When vandalism was seen as civilizational encounter

Book Facts: A 16th Century Clash of Civilizations : The Portuguese Presence in Sri Lanka by Susantha Goonatilake. Reviewed by Prof. K.N.O.Dharmadasa

The conceptual framework of the term "Clash of Civilizations" which had been introduced earlier gained world attention after the work of the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington in 1992. In fact his view was futuristic in the sense that talking about the world-order in post- cold war atmosphere he suggested that in the future the conflicts between peoples would be clashes based on cultural differences rather than on ideological, economic interests, and the like as was in the past. Leaving aside the feasibility of this theoretical concept we note that many a conflict that came about during the years that followed the cold war period can be viewed under the rubric clash of civilizations.

Now we find a scholar projecting the concept to the past and seeing in the advent of the first Europeans in the island of Sri Lanka in the 16th century a good example of what could be called a clash of civilizations. Susantha Goonatilake sees the Portuguese advent in the Kingdom of Kotte as an "Iberian led genocidal and cultural (war)", a "temporal and spiritual conquest" (a term used by the Portuguese themselves), which was of a scale and spirit never experienced before by the people of this island. Just to give an example of what was done by the Portuguese to the civilization that existed in Sri Lanka we can quote from Diogo Do Couto, one of their own chroniclers, about what was done to the unprotected shrine at Devunuwara, which was one of the most venerated Devalayas in medieval Sri Lanka:

"Our people proceeded to enter (the city) without encountering any resistance and reaching the Pagoda broke open the gates and entered it without meeting anyone to resist them… and seeing that all was deserted Thomas De Souza delivered it all to the soldiers that they might do their duty and the first thing in which they employed themselves was to destroy the idols, of which there were more than a thousand of diverse forms , some of clay, others of wood, others of copper, many of them gilt. Having done this they demolished the whole of that infernal structure of Dagabas, destroying their vaults and cloisters, knocking them all to pieces, and then proceeded to sack the storehouses, in which they found much ivory, fine clothes, copper, pepper, sandalwood, jewels, precious stones and ornaments of the Dagabas, and of everything they took what they like, and the rest they set fire to by which the whole was consumed" (Quoted on p. 101).

Couto adds further that in order to subject the place to the worst sacrilege possible they slaughtered several cows within the main shrine space so that no further religious rites could be performed without extensive purification procedures.

Apart from other religious establishments such as Kelaniya and Totagamuva, the secular institution of the palace complex of Kotte was similarly looted and vandalized. The details are given by Goonetilaka (pages 72 - 73). A similar devastation was carried out in Kandy and Jaffna (pp. 105 - 14)

These gruesome accounts of fanatical vandalism, according to Goonetilake were not seen in that light by the powers that were. We know that both the Portuguese and the Spaniards (in South America) followed equally barbaric campaigns against non European peoples. "The Portuguese and the Spaniards," states Goonatilake, "as well as the Pope … justified and 'morally' underwrote the adventures and considered the enterprise as but a civilizational encounter." (p.xxviii).

Be that as it may, Goonatilake brings out ample evidence to show that the Buddhist and Hindu cultures which were thus vandalized as never before were representative of high points of human civilization. Chapters 8 and 9 describe in detail the Sinhala-Buddhist culture that existed in the Kotte kingdom. It is replete with textual references to the high level of scholarship and artistic activity, particularly literary creativity, which marked the Kotte period, especially during the reign of the founder monarch Parakramabahu VI as a golden era of Sinhala cultural activity.

In Chapters 5,6 and 7 Goonatilake describes the riches that were plundered from Sri Lanka. He mentions the gems and jewels, manufactured artifacts, ivory caskets, boxes of different shapes and sizes, luxury household items, personal utensils like combs and fans often in ivory which were sometimes studded with gems etc. which were looted and taken away to Europe and which are sometimes found today displayed in museums. Obviously this is but a fraction of what was taken away.

When we read accounts such as the one describing the palace and the jewellery and the ornaments worn by the royalty such as the one given by D. Lourenco, the first Portuguese emissary in the palace of Kotte, we are compelled to imagine the magnitude of the valuable treasures we have lost, particularly to the Portuguese.

Among other things D. Lourenco says that the king wore, " on his head a kind of mitre of brocade , garnished with precious stones and large pearls with two points [that is a cap with two protuberances of gold] of first rate workmanship falling on his shoulders. He was girt with a cloth of silver, the ends of which fell on his feet, which were shod with sandals studded with rubies and on his fingers were seen a vast number of them besides emeralds and diamonds. His ears were pierced and fell on his shoulders with earrings of great value." (pp. 71 - 72).

We should remember at this point the wealth plundered from the rich temples such as Kelaniya, Totagamuva, Aggabodhi Viharaya and Devundara Devalaya. Similar plundering occurred in Jaffna. Not only was there looting and plundering of wealth but there was also an inhuman destruction of life and honour of a hapless populace. As accounts given by Portuguese historians themselves indicate children and babies were murdered for sheer sadism and men were tortured to extract information of hidden treasures, women were violated at will.

The degrading behaviour of these first emissaries of European civilization as pointed out by Goonatilake stands in stark contrast to the native civilization they pillaged and plundered. Here comes the "clash of civilizations". In Chapter 9 Goonatilake shows the contrast between the Buddhist ethos and the ethos of the Iberian conquistadors .

The Buddha's attitude to non-believers was an open minded one "come and see " (ehi passiko) His appeal was not to blind faith but to cognitive verification and rational conviction as emphasized in the discourse Kalama Sutta (pp. 246 - 7). In contrast the Roman Catholic Europeans who came bearing the sword in one hand and the Bible in the other were firm believers in the dictum "Kill all the inhabitants of any city where you find people that worship differently from you."

Goonatilake quotes 18 such strongly worded exhortations from Christian scriptures where killing in the name of god was justified (pp. 250 - 51). Goonatilake ends his study informing us that he was induced to write of this ugly episode because of the Portuguese celebrations of 500 years of colonial expansion and "its attempted whitewash."

The launch

The launch of Susantha Goonatilake’s book ‘A 16th Century Clash of Civilizations: The Portuguese Presence in Sri Lanka’ will be held on Friday, January 21 at 5 p.m. at the auditorium of the Mahaweli Centre, 96 Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha, Colombo 7. Speakers will be Prof. K.N.O. Dharmadasa, Prof. W.I. Siriweera and Ambassador Bandu de Silva. The meeting will be chaired by Ven. Prof. Kollupitiye Mahinda Sangharakkhita Thera.

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