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Oldest cemetery in India legacy of Dutch colonial empire

Restored with Embassy help

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

FORT KOCHI, India - The Dutch Cemetery in Fort Kochi, the oldest European cemetery in India, was reopened recently after extensive renovation work. The 284-year-old cemetery is considered to be a valuable source of information of hundreds on Europeans, both the Dutch and the English, who died in India on while business for their colonial empires.

Consecrated in 1724 by local VOC officials, the cemetery has 104 tombs. The renovation work was carried out with the help of the Dutch Embassy in India.

As part of the renovation project, the tombs and markers were cleaned and restored and flowers planted around them. The entire graveyard was landscaped and its surrounding wall strengthened. The work was undertaken by local contractors and supervised by Indian archeologists.

The St. Francis Catholic Church at Fort Kochi, originally Portuguese, is responsible for maintaining the restored facility. Vicar P. J. Jacob has promised help in tracing other Dutch monuments in Kerala, the state on the southern-most tip of India’s west coast.

An unique feature of the tombs is that none of them display a cross, unlike modern tombs in the area which has a Christian presence. Both the big and small tombs resemble the Dutch architecture of the eighteenth-century. The inscriptions use an archaic Dutch text.

Old ties

The last burial took place in 1913 when Captain Joseph Ethelbert Winckler was laid to rest. The British Cemetery at Veli, which dates back to 1804, is being managed by St. Francis as well.

In 1683, the Dutch captured the territory from the Portuguese and held Fort Kochi as their base for 112 years, when in 1795 the British took control as part of their campaign to thwart the Dutch from siding with the French, the conquerors of the Netherlands.

It is not the first time that Dutch tradesmen looked at Fort Kochin structures needing repair. The local palace which the Portuguese built for the local Indian lord was extensively repaired by the Dutch after they chased out their Iberian competitors. Over time, the local population called it the Dutch palace. Although the exterior looks simple, the interior is extraordinarily luxurious and has been put to good use as a museum that showcases the grandeur of the royal past. The collection on the top floors of the museum includes imperial robes and thrones, Dutch maps, palanquins and weapons.


Dutch interest in aiding restoration work at Dutch colonial sites overseas was kindled in the early 1990s. At the time, Second Chamber member Embert Van Middelkoop, now the newly appointed Minister of Defense, reminded authorities of the potential for goodwill if they offered technical know-how for restoring colonial heritage sites and so rejuvenating centuries-old ties. There are numerous such Dutch colonial heritage sites throughout the world, from Spitsbergen to Galle, Sri Lanka and Recife, Brazil to Taiwan, St. Petersburg and Archangel in Russia and Smyrna, Turkey, to name a few.