Posted by: lrrp | January 18, 2009

The arrival of the Portuguese

This article is part of a continuing series on the ‘Mahavamsa,’ the recorded chronicle of Sri Lankan history

1. It was eight years, since Vasco da Gama had sailed past the Cape of Good Hope. The King of Kotte at this time was King Veera Parakramabahu VIII. Pararajasekaram was the King of Jaffna. The King of Kandy was King Veerabahu. A fleet of Portuguese ships that had got caught to a storm had landed in Sri Lanka in 1505 AD. The captain of this fleet was a young aristocrat. He was the son of the first Portuguese Governor of India.

2. He was Lorenzo de Almeida, by name. The trade in the East was then in the hands of the Muslims. Their shipping route was guarded by the Portuguese. As a result, the Muslims had to select another route for their ships to sail. The Portuguese tried to block that route too. It is on their journey to block the Muslim ships, that they got caught to a storm. It is by accident, that they landed in the harbour at Galle.

3. They anchored in the harbour at Galle. From there, they proceeded to the harbour in Colombo, which was in close proximity to the capital city. By this time, the biggest market and the chief port was Colombo. It was successfully handling the trade in cinnamon, coconut, pepper and elephants. Arabs were the chief handlers, as they were the masters of the sea. They had put up store-houses named ‘bangasala’ to stock their trade goods. The majority of the population in Colombo at the time was the Muslims.

4. In Colombo, there was a mosque, a cemetery for Muslims and even a court of law for them. This tiny city was situated by a small river, which was a branch of the Kelani River. It flowed to the sea, somewhere near modern Pettah. There was a bridge erected across this river. There were roadways in the city. Near the mouth of this small river, there was a safe harbour for ships and other equipment.

5. The street along which the stores or bangasala were erected, was, known as ‘Bangasala Street,’ then. This name is being used even today. The Portuguese were rich rivals of the Muslims. Muslims had faith in the Prophet Mohammed, while the Portuguese were Catholic in faith. There were endless wars between these two powers for centuries. These wars were named ‘Crusades.’ The Portuguese wanted to grab the trade that existed between the Muslims and India.

6. Those days, it was not through competition that trade rights were obtained. To win the trade, they had either to wage war or take to plunder. As a result, there were constant fights between the two peoples. This resulted in ships carrying guns and other weapons. When Lorenzo de Almeida arrived in Colombo, the Muslims were engaged in loading and unloading goods in Colombo. When the Muslims saw the Portuguese they got scared.

7. Lorenzo understood this. As he was washed ashore here, as a result of a storm, he wished to meet the king. He pretended to be friendly towards the Muslims and showed that he was by no means against them. This European youth knew about the spices, elephants and the pearls of Sri Lanka. By this time, the Governor of India, had been instructed by the Portuguese king, to find out about these items in this country.

8. Lorenzo knew all this. He was very happy that he had landed in Sri Lanka, even by accident. So he decided to send a team of envoys to see the king. He inquired about the country from the Muslims. The Muslims however did not like the idea of these Europeans getting to know about the country.


1. The Portuguese came to Colombo, to obtain water and firewood. On the instructions of the Muslims, the people in Colombo started to harass them. The Portuguese knew that the Muslims were behind this and started firing shots from their cannon. This scared the people and they retreated. In the meantime, the king of Kotte got to know of the arrival of the Portuguese.

2. ‘Rajavaliya’ records this in the following manner. ” In our Colombo harbour, some white-skinned, handsome people, dressed in metal jackets and metal headgear are constantly walking up and down. They eat some small white stones and drink blood. They pay us two to three silver or gold coins for just one lime. The sound that comes from their cannon, is worse than the noise of thunder that comes from the ‘Sugandhara’ mountain. The cannon balls shot from these cannons go for miles and come down crushing even stone.”

3. In this description, the reference to stone and blood is really bread, currants, arrack and wine, which they consumed. As soon as the king heard this he convened his council of ministers.They started talking about these strangers. All agreed to meet the new white people.

4. The king sent a team of envoys, with gifts to the Portuguese. That was by way of welcoming the
newcomers to the country. Lorenzo de Almeida was simply thrilled to receive the king’s envoys and he
treated them well. Along with these envoys, he sent one of his ambassadors to see the king. This
ambassador was Fernado Kutram.

5. Kotte was a city, not far from Colombo. The envoys of Kotte did not want the Portuguese to come to know about the closeness of the city, as it would be dangerous. So they took the Portuguese ambassador through a mountainous and rugged circuitous route.

In short, they took the Portuguese ambassador for three days to reach Kotte. But it wasn’t an easy task to deceive these foreigners, who had left the city of Lisbon, crossed the seas and had arrived in India.

6. Don Lorenzo de Almeida kept a few of the king’s men as security, till the return of the Portuguese
ambassador. He got the cannon to be fired every hour. When Kutram the ambassador heard the sound of the cannon, he understood that he was being taken through a circuitous route. But he knew it meant no danger for him and so he was not frightened.

7. Even after the Portuguese ambassador reached the palace, he heard the gun shots. He realized that the sound came from a place not so far away. However, he did not want to talk about it. He only spoke about why he was there.

Acting according to the orders of his naval commander, he offered his due respects to the king. He asked whether the king would like to enter into a treaty with them. He did not get a chance to see the king personally. All the negotiations were done with the ministers. He only got to know about the king’s consent for an agreement.

8. After all this, Kutram returned in a procession, where there were even elephants. He took the king’s message back. Lorenzo de Almeida did not much like the agreement entered into without meeting the king. So he ordered Payo de Souza to go and meet the king and then enter into a proper treaty.

A treaty with the king

1. It was with the intention of getting the trade monopoly that the Portuguese tried to enter into a treaty with the king. It is the king, who held the trade monopoly at this time. In India too, the Portuguese did the same thing. They promised to protect the king and the princes from all enemies and obtained the trade rights. Payo de Souza wanted a similar agreement. The king of Portugal was very happy about the first visit of an European team of envoys to the Sinhala king. In fact, he gave a description of this to Rome as well.

2. The message sent to the Pope said, “We discovered Taprobane.” This was good news to all Europeans of the day. Payo de Souza who visited the king’s court described it in the following manner.”At the end of a huge hall, there is a beautiful throne, like an altar. Going by the tradition of the country, the king was decked in all jewels and ornaments, made of very valuable gems.

3. Around him, on either side, there stood three men, holding large candles. The entire hall was lit with lamps on silver posts. In front of the hall, there were a number of gentlemen, who belonged to the elite. At the centre of the hall, there was a passage leading up to the throne.” It was here, that the king welcomed Payo de Souza and listened to the proposals of the Portuguese envoy.

4. Later on, the king consented to grant what they wanted. The king had to give a good stock of cinnamon annually. The first instalment was given then and there. According to the treaty, the Portuguese had to protect the harbours that belonged to the king. In return, the king had to give 400 ‘bahars’ of cinnamon annually. As both parties agreed to the clauses of the treaty, it was duly signed.

5. ‘Bahar’ is a unit of measure which was then in use in the East. The scholars are of the opinion that it is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘bhar.’ However, the actual weight of a ‘bahar’ differed from country to country. It roughly amounted to about 400 – 500 pounds. According to the treaty, the Portuguese got permission to erect a store-room, in the headland. They soon started working on this.

6. These ‘white people’ erected a church on one side of the store. It was dedicated to Saint Lorenzo, the saint of the leader of their fleet of ships. Lorenzo de Almeida had engraved the Portuguese emblem on a rock near the sea. He left a small contingent of naval officers, took the rest and went back.

7. The Muslims started protesting against the existence of a Portuguese store in Colombo. This building did not take the shape of a room where goods were stored. Instead, it looked more like a Portuguese fortress. However small in size, this building was able to hold a small army. As such, the Muslims were able to create unrest among both the people and the king, showing the danger implied.

8. Their castigation proved successful. It went so far as to win the consent of the ‘Yuvaraja.’ As a result, in 1507 AD, the ‘Yuvaraja’ issued an order to pull down the building and to get all the soldiers who occupied


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: