Map of Trincomalee (1775), Sri Lanka. Mannevillette, D'Apres de, Le Neptune Oriental, 1775
Map of Trincomalee (1775), Sri Lanka. Mannevillette, D'Apres de, Le Neptune Oriental, 1775

The History of Trincomalee during Portuguese and Dutch rule: Introduction

Written by Marco Ramerini. English text revision by Dietrich Köster.


The bay, called by the Portuguese ‘Baía dos Arcos’, where is situated the city of Trincomalee 1 on the island of Sri Lanka (Ceylon) has always been considered as one of the best ports of the world. Its highly strategic position in the centre of the Indian Ocean trade routes and its control of the entire Gulf of Bengal would have rendered the place ideal for the development of a great port and trading centre, but this did not happen. In fact otherwise from what it could be thought, seeing the beauty and the importance of such an anchorage, Trincomalee, never became a centre of primary importance during the Portuguese and Dutch colonial age. The first two colonial powers, which dominated and occupied the coastal areas of the island of Ceylon for about 300 years (1505/6-1796), preferred to focus their interest towards the southwestern part of the island (where have been the ports of Colombo and Galle), while along the east coast the Portuguese and Dutch presence was non-existent, or for part of the mentioned period limited to the surrounding zone of the forts of Trincomalee and Batticaloa.

This lack of interest for Trincomalee and in a generalized manner for the eastern coast was caused by various factors. The main reason, was at the age of the arrival of the Portuguese in Ceylon, the more important kingdom of the island and with which the Portuguese had trade relations (mainly because of the commerce of cinnamon) was that of Kotte, whose territories extended in the south western zone of the island 2 and whose capital, Jayawardhanapura Kotte, was a few kilometers from Colombo, thus Colombo became used from the Portuguese as the main base for the subsequent expansion on the island. During the first Portuguese period the east coast of Ceylon was practically neglected, and only after the first European contenders (the Danish and the Dutch) reached threateningly the Asian seas, the Portuguese deemed the occupation and the fortification of Trincomalee and Batticaloa necessary.

Another reason, for which Trincomalee never rose to the rank of an important trading centre during the Portuguese period, was well explained by Queyroz: “[Trincomalee] … had one great inconvenience, that at that time there were no other neighbours save the Bedas who are such barbarous and unruly men that they did not even show their face.” 3 Queyroz further on observed, that if the zone around Trincomalee would become inhabited and cultivated, it could be easily self-sufficient. 4

The port of Trincomalee, together with those of Kottiyar and Batticaloa, was used, in the 16th century by the kingdom of Kandy, as a port for the export of elephants and walnuts of areca and for the import of the goods of first necessity from other Asian countries. Although Barros indicates Trincomalee between the nine reigns of the island of Ceylon,5 it was only a small principality under the dominion of the Vanniyar6 of Trincomalee and Kottiyar who was tributary and subject at least nominally to the king of Kandy. The territory subject to the Vanniyar of Trincomalee was scarcely inhabited and had an extension of 23 leagues.7 Trincomalee was situated between the areas nominally controlled by the kingdoms of Kandy and Jaffna. The presence of the river Mahaweli Ganga, which does not flow far away from Trincomalee, facilitated the connections with the plateau and with Kandy and thanks to this, an intense traffic of goods was carried out through the ports of Kottiyar and Trincomalee. In the village of Vintêna, which was situated three leagues from Trincomalee, the Kandyans used to trade and to exchange the products of Ceylon (mainly elephants and walnuts of areca) with opium and other consumer goods, with the merchants arriving from the rest of Asia.8

According to what Queyroz writes, Triquilemalê means “mountain of the three pagodas”, which were erected 9 by the king of Ceylon on a high cape above the sea, two of them were situated at the extremity of an overhanging cliff to the sea, the third instead was situated in the middle of the cape on a higher point. This last pagoda, the temple of Koneswaram, was the main of all and one of the most venerated of all India.10 The main reason of the importance of Trincomalee was this pagoda, which Queyroz called the Rome of the populations of the East or the Rome of the pagans.11 The temple is described, in a letter of 1613 written by the Jesuit fray Barradas: “[The temple is]… a massive structure, a singular work of art. It was of great height, constructed with wonderful skill in blackish granite, on a rock projecting into the sea, and occupied a large space on the summit.”12 The village of Trincomalee was situated on the isthmus of the cape where there were the pagodas.

To be continued by: The first contacts with the Portuguese

Sri Lanka (Ceylon) Map (1681). Robert Knox. An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon.

Sri Lanka (Ceylon) Map (1681). Robert Knox. An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon.


1 Called by the Portuguese: Triquinimale (Bocarro “Livro das plantas…”, vol. II, p. 238; Bocarro “Decada 13 da história da Índia”, vol. I, p. 11), Triquilemalê (Queyroz “The temporal and spiritual…”, vol. I, p. 66), Trinquilamale (Bocarro “Década 13 da historia da India”, vol. I, p. 277), Trinquilimale (Bocarro “Década 13 da história da Índia”, vol. I, p. 277), Triquilimale (“Carta do Vice-Rei da Índia” Livros das Monções, Goa, vol. 37, fls 129-129 v).

2 The monarch of the kingdom of Kotte called himself emperor of the entire island, but the directed authority of the reign of Kotte in the first decades of the 16th century extended exclusively on the rich and densely inhabited lands comprised between the course of the rivers Malwatu Oya to the north and Walawe Ganga to the south, while towards the interior it reached the borders of mountains of the central plateau. The kingdom that occupied the mountainous part of the island, scarcely inhabited and poor, was the reign of Kandy or Udarata it at least nominally recognized the power of the reign of Kotte. Also some scarcely inhabited zones situated on the eastern side of the island and subject to small heads called ‘vanniyars’ or ‘princes’ nominally recognized the authority of the kingdom of Kotte, even in effect were independent of fact. In the north part of the island instead the kingdom of Jaffna was situated, this kingdom did not recognize the pretensions of Kotte on all of the island. In 1521 inner revolts carried to the division of the reign of Kotte and to the formation of three reigns, Kotte (governed by Bhuvanekabahu VII), Sitavaka (governed by Mayadunne) and Raigama (governed by Pararajasimha).

3 Queyroz “The temporal and spiritual…”, vol. II, p. 735

The Veddah (Bedas) are the most ancient original aboriginal population of the island. The word Veddah is of singhalese origin and means wild. Today some communities of Veddah still remain, the three main ones find themselves in the vicinities of Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Anuradhapura.

4 Queyroz “The temporal and spiritual…”, vol. III, pp. 1153-1154.

5 Barros “Década III”, p. 117.

6 Hereditary head.

7 Perniola “The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka. The Portuguese period”, vol. I, p. 286.

8 This commerce was mainly in the hands of the Muslim merchants. Queyroz “The temporal and spiritual…”, vol. II, p. 736.

9 According to what Queyroz wrote they were erected 1300 years before Christ. Queyroz “The temporal and spiritual…”, vol. I, p. 67.

10 Queyroz “The temporal and spiritual…”, vol. I, p. 66 and vol. II, p. 736.

11 Queyroz “The temporal and spiritual…” vol. I, pp. 236-237.

12 Perniola, V. “The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka. The Portuguese period”, vol. II, p. 366.

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