By Tissa Devendra King Rajasinha II ruled over the mountain kingdom of Sinhale in stirring times on which he left an enduring stamp. His historical significance is that his rule spanned the decline and fall of the Portuguese over the maritime regions and their displacement by the Dutch. Circumstances compelled the battle hardened hero ,who [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

The Portuguese scribes of Rajasinha II


By Tissa Devendra

King Rajasinha II ruled over the mountain kingdom of Sinhale in stirring times on which he left an enduring stamp. His historical significance is that his rule spanned the decline and fall of the Portuguese over the maritime regions and their displacement by the Dutch.

Circumstances compelled the battle hardened hero ,who decimated the Portuguese army at Randenigala, to change his strategy and hone diplomatic skills to parlay with the shrewd Dutch occupiers of lands which, the king always claimed, were but outlying provinces of his legitimate realm of Sinhale.

Apart from his military prowess Rajasinha was a complex personality thanks, largely, to his family background. He was the youngest son of the legendary Queen Dona Catherina (Kusumasana Devi) and the only child of his father Senarath, who had been canny enough a strategist to abandon the life of a bhikkhu and marry the royal widow of the great hero Vimala Dharma Suriya, thus cementing, by marriage, his claim to the throne.

Kusumasana Devi was the daughter of Karalliyadda Bandara, a Sinhala nobleman, who had the misfortune to have a reasonable claim to the Sinhala throne. This was a dark period characterised by intrigue and assassination in the struggle for the throne. Karaliyadda on learning that he was to be assassinated fled with his little daughter to the open arms of the Portuguese rulers in Colombo – who were only too happy to welcome a potential puppet they could crown in Kandy. Karalliyadda’s little daughter Kusumasana Devi was entrusted by the Portuguese to the nuns of the Convent in Mannar. She was now christened Dona Catherina and educated in the style of a Portuguese noblewoman. 

The little princess had barely entered her teens when the Portuguese launched another of their attempts to capture Kandy. This time they thought they had a chance of victory as they brought in their cavalcade young Dona Catherina, the heiress to the throne, whom they hoped to install as Queen of Sinhale with the acceptance of the people. They never expected to be ignominiously defeated by the Sinhala forces led by the great general Konappu Bandara, who was well aware of Portuguese strategies. He was a scion of minor nobility who had also fled assassination in Kandy and joined the Portuguese where he had fought as an officer in their army. Konappu was a shrewd strategist who saw an opportunity to seize power in the intrigue-ridden Kandyan kingdom and escaped the Portuguese to reclaim his heritage. He rapidly rose to become the leader of the Sinhala forces who soundly defeated the Portuguese army escorting Dona Catherina to Kandy.

Military victory was his, but his blood was not blue enough for the people to accept him as King. Master strategist that he was, he legitimised his claim to the throne of Sinhale by a battlefield marriage to Dona Catherina , the legitimate heiress, and renaming himself with the grandiloquent name Vimala Dharma Suriya. His Queen was now honoured as Maha Biso Bandara.

The royal couple had three sons and having had a Portuguese life-style in common, seem to have had a rather Iberian household. Although Dona Catherina was technically an apostate, having married Konappu in a ‘heathen’ ceremony, her understanding husband permitted her to associate with assorted Portuguese clerics, envoys and prisoners. Their sons too seem to have been tutored in Portuguese, as was necessary for dealings with the enemy. . 

After Vimala Dharma Suriya’s death, the former bhikkhu Senarath married his widow [in her second ‘heathen’ ceremony] and thus became King of Sinhale. Not long after, Vimala Dharma’s son Maha Astana [Crown Prince] met with a mysterious death. His two brothers, Vijayapala and Kumarasinghe, now lost status to Senarath’s own son Rajasinha. One can reasonably conclude that both these Princes were ‘closet Catholics’ like their mother Dona Catherina. This explains how and why Vijayapala fled to the Portuguese to escape possible assassination by Rajasinha as a potential usurper. The Portuguese took him to Goa where he formally converted to Catholicism. and boasted “I am a Chingala by blood but I am a Portuguese in my ways and my affections”. He later went on to Portugal where, as Prince Teodosio, he even founded a Catholic Chapel in Texeira!

Senarath’s son Rajasinha succeeded his father and proved to be one of Sinhale’s great warrior kings and dealt devastating defeats on the Portuguese. He was shrewd enough, and sufficiently ‘au fait’ with European power struggles, to negotiate with the Dutch to rid the land of the Portuguese. But the Dutch were far shrewder, They not only expelled the Portuguese but also took over their territory for themselves – instead of ‘holding it in trust’ for Rajasinha as he had, rather naively, expected.

It is interesting that all Rajasinha’s correspondence with the Dutch was in the Portuguese language. Although there is no contemporary record of this fact, it is abundantly clear that the King employed a secretariat of educated Portuguese scribes to compose and transcribe his many letters to the Dutch in the refined language appropriate to diplomatic usage.

In his correspondence [in Portuguese] with the Dutch authorities Rajasinha never ceased to maintain the protocol that they were merely his officials. This is amply borne out in the language of the extract of the letter quoted here:

“Raja Singa Raju, Most Exalted Monarch and Greatest and Most Potent Emperor of the far famed Empire of Ceilao to Adrian van der Meiden, Governor of my Imperial Fortress of Galle send much greeting
My Imperial Person took much trouble to get the Dutch nation to come to this my Empire, and likewise when Admiral Adam Vestrevolt arrived with the vessels of the fleet at this my Empire ******* ”
The attached illustration of one of Rajasinha’s letter to the Dutch clearly establishes the fact of the Portuguse scribes in his employ. This document is written on parchment in impeccable Portuguese.

The orotund phrases of the opening are beautifully inscribed and delicately tinted in the tradition of medieval Christian manuscripts. It is reasonable to assume that Rajasinha approved and understood the Portuguese translation of his Sinhala original. This document is a perfect illustration of the great skill of the Portuguese scribes on Rajasinha’s staff – and clear proof of the European influence in the Court of Dona Catherina’s son . Rajasinha’s considerable correspondence with the Portuguese and intrigues with the Dutch exhibit a shrewd awareness of European activities in Asia. He was no insular ruler of an isolated kingdom but a skilled player on the chess-board of regional politics.

As for the identity of these master scribes, alas, no record can be found as to who they were. Throughout recorded history mere pen-pushers have always been fated to live and die in obscurity- unknown, unhonoured and unsung- though the documents they transcribed often changed the course of history.

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