Of Portuguese rule in Sri Lanka

We often hear it said that Sri Lankans still carry with us a “colonial hangover “. This is true to a great extent but not surprising. After all Sri Lankans have been independent of western colonial rule for only  69  after 443 years of continuous occupation of the country starting from 1505 up to independence  in 1948.

While the pros and cons of colonial rule will continue to be debated for many more years to come, history of those decades under foreign rule make for interesting reading and study, particularly the Portuguese period which lasted over 150  years.

Being the first Europeans to occupy our country, they have left a lasting legacy and tales about the Portuguese arrival here have become folklore in the country. Some of these maybe exaggerated but the bewilderment that both the locals and the foreigners   experienced on seeing and interacting with each other for the first time is understandable.

It was on a day in 1505 ,a Portuguese fleet carried by wind and waves was tossed onto the Southern coast of Sri Lanka and ended up at the Galle Harbour. (There is some dispute among historians about the year of the Portuguese arrival but most agree it was either late 1505  or early 1506) .  The fleet was led by a young nobleman called Don Lourenco De Almeida. This accidental tryst with the island was the beginning of decades of occupation of the country by Europeans powers.

According to Donald Ferguson, who wrote in The Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland on the “THE DISCOVERY OF CEYLON BY THE PORTUGUESE IN 1506,” the Portuguese had been nearly 20 years in India before they took steps to get a footing in Ceylon.

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The Portuguese first landed on the shores of Galle and then moved onto Colombo where the trade in   cinnamon, coconuts and elephants was in full swing and in the hands Muslim traders, who were decedents of seafaring Arabs.

News of the arrival of the strangers first reached the King of Kotte Vira Parakramabahua whose palace was located less than five miles from the Colombo coastline. According to the Sinhalese chronical   Rajavaliya, the message of their arrival was dispatched to the King, the news relayed in this manner:-

“There is in our harbour of Colombo a race of people, fair of skin and comely withal. They don jackets and hats of iron; rest not a minute in one place but walk here and there. They eat hunks of stone (bread) and drink blood (wine). They give two or three pieces of gold and silver for one fish or one lime. The report of their cannon is louder than thunder when it burst upon the rock of Yugandhara.”

The other well-known story in Sri Lanka is how the Portuguese who were summoned by the King of Kotte to visit him were taken in a circuitous route to the kingdom so as to mislead the foreigners. Don Lourenco chose as his envoy Fernao Cutrim, one of the captains of his fleet to lead the delegation to meet the King.

Eminent historian Father S.G. Perera in his writing describes the journey of Cutrim to Kotte in this manner.

“The royal councillors, however, had thought it is unsafe to let the foreigners see that Kotte was so near Colombo, and the Portuguese envoy was led by a circuitous route, uphill and down dale, for three long days .The people of Ceylon who heard about the ruse thought that the Portuguese were misled and to this day a circuitous route is called in   Sinhalese “as the Portuguese went to Kotte” (Parangiya Kotte Giya Wage)”.

But the Portuguese captain who had sailed across the seas from Lisbon to India could not be so easily deceived.

“Don Lourenco had taken the precaution of retaining hostages for the safe return of his envoy and had agreed to fire a gun at every turn of the hour-glass. From the report of the gun, Cutrim saw quiet clearly that he was being led in a roundabout way but took no notice as no harm seemed to be intended,” Father Perera wrote.

Cutrim however did not get an audience with the King but was assured that the King would be pleased to form an alliance with the foreigners. Payo de Souza was then chosen by Don Lourenco to meet with the King and negotiate a treaty.

Based on this meeting, the King of Portugal has made a classic description   to the Pope of Rome   when he announced the discovery of Taprobane to the Pope.

“There was large hall at the far end of which was a magnificent throne wrought like an altar. On it sat the King, clad according to the fashion of the country and wearing on his head something like horns, studded with the finest gems of the country. Around the King were six men, three on either side, holding lighted candles of large size and many large silver candlesticks illumined the hall?  On either side of the hall separated by a free passage in the middle leading to the throne, stood a large number of gentlemen and nobles. There the king received our ambassador with great affability and listened to him with great pleasure and granted his request with great courtesy. He promised to pay annually one hundred and fifty measures of the most excellent cinnamon of that country and indeed paid the first tribute immediately.”

Although things got off on a good footing initially, Portuguese rule in Sri Lanka was marred by bloody battles and the infamous chapter in the country’s history of Don Juan Dharmapala, who  died after bequeathing his kingdom to the king of Portugal in 1580 by way of a Deed of Gift. (More on other episodes of Portuguese rule in Sri Lanka later).

Che, Castro & Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba soon after its revolutionary leader Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Even though Castro could not visit Sri Lanka during his five-decade long reign as Cuba’s leader, the visit to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) by his special emissary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara set the stage for an enduring relationship between the two countries.

Che Guevara’s visit to Sri Lanka took place in August 1959, soon after the two countries established diplomatic relations, to promote the sugar trade. While here, Guevara also took a look at the rubber planting methods in the country by visiting the Yahala Kele rubber estate in Horana. There he planted a Mahogany tree on 7 August 1959, which still stands as testimony to the visit to Ceylon by the legendary Argentinean revolutionary who spearheaded the Cuban revolution along with Castro.


Che at the Yahala Kele Estate in Horana

Che’s visit was part of a study tour he undertook to several countries in Asia, which also took him to India. Sri Lanka is one of the few countries Guevara visited in his lifetime. At the time of his visit to Ceylon, he was the Minister of Industry.

One of the people Che Guevara met on his brief visit to Ceylon was James T. Rutnam of Colombo, who imported sugar from a company called Galban Lobo Trading Company based in Havana.

“After the Cuban revolution, Julio Lobo – a great sugar tycoon – fled Havana and resided in New York. Fidel Castro sent his right hand man Che Guevera to all the countries that formerly imported sugar from Cuba. Ceylon was one of them,” said Jayam Rutnam, son of James T. Rutnam.

Che Guevara had been appointed as the Governor of the Cuban Central Bank and had nationalised the sugar plantations but the revolutionary Government was eager to ensure that the sugar trade continued uninterrupted under the new regime.

“Che Guevera and his interpreter visited my father in 1959 to persuade him to continue to import sugar from Cubazucar in Havana. I remember seeing this scruffy, unshaven man, with breakfast stains on his uniform, who was seated in our living room with his beautiful Cuban female interpreter. I didn’t pay much attention to him since he only became famous later,” Jayam Rutnam recalls.

After Che went back to Havana, the USSR had announced they will purchase all sugar from Cuba. “That was the end to my father’s business deal with Che, Fidel and Cuba,” says Rutnam.

Fifty-seven years later, the visit to Ceylon by Che Guevara, the special emissary of the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro, continues to be a highpoint in relations between the two countries .