Loot. 10 Stories

Cannon of Kandy

In the video, you see the process of creating a 3D model of the Cannon of Kandy, which is saved on the hard disk exhibited next to the screen. The original decorative cannon was looted in 1765 from the palace of Kandy in central Sri Lanka (Ceylon). By that time, the island’s coastal areas had been occupied for over 100 years by the colonial Dutch East India Company (VOC), which gained most of its profits here from cinnamon, trading it in ways that were often legitimate.

During Dutch colonial rule, the people revolted several times against the exploitation and forced labour they underwent. The open support that King Kirti Sri Rajasingha of Kandy gave to the popular uprising of 1761 marked the beginning of a guerrilla war that lasted several years. After the conquest of Kandy in 1765, many valuables and cultural belongings were either looted or destroyed.

The Dutch colonial army shipped the cannon to the Netherlands, where it became part of the royal art collection and remained in the country even during the occupation of the French revolutionary troops in 1795. Between 1825 and 1875 the cannon was stored in the Mauritshuis, The Hague, before it was transferred to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Since 1964, Sri Lanka has made several requests for the cannon to be returned. After 60 years of repeated request from Sri Lanka the cannon returned to its country of origin in 2023. The digital 3D model you are now looking at will stay behind in the Netherlands.

Such digital reproductions raise questions about intellectual property and the autonomy of artworks and cultural belongings: Are digital models simply copies of original pieces, or do these virtual objects have an intrinsic value of their own? Can digital files ever belong to a single owner, or should they be treated as common heritage? Ethical questions like these are still awaiting answers.

Digital 3D model of the cannon, 2023
2:24 Min
Jongsma + O’Neill


Sri Lanka has been calling for the return of this cannon since 1964. The most recent request from 2022, has now been granted. On 28 August 2023, the Netherlands officially transferred ownership of the cannon to Sri Lanka. In the past, claims were rejected based on the incorrect assumption that the cannon had been gifted to the Dutch stadholder by the King of Kandy. This assumption stemmed from a misinterpretation – dating back to 1894 – of the inscription on the cannon. After in-depth research into the historical artefact’s provenance, the inscription has now been placed in the right context: the cannon was a gift to the King of Kandy and was looted by the Dutch in 1765. Now that it has been conclusively established that the cannon was taken as a war trophy, it has been unconditionally returned to Sri Lanka.

International cooperation

To research the cannon, it was essential to collaborate with experts from Sri Lanka, the UK and the Netherlands. Expertise on 18th-century Kandian art, crafts, weapons and inscriptions is scarce in the Netherlands. Conversely, Dutch archives are difficult for Sri Lankan researchers to access because of the language barrier and physical distance. The joint study of photographs of inscriptions and decorations eventually led to a better understanding of the cannon’s history and yielded answers to questions about its provenance.

Historical and artistic value

The cannon has both Kandian and European features. The winged angels, acanthus leaves and dolphin-shaped handles are part of the original 17th-century European design, while the Sri Lankan decorations were added later. This style brings together various influences from the Indian Ocean region. The Kandian artists responded to the earlier European decorations by adding their own motifs. Since the cannon was intended as a diplomatic gift, they also added a special decoration wishing the recipient good fortune. The decorated cannon is one of the few remaining examples of this artistic style and is therefore of great art historical importance.

Two stages

The cannon’s original home was the royal palace of Kandy, where it was used for gun salutes to welcome guests. Two similar cannons from the same palace were discovered by the international research team at Windsor Castle, in the UK. Thanks to this discovery, it is now clear that the cannon’s decorations were added in two stages, as explained above. When the gun was cast, sometime between 1660 and 1680, the Netherlands wanted to strengthen its trading position in Sri Lanka. This meant that a good relationship with Kandy was important. It is possible that the cannon was gifted to the King of Kandy by the Dutch East India Company. The second decorative layer was commissioned by the Kandian governor Lewke Disava in the 1740s, almost a century later. These decorations were applied as a tribute to the king, in hopes of gaining his favour.

Forgotten provenance

When the cannon arrived in the Netherlands, its backstory was changed. In Stadholder William V’s cabinet of curiosities, it was still described as a war trophy from Ceylon. Then, during the French rule of the Netherlands (1795-1815), it was suddenly labelled a Tunisian cultural artefact said to have been brought back by Admiral Michiel de Ruyter. When the cannon was exhibited at the Mauritshuis in the 19th century, it was displayed in a room dedicated to Dutch history. In 1880, it was discovered that the inscription on the cannon was in Sinhala, a Sri Lankan language. Only then did it become clear that the object was a piece of Sri Lankan heritage.

The Objects in the Exhibition

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