Posted by: lrrp | May 31, 2008

The Portuguese in Sri Lanka and Eurocentric Myths

“History it would seem, has decreed that we in the post-colonial world shall only be perpetual consumers of modernity. Europe and the Americas, the only true subjects of history, have thought out on our behalf not only the script of colonial enlightenment and exploitation, but also that of our anti colonial resistance and post colonial misery. Even our imagination must remain forever colonized.” – Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments.

JB Muller’s ‘Categorical Response’ to Nan’s views on the idea of celebrating the arrival of the Portuguese (Sunday Island, November 16th) is a fair reflection of our predicament as raised by Partha Chatterjee. If Muller’s assumptions on our history, human nature, genetics, modernization and globalization, culture and cultural synthesis etc., etc., are left unquestioned, it is a sad reflection on the intelligence of our reading public. We have not been so impervious to intellectual trends and debates of the 20th Century as to leave Muller’s readings uncontested. However, I will take up here only a few of them.

Muller writes “Renaissance opened men’s minds to asking questions after centuries of clerical thought control by the Roman Catholic Church. It is a fact of life recorded by history.” Surely, the medieval European church could not have switched off the minds of Europeans for over 8 centuries! Besides, we have to understand the distinction between the past and history. History, or histories are inevitably constructs of historians in keeping with their own culture and perspectives. Truth and objectivity are relative concepts. We need to go by the evidence presented by historians. ‘Medievalists’ have presented to establish that the Medieval Period was not a Dark Age and that there was intellectual ferment, religious dissent and deviation, and philosophical controversy throughout that era.

Muller’s other statement that the Renaissance influenced Portuguese colonialism is a misreading of the nature and meaning of the Renaissance. What evidence does the Portuguese rule in Sri Lanka yield to establish that the Renaissance spirit of humanism that Jacob Burckhart identifies in 16th Century Italy, ever influenced their activities? Did the Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits adopt the ‘studia humanitatis’ – the characteristic Renaissance education innovation, in their religious instructions in Sri Lanka? What elements of revived Graeco-Roman culture did they introduce to Sri Lanka? Muller accepts that the Portuguese carried the medieval crusade into the Indian ocean, but fails to mention that they extended the crusade to wipe out other faiths too. This of course was not contrary to the religious spirit of the Renaissance.

Muller is also not properly informed of the nature of trade in the Indian ocean in the pre-Portuguese era. He is applying his readings on the religiously-charged trade of the Mediterranean to the Indian ocean. There were occasional imperial naval expeditions from China and the East Indies, but maritime trade remained competitive and open until the Portuguese attempted their armed monopolistic hegemony. His view that the Portuguese and Spaniards discovered the old and New Worlds is a myth that has long been laid to rest. However, the fact that they brought ruthless colonial exploitation to these continents does not need elaboration here. If, according to Muller, the Portuguese came to Sri Lanka by accident, are we to presume that they sacrificed their men and resources to build and maintain an empire for 1 1/2 centuries by accident? If he grants that the Catholic missionaries too came “on the backs of the merchants” he cannot deny the statement that the Portuguese came with the “sword in one hand and the cross in the other.” This explains Queyroz’s phrase: “Spiritual and Temporal Conquest” of Sri Lanka.

The question whether ‘conversion was by compulsion’ can be denied only by a narrow definition of the two words. If non-Catholics were by law deprived of both religious freedom and civil rights on penalties of death or enslavement and that they were subject to special taxation, the meaning of compulsion is clear. The motive of conversion also becomes clear as there was insistence on formal baptism and church attendance under harsh penalties. The level of success of course, was another matter as it depended on the level of passive resistance, a strategy adopted by all colonial societies.

Muller’s hypothesis that ‘violence’/’barbarism’ are a part of human nature common to all mankind and has no rational explanation needs some kind of qualification. If not it amounts to an extremely dangerous position to take. It is difficult to agree with him that violence of the Portuguese rule was the work of ‘a few pathological sadists’. If he has read Queyroz (at least vol.5 and 6) he would have thought otherwise. Violence was built into the oppressive Portuguese regime. ‘Barbarism’ of any form, whichever the group or race responsible, demands condemnation. Such acts are rarely outbursts of the animal in man. Their irrationality does not mean there is no rational explanation for them. No collective or group violence is without organization, instigation and objectives. The worst example of barbarism in human history was the anti-Semitic holocaust under the Nazi regime. Muller, we believe, will not deny that there is a rational explanation to this human tragedy. Even the best known German thinkers were responsible for the philosophical inspiration behind anti-Semitism. The moral guilt of the German people for this tragedy has been expressed in no uncertain terms.

The cultural contribution of all colonial powers is undisputed. They created the ‘colonial condition’ that the Post Colonialists tell us that we will never be able to overcome. But as Partha Chatterjee reminds, what we have to guard against is the permanent colonization of our imagination. As regards the Portuguese cultural contribution as catalogued by Muller, one could legitimately question whether all that can compensate for the damage caused by the destruction of reputed centres of learning and traditions of art, architecture, etc. Muller’s views on the “genetic infusion”, how it made Sri Lankan “the most highly intelligent, innovative, inventive and versatile of all peoples of Asia”, we are on safe grounds if we leave it to experts on genetics.

Two points in Muller’s ‘Categorical Response’ calls for serious attention. First, his view that “Throughout the world, Europeans impacted severely on the ancient cultures that had stopped growing” and that the Portuguese in 16th Century Sri Lanka found a “polity in disintegration and disarray.” These assumptions are merely hangovers of colonialist historiography, orientalist attitudes, social Darwinism and 19th Century Positivist philosophy. The discourse created by these interrelated trends of thought was intended to legitimize and rationalize Western colonialism. Jointly, they constructed the image of the ‘other’ of the human species – the non European. All societies belonging to the ‘other’ were made to be archaic, static, incapable of rational thinking, unable to rule themselves and their cultures were poor expressions of base human instincts etc., etc. It is hardly surprising that Spaniards and Boers questioned whether Africans had souls, and that Europeans in more recent times doubted whether Africans have minds or the minds have ceased to grow early. The underlying objective of this discourse was to legitimize European hegemony over the rest of the world. Accordingly, colonialism was portrayed as the agency of all change and ‘progress’ in the world outside Europe. This intellectual discourse and its underlying power agenda has been thoroughly exposed during the last 50 years. The intellectual deconstruction of this ‘system of knowledge’ has gone too far for anybody in the 21st Century to hang on to old cliches.

The second point relates to the superficiality with which Muller uses some general terms such as modernization, globalization, modernity and modernism. These are not terms that can be used loosely and the processes and conditions that they signify are not a part and parcel of the ‘heritage’ of colonialism. Constraints of space prevent us from elaborating on these. The point however is that no amount of ‘short circuit’ reasoning can link these with Portuguese colonialism in Sri Lanka. Modernity is a concept that originates in the 17th Century European Enlightenment philosophy which was fundamentally opposed to the medieval ideology based on revelation and monotheistic religion. Modernity envisaged triumph of reason and its application to social life, political organization and individual and collective needs. The essence of modernity or the philosophy of modernism is the enhancement of individual’s freedom and happiness in his own collective. None of these essential features of modernity or modernism can be linked with the Portuguese rule or for that matter any form of colonialism. If modernity is a feature of life in ex-colonial societies, it is not so much because of colonialism but in spite of colonialism.

P. Vijayasekera


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