Muslims in Portuguese Sri Lanka (1505-1658) – Wars, Expulsions & Survival

The Portuguese period in Sri Lanka is arguably the darkest period in the history of Muslims in this country. In the same way that the arrival of the Portuguese in 1496 in India meant the commercial extinction of the Coast Moors of that country, their appearance in Sri Lanka in 1505 marked the downfall of Ceylon Moors.

Portuguese Discover India (1490s)

vasco da gama

Illustration of Vasco da Gama landing in Kalicut, India. Image credit: Wikimedia.

The rounding of the South African cape by Vasco da Gama was an epoch-making event in many ways. The news spread with great rapidity and particularly in Portugal which was at the time one of the leading naval powers in the west, there was great speculation in regard to the possibilities of trade with the East, now that direct communications had been opened. Extravagant stories of the fabulous wealth of India, with her gold and spices and precious stones, created a headlong desire for the adventure of reaching this El Dorado. The intriguing fascination of the mystic East with its Pagoda Tree with leaves of gold stirred wild dreams in a people by nature imaginative. To the merchant and explorer alike, the gentleman adventurer and the fugitive from justice and not a few wild-cat speculators and pirates, the lure of the land of golden dreams was irresistible. Nor did the pious Catholic missionary shrink from the arduous labors which awaited him in this new vineyard. Every vessel bound for the East brought small knots of this heterogeneous mob. Chief among them were the merchants who were anxious to carry back in their own ships the rich produce of India and the neighboring countries.

It was not long before the Coast Moors of South India began to realize the perilous conditions of their trade. At first they made some slight show of resistance which in time developed into open defiance.

Arrival of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka (1505 AD)

By 1504, the Portuguese had annexed some possessions in India and were steadily displacing the Arabs both on land and sea. The latter having had to admit the superiority of the Portuguese sailors began to show signs of a disposition to make way for the Westerners. However, the nation which had for so many centuries wielded undisputed supremacy in the Indian seas were reluctant to give up their privileges. As a retaliatory measure, they roved the high seas and plundered Portuguese ships returning to Europe heavily laden. The precarious form of existence did not continue for any considerable length of time. In order to put a stop to further depredation, Francisco de Almeida, the Portuguese Viceroy of India, in 1505 sent his son, Lorenzo, to capture some of the tramp vessels of the Moors and the Arabs. The freebooters, so as to avoid an open engagement with the enemy were passing far to the South of Ceylon, by way of the Maldives Islands. Whilst in pursuit of them, Lorenzo drifted to Colombo by reason of contrary winds. On the eventful day of his landing at Colombo Arab and Moorish predominance along the littoral of Ceylon was doomed for ever. Up to that time the Moors held first place along the sea coast of Ceylon. Since then they have never regained the distinction.

Talking about the arrival of Portugues in Colombo, Brohier writes, “a flotilla of eight Portuguese sailing vessels anchored in the Bay (Colombo) on November 15, 1505, the Commander of the expedition saw, beyond a rummage of masts and spars of smaller shipping and off the shore marred by a crescent of sand, clusters of huts hidden by foliage, some cadjan godowns and two limewashed Mosques.” [Historical Series by R.L. Brohier]

The Portuguese soldiers upon arrival were described to Parakrama Bahu, the King of Ceylon, as a race of men “exceeding white and beautiful. They wear boots and hats of iron and always move about. They eat white stones and drink blood; they have guns that make a noise like thunder and even louder, and a ball shot from one of them, after flying some leagues will break a castle of marble and even or iron.”

Needless to say the contest between these supermen and the Moors was an unequal one. The Portuguese were trained and disciplined soldiers conversant with modern methods of war-fare and equipped with weapons unheard of by the peaceful and industrious Moor, but the former were too much taken up with the beauty of the country to pay any attention to the Moors. Instead, they sent an embassy to the King of Kotte asking for permission to trade, and this request was granted. Percival states that the difficulty the Sinhalese felt in defending themselves against the Moors and the Arabs influenced the former to receive Almeida hospitably.

In 1505, The Portuguese who were the enemies of the Moors. So they did not miss the opportunity to destroy a Muslim mosque which stood near the root of the South-West arm of the Colombo breakwater. The exact site of this mosque is said to be at Gal Baak, where the Colombo Harbour Master’s office once stood. Tennent says that the spot was held in veneration by the local Muslims as being the tomb of one of their saints. Several Colombo Moors of the older generation to the present day subscribe to this view.

In 1827 a slab of stone which was used as the door step of a dwelling-house of Dutch official in Pettah, Colombo 11 was found. It bore a Arabic inscription written in Kufic style Arabic letters of the 10th Century. It is still a matter of doubt as to whether this stone originally belonged to the mosque at Gal Baak. For more see, 1100-year-old Colombo Muslim Stone Inscription.

Calm Before The Storm (1505-1517)

During the twelve years following 1505, nothing is known concerning the Portuguese and their relations with Ceylon. They were busy extending their possessions in India during this time. Having made Goa their capital for India, they went further east till they conquered Malacca. The annexation of that place had the effect of bringing Ceylon into the scheme of things again. From its convenient situation between Goa and Malacca, Ceylon became a desirable possession and the Portuguese decided on its conquest.

In the meanwhile the Moors of Ceylon were happy to be left to carry on their inland trade unmolested by the interference of an outside power. However, tales of the cruelty and hated of the Portuguese towards the followers of the Prophet in Calicut had reached Ceylon and their co-religionists here were in fear and trembling at the possibility of a second visit from the Christians. The Moors appreciated the extent of loss that would be sustained if the Portuguese established towards them and remembering the wanton insult by the desecration of their mosque in 1505, they had a foretaste of what was in store for them. Even more important than this was the fact that in the event of hostilities between the Portuguese and the Sinhalese, the Moors who were largely domiciled along the sea-coast would be in a relatively closer proximity to a powerful enemy engaged in a bloody war-fare.

Accordingly, they set about ways and means to meet the impending evil. Their behavior the less opulent Sinhalese of the Low-country became more cordial. By this friendly attitude they contrived to ingratiate themselves into the good graces of those in power and succeeded in making a secret treaty with the Sinhalese. They related to the ministers of the State, the avarice and cruelty of the Portuguese in India and grossly exaggerated the stern measures which had been employed to subjugate the Indians. Everything possible was done to create dread and suspicion in the minds of the Sinhalese by tales of the frightfulness and horrors which have followed in the wake off European conquest on the neighboring continent.

Portuguese Invasion of Colombo (1517 AD)

At length Lopez Suarea Albegaria arrived at Colombo in 1517 with a fleet of seventeen ships. The Moors of Colombo made a feeble attempt to prevent a landing, but were soon overpowered. The small Moorish fort which was situated at the corner of the crescent forming the bay of Colombo was captured, but not before the Moors made a desperate struggle to defend it. There was much wanton blood shed in the conflict. The superior arms and training of the Portuguese easily asserted themselves over the antiquated weapons of the undisciplined Moors. As if remembering the Moroccan hordes from northern Africa which over-ran and pillaged the south of Europe, the Portuguese in Ceylon almost out-rivaled the savagery which had been inflicted on them in a past age.

Having established themselves in Colombo, the Portuguese commenced a vigorous campaign of the Cross against the Crescent. The Moors were subjected to every torture and humiliation. It is supposed that it was during this time that the martyrdom of two Moorish saints took place at Mutwal in the north of Colombo. The story has a live legendary interest and is deep-rooted in the neighborhood of the scene where the incident is said to have taken place.

It is said that a party of Portuguese soldier’s intoxicated with drink came upon a pretty Moorish girl who had gone to the sea-shore with her brother to pick drift-wood. Terrified by the appearance and demeanor of the strangers she fled calling out to her brother for help. Seeing that resistance would be of no avail he followed his sister. Both were pursued through the wooded jungles of Mutwal (i.e. Modara/Colombo 15) and the young Muslim was eventually tracked down to a spot behind the convent of the Brothers of the Christians Schools of today. Here the hunted Moor stood on a rockery crag overlooking the sea. With the enemy gaining on him every second, the faithful follower of the Prophet raised his voice and called on God to save him, where upon the ground opened under his feet and received him.

The unfortunate girl escaped the wrath of her pursuers similarly. She too entered a huge rock at a point about a quarter of a mile away. A small monument has been erected here and the place is held in veneration. This rock is known to the present day as Yongalle, or “Moor’s Rock.”

Infuriated by the cruelty of the Portuguese and driven to desperation by the oppression to which they had been subjected, the Moors made an attempt to re-capture their fort. They delivered a powerful attack on it and kept the foreigners besieged for a short time. After a very plucky fight on the part of the Moors they were forced to own defeat owning to the superiority of arms and heavier ordnance of the Portuguese.

King with Moor Support Attacks Portuguese (1520 AD)

portuguese colombo fort

A illustration of Colombo in 1518 from “Historical Series” by R.L. Brohier. Image credit: Sri Lanka Genealogy.

As soon as open hostilities with the Moors had ceased and the surrounding country reduced to tranquility, the Portuguese proceeded to erect a factory and rebuild the old, mud fort of the Moors. News of these material preparations were forthwith despatched by the Moors to the Sinhalese King, Vijayabahu VII of Kotte who had been watching the trend of events with grave concern. The defeat of the Moors also contributed to make the situation dangerous and the Sinhlese King demanded to know the purpose for which these arrangements were being made. The Portuguese replied that the construction of a fort had been permitted by the treaty of 1505 and that such precautionary measures were necessary to guard against the activities of the Moors. The extent of the success of this subterfuge is indicated by subsequent events.

King Vijayabahu VII was too wise to be satisfied with this explanation. He commenced preparing for war and was engaged with these arrangements for nearly a whole year. A powerful army was collected, and in 1520, 20,000 men, including a large number of Moors, besieged Colombo for a continuous period of seven months. Eventually, the attack was not only repelled and Kotte kingdom was put in jeopardy, but the Sinhalese were forced to submit and pay tribute to the King of Portugal. Encouraged by this success and fearing a subsequent attack, the fort was entirely re-built with stone, although both the Sinhalese and the Moors did everything that was possible to prevent the work being carried out.

Vijayaba Kollaya and Division of Kotte Kingdom (1521)

Around this time another development unfortunate incident took place that resulted in further division of the already divided island and strengthened the Portuguese cause in Sri Lanka.

Kotte Kingdom Map

Map of Sri Lankan Kingdoms, after the “Spoiling of Vijayabahu” in 1521 AD. Image Credit: Wikimedia

Before his elevation to the throne in 1513, prince Vijayabahu used to live with his brother Chakrayudabahu, and shared his wife, as an associate husband. During their stay at Menikkadawara, the princess gave birth to four princes, Bhuvanekabahu, Para Rajasinghe, and Mayadunne Raja (One prince died young). Soon Chakrayudabahu and his wife died, leaving the three princes with Vijayabahu.

Once Vijayabahu was raised to the throne as King Vijayabahu VII in 1513, he married another princess of Kirawelle. She brought with her a boy named Deva Rajasinghe whom Vijayabahu adopted. Later King Vijayabahu VII plotted to make Deva Rajasinghe his heir. The three princes came to know about the plot and fled from the capital (Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte). Prince Mayadunne made his way to the Kingdom of Kandy ruled by King Jayavira whose queen was a cousin. With the help of Kandy, he marched down to Kotte. His two brothers joined him on the way at Kalaniya. They sacked Kotte and assassinated the King.

Subsequently there arose a squabble on succession in the royal family. The Great Minister Illangakon advised the kingdom be divided into three parts. Youngest prince, Mayadunne, received Sitawaka, Denawaka and Four Korales as Kingdom of Sitawaka. Prince Rayigam Bandara received Raygama, Walallawiti and Pasyodun Korale (excluding the sea ports) as the Principality of Raigama These were granted as fiefs by Royal sannas and they were given the titles as Kings. The eldest prince, became King Bhuvanekabahu and ruled the rest of the territory as emperor from Kotte.

Divided Kingdom, Muslim Troops and Portuguese

For a time all parties concerned appeared to be tired of fighting. The attention of the Sinhalese kindom was absorbed in the affairs concerning the government of the rest of the kingdom, whilst the Moors were anxious to retain some of their disappearing trade. On the other hand, the Portuguese themselves were desirous of concentrating their energies in the collection of cinnamon and the spread of the Roman Catholic faith, for they were not only a conquering but proselytizing race as well.

During this interval there followed several developments which affected the security of the Sinhalese throne. The Kotte King, Bhuwaneka Bahu, had directed that his grandson, Dharmapala should succeed him as king. Mayadunne thereupon openly refused to recognize this order of succession and commenced hostile preparations. Learning this, the King hurried to Sitawaka and with the assistance of the Portuguese succeeded in capturing that city and putting Maya Dunne to flight. Soon afterwards Mayadunne collected an army and in 1538 made another attempt to defy his brother who was the ally of the Portuguese, but again without success. Nothing daunted by his second failure, Mayadunne in 1540 delivered a final attack on Bhuwaneka Bahu before he made his exit from Ceylon history.

On this occasion Mayadunne joined forces with his brother Rayagam Bandara and was also supported by an army of Moors. More than this, Muslim troops had been brought over for the purpose from Calicut and Cochin.

A long, fierce struggle ensued. The combined armies fought desperately, but they were doomed to defeat a third time. The Portuguese with the Royalists completely routed them and burned to the ground the city of Sitawaka. In connection with the outside assistance sought by the Sinhalese against their enemies, the Portuguese, the late Mr. J.P.Lewis, C.M.G. writes as follows concerning the village of Akurana, in the Ceylon Antiquary, Vol : VII, Part of III, p. 187:

“The tradition is that three Arabs made their way to Kandy during the Reign of Raja Sinha. When the Portuguese attempted an invasion, the King engaged their services to fight the enemy. Ultimately the King was successful and desired the men to settle in the country. They asked for wives among the Kandyan women. The King gave them encouragement, and, during the Perahera, the three men boldly carried three Kandyan young women away, and concealed them in the Palace. The relatives then appealed to the King who advised that, as the Arabs had already taken the women by the hand and led them away, it was best to let them go. The relatives consented. The men went to Akurana and settled there. These were the ancestors of the people of the village.”

Muslims Reconcile with Portuguese Rule

Political situation in Sri Lanka, early 17th Century.Wikimedia

The third encounter appear to have been the turning-point in the policy of the Moors in regard to their attitude towards the Portuguese. The former had realized that the Europeans had established themselves firmly in Ceylon by now and that their friendly relations with the Sinhalese King had rendered the position of the Portuguese doubly strong. The prospect of driving the Christians out of the country was remote and nothing remained to be gained by fighting any longer. Accordingly, the Moors reconciled themselves to the inevitable and once more settled down to trade.

Moors appear to have decided to quit fighting and concern themselves to more profitable occupation. In the meantime they had also discovered the impoverished state of trade in the interior of the country and entered into friendly relations with the Portuguese. The frequent contact between the Moors and the Portuguese and the business connections which resulted served to bring about a better understanding by which both parties benefited. It so turned out that during the intermittent warfare between the Portuguese and Sinhalese afterwards, the Moors trade was carried on between the belligerents.

The Portuguese also found it to their advantage, commercially, to tolerate the Moors and hence they began to enjoy a considerable amount of freedom. In spite of definite instructions from the Portuguese Provincial Council in Goa and the Roman Catholic dignitaries against employing Moors by the Christians, many Moors were still appointed as Vidane’s (Headmen) etc. by the local Portuguese.

In the process of time, the old wounds of racial and religious difference were healed and so great was the cordiality which resulted that when in 1586, RajaSinha I, the son of Mayadunne, at the age of over a hundred years laid siege to Colombo, we find the Moors this time taking the field as the faithful allies of the Portuguese.

The Portuguese historian, de Couto says of them, “The Moors, natives of Ceilayo of whom there would be some fifty villages, fought with as much courage and willingness as the Portuguese themselves.” He goes on to add that, “They always served with much loyalty, upon which they greatly pride themselves, they being the only ones in India in whom we never found deceit.”

Speaking about this time a writer says, “these distinctive features in the character of the Moors may be seen even today amongst their descendants, by those who know them intimately and have had the opportunity of observing these national traits. This is accounted for partly by their conservative nature and rigid though simple up-bringing, for the Moor when once he espouses a cause will remain faithful to it with an un-relaxing tenacity.”

In his,”ceylon: The Portuguese Era”, Dr Paul E Pieris states that even in Colombo there was a Moorish tailor named Belala, who, by 1625 had resided for thirty years and had also amassed great wealth. On the occasion of the marriage of his daughter to another Moor, the wedding procession paraded through the city at night and several Portuguese had also decorated and illuminated their houses and also joined in the procession. One of the influential Portuguese residents had even sent one of his African slaves to slaughter the cattle according to Islamic Shariah rites for the marriage feast.

Expulsion of Muslims from Portuguese Territory (1626)

The little reconciliation and bridges built between Ceylon Muslims and Portuguese appears to come to an end towards the latter part of Portuguese rule.

“Fernao de Queyroz in his Conquista Temporal e Espiritual de Ceylao (1687) refers to the fact that Philip IV ordered the expulsion of the Moors from Ceilao, an order carried out by Constantino De Sa in the beginning of 1626. He notes that the number of those expelled is not known for certain but that quite a multitude of them fled to Candea (i.e.Kandy). “The Candiot”, he says “profiting by this occasion to win over our most declared enemies, received many of them into his ports, whence, owing to fresh negligence, they were afterwards again introduced into our ports, though they were always known to be such bitter enemies in hatred and by profession; and in Batecalou alone the idolatrous king placed a garrison of 4000 of them, thus showing his mind by favouring our enemies”. [Asiff Hussain, Sarandip p60]

It was King Senerath of Kandy who settled the nearly 4000 Muslims, who escaped the wrath of Portuguese captain de Saa, in Batticaloa district. These settlers might form majority of the ancestors of the large concentration of Muslims in the populous areas like Kathankudy in the Eastern Province. In the 17th century most of the eastern coast of Sri Lanka was dense jungle, except for port settlements like Trincomalee which was the main port for Kandy kingdom. (Nicholson Cove in Trincomalee for example had became the site of a small Arab/Muslim settlement several centuries before at 13th and 14th century, as corroborated by Trincomalee Muslim tombstone inscriptions.)

Portuguese policy of explusing Muslims during this time appears to have been primarily directed against further expansion of the local Muslim community by way of migration from other countries such as Arabia and Peninsular India. This could be seen as an attempt to prevent those Muslims who were not permanently resident in the island, including perhaps Arabs and Indian Moors from making this country their permanent domicile or profiting from its trade.

Asiff Hussain writes in Sarandip p59-61 as, “however as Abeyasinghe (1986) notes, after the heat of De Sa’s expulsion order had died down, it seems certain that many Muslims unobtrusively made their way back to the Portuguese territories as there are references to groups of Muslims in Alutgama and Kalutara after 1626 and the groups in Matara numbered 200-300 and was strong enough to seek Dutch assistance against the Portuguese. He adds that many Moors seem to have avoided expulsion simply by arguing that they were indigenous or staying away from their homes when the officials came to round them up.”

End of Portuguese Sri Lanka (1640-1658)

During this time period the Dutch (Netherlands) were engaged in a long war of independence from Spain (which was in union with Portugal 1580–1640). Dutch also slowly developing trade ties and building a empire of their own in the Indian Ocean. The Kandy Kingdom thought to liberate the country from the Portuguese with the help of Dutch.

Beginning from 1638, the Dutch with some help from Kandy Kingdom and locals fought and eventually took control of all Portuguese strongholds and territories in Sri Lanka. The Portuguese ports of Galle and Negombo fell to Dutch in 1640. After extensive fighting, the Portuguese surrendered Colombo in 1656 and Jaffna, their last stronghold, in 1658. Superior economic resources and greater naval power over Portuguese enabled the Dutch to dominate the Indian Ocean.

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We would like to thank Mr. Fazli Sameer for generously giving us permission to use all material contained in his, “Sri Lanka Genealogy” websites and blogs.

See Also:

* Muslims in Dutch Ceylon (1640-1796) – Another Dark Period in Muslim History



2. The Portuguese in Sri Lanka (1505-1658)

3. Wijayaba Kollaya

4. Sarandip by Asiff Hussain

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