Weapons in Sinhala-Portugese wars

Kamalika pieris

The Sinhalese used a variety of weapons, traditional and new, when fighting the Portuguese. The bow and arrow continued to hold an important place in their armory. It had an advantage. "We can send four or five arrows while their musket sends one shot." The arrow remained a lethal weapon. Arrows of areca wood had sharp points hardened by fire. Queyroz noted that they were as deadly as arrows made of iron.

The Sinhala army also used swords, spears, shields and the battle axe. Ribeiro said the local spear was about eighteen palms long. There were iron javelins as well. Rajasinha I had used one to kill a crocodile. These traditional weapons were modified to cope with Portuguese methods. Spearheads and arrows which could pierce armour were devised. Swords were altered from straight to curved.

The Portuguese did not use bows and arrows but they used spears and swords. They also used guns, pistols and cannon. The guns were not as efficient as present day guns. The ‘matchlock’, a Portuguese favorite, had a low rate of fire, and needed elaborate and repeated loading. It did not perform well in windy weather and did not perform at all in the rain. Matchlocks were obtained from Goa. They were also manufactured locally. Matchlocks and foot muskets were turned out in factories at Malwana, Matara and Sath Korale. Gun casting techniques were well within the capabilities of the Sinhala blacksmiths. Iron and charcoal were available in Kotte. Sulphur and saltpeter were imported. The Portuguese also built a gunpowder factory which could turn out about 160 pounds of gunpowder daily.

The Sinhalese adapted to the new weapons very rapidly. They acquired remarkable skill and dexterity with firearms. Queyroz said that the Sinhalese could with firearms put out a match at night. And by day sever a knife with four or five bullets at 60 paces. They could also hit the same spot in the target repeatedly. Rajavaliya says Sitavaka gunners destroyed a Portuguese naval assault vessel with a single well aimed shot from their canon. .

R.A.L.H. Gunawardana pointed out that great guns started in China. The earliest documented account of cannon was by armies of the Song dynasty rulers in China in the 12th century. He says the technology may have traveled through Central Asia and Middle East to Europe. By mid 13th century cannon was being used in Spanish battles. Ottoman Turks had guns on board their ships. They used cannon when they captured Constantinople in 1453. Gunawardana says cannons were known to the Mughals by the time of Akbar, if not earlier.

Therefore, he says, the Sinhalese could have been familiar with European weapons before the Portuguese arrived. Goonetilaka says a copperplate inscription of Parakarama Bahu IV (1302-1326) refers to two persons who were declared exempt from certain taxes which included ‘gun licenses’. Dambadeni Asna (13th century) mentions nine varieties of explosive devices, including dum vedi, yaturu vedi, gal vedi, gini vedi, sabda vedi, and vala vedi. ... Deraniyagala says guns are shown in 16th and 17th century frescos in Sri Lanka.

P.E.P.Deraniyagala points out that the Sinhala term for gun, ‘bondikula’ matches the Arabic term for gun, ‘bunduk.’ Also that certain technical aspects of the early Sinhalese matchlock were similar to the matchlocks used in the Middle East. However, .Deraniyagala says that by the 16th century the Sinhalese had evolved a distinct Sinhala type of gun. This is suggested by the unique bifurcated stock of the early Sinhala matchlock. The gun, he says, is therefore not a Portuguese introduction. D.G.A Perera points out that the Sinhalese called cannon ‘Kalathuwakku’ because the Portuguese cannons were firing on the hour. He says that this shows that firearms were known in Sri Lanka by then.

The Sinhalese started using guns very early on in their encounter with the Portuguese. De Couto records that during their first armed skirmish in 1518 Sinhalese used firelocks. In 1521 in their very first attack on Portuguese fortifications; the Sinhalese had used mounted artillery, siege guns and over 600 muskets on supports. Ribeiro reported that subsequently, the Kandyan army had five thousand musketeers. The guns came from a variety of sources. Some were purchased from India. Some were collected from successful attacks on the Portuguese and some were bought from the Portuguese who were selling weapons secretly to the Sinhalese. . Lascorins brought their arms with them when they deserted.

The Sinhalese also manufactured their own guns. According to Queyroz the Sinhalese manufactured matchlocks and muskets on supports. Barreto said in 1547 that Udarata manufactured very good muskets. An anonymous Dutch commentator has said that the Sinhalese muskets, poor as they look, they shoot pretty accurately. Saltpetre for gunpowder was readily available in Kandy. There were caves in Sath korale and Dumbara, particularly the Mimure cave in Knuckles range where it was available in raw form as nitre. Sulphur was imported from India. The Sinhala names for the western weapons were ‘gini tuvakku’ (match lock), ‘gal tuvakku ‘(flat lock) ‘ath tuvakku’ (pistol), and’ kalathuvakku’ (cannon). Large bronze cannon had been cast in the time of Rajasinha I.

The guns manufactured by the Sinhalese were superb. Faria Y Sousa wrote that the Sinhalese produced the best matchlocks in the East. The French traveller Pyrad de Lavel (1605) expressed unqualified admiration of Sri Lankan workmanship in metals, and especially in the fabrication and ornamentation of arms, which he says were the finest in India, and even superior to those in France. Deraniyagala says Sinhala guns were admired by medieval Europeans as the most ornate and artistic guns of that time. In 1745 the Dutch were given a Sinhala made cannon of superior workmanship. It is still preserved at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. A Portuguese collector had stated recently that the best hand held cannon in his collection was manufactured by the Sinhalese.

The Sinhalese innovated while making firearms. They made wooden cannon, out of a hollowed tree, bound with canes, and fired by a powder train. They have used this against the Dutch as well. They also invented the ‘Kodituvakku’ or foot musket. These were also known also as ‘gingal’ and ‘grasshopper guns’. These were portable and threw a heavy ball. The gun had had a long barrel of small calibre. This was more effective than the traditional barrel. Queyroz has described the method of firing. The soldier sat on the ground with the gingal between out stretched legs and directed the fire by swivelling the butt on his shoulders. He then picked up the gingal and darted to a new position.

The writings of T.B.H.Abeyasinghe, C.R. de Silva, D.G.B. de Silva, Haris de Silva, Susantha Goonetilaka, R.A.L.H. Gunawardana, A Nanayakkara, K.M. Pannikkar, Edmund Peries, C.Gaston Perera, P.E. Pieris and P.Weerakkody were used for this essay.

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