Placing Valentijn’s Book in Its Context

Chandra R De Silva

We should welcome the efforts of Thiru Arumugam to draw attention to the Description of Ceylon by François Valentijn ……………….  (see …………………….  That work is a valuable source of Sri Lankan history,  and as Sinnappah Arasaratnam has pointed out, his work has been used by many subsequent writers. However, Valentijn’s work needs to be used with caution. When Arasaratnam writes that ‘Valentijn’s is one of the most accurate accounts of the pre-European period of Ceylon history up to his time’ (p. 33), he is comparing Valentijn’s work only to those of other Europeans. Despite their defects, Sinhalese and Pali historical works written before Valentijn (from which European writers drew information) were certainly more comprehensive on that subject. As Arasaratnam himself comments, ‘it was noted that Valentijn often had only partially published his source and that he was not always the best judge of what was important. . .’ (p. 43).

There are a number of historical events on which Valentijn’s account has been questioned. I will mention just two of them. The first is the date of the initial arrival of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka. In 1906, Donald Ferguson suggested that it was likely to have been 1506 and not 1505, as several European chroniclers had suggested. That suggestion of 1506 has been further supported in recent times in works that I have authored (see the reference in below). Secondly, Valentijn’s assertion (derived from Couto) that the ruler of Kotte agreed to pay tribute in a treaty agreed to on that first visit, is now questioned because we have evidence that the Portuguese failed to obtain cinnamon directly from Sri Lanka in 1508 and did not protest about any lack of payment. It is also suggested by the fact that, when Lopo Soares de Albergaria appeared in Colombo with a large fleet in 1518, he did not ask for vassalage or tribute, but only permission to build a fort.

Nevertheless, Thiru Arumugam’s efforts to draw attention to Valentijn’s work should be appreciated.


François Valentijn’s Description of Ceylon, S. Arasaratnam, ed., Hakluyt Society, 1978.

C. R. de Silva, “Sri Lanka in the Early Sixteenth Century: Political Conditions, University of Peradeniya, History of Sri Lanka, Vol. II, ed. by K. M. de Silva, Peradeniya: University of Peradeniya, 1995, pp. 11-36.

C. R. De Silva: “Portugal and Sri Lanka: The Historiography Today,” 20 April 2021,

1 Comment

Filed under accountability, ancient civilisations, centre-periphery relations, historical interpretation, life stories, literary achievements, politIcal discourse, Portuguese imperialism, Portuguese in Indian Ocean, power politics, sri lankan society, transport and communications, travelogue, world events & processes

One response to “Placing Valentijn’s Book in Its Context

  1. I endorse an encomium with Prof Chandra R de Silva as I find that his map on Galle Fort is inaccurate. Thus it could be because he [that is VALENTIJN] never sited [sic “SIGHTED’] Ceylon solely because he relied on his own sources.

Leave a Reply