Posted by: lrrp | May 31, 2008

Reviving respect for historical heroes

Reviewed by Dr. Lorna Dewaraja

The Kandyan Kingdom has in the recent past attracted the attention not only of historians but sociologists, anthropologists, linguists, feminists, antiquarians and also historical novelists. Our author Gaston Perera falls into the last category.

His first novel, The Rebel of Kandy written in 1998 deals with Vimaladharmasuriya I whom the Portuguese called rebel, tyrant, and the apostate. The current work, The Sons of the Rebel relates the fate that befell the sons of Vimaladharmasuriya at the hands of his cousin and successor, Senerat.

Whatever their personal weaknesses were and however unscrupulous they may have been in their private lives, the three rulers

Vimaladharmasuriya, Senerat and Rajasinha II were the saviours of Kandy and the Sinhala people. The enemy they had to face was powerful and ruthless. The Portuguese in the middle of the 16th century dominated more of the world and more of its trade than any other country. They had the skills of shipbuilding, navigation and maritime cartography at their disposal and had established fortified warehouses extending from Lisbon to Goa, Malacca and beyond.

They were inspired by the twin motives, love of God and lust for gold and to achieve their objectives they touched nothing they did not destroy. This was the enemy that Kandy had to face. Kandy was no military power and her people were not particularly warlike but she resisted western aggression for 2? centuries, which is unique in the annals of European colonization in Asia.

It is against this background that Gaston Perera weaves his fascinating story full of pathos depicting the internal politics within the Kandyan Court, smeared with blood and tears. The story commences with Kusumasanna Devi, baptized Dona Catherina, the hapless queen of Kandy giving birth to a son by her second husband, Senerat, who then plots and schemes to dispossess his nephews, the legitimate heirs, to the throne of their birthright and ensure the succession to his own son. The drama of the ‘Sons of the Rebel’ is enacted on these two planes. On the one is Senerat`D5s struggles to resist the ferocious onslaughts of his European foe and on the other his equally ruthless conspiracies to eliminate his three nephews Rajasuriya, Kumarasinghe and Wijepala.

He begins with the murder of the eldest after which Dona Catherina, a devout Catholic, dies of a broken heart. The author relates in the most moving terms, with the help of dialogue, the tragedy that was Dona Catherina’s life, a tool in the hands of power-hungry men. Her other two sons become the victims of Senerat’s ambition. He marries them off to two princesses from the North, the nieces of Sankili, and lures them to invade Jaffna in order to get rid of them. When these schemes fails he fakes a lottery to give the throne of Kandy to his son to get the nephews out of the way.

The scene of action shifts quickly from Kandy to Colombo with the arrival of Constantine de Saa de Noronha as Captain-General of the Portuguese Here the Portuguese venom, against other faiths, especially the Moors, is revealed in de Saa’s strict compliance with the Portuguese King’s orders – I of my Royal and Absolute power decide and decree that no Moor whosoever be allowed to reside in Ceilao and those who are actually there be expelled from it. Although some Moors managed to bribe corrupt Portuguese officials and remain in their territory, the majority sought refuge in the Kandyan kingdom where they could practise their religion without fear of King or Pope.

As described in this novel Senarat welcomed them with open arms and settled them in villages within the Kingdom as part of his strategy. This indicates the extent of the research that has gone into the preparation of the book for according to Queyroz, the Jesuit chronicler, Senerat did settle 2000 Moors in the Batticaloa district to cultivate paddy and be in readiness to resist Portuguese attacks. This is how the groups of itinerant traders with temporary residence in the coastal towns became indigenized and remained a part and parcel of Sri Lankan society.

Gaston Perera describes in vivid detail de Saa’s invasion of Kandy and specially the battle of Randeniwela led by the Princes Kumarasinghe and Rajasinghe, in which the Portuguese Captain-General lost his life. In all those accounts the author leans heavily on Portuguese sources like Queyroz and de Menezes. Perhaps, having read Western Classics he can be excused for not consulting the Hatan Kavi or the War Poems like the Konstantinu Hatane and Parangi Hatana, which would have added flesh and muscle to these bloody encounters.

As the story develop’s other scenes are depicted the palace in Kandy the Portuguese councils in Colombo, weddings and embassies, forest journeys and sea voyages, nursery scenes and death scenes, Portuguese marauding expeditions and Kandyan ambushes. These varied events spread the stage of action wide and shifts rapidly between Kandy and Colombo, Jaffna and Tanjore. Well-known historical figures emerge such as Kumarasinghe, Wijepala, Migomuwe Rala and Kuruvita Rala. The story is based on established historical facts obtained from research into primary sources and even when the author gives play to his imagination (as a novelist must and should) he does not sacrifice historical accuracy and authenticity.

Gaston has portrayed two heroes, Prince Kumarasinghe and de Saa. Regarding the former history has little to say. The author has depicted him as a charismatic personality, a military leader and a sound administrator who will not transgress the law. His counterpart on the Portuguese side, de Saa, is also an upholder of the law and a man of principle. Ultimately each pays the price for his uprightness.

At a time when history as an academic discipline has lost the enchantment it once had in scholarly circles, a historical novelist has a significant role to play as is evident in the success of Gaston Perera`D5s works. He should be congratulated for spending his retirement in doing such useful research and placing before the reader important events relating to the Portuguese encounter.

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