Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is an island country in the Indian Ocean. Due to its strategic location at a crossroads of navigational routes between Arabia and Eastern Asia, it has long been a meeting place and cultural melting pot, with sailors and merchants from all over the world arriving here to trade. Sri Lanka's trading links have been instrumental in its history, and it has been party to international trade for millennia. As early as the 14th century the ports on Sri Lanka's coasts were well known, with Galle becoming one of the most strategic and important on the Indian Ocean. In 1411 the infamous Chinese admiral Zheng He commemorated his visit to Galle by commissioning a trilingual inscription in Chinese, Tamil and Persian, a testament to the diverse, multicultural and cosmopolitan trading community that Sri Lanka's ports were attracting.
The first contact with Europeans came in the 16th century, when the Portuguese landed on Sri Lanka's shores during the height of European explorations, and established permanent trading bases around the coast. In 1640 the Dutch captured the city from the Portuguese and set about redeveloping the site as a permanent trading fort. The Dutch traders rebuilt the town and expanded the fortifications, and Galle soon became the second most important trading centre in the Dutch East India Comany (VOC) maritime trading network, following their headquarters in Batavia. Over time they gradually took control over the entire coastal region.
Many commodities and materials were sought after and traded in Sri Lanka, especially pepper, yarn, cinnamon, cardamom, pearls, gems and elephants. Textiles were especially desired from this region, and were vital trading goods which could be bartered for other commodities across most of the VOC shipping network. The British took possession of Sri Lanka in 1796 and held power over the country until it became independant in 1948. The British began intensively cultivating and trading in coffee, tea and rubber. These large plantations can still be evidenced to this day.
Today there are many remnants of the relationship and interactions between the Dutch and Sri Lankan people. This is evident in both tangible and intangible heritage. There are many mixed heritage buildings e.g. churches, forts, libraries, warehouses, dams, houses, cemeteries and sewerage systems. There is also a wealth of intangible heritage in the stories, traditions, songs, customs and social traditions. Sri Lanka has been chosen as one of the Priority Countries for the Netherlands in line with the Dutch Mutual Cultural Heritage Policy.
CIE have been working with Sri Lanka since our very beginning. Before the foundation of CIE a number of our team members had been heavily involved in many international heritage projects with Sri Lanka e.g. Restoration of the Dutch Reformed Church, Avondster Project which saw the excavation and recording of the VOC shipwreck in Galle harbour, creation and training of the Maritime Archaeology Unit and Maritime Museum in Galle. CIE has also been involved in the rehabilitation of the cultural heritage sector in southern Sri Lanka following the 2004 Tsunami.
Our work with Sri Lanka falls under our Core Themes of: