Lawmaking in Dutch Sri Lanka

Navigating Pluralities in a Colonial Society

Author: Nadeera Rupesinghe

About this book

Lawmaking in Dutch Sri Lanka. Navigating Pluralities marks a break in understanding the history of Roman-Dutch law in Sri Lanka. Methodologically, it challenges socio-legal studies that concentrate on major jurisdictional conflicts alone, emphasizing the lived experience of everyday practices of judicial forums. It uncovers the navigation of plural practices in the Landraad, a judicial forum set up by the Dutch East India Company in seventeenth-century Sri Lanka. A choice of laws came into play in that forum, that choice being significant at varying degrees for different areas of the law such as evidence, inheritance, land, and marriage law.

While there was inevitable conflict, the local normative order was as much a social fact for the early colonial rulers as Roman-Dutch law. This is contrary to the received wisdom of the ages that Roman-Dutch law was imposed on the Sinhalese of the maritime provinces under Dutch control. When translated into everyday lives, such adoption of plural practices could rebound on coloniser and colonised in unexpected ways, revealing the complexities of colonial law in practice.

Nadeera Rupesinghe is Director-General of the Department of National Archives in Sri Lanka. She studied history at the University of Colombo before obtaining scholarships to study at Leiden University. After that she was a Teaching and Research Assistant and Postdoctoral Researcher at Leiden University, positions funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.

Format: Paperback

Pages: 316

Illustrated: yes

ISBN Print: 9789087283759

ISBN ePUB: 9789400604247

Published: 5 January 2023

Language: English


  • Paul Halliday, Professor of history, University of Virginia

    'Future scholars of eighteenth-century Sri Lankan law and social history will want to make this one of the first books they read. Rupesinghe’s account of litigation in the Landraad provides a goldmine of information about that court’s remarkable archive, its personnel and procedures, and the often humble people who asked it to settle their disputes. She uses this archive to reconstruct a rich social world, and along the way, gives us wonderful stories about landholding, social and family relations, and so much more.'

  • Professor Sujit Sivasundaram, Faculty of history, University of Cambridge

    'This book tackles an important and neglected field of interest not only to scholars of Sri Lanka but also to legal historians of the early modern world and to those interested in empires in Asia. With gripping detail and dense attention to individuals and places, Rupesinghe recovers how local communities faced, moulded and changed the law in Galle, in southern Lanka. The situational judging and the specific circumstances of land, family and religion which framed this encounter between subjects and the law is handled with great sensitivity and nuance. A mature piece of archival work which will become a cornerstone in the growing literature on Dutch Sri Lanka.'

  • Nira Wickramasinghe, Professor of Modern South Asian Studies, Leiden University

    'This is a dense and fine grained book that casts new light on the workings of society in the maritime province of Sri Lanka under VOC rule. From personal snippets, Nadeera Rupesinghe's work
    gestures toward a new understanding of the interfaces between law-making and identity formation but also of the spaces of local agency, the ruses of the people to subvert a dominant structure. She has written a pioneering work in the field of Sri Lankan Dutch history.'

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