The horror of VYSTWYKE
The city of Colombo, being only four centuries old (the Portuguese destroyed everything that went before), has less than its share of historical remains. However, it can still yield antique oddities. For instance, walk down Mudalige Mawatha from the old General Post Office building in Fort, and about halfway along, you come to a pinkish-red 18th century building (currently occupied by the police) next to the rear end of the State Bank of India building. On the wall is an inscription in Dutch:
DOOR GEWELT GEVELT
DOOR’T REGT HERSTELT
which means “destroyed by might, restored by right.”
● The building stands on the site of a house that once belonged to a lieutenant in the service of the Dutch United East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC), Andries Swarts. On 12 March 1729, a “Blood Council” had Swarts tortured and disembowelled, his heart cut out and smashed against his face, his throat cut, and finally, his body quartered. On the same day, it had another lieutenant, Benjamin Pegolotti, a Burgher based in Jaffna, beheaded and quartered. On the following 23 June, the Blood Council ordered that the residence of Swarts in Fort and that of Pegolotti in Pettah be demolished. The Governor of the VOC’s Sri Lankan possessions, Petrus Vuyst, had appointed the “Blood Council” – officially a Court Martial – made up of baases, smiths and similar people, unversed in legal matters. They ordered the erection of a pillar on the site of Swarts’ house:
“… 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.”
However, it did not stand for long. A petition outlining Vuyst’s many severe cruelties was sent to the VOC’s “Extraordinary Council of the East Indies” (Raad Extraordinair van Nederlands India) in Batavia (now Jakarta). On 29 August, on the order of the Extraordinary Council, Stephanus Versluys replaced Vuyst. Shortly afterwards, Swarts’ relatives had the site of the levelled building restored to them. They rebuilt the house and placed above the entrance the inscription mentioned at the beginning of this article.
THE MADNESS OF VUYST
● Vuyst took office as the 20th Dutch Governor of Ceylon in 1726. Born in Batavia to the wife of a VOC official, he went for his education to Holland. There, he married well, his wife’s connections enabling him to become Governor of Dutch Bengal and to join the Extraordinary Council, before being posted to Sri Lanka. He suffered from a paranoid personality disorder, which became apparent when, arriving in this island, he placed a patch over his right eye and said that a single eye was enough to govern such a small country. He also said, with considerable egotism, that he intended to rule “with the wisdom of a Solomon and the boldness of a Vuyst”.
Thinking he was surrounded by traitors intent on surrendering the island to the Portuguese, he arrested numerous people on false or trumped up charges, exiling several and executing 19, including Swarts and Pegolotti. His paranoia may have been increased by witnessing the execution of Pieter Erberveld, a nationalist rebel of German/Thai origin, in Batavia in 1722. Erberveld had apparently conspired with several thousand Batavians to kill the Dutch in their sleep and liberate the colony. The VOC authorities tortured, disembowelled, beheaded and quartered him, tore his house down, and built a monument on the site vilifying him, surrounded by a “shaming wall”. It seems Vuyst simply followed this precedent. After his removal to Batavia, Vuyst found himself summoned before the Extraordinary Council, tried for “judicial murders”, found guilty and given the same sentence he had given Swarts. However, on account of his status, the Council allowed him to be executed in a chair. He met his grisly death fearlessly. The Council ordered his body parts burnt and the ashes thrown into the sea.
ALUTHMAWATHA ROAD AND VYSTWYKE
● The bad reputation Vuyst acquired as a result of his misdeeds has tainted even his positive accomplishments, which were many. For example, he raised the rampart surrounding Galle Fort and constructed the Aeolus, Clippenberg, Neptune and Triton bastions: the imposing outward appearance of modern Galle Fort owes a debt to the mad governor.
In Colombo, he built the tautologically named Aluthmawatha Road (“new avenue road”), stretching from the Pettah to Mattakkuliya, one of the longest roads in Colombo. The inaccessibility of the route for carts meant that stone for paving the road had to be passed from hand to hand from the Fort. He has, posthumously, been taken to task for doing this, apparently in order to have access to a hillock overlooking the Colombo harbour, where he built his country residence. Today, Aluthmawatha Road is a narrow, undulating thoroughfare, driving past crowded modern shops and housing, as well as more traditional residences. At its Mattakkuliya end, the road slopes up to the top of a hillock, named Rassa Muna Kanda (“demon face hill”). At the foot of this hillock lies Vystwyke Road, which derives its name from Vuijst Wijk, or Vuyst village, district or quarter. Now a cluttered neighbourhood of shops, houses, warehouses and factories, next to a stagnant canal separating it from Crow’s Island, at the time of Vuyst, it formed one bank of the Kelani River.
According to some sources, Vuyst’s country home bore the name “Buona Vista”, identified with a house of that name which belonged to the Dias Bandaranike family. However, the Bandaranaike “Buona Vista” lay next to Elie House at Mutwal, only halfway along Aluthmawatha Road. It seems far more likely that his residence can be identified with the estate appearing on a 1766 map of Colombo and its surroundings, by VOC cartographer Carel David Wentzel. This indicates that Vuyst built his villa atop Rassa Muna Kanda.
RASSA MUNA KANDA
● Today, a good part of Rassa Muna Kanda has been excavated to form Vystwyke Park, a rather bedraggled playing field. However, what remains gives the observer an idea of what it must have once been like, with a good view over the surroundings. It must have been a salubrious spot to build a country villa.
In 1847, John Leonard Kalenburg van Dort, a schoolboy at the Colombo Academy (later Royal College), went on an excursion to Mutwal and visited Vuyst Wyk. The locals directed him to a “haunted locality”, a well and a bathing tank with steps leading down to it; a lonely spot some 300 metres from Vuyst’s house, whence strange sounds, “groans and sighs innumerable” emanated at all times of the day and night. Van Dort thought that the sounds must be made by the wind, combined with groans emitted by the rubbing together in the wind of a clump of bamboos growing nearby. This writer inquired from the locals the location of the well. They said that a well had existed below Rassa Muna Kanda, but that it had been a victim of the excavation of the hillock. Sections of solid kabook rock peep out from behind a massive retaining wall, bearing witness to the extent of the destruction. Van Dort went on to enjoy considerable fame as an illustrator and writer in the late 19th century. In 1894, he revisited Vuyst Wyk, but found the well and pool in ruins, and the bamboos long since cut down. Nevertheless, he could still hear the mysterious sounds that he had heard 47 years before. The locals were dead scared of the place, and he couldn’t find anyone daring enough to go near the place after nightfall. They told him that the sounds he heard came from the ghost of Governor Vuyst, apparently being punished for his transgressions in a burning “iron chair”, an instrument of torture much favoured by Europeans of yore.
● The locals also said that Rassa Muna Kanda got its strange moniker from a demon who used to live there, and who ate the flesh of passers-by. However, over a century ago, Van Dort gave a rather different twist to this tale. He wrote in the Examiner that the legend stated:
“that the Village bypath leading from the high road behind Vuystwyk was the spot whence many a villager returning homeward after dusk mysteriously disappeared, and that the bones of people of all sexes and ages were unearthed in its immediate vicinity after Vuyst’s reign of terror.”
What was the meaning of these disinterred bones? It appears that Vuyst had a Malay cook who, the legend hinted, waylaid the villagers at this spot and cooked them for his master’s gastronomic pleasure, the bones, buried out of sight, being all that remained of the victims.
To be fair by the former Governor, Van Dort felt that “Whether or not Vuyst was a cannibal, or that his Malay cook shared his cannibalistic propensities is no concern of ours…” But the modern legend of the flesh-eating demon of Rassa Muna Kanda makes for the intriguing possibility that the legend may have been true. Or was it that Vuyst had acquired such a reputation for cruelty that the legend of the flesh-eating demon was conflated with his own? We may never know.