A skeletal outline of Sri-Lankan history An anecdotal narrative | Sunday Observer

A skeletal outline of Sri-Lankan history An anecdotal narrative

30 August, 2020

The author, from Sri Lanka has lived in the US for nearly 37 years and is ill equipped to write a definitive thesis. This is a compilation of anecdotal information this author grew up with.

Sri Lanka was well known in ancient times, with a written history going back to the Buddha’s time (circa 500 BCE). The Traveller, FaHsien in the 5th century CE, has written about this country as has Marco Polo in the 13th century, who has stated that the sounds of the waters of Paradise could be heard here

It was also known for spices, especially cinnamon. Hence, it and the Malabar Coast of India reached great fame, especially at a time when Europe did not have any spices to speak of. Even salt was an expensive condiment, as witnessed by the tall Gold “Salt” holders, which are kept as part of the Crown Jewels of England, in the Tower of London.

Even Roman soldiers were paid in salt, for risking their lives in Rome’s service, because it was so valuable.

The land route for reaching the spice lands was by branching off from the silk route; a hazardous and expensive trip. Caravans were also slow and a round trip of a couple of years was not unknown. Spices were, therefore, costly.

The Arabs had studied the heavens. In fact, many of the stars and constellations, such as Aldebaran, were named by them, as were studies in mathematics, such as algebra. They were the savants of their time, and had even translated many of the classics of antiquity, such as the works of Euclid, into Arabic and preserved them from destruction from other, less cultured or fanatical hordes. Their study of celestial navigation, including the use of the Astrolabe, enabled them to navigate to any place by the stars. They dominated the water routes, which were much faster, to the lands of spices.

Christopher Columbus 1492

The western world, assumed that the earth was flat and that anyone who ventured out of sight of land risked falling off the edge! The braver European captains tried to shadow the Arab ships. But it was a simple matter for the Arab sailors to give them the slip at night, leaving the European captains stranded in the middle of the ocean, with no land in sight, and the danger that they would fall off the edge if they went in the wrong direction. The bravery of Christopher Columbus in 1492 is all the more remarkable in this context.

It was, as the popular story goes, that a Portuguese ship with a Captain named Lourenço de Almeida in command was separated from the ships he was shadowing, and the storm drove his vessel to the Galle Harbour, a natural harbour filled with inviting palm trees. This is how the Portuguese are said to have arrived in Sri Lanka in 1505. The Portuguese came originally as traders. They colonised the flat coastlands and converted many of the Sri Lankans to Catholicism and built many churches.

They intermarried local women and their offspring were named Burghers. These were primarily Sinhalese and Portuguese mixes and supposedly lighter in colour. The Portuguese also brought along many slaves from West and East Africa. They were known as Kaffirs (Kapiri). They too are believed to have intermarried. Slave Island was apparently involved in the trans-shipment of slaves from Africa.

A language that many people learned and spoke along the coastal regions was a Creole which used a mix of Portuguese, West African, Indian and local languages and was referred to as Kafirinha. This is apparently still preserved and spoken by a small minority.

A song and dance style of that time is called Baila, in a 6/8 time of lively music with a staccato dance, also connected with Caribbean and other rhythms. It is popular, especially in the coast-lands/maritime-provinces. It has achieved resurgence and is often danced at weddings and office parties, though the language has been changed primarily to Sinhala.

Next, we see a link to a modernised Baila sung in Konkani, which is a language spoken in Goa, a former Portuguese colony.

Konkani was originally traced to 10th Century CE, and now apparently includes an altered form of the Portuguese language. It is possible that the creole spoken in Sri Lanka had elements of Konkani and Portuguese in it. We know that some of the immigrants who came to Sri Lanka from Goa spoke Konkani and Portuguese.

The Dutch East India Company personnel arrived in Sri Lanka in 1602 and took control of the coastal lands in 1658. Their name for the Island was Zeylan.

The Dutch also intermarried Sri Lankans and their descendants are known as Dutch Burghers. They brought the Protestant faith with them and tried to ban the Catholic faith of the Portuguese. There are many churches that still stand, such as the Dutch church in Wolfendahl Street. They gave the country the Roman Dutch Law.

The Dutch also helped get rid of the Portuguese. Neither the Portuguese nor the Dutch could capture the Kandyan Kingdom, which was protected by jungles, mountains and the largest river in the country, Mahaweli.

The Kandyan Kingdom, often thought of as the last bastion of the Sinhala rule, was ruled by King Sri WickramaRajasinha who appears to have been connected to the Nayakka dynasty in what is now known as India.

It is said that some of his courtiers, whose family names are prominent even today, were unhappy with the king and his cruelty, and showed a secret pathway into the kingdom to the British who had arrived in then Ceylon in 1796. The British replaced the Dutch as overlords and protectors of the Island in 1802.

Crown Colony

They finally conquered Kandy in 1815 after which Ceylon became a Crown Colony. It aggressively introduced the Anglican Church. It had its governor general and referred major law cases to The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.

A famous account of life in earlier times was written by Robert Knox, an Englishman who was detained in the Kandyan Kingdom for 19 years, and published in 1681.

The British also tried to protect the monopolies of the English weaving mills of the time and established control of the spice trade. For example, they forbade the manufacture of salt in India, which allowed Gandhi in India, through the platform of civil disobedience, to encourage his followers to be arrested for making salt at the beach.

The unauthorised harvesting of cinnamon bark by locals was deemed a crime. The opium trade that initially helped trade with China was facilitated by growing the opium poppy in what is now Afghanistan.

The British established schools modelled after the public schools of Britain. Their contributions to the country are acknowledged.

The Rev. George Pope became a Tamil Scholar and produced the first book of Tamil Grammar in India. Dr. Annie Besant was a firebrand, who supported home rule of India and was a founder of the Buddhist themed Musaeus College in Sri Lanka.

American missionaries arrived circa 1813. They were relegated to the north of the island by the British. The knowledge of English by these people was used later by the British to staff the civil service.

This resulted in significant tensions in the country. Subsequently, tensions between various language groups, and accusations of nepotism escalated as well and have influenced political life there in many aspects.

The country gave Universal Adult Franchise as part of the Donoughmore Constitution in 1931. It achieved independence as a self-governing dominion within the British Commonwealth on February 4, 1948. It also elected the world’s first woman Prime-Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1960. The country later became an independent democratic Republic.