Repression of Buddhism in Sri Lanka by the Portuguese (1505 – 1658) By Senaka Weeraratna (June 12

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Repression of Buddhism in Sri Lanka by the Portuguese (1505 – 1658) By Senaka Weeraratna (June 12, 2005)

ACSLU Essays on Unethical Conversion

Repression of Buddhism in Sri Lanka
by the Portuguese (1505 – 1658)

By Senaka Weeraratna (June 12, 2005)

This essay is based on research and examination of the writings of eminent
historians and commentators, including both Portuguese and Sri Lankan, and
Sinhalese historical chronicles such as the Cūlavamsa and Rājāvaliya.

1. Preface

All three western colonial powers namely the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British that governed Sri Lanka in varying degrees during the period 1505 – 1948, had as the cornerstone of their imperial policy the conversion of the Sinhala Buddhists and the Tamil Hindus into Christianity. This enterprise had the blessings of the highest strata of people of the imperial countries including the Crown, the State and the Church. The avowed political objective in converting the colonized was to transfer their allegiance from the local sovereign to the foreign sovereign, and alienate the converted from identification with their traditional religion, culture, language and sense of self-determination. This diabolical plan invariably required the use of manipulative methods of conversion e.g. force, fraud and allurement, and the repression of indigenous religions i.e. Buddhism and Hinduism, by both overt and covert means.


  1. Preface
  2. The first phase of western colonialism
  3. Crown patronage of missionary activity
  4. The dark age in Sri Lanka’s history
  5. Methods employed for conversion
  6. The introduction of Christianity to Sri Lanka
  7. Four Missionary Orders
  8. Deceitful strategies in proselytizing Tamil Hindus
  9. Mass conversions
  10. Destruction and plunder of Buddhist Temples
  11. Missionary accompaniment of troops
  12. Execution of Buddhist Monks
  13. Inducements to convert
  14. Bequeathing of the Kingdom of Kotte to the Portuguese Crown
  15. Conversion of Prince Vijaya Pala
  16. Claims for compensation
  17. Conclusion
As this subject is vast and given the constraints of space this paper will examine as illustrative of Western colonial policy on religion, some aspects of the measures adopted during the first phase of Western Colonialism in Sri Lanka i.e. the Portuguese period (1505 – 1658), to forbid the practice of Buddhism in territories under Portuguese control. This paper will make reference to repressive proclamations, decrees and laws enacted by the Portuguese Crown, the Vice-roy at Goa, the Ecclesiastical Council at Goa, the Kingdom of Kotte ruled by Don Juan Dharmapala under the protection of the Portuguese, and the Portuguese authorities in Sri Lanka both before and after claiming title to the Kingdom of Kotte after the death of Don Juan Dharmapala in 1597, and cite as examples various instances of acts of persecution, discrimination, and destruction of places of worship of the Buddhists. The strategies adopted by foreign missionaries to propagate Christianity including extensive use of inducements to entice conversion from Buddhism to Christianity will also be explored.

An underlying theme of this paper is cognizance of the irony that some of the Western countries that champion human rights in the modern era and lecture on religious liberty to descendants of the persecuted victims in the Third World, are the very same countries that had in the past systematically violated the human rights of the colonised in non-Christian societies. In particular the latter’s inalienable rights to freedom of religious worship. At the end of this essay the question is raised whether Sri Lanka has a tenable claim for a public apology, reparations and compensation from the Western colonial powers, particularly Portugal, for crimes against humanity such as mass murder, war crimes, religious and ethnic cleansing, the theft of cultural artifacts, forcible conversion, large – scale destruction and plunder of Buddhist and Hindu Temples and seats of higher learning in the country. It is hoped that the examination of these issues would contribute in some meaningful way to the anticipated public discussion on ‘ Portugal’s role as a colonial power in Sri Lanka ‘ that is likely to be held in year 2005 to mark the 500th anniversary (1505 – 2005) of the arrival of the Portuguese at Colombo.

2. The First Phase of Western Colonialism -The Portuguese Period (1505 -1658)

The European entry into Asia, commencing with the Portuguese in the 16th century, was driven by two principal factors, namely the aim of colonising Asian countries for purpose of trade and exploitation of natural resources, and converting the inhabitants of these lands to Christianity The Portuguese had as one of its primary aims the propagation of the Christian faith in the newly ‘discovered’ lands of Asia, including Sri Lanka (called ‘ Ceilao’ by the Portuguese) and the realisation of this aim was accompanied by steps taken to suppress wherever possible all other religions extant in these lands namely Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.

3. Crown Patronage of missionary activity in the East

The Portuguese authority to spread Christianity in the East was derived from the Papal Bulls issued by the Popes namely Calixtus III, Nicholas V, Alexander V1 and the Pope’s Treaty of Tordesillas (in 1492), which divided the newly ‘ discovered’ lands between Spain and Portugal, and imposed on the rulers of these countries the duty of propagating the Christian faith. The Western part of the world was allocated to Spain and the Eastern part to Portugal.

To the Portuguese the Christianisation of newly ‘ discovered ‘ lands was a State objective. The Portuguese Crown maintained the entire ecclesiastical establishment in the East. The Doctrine of Padroado (jus patrionatus established by the Papal Bulls of 1514) provided the authority for missionary work to be in the hands of the Portuguese Crown in areas where Portugal claimed political rights. The noted historian C. R. Boxer says ” The conviction that Portugal was the missionary nation above all the others in the Western World – Alferes da Fe, ‘ standard bearer of the faith’ as the poet – playwright Gil Vicente boasted – was widespread and deeply rooted among all classes”.

Further Royal dispatches addressed to Vice-roys, Governors and Bishops began with these words (or words to that effect) in the opening sentence ” Forasmuch as the first and principal obligation of the Kings of Portugal is to forward the work of conversion by all means in their power ” (2)

The Padroado has been loosely defined as a combination of the rights, privileges and duties granted by the Papacy to the Crown of Portugal as patron of the Roman Catholic missions and ecclesiastical establishments in the regions of Africa, Asia and Brazil. (3) The Padroado Real or Royal patronage of the Church overseas was one of the most cherished prerogatives of the Portuguese Crown. It was to become the cause of bitter disputes between Portuguese missionaries and other Roman Catholic powers. (4)

Diogo do Couto, the Portuguese Soldier cum Chronicler says in his sixth book ‘ Decada’ (1612) that ” The Kings of Portugal always aimed in this conquest of the East at so uniting the two powers, spiritual and temporal, that the one should never be exercised without the other ” (5) Father Paulo de Trindade, the Franciscan Chronicler, writing in his ‘ Spiritual Conquest of the East’ at Goa in 1638, says ‘ The two swords of the civil and the ecclesiastical power were always so close together in the conquest of the East that we seldom find one being used without the other: for the weapons only conquered through the right that the preaching of the Gospel gave them, and the preaching was only of some use when it was accompanied and protected by the weapons” (6)

It is in the exercise of the Padroado Real that we see the close collaboration between the Church and the State in the promotion of Christian missionary activity in conquered lands. An important component of this relationship was the doctrinal position of the Papacy, which was vigourously upheld by the Church that ‘ temporal possessions were occupied unlawfully by the infidels’ in conquered lands and that these ‘ should be allotted among the faithful’.(7) There was an inter-locking policy of temporal and spiritual objectives where benefits flowed to both the Vatican and Portugal.

4. The Dark Age in Sri Lanka’s History

The propagation of Christianity commenced with the arrival of the Portuguese in Colombo in 1505, in a fleet of ships commanded by a young sailor named Don Lourenco de Almeida, son of the first Portuguese Viceroy of India. Father S.G. Perera in his book ‘ A History of Ceylon for Schools ‘ divides the Portuguese presence in the island as falling into three distinct stages (8):

a) Portuguese – Sinhalese alliance (1505 – 1551)
b) Portuguese Protectorate of Kotte (1551 – 1597)
c) Portuguese Domination (1597 – 1658)

Learned Historians and commentators now generally regard the arrival of the Portuguese in the year 1505 as the beginning of the Dark Age in the history of Sri Lanka. The Portuguese through a policy of cunning statecraft and ruthless terror were able to govern the coastal areas of the island for most of the next 150 years, until the Dutch replaced them in 1658.

. The Rajavaliya describes the entry of the Portuguese to Sri Lanka thus:- “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 and drink blood.” (9)

Several noted historians and commentators have expressed their indignation over the methods employed by the Portuguese during their period of dominance in the following words:

Sir James Emerson Tennent refers to the Portuguese conduct in Sri Lanka in these terms-

“There is no page in the story of European colonisation more gloomy and repulsive than that which recounts the proceedings of the Portuguese in Ceylon. Astonished at the magnitude of their enterprises, and the glory of their discoveries and conquests in India, the rapidity and success of which secured for Portugal an unprecedented renown, we are ill-prepared to hear of the rapacity, bigotry and cruelty which characterised every stage of their progress in the East. They appeared in the Indian seas in the three-fold character of merchants, missionaries and pirates. Their ostensible motto was amity, commerce and religion. Their expeditions consisted of soldiers as well as adventurers, and included friars and chaplain majors. Their instructions were to begin by preaching, but, that failing, to proceed to the decision of the sword.” (10)


The historian Paul E. Peiris observes: ” They found in Ceylon a contented race, and a fairly prosperous country .. and it is melancholy to reflect that they succeeded in producing nothing but chaos. Out of a long list of high – born Hidalgos whom Portugal sent to Ceylon, it is difficult to point to one name as that of an enlightened statesman and high – principled administrator. No stately fabric remains as compensating for that religious fanaticism to which ample witness is borne by the devastated ruins of those lovely structures which the piety of generations had strewn broadcast over the country Their bequest to the Dutch was a colony of half -castes, a failing agriculture, a depopulated country, and a miserable and ill – conditioned people They had in Ceylon an opportunity almost unique in the experience of European nations in the East, but their moral fibre had proved unequal to the occasion”.(11)

G.P. Malalasekera in his Ph.D. dissertation which was later published as a book under the title ‘ The Pali Literature of Ceylon’ makes the following comment in lucid language on the high handed methods employed by the Portuguese in pursuit of their colonial objectives which included conversion of the people of the country into Christianity and the concomitant repression of Buddhism:


“Every stage of their progress was marked by a rapacity, bigotry, cruelty and inhumanity unparalleled in the annals of any other European colonial power. Their ferocity and their utter indifference of all suffering increased with the success of their army; their inhuman barbarities were accompanied by callousness which knew no distinction between man, woman and child; no feeling of compassion was strong enough to stay their savage hands in their fell work. To terrify their subjects and bring home to them the might of the Portuguese Power, they committed atrocities which had they not been found recorded in the decads of their friendly historians, seems too revolting to be true. Babes were spitted on the soldier’s pikes and held up that their parents might hear the young cocks crow. Sometimes they were mashed to pulp between millstones, while their mothers were compelled to witness the pitiful sight before they themselves were tortured to death. Men were thrown over bridges for the amusement of the troops to feed the crocodiles in the river, which eventually grew so tame that at whistle they would raise their heads above the water in anticipation of the welcome feast.” (12)

5. Methods employed for conversion and suppression of non-Christian religions

The Portuguese used a number of methods in their pursuit to convert people to Christianity and suppress non – Christian religions prevailing in territories under their control. They can be distinguished as follows:

(i) Carrot and Stick Policy

The Portuguese used a carrot and stick policy in converting people living in the immediate vicinity of Portuguese strongholds particularly along the West Coast of India and in the lowlands of Sri Lanka.(13)

ii) Enactment of harsh and oppressive laws

The Portuguese lawmakers enacted a large number of harsh and oppressive laws with the aim of putting a stop to the public practice of non – Christian religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam in territories controlled by the Portuguese. These laws were followed by a number of other decrees designed to favour converts to Christianity with Portuguese patronage. The Ecclesiastical Councils at Goa laid down rules for missionary work and these rules had a significant bearing on the conduct of Christian missionary work in Sri Lanka, particularly after 1567. The pioneer Ecclesiastical Council of 1567 in adopting a series of decisions were guided by three main considerations, namely:

a) All religions other than orthodox Roman Catholicism were intrinsically wrong and harmful in themselves. b) The Crown of Portugal had a fundamental duty to spread the Christian faith and the power of the State must be utilized to support the work of the Catholic Church c) Conversion of non-Christians into Christianity must not be made by force, for nobody comes to Christ by faith unless he is drawn by the love of God. (14)

The third consideration stated above on non -use of force was negated by several other decisions of the Council which had the sanction of law by virtue of promulgation of a Vice -regal decree at Goa in December 1567. This decree enacted among other things the following decisions of the Ecclesiastical Council: (15)


  • All heathen places of worship in Portuguese controlled areas should be demolished .
  • All non -Christian clergy, teachers and holy men must be expelled .
  • All their sacred texts such as the Koran should be seized and destroyed where ever found .
  • Buddhists and Hindus must be prohibited from visiting their respective temples in the neighbouring provinces under the control of other rulers .
  • The transit passage of Asian pilgrims to these places of worship must be prohibited .
  • The celebration of non – Christian weddings and religious processions must strictly forbidden ..
  • Conversions from either Islam to Buddhism to Hinduism, and vice – versa were not allowed but the conversion to Christianity from other religions should be permitted and encouraged .
  • Every married man should be required to practise monogamy irrespective of his religion ..
  • Non – Christian orphans should be required to be handed over to Christian guardians or foster parents and then baptized by Catholic priests .
  • Christians should be forbidden to live together or lodge with non – Christians (16)

2 In addition the Portuguese authorities are held as responsible for the following repressive practices, which if adopted today would, tantamount to explicit violation of human rights and cultural genocide:


  • In Goa nominal rolls were made of Hindu families and they were forced in groups of fifty to visit local churches and convents and listen to Christian sermons on alternate Sundays (17) .
  • Fines were imposed on a sharply escalating scale on those who made attempts to keep away from complying with these obligations (18) .
  • There was official and legal discrimination against non -Christians who were denied public employment. On the other hand public offices and remunerative posts were reserved for Christian converts only and where there was no such reservation the latter group was favoured (19) ..
  • Buddhist Temples, Hindu Kovils and Muslim Mosques were systematically destroyed by the Portuguese conquistadors and Roman Catholic churches were built on or near the sites of such destruction ..
  • Income drawn from the lands belonging to Buddhist Temples, Hindu Kovils etc. were channeled to support and maintain Roman Catholic Churches and missionary educational institutions.

The penal laws against the public practice of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam which, were enacted after 1540 in some of Portugal’s eastern possessions were inspired by laws that had been adopted in European countries against the practice of what the then European rulers considered as ‘heretical’ or ‘subversive’ forms of Christianity(20). For example the treatment of the Roman Catholics in England during the period of the Reformation, the exclusion of Jews from public life in many parts of Europe (21), and the torture and burning at the stake of ‘ witches’ were based on such penal laws enacted during the period of the Christian Inquisition.

C.R. Boxer observes: ” It is obvious that these discriminatory and coercive measures, if they did not actually force people to become Christians at the point of the sword, made it very difficult for them to do anything else. Deprived of their priests, teachers, holy men, sacred books and public places of worship, not to mention the free exercise of their respective cults, it was confidently expected by the legislators of 1567 that ‘ the false heathen and Moorish religions’ would wither and die on territory controlled by the Portuguese Crown” (22)

However it must be noted that the application of these laws in Portuguese controlled territories varied significantly according to the time, place and circumstances and more importantly according to the disposition of the arch bishops, vice-roys and Captain – Generals (in Sri Lanka) whose decision making powers were immense(23).

It must be further stated that the great abuses that took place in almost all of the Portuguese overseas mission – fields, including the use of force and farcical baptism of ignorant converts, did not proceed unnoticed and without a protest by some members of the Catholic Clergy living in Portugal. C.R. Boxer refers to a petition to the Portuguese Crown drawn up at Lisbon in February 1567 by the Bishops of Ceuta, Lisbon, Tangier, Angra, Portalegre, Lamego and the Algarve protesting against the use of unsavoury methods by Portuguese missionaries overseas (24). Boxer then adds that it was unlikely that seven leading Portuguese prelates would have made such grave allegations unless they were quite certain of their facts (25).

iii) Strategic conversions

The Portuguese missionaries were aware that some of the methods employed to convert Buddhists and Hindus into Christianity were dubious and indefensible. But nevertheless they still persisted with rough and ready methods of conversion in the knowledge that though the first generation of converts were likely to be superficial Christians, their descendants would become devout Christians in due course of time. The Bishop of Dume, the pioneer prelate of Goa, was aware of these outcomes and he is reported to have said in 1561 that those who remained inside Portuguese territory and accepted baptism rather than be expelled for refusing to become Christians could hardly be expected to become good Christians ‘ yet their children will become so ‘ (26).

C.R. Boxer comments ‘ This is, in fact, exactly what happened ‘ and he compares this position to a similar situation that occurred in Europe where the descendants of the Saxons, Teutons and Slavs, who in many instances were forcibly converted to Christianity, later became ardent Christians (27).

iv) The Ruler and the Ruled must be of the same faith

Both the Catholics and Protestants in Europe readily accepted the principle that the Ruler and the Ruled should belong to the same faith, which is expressed in Latin as follows: ‘ cujus regio illius religio ‘ (28).

Conversion was no longer a question of faith. The conversion of kings was sought because their subjects were expected to follow as a matter of course. The Portuguese wrote to their King in Lisbon as follows: “If the King became a Christian, that would be sufficient for all to become the same: this your Lordship can take as certain, for such is the nature of this people” (29)

The Portuguese missionaries in Sri Lanka launched a concerted campaign to achieve this result when they forced the grandson (Dharmapala) of King Bhuvenaka Bahu to renounce his Buddhist faith and adopt Roman Catholicism as his religion.

The noted historian P. E. Pieris observes that ” The King’s change of religion was a grave political blunder: the social organisation of his people was based on Buddhism, and his defection could not fail to estrange them from him, the more so when the revenues of their most venerated shrines were being diverted towards Christian propaganda. It was not long before the Portuguese priests guided his counsels, Portuguese officers controlled his army, and Portuguese names were the fashion at Court. ” (30)

v) Forcible conversion of orphans

The use of force was permitted in a series of royal and vice – regal decrees in respect to the conversion of Hindu orphans in Goa and Bacalm in India. Legislation enacted both at Lisbon and Goa specifically authorized the use of force in removing orphans from the custody of their relatives, guardians, or friends. They were then taken to the College of Sao Paulo of the Company of Jesus in Goa and baptized, educated and catechized by the Fathers of the College (31).

It is quite possible that similar measures were adopted in respect to Buddhist and Hindu orphans living in Portuguese controlled territories of Sri Lanka.

vi) Gun Boat Policy

The Portuguese used force or the threat of the use of force as a tool in their conversion policy. The writings of Jesuit priests who served in Catholic missions in various parts of Portuguese controlled territories in Asia substantiate the adoption of this practice.

Padre Alexandre Valignano, a well – known Jesuit priest who organized the Jesuit mission in Asia, observes that some of the indigenous people in the East were incapable and primitive in respect to matters concerning God, and consequently reasoning would not make an impression as force (32). He laments that it would be difficult to establish Christian communities ‘ among the Niggers’ and more difficult to preserve such communities except in areas under Portuguese Rule, or in regions where the Portuguese power could be extended such as the sea coast through the use of the Portuguese naval fleet that can ‘ cruise up and down, dealing out favours and punishments according to what the people there deserve’ (33)

Padre Alexandre Valignano adds that the striking success of the missionary work of Francis Xavier on the Fishery Coast was primarily due to the deliberate mixture of threats and blandishments (34) The Portuguese fleet lying off shore had the capacity to deprive people of their fishing and sea borne trade and using this power Xavier influenced a large number of people living in coastal areas to embrace Christianity (35).

C.R. Boxer observes that ‘ gun boat ‘ policy methods were widely prevalent among the Portuguese missionaries in the East and adds that the term ‘ Christian militant’ was no figure of speech (36)

vii) Exploiting Buddhist injunctions against taking away of animal life

The Portuguese were well aware of the Buddhist reverence for all forms of life and the strict injunctions against the taking away of any form of life including animals whatever the need. Kill and eat is not a Buddhist tenet. On the contrary Christianity takes the view that animals and plants were created by God for the benefit of humans and therefore man is free to kill animals and eat their flesh.

Christian missionaries in predominantly Buddhist and Hindu lands achieved their most notable successes among the fisher castes and classes. Those who engage in vocations involving the breeding of animals for slaughter as well as destruction of animals, which are considered as Wrong Livelihoods, attract deep – seated prejudice in conventional Buddhist and Hindu societies. The Portuguese missionaries exploited this position and converted a large mass of fisher folk, ‘who found acceptance and enhanced self – respect in Christianity (37).

viii) Similarities in outward manifestation of the Roman Catholic Church vis-a-vis Buddhism and Hinduism

The use of images, incense, rosaries, orders of monks and nuns, colourful ceremonies and Churches etc. created a superficial similarity in the outward manifestation of Roman Catholicism vis – a -vis Buddhism and Hinduism, and in turn these similarities also contributed towards making the transition from the indigenous religions to the Roman Catholic faith relatively more convenient (38) In contrast the austere practices of the Protestant religions failed to impress the mass of the common folk in territories under Dutch and later British control (39).

6. The Introduction of Christianity to Sri Lanka

The Portuguese landed in Colombo in 1505. Within a few years of their arrival they were able to establish permanent trading settlements and then indulge in a game of intrigue and blackmail with the various rulers and minor chiefs of the country. They harassed Bhuvenakabahu (King of Kotte from 1521 -1551) to a great degree and kept him in a state of dependence on both the military and sea power of the Portuguese. The Portuguese conspired with minor chiefs who owed allegiance to the King of Kotte and offered them various inducements to turn against the lawful sovereign of the country.

The Portuguese imperial agenda was to create discord in the country and then take maximum advantage of the situation for their benefit in terms of siphoning off wealth from Sri Lanka and converting Buddhists into Christianity, who then in their calculation would remain loyal to the Portuguese Crown rather than to the Sinhalese Kings of the land. The Portuguese period particularly from 1540 onwards witnessed a series of military conflicts in its most revolting form that left the maritime provinces of the country devastated and desolate.

Events moved in such a manner that Bhuvaneka Bahu was forced to rely totally on his foreign allies for his survival and that of his Kingdom. In 1543 Bhuvaneka Bahu desiring to make his grandson Dharmapala his successor dispatched a statue of his grandson made of ivory and gold and silver, and carrying on its head a jewelled crown studded with Lanka’s finest gems, to Lisbon, where a ceremony marking the coronation of the effigy by the Portuguese King Dom Joao III, was held.

The Portuguese exacted a heavy toll from the besieged royal house of Kotte. In return for this recognition of Dharmapala as heir to the Kingdom, the Portuguese demanded an open door to preach the Christian gospel anywhere in the dominion of the Sinhalese King. A party of Franciscan monks accompanied the envoys of Bhuvenakabahu on their return from Lisbon to Colombo in 1543. This group was led by friar Joao de Vila de Conde. They immediately set about their task of converting the Sinhalese. They brought undue influence on Dharmapala whom they had tutored in his youth, to renounce Buddhism, hitherto the State religion of Lanka and embrace Christianity. Dharmapala was baptized under the name Don Juan Periya Bandara and his Queen was baptized as Dona Catherina.

With the conversion of Dharmapala in 1557, members of the Sinhalese aristocracy followed suit. Dharmapala became a willing collaborator in the systematic repression of Buddhism. Such conduct generated hostility against Christianity. Rajavaliyarecords:-” King Bhuvaneka Bahu having foolishly lived on terms of close intimacy with the Portuguese entrusted to the King of Portugal the Prince (Dharmapala) whom he had brought up. On account of this foolish act the Portuguese brought harm on the King. It should be noted that the King Bhuvaneka Bahu was the cause of the injustice which his posterity had to suffer; and that the harm done to the cause of Buddhism after this was due to the action of this King.” (40)

Father Fernao de Queyroz, the famed Portuguese Historian says ‘ there were some who refused him ( Dharmapala ) allegiance holding it an insult to them that the heir to the Empire should follow Christ, and that it was harder than death to obey a Christian Prince. Dom Joao (Dharmapala) took little heed of this, punishing some and rewarding others and obliging many by his example to despise idols, and destroying the greater part of the pagodas ” (41).

Queyroz adds that Dharmapala soon after his conversion gave directions to his officials that all Buddhist Temple lands should be seized and diverted to the use of the seminaries and colleges run by the Franciscans (42). This step was taken most likely at the prompting of the Franciscans. There was a protest by Buddhist monks over this issue in front of the King’s Palace at Kotte, which led to the indiscriminate arrest of 30 Buddhist monks from a Temple in Kotte and their immediate execution under the orders of the Portuguese Captain – General. Professor Tennakoon Vimalananda comments ” Thus began the gradual destruction of Buddhism, the only organisation which existed for the spiritual and intellectual education of the people of Ceylon” (43)

7. Four Missionary Orders

The Portuguese era was marked by intense Roman Catholic missionary activity. The missionaries belonged to four different missionary orders – the Franciscans, the Jesuits, the Augustinians and the Dominicans. The Franciscans were the first to arrive (in 1543) and they had a monopoly of missionary activity for about fifty years. Father Paulo Trinidade, a Franciscan monk has left an account of his experiences in Ceylon, in a book written in 1638 called ‘ The Spiritual Conquest of the East’. The Jesuits arrived in 1602. The Augustinians and the Dominicans set foot in Colombo in the same year i.e. 1606. There was also another group of missionaries called the Capuchin monks – they constituted a branch of the Franciscan Order. Intense rivalry between these missionary orders led to demarcation of their spheres of activity by the Vice-roy at Goa pursuant to a request made by the King of Portugal in 1609 (44)

8. Deceitful strategies in proselytizing Tamil Hindus

The Roman Catholic Church divided the country into two main zones for the purpose of proselytizing, There was a marked difference in the methods adopted for missionary work as between different regions. In the north Roman Catholic clergy pretended to be Brahamins from the West. But in the south they employed a different strategy (45)

The Roman Catholic clergy used deceitful methods to convert the Hindus of the North. Tennent comments as follows: “They (Roman Catholic priests) assumed the character of Brahamans of a superior caste from the Western World; they took Hindu names, and conformed to the heathen customs of this haughty and exclusive race, producing, in support of their pretensions, a deed forged in ancient characters, to show that the Brahamans of Rome were of much older date than the Brahmans of India, and descended in an equally direct line from the Brahma himself.” ( 46)

“They composed a pretended Veda, in which they sought to institute the doctrines of Christianity in the language and phraseology of the sacred books of the Hindus. They wore orange coloured robes peculiar to the Saniasses. They hung a tiger’s skin from their shoulders, in imitation of Shiva, they performed the ablutions required by the Shastras; they carried on their foreheads the sacred spot of sandalwood powder; and in order to sustain their assumed character to the utmost, they affected to spurn the Pariahs and lower castes who lay no claim to the same divine origin with the Brahmins.” (47)

The Roman Catholic missionaries in employing methods such as e.g. pooja, processions, images, pilgrimages, holy water, feasts, fasts, prayers for the dead, dancers like the dancer in a Hindu Temple, that were utterly deceitful were impliedly indicating that they were prepared to go to any length however crooked the means adopted would be so long as their final objective could be achieved. Professor Tennakoon Vimalananda says that ‘” By a system of mingled deception and hypocrisy they enlisted followers from other faiths to the Roman Catholic Church” (48)

9. Mass Conversions

Many coastal communities in Sri Lanka underwent mass conversion, particularly in Jaffna, Mannar, and among the fishing communities living north of Colombo such as in Negombo and Chilaw. Roman Catholic churches with schools attached to them served Catholic communities all over the country. These schools also contributed to the spread of the Portuguese language particularly among the upper classes of society. The efforts of Roman Catholic clergy particularly the harsh methods adopted by them to convert Buddhists and reduce the influence of Buddhism among the public were viewed with great alarm by the Buddhist Sangha who had fled from Kotte to the Kingdoms of Sitavaka and Kandy, upon the conversion of Dharmapala and the seizure of Buddhist Temples.

But there was not much that the Sangha could do. The state of Buddhism and the political condition of the country were at low ebb. There were petty feuds and jealousies between the rulers of various principalities. There was no paramount figure that commanded the allegiance of the entire country. There were regular revolts and insurrections. Patriotic zeal for public welfare was severely lacking. It was a sad situation for the people and the country. These were ideal conditions for the Portuguese authorities to intervene with the help of the Roman Catholic Church and unleash an aggressive campaign of proselytization and repression of Buddhism.

Why did Buddhism collapse in Portuguese held territory without striking a single blow in self – defense? Ever since the advent of Arahant Mahinda in 3rd century B.C. there has been a close relationship between the Sinhalese monarchs and Buddhism. State patronage and heavy reliance on the State by the Sangha on every important matter including Sangha reform left no room for the development of independent and voluntary Buddhist organizations. The Sangha itself was amorphous(49) . Further there was no doctrinal or scriptural endorsement of self – defense or holy war as found in religions such as Islam or Christianity. Therefore when State patronage was removed and later the State became an instrument of terror, the collapse of Buddhism as a public religion in Kotte was inevitable (50).

The other important reason is that the competitor for the religious allegiance of the Buddhists, namely the Roman Catholic Church had the full backing of the economic strength of the State and military and sea power of the Portuguese (51). The campaign against Buddhism had the involvement of three principal agencies namely (1) The Roman Catholic Emperor of Portugal (2) His Viceroy at Goa and (3) The Roman Catholic priests in Sri Lanka (52) Dr Tennakoon Vimalananda says: ” They were all united in the effort completely to destroy Buddhism in our country. As the Portuguese were in possession of the sea coast of Ceylon, the Buddhists could not communicate with any sympathetic power outside Ceylon for help at that hour. Thus the Roman Catholic Church in Ceylon embarked upon a campaign of destruction and bloodshed unopposed by any political power.”(53)

10. Destruction and Plunder of Buddhist Temples

The Portuguese ransacked and burnt all the Buddhist Temples, Hindu Kovils and Muslim Mosques in their areas of control. Today there hardly exists a Buddhist Temple over 150 years old in areas once ruled by the Portuguese, particularly in the maritime coast. The destruction of Buddhist Temples can be brought under four categories when examining the evidence (54): i) Implementation of the decisions of the Portuguese Crown, Vice-roy at Goa, and the Ecclesiastical Council at Goa ii) War strategy (to cause diversion of armies of the enemy by destruction) iii) Method of compensation for the soldiery without causing a drain on the Portuguese Treasury (war booty for the soldiers) iv) Excesses of the Portuguese Captain – General (e.g. Azavedo) and greed of the Roman Catholic Church for Temple Land. D.G.B. de Silva says that all these four factors had their interplay in Sri Lanka as in other lands under Portuguese control. Therefore it can be surmised that the ‘ policy ‘ was followed.(55)

The involvement of the Portuguese Crown in respect to the destruction of Buddhist temples and images of the Buddha, is best illustrated in a letter that Dom Joao III, the King of Portugal, who was a fanatical follower of the Christian gospel, wrote to his Viceroy in Goa in 1546. An excerpt of this letter reads as follows:

” We charge you to discover all idols by means of diligent officers, to reduce them to fragments and utterly to consume them, in whatever place they may be found, proclaiming rigorous penalties against such persons as shall dare to engrave, cast, sculpture, lime, paint or bring to light any figure in metals, bronze, wood, clay, or any other substance or shall introduce them from foreign parts, and against those who shall celebrate in public or in private any festivities which have any gentile taint, or shall abet them.” (56)

In respect to Christian converts, he added, “they should also be encouraged with some temporal favours, such as greatly mollify the hearts of those who receive them.” (57)

It must also be noted that the expedition undertaken by the Portuguese General Thome de Souza Arronches to destroy villages, ports, and temples lying in the southern coast during the siege of Colombo by Sitavaka Rajasinghe in 1587 -1588, took place two years after the direction given at the meeting of the Ecclesiastical Council at Goa in 1585 to the Portuguese authorities to destroy the idols and places of worship of the infidels.(58) Some of the great Buddhist and Hindu temples destroyed by the Portuguese include the ‘ thousand pillar’ temples in Devundara, and Trincomalee, Saman Devale in Ratnapura, Sunethra Devi Pirivena in Kotte, Vidagama Pirivena in Raigama, and the Wijebahu Pirivena in Totagamuwe (near Hikkaduwa), Temples at Nawagamuwa, Kelaniya, Mapitigama and Wattala. Some of these Temples were plundered.

In the past, Sri Lanka had faced invaders from South India who sacked the Buddhist Vihares in places like Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, but it was never their policy to build their religious edifices on the sites of destroyed Buddhist institutions. In contrast the Portuguese conquistadors in close collaboration with Roman Catholic Church, set in motion a ruthless policy of not only destroying the Buddhist Viharas and monasteries, but also using the materials collected from the destroyed sites to build their churches on the very sites, which once had the Buddhist Viharas. For example, the Roman Catholic Churches at Kalutara, Totagamuwa, Keragala, Wattala, etc., were built on the sites of Viharas.(59)

The Portuguese led by the Captain – General of Colombo, Diogo de Melo attacked and demolished completely the Kelaniya Temple, which was of inestimable value to the Buddhists. This happened in 1575. The villagers who resisted were either killed or thrown to the Kelani river and were drowned. In Kelaniya, a temple building known in classical literature as the Kitsiri Mevan Paya has disappeared without trace. It was part of the Kelaniya Mahavihara. The Portuguese built the Church of St. Anne at the site of the destroyed Temple.

According to oral traditions the Portuguese upon entering any village would systematically destroy the nerve centre i.e. the Buddhist Temple and then erect a Christian shrine in the village some of which were to develop later into big churches. The Portuguese put to the sword all those who resisted the destruction of the temples.

Queyroz in Book 4 (pages 714 – 719) of his monumental work ‘ The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon’ provides a comprehensive list of the Roman Catholic Churches built by the Portuguese and he identifies specifically (without a sense of shame or guilt) by name the various Churches (and the localities) that were built on the sites of destroyed Buddhist Vihares and monasteries(60) ( See Appendix for details of this list )

In addition the villages granted to these Temples for the maintenance of the Sangha were removed and re-assigned for the maintenance of Catholic Churches some of which were built on the very sites that earlier had Buddhist Temples. By 1600 this campaign of destruction which had lasted for about 40 years was nearly complete.(61)

Hindu Temples were also not spared from destruction. Fellippe de Oliveria, the conqueror of Jaffna was reputed for having destroyed 500 Temples. (62) Some of the Temples were converted into Churches, one of which was a famous Temple in the Kingdom of Kotte. Upon Dharmapala joining the Christian fold, Trindade says ” and since they lacked a church where they could hear the word of God and assist at Mass and other Divine Services, the servants of God made use of a famous temple, which was there. They removed all the idols, some of which were of metal, others of stone, others of wood. Some of them they burnt, others they reduced to powder. They then consecrated it as a temple of God and as a house of prayer, sprinkling Holy Water and reciting prayers which are usually said when a Church is dedicated. In this Church, they taught and they dedicated it to St. Anthony, where we have a Friary and a school for boys”. ( 63)

P.E. Peiris comments ” The Missionary could see in Buddhism nothing but the abhorrent creation of the devil; he did not stop t o inquire what were the principles which were taught by the sages, nor what the ideals after which its lofty philosophy struggled. Buddhism was not Christianity, and since by Christianity alone could souls escape damnation and hell fire, it was his duty to God to destroy Buddhism by every means in this power. He did not ask whether the people were prepared to receive his new wine or whether the destruction of the ancient beliefs might not mean the destruction of all spiritual life; his every idea was centered on the one thought that Buddhism must be wiped out of existence” (64)

G.P. Malalasekera in his ‘The Pali Literature of Ceylon” complements P.E. Peiris with the following observations: ” No trouble was spared to achieve that object; monasteries were raised to the ground, and their priceless treasures looted; libraries were set fire to, or the leaves of the books they contained scattered to the wind; whosoever dared to worship in public or wear the yellow robe of the ascetic was visited with death; the great institutions at Totagamuwa and Karagala, which had long carried on the traditions of Taxila and Nalanda, were destroyed and their incumbents put to the sword. The land groaned in agony as one after another there fell, before the fierce onslaughts of the fanatic missionaries and their dastardly colleagues, the Buddhist religious edifices, those lovely structures which the piety of generations, had strewn broadcast over the country. Never was a glorious civilization and a noble culture more brutally destroyed. The work of centuries was undone in a few years – all that was noblest and best in the heritage of Ceylon was lost, and the damage thus wrought was irreparable.” (65)

The destruction of the shrine at Devi Nuwera or Deundara by the Portuguese provides an illustration of the methods adopted. The Portuguese soldiers on their way to Deundara sacked and committed to flames three great Buddhist Viharas. The Portuguese historian Diogo Do Couto describes the attack on the shrine at Devi Nuwara as follows:

“The inhabitants, on seeing the Portuguese, abandoned the city, and betook themselves inland. Our people proceeded to enter it without encountering any resistance, and reaching the Pagoda (Dagaba) broke open the gates, and entered it without meeting anyone to resist them, and went all round to see if they found any people: and seeing that all was deserted, Thomas de Souza delivered it over 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 internal structure of Dagabas, destroying their vaults and cloisters, knocking them all to pieces, and then proceeded to sack the store houses, in which they found much ivory, fine clothes, copper, pepper, sandalwood, jewels, precious stones and ornaments of the Dagabas, and of every thing they took what they like, and the rest they set fire to by which the whole was consumed. And for the greater insult to the Dagaba, they slaughtered inside several cows, which is the most unclean that can be, and for the purification of which are required very great ceremonies. And they also set fire to a wooden car made after the manner of a towered house of seven storeys, all large and most beautiful, lacquered in divers colours and gilt in many parts, a costly sumptuous work, which served to convey the idol on a ride through the city to which likewise they set fire, by which the whole was consumed.” (66)

11. Missionaries accompanied Portuguese expeditionary forces

There was a close association between the Portuguese expeditionary forces and the Missionaries. The latter had shown great enthusiasm as much as the Portuguese soldiers in the conquest of the island. This is evident from the available correspondence. Missionaries had accompanied every expedition not merely as army chaplains but also to inspire the soldiers in the name of Christ to conquer territory for the King of Portugal.(67). In one instance in 1611 when the Portuguese army was impeded in their march to Kandy by the swelling of the Mahaweli River, a Catholic friar is said to have dived into the river with a crucifix in hand and this gesture had inspired the army to follow suit(68) Queyroz says: ” To arms, To arms, To arms and let not Catholic hearts bear to see Heresy reigning in Ceylon. All these Religious with great zeal served God and the King in the conquest, helping in the campaigns and the sieges of Colombo like any other soldier, and so great was the experience and courage of Friar Antonio Peyxoto the Franciscan, of whom we spoke a short time ago, that in peace and war they made him for some time a Captain of a regiment of the Chingalaz” ( 69)

12. Execution of Buddhist monks

Oral history contains accounts of the indiscriminate murder of Buddhist monks by the Portuguese in areas under their control. The deliberate destruction and plunder of Buddhist Temples is unlikely to have taken place without some protest by the incumbent monks. The Portuguese, given their medieval upbringing and uncompromising stance on matters religion, would not have brooked any opposition to their use of force to obliterate non -Christian religions.

The destruction of the Wijebahu Pirivena at Thotagamuwa (near Hikkaduwa) had also resulted in the death of some of the incumbent monks who could not escape in time. Thirty monks (30) were arrested from a Temple and executed soon after some monks and civilians had protested in front of the King’s Palace at Kotte upon the conversion of Dharmapala. Three monks from Kandy were punished when they had appealed to the people of Alutkuru Korale and adjoining villages to revert to Buddhism and asked for contributions ‘for the decoration of the shrine of Kandy’.(70) The Captain – General Nuno Alvares Pereira had ordered the Buddhist monks to be arrested and the leader of the group of monks had been condemned to be thrown to the man- eating crocodiles of the Rosapane river, while the two other monks had been removed as slaves by Phillip de Oliviera, the Conqueror of Jaffna.(71) The Jesuit Friar Pelingotti had tried to convert them to Christianity much to the annoyance of the people of the area according to the Jesuit Emmanuel Barradas in his annual letter of 1617.(72)

13. Inducements to convert

The Portuguese while pursuing a policy of destruction and plunder of Buddhist Temples held out various inducements for Buddhists to convert to Christianity. Conversion meant a sure means of exemption from taxes due to the Government. For example, Christians were exempt from the marala.(73) i.e. death duties. This meant that they could leave the entirety of their property to their heirs upon death. Therefore death – bed conversions became quite common to enable one’s kinsmen to secure property upon death. This was a privilege granted only to Christians.

Further becoming a Christian also meant receiving preferential judicial treatment. Murderers and thieves upon embracing Christianity were able to escape severe punishment such as the death penalty (74). King Bhuvanakabahu VII himself had complained to the King of Portugal that criminals were converting to Christianity purely to obtain lenient punishment. The King of Portugal had issued standing orders to the Vice-roy of Goa to pursue a policy of lenience towards converts accused of crimes. This policy was followed in Portuguese – held areas of Sri Lanka. In 1618 pursuant to Jesuit intervention an order that ‘ no Christian prisoner be put to death’ was said to have been issued (75)

The local aristocracy was enticed to convert on the basis that they would be accepted into the fidalgo class (upper class) of Portugal and allowed the use of the honorific title ‘ Dom’ . For example the well-known Sitawaka court poet Alagiyawanna upon baptism became known as Dom Jeronimo Alagiyawanna.(76)

Ordinary Sinhala people saw in the newly introduced religion ways and means of acquiring benefits including placing themselves outside the jurisdiction of the civil and criminal laws of their King. In a letter dated 21st January 1549 addressed to the King of Portugal, Friar Antonio do Casal informed the King as follows: ” those of the country do not want to become Christians except through interest and ask before baptism what benefit there is ” ( 77)

Upon baptism the converts began to see themselves as coming within the legal jurisdiction of the monarch of Portugal and such attitudes were re-inforced by the keen interest shown by the Portuguese Crown in the welfare of Sinhala converts. The process of conversion did not stop at baptism. The Missionaries also promoted with zeal intolerance of practices, which are rooted in Buddhism. Any compromise with Buddhism or Buddhist way of life was to be avoided e.g. the eating of beef, slaughter of animals, consumption of liquor and the like were openly promoted on the assumption that such conduct would put the convert altogether out of the pale of Buddhism.

14. Bequeath of the Kingdom of Kotte to the Portuguese Crown

Dharmapala’s conversion and withdrawal of royal patronage from Buddhism was followed by the most shameful act of treachery in the history of Sri Lanka, when Don Juan Dharmapala by a formal Act gifted the reversion of his rights to his Kingdom to King Philip l of Portugal.(78) When Dharmapala died on May 27, 1597, King Philip l of Portugal laid claim to the Lion throne of Lanka.(79)

This event tightened the grip of Portugal in all areas of the country other than the Kingdom of Kandy and contributed to further repression of Buddhism. Historian Tikiri Abeysinghe in his book ‘ Portuguese Rule in Ceylon 1594 – 1612 ‘ observes that the whole machinery of the Portuguese controlled State was geared to achieve two complementary ends, namely that the local religions i.e. Buddhism, Hinduism be denied public existence and secondly holding out every inducement to the convert.(80) Abeysinghe then adds ‘ The persecution of Buddhism during these years of Portuguese rule was more severe than the persecution of Catholicism under the Dutch’.(81)

On the heavily debated question of whether conversions in Sri Lanka were effected by ‘force’ or ‘ at the point of the sword’ Abeysinghe says the question must be framed differently, not whether Catholicism was propagated by force, but whether force was employed against Buddhism and Hinduism. ‘ While the answer to the first question is ‘no’, that to the second is an unhesitating ‘yes’ ‘ (82) A question that Abeysinghe should have raised at this point is why did the Portuguese use force against Buddhism and Hinduism ? The simple answer is to clear the way for the successful propagation of Catholicism.

15. Conversion of Prince Vijaya Pala

The Portuguese were able to bring undue influence on a number of members of the Royal households of Kotte, Sitavaka and Kandy to embrace Christianity. This was done largely by way of missionary education, which was directed by political considerations. From the early period of Portuguese presence we learn that King Bhuvanakabahu was able to avoid being converted though Franciscan friars applied much pressure on him to do so. But he was unable to prevent missionaries from gaining intimate access to his court. Missionaries tutored his grandson Dharmapala, which finally resulted in him being baptized.

Likewise in the Kandyan Kingdom, Vikrama Bahu’s son the feeble minded Jayavira was converted and Jayavira’s daughter Dona Catherina was brought up from her infant days by missionaries. King Senerat who married Dona Catherina after the death of her first husband Wimala Dharma Suriya, was liberal minded but lacking in far sight. He allowed their children, mostly at the request of his wife Queen Dona Catherina, to be instructed by Franciscan priests. It had a denationalizing effect at least on some of the children. The classic example is Prince Vijaya Pala. The conversion of Prince Vijaya Pala to Christianity reveals deep – seated strategies of Portuguese State and Church policy to turn members of Sinhalese Royal families away from Buddhism.

King Senerat chose his youngest son Maha Astana (later known as Rajasinghe II) to succeed him in the Kanda Uda Rata over riding the claims of the latter’s elder brothers, Kumara Sinha and Vijaya Pala. Senarat was aware of the pre-disposition of young Vijaya Pala towards things Portuguese. Vijaya Pala himself acknowledges this inclination in his correspondence to the Viceroy of Goa as follows: ” .. I was born with a strong predilection for the Portuguese nation. In my earliest days greatly to the satisfaction of the Queen my mother, there was assigned to me as Mestre the Padre Frey Francisco Negrao, who taught me to read and write. Under his instructions I learnt very good customs and etiquette and some special habits which Royal persons employ. Though I am a Chingala by blood I am a Portuguese in my ways and affections” (83)

Vijaya Pala then laments bitterly saying ” that this is the chief reason for my losing my Kingdom, treasures, the Queen my wife, my son, and all that I possessed.” (84)

In another letter Vijaya Pala says ” I have no confidence in my own people’ (85) Paul E. Peiris referring to the above statements of Vijaya Pala says ” A more saddening confession it is not easy to imagine; his pride of race and country were destroyed, and in place of the fervid patriotism which alone befitted a Prince of the Royal family in this, the long drawn out death agony of his people, was substituted an ape like imitation of Portuguese habits and ways of thought” (86) Vijaya Pala harbouring a bitter dispute with his brother Rajasinghe crossed over to the Portuguese side seeking military assistance to overthrow his brother and gain the Kingdom of Kandy for himself. The Portuguese instead detained him in Colombo and later took him to Goa where Vijaya Pala came under intense pressure to convert. He was baptized on December 8, 1646 at a ceremony held at the Church of Sao Francisco and given a new name ‘ Dom Theodosio ‘ (87). The Viceroy of Goa ceremoniously crowned him as the new ‘Emperor of Candia'(88). But he was not allowed to leave Goa.(89)

His entourage altogether totaling 94 persons including Generals of his army, four princes of the Royal family, his Ambassador were also baptized on the same day.(90)

The reason why Vijaya Pala was not allowed to return to Matale, his abode, has been based on an order given by the Portuguese King to his officials in the mission fields that ” if by any means or chance any King or Prince, Gentile fall into our power, he should not be allowed to return to his territories to continue in their rites and ceremonies” (91) Instead such Princes should be persuaded to receive the water of Holy Baptism (92).

Vijaya Pala died in 1654 in Goa as a highly disappointed broken man – a victim of crass stupidity and denationalizing missionary education that finally had the effect of pushing him to desert his country, cross over to the enemy, denounce his race, betray his religion and ultimately give up his Sinhala birth name for the sake of an alien Portuguese name. In fairness to Vijaya Pala he was not alone among the ruling classes of this country during the long colonial period who found resounding honorifics from foreign conquerors as acceptable a compensation for the loss of the reality of power.

16. Claims for Compensation

Sri Lanka was a victim of western colonialism for a period of nearly 450 years. The rigueur of rapacious colonialism was felt in its most brutal form during the Portuguese period (1505 – 1658).

In exchange for the wonders of Christianity, the Portuguese empowered by the unstinted blessings of the Papacy and the Portuguese Crown, exploited the conquered territories to the maximum by stripping the country’s resources, labour, and the treasures of the Royal houses of Kotte, Sitavaka and Kandy. Parallel to this policy was their unrelenting engagement in the destruction of the cultural and religious heritage of the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The development of Sri Lanka stagnated during the colonial period. Much of the backwardness of post – colonial societies is now attributed by experts to the set backs suffered by the victims at both the physical and psychological levels. There is no dispute that the western countries were unjustly enriched and profited substantially from their colonial adventures.

The question arises whether Sri Lanka as a victim of western colonial expansion has the right to claim compensation from the Western colonial powers. In respect to the Portuguese period, which is the focus of this paper, it is clear that some of the acts of violence and destruction perpetrated by the Portuguese constitute ‘Crimes’ in international law as understood today.

These crimes can be broadly categorized as follows: i) Destruction of life – individual and mass murder ii) Cultural Genocide iii) Religious and ethnic cleansing including mass expulsions e.g. Muslims from the areas under Portuguese control iv) Expropriation and removal of Treasures, Artifacts, Gems and Jewellery, Gift items made of Ivory etc. to Portugal v) Destruction and plunder of Buddhist Temples vi) Construction of Churches on sites of destroyed Buddhist Vihares and Monasteries vii) Prohibition of the practice of non – Christian religions i.e. Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam viii) Religious conversion by use of force ix) Offer of inducements to embrace Christianity x) Channeling of revenue due to Buddhist Temples to Christian Churches and Seminariesxi) Sexual abuse of women

xii) Slavery xiii) War Crimes

Remedies A Public Apology from the Pope and Portugal

There are precedents:

  1. The Vatican released a document entitled ‘ Memory and Reconciliation: Church and the Mistakes of the Past’ on March 12, 2000. The Vatican sought pardon for sins committed against other cultures including the colonization of native people. This document attributes the roots of evil today to the past errors of the Catholics. Pope John Paul II has publicly asked God’s forgiveness for the sins of Roman Catholics through the ages, including wrongs inflicted on Jews, women and minorities. “We are asking pardon for the divisions among Christians, for the use of violence that some have committed in the service of truth, and for attitudes of mistrust and hostility assumed toward followers of other religions,” said Pope John Paul II. The phrase “violence in the service of truth” is an often-used reference to the treatment of heretics during the Inquisition, the Crusades, and forced conversions of native peoples. (93)
  2. Pope John Paul apologised to China in 2001 for the errors of the Christian missionaries during the colonial period The pontiff avoided detailing the Church’s mistakes in its evangelical efforts in China. He defended the “outstanding evangelising commitment” of a long line of missionaries, but said many had erred. The pontiff asked for “the forgiveness and understanding of those who may have felt hurt in some way by such actions on the part of Christians”. (94)
  3. When visiting Ukraine and Greece in 2001, Pope John Paul appealed for forgiveness for wrongs perpetrated by Roman Catholics in the past.
  4. The Pope has also asked for forgiveness from Israel for sins committed by Roman Catholics throughout the ages including wrongs done to Jews, women and minorities, while on a visit to Israel in 2000. However it must be noted that the Pope has yet to tender an apology directed specifically at Buddhists and Hindus of Sri Lanka and India for wrongs committed by Christian missionaries in these two countries.


It is not within the scope of this paper to engage in a discussion on the viability of instituting legal proceedings against Portugal and other western countries under rules of public international law seeking reparations for wrongs done during the colonial period. Nevertheless it is necessary to draw attention to the existence of a potential claim for reparations from Portugal and colonial powers under international law.

Reparations or compensation are payments offered as an indemnity for loss or damage. There are several instances in history where this has been done and which provide a basis for developing this area of the law in respect to obtaining compensation for crimes committed during the period of Western colonialism.

In 1953 the West German government agreed to pay reparations to Israel for damages suffered by the Jews under the Hitler regime. Japan had to pay reparations after World War II. The United States administered removal of capital goods from Japan, and the USSR seized Japanese assets in the former puppet state of Manchukuo. Japan also agreed to settle the reparations claims of Asian nations by individual treaties with those countries. These treaties were subsequently negotiated.

At a United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban, South Africa from 31 August – 7 September 2001 representatives from third world countries, primarily African, told the Conference that the problems facing their nations, among them, widespread poverty and underdevelopment, stemmed in part from slavery and colonialism. The wrongs, they further said, could only be corrected by clear acceptance of the past by the oppressing countries, and by developing schemes for compensation. A number of the speakers urged the Conference to recognize that colonialism and slavery were crimes against humanity.

17. Conclusion

450 years of colonial rule and particularly the Portuguese period (1505 – 1658) constitute a long and poignant chronicle of oppression and injustice meted out to the Sinhala Buddhists. It is a sad and tragic chapter. The Portuguese success might have become irreversible if not for the heroic resistance offered by the Kings of Sitavaka and Kandy against foreign aggression.

Sri Lanka might have become another ‘Philippines’ – an Asian country that has been stripped of its traditional religion and culture and to complete the humiliation the indigenous people i.e. the Filipinos, have to bear the ignominy of that country being named after a Spanish King i.e. Phillip.

The threat to Sri Lanka ‘s sovereignty and the pre-eminent position of Buddhism in the country’s religious and cultural landscape, has again re-surfaced from quarters both within and without the country.

It is a hackneyed truism but worth re-asserting that those who forget the lessons of history are condemned to live through a re-enactment. In such a context a wider examination and earnest study of Sri Lanka’s history under western colonial rule and more particularly the factors that contributed to Buddhism becoming almost extinct in Portuguese controlled territory may prove invaluable.

The End


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  85. . Peiris, P.E. ,The Prince Vijaya Pala of Ceylon .15
  86. . Peiris, P.E. ,The Prince Vijaya Pala of Ceylon, Appendix: Document 18 ‘True Account of the Baptism of Don Theodosio’ 42 -50
  87. . Peiris, P.E. ,The Prince Vijaya Pala of Ceylon, Appendix: Document 18 ‘True Account of the Baptism of Don Theodosio’ 42 —-50
  88. . Peiris, P.E. ,The Prince Vijaya Pala of Ceylon, Appendix: Document 22, Correspondence of the King of Portugal to the Viceroy dated January 31, 1651 60
  89. . Peiris, P.E. ,The Prince Vijaya Pala of Ceylon 50
  90. . Ribeiro, Joao, The Historical Tragedy of the Island of Ceilao, ( translated by P.E.Peiris ) ( New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1999) 130
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  92. . BBC News -Sunday, 12 March, 2000 Internet Website address: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/europe/674246.stm
  93. Internet Website address: http://www.acts2.com/thebibletruth/Papal_Aplologies_China.htm



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