Posted by: lrrp | May 30, 2008

Sri Lanka Portuguese Creole Verses

The Hugh Nevill Collection in the British Library contains 2,227 manuscripts written in Sinhala, Malay­alam Tamil, and P­ali. Among the Oriental collection of Hugh Nevill manuscripts, lies an authentic source of Portuguese Creole which also represents the largest collection of Asian Portuguese Creole folk verse: the Sri Lanka Portuguese Creole Manuscript.

Hugh Nevill (1847-1897) was an outstanding British civil servant who worked in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) from 1865 to 1897. He first served as Private Secretary to the Chief Justice. In 1869, he joined the Civil Service and held many positions until 1897, when he resigned as the District Judge of Batticaloa. He then sailed for France with his collection of manuscripts but died there soon after.
Nevill is, however, better known for his scholarship. His interest in studying the origin and development of Sinhala (the language of interethnic communication and the mother tongue of 74% of the population today) led him to make himself one of the pioneer scholars in the dialects of the Veddhås, Rodiyås, and Vanniyås. He founded and edited The Taprobånian, a journal, in which he published many of his articles. Nevill wrote on many disciplines: anthropology, archaeology, botany, ethnology, folklore, geography, geology, history, zoology, mythology, palaeography, and philology. He was also instrumental in the formation of the Kandyan Society of Arts (Mahanuvara Kala Sangamaya), an institution which still flourishes in contemporary Sri Lanka.

The Hugh Nevill Collection contains 2,227 manuscripts. Nevill prepared two descriptive sets of his volumes, one on the prose works and the other on the poetical works. He took his hand-written works to France with the intention of publishing them but his untimely death prevented him seeing this through. His works on the poetical manuscripts were subsequently edited by P.E.P. Deraniyagala and published as Sinhala Kavi (Sinhalese Verse). After his death, Nevill’s manuscripts were brought to the British Library from France by a Sri Lankan scholar, Don Martino de Zilva Wickremasinghe. The Hugh Nevill Collection (1904), now in the British Library, contains manuscripts written in Sinhala, Malayålam Tamil, and Påli.

Mr K.D. Somadasa of the British Library, London (formerly librarian at the University of Sri Lanka) has gone through the Nevill manuscripts afresh and has described them in detail. His works run into seven volumes and have been published by the British Library and the Påli Text Society.

The Sri Lanka Portuguese Creole Manuscript

Among the Oriental collection of Hugh Nevill manuscripts lies an authentic source of Portuguese Creole which also represents the largest collection of Asian Portuguese Creole folk verse: the Sri Lanka Portuguese Creole Manuscript. Asian Portuguese Creoles once flourished in the coastal towns of India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, and Macao but are a dying race.

Mr K.D. Somadasa suggested that I translate the Sri Lanka Portuguese Creole manuscript. My translations (into Standard Portuguese and English) have been published as two papers (1995 and 1997) by the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka. The manuscript which contains 1,049 quatrains is divided into three sections: ‘Portuguese Song Batticaloa’, ‘Songs of the Portuguese Kaffrinha ­ Portuguese Negro Songs’ and ‘The Story of Orson and Valentine’.

The first two groups were sung by mother tongue Creole speakers: the Burghers (people of Portuguese and Dutch descent) and the Kaffirs (people of African descent brought to the island by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British, the three European colonial powers). Batticaloa is a district in the Eastern Province of the island; the capital of the district is Batticaloa Town. It has become the cultural homeland for the Burghers and the Creole community. The roots of their songs are preserved in this manuscript. The Kaffirs have formed a cultural homeland near Puttalam in the Northwestern Province. Modern Kaffir songs can be traced to this manuscript. The story of Valentine and Oersan is known in Sri Lanka as the Balasanta Nadagama, one of the earliest fully-fledged theatrical performances in the Sinhala theatre. In English literature, Valentine and Orson are two figures of romance. In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol Scrooge said: ‘And Valentine and his wild brother, Orson, there they go!’. There are French, English, Dutch, Swedish, Italian, Spanish, and Icelandic versions of this story. In Sri Lanka there are variants of this story, in Påli (5th century AD), in Buddhaghoas’s Manorathapurani and in Dharmapala’s Paramatthadipani.

The Dutch orthography of this manuscript is particularly interesting in places. Although the scribes have attempted to maintain the Portuguese spelling, it is apparent that they knew Dutch. But this is not surprising as some of the Creole-speakers did know Dutch. Dutch was used for official purposes during the Dutch Era (1658-1796) but Sri Lanka Portuguese Creole was the home language even of the Dutch community. During the British Era (1796-1948), some Burghers opted for English and today the Portuguese Creole is no longer spoken by all the Burghers in the island.

Sri Lanka Portuguese Creole was the successful solution to the intercommunication problems that arose when the Portuguese and Sri Lankans came into contact from the sixteenth century. The Creole served as a lingua franca, the language for external communication and trade purposes, for about three and a half centuries, until English took over this role.

In the last few decades, linguists have realized the importance of studying contact languages (pidgins and creoles) as they are important testing grounds for linguistic theory. In fact, they are to linguists what Drosophila flies and guinea pigs are to biologists. The Portuguese Creole is the oldest creole based on an European language and are therefore particularly interesting. The Nevill manuscript of Sri Lanka Portuguese Creole is, therefore, an invaluable source for linguists. It is also a valuable source for literary, anthropological, and folkloric studies.

Mrs Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya, MSc, is attached to the University College London.

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