The Black Princes who betrayed their motherland
by Senaka Weeraratna on 08 Jan 2015 1 Comment

The Sunday Times (Plus) of December 21, 2014 carries a review of a Book entitled ‘The Black Prince’s Chapel’ by Sagara Jayasinghe (Vijitha Yapa Publications, Price: Rs. 2450) under the subheading ‘The architect inspired by the Black Prince’s chapel’. The reviewer states: “The church of Our Lady of the Gate of Heaven in Telheiras, Lisbon goes down in history as the one and only building erected in Portugal by a member of a Sri Lankan royal family. Consultant architect, Sagara Jayasinghe, during a visit to Portugal two years back was fascinated by the chronicles and documentations on the political and religious affairs between Portugal and Sri Lanka.


“The visit also intrigued him to explore the church of Our Lady of the Gate of Heaven in Telheiras; the Black Prince’s Chapel. Subsequently this year, as a beneficiary of the scholarship programme of Fundação Oriente Museu, Lisbon, he was able to engage in a much deeper study about the architectural significance of the church. The result is this book.”


He adds, “The 400-hundred-year-old church of Our Lady of the Gate of Heaven, Telheiras in Lisbon is ....historically unique in relation to the political and religio-cultural affairs of Sri Lanka and Portugal during the overseas expansions of 16th and 17th centuries. It was originally built by Dom Joao, known as the Black Prince (identified in Portuguese texts as O Principe Negro) who, according to the evidence gathered was the last male heir of the old Kandyan dynasty in Sri Lanka.


“Dom Joao, the Black Prince’s ancestry can be traced back to the fall of the Kotte kingdom and the emergence of the Kandyan kingdom. He was the son of Yamasinha Bandara who was placed on the throne of Kandyan kingdom in 1592 by the Portuguese. After Yamasinha’s sudden death, his 12 year-old son, Dom Joao, was proclaimed as the king. But due to political instability in the region, he was forced to leave the kingdom and seek protection from the Portuguese in Colombo. He was entrusted to the care of the Portuguese Franciscans missionaries.


“Subsequently, Dom Joao was sent to Goa, where he lived for 15 years. Later he was ordained as sub deacon priest, was called to Lisbon and finally settled down at Telheiras. Around 1625 he built this church and convent in appreciation of what the Franciscans had done for him.” 


This review is glaringly incomplete. It is totally one sided, imbalanced and fails to place in context the manner in which the Portuguese induced members of the Royal families of the Sinhalese to abandon their traditional religion i.e. Buddhism and Buddhist heritage, and embrace the religion of the foreign occupier and which in turn led to distancing of such converts from their subjects i.e. the people they were meant to lead and govern, ultimately resulting in a life of self-imposed exile for the royal converts in a foreign clime i.e. Portugal or Goa.


It was a pathetic outcome for several members of Sinhalese Royal families that found themselves trapped by the deceptive intrigues of the foreigner only to realise rather late in the day that they were victims of their own folly and myopia.


The following account highlights in the main the betrayal and treachery of two such ‘Black’ princes from Sinhalese Royal families, namely Don Juan Dharmapala and Prince Vijaypala (an elder brother of King Rajasinghe the Second of the Kandyan Kingdom). This account is extracted from an earlier work by this writer (with slight editing) under the title ‘Repression of Buddhism in Sri Lanka by the Portuguese (1505-1658)’.


Inducements to convert


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, i.e. 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 use of the honorific ‘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 21 January 1549 addressed to the King of Portugal, Friar Antonio do Casal informed the King as follows: “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 promoted with zeal intolerance of practices which are rooted in Buddhism. Any compromise with Buddhism or Buddhist way of life was to be avoided e.g. 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.


This type of conduct of the Portuguese was consistent with the manner in which they conducted the Inquisition both in Portugal and in Goa (at the instigation of the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier) and it could well be said without any fear of contradiction that the Portuguese introduced the Inquisition into the Portuguese controlled areas of Ceylon (originally called ‘Sinhale’) to ensure strict orthodoxy in religious belief and conduct on the part of the natives so much so that those Sinhalese who wished to remain as Buddhist monks had to flee the Portuguese held areas either to Sithawaka or the Kandyan Kingdom or face death at the hands of the Portuguese. At the end of the Portuguese rule in 1658, there were hardly any Buddhist Temples, Hindu Kovils or Muslim Mosques in the areas governed by the Portuguese. They had all been destroyed.   

Bequeaths kingdom of Kotte to Portuguese Crown


Don Juan 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 event 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, 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 Christianity. 


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 him being baptized.


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 lacking in far sight. He allowed their children, mostly at the request of his wife 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. The conversion of Prince Vijaya Pala to Christianity reveals deep-seated strategies of Portuguese State and Church policy 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. Senarat 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 and says as follows:

“...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, “that 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”. Historian 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 Vijaya Pala came under intense pressure to convert. He was baptized on December 8, 1646 at a ceremony held 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 altogether totaling 94 persons including Generals of his army, four princes of the Royal family, his Ambassador were also baptized on the same day.  


The reason why Vijaya Pala was not allowed to return to Matale, his abode, has been based on 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 as a highly disappointed 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, it must be said that he was not alone among the ruling classes of this country during the long colonial period who found resounding honorifics from foreign conquerors as acceptable compensation for the loss of the reality of power.  

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