By Nissanka Wijemuni –
The current political situation in Sri Lanka is obviously likely to have parallels in Sri Lanka’s long history prior to and after European invasions. The alleged prevalence of corruption as the rallying point for opposition groups, in particular, rings familiar sounding bells.
The present opposition political strategy has many similarities with the Portuguese, Dutch and British campaigns against kings of Lanka who were too powerful for their liking. They invariably relied on spreading rumours about the cruelty ok kings to subjects. The most recent of such campaign was the one against the Nayakkar King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe. As is well known, the British exploited the unhappiness among the Kandyan ‘radala’ elements about the Nayakkar influence to gain control of Kandy without firing a shot. In doing so, they achieved an objective which had failed them over a century and a half of war.
There have been previous instances too. The role played by the Portuguese in the infamous “Wijayaba Kollaya” of Kotte is buried in history. But they clearly divided the royal family using palace intrigue to their advantage to gain influence through religious conversions in return for Portuguese patronage of all parties in battle at different times.
One of the later kings of the Kandyan kingdom, King Rajasimha II however, provides the most valuable and relevant lesson to the entirety of Sri Lankan population at this critical time.
Having ascended the throne in 1635 at the age of 27, Rajasimha ruled for of 52 years until his death on 6th December 1687, at the age of 79. Rajasimha II disposed of the Portuguese from the island, – only to surrender the country to the Dutch on whom he depended to chase the Portuguese! King Rajasimha II’s complex relationship with the Dutch against the Portuguese, finally resulting in the Dutch securing power in the low country through deception, gave rise to the Sinhala adage “Inguru dee miris gatta wagei” (like exchanging ginger for chilli).
This article is a reminder of the detail of the events that led to Rajasimha’s folly that should provide ‘food for thought’ to the Sri Lankan public who are contemplating their vote at the moment.
Birth, childhood and ascendance of Rajasimha II
The family background and the circumstances that led to Rajasimha II’s ascendancy were highly accidental: he was the son of King Senerat who became king following the death of the fourth king of Kandy, King Wimaladharmasuriya I (Konappu Bandara) in 1604. Senarat, a commoner cousin of Wimaladharmasuriya, a Buddhist monk at the time disrobed and married Wimaladharmasuriya’s widow, Queen Kusumasana Devi (Dona Catherina), to become king. King Senarat ruled between 1604 and 1635. Rajasimha II was the first child of Senarat-Dona Catharina union.
Rajasimha II was born in 1612 at the holiday palace of the royal family at Bintanne near Mahiyangana and he grew up in a highly Europeanised royal court where the family spoke Portuguese only due to his mother, having been orphaned during infancy and brought up by Portuguese nuns, did not speak Sinhala. Rajasimha himself was taught by Franciscan friars to read, write and speak Portuguese and several other European languages, making him a fluent speaker of Portuguese. Rajasimha II married from Madura and had one son who succeeded him in 1687.
The battle of Gannoruwa
Rajasimha ascended the throne at a time the Portuguese had gained control over the Kotte, Sitawaka and Jaffna kingdoms since their invasion of the island in 1505. Having failed to conquer Kandy in 1591, 1594, 1603 and 1630, the Portuguese had brought in Diogo de Melo Castro from Goa to replace the ‘failed’ Captain General Dom Jorge de Almeida for another attempt on Kandy.
Soon after Rajasimha’s coronation, De Melo had started his move by installing troops at Attapitiya, near Mawanella. Having heard of de Mello’s manoeuvres, Rajasimha sent a secret call to arms to peasants with their own weapons – bows and arrows, long pikes, clubs and locally made small arms. His father-in-law, the ruler of Madura also sent an army of around thousand men.
Underestimating the king’s war strategy, troop strengths and his seething anger, de Melo left Colombo on 19 March 1638 with 900 Portuguese and 5000 mercenaries including the Lascarins (ලස්කිරිඤ්ඤ – indigenous soldiers who fought for the Portuguese), Kaffirs (Bantu slaves brought by the Portuguese to fight against the Sinhala Kings), Malays, and Malaccans. The troops were commanded by de Melo’s son-in-law, Fernâo de Mendonca Furtado.
The Portuguese marched through Amunupura, Danture, Walagama, Dehideniya and Gannoruwa, entering Maha Nuwara unopposed. They went on to pillage the palace, and loot and set ablaze the temples. What the Portuguese did not know was that Rajasimha had made a tactical retreat to the Hantane ranges, and was lying-in-wait with a nearly 20 000 strong volunteer army to pounce on them when the time suited.
Rajasimha’s opportunity came when, after a week of causing mayhem, the Portuguese troops were heading back to Balana to secure their supply lines. At nightfall of March 27, 1638, they camped in the area now occupied by the new courts complex at Gannoruwa. Rajasimha II moved to trap the Portuguese at Gannoruwa: his brother Vijayapala’s troops of over 15 000, blocked the way back to Maha Nuwara and Rajasimha’s army felled trees on the other side of the river, blocking the passage to Balana, with a large force blocking the Portuguese access to water from the river; The Portuguese army was well and truly ‘trapped’ at Gannoruwa.
An exodus of the Sinhala mercenaries to the Kandyan side followed, prompting Diogo de Melo to beg the King for an armistice. Rajasimha and Vijayapala ignored his plea. The real Battle of Gannoruwa began at the dawn of Palm Sunday, 28 March 1638 when the Portuguese tried to resume their march towards Balana. The Sinhala troops totally annihilated the Portuguese army, including de Melo, leaving only 33 surviving soldiers.
The Gannoruwa battle is considered the fiercest battle ever fought on Sri Lankan soil against any foreign invader, and is described in the epic war poem of 449 verses, ‘Parangi Hatana’, by Wewaldeniye Mohottala and Aludeniye Mohottala.
Rajasimha ‘exchanges ginger for chilly’ by relying on the Dutch
Despite Rajasimha’s great victory against the Portuguese at Gannoruwa, he was aware of the difficulty in expelling them from the island due to his not having a navy. With the formation of the Dutch United East India Company (the V.O.C.) in 1602, one of their admirals named Joris van Spilbergen had met with Rajasimha’s late stepfather King Wimaladharmasuriya on 2 June, 1602 for preliminary discussions on naval aid against the Portuguese. His father King Senarat had signed a treaty with the Dutch in 1612, granting them a monopoly of the cinnamon trade and an east coast harbour in return for a promise of naval assistance against the Portuguese.
Soon after the victory at Gannoruwa, Rajasimha entered into an extensive military and trade treaty with the Dutch – the Kandyan Treaty of 1638 – signed on 23 May, 1638 in Batticaloa by Adam Westerwold and William Jacobsz Coster representing the Dutch East India Company. Under the 1638 Treaty the Dutch were granted a monopoly over all trades except elephants.
The Dutch seized Batticaloa on 18 May 1639 and a joint Kandyan-Dutch campaign began to make inroads into Portugal’s lowland territories. The Dutch overran the Portuguese fort of Negombo in February 1640 followed up by the all-important Galle Fort on 13th of March, 1640. Dutch intentions to establish themselves as the successors to Portuguese became clear following their refusal to hand over Galle Fort to the king. The Dutch held on to Galle for the next 18 years in open violation of the treaty of 1638.
The Dutch led by Van Goens captured Colombo in 1656 and refused to cede Colombo to Kandy, going on to capture Jaffna in 1658. The Dutch had captured the entire east coast by 1665,essentially replacing the Portuguese as Kandy’s natural enemy on the island. From 1670, King Rajasinghe II attacked the Dutch from several fronts until 1796 when Holland was conquered by Napoleonic France, and their leaders became refugees in London.
The Dutch leaders in England transferred their control of Sri Lanka to the British who went on to usurp the Kandyan kingdom, the last bastion of Sinhala resistance to European colonialism.
Rajasimha II’s legacy as a king
Apart from his military skills, Rajasimha II is known to have been the first king to establish a Department for state correspondence. Rajasimha was tolerant towards all religions and granted equal rights to Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. Following the end to Portuguese rule, he allowed the remaining Portuguese families to settle in Ruvanwella. Catholics expelled by the Dutch also settled in the Kandyan Kingdom, leading to the establishment of the Catholic Church headquarters in Kandy.
None of these achievements however, helped him save the country from Dutch capture, due mainly to conspiracies arising from palace hangers-on. One of the noted rebellions was the failed one launched in 1664 by a palace servant named Ambanwela Rala. Rajasimha II, unable to decide on a suitable punishment upon his capture, ironically handed him over to the Dutch for punishment. The Dutch exploited the opportunity to extract all the information they required about the Kandyan kingdom from Ambanwela Rala, in return for a large land grant at Polwatta, near the Galle Face. He became a rich coconut planter and the Dutch gave him an official burial when he died of old age. Polwatta came to be known as “Kollupitiya” to mean “the land that was stolen”.
There certainly is ‘food for thought’ in the story, at least for those with a keen eye.