17th century Portuguese land records at the SL Archives and their historical importance
Posted on June 15th, 2016

[This article is based on a talk given by Haris de Silva at the National Archives in May 2016, under their monthly public lecture series]

Portuguese land records were compiled after King Dharmapala (1551-1597) donated his kingdom to the Portuguese monarch. Dharmapala, was later, known as Don Joao Dharmapala, after his conversion to Catholicism in 1557 by the Franciscan priests in Kotte.

Dharmapala and his donation

Dharmapala, the beleaguered king, harassed by Sitavaka Rajasinha on the one hand, and by the Portuguese captains and generals on the other hand, donated his kingdom to the king of Portugal, by deed of gift dated 12/8/1580, and later, was ratified on 4/11/1583, with name Don Philip II, substituted in place of Dom Henrique, as the earlier done had died by then.


When Dharmapala died on 27th May 1597, the donation became effective, and the donee, the king of Portugal, apparently desirous of knowing the worth of the donation he had received, ordered his Viceroy in Goa, India, to get a tombo compiled indicating what he had received, and what revenues it yielded annually. The official who had been assigned this work, was Antao Vaz Freire, who had travelled from Lisbon to Colombo via Goa.

There are two distinct land records of the Kingdom of Kotte, which the Portuguese had compiled during their administration of the Kotte kingdom (1597-1656). They are the Tombo and Foral of 1614, and the Revenue Register of 1599.

Early Sri Lankans who had seen the documents in Portugal

Perhaps, the first two Ceylonese who had seen the documents in Lisbon were Fr.S G Perera and PE Pieris. Of them, the Archives have no information, as to who informed the CSO (Colonial Secretary’s Office) of the existence of those records, in Lisbon, and had requested it to get a copy made of them for Colombo.

However, in the introduction to the Ceylon Littoral 1593, published by P E Pieris in 1949, he says he examined the third volume of the tombo, at the Bibliotheca Nacional in Lisbon, and requested the government to obtain a copy of it. P E Pieris, a Christian, was a noted scholar and a member of the Ceylon Civil Service. Perhaps those facts too would have carried weight with his request.

The other person who had seen the volumes in Portugal at that time had been Fr. S G Perera S J, but there is no reference that he had requested a copy be made for Ceylon.

Thus, it may be safe to assume on the available evidence, that it was the request made by PEPieris, which made the CSO to get copies made for Colombo. The questions I have with regard to the publication of his monograph titled Ceylon Littoral 1593, and why he mentions the date as 1593 and why Bibliotheca National, and not the Torre de Tombo Ultramarino in Lisbon; I am not a scholar of the Portuguese administration in Ceylon or of the archival practices in Lisbon; hence, I will leave that matter to be settled by a historian who has specialized, or will specialize on that period in the island’s history.

Local scholars and academics who had specialized on the Portuguese administration of the island

The few local scholars and academics who had studied the political administration of the Portuguese in the island are, PEPieris, Fr. SGPerera, OM da Silva, Tikiri Abeyasinghe, and CR de Silva.

Tikiri Abeyasinghe of the Dept. of History of the University of Ceylon, who was the first academic to specialize on the period of Portuguese administration in Ceylon, has said, the impatient heir was busy trying to size up the legacy before the ailing old man was decently out of the way. However, C R de Silva, who, after Abeyasinghe, specialized on that aspect, says that Dharmapala himself had requested the Viceroy on 10th December 1594 to get a revenue register made of his kingdom, apparently for his own benefit.

Obtaining manuscript copies of the 1614 documents

In response to the request made to the CSO, it had requested the Lisbon authorities to supply a manuscript copy of the volumes to us. We have no information on that request too. The only available information on the re-copying of the mss. is the date stated at the end of volume 3.I and the date stamp of the CSO attesting its receipt. The date stamp of the CSO indicating Apr. 4, 1917 is available only in volume 3.1. Now, we are unable to ascertain whether all ms. copies had been received on that date, or whether they were received on different dates. However, the volume noted as 2. I could not have been received on that date, as is seen by the notice on the last page, that it had been copied on 26.7.1927. The date could be a copyist error, but one would have to examine the internal records at the Torre de Tombo to unravel it.

The Archives had also, at sometime, had got microfilm copies of those documents, but they cannot be read today, due to the deterioration of the film.Thus the 1614 Tombo and the Foral had been known in the island for almost a century

Antao Vaz Freire’s compilation and his assistants

Fr. SGPerera, in his 1938 publication The Tombo of the Two Korales has said, that Antao Vaz Freire (AVF) has had the assistance of a) Don Jeronimo, Basnayaka, Maha Mohotala, b) Don Jeronimo Alagiyavanna, Old Mohottala, c) Don Jeronimo Samaradivakara, Mohottala, and d) Hannas Rala Mohottala; and as Interpreter Dom Francisco Velasquao. The Alagiyawanna mentioned above is the well known author of many Sinhala works, such as the Savul Sandesaya and the Kusajataka Kavya. HAP Abhayawardena, in his 2009 publication Lekam miti Vimarshanaya, has also named the officials who assisted Antao Vaz Freire, giving as his source S G Perera, but in a slightly different order.

Antao Vaz Freire who compiled the tombo had been selected for that purpose in 1607, by the king in Lisbon. According to Abeyasinghe, he had arrived in Ceylon in 1609, but due to strained relations between him and the notorious Captain General Azevedo –who is noted as a bastard by P E Pieris, the commencement of the compilation had got delayed.

As Abeyasinghe states AVF had started on his assignment only sometime after his arrival, there after, he is said to have completed the second volume on 26th May 1614, the 3rd volume on coastal areas on 24th January, 1614, and the 4th volume a little later. The Foral completed in 1614 had covered all 4 volumes. Thus the tombo had been in 4 volumes, but today only volumes 2 and 3 are available. Copies of these two volumes and the foral (English translation) are available at the SL Archives. The spine of the bound volumes give the date as 1618, and not 1614. Perhaps that may have been the way they were found in the Torre de Tombo Ultramarino.

Details in the Tombo and Foral of 1614

The lands or villages that came to be examined by Antao Vaz Freire were the lands that were donated by Dharmapala to the king of Portugal, Philip II. The 1614 Tombo, lists by Korales, the gabadagam (the king’s lands), the ports and the villages attached to them, the villages that belonged to the Queen, and other villages donated to the Franciscans and, as said above, to the king of Portugal, and the foral notes the revenues the king of Portugal was receiving from them as at 1614.

The 1599 Revenue Register

Now, let me take the 1599 Revenue Register. This document had been found only in 1966, by Daya de Silva, wife of Prof C R de Silva, among the collection known as manuscritos da convento da Gracia of the Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo in Lisbon,. Thereafter, C R de Silva, had translated it into English and published it in the Journal of Historical and Social Studies of 1975. The SL Archives does not have a microfilm or other photocopy of the original document.

Thus, for the Portuguese period there are two documents giving by name the villages of the Kotte Kingdom, donated to the King of Portugal, by Dharmapala, which included the lands held by Rajasinha of Sitavaka too.

The Revenue Register had been compiled by Jorge Frolim de Almeida, sent by Mathias de Albuqerque, the Portuguese Viceroy in Goa. Almeida had completed his assignment on 27th November, 1599, but, the document had got ‘lost’ somewhere until 1966, when it was discovered by Daya de Silva. As said by C R de Silva, it had not been known either in Portugal or in Goa, even when Antao Vaz Freire had been commissioned in 1608, i.e. only nine years after after Almeida’s Register.

Almeida’s Revenue Register too, is in a sense a Foral, but unlike the 1614 foral, it gives, the revenues derived by Dharmapala, as seen in the olas, i.e. lekam Miti, and evidence he had collected at interviews he had held. It is to be noted that the olas consulted by Almeida, are, to the best of my knowledge, no longer available in the island. Out of the ten Lekam Miti published in Abhayawardena’s compilation, the sixth lekam mitiya, a hi lekam mitiya of the Harasiya pattuva, says, lekam miti were supposed to be revised once every seven years. But I believe, that does not mean the earlier documents were to be destroyed. It only shows the very elaborate administrative regulations of the Kandyan period. Yet, the earlier documents are not seen to be available today.

The information they yield

These documents provide the names of the Korales, the Gabadagam, the villages that belonged to the Queen, ports and villages held by the Portuguese, at the times of their compilation. The 1614 document provides the details as to who held those lands, i.e. names of persons wherever they had been given to someone, their extents in terms of sowing extent, and the yield from highland plantations such as arecanut, coconut and pepper and the revenue they yielded to the King of Portugal. The separate foral or tax register, of 1614, gives the annual tax a village had to pay to the King. C R de Silva, in his lengthy introduction to the 1599 Register has said the Kotte kingdom would have had between 5,000 and 6,000 villages and settlements.

The details as to who possessed or occupied the land, are given only in the 1614 Tombo, and only in terms of the extents of land held by the people, and the services they provided, but does not mention the names of those landholders. C R de Silva, in his introduction to the 1599 Register, also furnishes details of items the various villages had supplied and their value, thus providing valuable economic information and perhaps the social structure of the village too. Both documents mention that certain villages had to deliver items like a lance, or a fire-lock, in addition to the tax, which perhaps would show the resource of those villages, and the type/caste of their inhabitants too.

The importance of these documents

The importance of these two documents is that through them we get to know for the first time, the details of the lands held by Kotte and Sitavaka. Up to these compilations what was known was only the territories assigned to Kotte, Raigama and Sitavaka at the division of the kingdom after the Vijayaba Kollaya or the murder of Vijayabahu VI in 1521. At that division, the elder brother Bhuvanekabahu (1521-1551), had got the most extensive territory and brothers Pararajasinha (1521-1538), and Mayadunne (1521-1581) had received territories from Raigama and Sitavaka respectively. After Pararajasinha’s early death his territories too had been annexed by the more able and ambitious brother Mayadunne.

A difference between the 1599 document and that of the 1614 Foral, as said above, is that the 1599 document lists the revenues as received by the king of Kotte, while the 1614 Foral gives the revenues received by the king of Portugal at that date.

The English translation of the 1614 Tombo and of the Foral

Of the 1614 Tombo there is an English translation of the villages in five of the Korales, namely, Beligal, Devamedi, Udapola, Atulugam and Galboda. Of the 1614 Foral, there is only an English translation, but the original Portuguese document, is not available at the SL Archives. Perhaps, one of the microfilms, which cannot be read today, may have contained the original Portuguese version, from which a translation would have been made into English. Students interested in these documents would be pleased to know that both translations are in typescript.

Research possibilities

These two documents are a veritable source for researching a number of disciplines. They not only describe the villages and the revenues they yielded, but also mention the depopulated villages, villages then in jungle, and names of the gabadagam and the villages held by the queen. The details given therein are not available from any Sinhala source. The documents themselves say they consulted available olas, i.e. lekam-miti. Those lekam-miti as already said are not available today, and we wouldn’t know what details they contained. If the texts of some ten lekam-miti of the 18th -20th centuries printed by Abhayawardene in his publication are a continuation of that tradition, then of course, they are far removed from the type of details given in the afore named two documents, as well as in the later Dutch Thombos. A comparative study of the available Sinhala lekam miti and the Portuguese and Dutch documents could contribute new information on the extent of influence the Lekam Miti had on the later land records mentioned here.

Another study that can be done, is to compare the details given in the Portuguese documents with what is available in the Dutch thombos of the same villages, wherever such information is available. The Dutch thombos of the mid and late 18th century provide the name of the principal person who held the land (s) mentioned therein and the names of his lateral and collateral relatives, their caste, and the services they had to perform.

From where would the people mentioned in the Dutch thombos migrate between the mid-17th century and the late 18th century, or did they just return to their villages after the Portuguese were expelled from the country in 1656. It would be an involved research. I wonder whether the Lekam-miti could help? One great problem would be identifying what ever names given in the Lekam miti and the names in the Dutch thombo.

Further, the available Portugese documents can be studied to give a picture of a Korale, at that time, say the type of inhabitants, their produce, the extents of land held by each caste group, etc., and then such details could be compared with the details in the Dutch thombos, where ever the relevant documents are available.

Since the available Dutch thombos are of a period later than 160 years after the compilations of the Portuguese documents, it would be possible to see whether the lands mentioned as depopulated and in jungle, had by the time of the Dutch compilations regained their population.

An additional document the Dutch has is the School thombo where an entry provides the names of the husband and wife, their date of marriage, names of their children, and dates of their baptism, dates of entering and leaving school, and also whether they are dead or whether they had moved into a different village.

This type of study cannot be pursued after the Dutch period, but perhaps the Population counts of 1814 and 1824, and census details from 1871 could be used in a very limited way, wherever, Portuguese and Dutch documents mention details of persons in those villages. A further source for the British period are the Grain Tax Registers of the 19th century, once again, if Portuguese and Dutch details are available for the same localities.

Details in both Portuguese and Dutch land documents are more or less of a stereotype form to a great extent, but has occasional specific details. Yet, they should not deter an intelligent student of history in pursuing them, initially for a few villages or a korale where comparative studies can be done. Of course, some elementary knowledge of both Portuguese and Dutch would be necessary, and some Portuguese-English and Dutch-English dictionaries would certainly be of significant advantage.

I have stated here only some documents of the Dutch period that could be used with the Portuguese documents, but there are many other series’ that cam be used for such research studies:

P E Pieris : The Ceylon Littoral -1593, Colombo, 1949

Fr S G Perera : Tombo of the Two Korales

T B H Abeyasinghe : Portuguese in Ceylon – 1594-1612 -. Colombo, 1966

C R de Silva: The first Portuguese Revenue Register of the Kingdom of Kotte. The Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies, New Series, Vol.V, January-Decenber , 1975, Nos. 1 & 2, pp.71-153

Karunasena Dias Paranavitana : Portuguese Tombos as a source of Sixteenth and Seventeenth century Sri Lankan history, in Maritime Asia 18, Re-Exploring the relations between Portugal and Sri Lanka, (Ed) Jorge Flores, Harrowitz Verlag, 2007; pp.63-78

OM da Silva Cosme: Fidalgos in the kingdom of Kotte (Sri Lanka: 1505-1656), 1990

HAP Abhayawardene Lekam Miti Vimarshanaya, 2009


One Response to “17th century Portuguese land records at the SL Archives and their historical importance”

  1. Ananda-USA Says:


    It would have been more interesting if there was more information on the landholding families and their descendants to the present time.

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