Early Challenges To The Portuguese In Ceylon

(MENAFN- NewsIn) By K/Sunday Observer

Colombo, May 12: At the end of the 15 th. Century, the Portuguese made their first eastward voyage with the intention of finding a sea route to India. Vasco Da Gama found the route landing at Calicut in Kerala in 1498.

Subsequently, the Portuguese settled in Goa, further North, making Panjim the capital of Estado da India or the State of India, which included all Portuguese possessions in Asia.


However, after the accidental discovery of the strategically located island of Ceylon (or Ceilao) in 1505, the Portuguese toyed with the idea making Colombo the capital of Estado da India. For this project, they needed to build a fort in the port of Colombo to house a large body of troops.

But the Portuguese found the task of erecting a fort very challenging though the king of Kotte, Parakramabahu VIII, was cooperative. He was willing to accept the demands of the Portuguese because they promised to help him fight his enemies whoever they might be.

But there was opposition to the Portuguese from the population of Kotte, both Sinhala-Buddhist and the Moors (Muslims). The Sinhala-Buddhists found the Portuguese rude, crude and avaricious. Buddhist monks feared conversion of the population to Christianity. The Moors knew (through their trading links in India) that the Portuguese would want to monopolise external trade and would not hesitate to use force to have their way.

The story of how the Portuguese went about their project and the challenges they faced is told by Paul E.Pieris in his book“Ceylon: The Portuguese Era” (1913).

When the Portuguese under Dom Lourenco de Almeida landed in Colombo in 1505, the first things they saw (to their horror) were the white minarets of two mosques. The Moors had been their bitter enemies and business competitors in the Mediterranean and India. And to their dismay, they found the Moors of Ceylon dominating international trade just like the Moors of Kerala. Right from 1498, the Portuguese and the Moors were clashing regularly at sea looting or destroying each other's vessels in the Arabian Sea.

The arrival of the first Whites to Ceylon was reported to the king of Kotte, Parakramabahu VIII (1484-1518), who sent one Chakrayudha Raja to meet them. Dom Lourenco de Almeida told Chakrayudha Raja that he was a merchant, a servant of the king of Portugal, desiring to trade with Kotte. He sent Fernao Cotrim to meet the king.

Not trusting the Portuguese, the Sinhalese took Cotrim on a three-day journey over mountains, valleys and across rivers to Kotte to give the impression that Kotte was very far from Colombo (the journey still survives in the saying Parangiya Kotteta Giya wagey).

Parakramabahu VIII did not meet Cotrim immediately but sent some of his officials to talk to him. Cotrim came straight to the point and said that he desired a treaty saying that the Portuguese would have a monopoly Kotte's international trade and in return they would protect all harbours in the kingdom from any threat, internal or external (principally the Moors).

Cotrim also sought permission to build a fortified warehouse (called factory), where the Portuguese would have sovereign rights. Parakramabahu VIII agreed to the terms.

Lourenco de Almeida was so pleased with the outcome that he ordered his vessels to fire their guns. The unusual noise sent Colombans scurrying to the forests in fear. Lourenco de Almeida then sent Payo de Souza as Ambassador to Kotte, where he was received
with elephants escorting him. The first audience with the king was in Chitrakuta Mandape with the hall packed with Mudaliyars carrying swords and shields. Seated on the Lion Throne was Parakramabahu, the Chakravarthi of Lanka, wearing a headgear studded with gems and large pearls.

Payo de Souza dressed in green and carrying a sword in a silver scabbard, stood at a respectable distance and repeated the terms of the treaty agreed upon earlier. The king then agreed to sell 400 Bahars of cinnamon annually (one Bahar was equal to 176.25 kg). A Sannas of the agreement etched on a sheet of gold was handed over to de Souza. The joyous event was recorded for posterity on a rock at the Colombo breakwaters.

When the news of the treaty reached Portugal, King Dom Manuel, desired that a fort be built in Colombo. Considering the strategic location of Ceylon in the Indian Ocean, the King said that the Viceroy of the Estado da India should shift his headquarters from Goa to the fort in Colombo to better supervise the affairs Portugal's Asian possessions.

But the fort building project got bogged down. In 1518 the then Portuguese Viceroy in Goa, Lopo Soarez de Albergaria set sail for Colombo with a force of both Portuguese and Nairs, a caste of worriors from Kerala to force the Kotte king. On reaching Colombo, he sent a note to the king of Parakramabahu VIII, blaming the Moors' hostility for the non-execution of the project.

Albergaria told the king that the Moors were treacherous and promised that the Portuguese navy would guard the entire coastline against the Moors. He even suggested that the king should relocate the Moors in another part of Ceylon. Parakrmabahu VIII sought two days' time to consult his ministers.

Hearing about the talks with the Portuguese, the Moors met the king and appealed to him not to fall for the promises of Portuguese. They warned that if the Portuguese were given any quarter, they would seize the kingdom. They also drew his attention to the fact that unlike the Portuguese, the Moors never interfered with the social, religious, or political activities of the kingdom and that their trading activities had only brought prosperity to it.

The Sinhalese population had no issue with the Moors but had severe problems with the Portuguese, given their arrogance and
greed. Backed by Buddhist monks, the Sinhalese fired at the Portuguese settlement with guns provided by the Moors.

At this stage, a Disawa, appeared on the scene and told the Portuguese that the Yonnus (Moors) had instigated the Sinhalese. He then brought some fellow Sinhalese to help construct the fort. This had the consent of the Parakramabahu VIII who issued a Sannas describing himself as a“vassal” of the Portuguese king and promising to pay,annually, 400 bahars of cinnamon, 20 rings set with rubies, and ten elephants with tusks in exchange for military aid against his enemies.

Thereafter, Governor Albergaria's nephew, Don Joao de Silveira, was put in charge of the fort which was named“Nossa Senhora das Virtudes.”
Antonio de Miranda de Azevedo was made the naval commander and 100 Portuguese troops were stationed.

The Portuguese then turned their attention to getting the maximum out of the pearl fishery in Mannar and spreading the gospel. However, the people of Kotte saw the concessions given to the Portuguese very unfavourably.

Parakramabahu VIII's death in 1518 destabilized Kotte. His exit led to the Sinhalese openly opposing the Portuguese, who were even denied provisions to cook their meals. Lopo de Brito, who was in charge of the fort, attacked the Sinhalese. The latter rallied and put the fort under siege for three months. The besieged Portuguese got help from Cochin in Kerala which helped de Brito rout the Sinhalese who were being fired at from both the sea and the fort.

When Parakramabahu VIII's successor, Wijayabahu VI, came down to Colombo with 2000 men and 150 Vadugars from India, cavalry and war elephants too, the Portuguese were in trouble. When the Portuguese fired on the elephants, the animals ran amok and scattered the Sinhalese.
Thereafter, the Portuguese set fire to Colombo, including the mosques.

By 1523, the Portuguese realised that building a fort in Colombo was leading to needless friction with the locals and told the then king Bhuwanekabahu VII that they would dismantle the fort and carry on trade without it.




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