Saturday Magazine

The French connection at the royal court in Kandy
Part I
by Gamage Karunasiri

The French oriental trading company (Compagnie Royale des Indes Orientales) was established in 1664 under a royal charter. Although 62 years behind the Dutch, French King Louis XIV launched a belated but determined operation to make his country a major power in the East challenging the Hollander’s monopoly in the spice trade.

Having entered late into the Kandyan political arena, is it not a remarkable achievement for those few Frenchmen who were stranded to have ascended higher and higher? They were compelled by circumstances to settle down for good in Sri Lanka. It is fascinating to note that all these “triumphs” were achieved without a single French frigate at Trincomalee harbour or any French regiment located in the vicinity of Kandy let alone a single French soldier in the mountain capital.

The period of 43 years selected (1672 to 1715) for this short historical survey spans the reigns of three Kandyan kings who hailed from the same dynasty but demonstrated totally different behaviour patterns owing to peculiar individual characteristics and varied political background. The first ruler was a mighty warrior, the second lived mostly in recluse and the third was a frisky playboy.

This eventful saga of French connection began with the arrival of Admiral J. B. de La Haye together with a fleet of 14 ships landing at Trincomalee in 1672. That was not an accidental visit. The king of France, Louis XIV had grand colonial aspirations in Asia including a plan to convert the King of Siam to Christianity. He first sent a fleet under La Haye to South Africa in 1670 and then to Trincomalee in 1672. Prior to that visit, there had been a significant exchange of letters between the Kandyan court and the French authorities in Pondicherty and Versailles on mutual assistance against the common enemy, the Dutch. King Rajasinghe II was anxious to get the French naval backing for an assault he had planned by this time against the Hollanders in Puttalam.

The first delegation sent to Kandy by Admiral La Haye returned to Trincomalee armed with a royal grant to build a small fort in the harbour, By the ensuing treaty, the French offered the Kandyan Kingdom the status of a protectorate of King Louis XIV of France. Meanwhile a second delegation immediately followed, led by ambassador M. Laisne de Nanclars de la Nerolle with a six man entourage to consolidate the newly established links. It is interesting to note that the ambassadorial delegation traveled all the way from Kottiar bay (Trincomalee) to Kandy on horseback displaying their equestrian prowess. It was further reported that the ambassador and his entourage were nobly entertained on their way to Kandy and were provided with all the things the country could afford.

Having established the initial foundation for French-Lanka collaboration, Admiral La Haye suddenly decided to leave for South India on the pretext of replenishing the dwindling stock of provisions. However anybody could argue that there was no necessity to send back the entire fleet to India for that purpose alone. Besides, the French could have got more mileage with the proposed visit of the king to the Kottiyar bay. However that grand event did not materialise due to the sudden pull out by La Haye on July 9. Shifting through the limited written sources one can arrive at a reasonable explanation for this sudden decision. It appears that there had been a rift with the French born Francois Caron, the man who proposed and worked hard towards the Kandyan-French alliance. Caron was the former Director General in Batavia under the Dutch and on a previous occasion as the commander of the Dutch forces he captured Negombo from the Portuguese in 1644. Caron crossed over later to his native French side and helped to bring the French fleet to Trincomalee. Eventually the admiral left promising to return, which proved to be an empty assurance.

As a result ambassador and his retinue fell into the category of “indolent foreigners” in the capital city Kandy marking time for an audience with the king. The French ambassador, being the representative of the glorified Sun King Louis XIV expected an immediate invitation for an audience above other visitors and expected precise timing even though he had no substantial work outside. Finally the audience was granted but ended up in disaster for the envoy and his retinue. Robert Knox, a British captive living in Kandy in the same era describes the incident that happened in the palace in graphic detail. In his book An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon in the East Indies he states:

“After some time the king sent to him to come to his audience. In great State he was conducted to the court Coming thus to the Court in the night as it is the usual manner at that season to send for foreign ministers and give them audience. He waited there some small time, about two hours or less, the king not yet admitting him Which he took in much great disdain and for such an affront, that he was made to stay all much more so long that tarry no longer but went towards his lodgings.

“As soon as the king heard of it he was highly displeased, insomuch that he commanded some of his officers that they should go and beat him... the word of command was given and as soon performed.”

This episode would easily tempt one to brand the ambassador as a haughty, ill tempered, European individual totally ignorant of the nuances of diplomatic behaviour, proper conduct and etiquette respectfully followed and held sacred at Asian Royal Courts. Actually he was professing the super power status of his country and the might of his king much too loudly and in an undiplomatic manner. We observe from French records that another contemporary French ambassador leading a special mission to the Kingdom of Siam in 1685 behaved in a worse manner striving to assert openly the supremacy and glory of King Louis XIV, much to the amusement of disciplined and respectful Siamese court officials. France was no doubt the premier state in Europe both in arms and arts at that time and the authority of the king with egoistic ambitions was undisputed. The people of France, proud of the country’s pre-eminence saw in the king the symbol of unity, greatness and success . Naturally, the ambassadors who left the shores of France for Asian countries were seething with this egoistic frame of mind and their attempts to impose that supremacy ended up in near disaster on several occasions.

The episode in Kandy reiterated the decree that one should not try to enter or depart from the highly esteemed Royal Palace in Kandy at one’s own will. Visiting envoys were treated with high respect and honour although there were no diplomatic privileges and immunity to crow about, no equality with the royalty and no reciprocity. However, the accepted percept was “behave well and you will be respected in return; if you break the rules you will get thrashed!”, that was the palace protocol Sri Lankan style in the seventeenth century. The Vienna convention on diplomatic relations came into force more than a century later. Before that, each country had its own rules and conventions governing diplomatic protocol and affiliations. . King Rajasinghe had his own set of impromptu rules applied according to the situation. In order to control some errant envoys he meted out strange punishments. Once, a Dutch ambassador living in Kandy tried to barge into the palace, uninvited and the king caused him to stay standing at a Kamatha (open court yard used for paddy threshing) for hours directly under the blazing Sun!

Another instance he presented an elephant as a gift to a visiting Dutch ambassador who loved to mingle with Sinhalese ladies beyond the accepted norms. Later the ambassador found that the elephant was on musk (a temporary madness related to a seasonal breeding period). He could not leave behind the agitated animal since it was a gift from the royalty. With greatest difficulty and at grave risk involved he managed to bring down the “jumbo gift” in heavy chains up from the hills down to Colombo.

The legend is that the king chose such bizarre punishments with tongue in cheek and with a good sense of humor The “mistakes” done by visiting envoys were mostly tolerated and forgotten. It is reported that he enjoyed hearing the tales of the clumsy tricks and antics of some of the European sailors living freely in his kingdom, mostly blunders caused by their ignorance of the Sinhalese way of life and traditions.

It was recorded that the French ambassador’s entourage consisted six other Frenchmen—Robert Knox has given some names in his book. Among them he remembers Du Plessy, Jean Bloom, Le Serle and Le Roche. As regards other names Knox says he cannot remember them, but mentions casually that one member of the entourage was recruited to serve in the palace to look after the king’s best horse. That was no doubt De Gascon (senior) who was a member of the ambassador’s entourage. The reigning king of Kandy at that time was the mighty warrior Rajasinghe II whose fame caused shivers in the Royal court in Lisbon. His decisive victory in 1638 over the Portugese at Gannoruwa, (located near the present day Peradeniya Gardens) was a battle in which nearly 4000 enemy soldiers lost their lives including their commander De Castro. This vital battle eliminated the Portugese menace for good from the city of Kandy. The latter part of Rajasinghe’s rule was characterised by a period blessed with relative peace.

King Rajasinghe the great, the hero of the Gannoruwa battle died in the year 1689 leaving the kingdom to his mild mannered son who was enthroned as King Wimala Dharmasuriya II. He ruled the country by the guidance given by the powerful and experienced Royal court of which most members were selected from the Kandyan aristocracy. The power to rule the country or the good governance has to be funnelled through this supreme body. The political thinking of the council governed by a medieval feudalist way of life and a mixture of Buddhist and Hindu based Fatalism and Karmic theories, became increasingly obsolete but vehemently safeguarded by the aristocrats.

King Wimala Dharmasuriya II never challenged the authority of this council and had to allow them to function on their own or rather was helpless in curtailing the increasing powers of aristocracy. However, it should be noted that among the Europeans, only the French enjoyed a kind of confidentiality and trust at the court probably due to their ability to assimilate into a different social set up quickly. In addition ambassador La Nerolle’s matrimonial connection to a sinhalese aristocratic family carried a long way. The Dutch, who were ruling only one third of the coastal belt at that time were very concerned about the presence of French envoys in the court of Kandy.

William Hubbard, who was the last of the British sailors to escape in 1703 to Dutch territory after a long captivity of 44 years in Kandy had given a very brief written account on the state of affairs at the mountain kingdom in response to a request made by the Dutch governor in Colombo. Hubbard was a father of ten children (five boys and five girls) through his marriage to a Kandyan girl. He had given all his daughters in marriage to high class persons in Kandy, Ratnapura and Badulla before escaping to Colombo with his eldest son Peter, after 44 years in captivity. William settled down in Kandy in 1641 when he was 22 years old and by the time he escaped he was 66 years of age. Unfortunately he died on his way to London on board a ship near South Africa having written a very brief account only of his married life in the up country kingdom.

He wrote his brief description in English, which was translated into Dutch by the company translator for the benefit of the ruling council. The original document is kept now at the royal archives in the Hague. It covers very briefly a vivid array of interesting events and topics including the status of the French Ambassador La Nerolle and other Frenchmen living in the city of Kandy.

Following are some translated extracts;

“The French Ambassador is still alive and kicking but has no functions. He goes to the Palace occasionally. His intentions are to do harm towards the activities of the Company.

“There are four others of his countrymen. One of them named de Gascon is the king’s stable master. One other person is du Plessy an artist who indulges in painting once in a while.”

Hubbard’s account drives home another important point with regard to Ambassador Lanerolle’s commitment to promote the French interest in the court by indulging in an anti Dutch, pro-French propaganda campaign:

“I have heard many times the rumour that the French and the Portugese would drive out the Dutch. On this matter I can only state that this talk was a general rumour rather than a true fact corroborating with an official endorsement. I was told that it was circulated by the French Ambassador to ridicule the Company’s name and reputation.”

This type of slander against the Dutch, implies that even after La Haye’s debacle, the few remaining French did not give up their efforts and hopes to carve out a toehold in the Kandyan political arena. Personal connections too could be attributed for the envoy’s continued presence and survival in the court. His Sinhalese father-in-law, Kottamulle Rajaguru Panditha Mudiyanse of Weuda was a highly respected and learned guru among the elite of Kandy and wielded considerable influence in the royal court.

To be continued


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