Colombo Dutch Museum – කොලඹ ඕලන්ද කෞතුකාගාරය

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Sri Lanka is the only country in the world which commemorates the Dutch interval in her history (1656-1796) by founding a Dutch Period Museum.

The higher officials of the VOC ( the Dutch East-India Company) resided in the Fort, which was also called Castle ( Casteel). The rest of  the personnel and Burghers who had settled down as traders, lived in the old part of the city (Oude Stad), nowadays called Pettah. The typical shady, wide avenues are no longer there. It was compulsory for house owners to plant trees and to water them. Transgressors were fined.


The English medical doctor Ives, who visited Colombo in 1757, wrote: “The streets are very wide with a row of beautiful trees. On each side between them and the houses is a very smooth and regular pavement. The whole is so elegantly disposed that we could not help admiring the wisdom and the genius of the Dutch”.

Pettah now is an untidy bazaar with narrow streets, where traffic passes with great difficulty. Some streets still carry there old names: Maliban, Leynbaan, Keizer-, Dam- and Prince Street. In the last mentioned street, named by the VOC after the son of King Raja Sinha, an imposing building with eight columns is completely out of tune. This former residence of Governor Van Rhee (1692 – 1697) is typical for Dutch colonial architecture: high rooms with a gallery of columns for the sake of coolness.

Over the centuries the building had been used for different purposes. From 1696 till 1796 it was a training institute for clergyman and schoolmasters. This is indicated by an inscription above the entrance,quoting Psalm 127: Nisi Juehova aedificet domum, frustra laborant aedificatores (unless God builds the house, the workers toil in vain).

The orphanage of Colombo was probably housed in this building. It functioned under the supervision of deacons and was partly financed by the VOC and partly by private donations. Combats of the English with Kandy in 1803 caused many victims and created a demand for hospitals.

The building in Prince Street lost its educational destination and served as a hospital. In the second half of the 19th century it was used as a barrack and in 1900 the Burgher Altendorf established here his police training school. Since 1932 Pettah post-office had been housed here. During the monsoon rains in 1971 one of the sidewalls collapsed and the building had to be evacuated. The question arose what to do with the premises. There was a suggestion to demolish it and to replace it by a business building.

The Royal Asiatic Society and the DBU ( Dutch Burgher Union) had already suggested that the former orphanage should be restored as a museum for the Dutch Period. The government at the time was not unwilling. It took, however, another 40 years before the renovation could start. The Ceylonese government had to give priority to more urgent matters than to the restoration of a building from the Dutch Period.

In 1973 a committee was appointed, composed of representatives of the Ceylon Tourist Board and of the Archeological Department, of which Roland Silva – who later was awarded a doctorate by the University of Leiden – was the Director. The NAAL (Netherlands Alumni Association)  and the National Archives too joined the committee. The Counsel-General of The Netherlands in Sri Lanka, Mallory Wijesinghe, who looked after Dutch interests in the absence of an embassy and in that  function contributed much to good relations between the two countries, was also a Committee member. Ashley de Vos declared himself willing to serve as the Hon. Architect. Click here for the proposed layout of the Dutch Period Museum.

In 1971  NAAL was established at the initiative of  NUFFIC (Netherlands Universities Foundation For International Co-operation). NAAL proved to be interested in cultural projects including the DPM restoration. The restoration committee in Colombo approached the pioneer of Netherlands Alumni Associations, Evert Jongens at NUFFIC in The Hague for financial support.

The official opening of the Dutch Period Museum took place on 10 July 1982. At the initiative of  Evert Jongens in 1976 the Netherlands-Sri Lanka Foundation was established in order to raise funds for the restoration project. It was not an easy task. Thirty years ago  interest in the VOC in The Netherlands was very small indeed. Many Dutchmen did not wish to be reminded of their colonial past.

How different was the situation in 2002 ! On the 20th of March, exactly the day on which 400 years ago the VOC was founded,  a solemn session was held in the Ridderzaal (Hall of Knights) at The Hague.  The ceremony, attended by members of the Royal Family, the Presidents of the House of Representatives and Senate, the Prime Minister, several other Ministers and Members of Parliament, was telecast live.

It is a pity that so few  tourists during their stay in Colombo make an effort to visit the interesting Dutch Period Museum. From the Fort Railway Station it is less than 10 minutes walking to the busy PrinceStreet, where at number 96 the Dutch Period Museum is open for visitors, daily, except on  Fridays. Click here for a map.

Also See

Map of  Colombo Dutch Period Museum

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Travel Directions to Colombo Dutch Period Museum

Distance from Galle Face Roundabout  to the  Colombo Dutch Period Museum
Distance :  3.0 m
Travel time : 15 min
Driving directions : see on google map


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