The Portuguese at war

The Portuguese at war

The Portuguese at war


June 10, 2011, 7:54 pm


By Kamalika Pieris

The Portuguese told the Sinhala king that their only desire was peaceful trade "but they declared war on all those did not accept their peace.’ Abeyasinghe describes them as armed traders. The Portuguese were powerful due to their command of the sea. Their navy was supreme in the Indian Ocean. Their ships carried cannon. On land, the Portuguese constructed strong forts and used them as their base of operations. In Sri Lanka they first built wooden stockades of rammed earth and coconut trunks piled on top of each other. These were followed by permanent forts with bastions, ditches, and fascines .The walls were of brick or stone and lime.

The Portuguese used modern weapons, guns, pistols and cannon. However, they soon found that the Sinhalese were equally skilled in the use of these. The guns were not very efficient either. The ‘matchlock’, a Portuguese favourite, 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.

The Portuguese army in Sri Lanka was composed of Portuguese soldiers, Sinhala soldiers (lascarins) Indian mercenaries and East African slaves trained in war (kaffirs). In 1638 Portuguese army consisted of 700 Portuguese, 300 Kaffirs, 200 Indian mercenaries, 5000 lascarins and a regiment of topazes. The soldiers were not organized as a standing army but in companies and small units, which were raised and disbanded when necessary. The first regular infantry regiment was created in Goa in 1671.

The Portuguese soldiers were untrained and notoriously undisciplined. Sporadic efforts had been made to train and discipline them, with no lasting result. Diego do Couto speaking of a Portuguese defeat in India said the Portuguese exceeded all other nations in the impetuosity of their attacks and surpassed all in the speed of their retreats. Boxer said their main fighting tactic was the headlong charge. This was heavily condemned. In Sri Lanka, until the last quarter of the 17th century the soldiers were not trained for jungle warfare or mountain campaigns. Queyroz noted the poor leadership by inexperienced officers in the Udarata campaigns.

The Portuguese did not treat their soldiers well. On leaving Portugal, they were provided with shipboard rations but had to make their own arrangements about using the ship’s kitchen. On arrival in Asia, they were left to fend for themselves and even find their own food and accommodation till their services were required. Boxer says the authorities were invariably late in paying the soldiers. The money arrived irregularly and salaries were left unpaid for long intervals In Sri Lanka, the Portuguese soldiers were under fed, under paid and poorly clothed. They engaged in looting. In 1597 siege of Kotte, the soldiers were with difficulty, stopped from abandoning their posts. .

The Sinhala soldiers (lascarins) initially numbered around 12,000 but by 1630 they had gone down to about four to seven thousand men. . They had repeatedly proved to be disloyal to the Portuguese and therefore no attempt was made to increase their numbers. Abeyasinghe says the Portuguese were mistaken in thinking that they could use Sinhalese to fight Sinhalese. The lascarins did not see the Sinhalese as enemies. Also, the Portuguese looked down on lascarins and treated them badly. The best villages were allotted to the Portuguese soldiers.

The lascarins regularly deserted to the Sinhala side. These desertions were engineered. However at Randaniwela and Gannoruwa, they had deserted spontaneously, when they saw that the Portuguese were getting defeated. The Portuguese complained that lascarins crossed over only when the saw the Portuguese getting defeated. They returned when the Portuguese started winning. Lascarins used traditional weapons, a small proportion had muskets. Queyroz said that the lascarins took their wives and children when they went to war. "It is a sight to see a lascarin carry a suckling babe in his arms and on his head a basket of pots and pans for cooking and the wife behind him with the spear or gun on her back".

The Portuguese never had enough army stationed in Sri Lanka. Even at peak strength the troops were inadequate. Neither Lisbon nor Goa could spare sufficient troops. The garrisons were small. In 1597, Colombo was defended by 300 Portuguese .and 700 lascarins. In 17th century, the regular forces fluctuated between 600 and 800 and the annual fleet going out to Malacca was made to winter in Colombo. The Portuguese got down reinforcements from Goa when they planned war campaigns. In 1630 Portuguese ships going past Colombo were also roped in.

In war, the Portuguese followed a scorched earth policy. Villages were completely destroyed and depopulated, inhabitants having fled to the jungle. In 1630, the army ravaged every village they passed when they went to Uva. Portuguese writings spoke of impaling children and throwing males to the river to be eaten by crocodiles. In the Nikapitye rebellion over a hundred villagers were slaughtered in cold blood.

From 1603, the Portuguese had destructive raids on Kandy twice a year, at harvest time. A lightly armed and highly mobile group of Portuguese and lascarins entered Udarata territory and laid the lands waste. This was intended to destroy the means of existence of the villager. The Portuguese used a fleet of light vessels which cruised off the eastern coast to block the external trade of Udarata. . This policy was successful for a decade. It created chaos and impoverishment in the Udarata.

The Portuguese territories were repeatedly attacked by the Sinhalese. The Sinhalese gave them no rest. Alawwa and Katugampola were battle sites in 1560. The Portuguese retaliated. They used their navy on Sinhala villages, unfortified ports and for surprise attacks on the Sinhalese by sea. In the 1570s they attacked Kalutara, Maggona, Beruvala and Chilaw. Negombo, Kammala and Alutgama were attacked thrice. In 1587 Portuguese went by sea and attacked Kosgoda, Madampe, Sinigama, Hikkaduwa and Ratgama. They plundered and set fire to Gintota, where they met fierce resistance. Then they sacked Weligama town, burned Mirissa and turned on Matara and Devinuwara.

The Portuguese came very near to complete defeat on several occasions. They survived only because, when things got hot, reinforcements were sent from abroad. The Portuguese retreated to their coastal forts, and awaited supplies and soldiers from India. They survived the 1557 siege of Kotte only because soldiers came from Goa in two substantial installments with small contingents of soldiers, arms, ammunition and food supplies arriving in between .This kept the Portuguese going, despite a high casualty rate. .. Nikapitiye, who led a rebellion against the Portuguese, was defeated only due to the unexpected arrival of troops from Malacca.

The writings of T.B.H. Abeyasinghe, C.R .Boxer, CR. de Silva, M.U. de Silva, J.M. Flores, A.Nanayakkara, C. Gaston Perera, P.E.Pieris and P. Weerakkody were used for this essay.


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Vasco Da Gama's heroic voyage: Implications for Sri Lanka: by Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya (Island)


This year marks the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama's (1469-1524) voyage to India, which is rated as one of the greatest achievements of mankind. It is only comparable to Neil Armstrong's journey to the moon. Da Gama's breakthrough opened up the sea route to India and provided the platform for extensive contact between the Orient (East) and the Occident (West). He gave 'new worlds to the World'. The voyage in 1498 is significant in terms of what it set in train. It turned the Indian Ocean into a Portuguese lake in the century that followed. It short-cut the traditional overland routes to the Orient and undercut in a dramatic fashion huge and established commercial interests. More importantly, it marked the beginning of the Portuguese expansion overseas which spanned five centuries over four continents.

The fleet of the heroic voyage, commanded by Vasco da Gama, culminated and brought to a successful conclusion a long thought out national strategic plan. It included 170 men, some who had previously sailed with Bartholeme Dias to the Cape of Good Hope. One in three of the crew were fated to die of scurvy during the voyage. A dozen convicts were included in the crew to be at the Captain's disposal for any particularly dangerous tasks. Vasco da Gama captained the Sao Gabriel, Paulo da Gama (his brother) the Sao Raphael, Nicolau Coelho the Berrio, and Goncalo Nunes a supply ship. Vasco da Gama was particularly suited to lead the expedition. He was a fidalgo ('aristocrat') who combined the personal qualities required for such an expedition: loyal, fearless, brutal and violent. This assignment could not have been fulfilled by a gentle leader; da Gama was made to order.


Da Gama's achievement was turned into a compelling and unforgettable story in The Lusiads (Os Lusiadas) by Luis de Camoes (1524-80), who was born on the day that da Gama died. Camoes had a classical education in the University of Coimbra. He fought as a young soldier in Morocco, to learn the Moorish character and methods of war, where he lost an eye. He was imprisoned in Lisbon for partaking in a street fight and was released on condition that he served the Portuguese Crown in India. In 1553 Camoes sailed for India, from Lisbon, and learned the lure of the sea. In 1556 he sailed further east to Macao. Two years later he embarked on his journey back to Lisbon, but was shipwrecked and lost all his possessions except for his manuscript of The Lusiads. Camoes was a scholar and a soldier, who travelled the world for his King, but returned to poverty, blindness and a posthumous apotheosis.

Camoes had the advantage of dealing with recorded history of which he was in part a witness. His experience and knowledge gave him an unique opportunity to write The Lusiads, which symbolizes the tradition of Portugal. The Lusiads was modelled on the classical epics of Homer and Virgil. Camoes's goal was to write a poem which should rival Virgil's Aeneid. He has left his personal impress on the Lusiads which does not appear as an imitation of the Aeneid. The Aenied is called after a man, Aeneas. The Lusiads is called after a people (The Sons of Lusus). The Portuguese were believed to be descendants of Lusus, (the eponymous hero of Lusitania), the mythical first settler in Portugal.

The sense of "continuation" between the Aeneid and The Lusiads provides a vehicle for Camoes to establish himself as the Portuguese Homer and also the Portuguese Virgil, the two supreme literary figures of Greek and Roman culture. In epic, lyric and heroic poetry, Camoes was outstanding. The Lusiads has historic relevance to Sri Lanka, (unlike the Aeneid or the Iliad), as the event narrated played a part in shaping Sri Lankan history and socioculture. It seems to have influenced Kustantinu Hatana (a war ballad about the Portuguese General Constantine de Sa) written by Dom Jeronimo Alagiy-avanna, the greatest Sinhalese poet of the 15th/16th centuries, and the last of the Classical Sinhalese poets.

The first verse of The Lusiads refers to Taprobane as Sri Lanka was known at that time.


Armas, e os Baroes assinalados,
Que da occidental praia Lusitana
Por mares nunca de antes navegados
Passaram ainda alem da Taprobana,
Em perigos, e guerra esforcados
Mais, do que promettia forca humana:
E enter gente remota edificarao
Novo reino, que tanto sublimarao:

Arms and the renowned heroes
Who from the western Lusitanian shore
On seas never before navigatd
Passing even beyond Taprobane,
In dangers, and forced wars,
More, of what promised the human force,
And among remote people, raised

A new kingdom that so exalted: [my translation]

The Portuguese started to explore the east beyond India from their base in India. They established trading posts and fortresses in Sri Lanka from 1517 onwards. Their first visit to Sri Lanka, in 1505, was accidental as they were windswept into Galle harbour during their voyage to the Maldive Islands. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to make extensive contact with the Sri Lankans. Only European ambassadors, traders, travellers and seamen had visited Sri Lanka prior to the Portuguese colonisers. Interaction between the Portuguese and Sri Lankans has left several sociocultural imprints on the island. The Portuguese stamp is particularly strong in Sri Lankan languages, religion, education, administration, food, dress, names, art, music and dance. The evolution of a Portuguese-based Creole, (Sri Lanka Portuguese Creole), Roman Catholicism, Portuguese surnames (e.g. Perera, Silva, Pieris), Portuguse personal names (Pransisku, Peduru, Juvan), Portuguese titles (Sinno, Dona, Don), Indo-Portuguese furniture, baila music etc are all results of this interaction.

The Portuguese were displaced from their coastal colonies by the Dutch in 1658. The British took over these colonies in 1796 and eventually colonized the entire island until independence in 1948. The Portuguese era marked the beginning of modern Sri Lanka. It changed Sri Lanka's orientation away from India and gave the island a distinct identity moulded by 450 years of western influence. Paradoxically, the Portuguese imprint appears to be the most deep rooted in Sri Lanka, despite contact with two other European powers who colonized at a later date.