The northern terminus of the A 32 route along the north-western seaboard of Sri Lanka, the town of Pooneryn or the place referred to in local historical records as ‘Punakari’, is on the south shore of the Jaffna lagoon. It has now become the focal point in our mass media after its recapture by the Sri Lankan Forces on November 13.
It is not known exactly when people first inhabited Pooneryn. However, the strategic importance of this place was first observed by the Portuguese and then by the Dutch mainly for the protection of their interests in Jaffna and from any possible invasion by the troops of the Sinhalese kings or by Wanniars. It is timely to see how this north-eastern seaboard of the island gained attention during the colonial past, particularly during the Dutch administration.
The peninsula Jaffnapatnam is connected to the mainland of Sri Lanka by a narrow stretch of land. Together with several islands, the district of Mullaitivu to the east, Mannar and Aripo to the west and a part of the large land area to the south called Wanni, it formed one of the administrative entities of the Dutch usually referred to as ‘Jaffna Commandement’. Trade in the Jaffna Commandement was centred around the main administrative town of Jaffna where the Dutch had constructed a fortress upon the former Portuguese site. The land area of Jaffnapatnam was considerably different from other areas of the island and many parts were wide open to the waterfront either by sea or by lagoons. This geographical situation made easy access to many parts of the peninsula providing an environment conducive for trade in Dutch times.
The Portuguese cracked down on the fragile independent ruler of Jaffna and incorporated his kingdom to their ‘Estado da India’ in May, 1619. It was surrendered to the Dutch in 1658 and to the British in 1796. These three nations are primarily responsible for making Jaffna the principal town of the island’s northern province. Both the Portuguese and the Dutch together with their possessions of South India elevated the region to one trading entity where considerable profit was generated by the sale of elephants, cotton goods, cinnamon, rice, arecanuts and salt. These two waters were rich in chank and pearl banks as well. Their harvest was seasonal but formed a considerable market for South Indian traders who took the pearl banks on rent.A large number of merchants from Coromandel visited Jaffnapatnam to negotiate for the purchase of elephants to meet the demands of the rich in Golconda.
The Dutch having Tutucorin as their centre in South India divided their stations along the Coromandel coast to the south Alvatienegary, Manapar, Ponnacail, Cailpatnam and Trinsigare and to the north Bampaer asnd Kilkare. Sri Lankan archival sources identify this South Indian coastal lowlands as ‘Inchiado’ during the Portuguese and the ‘Opposite Coast’ in the Dutch times as the trade between these two places flourished along the coast between Point Pedro to the north and Kalpitiya to the south.
Capture and trade in elephants in this region was an attractive business which the Company demanded as far back as in 1638 in the agreement with Kandy in exchange for help provided to the King to get rid of the Portuguese from the island. In 1682, both parties found a modus vivendi as the Dutch held the coastal possessions in the name of the Kandyan king whereas the rest was entirely left in the hands of the Dutch. The King’s sovereignty was acknowledged by sending annual embassies to Kandy with numerous gifts and presents. One of the objectives of this annual audience was to obtain permission to drive elephants caught in the south and in the southwest to Mannar and Kayts overland via Pooneryn.
Governor Thomas van Rhee in his memoir dated 1697 states that ‘the Master of Hunt, Don Gaspar Nitcheachenaderayan Modeliyar of Wanny has been granted for his maintenance the lands of Ponnerijn, and his hunters held fields or gardens which they have in possession without payment of anything whatever to the revenue’.
The Ceylonese elephants were needed in India for three distinctive purposes namely, to use in warfare, temple services and as labouring animals. Therefore, these two markets of elephants were attended by a considerable number of Indian Moorish traders who came from Bengal and Golconda to purchase them. The Company yielded an annual income of approximately 100,000 to 200,000 guilders from the elephant trade in the early 18th century.
The other income generating commodity was pearls and chanks harvested in the waters along the bay of Condatje, Mannar and Talaimannar. Pearl banks in this area were in the hands of private traders who took them on rent. The Dutch observed that pearl fishing in this region is like a lottery and gambling as thousands gather in this area during the season neglecting agriculture and even daily occupations.
He said not even an old woman remains at her spinning wheel, all engaged in this dangerous game seeking fortune even beyond dreams. Therefore, Governor Daniel Overbeek in his memoir dated 1743 suggested the Company taking over the entire trade in order to (a) reduce the influx of strangers, (b) promote the Company’s trade in cotton goods, (c) prevent people neglecting daily occupations and (d) to put an end to this gambling which brings Company’s trade transactions to a standstill. He mooted the idea that the Company must employ 25 to 30 thonies for this task and improve the industry as it happens in Tutucorin.
Arecanut was a commodity much needed in the South Indian textile industry and therefore considerable attention was paid to its collection. The Company always expected to maintain a monopoly of arecanut trade and took all possible precautions to prevent private trade and to prohibit strangers entering this profitable trade.
The Dutch Governor Daniel Overbeek observed that the Chitties and Moors engaged in private trade in this commodity by exchanging it for rice and other necessities of the inhabitants and consequently less was received at the Company’s warehouses. A proclamation issued prohibiting this illegal private trade stated that ‘an eagle eye is necessary to guard against these evil practices’.
Poonaryn is historically important because of its fort constructed late in the Portuguese administration and built upon by the Dutch when they took over.
Their reconstruction made no great changes, but maintained it in good condition during their times. According to the Dutch plan of circa 1770, it was square shaped with two bastions at opposite corners; the rampart on each of the sides was about 30 metres. In 1700, it was in good repair, but in the 1780s it was in a ruinous condition, being a garrison for only a few men.
Later, in 1805 it was converted to a rest house by the British. W. A. Nelson in his work The Dutch Forts of Sri Lanka records in 1984 that ‘much of the fort structure, very overgrown, still stands combined with remains of the rest house’. From 1983, following the upheavals in the north, Pooneryn has been occupied by the Sri Lankan Army. Subsequently it became a LTTE controlled area for about 15 years and regained after a great victory achieved by the Sri Lankan Army on November 13, 2008.