A Tale of Resistance: The Story of the Arrival of the Portuguese

Michael Roberts

An ABSTRACT of an article that appeared in print in Ethnos, 1989, vol 54: 1 & 2,  pp. 69-82…. available online for payment to Taylor & Francis.

This essay decodes a sixteenth century folktale which records the Sinhalese reaction to the arrival of the first Portuguese. Where the historiography has interpreted this tale as benign wonderment in the face of exotica, a piecemeal deconstruction of the allegorical clues in the ‘story is utilised to reveal how the Sinhalese linked the Portuguese with demons and with Vasavarti Mārayā, the arch enemy of the Buddha. In this fashion the Portuguese and the Christian sacrament of communion were represented as dangerous, disordering forces.

The piecemeal reinterpretation of this short text, however, must be overlaid by a holistic perspective and the realisation that its rendering in oral form enabled its purveyors to lace the story with a satirical flavour: so that the Portuguese and Catholicism are, like demons, rendered both disordering and comic, dangerous and inferior—thus ultimately controllable.

In contending in this manner that the folktale is an act of nationalist opposition, the article is designed as an attack on the positivist empiricism which pervades the island’s historiography and shuts out imaginative reconstructions which are worked out by penetrating the subjective world of the ancient texts. 

When this article first appeared circa 1989 its interpretation was directly challenged by my teacher, colleague and friend, Professor KM de Silva and there was a sharp debate in the local newspapers (see Biblio below). Kingsley de Silva was adhering to the empiricist tradion in which he was trained. I was (and still am) qualifying it with insights from other disciplines and experience in ethnographic fieldwork of a sporadic sort. Let me stress, here, that the imaginative reinterpretation of the arrival story  developed when i spent about 15 months in Sri Lanka working on material which generated the book People Inbetween (1989).

While that tome is basically a library study (with aid from Percy Colin-Thome and Ismeth Raheem), the interpretation of the 1505 arrival story is presented at the start and backed up by charts decoding Sinhala modes of assessment derived from the heat of colonial invasions and the progeny spawned therefrom: namely, the kaaberi, landesi, karapothu lansi, et cetera. These readings derived from my travels and casual encounters in the localities of Colombo, Kandy and Mawanella among other spots (and even from the response to one of my questions from a waiter from Negombo named “Grigson” [yes Grigson!!!) at the Orient Club in Colombo.

A Note of Caution: The reference to “nationalist opposition” does not mean that the inspirations and thinking of the Sinhala-speaking people was infused with the ideology we identify as “nationalism'” in the 19th to 21st centuries –an ideology informed by the transformation of thought generated by the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the technological transformations arising from the Industrial Revolution. The reference is to what can be gloassed as an old-fashioned “patriotism” linked to monarchs and territories. Tambiah’s writings on “galactic polities” and the mandala concept are pertinent here.

Positivism:  “is a philosophical theory that states that “genuine” knowledge is exclusively derived from experience of natural phenomena and their properties and relations. Thus, information derived from sensory experience, as interpreted through reason and logic, forms the exclusive source of all certain knowledge” …… Wikipedia.

Aborigines greeting Captain Cook and his tribe


An EMAIL COMMENT re this item from CR De Silva in USA, 22 April 2021: “Up to the 1980s most of us regarded the Rajavaliya account of the arrival of the Portuguese as a story of wonder and amazement amoung the locals at the Portuguese, their clothes, demeanour and armaments. When Michael originally advanced the possibility of interpreting the story as a ‘Tale of Resistance,’ I recall that I was initially skeptical. In time, after reflection, I began to accept that Mike’s interpretation was a plausible and useful alternate, though I continued to question some of the details of his interpretation. I am glad that he has drawn the attention to it. It was a valuable contribution enhancing our critical understanding of Sri Lankan sources.”

SOME REFERENCES …. incomplete

Kingsley de Silva 1990a “The Burghers in Sri Lankan history,” Daily News, 19 September 1990.

Kingsley de Silva 1990b “Why the Burgher exodus?” Daily News, 20 September 1990.

Malalgoda, Kitsiri 1997 1505 and All That: Varied Views of a Frist Encounter,” International Social Science Journal, Sept. 1997, No 153, pp 227-49.

Nugent, Maria and Gaye Sculthorpe 2020 “Early Indigenous  Accounts of Captain Cook’s arrival paint a diffferent picture to history,” 26 /April 2020, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-04-26/indigenous-oral-accounts-of-captain-cooks-arrival/12183584

Roberts, Michael 1989a “A tale of resistance: the story of the arrival of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka”, Ethnos, 55: 1-2: 69-82.

Roberts, Michael 1989b “Pejorative phrases: the anti-colonial response and Sinhala perceptions of the self through images of the Burghers,” in Swedish in Lanka. Tidskrift om Lankesisk Kultur (Uppsala), vol 2.

Roberts, Michael 1990 ‘The migration of Burghers,” The Sri Lankan, April 1990, page 5-6.

Roberts, Michael 1991 “People inbetween and Professor K. M. de Silva’s diehard history,” Daily News, 21 March 1991.

Roberts, Michael 2000a “Lanka without Vijaya. Towards the new millennium,” Lanka Monthly Digest, Jan. 2000, vol. 6: p. 27.

Roberts, Michael 2000b “History as dynamite,” Pravāda, vol. 6, no. ?, pp. 11-13. Also published in the Island Special Millennium Issue, 1 Jan 2000, pp. 43-44.

Roberts, Michael 2000c “The Sri Lankan identity,” Lanka Monthly Digest, November 2000, vol 7: 4, pp. 43-44.

Roberts, Michael 2001a “Dakunen sädi kotiyo, uturen golu muhudai,” [Wicked-cum-vile Tigers to the south and the turbulent sea to the north], Pravāda, vol 6, no. 11, pp. 17-18.

Roberts, Michael 2001c Sinhala-ness and Sinhala Nationalism, pamphlet, Colombo: Marga Institute, A History of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: Recollection, Reinterpretation and Reconciliation, No.4.

Roberts, Michael 2002a “Vijaya: Interpreting the Civilizational Myth.” Sunday Observer, 1 September 2002.

Roberts, Michael 2002b “Primordialist Strands in Contemporary Sinhala Nationalism in Sri Lanka: Urumaya as Ur,” Colombo: Marga Institute, A History of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: Recollection, Reinterpretation and Reconciliation, No. ?.

Tambiah, S. J, 1986 Sri Lanka. Ethnic fratricide and the dismantling of democracy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Young, Richard 1995 “The Carpenter-Prēta: An Eighteenth-Century Sinhala-Buddhist Folktale about Jesus,https://nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/nfile/140, Meiji Gakuin University, Yokohama.

Young, R. F. and G. S. B. Senanayaka 1999 The carpenter-heretic. A collection of Buddhist stories about Christianity from 18th century Sri Lanka,Colombo: Karunaratne & Sons.


What was the Sinhalese-Portuguese War (1527-1658)?


Filed under accountability, ancient civilisations, cultural transmission, disparagement, economic processes, ethnicity, hatan kavi, heritage, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, landscape wondrous, life stories, patriotism, politIcal discourse, Portuguese in Indian Ocean, power politics, security, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, travelogue, unusual people, war reportage, world events & processes

4 responses to “A Tale of Resistance: The Story of the Arrival of the Portuguese

  1. ALSO NOTE THIS ARTICLE by AK RAMANUJAN …. “wWho needs Folkore? The relevance of Oral Traditions to South asian studies” in South Asia Occasiaonal Papers, being a Lecture delivered at the University of Hawaii 3 March 1988.
    Professor Ramanujan was/isa doyen of Asian studies at the University of Chicago.

  2. Pingback: Portugal and Sri Lanka: Recent Trends in Historiography | Thuppahi's Blog

  3. Fr ALOYSIUS PERIS of TULANA RESEARCH CENTREhas sent thsi Email Note, 18 June 2021:
    “Dear Michael,
    I remember suggesting to you that the accusation against Portuguese “eating stones and drinking blood” could not have been an allusion to the Eucharist (or Holy Communion) of the Catholics for two reasons:
    (a) Roman Catholics never used leavened bread (which look like white stones) at the Communion Service but unleavened bread in the form of thin wafers.
    (b) wine was never given to the ordinary people at communion. (some changes took place only in the 1960s four hundred years later.).
    Ergo the allusion could have been to the Portugese Soldiers’ main meals at which bread loaves and (red) wine were consumed (as even today)!
    (Aloysius Pieris, s.j.

  4. Lakshman Gunasekara

    Dear Mike: The moment I saw your reference to the Christian Holy Communion ritual as the cause for the Sinhala historiographical allegorical reference of ‘drinking blood’ and ‘eating stones’, I sought to send a comment questioning your interpretation. On scrolling down to the page I found that Fr. Aloy has already commented precisely on that. I fully agree with Fr. Aloy that the Sinhala allegory was with reference to the daily Portuguese diet of bread and wine (as with all Mediterranean peoples). At the same time, I fully agree with and appreciate your interpretation that the Sinhala commentary was, indeed, a form of symbolic resistance, arising out of a natural threat perception of the arrival of these foreign forces. I do not think that the element of ‘wonderment’ was very strong because, even if they had not previously physically encountered the Portuguese, it is certain that the Sinhalas would have heard of (a) the European powers and (b) of the European naval/merchant marine incursions into this part of the world. After all, Sri Lanka had always been part of the global trade, naval and travel movements. The coastal Sinhalas would have been kept informed of the various regional happenings from Arab, Inndian, Iranian, East Asian seafarers, traders, travellers offering intelligence etc. Galle/Kalah had long been a very busy entrepot with people of all kinds even resident there – and in Kolon Thota, Gonagamaka, and even in the Kandyan kingdom.

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