensive paper, ‘Dutch Church in Ceylon’ published in the Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1846/47. I am sure that Rev.
Palm may have seen a much larger collection of archives in better condition in the Wolvendaal Church than what I saw during my inspection in 1983.
I also came to know that on the recommendation of the Ceylon Historical Manuscripts Commission Mr. S. A. W. Mottau, former Senior Government Archivist too had inspected the Wolvendaal archives in 1938. This prompted me to contact Mr. Mottau at Nuwara Eliya on this subject and he was then kind enough to offer me not only his valuable instructions but also a copy of his index prepared in 1938. It is pity to state that I could not compare his index as the collection was in total disarray. Some volumes referred to in his index were missing. My efforts to trace the missing volumes ended without success.
This situation forced me to re-study the records what were available, which I started doing immediately. I thought it would be useful to classify and arrange this collection based on the universally accepted archive principle ‘provenance’. The manuscript index thus prepared by me in 1983 is still available in my personal library. A comprehensive article embodying my findings at the time with my classification scheme was published in the Sri Lanka Archives, the Journal of the Department of National Archives, vol. 1, no. 1 (1983) pp. 47-55.
Then the entire collection of the Wolvendaal Church Archives was microfilmed by the Chitrafoto microfilming division, with the generous financial assistance of the government of The Netherlands. This was done in duplicate and one copy was presented to the Dutch Reformed Church headquarters and the other was dispatched to the National Archives of the Netherlands where it is well preserved and available for readers now.