Features

Introducing Gaston Perera's Most Recent Publication
by Nan

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, June 2007.

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 consequences.

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 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 ground.

For instance the Kandyan army resorted to methods to thwart invasion you may consider nave 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 nave, 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.

 

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