Posted by: lrrp | February 10, 2006

Portuguese Encounter in Retrospect by Bandu de Silva

Some Thoughts on the International Conference

As the year 2006 begins it is time to reflect on the demi-millennium that passed which witnessed many changes in the Sri Lankan society. Some attributed the change to the coming of the Portuguese to whom others attributed a global role as purveyors of the civilization across the four continents. One former Sri Lankan academician turned politician who had lost perspective even asked if the country wanted to go back to the pre-Portuguese era as if this land was a wild country earlier,

Others who saw it differently and met the oft made claim that the Portuguese brought the civilizations of four continents together asked how there could be a coming of civilizations together when the Ibero expansion of the 15th to 17th centuries saw the annihilation of an entire civilization of the single continent of the two Americas alone where over 30 million people were put to the sword or consumed by gun fire and new cities were built on their ancient settlements which were raised to the ground and cathedral were built on their pyramidic structures, and new people were imposed on that land whose nomenclature came to be changed to “‘NEW WORLD.”

In Africa, the Portuguese missionaries said the cannibals understood nothing but the rod which was the method used in their conversion. What was used in the Fisheries coast of India by Francis Xavier and repeated in Mannar, if any less harsh, it was because of the intermingling of miracles with the missionary method. But, on the whole, in Asia, they found a different situation.

Speaking of Sri Lanka, or Ceilao, the Portuguese Jesuit chronicler, in a harsh remark on the method used by the first Franciscan Superior missionary, Joao de Villa de Conde, wrote that the Father ought to know that “Chingalaz’ are also a people with values and a culture”. This is the theme that contemporary writers like Prof. C. R. Boxer and Fr. M. Qiuere, O.M.I. have developed to point out that the Portuguese, both the nobility and the missionaries were obsessed by the exaggerated superiority of their culture and religion.

The response of the Sinhalese was exemplified by King Bhuvanekabahu’s questioning Francis Xavier’s replacement who continued on the theme of the Hell used by the apostle to convert the King, when he asked Monis Baretto if he had experience of it. The latter was so annoyed with the King for questioning his stupidity that he dashed his bonnet on the ground upon which the King remarked that the Christian Hell must be a rigorous place indeed, if the souls that go there receive the suffering which Antonio Monis Baretto had caused him. That explained the difference between the culture that the Portuguese brought to Sri Lanka and that of the Sinhalese!

The two day International Conference organized on 10th and 11th December 2005 by the Portuguese Encounter Group in Sri Lanka on the occasion of the quincentenary of the arrival of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka was not Portuguese bashing all the way as some may have expected. It was a serious conference which brought together a wide group of researchers who presented their results to an equally varied and large audience drawn from all walks of life. That every seat was occupied despite the inclement weather caused by a cyclone that morning as if to remind one of the storm that brought Lorenzo de Almeida to our shores towards the end of 1505 or thereabouts, was a pointer to the public enthusiasm.

What did every one come to hear and see on those two days? Was it to remind themselves of the negative side of the Portuguese encounter like the devastation caused to our land, our age old traditional culture and religion by these purveyors of the Western civilization? That is what they had hitherto heard by word of mouth or oral tradition, and the mute remains of the physical monuments of ancient buildings or the churches with their rising spires which came up in their places like the new cities and cathedrals which the Crotes built on the old pyramids of the glorious Aztec empire of Montezuma which they submerged?

Or, was it to hear of the opposite point of view that the Portuguese brought as some say, the civilizations of the four continents together; and introduced a culture about which both their nobility and the clergy possessed exaggerated ideas of superiority, of a mobility and an urban civilization and transmission of styles, mores and ideas, some thrown up during the European renaissance, some the Portuguese themselves had evolved through their contacts with the Arab world and Asia, to the midst of a decadent old island civilisation which was only awaiting to be salvaged from the depth of cultural abyss. These were, as one might think, the so called more of positive gains of the Portuguese interaction.

Whatever one may have expected, no one could have gone disappointed. There was enough to fire one’s imagination and stimulate further research on all these counts.

Portuguese View Point

One could say that the Portuguese point of view was not represented at the Colombo conference. This is what the agents of the Gulbenkian Foundation have been saying for a long time about the presentation of the story of Portuguese encounter gl
obally. They point out that Portuguese history has been examined from Sri Lankan national point of view which is but the reversal of the truth. How could this be when what we have learnt all along from the school text books onwards written by Fr. S. G. Perera to later researchers that the Portuguese came for the peaceful purpose of trade, a distortion of facts if one examines the situation closely? If it was trade, it was a different type of trade, not the free trade that the East was accustomed to but a Portuguese monopoly with unfavourable terms and many other tricks like introducing larger measures when buying. Fernao de Queyroz, the Jesuit chronicler was perhaps, the first in line to put across the idea of negative thinking in this country about the Portuguese. He remarked that the hatred of the Sinhalese against the Portuguese was not put to an end by the death of Viceroy Noronah who was responsible for causing the murder of King Bhuvanekabahu and for the pillage of his kingdom later for its treasure and that remembrance of evil was more powerful in “ungrateful minds than the recollection of benefits’ although many of these excesses were made up for, it did not succeed in diminishing the memory of this tragedy’.

How could one say that Portuguese history has been presented from a nationalistic point of view when even now a number of Sri Lankan scholars who had obligations to the Portuguese organizations even avoided contacts with the Sri Lankan Portuguese Encounter Group for fear of losing patronage!

It is true that the Portuguese point of view has been side-tracked not in Sri Lanka but globally. I have pointed out earlier, and now I find that Russel-Wood making the same point, that the Portuguese found no place in the Columbus tercentennial celebrations in 1792 nor in the quincentenary of 1992 which was usurped by the Americans. Portuguese -American debate has an older history as the Admiral Professor S. E .Morison and the Portuguese cartographic-historian Armando Cortisao’s debates point to.

At the Colombo conference the Portuguese contribution was not altogether ignored. There were some presentations on Portuguese contribution like the contribution to architecture presented by one of the leading architects with a cultural bent; ‘thoughts on the spatial and architectural impacts’ presented by another leading architect, “Portuguese role in introducing plants to Sri Lanka’, “numismatic changes resulting from Portuguese encounter’, “currency in Sri Lanka during Portuguese encounter’, “influence of Portuguese on Sinhala and Tamil languages’, and ‘music links between today and the Portuguese encounter period’. The conference missed a contribution of the Portuguese to keeping land and revenue records, though these were very rudimentary and were based on the country’s own ancient system of keeping “Lekam — miti.’ Interesting as these contributions were, they are what one may call “transmission of styles, mores and ideas’, still not the most essential but the superficial elements of Portuguese interaction.

Civilisational Dialogue

The more important consideration should have been a study of the more fundamental point of the claimed role of the Portuguese as purveyors culture, particularly, the western culture to the rest of the world. This is where a contribution from those who make such claims could have been useful to start a dialogue. Unfortunately, those who could have made such contributions were not present. Understandably, they decided to hold their own conference in another part of the globe with the participation of a few Sri Lankan or ex-Sri Lankan academics. The Conference organizers here did not have the material resources to provide the material benefits to attract their participation. Very few are ready to extend scholarship today without pecuniary or personal benefits! They could even go to the extent of bashing one’s own country and telling the world that Sri Lankans were without a culture or an economy until the Portuguese introduced everything!

The issue if the Portuguese introduced a civilisational dialogue was taken up by me in one of the papers I presented on the theme of “‘Converting a Heathen King – Bhuvanekabahu’s response to the missionaries.” I would have expected a corresponding response but that was not forthcoming. Fr. S. G. Perera, S.J., had taken up the issue to some extent from the Christian point of view in a paper entitled “Portuguese Missionary

Method” which he wrote in the last century. While he observed that there was very little recorded on the Portuguese missionary methods and said he was not speaking or approving or defending their methods, or criticizing them he went on to defend them later. In the chronicled dialogue between the Franciscan Superior Joao de Vila de Conde and King Bhuvanekabahu there is ample evidence of the missionary method which Fr. S. G. Perera said was lacking in the documents. I leave the discussion on this issue which I introduced in the context of that dialogue again at the 10th International Conference on Sri Lankan Studies at the Kelaniya University (17th December 2005) for a later occasion for the benefit of readers and as a starting point of a discussion provided the newspaper editors would be generous with their printed space.

Balanced Presentation

Back to our subject, at the Portuguese encounter International Conference, naturally, there was concentr
ation on missionary activities, and evangelisation including the policy and missionary methods, which provided a contrast to what Fr. S. G. Perera wrote, not rhetoric as he submitted but presentations of a very high academic standard. The presentation ‘Spiritual conquest; baptism or conversion’ met Fr. S. G. Perera’s position adequately and convincingly though it was not intended to be a reply to Fr. S. G. Perera but an independent study on the missionary methods and the shortcomings.

There were presentations of the nature and evidence of destruction of Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic religious places derived mainly from Portuguese sources supported by oral tradition, literary and archaeological and physical evidence, placing the objectives in the global context of Bulls issued by the Popes, Orders of the King of Portugal to the Viceroy in Goa, the Orders of the Goa Councils and the Inquisition. The physical splendour of the places destroyed was reconstructed using local literary sources, Portuguese references, and chronicled accounts while their excellence as intellectual centers was portrayed through references to literary evidence and foreign observations. Oppression of Buddhist, Hindu and Muslims of Sri Lanka, with emphasis on the south, west and Jaffna, and also Malabar and how Goa resisted culturally for 500 years also received emphasis.

To balance these there were presentations on the global scene, such as “Shadow of 500 Years,’ the background to Portuguese expansion -the global scene, and the ideology of violence [under the Portuguese].

The second day of the Conference was devoted to detailed examination of such subjects as the impact of currents and wind systems in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lankan Water crafts in the Pre- Portuguese and post Portuguese period, Sinhalese weapons and armour-response to European style warfare, Kandyan war strategies in the resistance to Portuguese invasion, Sinhala Manuscript sources: ‘Hatana poetry’, Sitwaka Rajasinhge’s leading General, converting a ‘heathen’ king or Kotte’s response to missionaries, baptism or conversion, resistance movements against the Portuguese, sources and status of scholarship, Portuguese epigraphic evidence, contentious issues in the interaction between Kotte and the Portuguese, exploitation of Sinhala royal youth for Portuguese expansion, legal validity of Dharmapala’s donation of the kingdom to the King of Portugal, introduction of Sri Lankan biota to the Western world and reverse process, reverse transfer in the early colonial period Sinhala Jewellery in the Portuguese and European courts, Sri Lankan travelers during the Portuguese period, the world of learning in Sri Lanka during pre-Portuguese period, spatial and architectural impact, Portuguese contribution to architecture, currency in during Portuguese occupation, and numismatic changes in post Portuguese times, spread of Muslim settlements in the East, Portuguese words in Tamil and Sinhala, Musical links, the issue of apology and compensation and others.

High Academic Order

All these presentations were of a very high academic order. Special mention should be made of the presentations on Sri Lankan Water Crafts of the period, Sinhalese wapons and armour response to European style warfare which was on a class of its own, Kandyan resistance, weapons, tactics and strategy, reverse transfer in the early colonial period- Sinhala Jewellery in the Portuguese and European courts, the world of learning in Sri Lanka during pre-Portuguese period, resistance movements of the littorals against the Portuguese, the spiritual conquest: baptism or conversion and exploitation of Sinhala royal youth for Portuguese expansion. It is not that the other presentations were of any lesser order.

Carriers of Disease

Some who may be still familiar with the situation in our country when people did not move out of their villages and touch food or water fearing contacting that deadly disease Parangi even in the last century (I saw the disease in epidemic proportions in the deep-jungle villages of Matale districts in mid 1950s) or browsed through the Legislative Enactments of the British government of the last two centuries deposited in our National Archives which refer to the seriousness of this scourge which swept through the island depopulating it, may have been disappointed that the topic of the Portuguese as carriers of disease was not discussed. Even Russel-Wood who wrote under the auspices of the Calouste Gulbenikian Foundation could not avoid a reference to the Portuguese as disease carriers when he said that the people who moved around the Portuguese seaborne empire were also carriers of diseases. They were carriers of European pathogens; they were both victims and carriers of malaria, stagnant water in their carracks and caravels providing ideal breeding conditions. One new disease they introduced to Eurasia and Africa was syphilis which Columbus’ sailors are said to have brought from America in 1453 and Vasco da Gama’s men introduced to Calicut in 1497 and to Canton in 1505. Other old world diseases they introduced to other parts were, plague, thyphus, tuberculosis, malaria, yellow fever, influenza, measles, smallpox and mumps. (Russel-Wood). Smallpox was lethal to Amerindian people.

The Calouste Gulbenikian Foundation of Portugal which along with the Portuguese government was looking for an opportunity to commemorate the event of the arrival of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka should feel happy that Portuguese Encounter G
roup really took over the task which they failed to promote with the Sri Lankan government and the participation of Sri Lankans at large, though no “tamashas’ could have been expected of them. Those Sri Lankan leaders who expected to promote the idea should also feel happy that the occasion did not go without a marked significance here one way or the other and it turned out to be a well balanced affair. The Gulbenikian Foundation should, however, regret that its energy was misdirected in organising rival events by its agents by holding separate workshops and enlisting those who were actively participating in the Portuguese Encounter Group’s work, rather than seeking away to work with the local group.

30th December 2005



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