The Indian poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi chose the ravishing beauty of princess Padmavathi   and the political chaos it caused to compose his epic poem Padmavathi in 1540CE.  Just fifty years later, in Sri Lanka, there appeared  Dona Catherina, a real princess, whose life was crucial in Lankan history but who has been largely ignored in [...]


The little known historical role played by Dona Catherina


The Indian poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi chose the ravishing beauty of princess Padmavathi   and the political chaos it caused to compose his epic poem Padmavathi in 1540CE.  Just fifty years later, in Sri Lanka, there appeared  Dona Catherina, a real princess, whose life was crucial in Lankan history but who has been largely ignored in our main historical documentations and unlike Padmavathi, failed to inspire poets.

A protégé of the Portuguese – then a world power and coveted as a bride for the Portuguese General, she  found herself at the centre of the thick of fighting in the worst military disaster of the Portuguese when her guardians lost the opportunity to instal her as the Queen of Kandy.

Of royal birth, Kusumasana Devi, later Dona Catherina grew up in the Portuguese Fort of  Mannar, even being sent to the Portuguese Fort of Goa for advanced studies. She was to be installed as Queen in the Kandyan Kingdom!  Completely ignored by the main chronicle Culavamsa however, she found a place in the Rajavaliya (Line of Kings) – a narrative of rulers of the island chronicled up to the reign of Vimaladharmasuriya 11 of which a critical English translation had been done by the late Dr. A.V. Suraweera.  Rajavaliya, tracing her ancestry referred to Dona Catherina as the “Mannarame un biso adahasin” (the respected queen who was at Mannarama) or “e bisava kanyavi” (that queen, the virgin.) It states that Kusumasana Devi or Dona Catherina belonged to the dynasty of the hill country and when King Rajasinghe of Sitavaka attacked the Hill Country, her parents who were ruling  Udarate with their retinue fled to the North. When they were attacked by the Damila king of Yapa Patuna, they sought the help of King Dharmapala of  Kotte, who with his army and those of the  Portuguese (Pratikal) rescued them. Arrangements thereafter were made for them to stay at Mannarama. The King and the Queen died later and the princess continued to live in the Portugese Fort.

She came into the limelight when the Portuguese entertained lofty ambitions of capturing the Hill Country.  Historian K.M. de Silva in “A History of Sri Lanka” stated “As legatees of the Kotte kings, the Portuguese sought to reassert Kotte’s overlordship over the Udarata. Besides, through conversion to Roman Catholicism, the Portuguese had a pliant protégée whose claims to the Kandyan throne were as good as, if not better than those of any other aspirant. These claims they now advanced in support of an extension of Portuguese power to the Udarata. In 1594, Pedro Lopez Souza led Portuguese troops for this purpose taking with them the Sinhala princess Kusumasana Devi or Dona Catherina as the Portuguese named her with the baptismal. The motive was to install her in the Kandyan throne in the Portuguese interest.”

State Literary Award winner C. Gaston Perera in his “Kandy Fights the Portuguese,” delving deep into the Portuguese expeditions had gone beyond Rajavaliya, even turning to Portuguese as well as Dutch sources and accounts of contemporary Sinhala and English writers which had brought out the historical importance of Dona Catherina.  “The grand strategy of the Portuguese or their war policy or policy objective towards their presence in Ceylon, evolved slowly from trading to one of complete conquest of the whole island by the subjugation of Kandy.”

And he wrote: “Kandy which was under Sitavaka domination for ten years had been restive and had asserted its independence two years ago with the death of its king Rajasinghe. The Portuguese, seizing the opportunity, had sent a force to take over Kandy under the former Peradeniya chieftain, Konnappu Bandara.  He  had served the Portuguese and was baptized as Dom Joao after he fled to them when his father was killed by Rajasinghe.  His task was to instal Dom Phelipe alias Yamasinghe Bandara, nephew of the former Kandyan king Karalliyadde  Bandara on the throne as a Portuguese puppet. Instead, Konnappu  Bandara, on arriving in Kandy,  abandoned the Portuguese and Christianity and installed himself as Vimaladharmasuriya 1.”

By 1594, with the death of Rajasinghe, the Portuguese took over Sitavaka. Having subjugated Jaffna,  they only had the Udarata to capture. The vital expedition to capture Kandy under Pedro Lopez de Souza therefore, received high priority in the Portuguese camp. Arriving from Goa, he headed it under a new title bestowed on him as General Conquistador, the First in Ceylon. Consisting of  Portuguese soldiers recruited from Goa, reinforced by lascorins (Ceylonese soldiers) and led by renegade Jayavira, they set off. The pretext was to overthrow the usurper Vimaladha-rmasuriya, instal the rightful heir and restore the last relict of Kandy royalty to the throne.

The key element in this grand plan was the child, Dona Catherina. According to Tikiri Abeysinghe, author of several books on the Portuguese Era, she was ten or twelve years at the time. She was the last surviving relict of the Kandyan royal line. She was to be married according to Portuguese writer Joao Ribeiro to Portugese General Lopez de Souza. According to Fr. Fernode Queyroz SJ,  the marriage was to be with the Captain of  Mannar Fort, Francisco da Silva. The consequences of such an eventuality as explained by Tikiri Abeysinghe is thus quoted in “Kandy Fights the Portuguese.” “They would have established a child queen on the throne of Kandy, married her off to a Portuguese Fidelio and the kingdom would have been an apanage of theirs.”

From the ascent of the Balana pass, the troops advanced and they completed the most arduous and perilous part of any invasion surprisingly void of enemy resistance. They reached the banks of Mahaveli (probably in Gannoruwa) and encamped there. The author says that the ease of their military success seemed mystifying. Was it because the Kandyans were reluctant to fight and oppose a force bringing back to them the last relict of their royal line or, was it a military strategy adopted by Vimaladharmasuriya?

Queyroz however explained, on entering Kandy the Kandyans could not see Dona Catherina and could not prostrate themselves before her and demonstrate their loyalty as access to her was denied. The General kept her cut off and carefully guarded her. Gradually, the Kandyan chieftains were alienated when they began to suspect a deception. They began leaving the Portuguese camp and joining Vimaladharmasuriya.  Queyroz admitted “they concluded that the war was not being in her name as was given out as they believed in the beginning.” Besides the troops were “ravishing their wives, killing their children and setting their houses on fire.”

Vimaladharmasuriya in the meantime devised a plan which led the Portuguese to kill Jayavira which resulted in the lascorins to cross over.  Food was cut off and it came to a point when the Portuguese  decided to retreat. They proceeded along the river bank and reached Balana with troops ahead and the vanguard following. At the centre was the elephant with Dona Catherina. On the third day “the enemies who defected together with the rebels surrounded the retreating troops when fierce fighting broke out.’  According to the Rajavaliya, “Vimaladharmasuriya and the armies of the five principalities of Udarata, surrounded the Pratikil men and apprehended them in the paddyfields of Danture. When the Sinhala forces and the respectful queen who (at the time) lived in Mannarama, were fleeing, Ekanayake Mudali of Balana and the army kept guard. They captured her and handed her over to Vimaladharmasuriya. He made the virgin princess his chief queen.”

The Portuguese surrendered. The dying General was “nursed and well treated” at Dona Catherina’s request. And later, his son was set free. Queyroz wrote that the General could have used Dona Catherina’s emotional appeal to keep the Kandyans from fighting. However, he writes misfortunes dogged their footsteps. “When the General set off from Goa, part of his fleet was shipwrecked. At the Kolomba Fort, he found that its Captain was uncooperative at being superseded. When Dona Catherina set out, the pole of the palanquin had snapped. And the troops had to wait halfway as they had set out during the monsoon season. The General above all was ignorant of local conditions and refused to accept advice of others.”

According to  “Kandy Fights the Portuguese,”  the battle at Danture formed a watershed in the history of the Portugese encounter in the island.  It saved Kandy from subjugation by the Portugese at a time when it had already imposed its hegemony on the rest of the island.

Vimaladharmasuriya in the meantime, had no legitimate claim to the Kandyan throne which could give rise to rival claimants. Therefore, when Dona Catherina was taken to Vimaladharmasuriya, he married her straightaway, on the battlefront.

“Kandy Fights the Portuguese” states that “by an ironic twist … the elephant she was being carried on, had wandered away from the battlefield when her Portuguese vanguard was attacked. While she was separated from them and straying in the countryside, she had been captured by the Kandyans and taken to Vimaladharmasuriya.  Instant nuptials for Vimaladharmasuriya was the safest way to secure himself of the fidelity of his subjects. It legitimized his right to rule and the new dynasty they founded ruled the Kandyan kingdom for 225 years, until the fall in 1815.

Dona Catherina gave birth to four children. Vimaladharmasuriya before his death, entrusted them in the care of his sister’s son Senarath – an ex Buddhist priest,  until his eldest son was old enough to assume the throne. But on his death in 1604CE, Senarat installed himself as the king (1604-1635CE) and “he took the hand of Dona Catherina – the widow of the deceased king and more crucially, the fount of legitimacy to whoever contended to rule Kandy.” Dona Catherina gave birth to a son by Senarat who was named Devirajasinghe. Senarat later eliminated the rightful son of Vimaladharmasuriya and ensured the succession to his son. Devirajasinghe as Rajasinghe the Second who ruled the Kandyan Kingdom from 1635-1687.


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