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Philip Baldaeus Didn’t See a Big Ethnic Difference in Ceylon

| by Laksiri Fernando

( October  13, 2013, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) Both Robert Knox and Philip Baldaeus are important in studying and understanding the history, people and culture of Ceylon in the 17th century, with possible insights for today, but the scholars have so far given less attention to Baldaeus than to Knox for various reasons. Baldaeus was a Protestant Priest who came to the country as a missionary when the Dutch were taking over the Maritime Provinces from the Portuguese. He probably came to Ceylon in 1657 and left the country in 1665. In between, he was also in Malabar and Coromandel for missionary work.

His “A Description of the Great and Most Famous Isle of Ceylon,” of 162 pages and 52 short chapters, was part of a larger work of 829 pages on “Malabar, Coromandel and Ceylon,” published in 1671in Amsterdam, in fact ten years before Robert Knox’s book, and translated and published in English in 1703 from High Dutch. The main focus of the historical description, of course from his official point of view, was Raja Singa II. Nevertheless, it traces the history from the arrival of the Portuguese and gives a fair description of diplomacy and political intrigues and the treatises between the Dutch and the Kandyan King/s. There are also important details about the conventions, state structures and political customs of what he has called the ‘Empire of Ceylon.’ While some of these details might be of interest to political analysts who grapple with the issues of devolution today, the focus of this article is on some of his comments on the Sinhalese, the Tamils and also the Muslims as ethnic or national groups from a reconciliation point of view.  
Robert Knox gave an elaborate description of society, family, occupations, customs and religion, among other matters, of what he called the Chingulays (Sinhalese) in his An Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon in East-Indies (1681) as he was living in Kandy areas for 19 years. He commented on the Tamils or Malabars as he had roamed around some parts of Vanni but he was not well aware of Jafnapatnam. (It should be noted that Malabars is the term many European writers used to describe the Tamils both in South India and Ceylon until the 19th century). This gap is filled by Philip Baldaeus with greater clarity, however, one need to keep in mind that by this time the Jaffna society had largely been Christianised which he admits and explains. Baldaeus lived both in Jaffna and Galle; and in Jaffna he learned Tamil and even translated the Lord’s Prayer into Tamil.


Baldaeus traces the story of Dutch march to Jaffna from Mannar from his own experience, after an interesting chapter on Mannar, and there are four main chapters as a description of Jafnapatnam thereafter. The general description of Jafnapatnam is as follows and I would keep the original old English of these quotations, as much as possible, as it would give a historical flavour to the description. 

Jafnapatnam is divided into four Provinces, which are very populous…The whole number of villages amounts to 159, of their own Churches 34…The Provinces of Jafnapatnam are Belligamme,1 Tenmarache,Waddemarache, and Patchirapalle.” Then he gives the number of churches in each province and how many people attend church and how many school boys. With reference to Belligamme alone he says, “In the year 1665, we had above 1000 school boys, among whom were 480 who could answer all the questions relating to the chief points of our religion.” He describes the Jaffna islands separately. Thereafter, he begins a chapter saying, “It is time to say something of the inhabitants of Jafnapatnam. In Ceylon are divers clans, or families, as well as on the Coast of Coromandel. The generation of the Bellales is the chiefest here since Christianity has been introduced, the Brahmans challenging the first among the Pagans.”

What he called Bellales were the Vellala caste, and Pagans, the Hindus. The description of the Bellales goes as follows.

“They live upon husbandry, and are rich in cattel, such as cows, oxen for the plow, sheep, goats and bufflers. Their habitations are convenient and neat, with pleasant gardens, well planted with Betel, and furnished with excellent springs, which furnish them (during the dry summer season) with water for the watering of gardens…The before mentioned Bellales make likewise butter, but after the same manner as we do in Holland…Butter is in great esteem among them as well as among the Moors, nay the family of Commety use butter like drink. Milk turned to curds (called by them Tayr) is also in great request with them, and used like a cooling medicine in fevers, and the small-pox, which are very frequent here.”                  
The climate and seasons are described in these pages contrasting with the southern parts of the Island. Most important for the purpose of this article are the descriptions of manners and temperaments of the people. “TheBellales are generally the richest of the country; they don’t marry except in their own family [to mean their own caste]…They are very litigious, and will go to Law for a triffle, because they constantly curious at one another.” The Brahmans are also praised as “Men of great morality, sober, calm, industrious, civil, obliging and very moderate in both eating and drinking.” Marriages of both Bellales and Brahmans are described in detail. The descriptions of Chittiis, Chivias, Parruas, Carreas, Nallouses and Parreas are described in fair detail.


As stated before, much of the book on Ceylon is devoted to the political history, armed forces, administrative matters, missionary work and theological arguments. Nevertheless, like in the sections on Jafnapatnam, there are descriptions of the Cingaleses in the South and in Candy. The relevant chapter begins as follows.

“Having hitherto taken a view of those people of Ceylon that are under the jurisdiction of the Dutch Company, we will now take a turn to Candy, the Imperial Residence, as the most proper place to be informed concerning the real Constitution of this Isle, and its inhabitants.” But I am most interested in this article are the general descriptions and information about the people. With reference to the main religion, he says, “All over the Isle you see abundance of very splendid Pagodas.” Then he explains in detail several of them and refers to the Buddhist monks in the following manner.

“Their Friers wear yellow habits, with their heads shaven all over, for which reason they never appear in the streets without umbrellos, and beads in their hands, muttering out certain prayers as they go along.” The temples are explained as follows. “Their Convents have diverse galleries and chapels, wherein are placed the statutes of several men and women, who, as they say, have led holy lives. These are adorned with gold and silver apparel, and attended with burning lamps and wax candles day and night, placed upon alters: the candlesticks being supported by naked boys artificially carved. The Friers have their certain hours of prayers, which they perform in these chapels.” The most interesting and perhaps accurate is the description of temple processions.

Like what he said about the Bellales, “In their houses they [Sinhalese] are excessive neat, use instead of trenchards or tablecloths the leaves of fig-trees; their spoons are made of coco-nutshells, and their drinking vessels of earth.”

Comparison of Sinhalese and Tamils

According to Baldaeus “The Cingaleses are in shape and manners not unlike the Malabars, with long handing ears, but not so black.” There are other commonalities that Baldaeus has observed.

“But concerning the religious worship of the Cingaleses we shall have occasion to say more in the following treatise, which in effect differs very little from the Malabars and those of Coromandel, except that they are not altogether such bigots.” This is where he says that the “Emperor of Ceylon allows Liberty of Conscience to all Nations” (p.821). Referring to Wimaladharmsuriya I, Baldaeus has previously said “As he despised all religions, so he allowed the free exercise thereof to all without distinction” (p. 681).

Perhaps there were certain emerging economic differences or occupational specialities between the Tamil areas and the Sinhalese areas. The descriptions give the impression that in Jafnapatnam there were emerging small industries and despite the strict caste system that the people were engaging in them. This is also confirmed by Robert Knox referring to the Vanni and thee road leading to Jaffna from Anuradhapura.
As Baldaeus said “Weavers are in abundance. These sit flat upon the Ground, their feet being placed in a hole dug for that purpose, whilst they are at work.” He also talks about calico-printing and excellent workmen in ivory and ebony wood. “They are well provided with smiths, carpenters and bricklayers. As most places in Europe…,” he says. Although the Sinhalese areas that Baldaeus describes are mainly agricultural, he also mentions the availability of necessary workmanship in gold, silver, ivory, ebony and iron.
Baldaeus has good things to say about both the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Both are described as “naturally active and ingenuous.”  There are more similarities and differences that he had talked about. In respect of what they wear, “The Bellales wear a kind of garment from above the navel, turning between the legs like a pair of drawers. They also make use of Seripous (or soles) tied to the bottom of the feet with leather straps…Upon the belly they have a kind of a bag (called Maddi) being part of their garment rolled together, where they keep their Areek and Betel…” (p. 812). 

Now in respect of the Sinhala gentlemen, “The dress of the men is a vest called Rapillo, of woolen or linen cloth; their under garment is a piece of linen wrapt about the middle and draw through both their legs, like a pair of breeches.” This is not very dissimilar to what the Bellales wore. But instead of Seripous, “On their heads they wear a kind of red Caps, such as we call Rock Caps,” Baldaeus says. This must be the typical Jata or Sinhala turban. 

Marriage customs are more or less the same, but Baldaeus gives an elaborate description of marriage ceremonies in Jafnapatanam perhaps adulterated by the Portuguese influence with singing and dancing and ‘divers other diversions.’ “However, strong liquors are never made use of on such occasions, unless the Hollanders (who can’t well be merry without them) bring some among them” Baldaeus assures! This is not my imagination, but exactly what Baldaeus says in page 816.

Baldaeus could have been prejudiced or even insulting being a ‘White Man,’ some of our critiques might say. In many places, he says, for both the Sinhalese and the Tamils, that “Their general vice is fornication and adultery, especially among the young men, as the old ones are much addicted to superstitions…” (p.817). The following is a full paragraph in this respect where he relates his experience of course prejudiced by his apparent puritanism.

“Incest is so common a vice among them, that when husbands have occasion to leave their wives for some time, they recommend the conjugal duty be performed by their own brothers. I remember a certain woman at Gale, who had confidence enough to complain of the want of duty in her husband’s brother upon that account. The like happened in my time in Jafnapatanam, which had been likely to be punished with death, had not at my intercession, and in regard of the tender beginnings of Christianity, the same been passed by for that time” (p.822). 

‘Difference’ in Nutshell

There are two important paragraphs (p. 822) which say all about the so-called differences between the Sinhalese, the Tamils and even the Muslims, which invariably touch on the caste system, gender issues and predicament of the girl child. First is the following.

“The Cingaleses as well as the Malabars are much addicted to the idleness and pleasures, and insist much upon their Pedigree. They marry as many wives as they think fit, as well as the Mahometans, of which there live a considerable number in this Isle. They marry their daughters at 10 or 11 years of age, a custom not to be rooted out among them, they being very fond of the virginity of their wives. They bury their dead after the manner of the Pagans.”      

The ‘idleness and pleasures’ are undoubtedly of the upper classes or castes who ‘insist upon their pedigree.’  Otherwise, the country or the economy could not have been functioning. Baldaeus talks much about the predicament and poor living conditions of the so-called lower castes in other descriptions. However, many of the references are of the upper classes of both communities which apparently appear to be the same. In the second paragraph it says:

“Their spoons are made of coconut shells, and their drinking vessels of earth, with hollow pipes, through which they pour (like Moors) the drink into the mouth without touching their lips; for as the Cingaleses and Malabarsinsist much upon their Noble Descent, for they will neither eat nor drink with those of an inferior rank; nay many of them are so proud as not to eat with their own wives.”
Are we so different today?

This exercise of quoting and mildly interpreting what Philip Baldaeus said was for the benefit of public education, and I leave for the readers to make their own conclusions. Let me thank my ‘new found’ friend Sisira Weragoda for supplying me with necessary material, as I have left most of them back home in this ‘great and most famous Island of Sri Lanka.’ But he is not responsible for any of the errors or views expressed.         

1 It is interesting note that Belligamme is used both for Valikamam in Jaffna and Weligama in the South, both means ‘Sandy Village’ both in Tamil and Sinhalese. The area Patchirapalle could be Puthukudurippu, “the inhabitants being very poor and feeding most generally upon unwholesome diet.” He also says, “As this Province boarder upon Raja Singa’s country, so they are subjected to the incursions of the Cingaleses.”
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