Under Siege

It is the Year of Our Lord 1506, only eight years after Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the maritime route to India. Following the landing at Calicut—now called Kozhikode—the Portuguese fleets began working their way south.

The bearded explorers from a small corner of Western Europe were searching for a tree—Cinnamomum verum, or true cinnamon—an obscure species, whose inner bark has an unique fragrance. And they were looking for pimenta das Índias—black peppercorns to spice up the drudgery of XVIth century victuals.

When the twenty-five year old captain Dom Lourenço de Almeida sailed east after rounding the southern tip of India, the Portuguese found what they were looking for—the mythical island of Ταπροβανᾶ, named by the Ancient Greeks.

Taprobana, renamed Ceilão by the Lusitanian explorers, was an island paradise—but the Portuguese soon found that the locals were in no mood to be colonized. In line with tradition, the sea captains found a suitable bay to shelter the caravels, made landfall, and built a fort. This construction, named Santa Cruz da Galé—Holy Cross of the Galley (the ship, not the kitchen)—stands today as one of the emblematic locations in Sri Lanka.

After its foundation, the Portuguese went on to found Colombo, still the capital today with its original name. As usual, the explorers established feitorias—coastal trading posts—from which they traded with the locals. In West Africa, slaves were the main ‘commodity’, but out east, it was all about spices.

By 1640, the Galle Fort (now pronounced Gaul) ruled over 282 villages—collectively, these covered the most fertile area for the precious tree bark. During the preceding century, the priests and missionaries had converted many to Catholicism, resulting in an abundance of Fernando, Silva, Perera, and Fonseca. You never see anyone called de Vries or Smith.

A local Sri Lankan song that explains that the Portuguese are very clever—they come over and steal all your stuff. Aptly, if you know any Lusitanian curses, the tune is called pruthugeesi karaya.

As usual, family units were quickly formed, and the language spread widely. The Portuguese left behind hundred of loanwords—my Sinhalese improved rapidly after I discovered that. Shoe is sappatuva, anger is raivaya, and wheel is rodaya. Plum is amesi, baila is dance, and my favorite—rude—is asnu. If you are a cunning linguist, you can knock yourself out here.

Just don’t hold your breath if you’re searching for Dutch or English loanwords. After centuries in country, the Dutch left seven words and the English five. Among the celebrated Dutch contribution is kakkus (kakhuis)—hooray for toilets.

During the XVIth century, the Portuguese became embroiled in a war with the kingdom of Kandy, in the central part of the island. In 1580, as the century drew to a close, Lusitania was conquered by Castille, which had a major impact on Portuguese possessions abroad—the navy was destroyed during the disastrous foray of the Spanish Invincible Armada, led by the violently seasick, ocean-hating Duke of Medina-Sidonia.

The Dutch took advantage of the situation to attack Lusitanian colonies in far-flung outposts, from northern Brazil (Surinam), to the treasures of the East. In particular, they lusted after the lands of Ceylon and the Ilhas Malucas, or crazy islands—navigation in the Moluccas is challenged by a compass anomaly—and the delights of cinnamon and nutmeg.

In 1640, the same year as the Portuguese defenestrated the Spanish regent in Lisbon’s Black Horse Square (shown in the video) and kicked out the Castillians, the Dutch laid siege to Galle. They were supported by a large army from the Kingdom of Kandy, whose ruler had ambitions to conquer the southern part of the island.

The Dutch bombarded the fort for four days and then stormed it. When the fort was finally taken, there were one hundred and seventy Portuguese casualties—estimates of total European dead range from 450 to 1350, so the Dutch left many corpses on the ground.

The memory lingers—it resulted in a Dutch aphorism that reflects the cost of the siege.

Gold in Malacca, lead in Galle.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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