Mundo Lusófono

Portuguese scribes in Ceylon: Tissa Devendra from Sri Lanka describes for LSG a rare document from Colombo

 Tissa Devendra from Sri Lanka, describes in an special article for LSG – Lusophone Society of Goa, the historical frame of a rare illustration of the 17th Century. The illustration is presently in Colombo and was purchased from Sotheby’s auction house in London. The document clearly establishes the fact of the existence of Portuguese scribes at the Kandyan Court.This document is written on parchment in impeccable Portuguese. Portuguese was thus a second language in the Kandyan Court.



Tissa Devendra*
Sri Lanka

The 17th Century was a momentous period in Sri Lanka’s history. The Portuguese ruled the maritime region. In the central hill country the Sinhalese king yet held sway causing endless problems for the Portuguese who employed various stratagems to capture the Sinhalese kingdom of Kandy. One of these was to cultivate pretenders to the Kandyan throne who had sought refuge with them. Among them was Karalliyadda Bandara, a Kandyan noble who had a fairly legitimate claim. He had defected along with his young daughter. The Portuguese took her under their wing, as a potential puppet ruler of Kandy. She was baptized Dona Catherina and entrusted to the nuns of the Convent in Mannar to be brought up in the style of a Portuguese princess.

Meanwhile the Portuguese were being harassed by the great warrior Konappu Bandara, who had spent many years with the Portuguese army before crossing back to the Kandyan kingdom. He routed the Portuguese army escorting Dona Catherina to be installed as their puppet ruler. Konappu now sealed his claim to the throne by a battlefield marriage to the legitimate heiress Dona Catherina. He crowned himself as Vimala Dharma Suriya.

There is sufficient evidence to show that this couple, who had spent many years with the Portuguese, led a fairly European life style. The understanding husband of the young queen allowed her to associate with assorted Portuguese living in Kandy – priests, defectors and miscellaneous adventurers. Portuguese was thus a second language in the Kandyan Court.


Rajasinha’s letter to the Dutch in Portuguese language
The document is in private hands in Colombo. It was purchased from Sotheby’s auction house in London.
Photo: Tissa Devendra

After Vimala Dharma Suriya’s death , his royal widow was married by Senarath thus legitimizing to the throne. In the course of time their son succeeded his father as Rajasinha II. He proved to be one of Kanfy’s great warrior kings and dealt devastating defeats on the Portuguese. He was also shrewd enough, and sufficiently ‘au fait’ with European power struggles, to negotiate with the Dutch to rid the land of the Portuguese. But the Dutch were far shrewder, they not only expelled the Portuguese, with Rajasimha’s help, but also took over their territory for themselves – instead of ‘holding it in trust’ for Rajasinha as he had, rather naively, expected.

It is interesting that all Rajasinha’s correspondence with the Dutch was in the Portuguese language. Although there is no contemporary record of this fact, it is abundantly clear that the King employed a secretariat of educated Portuguese scribes to compose and transcribe his many letters to the Dutch in the refined language appropriate to diplomatic usage.

In his correspondence [in Portuguese] with the Dutch authorities Rajasinha never ceased to maintain the protocol that they were merely his officials. This is amply borne out in the language of the extract of the letter quoted here:

“Raja Singa Raju, Most Exalted Monarch and Greatest and Most Potent Emperor of the far famed Empire of Ceilao to Adrian van der Meiden, Governor of my Imperial Fortress of Galle send much greeting

My Imperial Person took much trouble to get the Dutch nation to come to this my Empire, and likewise when Admiral Adam Vestrevolt arrived with the vessels of the fleet at this my Empire…”

The attached illustration of one of Rajasinha’s letter to the Dutch clearly establishes the fact of the Portuguese scribes in his employ. This document is written on parchment in impeccable Portuguese. The orotund phrases of the opening are beautifully inscribed and delicately tinted in the tradition of medieval Christian manuscripts. It is reasonable to assume that Rajasinha approved and understood the Portuguese translation of his Sinhala original. It must be borne in mind that he was the son of Dona Catherina, brought up as a Portuguese princess. She ruled over a court where Portuguese was often used and her son tutored in this language..

This document is a perfect illustration of the great skill of the Portuguese scribes on Rajasinha’s staff – and clear proof of the European influence in the Court of Dona Catherina’s son. Rajasinha’s considerable correspondence with the Portuguese and intrigues with the Dutch exhibit a shrewd awareness of European activities in Asia. He was no insular ruler of an isolated kingdom but a skilled player on the chess-board of regional politics.

As for the identity of these master scribes, alas, no record can be found as to who they were. Throughout recorded history mere pen-pushers have always been fated to live and die in obscurity – unknown, unhonoured and unsung – though the documents they transcribed often changed the course of history.

* Tissa Devendra, a graduate of the Universities of Colombo and Cambridge has had a forty-year career in public service and UN Agencies. Tissa Devendra is author of several books as “On Horseshoe Street: More Tales from the Provinces”, “Sri Lanka, the Emerald Island”, “Quest for Shangri La”,  “Memoirs of a Pen Pusher”, “Tales from the Provinces” short-listed for the Gratiaen Prize in 1998, or “Princes, Peasants, and Clever Beasts: Sinhala Folk Stories in English” which received an award from the National Book Development Council of Sri Lanka.

One Response to Portuguese scribes in Ceylon: Tissa Devendra from Sri Lanka describes for LSG a rare document from Colombo

  1. Creio que muita coisa ainda será descoberta sobre a acção de Portugal e dos Portugueses em terras asiáticas.
    Muito interessante esse documento.
    Armando Ribeiro

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