As indicated in the title, I write to introduce
C Gaston Perera's Kandy Fights the Portuguese: a military
history of the Kandyan Resistance, published by Vijitha Yapa,
I've skimmed through the book and am now reading
it carefully page by page. I did not want to complete reading
the 378 pages of text to write a review. Rather did I want to
announce the book so more people would read this heavily
researched tome which however makes for interesting and un-heavy
reading, Gaston Perera's style being such.
The reason we must read it is because its one of
its kind. In this time of continued war in Sri Lanka it is
pertinent to read about the war waged by the diminutive Kandyan
army against the Goliath of the gunpowder possessing,
born-to-fight Portuguese battalions.
Genesis of the book
In December 2005, the author was involved in
organizing an international conference to mark the 500th
anniversary of the arrival of the Portuguese in Ceylon. One of
the papers Perera read at the conference was titled: Fighting
the Conquistador. Out of this paper emerged the idea of
making it detailed with more reference and more writing so it
became a book about the battles fought by the Kandyan Kingdom
against the first European colonizers to land on the shores of
this country, militant from the very start and becoming ever
more avaricious, converting and colonizing.
Gaston Perera is acknowledged to be a remarkable
writer of historical fiction, his novels being backgrounded in
Kandy in the 16th and 17th centuries. The hero of his first
historical novel, Rebel of Kandy is Konnapu Bandara who
moved from Kandy due to intrigue against him to join the
Portuguese where he was christened Don Juan. Later the
Portuguese sent him back to Kandy to spy for them. Rather did he
settle down and on the throne, no less, as Wimaladharmasuriya I.
The third novel, Sons of the Rebel is about his sons:
Kumarasinghe and Wijeyapala and intrigues against them. His
second publication was Historical Tales.
This fourth book is about warfare, tactics and
weapons used. A battle that figures prominently in the
historical novels is that of Danture with the soldiers of the
Kandyan king poised against the invading Portuguese. So this
fourth book is a shoot that appeared in The Rebel of Kandy
(1999, reprinted 2006), nurtured by the author so it grew into a
full plant: the volume introduced in this article.
Content of the book
In his preface, Gaston Perera defines military
history as being concerned with military events - the nature of
warfare waged by a country and the battles and campaigns it
fought. This, to distinguish it from political history which
deals with political events of a country and their causes and
The book in hand covers a comparatively short
period in time: slightly less than fifty years in the 17th
century, the years from about 1593 when Wimaladharmasuriya I
seized power in Kandy, up to 1638 when the Kandyan people fought
their last great battle at Gannoruwa. But the wars fought during
this time were the most relentless and incessant.
Part I of the book is titled The
Background and needless to say is the background to the
battles fought between the armies - the hilly terrain of the
Kandy district, the fluctuating weather and the soldiers on the
two warring sides. Part II deals with military events and these
are the battles of Danture, Ambatenna and Kandy's last battle -
that of Gannoruwa.
Part III is sort of extra extension since it
moves out of the highlands and into the lowland of Mulleriyawa.
Also outside the period covered in the book: 1594 to 1638. As
the author explains: "An account of the military engagement in
the flat plains of the lowlands is intended to serve as a
contrast to the fighting in the mountains of the highlands."
Makeup of the book
Very very appropriately the entire front and
back cover are taken up by a copy of Stanley Kirinde's Battle
of Danture, which is at the Defence Services and Staff
College, Batalanda. In it are seen a proud Nilame with flag
bearers and soldiers and horses and elephants and fallen or
retreating trousered and helmeted soldiers against a backdrop of
rolling mountains, among then very distinctly Bible Rock.
A six page Preface by the author is followed by
a Foreword by K. W. Goonewardena, Professor Emeritus, University
of Peradeniya. Sources and authorities consulted are at the back
of the book.
Who'd read the book?
Every English reading Sri Lankan or at least
every Sinhalese. As Gaston noted, every Kandyan should
definitely read his book since it's about their forefathers who
stood up to the might and cunning of an invading foreign power.
The Cholas and such like Indian invaders had been battled right
through our ancient and middle histories, but here was an
European power come to trade and moving very soon to conquest.
Speaking for myself, I'd much rather dip my nose
and run my eyes through a novel. But when I took up Gaston
Perera's fourth book, fresh from the publisher with that
gorgeous, soul satisfying smell of a new book, and started
reading, I went on reading. Familiar places were mentioned, our
heroes were hosanna-ed, our people described as others saw us,
and so much new information and knowledge.
The Kandyan army and even the people of the
hills were not well thought of at all. Gaston Perera quotes
Marco Polo to prove this. "The people of this island are by no
means of a military habit, but on the contrary are abject and
timid." This is echoed centuries later, in British times by
James Cordiner: "The Cingalese are indigent, harmless, indolent
and unwarlike, remarkable for equanimity, mildness, bashfulness
and timidity." So how come the victorious battle of Danture?
Read Gaston Perera to find out!
Interesting and sometimes amusing information
keep the reader engrossed in this researched work about warfare.
"The strategy (of the Kandyan army) was not to confront the
invader head on É not to meet him in pitched battle and repel
him by force of arms. The new strategy was rather to avoid
battle altogether and concentrate on creating such conditions so
that ultimately they would fall upon and decimate the invader in
circumstances that were favourable to them and at a time and
place of their own choosing." Like luring the enemy into home
For instance the Kandyan army resorted to
methods to thwart invasion you may consider na•ve and even
primitive, but they were effective. They used Balana Pass very
effectively since they were above and the advancing armies were
below and vulnerable to crushing by dislodged rocks. They used
forest cover to lurk behind and launch surprise attacks.
The wily hills' men utilized streams and fords
effectively by three methods. One was to fell trees across the
waterway and render fords impassable. The second was to dam the
waters at a point above a ford and suddenly release the water so
troops crossing over were swept away by the sudden rush of walls
of water. A third was even more na•ve, but effective, we
presume. This was to strew the advancing path of the enemy, be
it land or water, with a ferocious thorny plant called by the
Portuguese the elephant thorn.
As I said earlier, extensive and meticulous
research of the literature has been done by the author and so we
are given innumerable quotations ranging from Knox to individual
Portuguese - Joao Ribeiro and S JQueyroz, to name but two.
Gaston Perera's easy style, though very accurate
writing, makes the task of reading a military history
interesting. More so informative. We should, shouldn't we grab a
book that is a rarity in subject matter covered, and period of
our history it is set in. So go ahead, get yourself a copy of
Kandy Fights the Portuguese and bury your nose in it and
engage your mind in one short period of our history, bloody and
ruthless with the first European traders turned conquerors and
converters to the Christian faith.
While applauding Gaston Perera on his venture into the
difficult literary terrain of writing about wars, we hope he
will go back to his genre and give us another, and yet another
historical novel. He has the skill, the interest, the time, even
we suppose the inspiration, so we await his next novel.