The Conquista: A Book on Sri Lanka’s Portuguese Period

Avishka Mario Senewiratne

Fr SG Perera who translated the work of Queiros

In an island nation which has more than two thousand five hundred years of written history, no book has provided a more detailed account of any period of Sri Lanka’s history than the Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon[1] authored by the Jesuit Father Fernaó de Queyroz.[2] This work covered the 150 years of Portuguese involvement in Ceylon. Ironically, this 17th century Jesuit Priest, had never visited the island of which he was researching and writing in the final two decades of life. This brief essay gives an overview of Queyroz the Historian, his cause and objective, the long and eventful delay of his work in reaching its readers, the controversy around it in the early 20th Century and its splendid translation by Fr. Simon Gregory Perera of the same Society.

Paul E. Pieris


According to Sir Paul E. Pieris, it is “no exaggeration to say that to the student of the history of Ceylon the ‘Conquista’ is surpassed in value only by the great Sinhalese chronicle, the Mahāwaṃsa.”[3] The general public came to know of this document more than two centuries after it was written when questions arose with the publication of the highly popular, Ceylon, The Portuguese Era by Sir Paul E. Pieris in 1913-14.

The allegation of failing to give due recognition to a lesser-known ancient source on the part of scholars like Fr. S.G. Perera brought to light the existence of the Conquista. Previously in May 1907, the renowned historian, Donald Ferguson, read his research article, titled “The Discovery of Ceylon by the Portuguese in 1506[4] to the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. This was to prove that the discovery took place in 1506 and not 1505.

However, Paul Pieris responded to this by saying that the greatest Portuguese historian, Fernaó de Queyroz, would contest Ferguson’s contention.[5] Ferguson replied that this work was inaccessible to him and pointed out that Pieris did neither quote that author nor supply proper information about the Conquista.[6] Ferguson concluded his reply by inviting Pieris to print this work with a full translation. Pieris who seemed to have no intention of printing or translating it was rather engaged in compiling his book on the Portuguese Era by summarising the Conquista with a free hand.[7]  Scholars who came to know about Pieris’ possession of a Conquista manuscript were anxious to know more about it, but Pieris would not reveal its content.

A series of articles Pieris wrote to the Royal Asiatic Journal in subsequent years[8], created much controversy when he was accused of somewhat plagiarising Queyroz, by freely translating the Portuguese manuscript that he owned. The young Jesuit brother S.G. Perera played a major role in exposing these faults, causing much hostility in Peiris. Even though the Royal Asiatic Society continued asking Pieris to either publish the work or let the Society do so, he failed to respond to these requests. However, after Pieris finally published his book in 1913-14, the necessity to publish Conquista became evident as scholars and the readers wanted to know how fairly Pieris perused the Conquista, which he claimed in his introduction to be his primary source.[9]

The Ceylon Government, after being pressurised by Armond de Souza of the Morning Leader, purchased the manuscript from Pieris and requested him to publish it himself. Thus, in 1916, the Conquista was published for the first time in Ceylon. However, it was in its original language, in Portuguese, which was of less help to history students and scholars who did not read Portuguese. However, the fact that a work of a bygone historian was being published in the same language, 229 years after being written is the greatest tribute a historian can be accorded.

Queyroz, the Author of the Conquista

One might wonder about the reason for this book to be written by some elderly priest who had never visited the island nation in question. Fernaó de Queyroz was born in 1617 in Northern Portugal. He joined the Society of Jesus in 1631, at the young age of 13. After leaving Lisbon in April 1635, he arrived in Cochin, India in November the same year.[10] This was the time the Portuguese were slowly losing their dominance in the East due to the superior sea power of the Dutch. Queyroz was well read in Greek-Roman history and at one time, taught in the College in Cochin, while still going through his Jesuit training. However, unlike his folks at home, he didn’t experience the renewal of humanities and philosophy through the Renaissance, which reached Portugal only after he arrived in India. After his arrival in Goa, he served as Rector in several institutions, a Superior in the professed house of Bom Jesus, Goa and a Parish Priest for a brief period in a Brahmin community of Salsette. He would then serve as the Provincial of Goa, which was the highest Jesuit Authority in India. During his years of administration, he acquired a wealth of knowledge and had a reputation of being a very talented writer and an eloquent preacher. However, he was a humble presbyter, who once rejected his nomination to be the Patriarch of Ethiopia,[11] in accordance with the special vow that the Jesuits take. Among the many works he compiled as a reputable writer, only a few letters and the biography of Pedro de Basto have survived today apart from the Conquista.[12]

Pedro de Basto (died 1645) was a Jesuit Lay brother, who had lived in Cochin displaying saintly qualities and was known for his visions and prophesies. After his demise his admirers clamoured for a biography. To satisfy this request, the Jesuits in Cochin, gathered all letters, diaries and writings of Basto together with notes of his visions and testimonies. However, before the work began, Cochin was captured by the Dutch and all these sources were sent to Goa and were placed into the hands of Fr. Queyroz.  While undertaking the task to document the biography, Queyroz noticed the brothers’ repeated mention of the island of Ceylon. He curiously studied these references and noticed that some of the defeats the Portuguese faced were mentioned by Basto even before they occurred. What surprised him most was the end of Portuguese occupation in Ceylon being announced even before it occurred.[13] Basto attributed the fall of Portuguese Ceylon to the Dutch to the many evils the Portuguese had committed. Queyroz too was deeply upset by the menacing behavior of his fellow Portuguese, lamented it and would say it was the wrath of God that caused this fall.[14]

Sources used by Queyroz

Queyroz who was urged to investigate further on Ceylon, came across a host of sources. Soon, by the early 1670s he   had fully embarked on a serious study of the Portuguese period in Ceylon. Queiroz starts his work by saying, “Of all the great and lamentable losses and ruins of the Portuguese State in the East Indies, the greatest and the most painful in the opinion of all well qualified to judge was the loss of the island of Ceylon.”[15] While lamenting the loss of Ceylon, Queyroz hoped that the Portuguese would one day recapture it from the Dutch (Brother Basto had prophesised this as well, though such an occurrence never took place) and put an end to the Dutch  persecution of Catholics. Thus, the main motive that led Queyroz to write the Conquista was propagation of the faith. He wished to strengthen the minds of his fellow countrymen and recount to them the triumphs and brutal practices attributed to them during their stay in Ceylon, so that they would one day recapture Ceylon and strive by all means to prevent a recurrence of their former evils and govern for the welfare and happiness of both Ceylonese and Portuguese.

During this time, only the early years of Portuguese rule had been documented and printed by contemporary historians. Those were the works of Joaó de Barros, Diego do Couto and Faria de Souza. Queyroz was not satisfied with these publications and extended his research to unpublished manuscripts and testimonies of first-hand witnesses. As this was a little more than a decade after the Portuguese defeat in Ceylon, there were plenty of people still alive who had been part of this history. The Franciscan friars in Ceylon were the most significant group of sources for this endeavour. As Fr. S.G. Perera says, “These friars had penetrated into every nook and corner of island: they had lived in the courts of the Sinhalese kings of Kotte and Kandy, and they had been present as chaplains at almost every battle”.[16]Among his findings, the most prominent one was the two-volume history of Portuguese in Ceylon by Fr. Francisco Negrao[17], who lived in Ceylon for many years as a missionary. However, one major shortcoming   in Queyroz was that all his sources were from the Portuguese side and did not include written Sinhala or Tamil sources. One can easily assert that the way Queyroz had written on the Sinhala social customs, the myths and castes were based on oral sources. According to Prof. Tikiri Abeysinghe, “…no other seventeenth-century work on Sri Lanka, except Robert Knox’s Historical Relation, contains as much anthropological material as Queyroz’s History”.[18] He researched well enough to access eyewitness accounts of Portuguese soldier and magistrate, Bento da Silva, who had documented events upto the death of King Wimaladharmasūriya I. Queyroz also managed to interview a Dutchman who gave him much information of Dutch garrisons in the east of Ceylon.

When writing the Conquista, the influences [on] Queyroz were two-fold. The first was the Portuguese historiographical tradition. This gave rise to the epic style of the Conquista and missionary imperialism of the Portuguese. The second was the Catholic historiographical tradition, which was established in the 4th Century by Eusebius. This prompted Queyroz to think that all historical occurrences were the unbidding will of God being manifested on Earth.[19] Though a Portuguese, Queyroz never hid the misdoings of his countrymen in Ceylon. His style of being independent and not yielding to personal prejudices must be appreciated. This is a quality of a good historian.

The Siege of Galle Fort depicted in Baldeaus, 1672

Some Deficiencies

Fr. S.G. Perera gives a comprehensive list of sources Queyroz used and these sources were plentiful. This made him squeeze in all the facts and figures found in his sources into the compilation. On some occasions Queyroz did this without proper analysis and assessment. This caused repetitions of facts that contradicted each other. One such example was the two dates given for Yamasingha Bandara’s ascension to the throne.[20] Which had a five-year difference! Another was that at one place it mentions that King Rājasinghe of Sitāwaka died aged 59 after a 16-year reign. In another place it states that he died at 63 after reigning for 40 years.[21] A major flaw of Queyroz is his lack of statistical analysis. On many occasions he records the number of troops rounded off to hundreds and also gives contradictory numbers. Scholars have claimed that they were “guesstimates”.

In 1687, Queyroz finally completed his manuscript which consisted of six books. The first book gives details on the geography, demographics, social life and practices, the faiths of Ceylon. The second book begins with the landing of Don Lourenҫo de Almeida and the subsequent years of the Portuguese penetrating Ceylon. The next three books give a continuous story of the Portuguese and Ceylon connections, conflicts and affairs. The details of Governors with the Sinhala Kings and Tamil Kings along with major rebellions and battles have been well dealt with in these books.


Queyroz has focused this segment by highlighting three Portuguese officials. They are, Dom Jerónimo de Azevedo (Captain-General,1594-1612), Constantino da Sá de Noronha (Captain General, 1618-21,1623-30) and Phillipe de Oliveiro (Captain-Major of Jaffna 1619-27). Book five begins with the Dutch attempts to conquer Ceylon and the 25 years of Portuguese-Dutch battles, until the fall of the Portuguese occupation.

The final book, is a departure from the other five as it gives instead of a narration of history, a sermon like assessment of the Portuguese in Ceylon. Hardly six months after the manuscript was completed, Queyroz passed away in Goa, aged 71 in 1688, after serving 53 years in the East.

The Roaming Manuscript’s Arrival in Ceylon

Though this comprehensive work was completed, it never was printed for two hundred years. After the death of Queyroz, the manuscript was ready for printing by 1692, but instead, went from hand to hand without any success. Finally, it ended up in the collection of the Portuguese King’s library. When Napoléon invaded Portugal in 1807, Prince John of Portugal, the regent, fled to the richest Portuguese colony, Brazil along with his collection of books. When King John VI returned back to Portugal, he donated his collection, including the Conquista to the National Library of Rio de Janeiro. In 1844, the Historical and Geographical Society of Rio formally copied the manuscript to their library catalogues. In 1885, a Jesuit priest in Belgium started to compile a bibliography index of Jesuits and quite appropriately included the Conquista. During this time the Jesuit Provincial of Belgium was Fr. Joseph Van Reeth SJ. In 1895, Fr. Van Reeth was made Bishop of the newly form Diocese of Galle and arrived in Ceylon with Fr. Joseph Cooreman SJ, the first Vicar General of Galle[22]. Fr. Cooreman, who had a copy of this index, quite fortunately spotted the reference to Ceylon, ‘the Conquista’. He wasted no time and met Msgr. Ladislaus Zaleski, the Papal Nuncio, who resided in Ampitiya, Kandy[23]and disclosed this valuable information. Msgr. Zaleski, a lover of Ceylon and its history had a vast collection of Ceylon Books in his library and impatiently obtained a copy of the manuscript from Rio.[24]

Coming to know of the Conquista through Fr. Cooreman, Paul E. Pieris, of the Ceylon Civil Service, requested Msgr. Zaleski for a copy of it, but this request was declined for reasons not known. With the assistance of Bernard Quaritch, Pieris purchased a manuscript copy from Rio and used it for many of his works. After Pieris published an exact Portuguese version in 1916, the Ceylon Government requested him to translate the work to English. He, who was accused of a free usage of the Conquista in other works, declined the offer. Through the intervention of John M. Seneviratne, the editor of the Ceylon Antiquary and Literary Register, the Government offered, the newly ordained Jesuit, Fr. S.G. Perera to do the translation.[25] At that time Fr. Perera, who was in Lisbon researching in the archives on the pioneer Jesuit fathers, reluctantly accepted the invitation.

Msgr. Zaleski had left Ceylon during this time. However, he had donated his valuable copy to the Papal Seminary which was then in Ampitiya a suburb of Kandy. After obtaining this copy from the Seminary Rector, and referring to Pieris’ 1916 version[26], Fr. Perera engaged himself for more than a decade in translating what would be his magnum opus. The task was a labour of love and dedication. One must remember that Fr. Perera was never a professional historian, but the legend was that having served as a clerk in the British administration before joining the Jesuits he had developed a sixth sense to discern the genuine from the spurious in old deeds and tombus.

Fr Zaleski  Fr Cooreman

It was later as a Jesuit involved in active ministry in schools and the administration in the Diocese of Galle that he was able to produce a classic translation of the Conquista in 1930. Scholars like the Portuguese, Fr. José Pereira Dias SJ, Fr. S. Gnana Prakasar O.M.I. of Jaffna, H.W. Codrington had assisted Fr. Perera in bringing out this translation. The indexing of the Conquista was done by the students of St. Aloysius’ College, Galle, where Fr. Perera taught, along with Fr. Peter de Silva SJ. The proof-reading was diligently done by Fr. M.H. Soden SJ.

When the translation was published in 1930, the reviews it received were highly positive. Both scholars and critics considered it a genuine masterpiece. In the review appearing in the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain, Fr. Perera was praised for his skills in languages, his quality in keeping the originality of the work and for being so diligent that only a few minor mistakes were present in the 3-volume book.[27] This version has seen at least five reprints up to now and is considered to b e a classic source of Ceylon History and a work that all students of history are bound to peruse. []

A Note from the Editor Vāgdevī, Fr. Aloy Pieris SJ: “The author is a 22-year-old Student Commercial Pilot, Colombo Airport, Ratmalana and an Undergraduate from the University of West Scotland. He is also the Author of Till the Mountains Disappear: The Story of St. Joseph’s College (2020).”


[1] Originally, Conquista Temporal e Espiritual de Ceylaõ, consisted of 168 chapters over 1054 pages.

[2] Sometimes spelt Queyros, Queyroz or Queiroz. I will be using ‘Queyroz’.

[3] Pieris, P.E. ed. (1916) Conquista, Government Press, Introduction, p. III.

[4] Ferguson, Donald (1907) “The Discovery of Ceylon by the Portuguese in 1506.”, The Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland, Vol. 19, no. 59, pp. 284-385.

[5] Ibid, p.393.

[6] Ibid, p.399.

[7] I acknowledge and thank Prof. C.R. de Silva for his explanation on this.

[8] See Pieris, P.E. (1911) “The Rebellion of Edirille Rala, 1594-1596.”, The Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland, Vol. 22, no. 64, pp 168-193

[9] Pieris, P.E. (1913) Ceylon, The Portuguese Era, Colombo, (reprinted Tisara Press, 1992), p. xiii.

[10] See Perera SJ, S.G. (1917) “The ‘Conquista de Ceylaõ’ by Fernaó de Queyroz.” The Ceylon Antiquary and Literary Register, p163.

[11] Ibid.

[12] In 1664, the Jesuit College of St. Paul, where Queyroz was residing caught fire. In order to save the manuscripts of other works, one lay brother rushed to the room of Queyroz, only to discover the biography of Basto left. Queyroz considered this a miracle. “Historia da Vida do venerare Irma Pedro de Basto” was published in Lisbon 1691 circa.

[13] See Queiroz SJ, F. (1930) The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon, Colombo (translated by Fr. S.G. Perera SJ), p.9*

[14] Arsaratnam, S. (1961) “Keystones of Ceylon History”, Journal of the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon, p.57.

[15]  Queyroz, F. (1930) op. cit., pIX.

[16] Perera SJ, S.G. (1926) “De Queyroz’s Conquista De Ceilao”, Blue and White, p.100.

[17] This work was never printed and the manuscript has been lost.

[18] Abeysinghe, Tikiri (1980) “History as Polemics and Propaganda: An Examination of Fernaó de Queyroz, ‘History of Ceylon’, The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Sri Lanka Branch, Vol.25, p.41.

[19] See Ibid, pp.29-30, 33-34.

[20] Queyroz, F. (1930) op. cit., pp.444-445, 707

[21] Ibid, pp.469, 521-522, 707

[22] See Perniola SJ, V. (2004) Catholic Church in Sri Lanka, The British Period, Vol. IX, Tisara Press, pp.141-142.

[23] See Senewiratne, A.M. (2020) Till the Mountains Disappear, The Story of St. Joseph’s College, pp.13-14.

[24] Msgr. Zaleski, who wrote many books under various pseudonyms, used the Conquista to write his “Le Christianisme a Ceylan’ in 1900. The pseudonym he used for this work was Peter Courtenay.

[25] Queyroz, F. (1930) op. cit., p.3*.

[26] The working copy of Fr. S.G. Perera has been safely preserved at the S.G. Perera Library, Tulana.

[27] W.H.M. (1931) “Reviewed Work: The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon by Fernaó de Queyroz, P.E. Pieris, S.G. Perera”, The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, pp.880-882.

****  ****


Filed under accountability, atrocities, authoritarian regimes, centre-periphery relations, commoditification, cultural transmission, discrimination, ethnicity, governance, heritage, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, landscape wondrous, life stories, literary achievements, Portuguese imperialism, Portuguese in Indian Ocean, power politics, religiosity, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, travelogue, unusual people, world events & processes

2 responses to “The Conquista: A Book on Sri Lanka’s Portuguese Period

  1. Chandra R. de Silva

    Congratulations on a scholarly commentary on a very important book on Sri Lanka

  2. Avishka Senewiratne

    Dear Prof. Chandra. Many thanks for the assistance given to me in compiling this article.

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