ISSN 2330-717X

Portuguese Eyed Jaffna Because Of Its Strategic Importance


But Portuguese rule was an unmitigated disaster for the people of Jaffna, contemporary and modern historians say.

Unlike areas in South Ceylon which produced products like cinnamon and spices of great value to the European powers of the 16th and 17th Centuries, Jaffna had little to offer other than pearls and elephants. This explains the long time taken by the Portuguese, the first Europeans to establish themselves as rulers in Ceylon, to make inroads into Jaffna and absorb it in their possessions in the East.

What finally made the Portuguese eye Jaffna in the middle of the 16th Century was its strategic importance in the context of developments in the political and security scenario in North Ceylon and South India, says Colombo University historian Dr. Tikiri Abeysinghe in his work entitled Jaffna Under the Portuguese (Stamford Lake Publication, 2005).

The Portuguese had arrived in Ceylon in 1505. But it was not until 1560 that they turned their attention to Jaffna seriously. Their first inroad was primarily to punish the King of Jaffna Sankili the First (1519–1561) for massacring 600 Christian converts in Mannar in 1545. The expedition was led by Dom Constantino de Braganca and resulted in the capture of the island of Mannar. This gave the Portuguese the possession of valuable pearl banks as well as full control over the strategically important Chilaw-Cape Comorin-Palk Strait triangle.

The Mannar island was on the route taken by South Indian kings to send troops to aid the Jaffna and Kandyan kingdoms in their fights with the Portuguese and their local rivals. Jaffna’s thriving trade in elephants passed through the island of Urukathurai or Kayts as the Dutch named it later.

The Portuguese did not take over Jaffna in 1560. However, by 1582, Jaffna became a tributary of the Portuguese king in Lisbon. By 1591, the Portuguese had made Jaffna a “client” state by conquest and through the installation of a King of their choice. Andre Furtado de Mendonca (1558-1611) had led an expedition to Jaffna, killed its ruler and set up a puppet, Edirmanasingham alias Pararasa Sekaran. But Pararasa Sekaran was not a puppet. He tied up with Vimaladharmasuriya I (1593-1604) the ruler of Kandy and his successor Senarat (1604-1635), and helped them get troops from South India. He also put curbs on Portuguese’s elephant trade. He did not keep his promise to allow full freedom to Catholic missionaries.

When Pararasa Sekaran died in 1617, there were three factions competing for power. The first was a group of Christian Mudaliyars (the elite of Jaffna)  wanting a full Portuguese take over; the second was a group wanting Sankili Kumara, a nephew of Pararasa Sekaran’s to ascend the throne; and the third was a group wanting Pararasa Sekaran’s legitimate heir to succeed him. Sankili Kumara won the contest and as King Sinkili the Second (1617-1619), he wanted the Portuguese to recognize him and also help him fight his rivals especially the Christian Mudaliyars.

When the Portuguese refused, Sankili the Second approached the Nayaka (Telugu) Kings of Tanjore in Tamil Nadu for troops. With Tanjore troops on Jaffna soil, the Portuguese felt threatened. In addition to this threat, there were Malabar pirates from Kerala harassing Portuguese vessels in the Gulf of Mannar up to Cape Comorin.

In October 1618, Portuguese Viceroy Azevedo, resident in Goa, wanted to take advantage of the Christian Mudaliyars’ revolt against Jaffna King Sankili the Second (1617-1619). The Portuguese Council at Goa authorized the takeover of Jaffna. Sankili the Second was a tyrant, who had captured the throne after killing the royal princess and regent Arasakesari. Sankili the Second then invited military forces from the Tanjore Nayaks and Malabari pirates to help him fight the Portuguese.

In May 1619, the Portuguese Captain General in Colombo, Constantino de Sa de Noronha, wrote to Goa to say that the Tanjore Nayaks’ troops were entrenched in Jaffna and unless ousted, the Portuguese dominions in South Ceylon would be endangered.

Dutch Threat

Meanwhile, the Dutch had established themselves in Pulicat near Madras. Noronha imagined that Sangili the Second would seek their help too. But Sangili the Second actually wanted a détente with the Portuguese. He sought their help to neutralize the rebellious Christian Mudaliyars, and the Mannar Portuguese had mediated to find a settlement.  Despite this, in 1619, Noronha came to the firm conclusion that if the Portuguese were to be safe in Ceylon as a whole, they should control the whole of the island including Jaffna.

In May-June 1619, Noronha asked General Phillipe de Oliveira to collect some dues from Sangili the Second. The latter dodged and a short military clash resulted in the rout of his forces. The Tanjore mercenaries failed to fight and local troops saw Sankili the Second as an illegitimate ruler. Sankili the Second tried to escape to India by boat with his family and jewels. But his boat was intercepted and he was arrested. He and his family were taken to Goa, converted to Catholicism, and made to enter the holy orders. Jaffna was incorporated in the Portuguese dominions. Oliveira was made the Captain-Major of Jaffna.

But the troubles for the Portuguese were not over. It was a Christian Mudaliyar, Migapulle Arachchi alias Dom Luis, who turned against the Portuguese in 1620-21 and sought military help from Raghunath Nayak of Tanjore. The Tanjore troop were welcomed by the locals in Jaffna. However, within a month, Portuguese reinforcements came from Nagapattinam and Colombo. With these, Phillippe de Oliveira was able to defeat the Tanjore forces. In 1628-29. Senarat (1604 to 1635), the King of Kandy tried to seize Jaffna from the Portuguese, but was defeated.

While the people of Jaffna were docile accepting Portuguese rule, the Dutch had begun to give trouble to the Portuguese. A warning bell was sounded in 1656, when the Dutch took over Colombo from the Portuguese. But fortunately for the Portuguese in Jaffna, the Dutch were facing problems with the Kandyan king Rajasinha II. The Dutch were more keen on keeping up the pressure on the Portuguese in Goa, Nagapatinam, Tuticorin and Cochin rather than in Jaffna.

However in February 1658, a large Dutch fleet attacked Mannar. Simultaneously, they marched on Jaffna from the Wanni and attacked Jaffna fort where the Portuguese were holed up. The fort fell on June 24, 1658, bringing the curtains down on Portuguese rule in Jaffna.

Gain For Portuguese, Heavy Loss For Locals

Both modern historian Tikiri Abeysinghe and Portuguese-era chronicler Fernao de Queiros felt that while Portuguese rule brought strategic benefits to the Portuguese, it was an unmitigated disaster for the people of Jaffna. Forcible large scale conversion to Catholicism marked their rule. By 1634, there were 70,000 to 115,000 converts in 42 parishes. Queiros even reported that Jaffna was wholly Christian. At least no one practiced Hinduism openly.

Religious persecution, exactions by the Portuguese tax collectors and parish priests resulted in lowering of agricultural production. Trade with South India and Bengal suffered. People migrated to the Wanni in large numbers, depopulating Jaffna.

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P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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