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Defeat of Portuguese at the Battle of Gannoruwa

by S. M. J. Neangoda - DN Mon Mar 29 2004

The Portuguese, after getting a foothold in the island during the reign of Dharma Parakrama Bahu 1495-1518 continued to consolidate themselves during the reign of King Vijaya Bahu 1518 - 1525. The erection of a stockade in Colombo which was allowed as requested by the Portuguese, later became a fortification to the dissatisfaction of King Vijaya Bahu.

It is during the reign of King Buwaneka Bahu VII 1525-1551 that the Portuguese involvement in the internal affairs of Kotte and Seethawaka became pronounced. The Portuguese were involved in the wars that were waged by King Buwaneka Bahu against his brother, Mayadunne, King of Seethawaka. Buwaneka Bahu began to lean on the Portuguese more and more, whilst the position of the Portuguese became secure.

Historic Gannoruwa where an Agriculture Research Institute is now located

Indeed, the arrival of the Portuguese in the island in the year 1505 saw the beginning of an ignoble chapter in the history of Sri Lanka, which had been written time and again and the never ending story of the foreigners in Sri Lankan politics unfolds.

Disunity among the rulers of Kotte and Seethawaka and unabated warfare between them for supremacy had a devastating effect on the economic, religious and cultural life of the nation. Moral decadence had set in through a corruption of values of people by an alien influence which had a stranglehold on the rulers. The King of Kotte himself being severely dependent on the Portuguese to safeguard his crown saw the gradual decay of Kotte into ruins and finally to be a puppet in the hands of the Portuguese.

The Portuguese support was a big factor in maintaining themselves in power, whether it be the Kingdom of Kotte or Seethawaka. The Portuguese policy was two fold; one was their fervent anxiety to spread the Christian faith and the other was the desire to secure the lucrative trade. The conversion of his future subjects was what the Portuguese wanted from the King of Kotte for the price of military assistance that they were to offer.

According to Sir Paul E. Pieris the negotiations which were carried out in connection with the claims of Buwaneka Bahu reveal the work of conversion in a pitiful light. The Portuguese were indeed interested in securing what profit they could derive and decided to throw their weight with Buwaneka Bahu and not on the side of Mayadunne of Seethawaka.

Puppet King Dharmapala

King Buwaneka Bahu having no male issue to succeed him, wished that his grandson Dharmapala should succeed him to the throne of Kotte. Dharmapala was the son of Princess Samudra Devi, the King's only daughter who was given in marriage to a young Kinsman Veediya Bandara. Dharmapala not having better claims to the throne of Kotte over the other contenders, to legitimaize his claim sent an effigy of the child to the King of Portugal, which was crowned at a ceremony in the Portuguese King's court in the year 1541.

With the death of King Buwaneka Bahu the Prince succeeded to the throne 1551-1597. In Seethawak King Mayadunne 1521-1581 was succeeded by his son Rajasinghe I 1565-1593, a warrior of great valour. Decadence of Kotte Kingdom continued with the ascendancy of Seethawaka in political power, resulting in the abandonment of Kotte, necessitating Dharmapala to take refuge with the Portuguese in the Colombo fort. Rajasinghe's attempts to dislodge the Portuguese from Colombo took place in the sieges of 1579-1580 and 1587-1588.

The Portuguese who were forced to dire straights could not be dislodged due to the arrival of reinforcements from India and Dharmapala remained a figurehead after the restoration of the Kotte Kingdom. The Portuguese according to the Chulawamsa "were heretical evil doers. They laid waste field sand gardens, burnt down houses and villages, destroyed the noble families and in this way had brought ruin on the Sinhalese; they broke into the towns, into the Relic Chambers, shrines and monasteries, destroyed the image houses, Bodhi-Trees, Buddha Statues. They built forts at various places and carried on war unceasingly". The same sentiments appear in the works of Ribeiro and De Queyroz, the greatest of Portuguese historians of Ceylon.

It had been the aim of the Portuguese to capture the entire Island, having already subjugated parts of the maritime provinces with fortifications in Colombo, Galle, Matara and Trincomalee.

It is known that the King was greatly annoyed when the Captain General of Colombo, Diogo De Mello had appropriated for himself an elephant which the King had presented to a Portuguese tradesman.

As a reprisal the King had seized two handsome horses which the General had sent to the Kandyan Kingdom for sale. This personal quarrel may not be the real reason why Diogo De Mello wished to teach the Kandyan King a lesson, though the latter had made an endeavour to come to terms.

The more plausible reason appears to be the desire to subjugate Kandy. On March 19, 1638, the General advanced from Colombo with a large army consisting of 900 Portuguese, 5,000 Lascarins, Sinhalese in the Portuguese ranks, Thuppasis or half caste Portuguese, Kaffirs, Kannadis and Malays. The King's anxiety to effect a peaceful settlement only provoked the General to be vituperative in addressing the King's emissary.

Battle of Gannoruwa 1638

With the aim of capturing Kandy Diogo De Mello entered Balana from Atapitiya and found the place abandoned, for the King's men knowing that they could not avert the sack of Kandy, had retreated to the jungles till their turn came to spring to action. De Mello being emboldened by the lack of opposition at the outset, marched through Amunupura to Danture and to Gannoruwa.

The villages passed after Danture were Walagama, Dehideniya and Gannoruwa. The army then entered Kandy and searched for what was left of the palace. Rajasinghe II in accordance with the never failing plans of the Kandyans had retreated to the hills to bide time. He had taken everything of value that was in Kandy.

Tradition has it that Rajasinghe II with his Generals was reconnoitering the place around the present Dodanwela Devale before the battle which was eminent.

While passing the Devale the King's crown had fallen from the head. The King was then told that he was passing the ancient Dodanwela Devale and that the presiding deity was all powerful. The King is said to have made a vow that if he succeeded in the forthcoming battle, he would offer his crown and the steel sword that he hoped to use against the Portuguese as a thank offering to the Dodanwela Devale.

The presence of the crown and the sword at this Devale, till it came into the possession of the Kandy Museum showed that the King had kept his word. It is reliably understood from authoritative sources that the crown which was in the collection of the Kandy Museum had been stolen by burglars and smelted.

The burglars had been brought to book and part of the crown had been recovered and used for gold plating of the present replica. The gold that had been recovered had been given to the Central Bank it is understood. Records at the Museum, including the administrative reports of the relevant period will throw more light on the matter.

After the sacking abandoned Kandy, De Mello and his army, thinking that they had accomplished their objective began returning back to Colombo.

The final phase

They had counted without their past. The object of the Portuguese was to entrench themselves on the slopes of Kiriwaththalawa (present day Kiribathkumbura), but before they reached high ground they found themselves surrounded by the Kandyan forces. The King's army in full force awaited the return of the Portuguese at Gannoruwa. During the night woodmen had been busy cutting down huge trees to block the path of the returning Portuguese. They were surrounded on the plain which now forms the Gannoruwa experimental station.

"Jingals" and other larger guns of the Sinhalese were used to open fire and De Melo soon begged for an armistice, but the King's orders to the drummers were to proclaim that if any Sinhalese who were with the Portuguese did not immediately leave them they would be put to the sword the next day.

On Sunday, the 28th of March 1638, the Kandyan Sinhalese gave battle to the Portuguese army. The Portuguese army being forced into severe straits, managed with great difficulty to advance from Mulgampola as far as the plain of Gannoruwa.

It said that "a roar of countless thunder bolts hurtled through the sky, from front and near blazed forth the hedge of fire and as they slowly moved from Hunukotuwa to Gannoruwa our army faced and fought step by step and our victorious King halted and raised a cry of triumph.

The enemy fled as one man. The Portuguese in their panic to get away are heard to have said "It is enough if we escape with ourlives". Only thirty-three Portuguese soldiers were spared and the rest of the Portuguese army was annihilated.