The month of May 2014 marks the 358th anniversary of the siege of the Colombo fort and the beginning of the end of Portuguese rule in the island of Ceylon. The siege of Colombo, though a major turning point in the Colonial history of Sri Lanka, stands apart from the other patriotic battles such as [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

The siege of Colombo


The month of May 2014 marks the 358th anniversary of the siege of the Colombo fort and the beginning of the end of Portuguese rule in the island of Ceylon. The siege of Colombo, though a major turning point in the Colonial history of Sri Lanka, stands apart from the other patriotic battles such as those of Mulleriyawa and Randenivela. The siege that resulted in the final capitulation of the Portuguese to the Dutch and Sinhala forces was the culmination of long drawn out hostilities from almost the time of the stockade established in Colombo by Lourenco de Almeida in 1505 to the end of their time, 150 years later.

The siege of Colombo: Dutch and Sinhala forces in Colombo ("Dutch and Sinhalese Again" Digital image. My Sri Lanka Holidays. Bunpeiris, n.d. Web.)

The hostilities were continuous during this period, first by Mayadunne and Rajasimha I of Sitawaka and then by the Kandyan monarchs of early and middle 17th centuries. The actual siege of Colombo by the Dutch and Rajasimha’s (Rajasimha II) forces lasted seven long months. The fall of the garrison in Jaffna followed the capitulation of Colombo by the Portuguese to the Dutch. Following the siege of Colombo the Dutch refused to hand over the fort of Colombo to Rajasimha and continued to exploit the newly acquired possessions, merely replacing one colonial usurper with another. The trap into which Rajasimha fell in getting Dutch help to oust the Portuguese was graphically described as, “miris deela Inguru gatta wage” (receiving ginger in exchange for chilies).

During the period of the siege we come across a gallant but ruthless soldier, a son of a Portuguese father and Sinhala mother, a devoted supporter of the Portuguese cause who later became the subject of a legend (and a ballad) that is described in Part 2 of this article. This person who rose to the position of the Captain of the Fort by popular demand was Gaspar de Figueira de Cerpa, a colourful character who could have become the Commander of Rajasimha’s army if the King’s pleas were taken seriously by this brave half-cast at the final scene of the siege.

The location of the siege and the final capitulation of the Portuguese to the Dutch was the fort of Colombo. The fort, initially started as a trading post developed into a military establishment with ramparts and bastions in the mid sixteenth Century.

In 1518, Lopo Soares de Albergaria, the Portuguese Viceroy of India landed at Colombo with a large fleet. He started building a larger and much stronger fort at the site of Lourenco’s trading post with the blessings of the Kotte monarch. The fort was named ‘Nossa Senhora Das Virtudas’ and was also known as Santa Barbara. This fort was triangular in shape with a central tower. The dynastic travails of the rulers of Kotte and Sitawaka were raging like wild fire with Mayadunne of Sitawaka seeking to annex Kotte and Colombo to his domain. To Mayadunne, the Portuguese were the usurpers who were protecting the Kotte kingdom and its ruler and he continued to besiege the fort relentlessly. This fort was dismantled in 1524 leaving an agent to man the trading post.

No sooner the Portuguese soldiers left, the Moor merchants who lost their lucrative trade in spices, precious stones and elephants got busy in trying to regain the monopoly of the sea trade. The few Portuguese left in the stockade that was under the protection of the Kotte ruler managed to drive them away. In the ensuing years the Malabar Muslims were also defeated at Vedelai in 1538 by Martin Alfonso de Sousa and at Negombo by Miguel Ferreira in 1539.

In October 1550 Alfonso Noronha, Viceroy of India arrived in Colombo with 500 soldiers. He attacked Sitawaka and then occupied Kotte. He plundered the two kingdoms desecrating the religious establishments and looting the treasures of the two royal houses. Meanwhile on the invitation of the Kotte ruler missionaries flocked to the kingdom professing the Christian faith and converting the natives in and around Kotte. In 1554, Duarte de Eca who came with 500 soldiers started building a new fort in Colombo at the original site. This is the fort so vividly described by Rebeiro in his ‘Historical Tragedy of the Island of Ceilao’.

“..Columbo, from being as small stockade of wood, grew to be a gallant city fortified with a dozen bastians; it is true that these were six sided after the ancient fashion, and of small size, but they were conveniently situated. The ramparts were a single line of taipa (thaappa), a sufficient defence against the natives with a ditch and a moat on either side ending in a lake which skirted a third of the city on the land side. Its artillery consisted of two hundred and thirty seven pieces of three kinds, from ten upto thirty-eight pounds, all mounted. It is situated on a large bay capable of holding a large number of small ships, but exposed on the northern side; and its line of circumvallation stretched over one thousand three hundred paces”.

According to Rebeiro there were 900 families of noble settlers and more than one thousand five hundred artisans and tradesmen within its walls in the 1650s. There were two parishes, the mother parish and that of St. Lourenco. Inside the fort were five convents belonging to the religious orders; St. Francisco, St. Domingos, St Augustinho, that of the Capuchins and of the College of the Fathers of the Society. Within the Fort’s walls were also the house of the Santa Misericordia (the poor house) and a Royal Hospital.

Following the breakup of the union with Spain, Portugal entered into a ten year truce with the Dutch in 1642. The effects of the relative tranquility between the two nations were also felt in the island of Ceylon. However in this island, notwithstanding this truce there were sporadic skirmishes among the Portuguese, the Dutch and the Kandyans. The overall result was a stalemate between Rajasimha, the Dutch and the Portuguese. This relative calm compelled the Portuguese Captain General of Colombo to direct his attention more to establishing the citadel rather than improving their military might. Prof. Peter Courtenay in his translation of History of Ceylon says that the authorities in the fort even allowed growing of coconut trees on the fort ramparts. “…All available space in the fort was built over with houses so that the citadel had become a small town of 4,000 people of whom only 1,200 were soldiers. The 237 guns which stood on the ramparts were covered in rust and carriages were rotting due to white ants. They had a terrible awakening in October, 1652 when the Dutch Commander of Galle sent several officers to Colombo to notify the Captain General Emmanuel Mascaranhas Homem that the amnesty was over and the hostilities had resumed”. This was the prelude to the siege that lasted seven long months during which the Portuguese trapped in the Colombo fort faced severe famine forcing them to eat their elephants, cattle, cats, dogs and rats. It is known that there was cannibalism as well.

The Portuguese held an emergency Council and decided, as narrated by Rebeiro, to send the few surviving women and children to a church and set fire to it while the few remaining men would die with sword in hand. This proposal was not acceptable to the religious Prelates. “..In view of these reasons and with some tears everyone agreed that the circumstances admitted of no other remedy but that we should parley with the enemy and ask for honourable terms of capitulation”.

And thus the curtain fell on the Portuguese rule ending 150 years of ruthless exploitation of this island nation. On May 12, 1656 the fort fell to the Dutch and the Sinhala forces and what a fall it was. At 3 p.m. in the afternoon of May 12, 1656, seventy three emaciated men, some with broken arms and some without limbs marched out of the besieged fort. Out of nearly 20 to 30 thousand people only half-dead 73 survived to surrender. The defeat of the Portuguese and the prolonged siege make an indelible mark in the Colonial history of this island nation. There were Malay soldiers fighting with the Dutch but the exact number of them, brought by Hulft from Java, is not recorded. Hulft had 9,800 Europeans and Rajasimha sent him 16,000 for the siege. 16 vessels brought all equipment necessary for the siege and effectively blocked the harbour, making it impossible for Portuguese help to arrive from India.

(Part 2 next week)

Share This Post


Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.