Posted by: lrrp | March 10, 2005

Portuguese Occupation of Sri lanka by Damitha Hemachandra

Five hundred years had passed since the strangers, who “eat hunks of white stone and drink blood and have guns with a noise louder than thunder. . .” had landed in the coasts of Sri Lanka.

They brought us baila, wine, many favourite fruits and bread and left us with a new line of community, a new faith and a politically and military troubled coastal line and some historians says that we are yet to get over the cultural, economical and social impacts made by them

Portuguese found themselves in Sri Lankan shores accidentally after a storm. Adverse winds drove Dom Lourenço de Almeida to the island’s coast near Galle in the last months of the years 1505 by chance and yet after seeing the glories the newfound shores could offer them they decided to stay.
Dom Lourenço’s fleet anchored off Colombo. A memorial of this first landing was erected on a boulder overlooking the Bay of Colombo. The Portuguese called it a “Padrao” and a cross above the Royal Arms of Portugal surmounted it. This landmark was still seen bearing the inexplicable date of 1501.

Social and Economical impact

Former Director of Archives Department, Dr. K.D.G.Wimalarathna explains the Social and Economical impact made by the Portuguese landing and their ruling over the coastal line.

The Portuguese found the new island very much to their advantage due to its important geographical position and its rich spice, ivory and gem trade held by Arabian merchants at the time. A treaty was concluded with the King of Ceylon, than residing in the city of Kotte, about two hours by foot from Colombo. The Island was divided in four Kingdoms: Kotte, Sitawaka, Kandy and Jaffna.
The king also gave the Portuguese permission to build a residence in Colombo for trade purposes. Within a short time, however, Portuguese militaristic and monopolistic intentions became apparent. Their heavily fortified “trading post” at Colombo and open hostility toward the island’s Muslim traders aroused Sinhalese suspicions.

The Portuguese soon decided that the island, which they called Cilao, conveyed a strategic advantage that was necessary for protecting their coastal establishments in India and increasing Lisbon’s potential for dominating Indian Ocean trade. These incentives proved irresistible, and, the Portuguese, with only a limited number of personnel, sought to extend their power over the island.
The Portuguese power grab started with the conversion of Dharmapala to Christianity in 1557 and by 1619 had conquered the whole island except the Kandyan kingdom.

The areas the Portuguese claimed to control in Sri Lanka were part of what they majestically called the Estado da India and were governed in name by the viceroy in Goa, who represented the king. But in actuality, from headquarters in Colombo, the captain-general, a subordinate of the viceroy, directly ruled Sri Lanka.

The Portuguese did not try to alter the existing basic structure of native administration. Although Portuguese governors were put in charge of each province, the customary hierarchy, determined by caste and land ownership, remained unchanged.
Traditional Sinhalese institutions were maintained and placed at the service of the new rulers. Portuguese administrators offered land grants to Europeans and Sinhalese in place of salaries, and the traditional compulsory labor obligation was used for construction and military purposes.
The Portuguese tried vigorously, if not fanatically, to force religious and, to a lesser extent, educational, change in Sri Lanka. Buddhist monks fled to Kandy, which became a refuge for people disaffected with colonial rule.
The Roman Catholic Church was especially effective in fishing communities, both Sinhalese and Tamil. Portuguese emphasis on proselytization spurred the development and standardization of educational institutions. In order to convert the masses, mission schools were opened, with instruction in Portuguese and Sinhalese or Tamil.
Many Sinhalese converts assumed Portuguese names. For a while, Portuguese became not only the language of the upper classes of Sri Lanka but also the lingua franca of prominence in the Asian maritime world.

Meanwhile Portuguese also introduced highly organised trade lines of cinnamon trade and arrack brewery, crating a new social class, who were dependent on these trades for heavy commercial gain. The rise of many families influential in the twentieth century dates from this period with the source of their family wealth being the new trade lines created by Portuguese.
The Portuguese laid foundation stone of export agriculture economy with their urge for cinnamon through strategically placed harbours around the country to monopolise export trade of Sri Lanka.
Thus the country entered a new path of export economy from the sustainable agricultural economy, which prevailed in the country making the country dependent on European’s interest.

Religious and Cultural Impact

The Portuguese era marks ending of the medieval era of Sri Lanka influenced mainly by India and religions like Buddhism and Hindu.
It initiated a unique identity moulded by almost 450 years of Western influence due to the presence of three successive European powers and it has its goods as well as bad.

Historian, Ven. Ellawala Medhananda Thera pointed that the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka at various times since 1505 took control of the country’s coastal area from Colombo to Jaffna due to weak political structure in the country and internal disputes between the kings of Sri Lanka.
” They conquered the port of Colombo, which was within the Kotte Kingdom and did not stop until they conquered the whole coastal line building forts at military important points,”
” Their main objective was to conquer the lush spice and gem trade in the region built around Sri Lanka by the Arab traders and to spread their faith Christianity. They had the Papal agreement and established a wooden chapel on their first visit,”

The Portuguese introduced Christianity to the island. They granted special favours to those who converted. However, the first Catholics in Sri Lanka were voluntary converts in Mannar Island. They invited Francis Xavier who was in India during that time but he was unable to accept the invitation and sent a representative who continued with the spreading of the religion in this newfound island.
” They started converting people around their ports during the first years and manipulated their fire power and the disharmony among the Sinhalese kings to convert the Royal descendants like Dharmapala, the grand son of Buwenakabahu the Sixth and son of Vidiya Bandara, the great warrior to Christianity,” Ven. Medhananda Thera pointed.
“The two main impacts made by the Portuguese invasion was that for the first time an European nation or any nation took over the power of our costal line threatening the economy and social balance of the country and the continuous Buddhist cultural line of country was disturbed for the first time,”
” The Portuguese like the South Indian invaders launched a rigorous campaign of destruction against Buddhist and destroyed many important Buddhist and Hindu temples including Devundara Devalaya, Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya and Delgamuwa Viharaya,”
According to Ven. Thera two Portuguese generals Costantino de Sa and Corongno De Sa on their way to the Baddenuwara in Balangoda destroyed many villages and temples among them Saman Vehera and Saman Devalaya and Delgamuwa Viharaya.
“Yet on their way back to Colombo they Sinhala soldiers defeated them at Ellawala,” he said.
“Portuguese single headedly destroyed more temples in the North and East than any invader including Sankili, who was holding power in the North,”
The Portuguese archives themselves speak of a destruction of a Buddhist Pagoda in Trincomalee while many temples in Mannar too were destroyed by them.
“In Kokila Sandesaya the writer, who explains the road from Kotte
to Mannar to Kokila or the nightingale speaks of a temple complex in Mannar with a colossal Bodhisattva statue, which was later destroyed by the Portuguese,” he said.
Ven. Thera pointed that the country’s culture under went great changes with the Portuguese invasion.
“Upto then the invaders were mainly Hindus who had parallel cultural trends but the Portuguese were different. They introduced killing animals for food and mass manufacturing and consumption of alcohol to the coastal area, which spread inland with time,”
“In short we can say that the Portuguese period was the begging of ending of a Sri Lankan culture based on beliefs of mainly Buddhism and Hinduism,”

Yet Portuguese left many colourful leftovers like Creole and Baila.
The interaction of the Portuguese and the Sri Lankans led to the evolution of a new language, Sri Lanka Portuguese Creole, which flourished as a lingua franca in the island for over three and a half centuries from16th to the mid 19th.
Today the Creole is a dying language with the number of its speakers reducing by day. The major groups of speakers are the Burghers in the Eastern province and the Kaffirs or the people of African origin in the North Western province.
The Kaffirs were brought to Sri Lanka by Portuguese, Dutch and British as a part of Naval force and for domestic functions.
Whatever their African origins, the Kaffirs were exposed to and have assumed Portuguese culture. Not surprisingly, there was intermarriage between the Portuguese Burghers and Kaffirs who belonged to the same cultural position. They spoke Sri Lankan Portuguese Creole and were Roman Catholics. The Kaffirs are mainly chena cultivators but a few have found employment in the Puttalam Salt Pans, the Puttalam hospital and in local government offices.

Yet unlike Creole, Baila still prevails although heavily influenced by the local music the original baila tunes introduced by the Portuguese and have found their way to the local music scene in an irreversible way.

Meanwhile it wasn’t just the local music scene, which was effected by Portuguese. They introduced many new worlds to the Sinhala vocabulary including Gudama (ware house), petsam (petition), bayinettu (bayonet), mesa (table), Koppa (cup), saya (skirt), iskola (school), pera (pear) and anju (angel).


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