Naval operation in historic times

Sri Lanka’s position in the Indian Ocean made it a magnet for sea-farers from very distant times. Today we know of early human settlements on Sri Lankan soil as long ago as 128,000 years B.P.(Before Present) These settlements we have found seem to have been located on the highlands of the landmass while those along the then shore-line are now submerged. Early settlers came here by foot: this was no island 6,500 years or so ago, but a southern extension of the Asian mainland linked to it by a wide swathe of dry land where the Palk Strait and Gulf of Mannar are today. After we became an island, seafarers and settlers from India, led by such leaders as the legendary Prince Vijaya in the 6th century B.C. came here by sea, and it is to them that we trace our origins.

History begins with written records, the oldest of which, the Mahavamsa does say that a race of people inhabited the island at that time the seafarers came: the Veddahs, who had walked their way here many millennia ago, and who are really our "First People". But it is to the people who came by sea, who brought us the gift of an agrarian and urban culture, that we call our ancestors.

Soon Sri Lanka was an independent state interacting with different kingdoms of India. Nevertheless, the mere proximity of India’s many kingdoms, well-versed in expansionist wars, spelt danger. India, therefore, was Sri Lanka’s neighbour, best friend and closest source of danger.

Sri Lanka, in ancient times, was no initiator of military or naval offensives but, rather, the target of merchant-adventurers or of south Indian kingdoms seeking expansion. The first mention in the chronicles of a sea-borne invasion was that by the horse traders, Sena and Gutthika in the second century B.C., followed soon after by that of the adventurer, Elara. King Dutugemunu (Duttha Gamani Abhaya) defeated the latter in battle but, in the reign of his nephew King Valagambahu (Vatthagamini Abhaya), in the first century B.C., Indian armies and rulers occupied the northern part of the island for a while. All these were sea-borne invasions

This ever-present danger led to the first specifically naval role assumed by the kings of Anuradhapura: King Moggallana I, who also had to face and defeat a Pandyan invasion in the 5th. century A.D. is on record as having "by instituting guards for the sea-coast, freed the island from danger". This reference from the Culavamsa shows not only the assumption of a defensive coast guard role by the kingdom but also the recognition of the coast line as the territorial frontier of the nation and its first line of defence. It is only when this line of defence is breached does it become necessary to fight a foreign foe on home-soil.

From the seventh and eighth centuries A.D. one sees Sri Lankan rulers enlisting the aid of either South Indian mercenary armies or the help of friendly rulers there, for internal wars and power struggles. King Manavamma gained the support of the Pallava king in his own struggle for power, thus exposing the country to invasion again. King Sena II, in the ninth century had once again to build up coastal defences and "made the Island hard to subdue by the foe." Sri Lankan naval power seems to have benefited from these experiences, however, and in the following centuries Sri Lankan expeditionary forces landed twice in Pandyan territory: once to help a friendly prince dethrone the ruling king and once to fight alongside the Pandyans against the Chola king.

The involvement of Sri Lankan and South Indian kings in the internal affairs of each others’ countries brought about adverse results to Sri Lanka. In the tenth century, the now rampant Chola power invaded and captured the country making it, for the first time, a colony under a foreign power. The Cholas occupied the country from 993-1070 A.D. before King Vijayabahu 1 was able to win it back.

Thus far, neither the chronicles nor other sources indicate any details of naval operations. It has to be assumed that ships were used only as military transports and that, as in Elizabethan England, the term "Navy" meant "all (English) ships and all (English) seamen." From the twelfth century, however, we come across more detailed evidence.

King Parakramabahu 1, the hero-king of the twelfth century, is credited with several naval operations, both domestic and foreign which, in terms of details given, have a very authentic flavour. While yet the Prince of only the southern part of the country, the Dakkhinadesa, he had enriched his kingdom with the export of gems and precious stones. He thus coveted the rich pearl banks that were under the control of the king of the Rajarata, Gajabahu, and fought two battles with him for the control of this resource. In the first, his commander, Malayarayara, captured a fortress near Puttalam and embarked his troops on ships to Muttakara (Pearl Banks), where he took on Gajabahu’s forces in two engagements that were, however, inconclusive. A second attempt, led by Nagaragiri Mahinda, repeated the ploy more successfully and Parakramabahu gained control of the pearl banks.

After becoming king of the whole of the country, he is on record as having mounted a punitive raid against King Alaungsithu of Myanmar. The description of the building of the fleet and its fitting-out for a military operation is quite convincing.

(The King) "gave the order without delay to make ready ships of various kinds, many hundreds in number. Now all the country around the coast was one great workshop occupied with the building of ships taken in hand. When within five months he had all the ships well built, he assembled them in haste at the port of Pallava-vanka. Then endowed with vast royal power, he had provisions supplied for a whole year such as rice and the like and abundant weapons of war, such as armour and the like, further gokanna arrows of iron with sharp points, many hundreds in number, for defence against elephants, also different kinds of medicines preserved in cow-horns for the healing of venomous wounds caused by poisoned arrows, as well as all kinds of remedies for curing the poison of infected water in many swampy stretches of the country; also iron pincers for extracting iron arrow-heads which are difficult to remove when they have pierced deeply and the shaft has broken lastly also skilful physicians and serving women - everything in complete fashion."

The chronicler does not fight shy of mentioning that only a handful of "the many hundreds of ships" reached their destination. The historicity of the incident is borne out by a contemporary rock-inscription at Devanagala which records a gift of land by the king to one of the commanders, Nagaragiri Kitti (or Kit Nuvaragal) for his deeds.

Parakramabahu also continued to take sides in the internal squabbles of Pandya. He sent an army under the command of Senapati (General) Lankapura to depose the ruler who has slain his (Parakramabahu’s) ally. The landing place selected the roadstead of Taladilla on the Pandyan coast, required deeper draft craft to anchor off-shore and many small boats were taken along to effect a landing.

"He embarked his great army on many hundreds of ships, started off and sailed a day and night on the back of the ocean. When he caught sight of the coast, since a hostile army was standing there, he made all his army put on their armour on board. As the ships had to lie in deep water and because with a landing at this spot, the armour of the whole army would have been wet through, he made the troops get into hundreds of boats of small size. Then, when the rain of arrows from the Damilas standing on the coast came flying, he had shields fashioned of leather set up in front of the people (as protection) against the arrows......"

In both these extracts from the Culavamsa, the details of the type of ship referred to conform to modern knowledge of the morphology of medieval Sri Lankan ships. They also give credible details of operational strategies.

In the years when the kingdoms became smaller and weaker. and the centre of power began to drift southwest-wards, large areas escaped the power of the central government. One are was Jaffna, which developed as a considerable maritime power, expanding its power along the western coastline up to Panadura. However, Jaffna may have been interested only in commercial expansion, as Ibn Batuta (14th century) is quoted as mentioning a fleet of "one hundred vessels of varying size" belonging to Ariya Chakkravarti, King of Jaffna in an Indian port. No naval warfare between the kings of Gampaha and Jaffna are reported, and the former chose to challenge the power of Jaffna on land from the secure fortress of Kotte. This is, perhaps, an indication that Gampaha preferred not to face the might of Jaffna at sea.

Towards the end of the fifteenth century the first of the European powers, the Portugese, entered the Indian Ocean, soon followed by the Dutch, French, Danish and British. They brought in a new type of fighting ship, new weaponry (cannon) and new concepts of naval warfare. Eastern nations were not slow to pick up these innovations, to manufacture their own cannon and gun-powder and to use them against invaders. In the sixteenth century, the Kings of Sitawaka, Mayadunne and Rajasingha I, repeatedly tried to free Colombo from the Portugese by draining the protective moat around the fort, enlisting the aid of the fleet of the Zamorin of Calicut to bombard the fort from sea-wards forcing the Portuguese to fight on two fronts. Later, more positive use of naval power was made. The Dutch chronicler, Phillipus Baldeus reports this incident:

"The Prince of Migonne, Admiral and Naval Captain General (Note: this was Marcellus Boschouwer who was serving the Kandyan King) had at the request of the Emperor fitted out a fleet consisting of 3 war galleys and 3 yachts with which they were ordered to go on a cruise to intercept and capture the enemy’s vessels navigating between Cape Comoryn and Ceylon with instructions not to give quarter to the Portugezen or any enemies of the State save the women, children and slaves (as the slaves may be usefully employed aboard their galleys).

The fleet sailed from the harbour of Cotiarum on 16th May with the nephew of the Prince of Ove as Admiral and Wandige Nai Hanni as Vice Admiral. The following are the names of the vessels and of their respective commanders.

1. the Galley Candy - Captain Sanderappo

2. the Galley Hollant - Captain Kistena

3. the Galley Migonne - Captain Dingappe

4. the Yacht Fortune - Captain Ordia

5. the Yacht Geluk - Captain Marasinge

6. the Yacht de Trouwe -Captain Sanderappo

The fleet returned on the 6th. of March 1613 laden with much spoil which amounted to not less than 6 tons of treasure. While to the north of Chilau between Negombo and Mannar they fell in with, and captured, 2 Portugezen vessels called patasios, 3 yachts and 20 barques which they destroyed by fire, they also fell in between Calecut and Cabo Comoryn with a Porigesche yacht; on the fleet nearing here, the crew threw themselves overboard and were drowned, they then gave chase to another vessel and ran her aground and after that took possession of a richly laden Moors vessel bound from Ormuz to Cochin, they also captured another Portugezen ship on her way from Bengala, pitched the Portugezen and misticen and cargo overboard and made prisoners of the Portugezen women and slaves. On their return near Panua they discovered a Portugezen ship at anchor but deserted by her crew who had left everything on board to their mercy. Of the rich spoil captured His Majesty made a distribution to his officers and soldiers."

Sri Lanka’s naval capability did not last much longer. With one European power succeeding the other in the Indian Ocean countries, the kings of Kandy lost control over the Maritime Provinces. Allying with Indian powers was no longer viable. After the seventeenth century, Sri Lanka ceased to have any naval capability at all, till the 20th. century.

The lessons the ancients learnt, and practiced can perhaps be summarized as follows:

1. Sri Lanka is a nation-state, and not a part of the Asian mainland.

2. Danger to the State comes across the sea.

3. The coast is our frontier: Coastal Surveillance is essential.

4. Strategic alliances are useful, but they also expose us to retaliation.

5. Landing troops from seaward can be usefully employed in internal conflicts.

6. Trade and the Economy can be protected by the use of naval power.

7. The enemy must be fought on land if the seaward defences are breached.

8. Enemy shipping must be denied safety on the sea.

9. We must be peaceful, have no imperialistic ambitions, but not be intimidated.

Policies and strategies evolved over time, and yet very relevant to us, today.

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