Treachery and Ethnicity in Portuguese Representations of Sri Lanka

ALAN STRATHERNAlan Strathern a reprint of a chapter in Richard Roque And Kim Wagner (eds.) Engaging Colonial Knowledge, London, Palgrave, 2012, pp. 217-34.

Writing from the imperial capital of Goa in the 1630s, the official chronicler of the Portuguese East, António Bocarro, turned his attention southwards to ‘the enemy that we have in this island of Ceylon’. This bountiful island was the only place in Asia where the Portuguese had launched a successful project of extensive territorial conquest. They were now directly ruling the lowlands and engaged in a ceaseless attempt to defeat the island’s last independent kingdom, the highland bastion of Kandy[i]. Bocarro’s verdict was not flattering: ‘all the Sinhalese are by their nature treacherous and inconstant and for any advantage they would kill their own father’.

He was not only referring to the recalcitrant inhabitants of Kandy but also the lowland people who were considered vassals of the king in Lisbon. He lamented the ease with which these vassals would ‘cross from us to the enemy, and return from the enemy to us’. He went on to say, ‘But with a big difference, because when on our side they never refrain from being ready for any treachery against us, however obligated they may be to us for benefits received from the Portuguese. And also, so strong and firm are they in their hatred of us and their subjection, that even those who have showed themselves always faithful and have proved it with their own lives [in our service], confess that even unto the grave, they will not be able to give up that hatred…[ii]

Portugese Caravel PotugueseCaravel-Wiki

Bocarro was writing not long after the disastrous expedition of 1630 in which the lowland Sinhalese had conspired with their highland countrymen to inflict a devastating defeat on their European foe. Just as the Portuguese forces approached Kandy, their lascarin troops defected en masse while a rebel faction announced itself in the colonial capital of Colombo. On the 22nd of August the entire Portuguese army was annihilated or taken prisoner at the battle of Randenivala. Shockingly, among the dead lay Constantino de Sá de Noronha, the Portuguese Captain-General of Ceylon (1616-20, 1623-30). His post-mortem fate was now to be worshipped as a vengeful deity by the Kandyans, staggered perhaps at their own achievement[iii]. There was more salt to be rubbed into the wounds: many of the defectors were Sinhalese who had converted to Christianity and been rewarded with intimate positions of service by Sá de Noronha[iv]. Raised up from low origins and endowed with new noble titles, they now turned against their benefactor. These troubling events reverberated around the Portuguese empire while the subsequent wars of the 1630s ruined the Goa treasury at a time when funds were desperately needed to see off the predatory advances of the Dutch.

What was driving the rebels? Were they fighting out of some conscious commitment to their identity as Sinhalese? Or is that hopelessly anachronistic, a capitulation to modern nationalist assumptions? And does this characterization of ‘infidelity’ reflect anything more than the wounded amour-propre of Europe’s first imperialists?

For Bocarro, as a New Christian who had temporarily slipped back to Judaism and only received full absolution from the Inquisition in 1624, the theme of inconstancy must have been particularly salient[v]. Yet, in his characterisation of the Sinhalese he was making use of a stereotype which had long coalesced in the Portuguese mind. Or rather, there were two stereotypes at work. It was felt that the Sinhalese were unfaithful to their own lords, to be sure, but behind this generic predisposition was discerned a more selective one: a flickering antipathy to foreign dominion borne out of national pride.

Both these images would be called into question today and subject to interpretation by scholars familiar with Edward Said’s well-known critique of Orientalist knowledge. Historians are now routinely concerned to show how shaky the epistemological foundations of Western representations of the East may be, and yet how powerful they were subsequently in shaping Easterners views of themselves. There is more than a touch of Michel Foucault too in the strong assumption that knowledge is the creature of power. The historian John Rogers has termed this sort of scholarship as ‘post-Orientalist’, and this essay will also adopt this term[vi]. I should say that within Sri Lanka itself this approach to history has often been either ignored or fiercely resisted[vii]. But among those scholars of Sri Lanka based in other countries, post-Orientalism has achieved a certain hegemony. I shall not here provide an exploration of how this has happened as there are good accounts elsewhere. Perhaps the two most influential works one should note are Jonathan Spencer’s, Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of Conflict and Pradeep Jeganathan and Qadri Ismail Unmaking the Nation[viii]. The former was particularly seminal in advancing the argument that current assumptions about the long-term nature of Sri Lankan ethnicity, state and religion owe a great deal to the Victorian Orientalist imagination.

Above all, recent writing has called into question the antiquity of ‘Sinhaleseness’ (and to a lesser extent ‘Tamilness’) as a meaningful identity. During the past quarter of a century of civil war, nothing has been could have been more controversial in the island than this. But international academia with its largely liberal persuasions has been concerned to emphasize that current political emotions have very shallow roots. In fact, we might discern here an intellectual alliance between post-Orientalism and the modernist interpretation of nationalism[ix]. The former brings to the table the feeling that Western representations are likely to be deeply mistaken and self-serving; the latter, that mass culture and mass group identity can only be produced by the forces of modernity. Add them together: the West has shaped an invented past masking its creation of the present.

In fact, few of these writers have actually been historians – there are simply not that many historians of Sri Lanka around[x]. Their most important source, the empirical foundation for much subsequent theoretical architecture, has been Gunawardana’s well-known essay on ‘the People of the Lion’, first drafted in 1979. Although Gunawardana’s later work explores the impact of Orientalism, this foundational paper derives its impetus from a quiet Marxism[xi]. Moreover, the obvious problems with the more extreme post-Orientalist arguments, in which knowledge-warping power is only accorded to Europeans, have been recognized and now one or two scholars have begun to deconstruct local pre-modern texts in a similar manner[xii]. Therefore, in broad terms, one can describe the prevailing academic tendency as ‘historicist’ as contrasted with a ‘traditionalist’ one. ‘Historicism’ here refers to an emphasis on discontinuity and incommensurability between different epochs, combined with a robust critique of texts as specific projections of power rather than reflections of long-standing and wide-reaching cultural traditions[xiii].

For the post-Orientalist argument, one particular watershed or epistemic rupture is critical. The consensus seems to be that the pivotal moment occurred around the 1830s, some four decades into British rule, when a new form of centralized bureaucracy was established through the Colebrooke-Cameron reforms, and at same time the British were beginning to appreciate the long antiquity of the local literary tradition. Largely through the activities of the official George Turnour, the principal chronicle tradition or Mahavamsa was heralded as the key to understanding the history and therefore fundamental nature of the Sinhalese[xiv]. It is around this time, indeed, that the Sinhalese were first properly established in the imagination as a distinct racial or ethnic group. If any self-conception of ‘Sinhalaness’ is acknowledged to exist before this date, it is as an idea with very little emotional or political weight attached.

From the 1830s, the British used racial categories as the basis for ‘native’ representation in the legislative council. Caste, hitherto employed as an element of a heterogeneous system of imperial rule, was thereafter largely ignored by officials, in direct contrast, of course, to India. Redoubling the dichotomous conceptualization of Ceylon and India, if the inhabitants of the subcontinent were sometimes deemed to be ‘without history’, the Sinhalese were imagined to have long possessed a proper understanding of history. Their past, lovingly extracted from the Mahavamsa, now dated back to the centuries B.C[xv].

Lisbon_-_Lisbonne_-_Lisboa_1572 Lisbon and the Tagus in 1572 — Wikipedia

This is the point at which we can return to the Portuguese, for the awkward existence of the Portuguese period of influence in Sri Lanka (1506-1658) elbows apart the alliance between post-Orientalism and modernist theory. Here we have a Western nation – but not Western as we know it, and certainly not modern. Portuguese representations of the East issued before the Enlightenment, before an explicit biology of race, and while some of the earlier big ‘distinguishers’ of the West – the Reformation and the rise of the nation-state – were only just beginning to play out. Furthermore, how do we conceptualize the impact of a European people who, for almost the entire sixteenth-century, were not governing Sri Lanka so much as intruding onto the island’s affairs through the institutions of vassalage and mission? In short, given that there must be a world of difference between the worldviews of a sixteenth-century Iberian and a nineteenth-century Briton – does this mean they describe different worlds when they write about Sri Lanka?

When it comes to the method by which post-Orientalists interpret European texts, there is actually a good deal of common ground with more traditional forms of source criticism[xvi]. In our case, it must be an obvious starting point that Portuguese representations of Sri Lanka are – to use Buddhist terminology – ‘conditioned’ (that is to say they must reflect the particular nature of their origins). It seems equally clear that a stubborn indigenous reality has shaped those representations, establishing parameters of plausible interpretation, demanding further investigation, instigating surprise and changes of mind. Portuguese writers may not have been particularly sensitive and disinterested observers of Sri Lankan society, but they were undoubtedly alive to the predicament in which the Portuguese found themselves. And that predicament was forced upon them by pre-existing principles of Sri Lankan society. Most of this essay will consider the implications of the post-Orientalist arguments for the nature of pre-modern consciousness[xvii]. How well are they borne out by the evidence from the Portuguese period?

Treachery: The treacherousness of the Sinhalese became a recurrent stereotype in Western representations from the late sixteenth-century onwards[xviii]. It is difficult to think of a more obviously self-serving colonialist trope than this. What greater excuse does an imperial regime need to keep its subjects oppressed than an appeal to their intrinsic infidelity, their brutish inability to comprehend the basic principles of political authority? How redolent too, of such long-standing Occidental characterizations of the Orient as associated with fickleness, double-standards, unmanly irresolution[xix]. If early modern Iberians did not have a fully-fledged theory of race, perhaps proto-climatic ideas deriving from the widely-accepted humoral axioms of Hippocratic-Galenic medical theory may have fuelled the stereotype. The principle of change itself was seen to be quickened in the tropics: things grew and decayed at speed there, and men’s minds too might suffer from a corresponding excess of dynamism[xx].

After the Portuguese finally conquered the lowlands in the 1590s, some of the above may have come into play. The development of the stereotype must have owed something to a typical psychology of the relationship between colonizer and colonized, as a justification for the former’s assumed superiority perhaps, or an analgesic for any occasional twinges of guilt. But its roots pre-date the imposition of direct rule or ‘colonial’ policy. In the 1580s, the Augustinian friar, Agostinho de Azevedo, claimed that the Sinhalese had the reputation of being the most ‘false and deceitful that there are in the whole of India.’[xxi] I shall then locate its origins in the Portuguese encounter with an out-of-control reality, in two aspects of their predicament.

(1) The first is the fact that the Portuguese in Sri Lanka found themselves contending with an unfamiliar form of political authority. They never realized this in those terms, never developed an adequate theory of the political forces they spent the sixteenth century trying, in an ad hoc and piecemeal fashion, to master. Theorists today have done a better job. Tambiah has argued that they were not even states but ‘galactic polities’, defined by an exemplary show of strength and glory at the centre rather than by any fixed boundaries and engaged in a constant struggle for status with other centres.[xxii] The brighter stars were able to amass weight, pulling in the obedience of lesser rulers, who were allowed substantial autonomy as satellite courts emulating the style of kingship at the centre. Whatever one makes of Tambiah’s analytical language, it is true that the ties of obedience or vassalage needed to be constantly remade; they retained a strongly conditional quality. Rebellions and coups, which made even European dynastic affairs seem sedate by comparison, were a frequent affair.

This mattered a great deal to the Portuguese because they spent the bulk of the century attempting to influence Sri Lankan affairs through their relationship with its indigenous kings. Until the 1590s, their principal aims – to secure a monopoly of the lucrative cinnamon export trade and exercise vigilance over the strategically important Sea of Ceylon region – were best served by establishing themselves in a few port strongholds such as Colombo and Mannar and making the rulers of the hinterland vassals of the Portuguese Crown. This was not simply a matter of coercion: by the end of the 1540s almost every ruler on the island had asked to take Dom João III (r.1521-57) as their liege.[xxiii]

Many of the lesser rulers were in fact trying to escape from a homage (dakum) relationship to the high kings in Kotte, who held the cakravarti title of all-island overlordship. Besides this, in less than four decades the Portuguese witnessed: a bloody coup at Kotte in 1521, in which Vijayabahu (r.1513-21) was assassinated by his three sons who proceeded to carve up the kingdom between them; the ascendancy of one of those sons, Mayadunne of Sitavaka (r. 1521-81), who sought to destroy the power of his elder brother and nominal overlord, Bhuvanekabahu (r.1521-51), in Kotte; the opportunism of the ruler of Kandy seeking to escape vassalage to Kotte; that same ruler being ousted by his son Karaliyadde Bandara and forced to flee his realm; a breakaway rebellion by Vidiye Bandara against his son and Bhuvanekabahu’s grandson and heir, Dharmapala (r. 1551-97).[xxiv] In the first instance, then, it was the way in which the Sinhalese had behaved towards their own rulers that disturbed some Portuguese considering these matters in later decades. The Portuguese found themselves drawn into and exacerbating dynastic struggles and status competitions that were playing out according to an essentially internal logic.

By the 1560s, that logic was turning against them. Particularly once the young king Dharmapala had accepted Christianity, their own power came to rest on the authority of Kotte, and, as such, it suffered from a corresponding and precipitous decline. The most obvious shift in the fortunes of competing centres, the hemorrhaging of manpower from Kotte to its rival based in the nearby upstart city of Sitavaka, therefore worked to their disadvantage. Largely confined to Colombo (after Kotte was abandoned in 1565), the Portuguese-Kotte forces were restricted to military sorties into a hinterland under the control of Rajasinha (de facto rule 1560s-1593), the warrior king of Sitavaka. In the 1580s and 90s, Sinhalese politics seemed in meltdown, as dizzying changes in allegiance, repeated defections to and fro, continual warfare and the rise to prominence of freewheeling military specialists such as Jayavira Bandara, seemed to spell the end for any form of stable monarchy on the island.

The stereotype was further propelled by observations of the local attitude towards religious boundaries. For reasons too complex to introduce here, the Sinhalese generally felt able to adopt a highly eclectic attitude to religious practice, crossing boundaries willy-nilly which seemed sacrosanct to missionaries, appearing to accept Christianity without giving up Buddhism, or promising to do so and then reneging on that promise. The result was that just as the Sinhalese were treacherous to their political lords, so too they appeared treacherous to the divine Lord. The man who would attract the most vehement accusations of infidelity was someone who had demonstrated that vice in both its temporal and spiritual aspects: Vimaladharmasuriya, the re-founder of Kandy, had been fighting for the Portuguese under the baptismal name of Dom João d’Austria (after the hero of the battle of Lepanto). When he raised himself as a Buddhist king in Kandy in 1591, he became not only traitor but apostate, and casado oral tradition records a desperate need to see him punished and suffering for his sins.[xxv]

(2) The second phase of the Portuguese predicament occurred with the imposition of direct rule over the lowlands in the 1590s. If the Sinhalese were hardly undyingly loyal to their own rulers, they were even less obedient towards their new masters. This, indeed, is when the stereotype of treacherousness became widely established. The first decade of Portuguese rule was the most turbulent, inspiring four major rebellions in the lowlands, which suggests it was seen as inherently offensive to many Sinhalese even before the full burden of exploitative or incompetent colonial policies had been felt. Apart from continuing small-scale expressions of discontent, there were further major rebellions in 1616-9 and 1630.[xxvi] At these times, it could appear to the terrified Portuguese that the whole island had risen up in arms against them.

Equally shocking to the Portuguese, however, were the sporadic but spectacular defections by lascarins. Like many an imperial power, the Portuguese position in the island depended on the support of substantial bodies of indigenous troops. In many circumstances they proved loyal, but apparently what the bulk of them would not countenance was collusion in the destruction of the last independent Sinhalese kingdom. On three occasions, in 1594, 1603 and 1630, attempts to invade the highland kingdom of Kandy were undermined by the mass defections of lascarins at crucial moments.

We have already encountered what resulted from the defection of lascarins in 1630, whose leaders included men of Kotte brought into service by Sá de Noronha himself. If the treachery of the Sinhalese could therefore be experienced in very personal terms, it also took on a more general cultural aspect. It is an intriguing fact about many of the most redoubtable rebels that they came from strongly Lusitanised backgrounds. Edirille Rala (Domingos Correa), who led the rebellion in 1595, had been a literate second-generation Christian with many Portuguese relatives by marriage and well-favoured with high office.[xxvii] Nikapitiya Bandara, who led a rebellion in 1616, had spent his youth in the service of Franciscan friars and had been a palanquin-bearer for the Portuguese Captain-General.[xxviii] It could seem to onlookers, therefore, as if there was something utterly inherent in the enmity and disloyalty of the Sinhalese, something that mere upbringing, education or benign treatment could not erase. Reflecting on the events of 1630, the ex-soldier João Ribeiro, commented that ‘they had been brought up among us, yet they conspired with the King of Candia in such a manner that they were the cause of our total ruin… for in the end the blacks are all our enemies.’[xxix]

In fact, the Lusitanised origins of many of the rebels provides us with a powerful explanation as to why they felt that they had to apostatize in a very public way. I suggest that this was a form of ‘conspicuous indigenization’, a way for a suspect turncoat leader to prove to his followers that he had now revealed his true identity as a protector of the true Sinhala (or possibly Lankan) cultural tradition. It also indicates a need to cater for the expression of popular anti-Christian sentiment. Many of the lowland rebellions were guided by the symbolism of iconoclasm, targeting Churches, killing friars, making priests undergo perversions of the mass. The Portuguese had tied the projection of imperial power to the march of the Cross: the rebels merely pursued the same logic in their rejection of both. This all makes a great deal of sense to us now, but how would it have seemed to Portuguese on the island at the time? As if no Sinhalese, however Christian, however well-turned out in European dress, could ultimately be trusted.

What about the Sinhalese perspective? Flip over the coin of treachery and it will show an emblem of loyalty.[xxx] Loyalty to what?

Ethnicity: The imposition of Portuguese rule exacerbated the fissiparous tendencies of Sinhalese political authority. To be sure, some local elites in the lowlands did convert and fashioned for themselves an identity that could take the kings in Lisbon/Madrid as the focus of dynastic sentiment. But the explosion of rebellion in the lowlands, the symbolism the rebels employed, and their moments of co-operation with the Kandyan kings indicate that many lowlanders were liable to see Portuguese rule as illegitimate. This brings us to the question of group identity.[xxxi] According to post-Orientalist theory, Sinhalaness should not exist as anything more than a feeble, inconsequential or elite category before the nineteenth century.

The first major ethnological-geographical appraisal of the island, Barros’ ‘third Decade’ of his chronicles written in the 1550s, used the term ‘Chingála’ (Sinhala) much as we do today, referring to a language and a people.[xxxii] Later surveys are clear on the differences between Sinhalese and Tamils, sometimes emphatically so.[xxxiii] In the seventeenth century, we find Dutchmen such as Joris Van Spilbergen, and Englishmen such as Robert Knox using the term ‘chingala’ in the same way as the Portuguese.[xxxiv] They were represented as having particular natural characteristics; a certain religious system, literary tradition, script, set of customs; and indeed ancestry. Queirós makes his rebel leaders inspire their men by holding before them their pride in the ‘Chingala name and nation [nação, people].’[xxxv] These writers also presented various stories taken from indigenous literary and oral traditions (particularly, the Rajavaliya and Mahavamasa) as origin myths for the Sinhala people. [xxxvi] Sinhala ethnicity is perhaps most vividly brought to life in the texts written once the Portuguese had lost their control of Sri Lanka to the Dutch in 1658.[xxxvii]

So the world evoked by these writers often looks rather familiar. If ethnicity must be a fiction, do we then merely locate its origins further back in time, rendering it a story first told by the Portuguese and Dutch and only later reiterated by the British? After all, one might argue that the Portuguese’s own sense of self-definition was under construction at this time, attaining new heights as a result of their own loss of autonomy under the union of crowns with the Spanish Habsburgs (1580-1640). It is an irony worth bearing in mind that the Portuguese depriving the lowland Sri Lankans of indigenous rule were themselves vassals of a foreign king in Madrid. Did some of them read their own stiffening passions on to the natives? Undoubtedly.[xxxviii]

Queirós’ Iberian origins must bear upon his remark that the particularly rebellious people of the Four Korales ‘were the worst enemies of the Portuguese name, their hatred increasing with the vicinity of Colombo, as always happens between nations opposed and neighbouring.’[xxxix] In that sense, then, the Sinhalese were not ‘Othered’ but ‘Samed’. They were attributed, much in the fashion of Roman writers such as Tacitus, with a similar set of political emotions to those animating their conquerors.

It is also possible that the Portuguese discourse of blood (sangue), so powerful a generator of hierarchy in their colonial cities, influenced some of more important Sinhalese opinion-formers and lent a new aspect to their identity. Once again, this derives from the observation of how Lusitanised many of the rebel leaders were. Edirille Rala, for example, had been a translator. When the later Franciscan chronicler Paulo da Trindade reports that he titled himself the liberator of the Chingala people’ (‘se intitulou libertador da nação chingala), we cannot imagine any inherent dislocation between the author’s language and that of his subject.[xl] In other words, it is plausible that the likes of Edirille Rala considered the Sinhalese as a nação [people], in the same way that the Portuguese were a nação.[xli] Equally, when our sources refer to the Sinhalese fighting for their ‘liberty’ they may have been reflecting a discourse of imperial dominion and resistance which Portuguese and Lusitanised Sinhalese shared.[xlii] If the image of a bureaucratic state imposing theoretical knowledge from above is inappropriate here, we may be faced with a more organic merging of concepts. There had been much inter-marriage between the Portuguese colonists and the Kotte elites: just as their blood mingled so too perhaps their language of blood; just as in actuality the nações were dissolving into one another, so in the imagination they were solidifying on both sides.

I offer this argument here as an example of how fruitful it can be to take loose inspiration from the post-Orientalist approach, even if the results contradict specific post-Orientalist contentions. Nevertheless, it cannot bear too much weight. And the principal text from which our Portuguese scholars and officials were reading was not some master-narrative assembled at home but a more troubling series of announcements in the island. The most profound influence of Portuguese was only indirectly epistemological – physical not cognitive violence. The result of generations of constant warfare was an indigenous discourse that can only be described as patriotic and xenophobic, in love with the shining image of the island of Lanka and exulting in its kings. We cannot really know how widespread or fundamental this discourse became, as it is principally expressed through the genre of the hatana or war poem which first appeared with the Sitavaka Hatana of 1585 and was resurrected in the mid-seventeenth century with the Rajasinha Hatana (circa 1638) and the Maha Hatana (circa 1658).[xliii] Questions remain about how much these poems promoted a sense of Sinhala-ness per se, and even their patriotic sensibility must be seen as possessing a propagandist quality. But, in certain respects, the sentimental world they inhabit is familiar from the picture of the Sinhalese generated by the Portuguese sources.[xliv] Naturally, one could also refer to all manner of interesting differences in perspective between them, but once one has been submerged in post-Orientalist theory and come up again for air the commonalities seem just as striking.

Particularly after the traumatic events of 1630, there was a rush of Portuguese treatises trying to explain what had gone wrong in Ceylon.[xlv] Once Portuguese conquest was executed and defied by rebellions, there arose a strong need to explain both what was wrong with Portuguese imperialism and what was wrong with the Sinhalese. The elaboration of the former allows us a glimpse into a world in which the Sinhalese might have accepted foreign rule if only it had not been so exploitative, cruel and ignorant of local custom.[xlvi] This can even take on a somewhat masochistic air. Indeed, the way in which the Portuguese lost the support of the locals could become something of a formula in the hands of moralizing chroniclers, as it allowed them to illustrate the consequences of what they considered wrong or un-Christian about the imperial project.[xlvii] But, in Sri Lanka, such rhetoric did not need to stray too far from events on the ground.

Historical Consciousness:  Those Portuguese chroniclers who commented explicitly on the matter were sure that the Sinhalese had long held a clear sense of themselves as a distinct people. Fernão de Queirós remarked ‘as for the character of the Chingalas, they are generally proud, vain and lazy…because of the antiquity of their Kingdom and people [nação] and the liberty in which they were always brought up.’[xlviii] Queirós was right to point to the importance of their long and continuing literary tradition, in both Pali and Sinhala, for sustaining a desire for independence. It gave them an instant ability to turn mere events into eloquent history, outrages into propaganda.[xlix] Nor were such writings entirely written-off by the Portuguese. Some, such as the Captain-General Constantino de Sá de Miranda, apparently felt so threatened by this immense past that they tried to scorn it as based on ‘monstrous falsehoods’.[l] But the chief tendency among Portuguese chroniclers was to treat indigenous texts as valuable if problematic sources of information about the past. Agostinho de Azevedo, who was commissioned by Diogo de Couto to flesh out the early history of the island, based his work on a version of the Rajavaliya chanted to him by scions of the ruling families of Sitavaka and Kotte who fled to Goa in the 1590s.[li] This stands as an obvious rebuttal to the argument that it was only after the epistemic ‘rupture’ of the 1830s, that Europeans could see Lankan texts as sources possessing a commensurable historicity. Pradeep Jeganathan, for example, has asserted that ‘European accounts from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century are unanimous that no texts that can be read as historical (in the sense set out above), can be found among those available in the island.’[lii] Instead, one could argue – although it would take more serious research to properly make the case – that the dismissive attitude towards the Sinhalese literary tradition reflects how superficial European exposure to it was during the early stages of imperial endeavour, and that once there was a felt need to understand the natives more deeply and conduct research into their textual heritage, then scorn could melt into appreciation.[liii]

West into East: Lastly, Portuguese imperialism is awkward for the post-Orientalist method because of its refusal to remain aloof from Eastern society. As the colonial centres push their roots further into Asian soil, the terms of the Saidian debate begin to lose some of their purchase. Was seventeenth-century Goa really still ‘Western’? Were the Christianized and inter-married elites of Kotte really ‘Eastern’? I do not want to suggest that occidental and oriental become inadmissible conceptual categories: the merging was not comprehensive enough for that. But it does mean that it is not always a simple matter to categorize the knowledge that our texts present us with as either Western or Eastern.

We referred above to the willingness of Portuguese writers to use local historical tradition. This willingness extended to contemporary reports coming out of the island too. For example, in the Portuguese sources, Rajasinha I of Sitavaka appears as something of a monster who attained mastery of Ceylon through the exercise of tyranny. The image is most starkly drawn in the most contemporary of chronicle accounts, Diogo do Couto’s ‘Tenth Decade’, in which Rajasinha becomes a king paranoid enough for a Shakespearean tragedy as he mires himself in the blood of rivals.[liv] He seems to have become the very type of the ‘Oriental despot’, ruling through fear rather than through reciprocal institutions. In a more immediate sense, the image must reflect important features of the Portuguese settler’s emotional life at the time, their anger at having their superiority so obviously called into question by his might, their anxiety about their fate, their fantasies that his rule might rest on brittle foundations. However, it seems as if one important strand of this black propaganda issued from an indigenous source: the Kandyans who were struggling for independence against Rajasinha and were disturbed by his increasing devotion to Saivism. The image of a king who in the last years of his life became increasingly in thrall to a perverse supernaturalism and lost the loyalties of his people may owe a great deal to a particular Sinhalese perspective.

A good final image of the interweaving of European and indigenous traditions is that of the island itself, which from early on in the Portuguese encounter and consistently thereafter was portrayed as something of an earthly paradise. For the more religious-minded, it was ear-marked too for a special Providential role in the establishment of Christianity in Asia. Had not St. Thomas left his footprint at the top of that famous mountain which the Muslims mistakenly called Adam’s Peak? Long before this, however, the Sinhalese had attributed that footprint to the Buddha, and had developed their own sense of a land with a divine destiny, its physical bounties reflecting its blessed state. That sense seems to have been transmitted to the Portuguese, and such images needed only a dusting of Christianity to be mustered into action by those pressing for the island’s conquest and re-conquest.

The first years of this century have seen the post-colonial and post-Orientalist methods pushed to extreme but logical conclusions in Sri Lankan studies. One chain of logic finds its end-point in the notion that any form of verifiable knowledge is suspect, that any appeal to the ‘facts’ is merely a rhetorical move masking fundamentally corrupt intellectual-political projects. Hence we have Qadri Ismail, who argues from a ‘post-empiricist’ position to show how the disciplines of history and anthropology must lead to the ‘wrong’ conclusions about the current ethnic conflict.[lv] Susantha Goonatilake doesn’t much care for anthropologists either, whom he sees as manufacturing a distorted anti-Sinhala Buddhist vision of Sri Lanka for Western consumption.[lvi] Although starting from quite different points on the political spectrum, Ismail and Goonatilake come to share a good deal of common ground – but it is not the sort of place where the majority of scholars will choose to stand.57 Most scholars surely believe both that reliable or useful knowledge of human society is possible, and that it cannot only be accessed from within hermetically-sealed nations or cultures. As a Buddhist might put it, we can understand that knowledge, like human beings, is both conditioned and capable of transcending the conditions of its origin.


[i] The only other areas in Asia where the Portuguese directly ruled swathes of the hinterland were the Provincia do Norte, on the Northwest coast of India, and the land around Goa.

[ii] Translated from António Bocarro, Década 13 da Historia da India, dir. Rodrigo José de Lima Felner. (Lisbon, 1876), 497-8, which was completed in 1635. This comment is is echoed in Fernão de Queyroz, The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon, trans., and with introduction by S. G. Perera, 3 vols. (New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1992), 23.

[iii] Alan Strathern, Kingship and Conversion in Sixteenth-Century Sri Lanka: Portuguese Imperialism in a Buddhist Land (Cambridge: CUP, 2007), 192.

[iv] As a text from 1633 asserted, cited in Jorge Manuel Flores and Maria Augusta Lima Cruz, ‘A ‘Tale of Two Cities’, and a ‘Veteran Soldier’: The Two Jornadas de Huva (1633, 1635) Revisited’ in Flores (ed.), Portugal-Sri Lanka, 500 Years (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz 2007).

[v] See C. R. de Silva’s introduction to. T. B. H. Abeyasinghe, (trans., ed.) ‘Antonio Bocarro’s Ceylon’, intro by C.R. de Silva, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, n.s. 39 (Colombo, 1995, published 1996), xiv.

[vi] John D. Rogers ‘Post-Orientalism and the Interpretation of Pre-modern and Modern Political Identities: the Case of Sri Lanka’, The Journal of Asian Studies 53 (1994), 10-23. Rogers refers to Post-Orientalist interpretations of India’s pasts as bearing ‘the clear influence of Said and Foucault’ and shifting the origins of ethnic and cultural nationalism to ‘the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the first years of British rule. Post-Orientalists place great importance on the role of the British in the construction of new identities through the power of colonial discourse on India.’ See also John D. Rogers ‘Racial Identities and Politics in Early Modern Sri Lanka’ in Peter Robb (ed.), The Concept of Race in South Asia (Delhi: OUP, 1995), ‘Early British Rule and Social Classification in Lanka’, Modern Asian Studies 38 (2004), 625-47. And see Michael Roberts ‘Sri Lanka. Intellectual Currents and Conditions in the Study of Nationalism’, in Michael Roberts (ed.), Sri Lanka. Collective Identities Revisited (Colombo: Marga Institute 1997), 1-44; ‘Ethnicity After Said: Post-Orientalist Failures in Comprehending the Kandyan Period of Lankan History’, Ethnic Studies Report 19 (2001), 69-98. Roberts’ has offered theoretical opposition to aspects of post-Orientalism since it began to wield influence.

[vii] A major exception has been the Social Scientists Association, which has been at the forefront of their application to Sri Lankan studies through important publications during the 1980s and 90s.

[viii] Jonathan Spencer (ed.), Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of Conflict (London, Routledge, 1990), and Pradeep Jeganathan and Qadri Ismail (eds.), Unmaking the Nation: The Politics of Identity and History in Modern Sri Lanka (Colombo, SSA, 1995).

[ix] See also Chris Bayly, ‘Foreword’ to Michael Roberts, Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan period, 1590s – 815 (Colombo 2004).

[x] Anthropologists tend to predominate. Nor would many describe themselves as scholars primarily working from a ‘Saidian’ perspective.

[xi] R. A. L. H Gunawardana, ‘The People of the Lion: The Sinhala Identity and Ideology in History and Historiography’, in Spencer, Sri Lanka, 45-86; Historiography in a Time of Ethnic Conflict (Colombo: Vijitha Yapa,1995).

[xii] E.g. Jonathan Walters, ‘Buddhist History: the Sri Lankan Pali Vamsas and their Community’, in Ronald Inden, Jonathan Walters, and Daud Ali (eds.), Querying the Medieval: Texts and the History of Practices in South Asia (New York: OUP, 2000), 99-164.

[xiii] Alan Strathern, ‘Theoretical Approaches to Sri Lankan History and the Early Portuguese Period’, Modern Asian Studies 38 (2004), 189-226, where the (Concise Oxford) dictionary definition of ‘historicism’ is used, the first of which is the ‘theory that social and cultural phenomena are determined by history’. It is sometimes defined quite differently to invoke a much-maligned epistemology associated with British colonialists themselves.

[xiv] Rogers, ‘Early British Rule’, 639-45, Walters ‘Buddhist History’, 152-64; Pradeep Jeganathan ‘Authorizing History, Ordering Land: The Conquest of Anuradhapura’ in Jeganathan and Ismail (eds.) Unmaking the Nation, 106-37.

[xv] Confusingly for readers of this paper, this colonial rendering of the Mahavamsa as a source of accurate historical information is often presented, disapprovingly, as the product of an ‘historicist’ mindset. Worse, David Scott ‘Dehistoricizing History’ in Jeganathan and Ismail, Unmaking the Nation, seems to mean something else altogether by historicism, namely the general significance of rational historical enquiry tout court, which is also considered a bad thing.

[xvi] See Alan Strathern, ‘Fernão de Queirós: History and Theology’, in Anais de História de Além-mar 6 (2005) 47-88, for source-criticism of the major Portuguese chronicle.

[xvii] Note ‘implications’: there is not anything approaching a developed post-Orientalist critique of the period of Portuguese influence: its significance has barely been registered. So I shall often have to construct what a post-Orientalist case might look like, before going on to deconstruct the deconstruction, as it were.

[xviii] It is a recurring theme in Queyroz, Conquest, who uses terms such as ‘natural restlessness’ (185), ‘turbulent inconstancy’ (291), ‘variable’ (321), Chingalâ infidelity’ (603), ‘ever faithless Chingalâz, grand masters of deceit’ (623), ‘inconstancy of the Chingalâz’ (706), ‘natural perfidy of these people’ (753) ‘there were already so many examples of Chingalâ infidelity’ (766).

[xix] As just one example, see a letter by Charles-Joseph Bussy of 1752 on India, quoted in Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Penumbral Visions. Making Polities in Early Modern South India (Michigan, 2001), 19.

[xx] See Ines G. Županov, Missionary Tropics. The Catholic Frontier in India (16th-17th centuries) (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 8-10, for notions of the tropics situated within Hippocratic-Galenic discourses. The relevance of this to racial thinking and to Sri Lanka itself requires further investigation. A vague climatic perspective is observable in the case of Queirós, but no explicit theories are referenced. He avers that the wonderful climate of Lanka explains the laziness of its inhabitants – but is also conducive to the health of Portuguese. See Queyroz, Conquest, 21, 79, 1144.

[xxi] Agostinho de Azevedo, in Estado da India e aonde tem o seu principio (printed as anonymous document in Documentação Ultramarina Portuguesa, I (1960), 238), repeated by Diogo do Couto in D. Ferguson, (ed. and trans.) The History of Ceylon from the Earliest Times to 1600 A.D. as related by João de Barros and Diogo do Couto (New Delhi, Asian Educational Services, 1993), 66. Note the contrast with other Oriental peoples.

[xxii] S. J. Tambiah, World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background (Cambridge: |CUP, 1976), 102-32.

[xxiii] Including the Kings of Kandy and Sitavaka, the prince of the Seven Korales, the chiefs of Trincomalee and Batticaloa, a pretender to Jaffna throne and various disinherited princes, see Vito Perniola, (ed.), The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka, The Portuguese Period. 2 vols. (Dehiwala: Tisara Prakasakayo 1989-91), I, 60-4, 101-9, 154,166, 211-3, 220-1, 229, 287.

[xxiv] See Strathern, Kingship and Conversion, or K. M. De Silva (ed.), University of Peradeniya History of Sri Lanka. Volume II, from c.1500 to c. 1800 (Peradeniya: University of Peradeniya 1995).

[xxv] Queyroz, Conquest, 604-5.

[xxvi] T. B. H. Abeyasinghe, Portuguese Rule in Ceylon, 1594-1612 (Colombo: Lake House Investments Ltd., 1966) remains the foundational study of the early period of rebellions.

[xxvii] Queyroz, Conquest, 496-508.

[xxviii] Bocarro, Década 13, 497.

[xxix] João Ribeiro, The Historic Tragedy of the Island of Ceilão, ed. and trans. P. E. Pieris (Colombo:Colombo Apothecaries co.,1948) 90.

[xxx] As Queyroz, Conquest, 100-1, recognized: ‘The Portuguese held them as great traitors… but if we consider the constancy wherewith they defended their independence in so continual a warfare, we cannot deny that it was the outcome of their valour and if they gave us the treatment which the Portuguese gave them, or if we realized that they wanted to subdue us altogether, we should without any doubt have characterized as courage and valour what in them we consider to be treachery.’

[xxxi] C. R. De Silva, ‘The Historiography of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka: A Survey of the Sinhala Writings’, Samskrti, 17 (1983), 16, and ‘Ethnicity, Prejudice and the Writing of History’ in G. C. Mendis Memorial Edition (Colombo, 1984: 4, was the first to suggest that their interaction with the Portuguese may have affected Sinhala and Buddhist group identity.

[xxxii] João de Barros, in Ferguson, History of Ceylon, 33.

[xxxiii] Constantino de Sá de Miranda, in Jorge Manuel Flores (ed.), Os Olhos do Rei: Desenhos e Descrições Portuguesas da Ilha de Ceilão (1624, 1638) (Lisbon: Comissão Nacional para as Comemorações dos Descobrimentos Portugueses 2001), 119, which is the source for Queyroz, Conquest, 50, plus 104, 110, 113, 152-3, 158, 184). See Flores’ discussion of ‘ethnology’ in the service of Portuguese government in introduction in the above, pp. 36-49.

[xxxiv] Robert Knox, An Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon, ed. J. H. O. Paulusz, 2 vols. (second edition including interleaved notes, Dehiwala: Tisara Prakasakayo 1989), 187; Joris van Spilbergen, Journal of Spilbergen, The First Dutch Envoy to Ceylon, 1602, ed. and trans. K. D. Paranavitana (Colombo: Paranavitana 1997), 36.

[xxxv]  Queyroz, Conquest, 561, 763-4.

[xxxvi] Azevedo, Estado da India, 242; Couto in Ferguson, History of Ceylon, 101, which is explicit on how texts were given oral currency: ‘all their ancient events have been put into verse where they are chanted at their festivals’); Miranda, in Flores, Os Olhos, 162-3; Queyroz, Conquest, 6-7, contrasting with p. 48 on the later Indian origin of the Tamils of Jaffna; Paulo da Trindade, Conquista Espiritual do Oriente, ed. Fernando Félix Lopes, 3 parts, (Lisbon: Centro de Estudos Históricos Ultramarinos 1962-67), III, 5-7.

[xxxvii] Maya Jasanoff, ‘Before and After Said’, a review of Robert Irwin’s For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies, in London Review of Books 28 (2006), 11, 14-15, has referred to the ‘perplexing ambiguity’ in Said’s argument as to whether Orientalism is a substitute for empire, an enabler of it, or a consequence of it. In those terms, a writer such as Fernão de Queirós was trying to revivify a dream of empire once it had long since collided with reality and fallen apart.

[xxxviii] In fact, this is only really explicit by the late seventeenth-century: Ribeiro, Historic Tragedy, 264, echoed by his contemporary Queyroz, Conquest, 577, 620, 1064-5.

[xxxix] Queyroz, Conquest, 44.

[xl] Trindade, Conquista Espiritual, III, 104, probably drawing here on the lost chronicle/ethnology of Fr, Negrão, who was in the country from 1610, see Perniola, Catholic Church, II, 290.

[xli] See also Roberts, Sinhala Consciousness, 105-7.

[xlii] Perniola, Catholic Church, II, 346, (from 1612), Bocarro, Década 13, 497-8; Queyroz, Conquest 626). Compare with the early seventeenth century European quotations on the need for nations to have ‘liberty’ from tyrannical rule or foreign domination in Adrian Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism. (Cambridge: CUP, 1997), 15, 114.

[xliii] Roberts, Sinhala Consciousness; Alan Strathern, ‘Review of ‘Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period 1590s to 1815’ by Michael Roberts’, Modern Asian Studies 39 (2005), 1013-1026.

[xliv] For more here, see Strathern, Kingship and Conversion, Chapters Nine and Ten.

[xlv] Abeyasinghe, (trans., ed.) ‘Antonio Bocarro’s Ceylon’, 17; Miranda in Flores, Os Olhos,: 52-4, 164; S. G. Perera, (ed.), The Expedition to Uva made in 1630 by Constantino de Sá de Noronha (Colombo, 1930), 31, 45; some lascarins themselves in 1636, reproduced in Queyroz, Conquest, 1012; Juan Rodrigues de Saa e Menezes, Rebelion de Ceylan, y los progressos de su conquista en el gobierno de Constantino de Saa, y Noronha (Lisbon: Antonio Craesbeeck de Mello1681), which was probably written before 1640; and see Cruz and Flores, ‘Jornadas de Huva’ for further texts and for an illuminating discussion of their context.

[xlvi] Abeyasinghe, ‘António Bocarro’, 17, 58; Jerónimo de Azevedo in 1614, in T. Abeyasinghe, A Study of Portuguese Regimentos on Sri Lanka at the Goa Archives (Colombo, Department of National Archives, 1978), 43; Queyroz, Conquest, 1023-49; and see C. R. De Silva, The Portuguese in Ceylon, 1617-38 (Colombo: H. W. Cave 1972), for an excellent study of these issues of governance in the seventeenth century.

[xlvii] Thanks to Zoltán Biedermann for articulating this point to me.

[xlviii] Queyroz, Conquest, 21-3, and see 305, on the Sinhalese consciousness of history going back to Anuradhapura, which  clearly  derives from  Constantino  de Sá de Miranda’s  report  published  in Flores, Os Olhos.

[xlix] Queyroz, Conquest, 304, and see also p. 117 on verse composition.

[l] Flores, Os Olhos, 171.

[li] Azevedo, Estado da India Couto in Ferguson, History of Ceylon, 101.

[lii] Jeganathan, ‘Authorizing History’, 111. It is perhaps telling that all texts he cites, apart from Valentyn, are British! If we give due emphasis to the parenthetical ‘the sense set out above’ then we become somewhat snared in paradox, because it seems to refer to an essentially nineteenth-century ‘colonial epistemological field’ or ‘positivist historiography’, which seventeenth and eighteenth-century accounts could by definition not exhibit.

[liii] This seems plausible for the British period, for which John Rogers ‘Historical Images in the British Period’ in Spencer (ed.) Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of Conflict, 87-106, is useful. It is more awkward to apply to the Portuguese, because the research impetus came much less from officialdom than from the literati and religious orders, and because a distaste for aspects of the Sinhala literary tradition, and its heathenism, always remained. Little work has been done on the Dutch experience.

[liv] Couto in Ferguson, History of Ceylon; 271-3, 277-8, 284-6.

[lv]  Qadri Ismail, Abiding by Sri Lanka: On Peace, Place, and Postcoloniality (Minnesota: University of Minnesota press 2005). Anthropology, which is taken to be something the West does to the rest, is seen as exoticizing and objectifying Sri Lanka from the outside; history is seen to be too ‘inside’, necessarily locked into and reificatory of national parameters. Only literature will save us, it seems.

[lvi] Susantha Goonatilake, Anthropologizing Sri Lanka: A Civilizational Misadventure (Bloomington: Indian University Press 2001).



Filed under authoritarian regimes, Buddhism, centre-periphery relations, cultural transmission, economic processes, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, life stories, military strategy, Muslims in Lanka, patriotism, politIcal discourse, religiosity, sri lankan society, world events & processes, zealotry

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