Alan Strathern on Portuguese Imperialism in Sri Lanka

Chandra R. de Silva, of Dominion University, Virginia, reviewing Alan STRATHERN, Kingship and Conversion in Sixteenth-Century Sri Lanka: Portuguese Imperialism in a Buddhist Land. University of Cambridge Oriental Publications 66. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xx + 286 pp.  ISBN: 978-0-521-86009-3 (hbk.). £55.00 / $99.00.

Courtsy of The Journal  of the Economic and Social History of the Orient

This is an excellent work of historical investigation. Alan Strathern looks at the sixteenth century interaction between the Portuguese and the kingdoms of Sri Lanka – an area which several historians including myself have explored in the past. With very little in terms of new archival evidence, he has critically reexamined the complex and contradictory nature of sources and has reevaluated the evidence to reinterpret Sri Lankan history in new and persuasive ways. The strength of the book lies in three other areas as well. First, far more than his predecessors, he draws links between past events relating to the first interactions between the Portuguese and Sri Lanka and the contemporary popular imagination of that interaction in Sri Lanka. Secondly, he not only draws parallels between developments in Sri Lanka and areas such as South India but also appropriately uses historical, anthropological and political theories arising from Africa, Europe, the Pacific and Southeast Asia to illuminate Sri Lankan history. Finally, gently and almost imperceptibly, he suggests reconsideration of some aspects of these theories. For all these reasons, this is a book that merits the attention of a wide range of scholars.

One of the themes of the book is the nature of the state in Sri Lanka, the differences between Portuguese and Sinhala conceptions of power, and how these factors played into the first interactions between the two. Strathern highlights the persisting ideal of unity and the reality of political fragmentation in Sri Lanka where political relationships between the center and sub-rulers were being constantly renegotiated. He points out that, in contrast, in sixteenth century Portugal, political boundaries were clear and succession was resolved at the center without the rise of regional authorities. While he sees the value of Tambiah’s model of a ‘galactic polity’ where areas in the periphery were loosely attached and in danger of being absorbed by a rival ‘galactic state, Strathern points out that in Sri Lanka, the power struggle often related to seizing the center. His conclusion is also supported by my own work on the Maldive Islands, but Alan Strathern supplements his work with an analysis of Portuguese relationships with littoral states in the Indian Ocean, exploring the subtle theoretical differences in legal status between vassal, friend and protected state and noting differences between theory and reality. He looks at the different interest groups within the Portuguese imperium and seeks to further rehabilitate the reputation of Bhuvanekabahu, ruler of Kotte, seen in contemporary Sri Lankan tradition as weak and ineffective, by pointing to his achievements as a wily diplomat making the best of a weak hand. Alan Strathern re-emphasizes the importance of Asian agency in early relations with the Europeans.

As the subtitle of the volume implies, the religious interaction is an important part of the story. Much has been already published on the details of the interaction, but Alan Strathern brings in a new perspective. He argues that ‘transcendalist’ religions, by which he means faiths born in the first millennium in Greece, the Middle East, China and India, make religious conversions difficult because they develop visions of a divine state that is different from the mundane. As he puts it ‘Where the institutions of transcendentalist religion become deeply rooted and widespread in society, they could shape popular sentiments necessitating the religious fidelity of the king. (p. 9).’ When popular sentiments necessitate the religious fidelity of the ruler the conversion of rulers faces greater obstacles unlike where supporters follow leaders because of adherence to persons rather than because of their distinctive cultural attributes. On the other hand Strathern realizes that factors other than tradition apply in religious conversion and ably uses the instances of conversion of the kings of Kandy in Sri Lanka to illustrate the factor of political calculation. He points out that Indic societies had less exclusivist religious traditions and that Indic rulers patronized multiple religious traditions. However, the assumption of the Christian converts that they were free of obligation to local king is correctly identified as a point of conflict both in Sri Lanka and in India. Once again, Strathern concludes that popular tradition is unfair to King Bhuvanekabahu whose religious policy was ‘more daring than that of his counterparts across the sea.’ (p. 112)

Strathern’s work, building on previous scholars, argues that ‘missionaries did allow themselves to be conduits in the worldly business of Portuguese imperialism.’ (p. 113) Embedded in all this is a good discussion on what might have been understood by ‘conversion,’ and the debate in Europe on justifications for conversion.  

Strathern also provides an analysis of the state of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and once again challenges the popular contemporary impression that Buddhism entered into a ‘dark age’ with the coming of the Portuguese. He points out that evidence for the decline of Buddhism in Sri Lanka comes only in the end of the sixteenth century by which time the acceptance of explicit social and cultural markers were required of converts. He points to the resurgence of Buddhism in response but points out that subsequent history indicates that ‘a welcoming approach to other faiths’ did not cease. (p.231)

Then again, Strathern questions the idea that communications and mobilization in pre-modern societies were too weak to sustain indigenous solidarity. Inserting himself into the debate among Sri Lankan historians as to whether traditional politics was characterized by ‘elite politics’ or ‘patriotism,’ Strathern concludes that in the sixteenth century there is evidence for what he calls ‘indigenism’ based on ‘Sinhalaness’ but also perhaps on a more general sense of ‘Lankaness’. (p. 237). What he is arguing for is the politicization of cultural difference in pre-modern times. He points to the complexity of this ‘indegenism.’ It opposed foreign domination but not the selective importation of foreign royal blood – by invitation not conquest. Thus Buddhist kings were tolerant, but when the system itself was challenged there was widespread resistance. Loyalty was more to a royal family and to an elite, and this did not reflect a push for a unitary state.

            This is a dense book and that might preclude those other than professional historians and university graduate students from reading all of it. If this happens it would be a pity because clearly, it has brought the writing of Sri Lankan history to a new level and has much in it that should be of interest to comparative historians.

Chandra R. de Silva

Old Dominion University


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5 responses to “Alan Strathern on Portuguese Imperialism in Sri Lanka

  1. Perinbanayagam

    I am intrigued by the sub-title of this book:Portuguese Imperilaism in a Buddhist Land.Is Cambridge University giving its powerful impimatur to the claims that Lanka is a Buddhist Land?This is particularly striking since the Portuguese were a strong presence in Jaffna and Batticaloa.
    Perhaps Strathern (and CUP) is planning a second volume on, ” Portuguese Imperialism in Saivite Land” and another on, “Portuguese Imperialism in Pattini Land” !!

    • Alan Strathern

      Hello. The reason is simply that the focus of the book is the relationship between the Portuguese and the ‘Buddhist’ kingdoms of Lanka, in particular Kotte, Sitavaka, and Kandy. Jaffna and the East coast are only sporadically discussed. This is largely because the great bulk of the book concerns the sixteenth century (before, for example, the conquest of Jaffna), and also because a central concern is the nature of legitimacy in Buddhist polities. (We can have a whole other dicussion about what ‘Buddhist’ means in this period!). I do, however, discuss moments of Christian and Saivite monarchy in Kotte and Kandy, and place emphasis on the influence of ‘Hindu’ traditions and non-assimilated communities.

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