How Portuguese influence in Sri Lanka outlasted that of the Dutch
Updated: Mar 28
Sri Lanka, formerly called Ceylon, has been known to much of the rest of the Old World for over 2000 years, from the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs, Indians all the way to the Chinese. The ancient Greeks, starting with a naval commander of Alexander the Great, referred to the island as Taprobane (Ταπροβανῆ), from the Sinhala තම්බපණ්ණිය (Tambapaṇṇī), itself from the Sanskrit ताम्रपर्णी (Tāmraparṇī) which means "the colour of copper or bronze". The name Taprobana features in the very first stanza of Luís de Camões's The Lusiads (published in 1572) and again in the last canto (see table below).
Dom Francisco de Almeida was named the first Viceroy of Portuguese India by King Manuel I on 25 March 1505, the day that the former departed Lisbon with an armada of 22 ships. His son, Lourenço de Almeida, reached Ceilão later that year and signed a treaty with the King of Kotte, Parakramabahu VIII, allowing the Portuguese to establish a trading post in Colombo in exchange for defending the coast against invaders. The Portuguese were originally only interested in trade, with Ceylon being a major exporter of cinnamon (native to the island) dating back to Ancient Egypt. It was also strategically midway between Goa and Malacca. Ceylon was divided into seven warring kingdoms at the time, and the Portuguese gradually got drawn into the politics of the island, especially after King Dharmapala of Kotte became the first Christian king in Sri Lankan history when he converted from Buddhism to Catholicism in 1565. Unfortunately Dom João Dharmapala died childless in 1597 in the Portuguese fort in Colombo and bequeathed his kingdom (which had grown to cover the entire island except the Kingdom of Kandy) to the King of Portugal. In 1597, this happened also to be the King of Spain, Philip II, under the Iberian Union.
The Portuguese never controlled the entire island during the period known as Portuguese Ceylon, which lasted from 1597 to 1658. As mentioned in my last post about Jan van Linschoten, the Dutch-Portuguese War started in 1602 with the founding of the Dutch East India Company (known by its Dutch acronym VOC). In that same year the Dutch captain Joris van Spilbergen reached Ceylon (probably using Portuguese sailing instructions exposed by his countryman Jan van Linschoten), and offered an alliance to the King of Kandy, Vimaladharmasuriya I, to fight off the Portuguese. (Curiously, Vimaladharmasuriya I had spent time in Goa and was baptized by the Portuguese as Dom João da Austria, but later renounced Christianity.)
The alliance unfortunately had a disastrous start. The Dutch became rowdy during a drinking party and insulted the queen of Kandy, leading to all 48 Dutchmen being killed by their offended hosts. An alliance would not be possible again until 1612, but by then the Portuguese had strengthened their position. However, with the collapse of the Iberian economy in 1627 back in Europe, the Portuguese forces in Asia were weakened. King Rajasinghe II of Kandy signed a new treaty with the Dutch in May 1638 to expel the Portuguese who controlled most of the coastal areas of the island. In 1648, the Eighty Years' War between the Dutch Republic and Spain ended with the Peace of Münster. However, the peace did not end the war with Portugal which had regained its independence in 1640 with the end of the Iberian Union, and the Dutch instead were able to concentrate their efforts on attacking Portuguese colonies overseas. In 1658, the Dutch ejected the last Portuguese forces from Ceylon. [The following point was added thanks to reader Luís Guimarães Pinto] Portugal formally ceded Ceylon to the Dutch with the Treaty of The Hague signed on 6 August 1661, which also indemnified the Dutch to the tune of 4 million cruzados (worth several tons of gold) for the northeastern parts of Brazil called New Holland that the Portuguese had wrested back from the Dutch in 1654.
Sadly, the intervention of different European nations did not bring stability to Ceylon. When the Portuguese fort in Colombo fell in 1656, the Dutch immediately betrayed their Kandyan allies, not only refusing to hand over the territory to King Rajasinghe II but instead chasing him and his forces away. The Dutch had merely replaced the Portuguese, and Rajasinghe II even tried to ally with France which attempted unsuccessfully to establish a presence on the island. During the Napoleonic Wars, the French occupied the Netherlands and the British promptly took over the Dutch-controlled coastal areas of Ceylon in 1796. In 1815, the Kingdom of Kandy became a protectorate of the British Empire, meaning that the entire island lost its independence until the birth of the Dominion of Sri Lanka in 1948.
With this historical backdrop, it is understandable that modern Sri Lanka, as a member of the British Commonwealth, has come under considerable British influence in terms of language, institutions, even sports (Sri Lankans are avid cricket fans). Culturally, however, the Portuguese influence continues to be felt today across the island, much more so than that of the Dutch. A key area is language: starting with the conversion of Dom João Dharmapala in 1565, the court adopted the Portuguese language. Over time the Portuguese language spoken by local people developed into what is known as Sri Lankan Portuguese Creole (SLPC), with vocabulary mostly from Portuguese, but grammar based on the Tamil and Sinhala languages. Even in 1704, the Dutch Governor Cornelius Jan Simonsz said that “if one spoke Portuguese in Ceylon, one could be understood everywhere”. SLPC became a lingua franca on the island for over 350 years, and is still spoken today by the dwindling members of the Eurasian Burgher community, descended not only from the Portuguese but also the Dutch. It is also spoken by the now tiny African Sri Lankan community, descendants of Bantu mercenaries, musicians, and labourers brought to Ceylon by the Portuguese. Here are some example phrases in SLPC:
Tem aquel verdade? "Is it true?"
Ala nontem asiilei cousa. "There is no such thing."
Eu nihumtempo novo ouvi aquel. "I have never heard of it."
Huma nonpode ouvi otro huma que papia. "One cannot hear another speak"
Modern linguists consider SLPC an important creole in Asia not only because it was historically widely-spoken, but also because it has the most written records.
Here's a documentary video of SLPC collected by Dr Hugo Cardoso, a linguist from the University of Lisbon, courtesy of the Endangered Languages Archive. It's called "Oondi yafoi?" or "Where have you gone?".
Whether directly from Portuguese or via SLPC, the official Sinhala language spoken today continues to feature quite a few everyday words that have their roots in the language of Camões (longer list available here):
Finally, here are extracts from Luís de Camões's epic poem The Lusiads (Os Lusíadas) with mentions of Sri Lanka's ancient name that I mentioned at the beginning of this post:
As armas e os barões assinalados, Que da ocidental praia Lusitana, Por mares nunca de antes navegados, Passaram ainda além da Taprobana, Em perigos e guerras esforçados, Mais do que prometia a força humana, E entre gente remota edificaram Novo Reino, que tanto sublimaram;
Os Lusíadas, Canto I, estrofe 1
Arms and the Heroes, who from Lisbon’s shore,
Through Seas where sail was never spread before,
Beyond where Ceylon lifts her spicy breast,
And waves her woods above the watery waste,
With prowess more than human forced their way
To the fair kingdoms of the rising day:
What wars they waged, what seas, what dangers past,
What glorious empire crowned their toils at last
Translation by William J. Mickle (1776)
A nobre ilha também de Taprobana, Já pelo nome antigo tão famosa Quanto agora soberba e soberana Pela cortiça cálida, cheirosa, Dela dará tributo à Lusitana Bandeira, quando, excelsa e gloriosa, Vencendo se erguerá na torre erguida, Em Columbo, dos próprios tão temida.
Os Lusíadas, Canto X, estrofe 51
And, eke, the noble Island Taproban,
whose ancient name ne'er fail'd to give her note,
as still she reigns superb and sovereign
by boon of fragrant tree-bark, biting-hot :
Toll of her treasure to the Lusitan
ensign shall pay, when proud and high shall float
your breezy banners from the lofty tower,
and all Columbo fear your castled power.
Translation by Richard F. Burton (1880)
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