February 2014


What the Portuguese Left Behind: The Cultural Influence of the First Colonials
February 2014




Explorer Joris van Spilbergen received by King Vimaladharmasuriya I. Note the king’s guards with Portuguese helmet. From Description of Malabar and Ceylon (1672) by Philip Baldaeus

Words Richard Boyle


By 1505 the Island then known to the civilised world as Serendib had, over the centuries, experienced a variety of cultural influences, mainly because it became the natural focal point at the southernmost part of the sea routes that connected Asia with the Mediterranean. So it was that Chinese, Greek, Roman, Persian, Arab and Indian sailors and merchants converged on the Island and left their cultural imprint to a greater or lesser degree.


But the year 1505 saw the beginning of an utterly different type and intensity of cultural influence. A Portuguese fleet in pursuit of ships belonging to Moorish and Arab traders was blown off course near the Maldives and ended up at Galle. It was the first contact the Islanders had with Europeans and their dissimilar way of life and advanced military equipment.


So alien were the Portuguese that the Sinhalese chronicle Rajavaliya described them when they built a fort at Colombo in 1517 as "exceedingly fair of skin and beautiful. They wear boots and hats of iron: they rest not a minute in one place: they walk here and there. They eat hunks of white stone (bread) and drink blood (wine): and give two or three pieces of gold and silver for one fish or one lime. The report of their cannon is louder than thunder when it bursts upon the rock of Yugandhara: their cannon balls fly for a gawwa (a gawwa roughly equals 6.5km, so this distance is an exaggeration) and shatter fortresses of granite."


At a time when Serendib was vulnerable to invasion from the north, the arrival of the Portuguese prevented the Island from becoming an Indian province. Instead, Ceilão as they named it gained a unique identity as the they were the first of three colonial powers-the others being the Dutch and British-to have an imposing influence on the culture over a period of 450 years. Not all of the Portuguese influence was beneficial, but the positive aspects have contributed to an extraordinarily diverse society in which traditional aspects have thankfully survived.


Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya asserts in "The Portuguese Cultural Imprint on Sri Lanka" (2000): "The Portuguese presence in Asia was generally limited to urban areas but Sri Lanka was an exception. The institutions that defined the matrix of social interaction with the local context were extended to non-urban areas. The Portuguese have left their stamp on Sri Lankan social administration, society, fine arts and language."


Roman Catholicism
Roman Catholicism is the main form of Christianity in Sri Lanka, having been the first to be introduced by Portuguese missionaries. However, the over-zealous nature of the conversion is the least tasteful aspect of the Portuguese cultural imprint. But they were more successful in retaining their converts than the Dutch missionaries who tried to spread Protestantism after the Portuguese were expelled.


This is partly reflected in the fact that Catholics, who include both Sinhalese and Tamils, comprise 6.1 percent of the population (1.2 million) as per the 2012 census, while Protestants account for 1.3 percent. Unfortunately only ruins of Portuguese churches remain. Indeed insignificant architecture is extant: even the many forts the Portuguese built were reconstructed by the Dutch, the stronghold master-builders of the period.


Surnames
Many Sinhalese adopted Portuguese surnames-although most were modified to a degree-but this practice did not necessarily denote conversion to Roman Catholicism. Such names (and their Portuguese form) include Corea (Correia), Croos (Cruz), De Abrew (Abreu), De Alwis (Alves), De Mel (Melo), De Saram (Serra), De Silva (Da Silva), De Soysa or De Zoysa, Dias, De Fonseka or Fonseka (Fonseca), Fernando (Fernandes), Gomes or Gomis, Mendis (Mendes), Perera (Pereira), Peiris or Pieris (Peres), Rodrigo (Rodrigues), Salgado, and Vaas (Vaz). The last example has become well-known in international cricket due to Chaminda Vaas, formerly Sri Lanka's most successful new-ball bowler.


Portuguese Creole
The interaction of the Portuguese and the islanders led to the evolution of a new language, Portuguese Creole. This flourished as a link language between the 16th and mid-19th centuries and continues to be spoken today (there is no written form) by an extremely small percentage of the population: in 1992 it was estimated to be 30,000.


Speakers of Portuguese Creole are generally members of the Burgher community (descendents of the Portuguese and Dutch) who reside in Batticaloa and Trincomalee. In addition it is spoken by the Kaffir community (Bantu slaves brought to the Island by the Portuguese and later by the Dutch and British), in Puttalam. Portuguese Creole consists of words from Portuguese, Sinhala, Tamil, and even Dutch and English. It is considered to be the most important creole dialect in Asia because of its vitality and the influence of its vocabulary on the Sinhala language.


Sinhala words of Portuguese origin
This vocabulary influence was remarkable: there was a rapid absorption of perhaps a thousand Portuguese words into Sinhala. These "loan words" as they termed by lexicographers rarely appear in the same form as the original; the vast majority have undergone naturalisation.


Examples include: almariya (wardrobe), annasi (pineapple), baldiya (bucket), bankuwa (bench), bonikka (doll), bottama (button), gova (cabbage), kabuk (laterite, a building material), kalisama (trousers), kamisaya (shirt), kussiya (kitchen), lensuwa (handkerchief), masaya (month), mesaya (table), narang (orange), nona (lady), paan (bread), pinturaya (picture), rodaya (wheel), rosa (pink), saban (soap), salada (salad), sapattuwa (shoe), simenti (cement), sumanaya (week), toppiya (hat), tuwaya (towel), viduruwa (glass).


Music and dance
Apart from Buddhism, the second biggest influence on Sri Lankan music, is Portuguese, for the colonials brought with them western instruments such as the ukulele and the guitar, and introduced musical forms such as the ballad. More significant, though, was the importation of the rhythmic instrumental dance music called baila, which was popular with the Portuguese traders and their Kaffir slaves. Characterised by its upbeat 6/8 time, baila has today become a fashionable genre of Sri Lankan music. It includes comical lyrics and accommodates modern instruments-electric guitar, keyboards and drums-and is often played during parties and weddings.


Cuisine
Those who assume that Sri Lanka's hot curries were the creation of the Islanders will be surprised to learn that the Portuguese introduced chillies to the local cuisine. Until then, pepper had been the means by which curries were given a ‘heaty' (Sri Lankan English) taste. Not so surprising, considering the local lack of knowledge regarding bread revealed in the comment that the Portuguese ate "hunks of white stone", is that they were responsible for the establishment of bread-making. They also introduced the tomato. The Islanders took to Portuguese cakes, such as the bolo fiado or bolo folhado, a layer cake filled with cadju (cashews), and sweets such as boruwa and fuguete.


Clothing
Illustrations in Portuguese and Dutch descriptions of the Island in the 16th and 17th centuries reveal that the Sinhalese soldier's dress was of Portuguese influence. There is an engraving from Description of Malabar and Ceylon (1672) by the Dutchman Philip Baldaeus that depicts the reception of his fellow-countryman, explorer Joris van Spilbergen, by King Vimaladharmasuriya I. The king's guards are shown wearing a Portuguese-type helmet, white jacket and kilt.

They may have been the earliest colonials in the Island, but their influence was not diluted or eradicated by that of the Dutch and British
Moreover, the kings of the Portuguese, Dutch and British era invariably wore Portuguese costume, complete with hat and shoes. This is demonstrated in Robert Knox's "An Historical Relation of Ceylon" (1681), in which there is an illustration of King Rajasingha II (1635-1687). "His apparel is very strange," Knox remarks, "not after his own country. . . he has a long band hanging down his back of Portuguese fashion."


These are the type of cultural influences the Portuguese left behind when they were ousted by the Dutch in 1658. They may have been the earliest colonials in the Island, but their influence was not diluted or eradicated by that of the Dutch and British as it had become an essential component in many aspects of the life of the Islanders.

 

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    King Rajasingha wearing a costume with “a long band hanging down his back of Portuguese fashion”. From Robert Knox’s 'An Historical Relation of Ceylon' (1681)

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    17th Century wood carving of Portuguese soldier at Embekke Devale (Photography Nihal Fernando)

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    Remains of a Portuguese church at Myliddy in Jaffna peninsula (Photography Nihal Fernando)

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    “They wear boots and hats of iron”. Saman Devale Ratnapura (Photography Nihal Fernando)

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    Sketch of baila dancers from frescoes at the Purvarama Vihara, Kataluwa (1886)

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    Two figures in the Kaffirhina dance by J. L. K. van Dort (late 19th Century)

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    Hot chillies

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