Lodewijk Wagenaar’s favourite chapter in his new book on the Dutch East India Company in Ceylon is titled “A country unknown to the company and its employees.” He reveals this while squatting in the hall of the Colombo Dutch Burgher Union, where he has stooped to point out a sketch of the reclining Buddha in Mulkirigala now on a display.

It is clear, as he elaborates on the picture, that whatever the failings of his countrymen, Wagenaar could certainly not be accused of being ignorant of Sri Lanka. In fact, Wagenaar is on unusually intimate terms with this island, having visited often since 1980. He even helped set up the city’s Dutch Period Museum. And the Dutch Burgher Union auditorium, where the canteen still serves meals with VOC inscribed on the packaging, is the perfect place to launch his book Cinnamon & Elephants.

The VOC refers to the Dutch name of the Company – Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, and they were in Sri Lanka from 1640 to 1796, where they ruled the coast of Ceylon. They arrived initially on the invitation of the monarch of the inland kingdom of Kandy, who hoped the Dutch would drive off the Portuguese. They did, but upon their success they chose to overstay their welcome, and ended up isolating their former ally, Raja Sinha II.

“Approximately, five hundred thousand people lived in the company’s territory,” Wagenaar told Scroll.in, adding that even then the majority in the south-west were Buddhist, while those in north-east were predominantly Hindu. The men of the VOC made it their business to know about taxes, usable wood species, rice cultivation and land ownership, but in many other ways, Ceylon remained terra incognita.

This is visible in the gaps in VOC collections in modern museums, where it can be hard to find representations and perspectives of the colonised. It is something Wagenaar, who is a lecturer at the Department of History at the University of Amsterdam and a curator at the Amsterdam museum, was very aware of when he began work on Cinnamon & Elephants. The book explores VOC’s time in Sri Lanka through the art collections of the Rijks Museum, the Amsterdam Museum and the Natural History Museum in London among several others.

It was a period of constant and occasionally bloody political manoeuvring. White-haired and jovial, Wagenaar possesses such encyclopaedic knowledge of that time that he says it took him just three months to write this book.

While contemporary scholars and historians are often well aware of the atrocities that accompanied colonisation, some argue that the wider population in countries like the Netherlands remain ignorant. It is a point that Nira Wickramasinghe, a professor of Modern South Asian Studies at Leiden makes in her introduction. She writes: “While postcolonial Sri Lanka moved from indifference to voracious consumption of its colonial past, Dutch society seems to remain rooted in denial. Words such as race or colonial violence are seldom heard in public discourse and the academy.”

On his part, Wagenaar is frank about the ambitions of the men of the VOC. “Their main goal was exploitation, and there is no need to glorify that,” he says, adding that the conflict on these shores were often an extension of the tensions between various European powers. As a historian though, Wagenaar is fascinated by the ways in which the VOC claimed territory and then settled down to life in this country.

“It very interesting to be outside the Netherlands in places like Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka, and to see how the Dutch lived here and how they organised themselves. Apart from the discourse of otherness, I wanted to understand how they built their society,” he says. This collection of images, objects and photographs does just that.

Sinhalese officials and envoys from Kandy around a VOC Trophy (1785)

This watercolour by Jan Brandes from the Rijksmuseum shows an encounter between two very different worlds. To the left are the cluster of Sinhalese captains, and on the right are Kandyan envoys. The latter holds a sealed envelope – a letter from the King to Governor Falck. The Kandyan soldiers carry rifles, and the envoys wear collars that recall earlier Portuguese fashions. Wagenaar points out that in this image we see a rare combination of Kandyan and Dutch officials, brought together more or less artificially under a triumphant trophy.

Map of Ceylon, decorated with floor plans of 22 forts (c.1751)

The work of surveyor B. van Lier, this map from the Dutch National Archives is a showcase of the VOC’s defensive structures. They range from modest defences with a single bastion, such as the island fort of Hammenshiel in the north, to the more complex structures seen in Galle, Jaffna and Colombo. Says Wagenaar: “This rare drawing was a present to the then Governor of Ceylon; interesting is the cartouche below, with bales of cinnamon and elephants, which makes for an interesting metaphor for the exploitation of the coastal provinces.”

VOC delegation at an audience with the king of Kandy, Sri Rajadi Raja Sinha (c.1785)

Kandyan envoys would only be offered a tour of the castle of the Governor of Colombo when relations between the two sides were good, says Wagenaar. In this image from the Rijks Museum you see Dutch envoy Frederik Jacob Billing kneeling before the king, something he had sworn he would never do, arguing that “he could give this honour to no one but the Creator of the heavens and the earth.” In the end he kneeled not once, but thrice.

Nicolas Dias Abeysinghe Amarasekera (1719-1794), the governor’s Maha Mudaliyar of the Gate (c.1785)

This small ivory statue crafted by an anonymous sculpture is a recent acquisition by the Rijks Museum and is believed to depict Nicolas Dias - the most influential Maha Mudaliyar ever to stand at the Governor’s gate. Historical records show the man was adept at intrigue and had an extensive network. He would eventually become one of the two most powerful men on the island – feared and hated by the colonisers.

Coconut Garden with Arrack pot still (c.1700)

From the collection of the physician Paul Hermann, this drawing owned by the Natural History Museum in London shows a coconut plantation with a still for making arrack out of toddy, which would have been primarily drunk at schaggerijen or small inns outside the cities and forts. Note the details, such as the merry party drinking and smoking in the centre of the image. Wagenaar says this is a very rare depiction of Dutch Burgher enterprise with the Burghers themselves in a festive mood and wearing their hats (only Europeans and Burghers and other Christians were allowed to wear hats).

Cinnamon Peelers at Work (c.1700)

Sri Lanka was renowned for its valuable cinnamon. While the trees are not depicted realistically in this image from the Natural History Museum in London, the drying of the peeled bark, the transport of the bales and the peeling itself is accurate. For Wagenaar this contradiction suggests the drawing itself was made in Europe and based loosely on sketches and text.

Hansken the Elephant (c.1641 or 1642)

Elephants were very valuable exports but this is a particularly remarkable image from the Rijks Museum. Says Wagenaar: “The elephant Hansken, was transferred from Ceylon to Coromandel (now Tamil Nadu) just a few years before the conquest of Portuguese Punto de Gale, and then sent to Holland. There he was an attraction for many years, for he could do beautiful tricks: counting with his feet, waving the Dutch flag, and so on – Rembrandt made a beautiful drawing of this animal.”

Adam’s Berg (Mulkirigala) reclining Buddha (c.1644)

This beautiful image from the Amsterdam Museum is the equivalent of a Photo-shopped picture in today’s world. It is the work of Johann Wolfgang Heydt, a surveyor in the service of the VOC who was also a gifted artist. He made these prints on his return to Germany and the text accompanying it read: “Dear reader, I earlier promised to show you some musicians and dancers, I think this cave temple with the reclining Buddha is a nice excuse to draw some of them which I earlier have seen performing at a different place.”

The first of Gustav Böhm Jr’s boxes with nine photographs of Ceylon

This object, in the possession of the Rijks Museum, is of one of a two-box collection of photographs taken between 1899 and 1901 during a round-the-world tour by Gustav Böhm Jr. These were offered as promotional gifts that were distributed following the death of Gustav Böhm Senior, the founder of a soap and perfume factory.