Friday, August 5, 2011

Why do we have to rely on Portuguese, Dutch or English writings with their limited knowledge and misunderstandings of the native people?

This post is in reply to the following comment By Ruwan on EMBARRASSING BITS IN PROFESSOR NALIN DE SILVA’S PUBLIC PROCLAMATIONS on 7/19/11

"Every time I read literature that deals with attempts to understand this island's past, the following question keeps coming up in my mind. If Tamil is one of the oldest languages in human civilization (Wikipedia) and Sinhalese civilization has a 2500 year written history, why can't we find documentation in these two languages that describes the situation in this island at the time period of interest? Why do we have to rely on Portuguese, Dutch or English writings with their limited knowledge and misunderstandings of the native people?"

Even when the period of interest has plenty written about it from a native perspective, foreign writings can be invaluable as corroborative evidence. Very often however the past is a Jigsaw puzzle and foreign writings do serve as the missing piece. For example

“……..a brief reference to the regional and not merely Sri Lankan importance of the translation of the Mahavamsa. In time it became the source for determining the identity of Devanampiya Piyadassi mentioned in a series of inscriptions on pillars and rocks in many parts of India, an identification eventually confirmed in the early 20th century, as the great Emperor Asoka. …”
- Sir James Emerson Tennent: Colonial Administrator and Historian by K M De Silva- JRASSL, NS, VOL. XLI, SPECIAL NUMBER., 1996-

Even if this particular period of interest and this particular locality of interest (Kingdom of Jaffna) was super rich in the ‘availability-of-reliably-informative and corroborative-documentation-in-native-languages’ department (which it’s not), Portuguese historians such as De Queyroz, Couto and Dutch historians such as Valentyn stand out, I mean shine as contemporary/near contemporary sources of information on the conditions and people of the political unit called the Kingdom of Jaffna before the foreign powers changed its context.

Let me give some examples which will help you re-evaluate these people’s ‘imperfectness’ as historians.

On page 363 of Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon, Queyroz describes how the king of Jaffna in flight from the Portuguese, took shelter in a ‘strong house',

“…and he followed the prince who had encamped a league and half from the place in a strong house of sunbaked brick(1) with its bastions and round turrets and kept in readiness for similar disasters….”

On the same page there is a footnote by the translator about this strong house

“(1) In Kopay where afterwards was built the church of our Lady of Guadalupe. From the information given by the Author on P. 567 Father Guana Prakasar, O. M. I., was able to identify the site. See his paper in the C. Antiq : II. 194-5.”

Let me also try to showcase the vital contributions by these pre 18th century foreign historians to our historiography.

“… :indeed, Do Couto who had access to manuscripts in the possession of Sinhala princes at Goa, asserts that, the king on his return to Lanka was murdered by this Alakesvara.”
CHAPTER VI (THE KOTTE DYNASTY AND ITS PORTUGUESE ALLIES 1412-1550,) Short history of Ceylon by H. W. Codrington-

“….. By the beginning of the next century, if not at the end of the preceding, the kingdom was tributary to the great continental empire of Vijayanagar. Nunez states this definitely, and one of the regular titles of the emperor was ‘who levied taxes from Ilam’; the Sinhala poems of the time also constantly speak of the people of Jaffna as Canarese. Valentyn mentions an invasion of the Canarese, that is of the Vijayanagar forces; ….”
- ibid.

“Apparently connected with the event was the expedition to Adriampet in South India, occasioned according to Valentyn by the seizure of a Lanka ship laden with cinnamon.”
- ibid.

“He was succeeded by his son Pandita Parakrama Bahu VII., who was attacked and slain by his uncle Ambulugala Raja: Do Couto states that he reigned for not more than four years.”

“… In 1513 the king was reported to be dead, leaving his two sons quarrelling over the succession; but it is stated by De Queyroz that in 1518 he was an old man with a white beard, and that Vijaya Bahu, impatient of his father's prolonged life and incapacity to rule, dethroned and subsequently poisoned him…”
.- ibid.

“For general history see Raj. and the version of the same preserved in Valentyn, Oud en Nieuw Oost Indien, vol. v.; extracts from Do Couto and De Barros by Donald Ferguson, J.R.A.S., C.B. xx. No. 60; De Queyroz, Conquista Temporal e Espiritual de Ceylao, Government Press, 1016; …”
- Codrington, op. cit., AUTHORITIES FOR CHAPTER VI - “ …

Valentyn (p. 74), speaking of Vira Parakrama Bahu, the grandson of Parakrama Bahu VI., states that Ambulugala Raja was his mother's sister's son. The. Raj. has confused Ambulugala Raja to some extent with Mayadunne Parakrama Bahu who held the same principality; according to Do Couto the last named prince survived Parakrama Bahu VI.” -
Codrington, op. cit., AUTHORITIES FOR CHAPTER VI.