Posted by: lrrp | May 30, 2008

The record of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka cannot be sanitised by Dr Kamal Wickremasinghe

The recent (500th) anniversary of the Portuguese invasion of Sri Lanka appears to have generated a new wave of retrospection of the evil of colonialism in general and analysis of the impact of the Portuguese on Sri Lanka in particular. Mr P.K.Balachandran’s analysis (referred to in Lankaweb recently), including his observation that there is currently a wave of anti-Portuguese feeling in Sri Lanka was a particularly insightful and accurate one in this context.

The attempts by some writers to ‘sanitise’ the disgraceful historical record of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka in the 16th and 17th centuries appear to be based on the misguided belief that the Sri Lankans are crying out for revenge of the ‘Portuguese’ for past atrocities. However, there is no evidence to prove that the revelations arising from analyses (based on accurate facts) of the historical events during this period, despite inevitably serving as a damning indictment of the Portuguese brand of colonialism, necessarily constitute Sri Lankan demands for retribution or revenge. All Sri Lankans need to be educated on the 450 years of colonial history of Sri Lanka if we are to free ourselves from the bonds that prevent us from reclaiming the glorious past that was the casualty of colonialist vandalism. Such analyses also help us escape and counter the neo-colonialist traps which have not changed qualitatively over the last 500 years!.

One of the first lessons to be learnt about the invasion is that, even though it is conveniently referred to as a ‘Portuguese’ invasion, it was the result of a collaborative venture between the Roman Catholic church and the nobility in Portugal rather than the ‘nation’ of Portugal. (The predominantly peasant populations of Europe at the time had no interest in capturing far-off lands for trade purposes; an observation also applicable to the so-called ‘Dutch’ and ‘British’ invasions of Sri Lanka that followed. Therefore the question of revenge or retribution, let alone an anti=Portuguese feeling should not arise.

The invasion of Sri Lanka followed Vasco de Gama’s invasion of India in 1502. Laurenco de Almeida’s inadvertent sojourn to our shores is said to have occurred while he was on a pirate mission from Cochin where his father Francisco was the viceroy (1505–09). However, the Portuguese invasion in earnest began under the guise of a ‘Trade Delegation’ in 1512, demanding cinnamon trade monopolies and ransom from the king of Kotte. This event laid the foundation for nearly 150 years of economic plunder, desecration and destruction of religious and cultural monuments and unprecedented social change caused by the forced conversion of large numbers of Buddhists and Hindus to Roman Catholicism.

Sri Lanka at the time of invasion

There are many lessons about the importance of national unity, pride and strength, arising from this particular invasion. The Portuguese arrival on the Sri Lankan shores occurred at a time when the island had become vulnerable due to the aftermath of repeated south Indian invasions and control of Sri Lanka over a period of nearly 700 years. By the early 16th century, Sri Lanka had declined from a centrally-ministered vibrant nation with massive technological and cultural heritage to a collection of warring principalities. As Professor K.M. de Silva has noted, “the cumulative effects of repeated invasions on a society already losing its vigour with age” had taken its toll.

The political and cultural impact of south Indian occupations had changed Sri Lanka irrevocably: the Chola rule in particular had brought about the most significant and lasting change through the shifting of the capital from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa due to strategic reasons. Despite re-capturing Anuradhapura, Vijayabahu I chose to rule from Polonnaruwa, starting a dynasty that lasted for nearly 150 years but only matched the glory of Anuradhapura briefly, under the reign of Parakramabahu I (1153–86). The Kalinga capture of power and the callous and disastrous rule of the Kalinga king Magha (1214–55) led to a disintegration of centralised power from Polonnaruwa, giving rise to a number of self-proclaimed ‘kingdoms’ in the provinces, moving periodically for strategic reasons.

Vijayabahu III (1232–36) had founded the Dambadeniya kingdom and his descendents moved the capital to Yapahuwa and later to Kurunegala and to Gampola. In 1412, Parakramabahu VI (1412–67) took the capital to Kotte, and for a brief period, the Kotte kingdom expanded and acquired sovereignty over the island.

By the end of the 15th century however, the fragmentation of the State had become complete with a Tamil kingdom in the Jaffna peninsula under the Arya Chakaravartis and Kandy had been semi-autonomous since Veera Parakramabahu’s reign (1484–1518). Around this period Sri Lanka had contemporary ‘kingdoms’ (which in fact were no more than independent principalities) also at Gampola, Peradeniya, Dedigama and Kurunegala.

The disintegration of central administration had brought about drastic consequences on the economy and society in general. Migration of population away from Rajarata following the fall of Polonnaruwa had taken away the expertise and labour needed to maintain the irrigation system, leading to its disintegration causing in turn, a decline of agriculture and reduction in the revenue base of the kings and the temples. The absence of strong political authority also affected the Sangha, leading to indiscipline and schisms. Hinduism began to exert a marked influence on Buddhist practices with Hindu-style rituals and the worship of numerous Vedic deities becoming widespread. Other Hindu institutions such as the caste system began to take root in Sri Lankan society. This combination of factors weakened the foundations of the once glorious island civilisation: the water storage and transportation network that underpinned rice farming and the social structure centred around the ‘wewa, dagoba and pansala’ paradigm.

In the early 16th century, at the time of Portuguese landing, Kotte under (Vira) Parakrama Bahu VIII (1484-1509) was a weak administration having no control over Kandy (ruled by Senasammata Vikramabahu, 1469-1511) and Jaffna (ruled by Pararajasekaran, 1478-1519). The politically and administratively weakened Sri Lanka was highly vulnerable to the Portuguese designs (which had been previously tested and proven effective in Africa and Latin America).

Portuguese in Sri Lanka

Despite over a century of trying, the Portuguese never managed to fully conquer Sri Lanka. Except for the nominal control of Kotte (1524-1597) through ineffective puppet kings, their sphere of control was largely confined to the coastal regions. A number of attempted incursions in to the hinterland ended unsuccessfully, costing them large numbers of men and immense suffering to the surviving troops. It is a remarkable fact of history that the Sri Lankan nation withstood the Portuguese invasion and ultimately repelled them, despite their control of the high seas, possession of more destructive weaponry, reinforced forts, and crucially, the treachery of some local converts to their religion and culture. The few successes of the Portuguese resulted from lapses of judgement of Sri Lankan kings due to greed, paranoia and naivety rather than clever planning on their part.

The analysis of key domestic events and interactions between the Sinhala rulers and the Portuguese during their period in Sri Lanka reveals that the relationship was governed by mutual mistrust, supplemented by intense revulsion on the part of the kings and criminal intent on the part of the Portuguese. However, the Sri Lankan kings were prepared to set aside the reserves of mistrust and revulsion when confronted with internal threats: they never hesitated to approach the Portuguese for military help to fight internal wars.

The kings of Kotte and Kandy, at different times, sought Portuguese help against Mayadunne of Sitawaka. Mayadunne himself, despite his strident determination to expel the Portuguese, surprisingly, coalesced with them against the kingdom of Kandy. The Portuguese objective at all times was to exploit divisions within the local ruling clans, firstly by subjecting any military assistance to religious conversion of kings (isolating them from the Buddhist power base) and secondly by eliminating the more capable rulers who were an obvious threat to them.

Despite their need for Portuguese military assistance, the kings were cautious about religious conversion: king Bhuvenekabahu who depended desperately on the Portuguese was reluctant to convert. His son-in-law Vidiya Bandara (regent until infant heir Dharmapala was ready to be enthroned) was fiercely Buddhist and was only forcefully baptised while in their custody. King Jayaweera Bandara of Kandy appears to have converted for ‘tactical’ reasons, never practicing the alien religion.

A supreme example of such ‘tactical’ conversions was that of Konappu Bandara: Having an ‘axe to grind’ with Rajasinghe of Sitawaka for killing his father, Konappu joined the Portuguese and was sent to Goa by them and converted to Catholicism. Having won their confidence, Konappu overthrew the 12 year old ‘puppet’ king, proclaimed himself king as Vimaladharmasuriya (1593–1604) and began championing Buddhism. One of the most fascinating episodes (and debilitating to the Portuguese), of the entire era is King Vimaladharmasuriya’s scuttling of Portuguese plans to place Dona Catrina on the throne at Kandy. He inflicted one of the heaviest defeats on them at the battle of Danture on 9 October 1594. To add insult to injury, he took Dona Catrina as his queen securing a legitimate link to the throne.

The events leading to and following the Portuguese sponsored ascent of Dharmapala marked the end of the Kotte kingdom. Dharmapala had been baptised under the name of the reigning Portuguese monarch, John III. Upon his becoming king in 1551, the Franciscans coerced him to acquire and transfer to them the temples, lands and other assets and revenues the former kings had donated to the Buddhist clergy. The Franciscans destroyed Buddhist monuments and converted some of the temples to churches. Between 1561-65 young prince Rajasinghe of Sitawaka inflicted significant losses on the Portuguese, with the battle of Mulleriyawa (1561) being the most devastating. By 1565, Mayadunne, aided by his son Rajasinghe, riding the wave of popular uprising against the desecration of temples and took Kotte, forced the Portuguese and Dharmapala to retreat to the fort of Colombo where they were under siege until about 1580.

The Portuguese launched two unsuccessful attempts, in 1560 and in 1591, to take the Jaffna kingdom. Jaffna repelled these attacks, sometimes with help from Kandy. Jaffna finally fell in 1619 and the incumbent ruler Sankli Kumaran and his family were taken to Goa and was hanged in 1621. Filipe D’Olivera, the commander of the Portuguese army proclaimed himself the governor and started one of the most despicable episodes of desecration destruction and vandalism of religious monuments in recorded human history: Nallur Kandasamy Kovil was razed down and the stones were used to build a Christian church at Nallur and the Jaffna fort; Saraswathy Mahal, the oldest Tamil museum and library that housed valuable historical documents was burnt down.

These events (and their consequences) need to be fully documented for the benefits of future generations of Sri Lankans, serving as a Case Study of the destructive effects of colonialism, and perhaps more importantly, how disunity and greed for power can lead to disastrous results for a nation.

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