Historical evidence of Mannar Mass graves dating back to 16th Century
Posted on March 26th, 2019

by P. WEERASEKERA Courtesy The Island

The issue of mass graves in Mannar continues to remain an inconclusive hot topic, despite the radio carbon dating analysis report received from the Beta Analytic Testing Laboratory in Florida, USA., which cleared the Sri Lanka Army of responsibility, by declaring the skeletal remains referred to the Laboratory pre-dates the country’s bloody civil war by at least six hundred years, which take us to the periods of Portuguese and Dutch rule of the 16th and 17th centuries.

A few disgruntled political elements in the North, backed by certain foreign-funded local NGOOs who had been quite confident of the outcome of the Florida laboratory tests, are now clamouring for a second opinion. They will not be contented until some overseas technical laboratory could be made to express the opinion that the skeletons recovered from a construction site in May 2018 are of recent origin, and could be civilians and or LTTE cadres the Sri Lanka Army is accused of killing and burying during the war which ended in 2009. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as well as the diplomatic representatives of certain western countries may not relax until some foreign laboratory rules that Sri Lankan armed forces are responsible for the skeletal remains in the unearthed mass graves. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights believes that other grave sites might be found in the future and, therefore, in her recent report to the Geneva assembly has recommended that the capacity of the forensic sector be strengthened; including in areas of forensic anthropology, forensic archaeology and genetics, to carry out proper investigations on them.

Students of Sri Lankan history are aware that when the Portuguese arrived in this country at the beginning of the 16th century, and engaged in battles with the local Kings to take control of the maritime region and the hinterland, the poorly armed locals were defeated and dealt with most ruthlessly. They were subjected to torture, mutilation and mass killings causing bloodbaths in the numerous confrontations they had from time to time. The poor citizens who offered resistance were put to death in large numbers without any mercy. Accounts of a few of them extracted from certain published historical records are reproduced in this note to indicate that these tragic events inevitably required mass burial sites, into which the unfortunate victims were dumped. When human beings antagonistic to the conquerors and masters are mercilessly killed in large numbers by the victorious elements, the victims will not have the privilege of individual burials as resting places, but inevitably mass graves only deep enough to prevent the stench emanating from decomposed bodies from polluting the air around the areas in which they have been dumped.

Extracts culled from a few historical records, reproduced below, may enable right-thinking, discerning and impartial observers, at least at this stage, to come to the unavoidable conclusion that the origin of these mass graves date back to mass killings and blood baths which resulted from the numerous battles the invading Portuguese had with the ill-equipped local armies in the 16th century, rather than due to the long-dragged war which ended a few years back. ( Mannar island had been an important part of the Jaffna Kingdom, which the Portuguese were eager to possess, especially in view of the Pearl fishery which was regarded as a gold mine in the then trading world ).

The extracts reproduced in this note also include a couple of paragraphs from a 17th century manuscript written in Portuguese by a senior clergyman named Paulo da Trinidade, of Portuguese descent. The material extracted from this account is of greater significance since it has been compiled around 1636 AD i.e. relatively soon after the mass killings which had taken place in the 16th century, and therefore its accuracy and authenticity cannot be in question. “Early Christianity in Ceylon – a 17th century narrative” which is the title of this English translation has been the work of Rev. Dr Edmund Peiris, who was Bishop of Colombo and well known scholar, and a Franciscan missionary Rev. Fr. Achilles Meersman, who was based in India. The translation published in 1972 is limited to the chapters on Ceylon in the original manuscript titled ‘Conquista Spiritual do Oriente’ (meaning the Spiritual Conquest of the East). According to Dr. Edmund Peiris, only one copy of the manuscript of this Chronicle of 1193 pages remains and is preserved in the Vatican Library in Rome.

The section on Ceylon, in translation, spreads over three hundred pages grouped under 56 chapters. They deal mainly with the confrontations the Portuguese missionaries encountered in attempting to convert the local population (liberally referred by them as pagans) into Christianity.

The opposition they had experienced in this attempt at conversion had been the heaviest in the ‘Kingdom of Jaffnapatao’, where the King at the time had resisted proselytization with all vigour; and cruelly dealt with all who disobeyed his command. Referred to as ‘the evil King’ who had committed many heinous crimes, including the assassination of his eldest brother from who he had usurped the throne, the narration continues as follows in chapter 35 – “But the climax of his wickedness this tyrant reached when he ordered all the inhabitants of the Island of Mannar, which was under his jurisdiction, who had accepted the Law of Christ and had become Christians, to be slaughtered. He made no distinction of persons, age or status, but had them all killed by sword, six hundred men, women and children. They were killed in a place called Patin which later on or in memory of this event, was known as the Valley of Martyrs.” (page 179)

Paragraph 5 of Chapter 56 titled ‘Concerning the Island of Mannar, the Christian Community we have there and few items of special interest’ reads as follows –”In this island there is a place called Patim which was watered by the blood of many martyrs. The King of Jaffnapatao, a great enemy of Christians, having come to know that many of his vassals had embraced Christianity, sent a Captain with soldiers, who put all the Christians he found to the sword, without making any distinction of persons, of age or status. Those who underwent martyrdom for our Holy Faith numbered more than six hundred men, women and children. He was not satisfied with shedding so much blood, but sought out the Christians in all possible ways, using all the stratagems his diabolic/fury inspired him. All those he found he put to the torture in an endeavor to force them to renounce the Faith they professed. God favoured many of them during this battle they sustained for His cause and He confirmed them in the confession of His Name, so that they preferred to lose their lives than to renounce their Faith. In memory of these glorious martyrs this place is called throughout the Orient -the Town of the Martyrs. ” (page 260)

It may be worth noting that while the many hundreds slaughtered by the King in the distant 16th century included children; the 328 skeletons unearthed in Mannar in 2018 too included skeletons of children.

As the UN Commissioner for Human Rights believes that further mass graves will be opened up in the near future and to investigate them the forensic apparatus has to be improved and polished up, a couple of further clues are given below about some other sites possibly containing more mass graves, which had come into being in the 16th century. One of them specifically refers to the Mannar massacre. They are extracted from the “History of Sri Lanka, Volume II” published in 1995 by the University of Peradeniya.

“By the early 1540s Portuguese missionary activity on the Indian Fishery Coast had led to the conversion of substantial numbers of ‘parava’ fishermen. In 1543, some ‘paravas’ of Mannar wished to follow suit and invited St. Francis Xavier to come over to Mannar to preach the new religion. Xavier accepted the invitation and on his visit converted about six hundred ‘paravas’ to Christianity. This event was promptly reported to the King of Jaffna. To Cankili (the King) it was clear that the conversion of the ‘paravas’ involved more than a mere change of a religion…. Cankili was determined to check this erosion of his authority, and marching to Mannar in 1544 with a force of 5000 men, he put to death all the Christians who refused to give up their faith…….”(p.108)

“… Sailing from Mannar with 43 vessels and over two hundred fishing boats commandeered for the purpose, de Mendonca appeared off Jaffna port on 27th October 1591. The Portuguese landed at Colombuthurai on the same day and on the next day they defeated the Jaffna army which was encamped before Nallur. The King was captured and beheaded ….To make Portuguese control over the kingdom even more secure, de Mendonca put to death some 800 ‘vadugal’ and a number of Muslims from Calicut………..”(p.114)

The two volume publication on the Portuguese Era, consisting of 885 pages written in 1913 by the distinguished academic Sir Paul E. Pieris of the Ceylon Civil Service, which remains to this day as the only complete history of the period, has in several places referred to the large numbers of people killed in the numerous battles that had been waged to conquer the Jaffna kingdom. Following are some of them –

” … The following day a fresh attack was made on the Temple where de Oliveira had his headquarters. The persistent fire of the garrison frustrated the attempt to carry the low ‘tranqueira’ which protected it, and after several hours fighting de Oliveira ordered the gate to be flung open and the drums to sound the change. The Tamils rushed to meet them and the Portuguese from their shelter opened fire on the dense throng, killing them as if they were mosquitos….”

“The Tamils who had not retired far took up their position close to Nallur, and thither a portion of the Portuguese army advanced, while de Oliveira remained in camp…. In answer to de Oliveira’s eager enquiry as to what the uproar meant, some of the heads which had been cut off were thrown at his feet … The slaughter was very great; every Portuguese soldier had two or three heads to show..”(p.136)

“De Oliveira and the other Portuguese inhabitants were spending the night in vigil and prayer. Their devotions were interrupted by the arrival of a messenger…announcing… that the commander of the Tamils was slain and that they had cut off 500 heads.…A second letter followed; eight hundred heads had now been cut off… by ten o’ clock a third message arrived; 1,200 heads had been cut off…”(p.137).

“An Arachchi laid at the feet of de Oliveira wrapped in a cloth, the head of the Tamil commander… Eight hundred ghastly heads were carried past fixed on pikes, for the rest had been left hanging from the trees…”(p.138)

Do the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Diplomatic representatives of some Western countries, the NGOOs and other dissatisfied elements believe that the perpetrators of the above gruesome killings, committed either by the King of the Jaffna Kingdom or the invading Portuguese, buried the poor victims with State honours in individual graves ? Cannot the skeletal remains discovered so far from mass graves, be the skeletal remains of the above confrontations to secure the Jaffna Kingdom, apart from those massacred by the King for embracing a new Faith ?

These tragic events which occurred several centuries ago have been highlighted only to correct a mischievous, distorted view forced on the gullible elements and to expose the well-designed canard jointly crafted by local and foreign elements long after the conclusion of the War, that the Mannar mass grave is the work of the Sri Lanka Army which brought to an end the uprising of the LTTE, widely referred to in the West as the most ruthless terrorist group in the world.

The only mass grave resulting from the war waged against the terrorists, which the public are aware of, is the mass grave into which the bodies of 600 police officers attached to several police stations in the Eastern Province, who had been made to surrender had been were brutally killed by spraying machine gun bullets to the back of their heads by the LTTE and dumped on the 11th of June 1990 off the jungles in Trincomalee area. As the bodies of victims are reported to have been burnt after spraying oil on them in a Valley of Death, it may be that most of the skeletons may have been reduced to ashes. When the UN High Commissioner for refugees recently referred to the possibility of further mass graves being opened up, it is doubted as to whether this site too was at the back of her mind.

As no reference has been made by any international human rights activists or even by the local NGOOs about this gruesome mass murder, it may be that this incident may not be recorded in any of the files or records maintained in the UN agencies. Even if records exist, the UN investigators have the convenient excuse not to probe as their mandate is limited to probe into war crimes “committed during the last stages of the conflict”. The year 1990 was 19 years before the war came to an end.

At least now, in the face of the rich and cast-iron evidence as listed above; the weeping NGOOs, disgruntled elements in the North, the several foreign diplomat-uncles and other foreign foster parents concerned, who are weeping buckets of tears regarding the alleged blatant violation of human rights by the Sri Lanka Army, should stop chasing a mirage and select some other issue to keep themselves gainfully occupied.

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