Dutch in Ceylon

Door Christopher Joby

One of the areas of Asia in which the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was active was Ceylon. Today we can see a vestige of this in the fort at Galle which the VOC significantly strengthened. In the sixteenth century the Portuguese were the dominant European power on the island, which was rich in spices, particularly cinnamon. However, in the seventeenth century the VOC began to challenge the Portuguese and by 1656 much of the island was under its control. Ceylon remained under VOC control until 1796 when the British took it in the Napoleonic Wars. It would stay under British control until it became independent in 1948. During the 140 years of Dutch control, they pursued an active policy of trying to make Dutch the principal language on the island. This included setting up schools to teach Dutch to local people, although these often suffered from a lack of qualified teachers. However, the Dutch language policy by and large failed. One reason for this was that Portuguese had already become a language of wider communication (LWC) in Ceylon prior to 1656. Nevertheless, there are many Dutch loanwords in the two official languages of Ceylon, Sinhala and Tamil. Nicoline van der Sijs reckons that there are some 230 Dutch loanwords in Sinhala. Many of these are in the fields of warfare, trade and agriculture. For example, the Sinhala word for ‘potato’ , අර්තාපල් pronounced artapal comes from the Dutch aardappel. In Tamil, also spoken in Southern India, there are reckoned to be about 50 Dutch loanwords.

Further reading: Nicoline van der Sijs, Nederlandse woorden wereldwijd. The Hague: SDU, 2010, pp. 116-117, 125.
Kees Groeneboer, Gateway to the West. Amsterdam: AUP, 1998, pp. 51-58.

Dit stukje verscheen eerder op Christopher Joby’s blog History of Dutch.