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Sri Lankan Muslim




         In the same way that the arrival of the Portuguese in 1496 in Calicut meant the commercial extinction of the Coast Moors of that country, their appearance in Ceylon in 1505 marked the downfall of  the Ceylon Moors. The rounding of the 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. Failing in both these methods of compelling the Portuguese to abandon their designs on the coastal regions, the former tried to create differences between the Portuguese and the Hindus, but without any appreciable measure of success.


         By 1504, the Europeans 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 them they have never regained the distinction.


         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 Sinhalese king 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, and the Portuguese who were the natural enemies of the Moors 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 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 in the Pettah of Colombo was found, bearing a Kufic inscription of the Tenth Century. It is still a matter of doubt as to whether this stone originally belonged to the mosque at Gal Baak.


         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. Eveything 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.


         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 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 inn vereration. 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.


         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, Parakama Bahu IX 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.


         Parakrama Bahu 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 Parakrama Bahu’s throne 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.


         For a time all parties concerned appeared to be tired of fighting. The attention of the Sinhalese monarch was absorbed in the affairs concerning the government of the rest of his kingdom in the hills, 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. When Bhuwaneka Bahu II became King in 1537, two of his brothers, Maya Dunne and Rayigam Bandaara set up separate kingdoms at Sitawaka, or Avisawella and Rayigama respectively. 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 andd 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.”


         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 recconciled themselves to the inevitable and once more settled down to trade.


         Having decided to quit fighting and concern themselves to more profitable occupation, the Moors discovered the impoverished state of trade 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.


         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.”


         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.