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Finding Portuguese Heritage in Sri Lanka

Finding Portuguese Heritage in Sri Lanka

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Many people know that the Portuguese discovered the maritime route to India and established a few colonies in there, but not so many know that Sri Lanka was also partially colonised by the Portuguese. It has been more than 500 years since the Portuguese set foot in Sri Lanka and around 350 since they were expelled from there. What remains as Portuguese Heritage in Sri Lanka?

Portuguese Ceylon

The tale says that when the Portuguese arrived to Sri Lanka, they were described to the King of Kotte as “a race of men, exceeding white and beautiful. They wear boots and hats of iron, and they are always in motion. They eat white stones and they drink blood”. Let me clarify this. The “exceeding white and beautiful” is absolutely true. We have a soup called “stone soup” but it is not as bad as it sounds. As for drinking blood, we only do it in special occasions, when we sacrifice chickens or young virgins. Ok, don’t take my word for the last sentence. Finally, it is also true that we are always in motion, except when we are taking a siesta, or when eating stones or drinking blood.

“a race of men, exceeding white and beautiful. They wear boots and hats of iron, and they are always in motion. They eat white stones and they drink blood”

This episode happened in 1505, when a Portuguese fleet was blown off-course and ended up close to the capital Colombo. After a welcoming audience with King Vira Parakramabahu, the doors were open for trading. The Portuguese soon returned, interested by the spices, in particular cinnamon. The King granted the Portuguese with trading concessions and permission to build a fort. I guess the King was a bit naïve on the “good” intentions of the Portuguese.

The rest of the story is a bit long and you can read it in Wikipedia, but by the end of the 16th century Portugal controlled a large portion of Sri Lanka, mostly areas around the coast. This was known as Portuguese Ceylon.

By that time, the Kingdom of Kandy (the only of the original three kingdoms that was not conquered by the Portuguese) was actively fighting the Portuguese but needed help. And the help came, as the Dutch promised to get rid of the Portuguese, which eventually happened by the middle of the 17th century (1658). Of course, the intentions of the Dutch were as “noble” as those of the Portuguese, and the island was under Dutch occupation for a few more centuries until the British arrived. And so on.

Portuguese Heritage in Sri Lanka: Architecture

Some of the fortified towns, like Galle and Trincomalee, are quite famous for their Dutch forts. But all these forts were originally built by the Portuguese and then rebuilt or expanded by the Dutch. The same happened with some of the churches. Nowadays it is difficult to find any buildings or monuments originally built by the Portuguese but our colonial influence is pretty much everywhere around the coast.

Asia, Sri Lanka, Trincomalee, travel diary,Portuguese Heritage in Sri Lanka
Cricket in Trincomalee Fort, Sri Lanka

Portuguese Heritage in Sri Lanka: Religion

Yes, the Portuguese “good” intentions were extended to a heavy-handed and intense Roman Catholic missionary activity. This was embraced by a great deal of local aristocracy. Powered by funds appropriated from Buddhist and Hindu temples, mass conversions were carried, mostly along the coastal communities. In some of these areas there is still a significant catholic population, and many churches and chapels. In Mannar Island around 40% of the population is catholic.

Asia, Mannar Island, Sri Lanka, church,Portuguese Heritage in Sri Lanka
Church in Mannar Island, Sri Lanka

Portuguese Heritage in Sri Lanka: Family Names

As part of the evangelisation process that Portugal introduced, many Sri Lankans converted to Christianism and changed their names. Even today it is quite common, in particular around Colombo and Negombo, to see signs on the street for a Santos lawyer, or a doctor Pereira… Other names we found advertised a few times were Carvalho, De Souza, Silva or Fernando.

Portuguese Heritage in Sri Lanka: Language

If someone asks me if I learned any Sinhalese (the Sri Lankan language), I can always say yes, that I know sapato, armario, vidro, and a few more words that are phonetically similar to Portuguese. Actually, according to this article in Wikipedia, there are around 1000 Sinhalese words originated from Portuguese language. I had no idea about this. And no, I cannot talk any Sinhalese!

All things put together, it is clear that, up to this day, Portugal helped shaping the identity of Sri Lanka. We talked with a few locals and in general, apart from a mild criticism on colonialism (criticism that we understand and actually agree with), the educated Sri Lankan people know about Portugal and the Portuguese Heritage in Sri Lanka. And they seem to have a positive reaction about it.

This article refers to our trip in Sri Lanka. If you want to read more stories about Sri Lanka, please click here.

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