Posted by: lrrp | May 31, 2008

Celebrating the arrival of the Portuguese? by J. B. M`FCller

A Categorical Response

Why, oh why do some writers have to get all so emotional and race down the track like some runaway train with a host of adjectives trailing behind? Nan who I presume is a normal, healthy and sane writer is going down the line at terrifying speed in her article: “Celebrating the arrival of the Portuguese?”

The Renaissance opened men’s minds to asking questions after centuries of clerical though control by the Roman Catholic Church. That is a fact of life recorded by history. Before that, it was the birth of Islam, the Crusades, the Black Death, and the Mongol Invasion that precipitated the Renaissance. The turmoil generated by these several happenings also produced the Reformation and the Inquisition and the Counter Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War and other conflicts between prelate, prince, and peasant. Conflict does make barbarians of civilized men is a fact testified to by history.

It is with such a backdrop the people who inhabited the westernmost portion of the continent of Europe ventured out into the Atlantic to discover and colonize the Azores, the Canaries and the Madeira Islands. They also explored the coast of Africa and eventually discovered the sea-route to India and the Indies and went as far as China and Japan. Their Iberian brethren went across the Atlantic in the wake of the Genoese Christopher Columbus to discover the continents of North and South America.

Other pressures soon enough transformed what started as ventures for trade in lucrative spices into another crusade against Islam. One was the king’s need to salve his conscience by converting peoples viewed as heathen in the religio-cultural context of the time. That also had a political dimension in that it could strengthen his hand with the pope, the supreme leader of Christendom. This was an era when religion, politics, business, and power were inextricably interconnected and different interests converged and diverged into co-operation or conflict.

The Portuguese came here more by accident than by design. When they returned 13 years later, that is in 1518 they certainly came to trade. Why was this so? It was so because traders do not want to diminish their profits with unnecessary overheads and maintaining soldiers was an expense that ate into profits. They had a fleet of armed merchantmen because their rivals, the Ottoman Turks, also had armed merchantmen roaming the Indian Ocean to protect their interests.

Today, that function is discharged by the several navies of the most powerful nations on the planet led by the United States. Those navies patrol the sea-lanes today to protect their vital trading interests such as the oil from the Persian/Arabian Gulf.

Indeed, what did the Portuguese leave? Kaffiringha is a style of music that is a marriage between East African and Portuguese. Kokis is not a Portuguese word at all. It is Dutch for biscuit and the word ‘cookie’ so beloved of Americans is derived from it.

Getting emotional about the barbarism practiced by some few pathological sadists does not justify stigmatizing the entire Luso-Iberian people. Human beings in all ages, under different circumstances, adhering to different systems of belief, have been barbaric and continue to be so.

Are the Sinhalese to be labelled ‘barbarians’ for some of the inhuman, even demonic cruelties practiced in 1983? Or, are the Tamils to be similarly labeled because of the barbarism of the LTTE in slaughtering Buddhist monks or Muslim worshippers at Friday jummah prayers?

Emergency ’58 showed us how people can become ferociously cruel in our own day and time and it is therefore unfair to lambaste the Portuguese and caricature them as some kind of demonic people because some amongst them did awful things.

Human nature is human nature and people are prone to extreme forms of violence that have no rational explanation. It is also universal and not limited to one race or another but common to all mankind.

Generalizations that state that: “The Portuguese came with the sword in one hand and the cross in the other” are as inaccurate as they are untrue and a distortion of the truth. Those who came to trade were not interested in propagating religion. However, their government insisted, under pressure from the Church authorities, that every ship carry missionaries to convert the heathen. Thus, they too came on the backs of the merchants.

The view that conversion was by compulsion could be vigorously contested because those who had been compelled to become Roman Catholics could have reverted to their original religions – but didn’t and the vibrant and dynamic community of Catholics along the Western coast and in the interior in such places like Wahakotte testify to the fact that these converts felt comfortable with their conversion. The proof of that is that they endure to this day.

What did the Portuguese contribute? Today, Sri Lanka takes its place in the worldwide community of nations because of the modernizing and globalizing influence of the first Portuguese who came to this Island. The foundations they laid were built upon and improved by the Dutch and then by the British. The legacy that these European nations bequeathed is, in balance, more beneficial than bad because they laid the foundations for the entire complex infrastructure of modern life in this country.

They contributed thousands of words to the indigenous languages to the extent that it is hard to recognize that those words are of European origin. They have been indigenized to that extent. Cuisine, forms of dress, architecture and buildings, furniture, religion, land registration, legal terminology, liturgy, literature, lyrics, music, and dance are one part.

The other is genetic. The living heritage of a community of people of mixed parentage, of a cultural synthesis, exists as a bridge between East and West and that community is the Burghers of Portuguese, Dutch and British descent mixed with each other and with the indigenous races. This genetic infusion has made the Sri Lankan one of the most highly intelligent, innovative, inventive and versatile of all peoples in Asia.

Throughout the world, the impact of the arrival of Europeans impacted severely on all ancient cultures that had stopped growing. That was one important factor. What was new, then as now, generally disregards what is old and senile and steeped in tradition. In the context of Sri Lanka in the 16th Century, the first Europeans found a polity in disintegration and disarray. Disunity and the loss of control of the periphery by the centre were by then well entrenched and the Island was divided into 11 contending principalities. The Portuguese were invited to take a side and enlisted to fight various other contenders. What they did was to fill a growing power vacuum.

What’s the point of retrospectively speculating on the barbarity of the Portuguese? When the Dutch came and exceeded their ‘mandate’ did not the Sinhala king give refuge to these same barbarous Portuguese within his realm? Did he not extend his protection to these demons so-called? Were not colonies of converts established within the Kandyan Kingdom? If things are as bad as they are portrayed, that wouldn’t have been so and the Sinhalese and the Tamils would have taken advantage of the opportunity and slaughtered the Portuguese to the last man, woman and child!

The Renaissance and modernism entered this part of the world through the Europeans. That is a fact of history that cannot be gainsaid by anyone and certainly not by getting all hot under the collar and decrying moves to commemorate a historic event of epochal proportions.

Those commenting on the proposed commemoration would do well to read several authorities: C. R. Boxer, Sanjay Subramanyam, Fernao de Queyroz, Joao de Barros, Diogo de Couto, G. C. Mendis, S. A. Pakeman, Donald Ferguson and Paul E. Peiris plus the Rajavaliya for a balanced picture of both ‘sides’ of this story instead of attempting to present a lopsided version of the facts and background to the events portrayed. Then, the one who writes should have a broad understanding of European history from the middle of the 15th century, i.e. 1450 onwards to know of the countervailing forces at work amongst Europeans as they descended upon all other continents and countries. They were also the products of these often contradictory forces. The Portuguese people were not the only people in the world who were barbaric in their methods of war. Their opponents were too and if the truth were to be objectively acknowledged, the indigenous people were also quite barbaric in their reactions. That, Nan, is human nature and the Great Ones have laboured over millennia to change it and only a few have attained to the status of ‘Man-ussa’ and become ‘Mah-atma’ or great souls. Truth must triumph over prejudice, downright distortions, lies and misperceptions.

Nan and others would do well to take off their blinkers and become objective and dispassionate about the brutal facts of history, time and circumstance. Neither ‘whitewash’ nor ‘colourwash’ is required. In this enlightened day and age when the Community of Nations is forging links of enduring friendship, mutual co-operation and interdependence, there is really no point in screaming blue murder about the terrible things that may have happened. What we need to do is to build a lasting peace and work for prosperity for ALL mankind – that would be progressive.

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