Portuguese influence in Sri Lanka
The Portuguese took over the administration of the Kotte kingdom in
1597. The administration was headed by a Captain- General with a ‘vedor
da fazenda’ (superintendent of revenue) controlling finances. Both
reported to Goa, but were also permitted to correspond directly with
The Portuguese divided the kingdom into four administrative
divisions, Matara, Sabaragamuwa, sathara korale and sath korale. Each
division was under disawe. The korales were under a vidane and four
atukorales. The newly created ‘korale vidanes’, collected the revenue.
They reported to the vedor.
In Dharmapala's time, almost all the important officials were
Sinhalese. The chiefs who took the oath of allegiance to the king of
Portugal in 1597 and those who witnessed the deed gifting Kotte kingdom
to the Portuguese were Sinhalese. After 1597 these positions were held
by Portuguese. From 1621 the disawe was a Portuguese. They had extensive
powers. They could imprison entire villages in wartime.
There was a massive redistribution of land once the Portuguese took
over. The best lands, specially gabadagam, went to favourites, both
Portuguese and Sinhalese. The Portuguese, including high ranking
administrators got the best villages. The captains-major of the army
were each provided with four of the best villages. Portuguese held
nearly half of Walallaviti korale and 33 of 46 villages in the rich
Mahapattuva of the Pasdun korale. In Kiraveli pattuva 30 villages were
held by 12 Portuguese and 31 villages by 86 Sinhalese. The cultivators
occupying these lands stayed on. Cinnamon and elephant workers also
retained their lands.
These Portuguese were not permanent settlers. Their interest in the
island was temporary. A captain held office for a limited period. He had
no interest in the land beyond that period and unlike the hereditary
landlord, he did not improve the land. Each successive owner exploited
the land. There was wanton destruction of valuable timber such as
coconut, specially jak. Instead of obtaining timber from the forests,
the precious jak, was cut down liberally for the construction of houses
and boats for the Portuguese. The King of Portugal could not stop this.
Land registers (tombo) were compiled. The first tombos were based on
the Sinhala lekam miti. Every page of the tombo was numbered and signed
by the Vedor. A committee studied the tombos, decided the rents each
village had to pay and revised the tombo. A second, more ambitious tombo
followed, which recorded the number and names of villages, extent of
cultivable and cultivated land, type of crop and average yield per acre,
number of craftsmen in each village and all customary dues owed to the
Lekam miti were not available for this second set of tombos.
Historians think they were deliberately held back. The public told the
Portuguese the records were lost. The persons who had kept them had died
or the records had got destroyed during ’perali’. In Kalutara they said
that the records disappeared after de Azavedo killed the kanakapulle.
Lekam miti were produced only for Munneswaram and Alutgama. Sinhala
officials were not prepared to divulge information either. The
Portuguese were anyway reluctant to rely on the information given by
them. The new tombo therefore recorded the situation under the
C.R. de Silva observed that the tombo had political overtones. They
brought a rigidity to land ownership which was not there before. The
Sinhalese complained ‘all our possessions are entered in the tombo and
the officials rob us of them. The price of areca has increased, but we
are forced to sell areca worth many seraphim at the old price of four
larin because ‘this abuse’ is now registered in the tombo.’
Service tenure was replaced by a land tax (quit rent). A third of the
tax was to be paid in pepper, balance in cash. . Under the Sinhala king,
this tax had applied only to a limited number of lands. Now it applied
to all lands except church lands.
The Portuguese thereafter began to sell their lands to other
Portuguese who turned them to ande or otu lands cultivated by others.
Cinnamon peelers, elephant workers, woodcutters and bullock cart men
also started selling their lands and a class of landless peasants was
created. This sale of land was eventually stopped. The cinnamon peelers,
particularly, were prevented from selling their lands.
The administration was corrupt. The disawas openly engaged in trade
with Udarata, even when they were at war with it. They traded salt,
opium, cloth and weapons for arecanut, wax and sapan wood. Some had
agents inside Udarata. Judges decided cases according to the bribes
offered. Judicial proceedings were not recorded, and the judges returned
from their circuits with bulging bags. The Vedors da Fazenda were also
dishonest. They paid themselves before they paid anyone else. It was
hinted that they altered the tombo to suit their purposes. This affected
the administration. Hospitals were ill equipped. Soldiers slept on the
floor during the 1588 siege.
All manner of bogus expenditure was entered into the accounts and two
accountants ended up in prison in Goa. Pay was given to fictitious
soldiers. Officials sent their servants and pages to pose off as
soldiers on pay day. Once when rice had been issued to 90 lascarins, the
figure was changed to 900.
The Sinhalese had to deliver a dozen areca to every ten, making an
increase of four or five thousand nuts on each consignment. The extra
nuts were taken by the officials. There was also trickery in the sale of
elephants and at the customs.
The Sinhalese Christians who had served the Portuguese loyally were
rewarded. Simao Correa got the enormously rich village of Talampitiya
and the six villages attached to it. Alagiyawanna Mukaveti also got
land. The churches got the lands belonging to the Buddhist temples. Land
was also given to missionaries. Sinhala Christians were given special
treatment. They were given lenient punishments in the law courts. They
were exempted from taxes, such as tithe and marala. From 1618 no
Christian prisoner could be put to death.
The other Sinhala inhabitants moaned, saying the Portuguese ‘have
brought us to the pinnacle of misery and despair. We do not get even a
full meal. As soon as any one of us dies, our families are deprived of
our lands. The lands are not transferred to the next of kin and our
wives and children starve and die.’ Parents had to pawn or even sell
their children to pay expenses.
Portuguese subjects frequently escaped to the Udarata. Sath korale
inhabitatnts complained to Wimaladharmasuriya I (1591-1604) about the
treatment they received from the Portuguese. They wanted
Wimaladharmasuriya to get rid of the Portuguese. In the 1620s, the
lascarins refused to pay quit rent for their lands. They said the
Sinhala king gave the militia tax free grants of land and villages as
rewards. Portuguese misrule was one of the causes for the 1616 and 1630
The writings of T. B.H Abeyasinghe, CR de Silva, KD Paranavitana and
P.E.Pieris were used for this essay.