"The Portuguese Presence in Sri Lanka":
By Dr. Susantha Goonatilake
A 16th Century Clash of Civilizations


Reviewed by Bandu de Silva

Quite a number of works have been written covering the Western colonial phase in Sri Lanka. As it has been observed, the problem with writing the history of the colonial phase is that those who created the archives were foreign to the country and naturally incorporated their biases towards themselves and towards whom they subjugated. P. D Curtin, Professor of History, John Hopkins University, an expert on slave trade, writing in the six-volumed UNESCO General History of Africa observed that there could be disastrous results in writing colonial history if historians neglected to bring another point of view through oral interviews with living people who experienced the colonial rule.

Historical parochialism was deeply imbedded in the older historical tradition. Even in the 20th century it barely came out of the old tradition. Curtin even observed that history at its best was a form of snooping; and at worst, academic espionage. Perhaps, one can find this in the Portuguese chronicler, Queyroz’s intentions as revealed in his book VI. The history of Ceylon written by Emerson Tennent could also be put into this category. So was the work of the Dutch clergyman, Baldeus. When Tournour translated Mahavamsa there was an objective. There was, as Chief Justice Johnston observed something to learn from the laws and practices of the land which could come handy in governing the country. In other words, the early historiography was self –centred.

Bronislaw Malinowiski (1920-30)s advocacy of field investigation from anthropological perspective was overtaken by those of Claude Levi-Strauss and others (1940-1950s). These pre-modern works set in new dynamics especially in the field of anthropology. Decolonizing of history received an impetus especially from independence movements. Later, roots of resistance came to be investigated. Behavioural revolution has already come to the forefront of study. Interdisciplinary approaches and interviews and field investigations are proving to be as important for the colonial period as much as archival material. The archival records have to be balanced.

The idea of looking at history from the point of view of clash of civilizations was one which began to make its appearance in 1990s with Samuel Huntington’s work (1996)making a landmark, which but displays an overtly anti-Islamic bias. The idea has caught on since with UNESCO taking steps to sponsor a "dialogue of civilizations". Dr. Susantha Goonatilake, the author of the book under review , writes with the background experience gained by joining in that debate. He was a member of the group invited to analyze Hungtington’s work and also discussed the subject through the British journal ‘Foresight. ’

The emphasis on the Western colonial phase in historiography in Sri Lanka was obviously, part of that colonial legacy. While the Portuguese archival legacy had its natural bias its European and Sri Lankan interpreters displayed their own prejudices. These could be seen as religious bias as Emerson Tennent displays with his British Protestant prejudice in writing on the Portuguese in Sri Lanka as much as his "Aryan’ bias albeit his preference for Tamil women; and Paul E. Pieris similarly, and against which one can discern a Catholic flavour in Fr.S. G.Perera, O.M.I’s work despite streaks of pro-Sinhalese sentiments in some of his arguments. His debate with Fr.Gnanapragsar on the issue of Bhuvanekabahu’s illegitimate sons is a pointer.

The PhD thesis of the next generation of researchers suffered from other constrains, if not from over-influence of the thinking of Western supervisors but also from obligations towards funding institutes of research. PhD students from my batch in the University (1951) who were the second generation of scholars to study Portuguese interaction in Sri Lanka after Paul E.Pieris and Fr. S.G.Perera could not have, as the author points out, avoided the overwhelming influence of the rich Gulbenkian Foundation which supported Portuguese studies round the world. The next generation included C.Richard de Silva who is advocating the Gulbenkian re-interpretation of Portuguese history!

The coming of the Portuguese to Sri Lanka and the vast literature available in Portugal, Goa and elsewhere as well as Sinhalese records lay bare a wealth of evidence on the civilisational dialogue that ensued but writing in the early days in the background of British empirical tradition, there was hardly any focus on the civilisational perspective. As the author has outlined in the present work epistemology and the issue of interacting of civilizations in the centre forms the point of departure for his study. As claimed, by design, it also takes non-Euro centric perspective. These mean it goes beyond the British empiricism and places the problem in the wider perspective of the currently popular civilisational dialogue. As such, matters of thought, belief and religion including contents of mind - Catholicism and Buddhism which became a key issue in the Portuguese interaction – have become the centre of discussion in the book.

The vast corpus of Portuguese archival documents attracted many of the writers. Tennent had less access to archival sources, - Queyroz’s work had not surfaced. Paul E.Pieris and S.G.Perera quarelled over them, the latter accusing the former of not disclosing his sources! The next batch starting with my batch mate, Tikiri Abayasinghe and others were attracted by the archives. These archives have been better documented now. Goonetilake’s book makes use not only of Portuguese sources but also Sri Lankan primary sources and physical and oral evidence collected during visits throughout the island to destroyed sites, and Portuguese remains.

Early European historiography, representing the Portuguese interaction, on the whole, presented the countries of the conquered world as nothing more than "barbarism, ignorance, paganism, idolatry, or being under the influence of the Devil". For the Europeans, especially the Portuguese who were the first of them to make contacts outside Europe, it was the Pope (God?) -given mission to "invade [other] countries, subjugate Saracens and pagans, other unbelievers and enemies of Christ whomsoever and wherever settled,….to invade and conquer their kingdoms,- Countries . Land and places, villages and camps and possessions,- to reduce to slavery their inhabitants, … and to appropriate them for the kings of Portugal….converting them to [your] own use and utility and of successors" as Pope Nicholas V instructed in a Perpetual Memorial (DUM DIVORSA) sent to Alfonso, King of Portugal on June 18, 1452.

The above injunction sums up the civilisational situation in Europe around the time of the advent of the Portuguese in the East. These were to be the guiding principles behind Portuguese interaction in Sri Lanka from the beginning of the 16th century for nearly 150 years to come. The contrast is found in the following Buddha’s instructions to the Kalams, his friends, the five ascetics, which Dr.Goonatilleke hs quoted:

"Oh, Kalamas, Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon rumour; nor upon what is in scriptures; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards reasoning; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration ‘the monk is our teacher. Kalamas, when you yourself know ‘these things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed; these things lead to benefit and happiness’, enter into them and abide by them."

As the author observes, this was no blind appeal to faith and fear of higher beings, but an appeal to human’s cognitive faculties. When a Brahamin wanted to become a Buddhist, the Buddha asked him to reconsider and think it over, mentioning that other religions including Brahamanism also preach good.

These were the guiding principles that the Sri Lankans observed as late as the time of arrival of the Portuguese. These were spread through such principal institutes of learning as Totagamuva, Vidagama, Keragala, Wattala, Pepiliyanaa, Galaturumula (Devinuwara) and others. There was no common ground to fill the vast oceanic gap between the European civilization and the Buddhist civilisation. The contrast is further manifest in the dialogue between the Chief Franciscan missionary, Fr.Villa De Conde, and King Bhuvanekabahu VII whom the friar tried to convert through employing all conceivable means.

There was no common ground for the Sinhalese Buddhists for a fruitful civilisational dialogue on points of ethics, like what their spokesman, Ven. Nagasena engaged with the Bactrian Greek king, Menander, in the pre- Christian era. The Bactrian king was equally open and receptive as the account codified in Milinda Panha demonstrates. What a contrast to what the Portuguese Crown and their missionaries were doing in Sri Lanka? There lay the difference between the two civilizations. The way King Bhuvanekabahu responded to the oppressive dialogue to which Fr.Villa de Conde subjected him contrasts the mild Eastern manner and oriental courtesy and forbearance even of a layman as against the arrogance, bigotry and crudeness of a Western cleric. When Fr. De Conde denounced the King’s religion in most vilifying terms, he was not offended but tears ran down his beard! He only declared that he will not abandon whatever he received from his parents and "drank at his mother’s breast" which he said sufficed him to obtain salvation.

The king was sick of the disputations in which the missionaries engaged with the Bhikkus in his presence; he could not bear the vilification of his religion and the word "Devil’ used to signify Buddha. When the Friar pressed the King with ‘political blackmail ’ by asking him if he considered the friendship with the most powerful king of Portugal important,the King gave the following reply :

"Neither for the present king of Portugal, nor for two others like him, will I desert the law in which I was born, grew up and was educated. You may be quite sure I will never embrace the Christian religion, or speak in favour of it. But if I am forced, I will abdicate my kingship and abandon my native land, rather than to be dipped in the waters of Baptism. Nevertheless, you and your friars may preach your religion to my people. If they accept I, it will be most gratifying to me, and I will never put any obstacle to their conversion. But if they do not accept it, it ought not be imputed on me."

The message was polite and civil but it was also terse – a message that could come from a ‘civilised’ soul, albeit a layman! The king’s responses were not without its element of humour also. The author quotes the way the King reacted when Captain Antonio Monis Baretto sent by Francis Xavier, remonstrated after failing to convert the King by talking about hell. The king declared:

"….the Hell of the Christians must be rigorous indeed, if the souls who go there receive the suffering which Antonio Monis Baretto caused me.."

Queyroz who quoted this incident remarked, " For there is nothing to which these nations are so sensitive, especially Kings, as to contempt; a matter in which Europeans make great mistakes". True to the captain’s swearing, one can see how the plot thickened after it was clear the king could not be converted. The plot was to expose him as ant-Christian and depose him. Instead, he was finally killed!

In a section devoted to discuss the Sinhalese attitudes, the other side of the Portuguese civilisational war, the author, Goonatilake quotes the Portuguese writer, Thome Pires, (1512-1515) who wrote "the Sinhalese are well educated…..different peoples say that [they] ruled justly. …and they have complete justice among them". The leading Portuguese chronicler, Queyroz, writing a century later, confirmed these views. He also said the Sinhalese were "extremely gentle by nature " but also referred to their pride.

How did the Sinhalese then transform themselves to a fighting nation? Queyroz,provides the answer "…. the Sinhalese were a good natured people but because of constant wars of resistance against the Portuguese they had now, "as their greatest occupation soldiering and they enjoy [it]". The Sinhalese became a war-like nation from then onwards, as other Portuguese commentators also observed.

Susantha Goonatilake’s present work is a product of several years of work resulting from the research of the Portuguese Encounter Study Group convened by him originally under the auspices of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka. The research study has an interesting history of its own. A proposal made by the Portuguese government to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Portuguese in the island was accepted by the then Prime Minister. Other Ministers with high academic credentials supported the idea. The opposition to the idea culminated in setting up the study group at Royal Asiatic Society. Later the group had to move its venue due to machination by interested parties. The Portuguese government supported by the Gulbeikin Foundation organized an exhibition in New York portraying only the positive side of Portuguese interaction with Sri Lanka. Similarly, an international Seminar was held in Paris to coincide with the Colombo Seminar focused itself on positive contributions. The work undertaken amidst these difficulties.

The work tries to place the Portuguese interaction in the island in a balanced perspective taking note of both the way the spiritual and temporal conquest of the island progressed , not overlooking the characteristics of the Portuguese who came to Sri Lanka (the scum of the society). The latter might be a point for mitigation of Portuguese atrocities in the island but that cannot account for the perversions because of the involvement of the highest Portuguese in the island, like Captains-General Jerome Azavedo, and Viceroy A.De Noronah who hailed from one of the highest noble families of Portugal whose greed for Bhuvanekabahu’s treasure saw no limit.

The emergence of modern science in Europe at the turn of the 15th century which led to "rediscovering" the world through Iberian competition is fully brought into focus in the book. Merging of Sinhalese and Portuguese civilisational ideas discussed in the book are positive contributions to the art world. The influence of exotic aretefacts (Cabinet de Curiosite’) which fired the imagination of Europe is identified and occupies a fair part of the discussion under three chapters. Chapter 5 is entirely devoted to a discussion of the old gem and jewellery industry in Sri Lanka including the cultural consequence of the Portuguese thrust. Chapter 6 entitled " Imported Jewelley to European Royalty" discusses the role of Lisbon in receiving (importing and plundering), collecting and distribution of artifacts. pearls, seed pearls, sapphires, rubies, garrets and topazes which were main imports from Sri Lanka. (Rui Guedes, 1996). There followed 150 years of luxury goods exports from the island. Much of the art production was finely carved ivory both decorative and utility items. To meet European demands, Sinhalese product-motifs were changed to European /Christian motifs. Bhuvanekabahu’s letter to Queen Catherina acknowledges the arrival of the Portuguese royal jeweller to whom the king made available the services of many goldsmiths. That indicates how much the export of exquisite jewellery had become.

The author has provided a long inventory of these exquisite works and shows how Queen Catherine of Austria (1507-1578) became an important hub of communications and exchanges between European royal houses; and consequently, the members of the Hapsburg family in the courts of Lisbon, Madrid, Vienna, Prague, Brussels, Innsbruck, Graz, and Munich had an intense system that dealt with textiles, animals, and exotica.

Chapter 7 also consists of a very learned discussion focusing on Sri Lankan art treasures which have found their way to European capitals through the medium of the Portuguese with heavy concentration on different types of ivory carvings, both of decorative and utility significance. Ivory carving is a special skill (now lost) which had been practiced near Galle as well as in Kandyan hills. It also shows how the industry moved from the production of items with oriental motifs to those which the Europeans preferred. Among them are many artifacts described as "Indo-Portuguese Ivories" which are found scattered round the world. The ivory casket now in the Munich Residenz Museum which depicts the historic scene of the coronation of Prince Dharmapala in effigy which was transferred from Lisbon to Munich and was the subject of several learned thesis. There are many such caskets in Europe discussed in the book which should be of interest to the general reader as well as to serious students.

Chapter 8 on Sinhalese learning is an important one when speaking about civilizations. During the middle of the last century to which many of us were witnesses, one of the yardsticks which differentiated civilized and less civilised societies was the state of literacy, ‘Illiterate’ societies being placed in the ‘primitive’ category. In that sense, Sri Lanka had been a far more ‘literate’ society for over two millennia than most of Europe at the time. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the institutions discussed in the book were great centres of learning. Besides, at village levels, the Buddhist temples imparted not only literacy but also higher learning including oriental classics. This was, then, a field in which Portuguese chroniclers could not claim any chauvinistic superiority for their countrymen as they did in Africa. But the Africans themselves were not without their literacy tradition.

The discussion on the content of mind is found under chapter 4 – Total Civilisational War and again under chapter 9 – Minds from Dark Ages . The latter chapter contains an illuminating discourse on the difference between Christian approach of the time and Buddhism –the fanaticism and intolerance of the former and the liberality and tolerance of the latter including its contribution to the emerging scientific revolution .

A book covering a wide spectrum of themes like the author has chosen to introduce in a highly focused manner. Maintaining that focus throughout itself requires close attention as diverse elements composing separate chapters have to be aligned to the main theme rather than allow them to remain loosely dispersed. This problem has been overcome in the book to a great extent. Perhaps, an epilogue rather than the short concluding paragraph could have better wrapped up the presentation to make it compact.

To conclude, this book is no settling of scores. It is by and large a scientific contribution and a worthy contribution to knowledge based on sources some of which remained unexplored and un-interpreted. Coming out the Portuguese Encounter Group’s painstaking research work carried out under difficult circumstances, and a wide reference base used , it is written by an author with wide experience. Wrapped up in 357 pages, it contains 85 pictorial illustrations. It also has a fine index expertly prepared by a professional group and an extensive bibliography of twenty pages which too speak for the professional quality of the effort gone into the production. It is a must read for everyone. The publisher, Vijitha Yapa, has used his skills to make the book very presentable.

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