Execution of Petrus Vuijst, print by Simon Fokke (courtesy Rijksmuseum)

A long lane in Mutwal, a northern district of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, bears the name “Vystwyke Road”. The name commemorates “Vuyst Wyk”, the old country retreat of the notorious Dutch Governor of what was then called “Ceylon”, Petrus Vuyst.

Vuyst ordered a new road to be built from Colombo’s Fort to Vuyst Wyk. Because carts could not get to it, he ordered paving stones to be transferred from hand to hand from the Fort. The general opinion among scholars is that he moved to Mutwal because wanted to get a better view, but there may have been a quite different explanation.

Early life

Vuyst came into this world in Batavia (now Jakarta) in 1691, at the time the capital of the Dutch East Indies and the Asian centre of the United East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or V.O.C.), then the largest private corporation in the world. The V.O.C. held territories in what is now Indonesia, and also governed the coastal regions of Sri Lanka, the Cape of Good Hope and the island of Mauritius, with outposts in Bengal, Coromandel, Malabar and Surat in India, and Hormuz in Persia — effectively giving it control of the Indian Ocean.

Vuyst’s father Henricus, who died in 1705, worked for the V.O.C. as “sabandaar et licentmeester” (harbour master and head of the import and export duty service) in Batavia — a job with considerable remuneration. On the death of his first wife Adriana van der Lyn, niece of a former Governor of the Dutch East Indies, he married Maria de Nijs of Alkmaar, who bore Petrus, the youngest of seven children.

According to the custom in the Dutch East Indies then, Petrus returned to the Netherlands for schooling, and in 1711 joined Leiden University, marrying Barbara Wilhelmina Gerlings, from an influential family in Haarlem, three years later. The couple lived in Leiden, where they had a still-born child and a daughter, Maria Louisa, who survived.

Vuyst returned to Batavia in 1717, becoming an advocaat fiscaal (public prosecutor), but did not have to wait long in this position. His wife’s family connections gained him appointment to the Extraordinary Council of the Dutch East Indies in 1720 and as Governor of Dutch Bengal in 1722. He returned to Batavia, very much richer, two years later.

Then, in 1725, Johannes Hertenberg, Governor of Dutch Ceylon, died in office, and the Extraordinary Council appointed Vuyst in his place. A rapid rise for so young a person.

Groans and sighs

The V.O.C. began taking over the coastal regions of Sri Lanka from the Portuguese, by seizing the port of Galle, in the south of the island, in 1640. Sixteen years and a long siege later, they captured Colombo. They were to remain in Sri Lanka until dislodged by the British in 1796. The few company employees who settled there engendered an entire ethnic group, the Dutch Burghers.

The British, looking for help in administering an unfamiliar country, turned to the Dutch Burghers. They set up the Colombo Academy, for all intents and purposes, to educate the Dutch Burghers in the ways of England, especially by getting them to use English instead of their native Portuguese-Dutch Creole. A new class of Anglophone Dutch Burghers appeared, erudite and of catholic tastes, of whom the artist and writer John Leonard Kalenberg van Dort proved a shining example. Head-hunted as a draughtsman for the Survey Department, in his spare time he designed transparencies and illuminations, drew caricatures for Muniandi (the Sri Lankan version of Punch) and illustrations for books and newspapers, both in Sri Lanka and Britain. He also contributed articles to the press.

One of his stories concerned Vuyst Wyk. In 1847, van Dort, then a sixteen-year old student at the Colombo Academy, came upon a well and bathing pool about 300 yards behind the house Vuyst had once occupied. The locals informed him that “groans and sighs innumerable issued all day and night” from the spot. He surmised that its loneliness, combined with soughing and rushing of the breeze (it is close to the sea) and with the groans made by bamboos growing around the pool, tended to give this story some credence.

When he revisited Vuyst Wyk in 1894, he found the well and pool in ruins, and the bamboos long gone. However, the mysterious sounds could still be heard, and he could find nobody brave enough to approach the place after dark. Some of the locals told him that the sounds emanated from the ghost of Governor Vuyst, doing nightly penance for his misdeeds in a burning “iron chair”, a mediaeval instrument of torture.

Wisdom of a Solomon

On his return to Batavia from Bengal, Vuyst manifested signs of extreme egotism, apparently unable to bear taking orders from anyone. This disorder grew after his appointment as Governor of Dutch Ceylon. On 26 September 1726, arriving in Colombo, the capital of the Dutch territories in Sri Lanka, he placed a patch over his right eye and declared that a single eye would be sufficient to rule such a small country. He also announced that he would govern “with the wisdom of a Solomon and the boldness of a Vuyst”.

The first half of his period in office seemed absent of any major signs of mental illness. Apart from building his new road to Mutwal, Vuyst ordered the construction of the Aeolus, Clippenberg, Neptune and Triton bastions, on the west side of the fort of Galle and raised considerably the rampart surrounding the town. He apparently bewitched the directors of the V.O.C. with plans to make the island a colossal, concentrated source of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and pepper, a gold mine for the Company which he would keep within the Dutch fold so long as he ruled.

The ramparts of Galle (courtesy Tharinda Elvitigala)

On the other hand, he may have had a more sinister intent: a century later, Henry Marshall, in his Ceylon: A General Description of the Island and Its Inhabitants, averred that Vuyst had a plan to make himself the sovereign ruler of Sri Lanka, independent of the V.O.C. This certainly explains his subsequent actions.

Vuyst dismissed his immediate subordinate, Johannes Paulus Schaghen, the commander of Galle, who had acted as Governor between Hertenberg’s demise and Vuyst’s arrival, accusing him of dishonesty. He also jailed the superintendent of the company arsenal, Gabriel Schade. So far, so good, but now came the gruesome bit.

Blood council

Vuyst set up a court-martial or “Blood Council”, appointing to it people unversed in legal matters, such as carpenters, masons, and smiths. He then tortured several soldiers — pulling out their nails and pouring hot sealing wax on the wounds, applying of corrosives on lacerations and breaking the bones of all four limbs — to obtain confessions about an alleged plot against him, extracting from them the names of their “accomplices”. He arrested numerous people on false or trumped up charges, exiling several and executing others. Subsequent reports accused him of being judge, witness and executioner.

In the period between 11 February and 30 April, a total of 19 people died as a result of these prosecutions: six by hanging at the gallows; eight by hanging from a tree in the square outside the chamber in which the “Blood Council” met; three by breaking their bones and cutting off their heads and sticking them on pikes. One of the remaining two executions stood out for its exceptional cruelty.

On 12 March 1729, the Blood Council had a Lieutenant, Andries Swartzen tortured, then disembowelled, his heart cut out and smashed against his face, his throat cut and, finally, quartered. They then executed Swartzen’s landlord, levelling his house and building a pillar on the site as a warning to others:

“… wherefore, His Excellency has caused to be prepared a design for a four-sided stone pillar standing 7 feet between the upper and lower mouldings and surmounted by a death’s head pierced through with an iron pin and on the pillar the following inscription:
In the Year 1729 is this Memorial raised to the accursed memory of the executed traitor Andries Swarts on the site of his demolished dwelling-house to be to the righteous a token of incessant thankfulness to God for His Providence, and to the wicked a perpetual warning against evil.”

Vuyst’s paranoia increased until it subdued his sense of judgement. Finding a Portuguese called de Kauwe to have committed a crime, he dispensed with the formality of a trial. He ordered that de Kauwe be bound and stuffed into the barrel of a cannon, and then fired acrossthe ramparts of the Colombo Fort, scattering his remains all over the place.

Trial

Several families fled to avoid prosecution. Finally, a general petition against Vuyst reached the Extraordinary Council in Batavia, which decided to remove him. It sent Stephanus Versluys, son of a highly connected mayor of Middleburg and son-in-law of the Governor General of the Dutch East Indies, to arrest him and replace him as governor.

Versluys sent Vuyst back to Batavia to face trial. He released Vuyst’s prisoners and reinstated Schagen and Schade. A wall of Swartzen’s rebuilt house was inscribed with the words “Door Gewelt Gevelt, Door’T Regt Herstelt”, meaning “Destroyed by might, restored by right.” Unfortunately, Versluys proved to be none too honest and, three years later, found himself recalled to Batavia to serve a prison sentence for embezzlement, later commuted on payment of a fine.

Inscription on Swartzen’s rebuilt house in Colombo’s Fort (Vinod Moonesinghe)

Vuyst’s wife went back to Holland in an attempt to save him, to no avail. Summoned before the Extraordinary Council in Batavia, tried for “judicial murders” and found guilty, he received the same sentence as he had given Swartzen, with a crucial difference: the Council allowed him to be executed in a chair, on account of his status as governor.

On 19 May 1732, Vuyst went to his place of execution, apparently quite without fear, as witnessed by a large number of spectators. The executioners stripped him and bound him in a chair, and one pulled back his head and severed it with a knife. He then placed the corpse on a bench and disembowelled it; the second executioner quartering it and throwing the pieces onto a specially constructed brick fireplace, to be joined by his clothes and the chair. The next day they collected his ashes and disposed of them in the sea.

Immediately after the execution, the V.O.C. came out with Kort en naauwkeurig verhaal van ʹt leven en opkomst van… Petrus Vuyst, gewezen Gouverneur op ʹt Eiland Ceilon: alsmede een waaragtig berigt, van alle zijne gepleegde gruwelstukken (Brief and accurate story of the life and emergence of … Petrus Vuyst, former Governor of the island of Ceilon: as well as a truthful account of all his committed atrocities), apparently in order to justify it.

Malay cook

Yet, neither the cruelty of Vuyst’s prosecutions, nor the manner in which the V.O.C. executed him, merit the fear which the inhabitants of Mutwal had for his ghost. The V.O.C. customarily employed vicious methods of punishment. “This mode of punishing criminals appears to be extremely barbarous,” Marshall commented, drily, on Vuyst’s execution, “but it is not so much so as the vivisection and heart roasting atrocities practiced in [Britain] on like occasions, even as late as 1746.”

Vuyst himself, before going to Bengal, had witnessed the cruel execution of a nationalist rebel in Batavia (which may have contributed to his aberrant behaviour). Of German/Thai origin, Pieter Erberveld had apparently conspired with several thousand Batavians to kill the Dutch in their sleep and liberate the colony. The Extraordinary Council ordered him tortured, disembowelled, beheaded and quartered; his house torn down, and a monument built on top vilifying him, surrounded by a “shaming wall”. Vuyst probably used Eberveld’s execution as a model for his punishment of Swartzen.

To discover why the denizens of Mutwal held Vuyst in such evil repute, we must go back to van Dort. Some locals had also told him that the moaning they heard near the well at Vuyst Wyk emanated from the ghosts of Vuyst’s other victims. The governor, it turned out, employed a Malay cook, who would raid neighbouring villages and kidnap people, take them back to his kitchen and cook them for his master. Whether the cook himself partook of human flesh, van Dort did not know. He did know, however, of the discovery of a pile of bones near the well, after Vuyst’s removal.

So Vuyst may have built his retreat so far from the Fort, necessitating so much labour to build a road to get there, not because of the view of the harbour, but because he could, less obtrusively, indulge in his forbidden cannibalistic habit.

Today, Vystwyke Road passes through a bustling neighbourhood, with warehouses and factories sharing walls with elegant residences and not so elegant slums. Very few of the modern residents are aware of the legends once associated with the place, filled with the noise of traffic in the daytime. But every now and then, on particularly silent nights, one may still hear groans and sighs.

Read Mechanical Engineering, University of Westminster; worked in tea machinery, railways and motor spares, then turned to journalism and history. Chair, CGTTI.

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