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Teeing off in the Dutch times

Sunday Times June 2 2006: In the latter part of the Dutch administration in the maritime regions of Sri Lanka, Europeans of different ethnicities came to the island either singly or with their wives and children, as there were no hard and fast rules governing their arrival or departure. Among those who arrived were not only the Dutch, but also German, French, Swedish, Scottish and British nationals. For the Dutch administrators, they all were vrij burgers or ‘free citizens’, and permitted to earn their living in such ways as suited them. Inn keeping and baking were preferred professions.

The Golf Club where avid golfers tested their skills

The employees of the Dutch Company VOC were a separate class of people, who were forbidden to marry native women. Concubinary too was prohibited. All Europeans under the Dutch rule were known as Lansi by the Sinhalese, shortening the Dutch word Hollandsche. This community who settled in major towns had to get their ephemeral needs and requirements of recreation and entertainment fulfilled.

Diving into the inventory

The lifestyle of the new settlers was not at all in harmony with the day-to-day life of the ordinary locals. The peculiarities of the European way of life are reflected in the printed works of Dutch and English writers, whereas the archival sources, especially records series such as last wills (testamenten) and sale registers (vendu boeken), provide us with a vivid picture of their requirements. This interesting series of documents that the Dutch left with us is extremely important in analysing the urban social life of the European community at the time. The notarial inventories of household effects and last wills give us particulars of furniture in rich and pleasing variety, jewellery, household ornaments, cutlery and crockery, kitchen utensils, toilet requisites, lingerie, woollen and cotton clothing, silks, satins, velvets, books and even their gold, silver and brass clasps and many more.

While reading through some writings of Edmund Reimers, the late Government Archivist, a reference was found to a notarial inventory sworn to on May 6, 1771 of the ‘loose’ goods and effects of the Public Hostelry of Colombo. This aroused my curiosity in wanting to read the original deposited in the archives. Apparently, the keeper of the Hostelry had died a few days before, and his widow, with typical Dutch caution, had proceeded immediately to get the ‘loose’ goods inventoried. Mostly, her own personal effects and those belonging to the dear departed were sealed where that was possible, viz., in various chests, baskets and rooms to which presumably the public had no access.

The Hostelry referred to in the document was housed in a large, cool, well-ventilated, old Dutch colonial mansion. The vestibule or voorhuis gave access to the front room or voor kamer. This had the addition of the bedrooms or slaap kamers on either side, and an inner room or binnen kamer were in the main building. A wing on either side with the kitchen, or kombuis at the back enclosed a paved court yard called the plaats. Usually a summer house or a speel huis was a must in this type of an environment, but no mention of such construction had been made in this document. The plaats in the Hostelry appears to have been a lounge with a raised platform called platje meant for the bar. The main lounge and place for refreshments was in the galderij, or the wide verandah at the back of the main building. The wings and the kitchen were surrounded by the plaats or courtyard. On that account the rooms of the wings were called the plaatse-kamers. The verandah, which was covered by a ‘half-roof’ or halve dak, the courtyard being open gave access by a wide gateway to the back ‘garden’ called tuin, and a miniature golf course called the kolf-baan. It is presumed that in this atmosphere, the frequenters and the residents of the Hostelry indulged in a mild form of recreation and exercise. In the garden was a construction known as schaggerij (shed), where broken old furniture and other odds and ends were placed.

According to the inventory, in the vestibule of the Hostelry, there were six leather-covered armchairs, and a hanging lantern described as blique (what we call belek in Sinhala). The last four items in the shed off the golf course in the garden were six glazed flower pots, 11 copper-branched candle sticks, 21 golf balls, 19 golf clubs with two wooden statues.

A round of golf, anyone?

Mr. Reimers, who himself was a golfer, overwhelmed by his discovery, composed the following lines, which was published in a leading newspaper of the day with a caption Golf – a la Hollandais.
“The weakness we often impute to the Dutch
Is giving too little and asking too much
But the little they give you’ll gladly admit
Is sometimes – not often – a really good bit;
E.g., golf, who’d have thought that jolly old threesome
On the dunes of Bruges so open and freesome
Was the direct ancestor of golf in Ceylon?
Colombo that is. Why share what you’ve won
By true right of inheritance straight from the Heer
Who in seventeen-seven odd kept such excellent cheer
In his place in the Fort, Mom, Roskammer, Deventer
Rhinewine and French ditto and Knyp and ‘Genever’?
And other good things besides both liquid and solid
Who hurried or strolled to bar or the links
For a game of Dutch ‘kolf’ or a couple of drinks.”

The word ‘golf’ is derived from the Dutch kolf, meaning club. The historians are equal in agreeing that golf originated in Holland and not in Scotland, where it was played much in the 15th century. The Dutch colonial officers brought the game to Sri Lanka. However, it is not known whether they played it in a miniature course in the Fort or in the Galle Face Green.

Nothing is known about the origins of the game of golf. Nor is it known when and by whom it was introduced to Scotland. However, it was certainly established as a Scottish game by 1457. Whatever its history may have been, golf was a recognised at an early date as the national game of Scotland.

It was not until towards the 19th century that golf began to spread over England with courses such as Hoylake in Cheshire and Sandwich in Kent. With the expansion of the British Empire, golf too was introduced into colonies as a popular pastime among the compatriots, who were eager to have exercise and relaxation for all classes of people. In Sri Lanka, golf began to be played in major towns from the late 19th century.

The Colombo Golf Club was established in 1880 and the Nuwara Eliya Club in 1890. The Nuwara Eliya golf links at the time were considered the most beautiful, and the best 18-hole course in the east. Golf in Colombo later concentrated to the present links in Borella since December 10, 1896. It was first named after the British Governor Sir Joseph West Ridgeway, who contributed much to promote the game in the island.

The Colombo golf links was provided with a beautiful two-storied pavilion, which was completed in 1905 at a cost of Rs. 32,000.00. Its original beauty is well-depicted in the contemporary photograph reproduced here. This building has been modernised with several additions and alterations, changing the façade to a greater extent. The Kelani Valley railway line cuts through the golf links, adding an attraction to the putter on the plush green.