Of Portuguese rule in Sri Lanka

We often hear it said that Sri Lankans still carry with us a “colonial hangover “. This is true to a great extent but not surprising. After all Sri Lankans have been independent of western colonial rule for only  69  after 443 years of continuous occupation of the country starting from 1505 up to independence  in 1948.

While the pros and cons of colonial rule will continue to be debated for many more years to come, history of those decades under foreign rule make for interesting reading and study, particularly the Portuguese period which lasted over 150  years.

Being the first Europeans to occupy our country, they have left a lasting legacy and tales about the Portuguese arrival here have become folklore in the country. Some of these maybe exaggerated but the bewilderment that both the locals and the foreigners   experienced on seeing and interacting with each other for the first time is understandable.

It was on a day in 1505 ,a Portuguese fleet carried by wind and waves was tossed onto the Southern coast of Sri Lanka and ended up at the Galle Harbour. (There is some dispute among historians about the year of the Portuguese arrival but most agree it was either late 1505  or early 1506) .  The fleet was led by a young nobleman called Don Lourenco De Almeida. This accidental tryst with the island was the beginning of decades of occupation of the country by Europeans powers.

According to Donald Ferguson, who wrote in The Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland on the “THE DISCOVERY OF CEYLON BY THE PORTUGUESE IN 1506,” the Portuguese had been nearly 20 years in India before they took steps to get a footing in Ceylon.

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The Portuguese first landed on the shores of Galle and then moved onto Colombo where the trade in   cinnamon, coconuts and elephants was in full swing and in the hands Muslim traders, who were decedents of seafaring Arabs.

News of the arrival of the strangers first reached the King of Kotte Vira Parakramabahua whose palace was located less than five miles from the Colombo coastline. According to the Sinhalese chronical   Rajavaliya, the message of their arrival was dispatched to the King, the news relayed in this manner:-

“There is in our harbour of Colombo a race of people, fair of skin and comely withal. They don jackets and hats of iron; rest not a minute in one place but walk here and there. They eat hunks of stone (bread) and drink blood (wine). They give two or three pieces of gold and silver for one fish or one lime. The report of their cannon is louder than thunder when it burst upon the rock of Yugandhara.”

The other well-known story in Sri Lanka is how the Portuguese who were summoned by the King of Kotte to visit him were taken in a circuitous route to the kingdom so as to mislead the foreigners. Don Lourenco chose as his envoy Fernao Cutrim, one of the captains of his fleet to lead the delegation to meet the King.

Eminent historian Father S.G. Perera in his writing describes the journey of Cutrim to Kotte in this manner.

“The royal councillors, however, had thought it is unsafe to let the foreigners see that Kotte was so near Colombo, and the Portuguese envoy was led by a circuitous route, uphill and down dale, for three long days .The people of Ceylon who heard about the ruse thought that the Portuguese were misled and to this day a circuitous route is called in   Sinhalese “as the Portuguese went to Kotte” (Parangiya Kotte Giya Wage)”.

But the Portuguese captain who had sailed across the seas from Lisbon to India could not be so easily deceived.

“Don Lourenco had taken the precaution of retaining hostages for the safe return of his envoy and had agreed to fire a gun at every turn of the hour-glass. From the report of the gun, Cutrim saw quiet clearly that he was being led in a roundabout way but took no notice as no harm seemed to be intended,” Father Perera wrote.

Cutrim however did not get an audience with the King but was assured that the King would be pleased to form an alliance with the foreigners. Payo de Souza was then chosen by Don Lourenco to meet with the King and negotiate a treaty.

Based on this meeting, the King of Portugal has made a classic description   to the Pope of Rome   when he announced the discovery of Taprobane to the Pope.

“There was large hall at the far end of which was a magnificent throne wrought like an altar. On it sat the King, clad according to the fashion of the country and wearing on his head something like horns, studded with the finest gems of the country. Around the King were six men, three on either side, holding lighted candles of large size and many large silver candlesticks illumined the hall?  On either side of the hall separated by a free passage in the middle leading to the throne, stood a large number of gentlemen and nobles. There the king received our ambassador with great affability and listened to him with great pleasure and granted his request with great courtesy. He promised to pay annually one hundred and fifty measures of the most excellent cinnamon of that country and indeed paid the first tribute immediately.”

Although things got off on a good footing initially, Portuguese rule in Sri Lanka was marred by bloody battles and the infamous chapter in the country’s history of Don Juan Dharmapala, who  died after bequeathing his kingdom to the king of Portugal in 1580 by way of a Deed of Gift. (More on other episodes of Portuguese rule in Sri Lanka later).

Orwell on how to make the perfect cup of tea

Eric Arthur Blair who is better known by the pen name George Orwell is famous for his dystopian novels. His name is synonymous with the dark tales of totalitarian societies that he wrote about to such an extent that the word “Orwellian” is widely used to describe societies where people have been reduced to mere puppets acting on the dictates of a few.

So it was a pleasant surprise to discover a voice clip of George Orwell where he speaks on a matter far removed from his dystopian world. It’s one in which he spells out his recipe for making the perfect cup of tea. His method of tea making  may not appeal to everyone one but it sure is worth experimenting .


So here in Orwell’s own words, the way to make   the perfect cup of tea.

“All true tea lovers like their tea strong. Six heaped tea spoons should be about right. No strainers or bags to imprison the tea. Actually one can swallow tea leaves in considerable quantities without any ill effect. One should pour the tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all  but I maintain that by putting the tea in first , one can more precisely   regulate the amount of milk that goes in whereas  you  are liable to put in too much milk  if you do it the other way around. Lastly tea should always be drunk without sugar. It would equally be reasonable to put in pepper or salt.”

Che, Castro & Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba soon after its revolutionary leader Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Even though Castro could not visit Sri Lanka during his five-decade long reign as Cuba’s leader, the visit to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) by his special emissary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara set the stage for an enduring relationship between the two countries.

Che Guevara’s visit to Sri Lanka took place in August 1959, soon after the two countries established diplomatic relations, to promote the sugar trade. While here, Guevara also took a look at the rubber planting methods in the country by visiting the Yahala Kele rubber estate in Horana. There he planted a Mahogany tree on 7 August 1959, which still stands as testimony to the visit to Ceylon by the legendary Argentinean revolutionary who spearheaded the Cuban revolution along with Castro.


Che at the Yahala Kele Estate in Horana

Che’s visit was part of a study tour he undertook to several countries in Asia, which also took him to India. Sri Lanka is one of the few countries Guevara visited in his lifetime. At the time of his visit to Ceylon, he was the Minister of Industry.

One of the people Che Guevara met on his brief visit to Ceylon was James T. Rutnam of Colombo, who imported sugar from a company called Galban Lobo Trading Company based in Havana.

“After the Cuban revolution, Julio Lobo – a great sugar tycoon – fled Havana and resided in New York. Fidel Castro sent his right hand man Che Guevera to all the countries that formerly imported sugar from Cuba. Ceylon was one of them,” said Jayam Rutnam, son of James T. Rutnam.

Che Guevara had been appointed as the Governor of the Cuban Central Bank and had nationalised the sugar plantations but the revolutionary Government was eager to ensure that the sugar trade continued uninterrupted under the new regime.

“Che Guevera and his interpreter visited my father in 1959 to persuade him to continue to import sugar from Cubazucar in Havana. I remember seeing this scruffy, unshaven man, with breakfast stains on his uniform, who was seated in our living room with his beautiful Cuban female interpreter. I didn’t pay much attention to him since he only became famous later,” Jayam Rutnam recalls.

After Che went back to Havana, the USSR had announced they will purchase all sugar from Cuba. “That was the end to my father’s business deal with Che, Fidel and Cuba,” says Rutnam.

Fifty-seven years later, the visit to Ceylon by Che Guevara, the special emissary of the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro, continues to be a highpoint in relations between the two countries .


Drawing a parallel:-Orwell’s 1984&Trump in 2017

George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eight Four became the best-selling book on Amazon this week, just days after Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the USA. The surge in the sale of the book comes as journalists and columnists particularly in the west have begun drawing parallels between Orwell’s fictional state of Oceania and Trump’s America.

While Orwell’s predication of the advent of a totalitarian society where “Big Brother” not only dictates rules by which people live but also how they think and speak may have missed its target year of 1984 by about 32 years, with “fake news” and “alternative facts” becoming the “Newspeak” of the Trump administration, an “Orwellian” society seems to be looming large. And its repercussions no doubt will be felt far and wide with would be dictators drawing the wrong kind of inspiration from a country to which many have for decades looked up to as a bastion for free speech, thought and expression.

The totalitarian aspects of US society haven’t emerged overnight. Over the past years, we know that what Orwell wrote as fiction had been unfolding as a very real scenario behind the scenes and only came to light after WikiLeaks and revelations by Edward Snowdon.

But what is unfolding within a week of Trump taking office makes an Orwellian society even more real.

“Anyone — citizen or journalist — who is surprised by false claims from the new inhabitant of the Oval Office hasn’t been paying attention. That was reinforced when Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told “Meet the Press” Sunday that (White House press secretary Sean ) Spicer had been providing “alternative facts” to what the media had reported, making it clear we’ve gone full Orwell,” wrote the . Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan.

George Orwell put it this way in 1984.” “And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. “Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

His dire predictions in the book are a reminder of the ever present threat of what is at stake if propaganda& state control grows to such an extent that people are left as puppets on a string, moving and thinking only to the dictates of those in authority.


Trump, JR & Sinatra

Donald Trump, the newly sworn in President of the United States chose to dance to Frank Sinatra’s hit song   “My Way” at the traditional evening ball following his inauguration ceremony. Frank Sinatra’s 1969 hit is no doubt an all-time favorite of people worldwide but not many may know that the song was also a favorite of one of Sri Lanka’s most prominent politicians President Junius Richard Jayewardene.

President J.R. Jayewardene was hosted to dinner at the White House on June 18, 1984 by the then US President Ronald Reagan during his state visit to the USA where the Sri Lankan leader made public his love for Sinatra’s song.

“I haven’t forgotten about the help your country has given us during the last few years. But I didn’t come here to ask for help. That’s not my way. I’m waiting to hear Mr. Frank Sinatra sing “My Way.” [Laughter] That’s one of my favorite songs, but I understand he didn’t like it. I used it in part of my election campaign and asked the people to vote for my way, which they did,” President Jayewardene said during the toast.


And he was not disappointed. President Reagan had made special arrangement to have Frank Sinatra to be present at the White House dinner so that he could sing for the Lankan leader.

According to media reports, Frank Sinatra didn’t have much time to rehearse when the Reagan White House asked him to perform for a state dinner for the Sri Lankan leader in 1984. “Security at the White House was tightened in the aftermath of the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, and so bomb-sniffing dogs had to check out everything coming into the mansion, including musical instruments. On the day of the dinner, the dogs became too exhausted to work anymore, and Sinatra’s instruments were stranded outside the East Gate until replacement dogs could be called in,” according to an article published in the victoriaadvocate website in 2009 on White House music vignettes.


However, despite the obstacles, he did perform “My Way” much to the delight of the Sri Lankan leader and other guests.

In an article that Lakshmi Pieris, JR’s former Press Secretary wrote after his demise, she made reference to the historic visit by the late President to the White House and the presence of Sinatra.

“Ronald Reagan was the President and there was a grand banquet in honour of President JR and Madam Jayewardene. Frank Sinatra who was also invited for the dinner made a rendition of “I did it my way”, JR’s favourite song,” she wrote.


Another highlight of JRJ’s state visit to the USA was the gift of an 18 month old elephant named “Jayathu”  to President Reagan.The elephant reportedly died at a New York zoo later.

Searching for justice within a warped system

“I was afraid to even swallow spit inside the court house .Afraid the slightest sound may offend the presiding Magistrate but I am no longer afraid. I will stand up in any court today and speak up without fear,” says Jayantha Manika looking straight into the camera. She is one of the two women who are at the heart of Prasanna Vithanage’s documentary “Silence in the Court” (Usaviya Nihadai)  based on true events which attempts to expose the abuse of power in the judiciary at the highest levels. It’s a story about which some would choose to be in denial and society at large may find hard to digest, but Vithanage has used his skills as an acclaimed filmmaker to venture into a new area of filmmaking   by documenting the incidents of nearly 20 years ago as told largely by the victims and their families and those who helped expose the despicable behavior of a Magistrate.  And in telling the story, Vithanage does not gloss over the sordid affair that for a while caught the attention of the public but died down gradually to be forgotten as the years went by, up until now.


“When I read the book titled Unfinished Struggle by journalist Victor Ivan, it was a bit of a shock that this kind of abuse can happen from within the judiciary. It was also an eye opener about the plight of the hapless people of this country who keep faith in the judiciary only to be betrayed in the worst possible way by the very same system that is meant to protect them,” Vithanage said.

The story is based on the experience of two women living more than 100 kilometers away from Colombo in the rural heartland of the country who were alleged raped by the Magistrate presiding in the two separate cases where their husbands were accused parties. The incidents happen in two different places at two different times but the circumstances behind the incidents are chillingly similar.

“For me it was a quest to get to the bottom of what actually transpired during the period of about one year when both the incidents took place. It was a quest that took me to the remotest  areas in the country and  brought me face to face with the abused women  and gave me the chance to hear from them first-hand  about their experiences,” the award winning film maker said.


Prasanna Vithanage

Kamalawathie, one of the abused women did not wish to talk on camera as her failed quest for justice has left her skeptical   about the success of any future action against the man who took undue advantage of her plight when she was desperately finding a way to get her husband released on bail while he was serving time for several petty crimes he had committed.

“Her children are grown up now and she did not want to talk on camera even though she did talk to me about the incident. She does not want what happened with her to taint the life of her children,” he said.


Jayantha Manika, the other lady spoke on camera recounting her experience of nearly 20 ago that continues to haunt her.


Vithanage has reenacted the incidents using amateur actors ensuring that what comes across on the screen is a powerful version of the events as recorded by Journalist Victor Ivan.

“I undertook this as part of the Justice Project which brings together scholars, activists and filmmakers from Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The project is aimed at bringing to the public domain the quest for justice in South Asia,” he said.

Vithanage also learnt that telling a story through a documentary by reenacting true events is a powerful medium. “If this was made as a feature film, it could divert attention from the seriousness of the issue and may not be as powerful as this has turned out to be,” he said.

The story is told through the women, their husbands as well as journalist Victor Ivan and attorney at law Kalyananda Thiranagama who played a vital role in uncovering the truth behind the allegations levelled at the Magistrate.


Victor Ivan

Public screening of “Silence in the Court” got off to a stormy start   after the Colombo District Court issued an interim order preventing the screening of the film in early October after the former Magistrate who is the subject of the documentary petitioned the court. The Court subsequently lifted the order following which it is being shown in theaters across the country.

Vithanage reached out to the former Magistrate as well as another former senior member of the bench who figured in the documentary for their version of events but they did not respond to him. The Magistrate has not been charged for wrong doing in any court of law with neither of the victims lodging a police complaint against him. However a three member Committee of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), as shown the documentary, inquired into the allegations and found the said Magistrate guilty on three counts including two counts of sexual misconduct involving the two women.


“I did anticipate some kind of legal hurdle and it’s likely more will come my way,” the filmmaker said.

But despite the hurdles, Vithanage is happy that he has opened the doors to a discussion on a topic that many are afraid to initiate.” I hope this documentary will lead to a wider discourse in society whether the judiciary is receptive to the needs of the ordinary people of this country and if justice is meted out equally to all,” he said.6-2016-a4