By 1587, King Rajasinghe of Seethavaka was the master of almost all of Sri Lanka, except Jaffanapattanum and Colombo fort. The Portuguese who had arrived in the island in 1505, after a series of humiliating military defeats at his hands,lost the kingdom of Kotte to him in 1565. Withdrawing from Kotte with their puppet King [...]


The deadly epidemic of 1587 which changed the history of Sri Lanka


The fort of Colombo -17th century

By 1587, King Rajasinghe of Seethavaka was the master of almost all of Sri Lanka, except Jaffanapattanum and Colombo fort. The Portuguese who had arrived in the island in 1505, after a series of humiliating military defeats at his hands,lost the kingdom of Kotte to him in 1565. Withdrawing from Kotte with their puppet King Dom Joao Dharmapala, the Portuguese were reduced to a bunch of sea pirates, stationed in the environs of Colombo fort. From here, they conducted sudden attacks on seaports and coastal villages, killing civilians, destroying temples, mosques and kovils, plundering the riches of merchants and holy places.

To drive away this menace forever, King Rajasinghe launched an unprecedented attack on Colombo fort in 1587. If not for a deadly epidemic which is scantly mentioned in history, he would have succeeded in overrunning the fort, and driving away a brutal enemy, making Sri Lanka a free country, within 82 years of its invasion by the Europeans.

As this period of Sri Lankan history is not well documented in Sinhala chronicles, one has to turn to the documents of historians of the Portuguese. Father Fernao De Queiroz writing of Rajasinghe says, he was “a man so warlike and valiant that so far as his person was concerned he could be compared to Caesar at the same age, and to Alexander”.

In April 1587,there were rumours that Rajasinghe was planning a massive attack on Colombo fort. In that era Colombo fort was confined to the current location of Fort, Colombo and surrounded by the Bairai Lake. Fortified with strong walls and bastions, there were about 60,000 people within the fort. Upon receiving information of the impending attack, Portuguese Captain Joao Correa who was in charge of the fort ordered its walls, watch towers and gun platforms to be repaired. They began to clear all the vegetation outside the fort, to have a better view of enemy movement. The island of Antonio de Mendoca (currently Slave Island)which was outside the city was made empty and all soldiers were withdrawn to the fort. The captain sent messages to the Portuguese garrisons in Mannar and Nagaputtanum, requesting them to send soldiers to save Colombo.

In May 1587, Rajasinghe began to march from Seethavaka with a 61,000 strong army divided among 187 captains. There were 1600 well trained gunmen, 10,000 ordinary gunmen and 400 bombardiers.  They had 2200 bronze guns, big and small, 150 massive artillery guns, some of which were of 30 to 44 calibre and many more weapons. He also had a large amount of gunpowder, lead and cannonballs of different sizes. There were 150 war elephants and 2,080 ordinary elephants in his army and 4,000 oxen pulling carts. He also brought 600 blacksmiths to make arrow heads and 1000 carpenters for construction work. He brought along 10,000 levers, 2,000 pickaxes, 20,000 large knives and 6000 mattocks to make trenches and dig the walls of the fortress. His army consisted of many nationalities – Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Malayalis, Javanese, Kaffirs and even some Portuguese defectors. To launch a seaborne attack from different ports of the island, he had 60 large and small ships and 200 small boats sail towards Colombo.

Rajasinghe’s massive army crossed the river Kelani and headed towards Colombo. Artillery guns began to fire at them from the fort but they took cover. On May 29, 1587, Rajasinghe encamped within the sight of the Colombo fort. Queiroz says they were so orderly, no commander in the world would have surpassed him.

Rajasinghe encamped at a higher point of land within the firing distance of the fort. The main obstacle for his army to get closer was the large body of water now known as Beira lake which was much wider at that time and deep enough for six ships. During a previous siege on Colombo these small ships caused immense losses to the Seethavaka armies. Thus Rajasinghe began to make a large ditch, strengthening it with two lines of mats and made a wall with junk. This ditch and the protective mound was about 3 km long. During its construction, the Portuguese were continuously firing from the ships and fort, killing many workers.

After making this temporary fortification Rajasinghe planned to drain the lake. He re-dug the previous canal he had made in his 1581 siege, which was nine metres deep and half a kilometre long and  made another one kilometre long ditch. The canal was dug within 20 days, and the lake drained fast to the marshy lands around Colombo. The ships stranded in the middle of the lake were quickly brought towards the fort, where there was more water.

After fully draining the lake, Rajasinghe brought his men and material within six metres of the fort walls. He made stone walls, slanting walls, wooden barricades, trenches, small fortresses and rubble, which rendered the Portuguese cannon fire ineffective. A siege on the impenetrable Colombo fort began with most of Rajasinghe’s soldiers engaging in trench warfare.

In the smoke and noise of the bombardment of the fort with artillery and counter-fire by the Portuguese, the men could not see or hear each other. At times the Seethavaka soldiers climbing the walls of the fort were killed by gunfire, spikes and firepots thrown by the Portuguese and their local allies. War elephants attacking the walls with much ferocity and attempting to pull down the cannons too faced gunfire and fire pots and some turned on their masters. While the fighting was going on stone masons under cover of shields were attempting to dig the walls of the fort. Attacks and counter attacks continued for the next few months.

With limited food and water within the fort, soldiers and civilians began to eat anything available and sometimes resorted to cannibalism, eating the flesh of dead Seethavaka soldiers fallen close the walls of the fort.  A few ships arrived with soldiers and provisions intermittently from Goa, the Portuguese capital of the East and other Portuguese strongholds but these meagre supplements could not turn the tide.

Realizing that the situation in Colombo was extremely precarious, the Viceroy of Goa decided that he should prepare the largest force that had taken part in any battle in the east, to be sent to Colombo. Manuoel de Souza, a former captain of Colombo who had encountered Rajasinghe in 1581,was made Captain- Major of the Sea of India and ordered to make preparations to land in Colombo. He sent messages to Melaka, Malaysia to send a large number of soldiers who were engaged in a war in Melakato Colombo and attack Rajasinghe along with the troops from India.

Turning the tide of the war, an unknown epidemic began to spread across the country in December 1587. By then a major drought had occurred – it had not rained for one year. In Portuguese historian Cuoto’s words “there appeared a new and cruel sickness, which was general among the people of the country and it was so terrible, that on the account of the many that died, they thought that it was a poison that they (Portuguese) cast into their wells, wherefore all went about affrighted. The disease commenced in the feet with a swelling, which went ascending to the legs, and thence to the belly, and to the breast, there as soon as it touched the heart, it proved fatal, leaving those bodies deformed.”

This disease had all the features of an epidemic of a severe and fatal viral infection, which caused liver failure within a short span of time. Influenza viruses are major causes of such viral infections. Cuoto says, “As the sickness was new in that country and not known, nor had ever been seen by the natives, the physicians made an anatomy on one of those bodies to see if they could understand the disease in order to cure it, because it was going on increasingly greatly, and many were dying; and having viewed the intestines they found the livers apostemated (Pustule formation)”.

It was inferred that heat and humidity caused the illness. Many medications were given to victims, with no avail. At the end “they made use of a fruit which they call gorsas (Goraka) which had some virtue, and with some other herbs; but as this also came to be exhausted, there did not fail to die many”.

As the Seethavaka soldiers were from the countryside, living in close quarters and trenches, this disease would have spread like wildfire among them depleting their ranks. Portuguese historians do not say that it affected their soldiers – if so, it would have been definitely mentioned in their chronicles.

The effect it had on Rajasinghe’s camp is reflected by an incident in early January 1588, when a few ola leaves attached to arrows descended upon the fort. They carried a message from the King to the captain of the fort, requesting him to send an ambassador to discuss a peace treaty. In Rajasinghe’s military career spanning about four decades this is the only occasion he was agreeable to a truce. Knowing that he would receive help from Goa soon, the Portuguese captain decided to ignore the message. As the Portuguese were silent, the Seethavaka forces attacked the fort again on the 10th of January 1588. But subsequent attacks on the fort were weaker than before.

On the 18th of February Manuoel de Souza arrived in Colombo with 1,600 soldiers in great pomp and pageantry, saluting the city with cannon fire. Part of the armada which was sailing from Melaka was expected at any moment. On arrival, de Souza made preparations to attack the armies of Seethavaka, encamped  just outside the fort walls.

Taking the Portuguese by surprise, on the night of 21st February around 9 p.m., a great fire was observed in the Seethavaka camp. Rajasinghe had decided to withdraw and had set fire to all the barricades, tents and trenches they had occupied for ten months. Burning was the main method of quelling disease spread in the medieval era and it is very likely Rajasinghe would have burned his entire camp to stop the deadly disease spreading.

The next few years were catastrophic for the king. His wife died the following year and there were a series of coups to assassinate him. In retaliation he mercilessly punished perpetrators, some of whom were Buddhist monks. This made him unpopular with his people. Finally, the kingdom of Kandy which was under him, was snatched by the joint forces of Kandyans and Portuguese. Returning from a battle in the Kandyan kingdom Rajasinghe died in March 1592, probably by poisoning of an inflicted wound.

Within two years his kingdom was captured by the Portuguese, who occupied the country extracting its riches, until they were expelled by another colonial power, the Dutch.

If not for the great epidemic of 1587, Rajasinghe would have captured Colombo, expelled the Portuguese, totally freeing the country from foreign domination.

(Dr. AjithAmarasinghe is a medical consultant and an independent researcher on history. He is a life
member of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka)


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