Posted by: lrrp | October 3, 2005

The Portuguese in Sri Lanka by Marco Ramerini

The first Portuguese visiting Ceylon was Dom Lourenço de Almeida in 1505 or 1506. Accidentally, after a storm, adverse winds drove him to the island’s coast near Galle. In the last months of the years 1505 or 1506 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 in 1920 (now?) bearing the inexplicable date of 1501.
This first expedition admittedly built a wooden chapel and an agency in Colombo. These structures were abandoned a few years later.
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, the most important, Sitawaka, Kandy, in the mountains, and Jaffna in the North.
In 1518, the Viceroy Lopo Soares de Albergaria landed at Colombo with a large fleet. Here the Portuguese began to build a small fort named “Nossa Senhora das Virtudes” or “Santa Barbara”. This first fort was a triangular in shape surmounted by a central tower. Sinhalese soon besieged the fort, and around 1524 the Portuguese dismantle it. The Portuguese kept an Agent in the Island under the protection of the Sinhalese King at Kotte.
Giving up of Colombo was a mistake. The colony of Muslims merchants immediately attempted to win back their supremacy in the Kingdon of Kotte and to re-conquer the cinnamon trade. However, they were to be defeated by the few Portuguese still presents in the Island.
The Mappillas (Malabar Muslims) that up to 1539 nourished a dynastic conflict in the Kingdoms of Sitavaka and Kotte, opposed the Portuguese presence in Ceylon. Martin Afonso de Sousa, at Vedelai in 1538, and Miguel Ferreira, at Negombo in 1539 would definitely defeat the Mappillas.
Also in these years, and with encouragement from the King of Kotte, the missionaries began the work of converting the peoples of Ceylon to Christianity. Churches were erected in the fishing village of the southwestern coast. Sadly, in 1544, the King of Jaffna massacred more than 600 Christians in the island of Mannar.
However in 1545 the King of Jaffna submitted and paid tribute to the Portuguese.
In October 1550, the Viceroy Afonso de Noronha arrived in Ceylon with 500 Portuguese soldiers that occupied Kotte, and sacked Sitawaka.
But the Viceroy lost a good opportunity of establishing the supremacy of Portugal over the entire island.
In November 1554, Duarte de Eca with 500 soldiers built a new fortress in Colombo.
By 1556 the communities of fishermen occupying the sea coast south of Colombo (70.000 people) were converted to the Christianity. The King of Kotte, Dharmapala (re-christened as Dom Joao Perya Bandara) and the Queen (re-christened as Dona Catherina) were converted to Christianity. Following the King example, a few nobles, adopted the Portuguese title of Dom (Sir), the Portuguese manners and language. These conversions were a serious mistake for the King and his entourage because they alienated the majority of the Sinhalese population.
In 1560, Viceroy Dom Costantino de Bragança with 1.200 men conquered the town of Nallur, the capital city of the Kingdom of Jaffna, and soon afterwards the Viceroy proceeded to the island of Mannar where a fort was built.
In July 1565, the Portuguese decided to transfer the Court and the capital to Colombo, thus Kotte was abandoned. The Portuguese at Colombo were surrounded, the Sinhalese had three strong garrisons around Colombo at Wattala, at Nagalagama and Mapane.
Only in 1574 did the Portuguese take the offensive. They plundered Negombo, Kalutara and Beruwela, drove out the garrisons at Nagalagama and Mapane and ravaged the districts of Weligama and Chilaw.
In August 1587, Raja Sinha, the King of Kandy and Sitawaka, began the siege of Colombo.
The Portuguese town was protected by fortifications with 12 bastions, that the Sinhalese assaulted many times but always failed. In February 1588 they abandoned the siege.
Till the very end of XVII century the Portuguese were masters of the coast forts of Colombo, Galle, Kalutara and Negombo.
In 1591 Andre Furtado de Mendoça invaded Jaffna and set up a new king at Nallur.
The Portuguese occupied Kandy for a brief time in 1592, but, after a few weeks, they were forced to withdraw. They were also masters of the Kingdoms of Kotte and Sitawaka, but several attempts to occupy Kandy were met with failure.
In 1597 the Portuguese had begun to fortify Galle.
On 27 May 1597, King Dom Joao Dharmapala died at Colombo without heirs and, in accordance with his will, his Kingdom was donated to the King of Portugal. Thus, as King Philip of the then United Kingdoms of Spain and Portugal was proclaimed King of Ceylon, the whole of the territory of the Kingdom of Kotte was thus under the control of the Portuguese, only Kandy was still not under Portuguese rule.
In 1598, the Portuguese occupied Etgala Tota which commanded the passage of the river Maha Oya. In 1599, a strong fort was erected at Menikkadawara (Manicavare) at the Kandian’s border.
On 31 May 1602, the first Dutch expedition arrived in Ceylon. They dropped anchor at Batticaloa, an harbor which the Portuguese had never occupied, and established friendly relations with the King of Kandy against the Portuguese.
In January 1603, Dom Jeronimo de Azevedo occupied the fort of Ganetenna and the abandoned fort of Balane, the key to Kandy. However, a few days later he was forced to withdraw and Menikkadawara was also lost.
On 1611, De Azevedo marched with 700 Portuguese and many Lascarins to Kandy, taking also possession of the fort of Balane where he left a garrison. He was also successful in conquering the city of Kandy, which was taken and burnt. The King of Kandy submitted himself to the Portuguese. Although not destroyed, the Kingdom of Kandy had been neutralized.
In 1624 the Portuguese occupied and fortified Trincomalee.
In 1628, Dom Constantino de Sa after strengthening Menikkadawara, crossed the island and occupied and fortified Batticaloa. During the return march to Colombo he raided Kandy. In 1629, Uva (today Badulla) was also devastated.
In 1630, Dom Constantino de Sa, under pressure from the Viceroy, decided to undertake an expedition against the King Senarat’s capital at Badulla.
On 9 August 1630, a small Portuguese army of 400 Portuguese soldiers, 200 Portuguese Casados (married men of the reserve army), and about 4400 Lascarins, began the march from Sabaragamwa (near Ratnapura) to Uva across Ceylon’s jungles. On 18 August 1630 the Portuguese entered Badulla that was found deserted, and for two days sacked and burned the town down. On 21 August 1630, the Portuguese began the march to return to Colombo but were attacked by the Sinhalese army. Most of the Lascarins betrayed – only 500 remained loyal – and joined the enemy. For the Sinhalese this was an overwhelming victory: of the Portuguese expedition, only 130 men survived and surrendered.
This defeat placed Portuguese Ceylon in danger. If the Sinhalese had the means of blockading Colombo by sea, the complete destruction of Portuguese power in Ceylon would have been assured.
After this victory, King Senarat captured the fort of Saparagamuwa and set Colombo under siege. But after three months of siege the Sinhalese army was forced to withdraw.

(WWW Virtual Library – Sri Lanka)


  1. Dear Marco,

    Please contact me, I am in the middle of attempting to produce a documentary on the Fall of Malacca.

    Thank You

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