Achttiende-eeuwse aquarel
Achttiende-eeuwse aquarel

Reports of neighbourhood conflicts give voice to people of Sri Lanka under VOC administration

In the eighteenth century, the VOC (the Dutch United East India Company) used a detailed registration procedure of country, persons and labour in Sri Lanka. In his PhD research at Radboud University, historian Luc Bulten discovered that not only the VOC made use of the registers; the registered persons also used them to their own advantage, for example in conflicts between neighbours. ‘The registers give insight into how the people of Sri Lanka lived under and dealt with a colonial administration.'

A large part of the Sri Lankan population in the eighteenth century lived under the self-proclaimed administration of the VOC. Many local clerks and officials registered thousands of indigenous families and their property, so that the VOC could exploit the labour and agricultural products. Historian Luc Bulten researched this registration procedure from the perspective of those registered.

Although few indigenous sources have been preserved, and Bulten had to make do with VOC archives, the colonial sources did get him closer to the local population in the eighteenth century. 'We know a lot about the colonial rulers, but less about the inhabitants of colonised regions. My research is an attempt to contribute to more insight from that perspective.’

Neighbourhood conflicts

‘It would seem that successful registration systems in history only endured if they benefited the registered persons themselves in some way,' Bulten explains. ‘Sri Lanka is one example of that: the registers list hundreds of thousands of pieces of land and people. That's almost unparalleled for that time. At first, there was resistance against the colonial ruler's drive for registration. But through time, people seem to have made the system work for them, for example to safeguard property. That was often a dispute between neighbours: the neighbour has appropriated a piece of your land so you refer them to an extract from the registers which shows that the land belongs to your family.'

According to Bulten, the reason such a detailed registration system could exist in Sri Lanka was because of the country's history. There had always been a form of registration, due to the complicated system of inheritance in the agrarian community. The VOC greatly expanded that registration.

Bulten states that even in an oppressive system with racist legislation, people found ways of making the situation work in their favour. ‘I came across the story of an enslaved woman who managed to escape and start a family. Years later, her former enslaver tracks her down and says in court: 'She was enslaved by me so her children should also be enslaved by me.' But the woman had already registered her children as free citizens, so she won the court case.'


The entire population was subject to registration. Therefore, the research gives insight into groups we usually know less about, such as women, enslaved people and children. For example, Bulten saw in the registers that there were polyandrous relationships, where a woman had multiple husbands. He always tied information from the registers to more substantive sources, such as reports of court cases, so he could learn more about how the people lived. ‘For example, there was a court case in which children from a polyandrous relationship were in conflict about the distribution of the land. In the witness statements, you see how the VOC court asked villagers how exactly polyandry worked and how they knew which husband had fathered each child. They didn't know: in that kind of relationship, the husbands were fathers to all the children.'

According to Bulten, this kind of research could also be carried out in Indonesia or any other formerly colonised country, to get a better idea of how people lived in a restrictive colonial system.

Luc Bulten will be defending his PhD thesis on Thursday 20 April in the auditorium of Radboud University.

Contact information

For further information, please contact Luc Bulten via luc.bulten [at] or Team Science communication via +31 24 361 6000 or media [at] ru.nlrel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank"

Diversity, History