The Battle of Battles – the glory of Gannoruwa

Exactly 374 years ago, on Palm Sunday, March 28, 1638, the historic Gannoruwa battle was fought between the Portuguese and the Sinhala forces under Rajasimha II and Prince Vijayapala
By J. Sarath Edirisinghe

Justification for branding the Portuguese period of the island of Ceylon as the darkest and the gloomiest period for its native Sinhalese comes from the British historian Sir Emerson Tennent - “There is no page in European colonization more gloomy and repulsive than that which recounts the proceedings of the Portuguese in Ceylon” (An account of the Island of Ceylon, Vol.II, 1860).

From the time several ships under the command of Lorenzo de Almeida drifted into the Galle harbour on December 15, 1505, to their expulsion from the island by the Dutch, the Sinhala nation, particularly the population in the maritime areas had been subjected to immense hardships. Loyalty to their sovereign was in their blood and the determination to expel the usurpers was constantly in their minds.

But the intrigues and deception of the rulers of Kotte at the time, siding with the Portuguese to counter the constant provoking by the Sitawaka forces left the ordinary people in a quandary. Their traditional loyalty to the sovereign and the devotion to Buddhism came into sharp conflict with the ruler embracing the Catholic faith and pawning off their kingdom to the Portuguese sovereign. Some of those who were close to the rulers of Kotte embraced the Catholic faith to escape the hardships enforced by the Portuguese and some, in the hope of getting favours from the de facto rulers of the kingdom.

The independent kingdom in the central hills, the ‘Kanda Uda Rata’ was a thorn in the flesh of the Portuguese who were by now bent on its annexation. The infamous Gannoruwa battle took place in 1638, 133 years after the Portuguese secured a foothold in Colombo and three years after the proclamation of the 28-year-old Rajasimha II as the sole king of the Kandyan kingdom. Rajasimha had been groomed by his father, Senerat and the young prince, along with his brother Vijayapala, the prince of Uva / Matale were involved with the victorious battle of Randenivela (August 24, 1630) in which the tyrant Constantine de Saa lost his life.

Rajasimha led the men to battle

The actual events leading to the Battle of Gannoruwa have been described by various writers, including Portuguese historians. Although the final confrontation might have been triggered by a seemingly trivial event, an imminent altercation was never out of the cards.

By 1619, the Kotte, Sitawaka and Jaffna kingdoms were under Portuguese control. The Kandyan kingdom however, withstood the relentless provocations and attempts of invasion and remained defiant. This was a painful festering wound in the minds of the Portuguese Captains General in Colombo.

There were attempted incursions into the Kandyan territory by the Portuguese in 1594, 1603 and 1630. Diogo de Melo Castro succeeded Dom Jorge de Almeida as the Captain General in Colombo in 1633. Diogo de Melo eyed the Kandyan kingdom, the economic base of the Uda Rata monarchs with its abundance of arecanuts, spices, elephants and precious stones together with the important harbours on the eastern coast.

With the death of Senerat in 1635, the Portuguese realized that the new king, young as he was and educated by Franciscan friars, fluent in Portuguese language and well versed in state craft, battle craft, music and with a smattering of Latin, was a formidable force. Diogo de Melo about this time raised issues with Rajasimha II regarding a peace treaty they had signed with the King’s father. But Rajasimha had other ideas. His childhood spent among the Franciscan friars and Portuguese retainers in the Senkadagala royal palace had given him a considerable understanding of the Portuguese.

He was aware that the island produced the best quality cinnamon that fetched a high price in the European markets. It was clear to him how the Portuguese derived immense profits by the cinnamon trade.

The tremendous wealth filling the coffers of Lisbon did not go unnoticed by the Dutch who started showing an interest in the tiny island lying amidst the trade routes to the East. He was prepared to take the risk of making overtures to the Dutch, whom he considered as mere mercenaries, to get rid of the Portuguese and ended up in a disaster which led to the saying among the Kandyans, “inguru deela miris gaththa wage” (like receiving chilies for ginger).

There were constant rumours during the latter part of 1637 that the Portuguese were planning a massive invasion of the Kandyan territories. The relationship between the King and his brother, Vijayapala of Uva, who always had a soft corner for the Portuguese and their customs, was at a low ebb during this period. The reason for the disagreement between the brothers was the annexation of the district Matale by Rajasimha, following the death of the Prince of Matale, Kumarasimha, without sharing it with him.
Meanwhile de Melo was preparing the siege of the Kandyan kingdom by fortifying his Portuguese troops with Kaffirs, Malays, and reinforcements from Malacca.

There were also the low-country Sinhalese who have been coerced to serve the Portuguese. The king was at Uda Palata when news of the impending invasion reached him. As a prelude to the invasion, de Melo installed troops at Atapitiya, almost bordering the boundaries of the Kandyan kingdom. There are several versions of what triggered the decision to attack Kandy. One refers to the forceful acquisition by de Melo, of an elephant belonging to a Portuguese merchant- Antonio Machado which had been given by Rajasimha as a present. The second event that provoked de Melo was when Rajasimha seized a couple of horses sent to Senkadagala for sale by the Captain General. When de Melo demanded their return, Rajasimha demanded the tusker stolen from his friend- Antonio Machado. The king is known to have given another elephant to Machado to replace his loss.

One incident that angered Rajasimha was the murder of the Kandyan Dissave of Batticaloa, the son of Uva Maharala – Rambukwelle Janawallaba, by the Portuguese.

The loyalty of the Sinhalese to the monarch in Kandy was amply demonstrated by the people from all over the island who heeded the call of the King and the Prince of Uva who disregarded his estrangement with his brother at this hour of need. The King and rince Vijayapala collected Sinhala patriots from all over the island. According to L.S.Devaraja (University of Peradeniya-History of Sri Lanka), no less than a thousand men from Madura also fought for Rajasimha in the victorious Battle of Gannoruwa This is not surprising because the Kandyan kingdom had close contact with the rulers of Madura.

The Aga Mehesi of Rajasimha was also a princess of the Madura Royal family. The king did not have a conventional army but able-bodied men flocked to him with their own weapons -bows and arrows, long pikes, clubs and locally made small arms. Captured canons were also made use of. Being excellent guerrilla fighters each man knew every inch of the terrain so movement through deep ravines, overhanging cliffs, or narrow unmarked paths through thickly wooded mountains was easy. Not so for the invaders who had to traverse unfamiliar terrain, infested with snakes and bloodsucking leeches. Climbing precipitous mountain slopes, almost in single file due to narrow footpaths, the Portuguese were easy prey for the Sinhala fighters.

On March 19, 1638 de Melo left Colombo with 900 Portuguese and 5000 mercenaries including the Lascarins, Kaffirs, Malays, Canarese and Sinhalese. There were also soldiers brought from Malacca. The Portuguese army camped in their stockade at Manikkadawara. The army was commanded by Fernâo de Mendonca Furtado, de Melo’s nephew and son-in-law. Rajasimha meanwhile having issued a call to arms throughout the island was keen to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. He deployed a Portuguese friar to meet de Melo and to implore him to abandon the invasion. The rebuff, conveyed back to the King was insulting.

According to de Queyroz the Portuguese historian, the Captain of the Field, Damiao Botado declared scornfully, “the blackie is afraid; we shall have to drag him by the ears”. Rajasimha made a tactical retreat to Gale Nuwara after packing off the treasures and the state records. The Portuguese army arrived at Balana from Atapitiya and found the fort abandoned by the Sinhalese. Emboldened, they marched through Amunupura, Danture, Walagama, Dehideniya to Gannoruwa. Then they entered Maha Nuwara, the Royal capital of the Kandyan kingdom unopposed. The city was sacked and pillaged. The palace was set ablaze and temples were looted and destroyed.

The victorious army made post haste towards Balana as they had left their line of communication unprotected. The Portuguese soldiers were tired and hungry and were only able to reach Gannoruwa by nightfall of March 27, 1638. They camped close to the ford across the Mahaweli. This area probably is the area now occupied by the new Courts Complex. The Sinhalese in the meantime felled trees on the other side of the river effectively barring the passage to Balana. Vijayapala’s troops, numbering 16,000, blocked the way back to Maha Nuwara and the Portuguese army, victorious a few hours ago, realized too late that they were well and truly trapped.

According to Paul E. Pieris, the Sinhala fighters fell on the lascarins who were in charge of baggage and succeeded in separating them from the main body. This was followed by the coolies throwing their loads of rice, bread, biscuits, jars of arrack and baskets of fowls. The sounds of the great guns and gingals of the Sinhalese thundered throughout the night sending balls of fire into the Portuguese camp.
Diogo de Melo begged the King for an armistice. Rajasimha and Vijayapala ignored his plea and got the Sinhala drummers to announce that any Sinhalese still loyal to the Portuguese by morning would be put to sword. This order started an exodus of the Sinhala mercenaries to the Kandyan side. The Portuguese soldiers who stole their way to the river to fetch water were eliminated by the Sinhala patriots.

The Battle of Battles, the great Gannoruwa Satana began in earnest with the dawn of Palm Sunday, March 28, 1638 when the Portuguese tried to resume their retreat once more in an effort to reach the ford across the river with the hope of reaching the slopes of Kiri Wat Talawa (Kiri Buth Kumbura). The Sinhala troops fell on the hapless Portuguese and the result was the total annihilation of the Portuguese. Only 33 Portuguese remained alive and de Melo was not one of them. The King and the Prince, magnanimous in victory, pardoned the surviving Portuguese. A search for de Melo’s body in the piles of bodies and heads was unsuccessful. A Sinhalese soldier however was able to recover de Melo’s sword which was presented to Rajasimha. This sword was later presented by the Kandyan monarch to the Dutch Admiral Westerwold.

The actual events that took place on the 27th of March 1638 are not very clear. The generally accepted version is that the Portuguese sacked and burnt the undefended city on March 27 and on their way back were compelled to camp on the Mahanuwara side of the Mahaweli ford at Gannoruwa. Although the Sinhala forces attacked the camp from hidden perches throughout the night, the real battle started in the morning of the Palm Sunday, March 28 when the remaining Portuguese attempted to retreat towards Balana.

According to Rebeiro it seems that the Portuguese never reached the city. “They (the Portuguese) descended the mountain and halted alongside the river, leaving some men on the slopes to prevent the enemy cutting down the trees and blocking the road. While they were thus close to the river, some of our men were wounded and several killed without our seeing who did it. The enemy had cut down on the further bank a large number of trees, and these served them as a stockade not only to guard the approach to the city, but also stop our men from taking one drop of water and thus they were not only harassed by the continuous discharge of matchlocks and foot-muskets which the enemy kept up all night long killing and wounding the bulk of them”.

He goes on to say that in the morning they realized that their paths back to Balana and to the city were blocked. The general begged for an armistice sending his nephew and son-in-law but the king was not moved. The annihilation of the whole Portuguese army then took place giving the impression that they never reached the city. De Queyroz (1687) says that when de Melo entered the city unhindered he found the city burnt by Rajasimha while the war poem Rajasiha Satana describes how the Portuguese set the royal city ablaze.

According to Silva (University of Peradeniya – History of Sri Lanka, 1995), de Melo’s invading force was quite small and any real chance of victory depended on the defection of Prince Vijayapala and his troops from the Kandyan ranks. But Vijayapala though estranged at one time remained loyal to his brother at the hour of need.

Gannoruwa saw the fiercest battle that was ever fought on our soil. The battle was vividly and poetically described by Wewaldeniye Mohottala and Aludeniye Mohottala in their epic ‘Parangi Hatana’. The Rajasimha Hatana is an immense war poem composed of 449 verses. Some of the verses describe the battle scene at Gannoruwa in typical Sinhala style. The captured Portuguese soldiers with chained legs have been compared to chained work elephants and those who rolled on the ground as hedgehogs.

The other works of poetry that eulogize Rajasimha II are Rajasimha Sirita by Bintenne Sami, Rajasimha Varnanawa and Rajasimha Hatana by anonymous poet and Maha Hatana by Kirimetiyawe. Gannoruwa Satana was the last battle fought by the Portuguese with the Sinhalese and in the history of the island it was also the last battle where a Sinhala king and his brother led a battle from the front.

The Prince of Uva who later defected to the Portuguese played an important role in the victory. He came to support his brother, the King with 16,000 of his men. S.B.Karaliadde, writing to the Sunday Observer of March 20 2005 states that the king mobilized troops from Uva, Tunkinda, Matale, Harispattuwa, Balawita, Dumbara Pansiyapattuwa, Udagama Pasrata, Hewaheta, Bulathgama, Dolosbage, Welassa, Maturata, Badulla, Thiruwanagama, Gampaha, Mathota, Thirukovil Vedipattu, Kottiar, Vanniya Trincomalee, Kalawewa, Huruluwewa, Hiriyaya, Ganthale, Anuradhapura and Panampattu. The King showed his gratitude to those who led the fighting on behalf of the Sinhala nation.

According to Karaliadde, Siyanekorale Dissava was placed to Nuwara Kalaviya, Walgama Chandrasekera was made in charge of Hath Korale, Wickramasinghe was posted as Dissava of Puttlam, Illankone was given Matara, Moladanda who was the Saluwadana Nilame was promoted as Atapattu Mudali, Kuruppu Mudali of Koratota was posted as Dissava of Sabaragamuwa, and Kapthota was placed in charge of Hatara Korale.

The great King fulfilled the vow he made to the Dodanwala Devale by offering the Royal crown and the sword. The Gannoruwa Battle of 1638 thus found a place in the history as one of the fiercest battles ever fought.

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