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Netherlands to sign the transfer of ownership of colonial-era artifacts to Sri Lanka



A cultural delegation from the Netherlands, led by Gunay Uslu, the State Secretary for Culture and Media, has arrived in Sri Lanka for the purpose of signing two legal documents pertaining to the transfer of ownership of artifacts that will be returned to Sri Lanka this year.

The signing ceremony for the “Transference of Acknowledgement” and the “Loan Agreement” will take place today (August 28) at 3:00 p.m. in the Ministry of Buddhasasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs, as stated by the ministry.

The artifacts in question, including the Lewke’s cannon, Golden Kasthane, Silver Kasthane, Sinhalese Knife, and Two Guns, are currently part of the collection at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam in the Netherlands. These historical items have been verified to belong to Sri Lanka.

In 2021, the Dutch government endorsed a policy to return cultural heritage objects held by the Dutch State. The Dutch government acknowledged the historical injustice inflicted upon indigenous populations of colonial territories due to the involuntary loss of cultural heritage objects. Consequently, the government aims to rectify this by returning such objects to their countries of origin and promoting international collaboration in this endeavor.

The official delegation visiting Sri Lanka from August 27 to 31 includes Barbera Wolfensberger, Director General of Culture and Media in the Netherlands; Lilian Gonçalves-Ho Kang You, Chairperson of the Dutch Colonial Collections Committee; and Dr. Alicia Schrikker, a Member of the Committee, according to the ministry’s announcement.

A repatriation of almost 500 cultural objects to the governments of Indonesia and Sri Lanka marks the first time the Netherlands has followed the recommendations of an Advisory Committee it set up in 2020 to consider the return of colonial objects from Dutch museums. It also offers a viable, if not perfect blueprint for other national collections wrestling with the return of contested objects.

At the heart of the Committee’s recommendations, published nearly three years ago, is a need to recognise the historical injustices committed under Dutch colonial rule, plus a willingness to rectify them. The Netherlands must be willing, the report stated, ‘to return unconditionally any cultural objects looted in former Dutch colonies if the source country so requests.’

The robustness of this Committee’s stance, accepted by the Dutch government, resulted from their proactive engagement with representatives of countries formerly under Dutch colonial rule. 

Sri Lanka had been requesting the return of several objects from Dutch collections before the new National Policy Framework was put in place. In 2017 the Rijksmuseum participated in a pilot project to establish a methodology for conducting provenance research with countries of origin. Progress was stepped up after the Committee began its engagement with Sri Lankan diplomatic and museum professionals and the process concluded with this month’s agreement to return six objects of cultural significance. Among these objects is the Cannon of Kandy, a richly decorated, bronze-cast cannon looted by the VOC in 1765, which ended up in the collection of the Rijksmuseum. The cannon’s return to Sri Lanka represents the Museum’s first-ever repatriation of a colonial-era object.

Descendants of the royal family of Kandy have been lobbying the Sri Lankan government to recover this cannon for many years and according to the National Museum of Sri Lanka’s director, Mrs Sanuja Kasthuriarachchi, it’s an “exciting and recognisable object”, providing a valuable insight into both coloniser and Sri Lanka. “The cannon is European in shape,” commented Alicia Schrikker, associate professor of history at Leiden University, “but the decorations gave it a Sri Lankan layer…. There are so many stories to tell about it.”

Two wall guns (gingals), two ceremonial swords with silver, gold, diamonds and rubies, and a Singhalese knife (pihiya) are also returning to Sri Lanka.

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