Available Source Material for Genealogical Studies

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Although the island has a well document history, based on the afore mentioned chronicles, and ancient inscriptions, covering a period of twenty three centuries, the oldest archives extant in Sri Lanka date back only to the 16th century. The  archives of the Sri Lankan monarchy if any have been lost to posterity.


The Portuguese Period

The Portuguese, who ruled Sri Lanka from 1506 – 1638 AD, made use of the indigenous land records of the maritime districts under their control, to form the basis of their “Thombus” and “Forals” (quit-rent registers.) These Thombus later became the foundation of their revenue collection and also an important part of the archives.  Under the Portuguese, Vendor da Fazenda (Superintendent of Revenue) acted as the archivist, and it was his duty to preserve the Thombus, and to keep them up dated.

When the Portuguese possessions in the island were attacked by the Dutch in 1640 AD, a majority of the records were destroyed in order to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. As a result, there are no original source materials preserved in the National Archives to study the Portuguese period of Sri Lanka. There are a few copies of the Portuguese Thombus and Forals for the years 1614 and 1618 on microfilm that have been obtained from Lisbon, which are now available in the local archives. In addition there are also some scholarly works by Sri Lankan researches, who have used the primary sources in Lisbon and have written comprehensive thesis on the Portuguese period in the history of Sri Lanka.


The Dutch Period

Dutch archival material covers the period starting from 1640 AD up to 1796 AD, and gives a researcher an in-depth knowledge of the political, economical, social and cultural aspects of that era.  They are a continuous series of important primary sources for the study of the history of Sri Lanka.

Some important sources of genealogical information during the Dutch period include:


The registration of land – The Land Thombus record the details of ownership of the lands situated in a village. Villages were classified into a Pattuwa, while a collection of Pattuwa’s  were termed a Korale. Land taxes were assessed based on fertility of the land.

Registration of births marriages and deaths – The Hoofd Thombu or Head Thombu is a genealogical register of the proprietors of the land distributed in the corresponding Land Thombu.  It was called the head thombu because in each case names are tabulated under a head or representative of a family. 

Appointment of native headmen – The Dutch like the Portuguese before them recognised the value of maintaining the ancient system of “tenure” prevalent during the times of the native Kings. Accordingly property, within the conquered areas were held at the will of the Dutch East India company as Lord Paramount. Entire villages were settled on the Headman who as a rule were paid no salaries, but were due the rights and dues usually rendered by the village community to the Headman. Such grants of land were recorded in deeds of “accomodessa”  which, are a valuable source of information as they also list down the “majoraals” or the husbandmen working under each village headman.

Diaries of Governors and Commanders – Many of the Dutch Governors of Ceylon have left behind their memoirs, and some have even spent much time meticulously preparing handing over notes for their successors. Many of these notes, journals and diaries give great insight into the traditions and social structures prevalent at the time. An example is the succession note left by Dutch Governor Van Imhoff where he outlines the evils of the “tenure” system and advocates a move to a more progressive system which could eliminate the office of the village Chieftain. This new system was implemented approx 100 years into the Dutch rule of the Island.

Much of the registries used during the Dutch period were preserved and improved on during the British period in the history of the country.


The British Period

The British who captured the island from the Dutch in 1796, developed a modern records and archives management system.  Clause four (4) of the articles of capitulation, emphatically expressed that all public papers should be faithfully delivered over.  During the early British period the Colonial Chief Secretary of the British administration was the custodian of official records. In 1803 the post was named “Keeper of the Dutch records”. In the year 1902, the post of archivist was created and all the archives through-out the country were placed in his care.  In 1947, the post of Government Department Archivist was established.

When the British first conquered the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka, administration of the lands within their control were managed through the East India Company. By the early 1830s, the British had almost finished consolidating their position in Sri Lanka, and began to take more of an interest in securing the island's political stability, and economic profitability. A new wave of thought, influenced by the reformist political ideology articulated by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, promised to change fundamentally Britain's relationship to its colonies.

Known as utilitarianism, and later as philosophical radicalism, it promoted the idea of democracy and individual liberty. This philosophy sponsored the idea of the trusteeship, i.e., that new territories would be considered trusts, and should receive all the benefits of British liberalism. These philosophical abstractions were put into practical use with the recommendations of a commission, led by W.M.G. Colebrooke and C.H. Cameron. Their Colebrooke Report (1831-32) was an important document in the history of the island. G.C. Mendis, considered by many to be the doyen of modern Sri Lankan history, considers the Colebrooke-Cameron reforms to be the dividing line between the past and present in Sri Lanka.

One part of these reforms were the setting up of the Ceylon Civil Services, which ensured a more structured and planned approach to recording demographic events including:

Registration of Births and Deaths – As the population, especially in the Maritime provinces grew exponentially during the British occupation of Sri Lanka, the British established administrative offices in the key cities and towns and ensured that all births and deaths were recorded and registered, while certificates were issued as proof that the incident had been officially recorded. In Sri Lanka, a system of registration of vital events i.e. births, deaths and marriages has been in existence since 1867, when the Department of Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages was established, following which registration of deaths and births was made compulsory in 1897.

Registration of Land transactions - Under British rule, there were significant changes to land ownership policies. During the early part of British rule, the policies concentrated on the provision of larger tracts of land, for plantations of cinnamon, coffee, tea, rubber and coconuts. This influenced to a large extent the changes to the traditional policies and attitudes to land. In 1840, enactment of the Crown Lands (Encroachment) Ordinance was a landmark event. Under that ordinance all waste lands in the country such as forests and chena, uncultivated and unoccupied lands were presumed to be property of the crown, unless proved otherwise. This ensured the availability of crown lands for the British investors for plantations. The first significant legislation to attempt introduction of title registration in Sri Lanka was enacted in 1863. It did not lead to the full registration of titles as envisaged by the government of the day. Unfortunately, as a temporary measure, the government allowed the adoption of the registration of deeds, which is still in place today and is entrenched in the laws of Sri Lanka.

Parish and School records –The British governor Robert Browning, who took office in 1812, played a key role in establishing many missionary schools especially in the Maritime provinces of the island. He was also a key influence in setting up mission churches and parishes and converting the natives to Christianity.  As parishes and missionary schools grew, they began to record information about parishioners and students enrolled, and thus a huge repository of information was built, which become an excellent source of genealogical information.

Another excellent source of information are the diaries of the Government agents and the Governors as well as the many commission reports which dotted the British occupation of Sri Lanka.

Documentation and capture of information during the British period in Sri Lanka was initially a continuation of the practises established by the Dutch. However the British improved the civil administration of the country and thus the capture and documentation of information.




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