Rebellions against Portuguese rule


There were six major rebellions and four minor outbreaks of resistance to Portuguese rule at the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century. Abeyasinghe says that 10 rebellions within 44 years shows the degree to which the Sinhalese found Portuguese rule distasteful.

The rebellions occurred either after significant Portuguese defeats, Danture (1594), Balane (1603), Randeniwela (1630) or after controversial treaties were signed (1617).

The first rebellion was by Akaragama Appuhamy in 1594. The revolt started in Sitawaka and spread to Hewagama and Siyane korales. The next by Edirille rala started in 1594 and ended in 1596. King Wimaladharmasuriya supported him.

There were outbreaks as far away as Katugampoola, Sabaragamuwa and Matale. "The whole country was in a state of agitation." The rebels had prepared well. The river was blocked at Mapitigama by a barrier of massive logs. Stout canes ran from this to the crag of Raxapana where the canes were attached to a bell. The canes also had dogs tied to them. It was impossible for the Portuguese to pass this barrier.

Abeyasinghe says the Portuguese retreat was more a nightmare than a military retreat. This rebellion was followed by two minor revolts in Hewagam korale, in 1599.

In 1603, the Portuguese were defeated at Balane by Wimaladharmasuriya. When the defeat was known, the whole country took to arms. Negombo, Galle, Matara, Attapitiya, Opanayake, Ruvanvella and Menikkadawara were taken.

Soldiers in the Portuguese army began to desert. 1603 saw two major rebellions, by Kangara arachchi and Kuruvita rala. Wimaladharmasuriya helped both rebels. Kuruwita rala was experienced in warfare. He took Raigam korale, the southern half of the Udarata kingdom and most of the disavanis of Sabaragamuwa and Matara. He raided Beruwela, forced the Portuguese to abandon the newly built Sabaragamuwa fort and persuaded some of the lascarins of Matara to desert to him. Kuruvita arachchi staged a second rebellion from 1617 to 1619.

The fifth major rebellion was by Nikapitye Bandara (1616-17). The revolt started in Sabaragamuwa and within three months, it had spread to sath korale. King Senerat sent Kuruwita rala an army of 2000 in support. Nikapitiye followed Kuruvita rala’s policy of avoiding battle, harassing the Portuguese forces on the move and attacking isolated Portuguese outposts. His forces came close to Colombo. Portuguese power was confined to the Kelani Valley and the coast from Negombo to Matara. At one point, it looked as though he would win. He nearly drove the Portuguese into the sea and the Portuguese army was in a state of utter demoralization. They were saved by the unexpected arrival of troops from Malacca. There were also minor revolts in Sath Korale in 1616 and Matara Disava in 1619.

Then came the sixth rebellion directed jointly by four mudaliyars in Kotte (1630-31). These mudaliyars had decided in 1526, to take Kotte and Colombo and expel the Portuguese. They had discussions with Senerat and planned to attack when the next Udarata invasion started. The invasion did not take place as expected. They had to wait. Then, when the Portuguese were defeated at Randeniwela, in 1630, they went into action. Malwana, Sabaragamuwa and Menikkadawara forts fell. When the Udarata army came down, they found that except for the Colombo fort, the low lands were already in Sinhala hands.

The rebel leaders came from different social classes. Akaragama was closely related to the Sinhala royal family. Nikapitiya was a minor village headman and Kuruvita rala was the son of a fisherman. The first rebellions were centred on the Kelani and Kalu Ganga basins, particularly Siyana, Hewagama, Salpiti, Raigam and Pasdun korales. From there they spread to Sath and Sathara Korales and Matara Disavani.

Subsequent rebellions started further away, in Balana, two Korales, Sath Korale, Badulla (1630).

The rebels were able to hold out much longer in these later rebellions. However, these rebellions also finally came into the Kelani Valley, since it was in Kelani Valley only that a telling blow could be delivered to the Portuguese.

The public also fought the Portuguese. Around 1521, one day when the Sinhalese were resting in the noon-day heat, de Brito sailed out with 150 soldiers and attacked the town. The Sinhalese first ran away, then returned and repulsed the Portuguese. The Portuguese had plundered their houses and were leaving loaded with their plunder. The Sinhalese followed. The Portuguese had set fire to the main street of the town, so the Sinhalese were divided into two groups, one lot putting out the fire and the other lot chasing the Portuguese back into the fort.

In 1547, the Portuguese ravaged with ‘fire and sword’ a place they called Milabonda, till the inhabitants in desperation attacked the army. Nearly half the Portuguese were killed and the remainder were badly wounded. In 1594, the Portuguese, retreating from Udarata, went to Halloluwa, (Kandy), collected a stock of rice, destroyed temples and houses and set fire to the place. A large body of Sinhalese then collected and forced the Portuguese back. The Portuguese fell one by one. In 1595, the Portuguese sent their officials to construct a fort at Galle. The Sinhalese had been ‘aroused’ and were waiting. The officials were forced to turn back. They were pursued by the Sinhalese in ever increasing numbers.

Abeyasinghe says Sinhala opposition was due to two issues. One was opposition to Portuguese rule. The Sinhalese wanted to get rid of the Portuguese. Edirille Rala took the title ‘liberator of the Sinhala nation’ (‘Liberator de nacao chinagala’). In the 1630 rebellion, rebels remarked on the horror of enslavement to a foreigner and the loss of liberty. They feared that the very name of the Sinhalese would disappear. Secondly, there was hostility to the Roman Catholic faith. At each rebellion, the main target was the church. Even the Christian converts joined the rebels and burned down their churches. Edirille Rala, a Catholic, burnt churches during the rebellion.

Queyroz says that those who have not been to Sri Lanka had no knowledge of the determination of the locals in defending their independence. "They are most stubborn to admit any foreign dominion."

Boccaro said, around 1632, that the island was never free of rebellions and treachery. He noted that those living in Portuguese controlled areas readily joined the ‘perali’ and equally readily returned to the Portuguese when it was over. However, he noted that ‘even when they are on our side they are ever ready for treachery, they do not hide their hatred for us." He said that this was made clear at every rebellion.

(The writings of T. B. H. Abeyasinghe, C. R. de Silva, Susantha Goonetilake, C. Gaston Perera, and P. E. Pieris were used for this essay)

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