WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka


 The travels and adventures of

JOAO RIBEIRO(1641 to 1659 )

(The fifth edition of Ceylon of the Early Travellers by H. A. J. Hulugalle published by Arjuna Hulugalle Dictionaries has been released recently. We give below an extract from one of the chapters.)

Joao Ribeiro was a lad of nineteen when he came to Ceylon to serve in the Portuguese army. He rose to the rank of Captain and was in the thick of fighting during the next eighteen years both against the forces of Rajasinha II, the Kandyan king, and the Hollanders who dislodged the Portuguese, capturing Colombo in 1656 and Jaffna in 1658. In his old age in Lisbon Joao Ribeiro wrote one of the interesting books on Ceylon of his time, which takes its place by the side of Robert Knox’s famous work dealing with the Kandyan kingdom.

Ribeiro was the son of a "barreteiro" or cap maker by profession of Lisbon. He left his native city in March 1640 in the fleet, which brought a new viceroy to India. The voyage took six months. In Ceylon the Portuguese were in a bad way. They had lost Negombo and Galle to the Dutch. The viceroy found an empty exchequer in Goa but felt that something had to be done to retrieve the situation in Ceylon. He fitted out a fleet consisting of "sixteen galliots and fustas, with four hundred soldiers and some brave Captains", under the command of Dom Filippe Mascarenhas, a man of great wealth, which arrived in Colombo in eleven days.

Ribeiro was one of the four hundred soldiers carried by the ships. Within a few days of their arrival the new force went into action and recaptured Negombo. Ribeiro describes with vivid detail the various campaigns against the Dutch, notably the defence of Colombo in the death pangs of Portuguese rule in Ceylon. On May 12th, 1656, the Portuguese surrendered the city after a siege which lasted six months and twenty seven days and in which the garrison was reduced to famine. The defence of Colombo, in which Ribeiro participated, has been judged the most gallant feat of the Portuguese in Ceylon. Ribeiro pays tribute to the bravery of a number of the Portuguese captains, among them Gaspar Figueiro de Cerpe, whose mother belonged to a respectable Sinhalese family. He is the hero of "Brave Island," a novel published in Ceylon, by R. L. Spittel and Christine Wilson.

Special importance

Of the last day of the siege, writes Ribeiro: " By nine o’clock at night we had no more men to fight with them and had they come and followed us into the street, without doubt they would easily have killed the few we had. That night they brought a quantity of fascines and earth with which they made parapets towards the city, and by morning they had turned the artillery; when we saw this, a Council was held to decide what should be done under the circumstances. Some voted for sending the few women and children we had into a church and setting it and the whole city on fire, while the few men who remained should die sword in hand in the midst of the enemy, so that the very memory of the people of the city might not be left, and the enemy might not boast of his conquests. The prelates of the religious orders who were present at this meeting vetoed the suggestion, declaring that such would be the work of gentiles and utter barbarians, and one condemned by all laws human and divine: our duty to resign ourselves to the will of God and not to oppose His divine decrees: for though His Majesty had laid special importance on the defense of the Island, yet it was his Ministers who would be called upon to explain why no relief was sent for this length of time.

Ribeiro always regretted that the Government in Portugal did not do enough to retain Ceylon, which to him was "the loveliest parcel of land, which the Creator has placed upon this earth." He thought that the Portuguese should have settled in Ceylon in larger numbers than they did. If a beginning had been made with smaller settlements, the larger would have volunteered if they heard the success of the former. "Thus", he writes, "Ceiloa would have been peopled, our forces united, our countrymen enriched and delivered from anyone who could oppress them at any time, and our Kingdom becomes the most prosperous and wealthy the world has ever seen, as in the remarks I have still to make".

Strategic position

He argued that Ceylon had resources of which few countries of its size could boast. "Its cinnamon is the best in the world; its gems are in such abundance, and only diamonds and emeralds are wanting; its elephants are the most prized of any within our discoveries, its pepper is the finest in the East, the pearls and seed pearls of its waters are considered very excellent...Methinks those who declared that this Island is the terrestrial Paradise, did so not in consequence of its fertility or the profusion of every kind of dainty to support life, not for the blandness or the healthiness of its climate, nor for the Footprint two palms long which the gentiles have fabricated to attract veneration to the spot but because, while its extent is limited, it produces such abundance of riches". There was also its strategic position.

Ribeiro’s description of the country, its people and their habits is based on shrewd observation and is a valuable contribution to the social history of the time. Land tenure, administration of justice, rites and ceremonies, food habits, medical practice, nature of marriages and customs of the Sinhalese, wild animals, the pearl fishery and peculiarities of elephants are among the subjects with which he deals in the first part of the book. The pearl fishery brought men from many countries. Ribeiro writes:

"Half a league to windward on the same shore all the businessmen who come there assemble and a free Fair is held, laid out like some gallant city with streets and rows of shops; where they collect every kind of merchandise which our discoveries trade in with the nations of Europe and the whole of Asia. For this purpose they bring their gold, silver in bars and wrought, all kinds of precious stones, amber, perfumes, carpets, meleques, money, with the rarities of all the provinces of the world, in such a fashion that if there is anything anywhere of which one can spend time and money in seeing it, it is this great Fair. From the surroundings is brought every variety of food, and though the people are numerous and of various races and religions - Christians, Jews, Moors and Gentiles - they can all obtain the food to which they are accustomed.

Sacred mountain of Ceylon

"Here everything is bought and sold which each one would like to take to his own country - not only pearls, but everything on which profit can be made". The Fair lasted fifty days and it must have been among the most famous of its kind in the East.

Like others who came to Ceylon and lived to write about it, Ribeiro describes Adam’s Peak, the sacred mountain of Ceylon. "This mountain", he writes, "is one of the wonders of the world, for although it is situated twenty leagues inland, on a clear day sailors can see it the same distance out at sea".

Ribeiro was a man of religion. He often invokes the name of the Supreme Being. When the Constantino de Sa fell in battle, he says: "At last wounded by bows and arrows he yielded up his soul to the Creator". Although he glosses over the cruelties of the Portuguese he does not always condemn the Sinhalese rulers. For example he writes that, after the battle of Gannoruwa, in which the Portuguese were completely routed, "the King and the Prince of Uva issued orders not to kill the Portuguese who remained alive".

When the war against the Dutch was over, Ribeiro was taken prisoner and sent to Batavia, from where he returned to Portugal in 1659. He saw service in Europe thereafter and was for a time Captain of the garrison at Funchal in Madeira. While there he married Sona Felipa, daughter of Pedro Catanho, a member of a noble family of that island. Her brother Matias Catanho had been Ribeiro’s companion during his service in Ceylon. In 1680, Ribeiro returned to Lisbon and commenced to write the "Fatalidade Historica" which he dedicated to King Dom Pedro II on the 8th of January 1685.

A French translation of the book in a greatly abbreviated form by Abbe le Grand was published in 1701 in Paris. The Academy of Science of Lisbon produced the original Portuguese version in 1836. The late Sir Paul Pieris published an English translation of this in Ceylon which ran into four editions.

Ribeiro’s prologue to his work says: "These memoirs cost me more to acquire than to commit to writing, because they were obtained not from hearsay, but from toil and experience. To commit them to writing I had not to steal the time from any other occupation. They are not published for the display of rhetoric or style, for such should not be expected from a soldier who has spent the best years of his life in war. They are due to my regret that there is no one willing to occupy himself in placing on record the greatness and the events of Ceiloa so that they may reach the notice of everyone".

There are many fuller descriptions of Portuguese rule in Ceylon by contemporary writers like de Queyroz, de Barros, Couto and Friar Negrao. Captain Ribeiro’s account was based on the first-hand experience as a soldier. Though his memory may have failed him sometimes, his is a sober and responsible piece of work by a man of faith and understanding. "The worst", he says, "is that in spite of everything, someone who reads or hears this might say - and with a certain amount of reason - that these are exaggerations and falsehoods, to ascertain if I can obtain reward and acquire some reputation for myself. I therefore protest before Jesus Christ that I have set out no matter which is fictitious, but the pure and simple truth".

Captain Joao Ribeiro died in Lisbon in November 1693. Dona Felipa whom he advised "to occupy herself for such portion of life as still remained in praising God our Lord", found consolation in a second husband.

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