The Portuguese in Ceylon: The Portuguese in Sri Lanka before the war with the Dutch

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

The first Portuguese visiting Ceylon was Dom Lourenço de Almeida in 1505 or 1506. Accidentally, after a storm, adverse winds drove him to the island’s coast near Galle. In the last months of the years 1505 or 1506 Dom Lourenço’s fleet anchored off Colombo.

A memorial of this first landing was erected on a boulder overlooking the Bay of Colombo. The Portuguese call it a “Padrão”. It is a stone cross displaying the Royal Arms of Portugal. This landmark was still seen in 1920 (Still today?) bearing the inexplicable date of 1501. This first expedition admittedly built a wooden chapel and a factory agency in Colombo. These structures were abandoned a few years later. A treaty was concluded with the King of Ceylon, than residing in the city of Kotte, about two hours by foot from Colombo.

At the time the Island was divided into four Kingdoms: Kotte, the most important, Sitawaka, Kandy in the mountains, and Jaffna in the North.

In 1518 the Viceroy Lopo Soares de Albergaria landed in Colombo with a large fleet. Here the Portuguese began to build a small fort named “Nossa Senhora das Virtudes” or “Santa Bárbara”. This first fort was triangular in shape, surmounted by a central tower. Singhalese soon besieged the fort and around 1524 the Portuguese dismantled it.

The Portuguese kept an agent on the Island under the protection of the Singhalese King at Kotte. Giving up of Colombo was a mistake. The colony of Muslim merchants immediately attempted to win back their supremacy in the Kingdon of Kotte and to regain the cinnamon trade. However, they were to be defeated by the few Portuguese still present on the Island.

The Mappillas (Malabar Muslims), who up to 1539 waged a dynastic conflict in the Kingdoms of Sitavaka and Kotte, opposed the Portuguese presence in Ceylon. Martin Afonso de Sousa would definitely defeat the Mappillas at Vedelai in 1538 and Miguel Ferreira at Negombo in 1539. Also in these years with the encouragement of the King of Kotte, the missionaries began the work of converting the peoples of Ceylon to Christianity. Churches were erected in the fishing village of the southwestern coast. Tragically the King of Jaffna massacred more than 600 Christians on the island of Mannar in 1544. However in 1545 the King of Jaffna submitted and paid tribute to the Portuguese.

In October 1550 the Viceroy Afonso de Noronha arrived in Ceylon with 500 Portuguese soldiers, who occupied Kotte and sacked Sitawaka. But the Viceroy lost a good opportunity of establishing the supremacy of Portugal over the entire island. In November 1554 Duarte de Eça built with 500 soldiers a new fortress in Colombo. By 1556 the communities of fishermen occupying the sea coast south of Colombo (70.000 people) were converted to Christianity. The King of Kotte, Dharmapala (rechristened as Dom João Perya Bandara) and the Queen (rechristened as Dona Catherina) were converted to Christianity. Following the King’s example, a few nobles adopted the Portuguese title of Dom (Sir), the Portuguese manners and language. These conversions were a serious mistake for the King and his entourage, because they alienated the majority of the Singhalese population.

In 1560 Viceroy Dom Constantino de Bragança with 1.200 men conquered the town of Nallur, the capital city of the Kingdom of Jaffna, and soon afterwards the Viceroy proceeded to the island of Mannar where a fort was built. In July 1565 the Portuguese decided to transfer the Court and the capital to Colombo. Thus Kotte was abandoned.

The Portuguese at Colombo were surrounded, because the Singhalese had three strong garrisons around Colombo at Wattala, Nagalagama and Mapane. Only in 1574 the Portuguese took the offensive. They plundered Negombo, Kalutara and Beruwela, drove out the garrisons in Nagalagama and Mapane and ravaged the districts of Weligama and Chilaw. In August 1587 Raja Sinha, the King of Kandy and Sitawaka, began the siege of Colombo. The Portuguese town was protected by fortifications with 12 bastions, which the Singhalese assaulted many times, but always failed. In February 1588 they abandoned the siege.

Till the very end of the XVIIth century the Portuguese were masters of the coast forts of Colombo, Galle, Kalutara and Negombo. In 1591 Andre Furtado de Mendonça invaded Jaffna and nominated a new king at Nallur. The Portuguese occupied Kandy for a brief period in 1592, but after a few weeks they were forced to withdraw. They were also masters of the Kingdoms of Kotte and Sitawaka, but several attempts to occupy Kandy resulted in a failure. In 1597 the Portuguese had begun to fortify Galle.

On 27 May 1597 King Dom João Dharmapala died in Colombo without heirs and in accordance with his will, his Kingdom was donated to the King of Portugal. Thus, as King Philip of the then United Kingdoms of Spain and Portugal was proclaimed King of Ceylon, the whole of the territory of the Kingdom of Kotte was thus under the control of the Portuguese, only Kandy was not yet under Portuguese rule. In 1598 the Portuguese occupied Etgala Tota, which commanded the passage of the river Maha Oya. In 1599 a strong fort was erected at Menikkadawara (Manicavare) at the Kandian’s border.

Portuguese forts in Ceylon. Author and Copyright Marco Ramerini

Portuguese forts in Ceylon. Author and Copyright Marco Ramerini

On 31 May 1602 the first Dutch expedition arrived in Ceylon. They dropped anchor at Batticaloa, a harbor, which the Portuguese had never occupied, and established friendly relations with the King of Kandy against the Portuguese. In January 1603 Dom Jerónimo de Azevedo occupied the fort of Ganetenna and the abandoned fort of Balane, the key to Kandy. However, a few days later he was forced to withdraw and Menikkadawara was also lost.

On 1611, de Azevedo marched with 700 Portuguese and many Lascarins to Kandy, taking also possession of the fort of Balane, where he left a garrison. He was also successful in conquering the city of Kandy, which was taken and burnt. The King of Kandy submitted himself to the Portuguese. Although not destroyed, the Kingdom of Kandy had been neutralized.

In 1624 the Portuguese occupied and fortified Trincomalee. In 1628 Dom Constantino de Sá, after strengthening Menikkadawara, crossed the island and occupied and fortified Batticaloa. During the return march to Colombo he raided Kandy. In 1629 Uva (today Badulla) was also devastated.

In 1630 Dom Constantino de Sá, under pressure from the Viceroy, decided to undertake an expedition against the King Senarat’s capital at Badulla. On 9 August 1630 a small Portuguese army of 400 Portuguese soldiers, 200 Portuguese Casados (married men of the reserve army), and about 4400 Lascarins began the march from Sabaragamwa (near Ratnapura) to Uva across Ceylon’s jungles. On 18 August 1630 the Portuguese entered Badulla, which was found deserted, and sacked and burned the town down for two days. On 21 August 1630 the Portuguese began the march to return to Colombo, but were attacked by the Singhalese army. Most of the Lascarins betrayed – only 500 remained loyal – and joined the enemy. For the Singhalese this was an overwhelming victory: of the Portuguese expedition only 130 men survived and surrendered. This defeat placed Portuguese Ceylon in danger. If the Singhalese had the means of blockading Colombo by sea, the complete destruction of Portuguese power in Ceylon would have been assured. After this victory King Senarat captured the fort of Saparagamuwa and set Colombo under siege. But after three months of siege the Singhalese army was forced to withdraw.

To be continued: The war against the Dutch


  • Red: Dutch territory
  • Yellow: transitory Dutch conquest 1765-1766.
  • Green: Portuguese territory


Pero Lopes de SOUSA 1594

Dom Jerònimo de AZEVEDO 1594 – 1611

Dom Francisco de MENESES 1611 – 1614

Manuel Homem MASCARENHAS 1614 – 1616

Dom Nuno Alvares PEREIRA 1616 – 1618

Dom Costantino de SA’ e MENENES de NORONHA (first term) 1618 – 1620

Jorge de ALBUQUERQUE 1620 – 1623

Dom Costantino de SA e MENESES de NORONHA (second term) 1623 – 1630

Dom Felipe MASCARENHAS (first term) 1630 – 1631

Dom Jorge de ALMEIDA (first term) 1631 – 1633

Diogo de MELO de CASTRO (first term) 1633 – 1635

Dom Jorge de ALMEIDA (second term) 1635 – 1636

Diogo de MELO de CASTRO (second term) 1636 – 1638

Dom Antonio MASCARENHAS 1638 – 1640

Dom Felipe MASCARENHAS (second term) 1640 – 1645

Manuel Mascarenas HOMEM 1645 – 1653

Francisco de MELO de CASTRO 1653 – 1655

Antonio de Sousa COUTINHO 1655 – 1656


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About Marco Ramerini

I am passionate about history, especially the history of geographical explorations and colonialism.