Capitulation of Colombo to the British

British FlagOnce the British were successful in seizing the Dutch settlements in Sri Lanka, other than Colombo, they made preparations against Colombo. As soon as the British occupied Fort Oostenberg in Trincomalee on 31 August 1795 and later Batticaloa, Point Pedro, Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Mannar and Kalpitiya, they set about collecting the revenues. A pearl fishery was immediately undertaken, while forces were being collected at Rameswaram for an advance on Colombo. Lieutenant Colonel Barbut arrived with the troops of Jaffna and was dispatched ahead to Negombo which he occupied on 3 February 1796 as it had been abandoned, and the Dutch garrison retired on Colombo.

Colonel Stuart came there with the troops of Trincomalee and the forces collected at Rameswaram. They had left on 10 January in large open boats, and coming over to the strait, coasted along Arippo and Kalpitiya, running on shore every evening to cook, eat and sleep on the beach. The rendezvous was Negombo where they arrived on the day it was occupied by Barbut. A detachment of Sepoys arrived next day from Bombay, raising the troops under the command of General James Stuart to 2,300 Europeans and 4,200 Sepoys.

These forts were not taken over by virtue of the letter of Prince Stadtholder of Holland, William V of Orange, but captured by force of arms, because the Stadtholder’s letter was disregarded. If they had been merely taken under the protection of the English they would naturally have to be restored when peace was made, but refusing to hand them over according to Lord Hobart’s interpretation of the letter, the Dutch Company in Sri Lanka gave the English the justification for taking them by force. On the other hand the Council could not well adopt any other course, for if their country was a republic by common consent and at war with the English while the Prince Stadtholder was a fugitive and the guest of the English, they had no choice in the matter. They, therefore, decided on the more honourable course of surrendering to force rather than tamely yielding to an order hostile to the interests of their country and nation. They hoped, however, that their possessions would be restored to them when peace was made.

Regiment de Meuron

The Madras Government was very anxious to occupy the remaining Dutch settlements in the island, without bloodshed or expense. Therefore, they made the Governor of Colombo another offer of protection in the form of complete assumption of Government. To persuade him to consent, the Governor of Madras, Lord Hobart, communicated a piece of intelligence which was calculated to expedite the delivery. This was the announcement that the British Government had acquired the services of the Regiment de Meuron which was the principal part of the defence of Colombo in the case of a siege. This transfer was the work of a far sighted Scotsman, Professor Hugh Cleghorn, who was afterwards the Colonial Secretary here. Cleghorn had made the friendship of Count de Meuron, the proprietor and Colonel of the Regiment, who was very bitter against the Dutch.

It occurred to Cleghorn that if he could secure the transfer of this regiment from the Dutch to the English service, the conquest of the island could be a very cheap and easy matter. He immediately communicated with the English Cabinet and made the transfer at Neuchatel in Switzerland on 30 March 1795. Count de Meuron was persuaded to come to India with Cleghorn and started off by the overland route from Venice to Alexandria and Cairo and from there by caravan to Suez, where they embarked reaching Madras just after the surrender of Trincomalee. The news of the transfer of the Regiment was surreptitiously conveyed in a Dutch cheese to the Count’s brother, Pierre Frederic de Meuron, who was in Colombo and Major Patrick Agnew conveyed the official news to the Dutch Governor in Colombo J.P. Van Angelbeek.

Colonel de Meuron

Governor Van Angelbeek threatened to detain the Regiment as prisoners of war, but the Colonel assured the Governor that if that were attempted, he would bring the matter to instant issue with the sword, whereupon the Governor was obliged to consent and the transfer was effected on condition that the Regiment would not be employed in the siege of Colombo. Thus 600 European troops were withdrawn from the defence of Colombo and added to the strength of the British forces in India without the expense of a levy or transport. Cleghorn claimed to have saved the English Company a sum equal to nearly a 100 Sterling Pounds per man. Besides depriving the garrison of Colombo of the main part of the defence, the English prevented the supplies being thrown into Colombo or the large stock of merchandise in the stores being exported. Pierre Frederic de Meuron, who had been the chief engineer in Colombo, was able to give the besieging force very valuable information.

Embassy to Kandy

Intent on occupying all the Dutch settlements in the island, the Governor of Madras wished to secure the cooperation of the King of Kandy. Hugh Boyd’s embassy had been a failure and so also the British attempt on the island in 1782. But as everything now promised success, Robert Andrews of the Madras service was ordered to go to Kandy immediately after the capture of Trincomalee. He wrote to the king announcing his mission and asking for provisions for the fort. But as the promised permission to proceed to Kandy had not arrived up to 15 September and as he was anxious to get back before the setting in of the monsoon, he set out while the British forces were engaged in the capture of the other Dutch possessions. The permission reached him on the way, and at Nalanda he was met by Arawwawala, the Second Adigar, who had been despatched to conduct him and who was anxious to negotiate a private treaty on his own account. He promised to espouse the cause of the English, if Andrews would sign an agreement to accept all messages coming from him and not to accept those coming through any other minister. Andrews understood this to be an attempt to enlist the English in an endeavour to secure the First Adigarship and declined the offer.

Its failure Andrews bravely went through the customary ceremonial and had audience of King Rajadhi Rajasinha of Kandy and discussed the draft of a treaty. The ministers insisted that the English should promise never to allow the Dutch to re-establish themselves in the island. This promise the English could not give. Andrews pointed out that they could not take up so serious an undertaking without unequivocal proof of the faithless and oppressive conduct of the Dutch. He also urged that if the English took possession of the Dutch settlements without assistance from the king, they would be less anxious to cultivate his friendship that they were. But all arguments were in vain. A party friendly to the English, whispered in Andrews’ ear that if he persisted he would succeed. He therefore rejected their demands. When he wished to examine the treaties between the king and the Dutch, a minister informed him that such an examination was unnecessary, as ‘the king’s pleasure was a law which no one could dispute’.

Finally Andrews suggested that the king should depute some persons to the Government of Madras with full powers to enter into a treaty. This was accepted and Andrews returned to Trincomalee in October. Dissaves, Migastenne and Denagamuwe came as ambassadors and set sail for India with Andrews. They arrived at Madras on 29 December 1795 while preparations were being made at Ramnad for the expedition against Colombo. Lord John Shore, 1st Baron Teignmouth, the Governor General of India, was not prepared to commit the English to a treaty promising assistance against the Dutch, though Lord Hobart, the Governor of Madras, who was the bitter foe of the Dutch, was quite willing to do so. The Supreme Government pointed out that ‘the unity or disagreement between the English and the Dutch Companies depended upon the connection of the English and the Dutch nations in Europe. It was even possible that peace between the English and the Dutch was being made at the very time in Europe.

This course of reasoning the king’s ambassadors could not appreciate. In their eyes the Dutch had no right whatever in the Island, though King Rajasinha II had signed the Treaty of 1766. For some time they could not be brought to any cool discussion on the subject, but at last Andrews succeeded in persuading them to accept 13 Articles most favourable to the king. One Article permitted the king “to empty ships, vessels and boats, together ten in number for the purpose of trade” duty free; others stated that “the English would not interfere with any of the king’s present possessions”: “That as the king represents many situations to have been forcibly taken by the Dutch, the Company would investigate, and restore the same to the king at the conclusion of peace: “That as soon as the English Company became possessors of the Dutch settlements, they would restore to the king a situation upon the coast for the sole and express purpose of procuring an adequate supply of salt and fish”.

These were terms far more advantageous to the king than any that had ever been offered before. After a vain attempt to secure still more, the ambassadors signed a treaty on 12 February. It now remained to get the confirmation of the king, and Andrews prepared to set out on another embassy to Kandy for the purpose.

Siege of Colombo

Meanwhile the invading army advanced by land from Negombo, leaving the heavy baggage to be conveyed by sea, as cattle could not be procured in spite of request made to the Kandyan King. Passing Ja-ela the army arrived within four miles of Colombo without meeting with the slightest resistance. The Dutch sent troops to Pass Betal or Wattala, Hendala and Grand Pass and appeared to be intent on a defence. The English crossed the Kelani Ganga unopposed and the Dutch forces fell back on the fort. The only attempt to withstand the British was made by Lieut. Col. Raymond of the Luxemburg regiment, who lost his life in an attack on the English seamen as they were landing from their ships at Mutwal. The invading force captured Korteboam, marched to Kaymans Gate, driving the insignificant Dutch force before them, and captured the Pettah. The Dutch then abandoned Kaymans Gate, withdrew to the fort, closed the gates and drew up the bridges.

Colombo surrendered

On 4 February 1796, Major Patrick Agnew came with a flag of truce to demand the surrender of the City of Colombo, and was conducted with much ceremony to the fort. The Dutch Governor’s Council met to discuss the situation, though it was apparent to all that the authorities meant to surrender, since they had allowed the invading army to advance unopposed right up to the gates of the City of Colombo. An attempt to hold out against such an army would indeed be foolhardy, as no preparations had been made for standing a siege. The people in the city did not know what to think, and many were inclined to believe that the Dutch Governor was betraying the city. In the Council meeting it was decided to surrender the city by consent of all except Major Vaugine, an officer who had deserted from the Regiment de Meuron and feared the consequences if Colombo surrendered. Colombo was occupied by the British on the morning of 16 February, 1796.  (Facts largely taken from A History of Ceylon for Schools by Fr. S.G. Perera) (Ceylon Today)

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