Dutch Ceylon in the eighteenth century offers a fine opportunity to study the dynamics of administrative control of everyday family life in a colonial setting. This article focuses on the Dutch registration of Sinhalese marriage practices, which we know from scattered sources to have been strikingly different from what the Calvinist Dutch deemed appropriate, with cohabitation before marriage, easy divorce and polyandry.
To study how conjugality was defined and contested by both Dutch and Sinhalese alike, this article will first analyse the so-called thombo administration (a complex combination of census, cadastre and genealogy) for about 200 villages, which offers us a unique perspective on Sinhalese family life. What categories were used by local census takers to label alternative forms of marital status, and to what extent could Sinhalese influence or resist their categorization according to hierarchies of family, caste and feudal labour relations? Then, two inheritance conflicts within Sinhalese families brought before the Dutch colonial law courts are scrutinized to determine if and how the Dutch legal definitions of marriage played their part in everyday colonial life.
Although Calvinist morality explicitly contested certain Sinhalese marriage practices, colonial administrators and lawyers had to be practical to run the colony as efficiently as possible. Profit trumped principles, as the Dutch were largely dependent on the proper fulfilment and transmission of traditional labour services attached to land. In practice, therefore, they seem to have accepted many of the traditional family arrangements of the Sinhalese.
The court cases however do indicate that some Sinhalese were somewhat willing or clever to adopt the Dutch marriage ideal, and use the Dutch administration to improve their individual position, not in the least against their own kin. Conjugal traditions in eighteenth-century Ceylon were thus contested by both the Dutch and the Sinhalese.