Defining land rights in Dutch Sri Lanka

Nadeera Rupesinghe


The Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie [VOC]) set up a judicial forum of European and native officials called the Landraad in parts of early modern Sri Lanka. Its primary tasks were to hear certain civil cases and maintain the thombo (land register). The VOC wished to define who could do what in which piece of land and what it could extract in return. This article is a study of land rights in southern Sri Lanka, providing quantitative and qualitative evidence on the types of possession recognized by the VOC. Officials used local terms relating to land tenure in the thombo, the Landraad and other discussions. The thombo and the Landraad were in effect the legal mechanisms by which the conversion of land, whether collectively or individually held, into alienable title was sought to be consolidated. Despite the complexities of the local land tenure system, the VOC attempted to enforce rules and regulations that would create a neat, circumscribed system that followed specific legal procedures and written forms. This was not always achieved in practice, indicating the important yet discreet role played by peasants in defining land rights.


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