Sri Lanka’s claims for reparations from Portugal
by Senaka Weeraratna on 16 Feb 2014 3 Comments

The Portuguese while pursuing a policy of destruction and plunder of Buddhist Temples held out various inducements for Buddhists to convert to Christianity. Conversion meant a sure means of exemption from taxes due to the Government. For example, Christians were exempt from the marala (death duties). This meant that they could leave the entirety of their property to their heirs upon death. Therefore death-bed conversions became quite common to enable one’s kinsmen to secure property upon death. This was a privilege granted only to Christians.

Further becoming a Christian also meant receiving preferential judicial treatment. Murderers and thieves upon embracing Christianity were able to escape severe punishment such as the death penalty. King Bhuvanakabahu VII himself had complained to the King of Portugal that criminals were converting to Christianity purely to obtain lenient punishment. The King of Portugal had issued standing orders to the Viceroy of Goa to pursue a policy of lenience towards converts accused of crimes. This policy was followed in Portuguese-held areas of Sri Lanka. In 1618 pursuant to Jesuit intervention an order that ‘no Christian prisoner be put to death’ was said to have been issued.

The local aristocracy was enticed to convert on the basis that they would be accepted into the fidalgo (upper class) of Portugal and allowed the use of the honorific title ‘Dom’. For example, the well-known Sitawaka court poet Alagiyawanna upon baptism became known as Dom Jeronimo Alagiyawanna.

Ordinary Sinhala people saw in the newly introduced religion ways and means of acquiring benefits, including placing themselves outside the jurisdiction of the civil and criminal laws of their King. In a letter dated January 21, 1549, addressed to the King of Portugal, Friar Antonio do Casal informed the King: “those of the country do not want to become Christians except through interest and ask before baptism what benefit there is.”

Upon baptism the converts began to see themselves as coming within the legal jurisdiction of the monarch of Portugal and such attitudes were reinforced by the keen interest shown by the Portuguese Crown in the welfare of Sinhala converts. The process of conversion did not stop at baptism. The missionaries also zealously promoted intolerance of practices rooted in Buddhism. Any compromise with Buddhism or the Buddhist way of life was to be avoided; the eating of beef, slaughter of animals, consumption of liquor and the like were openly promoted on the assumption that such conduct would put the convert altogether out of the pale of Buddhism.

Bequeath of the Kingdom of Kotte to the Portuguese Crown


Dharmapala’s conversion and withdrawal of royal patronage from Buddhism was followed by the most shameful act of treachery in the history of Sri Lanka when Don Juan Dharmapala by a formal Act gifted the reversion of his rights to his Kingdom to King Philip l of Portugal. When Dharmapala died on May 27, 1597, King Philip l of Portugal laid claim to the Lion throne of Lanka. This tightened the grip of Portugal in all areas of the country other than the Kingdom of Kandy and contributed to further repression of Buddhism. Historian Tikiri Abeysinghe in his book ‘Portuguese Rule in Ceylon 1594–1612’ observes that the whole machinery of the Portuguese controlled State was geared to achieve two complementary ends, namely that the local religions i.e. Buddhism and Hinduism be denied public existence and secondly holding out every inducement to the convert. Abeysinghe adds, ‘The persecution of Buddhism during these years of Portuguese rule was more severe than the persecution of Catholicism under the Dutch’.

On the heavily debated question of whether conversions in Sri Lanka were effected by ‘force’ or ‘at the point of the sword’, Abeysinghe says the question must be framed differently, not whether Catholicism was propagated by force, but whether force was employed against Buddhism and Hinduism, ‘While the answer to the first question is ‘no’, that to the second is an unhesitating ‘yes’. A question that Abeysinghe should have raised at this point is why did the Portuguese use force against Buddhism and Hinduism? The simple answer is to clear the way for the successful propagation of Catholicism.

The Conversion of Prince Vijaya Pala

The Portuguese were able to bring undue influence on a number of members of the Royal households of Kotte, Sitavaka and Kandy to embrace Christianity. This was done largely by way of missionary education, which was directed by political considerations. From the early period of Portuguese presence we learn that King Bhuvanakabahu was able to avoid being converted though Franciscan friars applied much pressure on him to do so. But he was unable to prevent missionaries from gaining intimate access to his court. Missionaries tutored his grandson Dharmapala, which finally resulted in his baptism.

Likewise in the Kandyan Kingdom, Vikrama Bahu’s son, the feeble-minded Jayavira, was converted and Jayavira’s daughter, Dona Catherina, was brought up from her infant days by missionaries. King Senerat who married Dona Catherina after the death of her first husband, Wimala Dharma Suriya, was liberal minded but lacked far sight. He allowed their children, mostly at the request of Queen Dona Catherina, to be instructed by Franciscan priests. It had a denationalizing effect at least on some of the children. The classic example is Prince Vijaya Pala. His conversion to Christianity reveals deep-seated strategies of Portuguese State and Church to turn members of Sinhalese Royal families away from Buddhism.

King Senerat chose his youngest son Maha Astana (later known as Rajasinghe II) to succeed him in the Kanda Uda Rata overriding the claims of the latter’s elder brothers, Kumara Sinha and Vijaya Pala. Senerat was aware of the pre-disposition of young Vijaya Pala towards things Portuguese. Vijaya Pala himself acknowledges this inclination in his correspondence to the Viceroy of Goa: “I was born with a strong predilection for the Portuguese nation. In my earliest days greatly to the satisfaction of the Queen my mother, there was assigned to me as Mestre the Padre Frey Francisco Negrao, who taught me to read and write. Under his instructions I learnt very good customs and etiquette and some special habits which Royal persons employ. Though I am a Chingala by blood I am a Portuguese in my ways and affections”.

Vijaya Pala then laments bitterly, “this is the chief reason for my losing my Kingdom, treasures, the Queen my wife, my son, and all that I possessed.” In another letter Vijaya Pala says, “I have no confidence in my own people’. Paul E Peiris, referring to the above statements of Vijaya Pala says, “A more saddening confession it is not easy to imagine; his pride of race and country were destroyed, and in place of the fervid patriotism which alone befitted a Prince of the Royal family in this, the long drawn out death agony of his people, was substituted an ape like imitation of Portuguese habits and ways of thought”.

Vijaya Pala, harbouring a bitter dispute with his brother Rajasinghe, crossed over to the Portuguese side seeking military assistance to overthrow his brother and gain the Kingdom of Kandy for himself. The Portuguese instead detained him in Colombo and later took him to Goa where he came under intense pressure to convert. He was baptized on December 8, 1646 at the Church of Sao Francisco and given a new name, ‘Dom Theodosio’. The Viceroy of Goa ceremoniously crowned him as the new ‘Emperor of Candia’, but he was not allowed to leave Goa. His entourage totaling 94 persons including Generals of his army, four princes of the Royal family, and his Ambassador were also baptized on the same day.

The reason why Vijaya Pala was not allowed to return to Matale, his abode, was an order given by the Portuguese King to his officials in the mission fields that “if by any means or chance any King or Prince, Gentile fall into our power, he should not be allowed to return to his territories to continue in their rites and ceremonies”. Instead such Princes should be persuaded to receive the water of Holy Baptism.

Vijaya Pala died in 1654 in Goa, a highly disappointed and broken man, a victim of crass stupidity and denationalizing missionary education that finally had the effect of pushing him to desert his country, cross over to the enemy, denounce his race, betray his religion and ultimately give up his Sinhala birth name for the sake of an alien Portuguese name. In fairness to Vijaya Pala, he was not alone among the ruling classes of this country during the long colonial period who found resounding honorifics from foreign conquerors an acceptable compensation for the loss of the reality of power.

Claims for Reparations


Sri Lanka was a victim of western colonialism for a period of nearly 450 years. The rigueur of rapacious colonialism was felt in its most brutal form during the Portuguese period (1505-1658). In exchange for the wonders of Christianity, the Portuguese empowered by the unstinted blessings of the Papacy and the Portuguese Crown, exploited the conquered territories to the maximum by stripping the country’s resources, labour, and the treasures of the Royal houses of Kotte, Sitavaka and Kandy.

Parallel to this policy was their unrelenting engagement in the destruction of the cultural and religious heritage of the Sinhalese and Tamils. The development of Sri Lanka stagnated during the colonial period. Much of the backwardness of post-colonial societies is now attributed by experts to the setbacks suffered by the victims at both the physical and psychological levels.


There is no dispute that the western countries were unjustly enriched and profited substantially from their colonial adventures. The question arises whether Sri Lanka as a victim of western colonial expansion has the right to claim compensation from the Western colonial powers. In respect to the Portuguese period, which is the focus of this paper, it is clear that some of the acts of violence and destruction perpetrated by the Portuguese constitute ‘Crimes’ in international law as understood today.

These crimes can be broadly categorized as follows: 1) Destruction of life - individual and mass murder; 2) Cultural Genocide; 3) Religious and ethnic cleansing including mass expulsions e.g. Muslims from areas under Portuguese control; 4) Expropriation and removal of Treasures, Artifacts, Gems and Jewellery, Gift items made of Ivory etc. to Portugal; 5) Destruction and plunder of Buddhist Temples; 6) Construction of Churches on sites of destroyed Buddhist Viharas and Monasteries; 7) Prohibition of the practice of non-Christian religions i.e. Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam; 8) Religious conversion by use of force; 9) Offer of inducements to embrace Christianity and 10) Channelling of revenue due to Buddhist Temples to Christian Churches and Seminaries; 11) Sexual abuse of women; 12) Slavery and 13) War Crimes.


A Public Apology from the Pope and Portugal. There are precedents:

1] The Vatican released a document entitled ‘Memory and Reconciliation: Church and the Mistakes of the Past’ on March 12, 2000. It sought pardon for sins committed against other cultures including the colonization of native people. This document attributes the roots of evil today to past errors of the Catholics. Pope John Paul II has publicly asked God’s forgiveness for the sins of Roman Catholics through the ages, including wrongs inflicted on Jews, women and minorities. “We are asking pardon for the divisions among Christians, for the use of violence that some have committed in the service of truth, and for attitudes of mistrust and hostility assumed toward followers of other religions,” said Pope John Paul II. The phrase “violence in the service of truth” is an often-used reference to the treatment of heretics during the Inquisition, the Crusades, and forced conversions of native peoples.

2] Pope John Paul apologised to China in 2001 for the errors of the Christian missionaries during the colonial period. The pontiff avoided detailing the Church’s mistakes in its evangelical efforts in China; defended the “outstanding evangelising commitment” of a long line of missionaries, but said many had erred. He asked for “the forgiveness and understanding of those who may have felt hurt in some way by such actions on the part of Christians”.

3] When visiting Ukraine and Greece in 2001, Pope John Paul appealed for forgiveness for wrongs perpetrated by Roman Catholics in the past.

4] The Pope has also asked for forgiveness from Israel for sins committed by Roman Catholics throughout the ages including wrongs done to Jews, women and minorities, while on a visit to Israel in 2000.


However, it must be noted that the Pope has yet to tender an apology directed specifically at Buddhists and Hindus of Sri Lanka and India for wrongs committed by Christian missionaries in these two countries.



It is not within the scope of this paper to engage in a discussion on the viability of instituting legal proceedings against Portugal and other western countries under rules of public international law seeking reparations for wrongs done during the colonial period. Nevertheless it is necessary to draw attention to the existence of a potential claim for reparations from Portugal and colonial powers under international law.

Reparations or compensation are payments offered as an indemnity for loss or damage. There are several instances in history where this has been done and which provide a basis for developing this area of the law in respect to obtaining compensation for crimes committed during the period of Western colonialism.

In 1953, the West German government agreed to pay reparations to Israel for damages suffered by the Jews under the Hitler regime. Japan had to pay reparations after World War II. The United States administered removal of capital goods from Japan, and the USSR seized Japanese assets in the former puppet state of Manchukuo. Japan also agreed to settle the reparations claims of Asian nations by individual treaties with those countries. These treaties were subsequently negotiated.

At a United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban, South Africa from 31 August - 7 September 2001, representatives from third world countries, primarily African, told the Conference that the problems facing their nations, among them widespread poverty and underdevelopment, stemmed in part from slavery and colonialism. The wrongs, they further said, could only be corrected by clear acceptance of the past by the oppressing countries, and by developing schemes for compensation. A number of the speakers urged the Conference to recognize that colonialism and slavery were crimes against humanity.


450 years of colonial rule and particularly the Portuguese period (1505-1658) constitute a long and poignant chronicle of oppression and injustice meted out to the Sinhala Buddhists. It is a sad and tragic chapter. The Portuguese success might have become irreversible if not for the heroic resistance offered by the Kings of Sitavaka and Kandy against foreign aggression. Sri Lanka might have become another ‘Philippines’ - an Asian country stripped of its traditional religion and culture and to complete the humiliation the indigenous Filipinos, have to bear the ignominy of that country being named after a Spanish King i.e. Phillip.

The threat to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and the pre-eminent position of Buddhism in the country’s religious and cultural landscape has again re-surfaced from quarters both within and without the country. It is a hackneyed truism, but worth re-asserting, that those who forget the lessons of history are condemned to live through a re-enactment. In such a context, a wider examination and earnest study of Sri Lanka’s history under western colonial rule and more particularly the factors that contributed to Buddhism becoming almost extinct in Portuguese controlled territory may prove invaluable. 


The author is an Attorney at Law in Sri Lanka 

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