Sri Lanka’s Claims for Reparations from Portugal
Posted on July 14th, 2012

By Senaka Weeraratna

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 Vice-roy 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.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

The local aristocracy was enticed to convert on the basis that they would be accepted into the fidalgo class (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 21st 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 re-inforced 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.

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 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 then 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 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 over riding 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 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 saying ” 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’. 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 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 a 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 the 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 set backs 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: i) Destruction of life – individual and mass murder ii) Cultural Genocide iii) Religious and ethnic cleansing including mass expulsions e.g. Muslims from the areas under Portuguese control iv) Expropriation and removal of Treasures, Artifacts, Gems and Jewellery, Gift items made of Ivory etc. to Portugal v) Destruction and plunder of Buddhist Temples vi) Construction of Churches on sites of destroyed Buddhist Vihares and Monasteries vii) Prohibition of the practice of non – Christian religions i.e. Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam viii) Religious conversion by use of force ix) Offer of inducements to embrace Christianity x) Channeling of revenue due to Buddhist Temples to Christian Churches and Seminaries

xi) Sexual abuse of women

xii) Slavery xiii) War Crimes


ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 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. The Vatican sought pardon for sins committed against other cultures including the colonization of native people. This document attributes the roots of evil today to the 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.


  1. 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. He defended the “outstanding evangelising commitment” of a long line of missionaries, but said many had erred. The pontiff asked for “the forgiveness and understanding of those who may have felt hurt in some way by such actions on the part of Christians”.
  2. When visiting Ukraine and Greece in 2001, Pope John Paul appealed for forgiveness for wrongs perpetrated by Roman Catholics in the past.
  3. 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 that has been stripped of its traditional religion and culture and to complete the humiliation the indigenous people i.e. the 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.


6 Responses to “Sri Lanka’s Claims for Reparations from Portugal”

  1. Naram Says:

    Portugal though is in Europe it is the most backward part. Its vast empire bled it dry over thecenturies. It was thelargest Imperial power in Europe till 1970s but the fighting the independence movementsin Angola and Gunea – Bissau required amassive army and leftvery little tospend on luxuries like education. Manysay illiteracy is still rife. Salazar dictatorship was oversthown by the combined forces of therebel soldiers and the Communist party in whatisnow called the ‘Velvet Revolution’ the eradication of illiteracy required forced schooling to older folks,but they say theaverage level of education andunderstanding is still prestty low. CApital Lisboa is full of museums, conference centres and gambling arcades. Tansport is modern witha new underground and and motorways, all built witheasy loans from EU. Yet they areonly managing to keep head above water with currencycrisis, money lendersdemandingcutsin services, compulsorypurchaseof the country.

  2. Sirih Says:

    Today’s youngsters need to study these and learn what happen in last 500 yrs of colonial plunder and I believe most of todays SL’s does not know the ugly past… We were brought up by educated Buddhist priests and we knew all the history before we were 10 yrs old.

    As Buddhists we need to propagate the social justice that is paramount in our DNA and don’t forget the past… When I was in London, London Uni used to host historical studies and most of these studies based on mistaken or distorted history. I used to challenge them re. the genocide and Imperial corrupt practice that happen in SL and locals were surprised that I knew the history and also the abuse that came from the church. Late Dr Sadhathissa Thero, from Chiswick temple was inspiration for me since he was a great scholar that gave me the meaning of justice.

    Remember only weapon we have today is the history and use it wisely.

  3. AnuD Says:

    Even Christianity is a cancer in Sri Lanka. There is no leader who is NOT mixed with Christianity. I mean some of their close relatives are Christians. I think, the church does it deliberately. I heard, some Christian politicians in the parliament are trying hard to convert young politicians in the parliament to Christianity.

  4. Dham Says:

    Sinhala Buddhist % accoring to king Lorenzo has slipped from 70% to 61%. From 1550s ( probably 99 %) it is still in the decline. We must teach Buddhism to Christianls , Muslims and Hindus so that they will learn” the religion of freedom”. With time the number will surely be better.
    Another way is to teach Chritianity, Islam and Hinduism to all students in school. Then they will see the aburdity of these religions and argue over and be liberal rather than blidly following stupid rules such as cutting parts of the genitals, animal sacrifices, thanking god for food your mother and farther prepared with love.

  5. Leela Says:

    It is sad that many Christians have no idea about the true history of their church. Though it is rare to find lay Christians who are aware of the preceding, many Christian scholars are well aware of it. Yet, they do not share that truth with lay Christians for obvious reasons.

    The manner in which the Christianity is pushed as a world religion has all but evil roots. Constantine started it all by painting the Christian cross in the amour of his troops as the shields of protection. In fact, Emperor Constantine and his Pope, Essubuss are known to be the founders of religious repression that ram Christianity upon the subjugated. All successive Popes and their cohorts just followed that gruelling practice one after the other. Few of those Popes were all but mad.

    In 1096, in the name of Jesus Christ and the Cross, Pope Urban 11 had launched a war called the ‘crusade’ to vanquish all Non-Christians. That war could be considered as the inauguration point for repression that prevailed for the next thousand years or so. The record of Christianity during this long period is one of the most ghastly in history. At least ten million people were killed not for a rebellion but for following a different faith. Chapter XXIII of the book named ‘The Story of Religious Controversy’ by Professor Joseph McCabe says; ‘The religious history of Europe has never yet been written.’

    Nevertheless, westerners consider the year (1492) that catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella conquered the city of Granada and Muslims were chased out of Europe and Christopher Columbus crossed Atlantic to ‘discover’ West Indies had been the inauguration point of the modern era. In contrast to the bygone days of Jesus and Judas, the history of this European colonialism during the last five hundred years since that date is rather well written.

    Westerners like to call that era, the period of renaissance but the truth is the opposite. During that so-called exuberant era, The Spanish and the Portuguese monarchs appointed insane buccaneers like da Gama as explorers of the day. As these Iberians sailed across, Dominican and Franciscan padres carried their complex burden of prejudices that was central to Christian identity. For that reason, Vatican and their cohorts could not coverd up the façade of their ulterior motives.

    The Spanish and the Portuguese sailed the world over in search of loot. Christian missionaries not only blessed those pirates but also cruised with them to plunder whole nations of their heritage. This is of no surprise because then Pope Alexander VI and his son Cesar Borgia were most famous for their cruelty. Soon enough though, utter greed of pirates had turned the two piratical nations to be bitter rivals. As a result of their avarice, an inevitable duel developed between the two most piratical nations Spain and Portugal for the supremacy. God willing, the pope or Holy Sea soothed their enmity with a simple Amen: His holiness drew a simple line in the world map and divided the entire worldly heritage bequeathing the west to Spain and the east to Portugal.

    Thus, with the blessings of the Pope, a missionary washed up to Sinhale in 1505 A.D with a Portuguese click of pirates. The Web site ‘’ confirms this fact. They say a Franciscan priest on board celebrated the first Holy Mass in Sri Lanka. For more than one and a half centuries since Catholic Padres assisted the murderous Portuguese to raid and rob the wealth our nation. Not just that these padres destroyed the very culture that firmly endured over two-millennium in this land.

    In the name of Jesus, Catholic missionaries said to have watched gleefully the torture, the killing and maiming of those that refused to forsake Buddhism. Franciscans Missionaries expected those that killed to plead the God at least at their last minute because they believed those who die as Catholics would go to heaven and all others to eternal hell. They were in mad pursuit to send souls of Buddhists to be with their God. Those were the same Franciscans that had been put in charge of the killings by burning at stake called inquisitions for heresy by the Council of Lérida in 1237. Vatican excommunicated Father Tissa Balasuriya at one time for postulations against this belief.

    Getting back to the plundering by the missionary accompanied Portuguese, Sir James Emerson Tennent had written aptly about their sojourn. He says; “there is no page in the story of European colonization more gloomy and repulsive than that which recounts the proceedings of the Portuguese in Ceylon.” In spite of such writing, in 2003, together with the Catholic Church Sri Lanka Prime minister, Wickramasinghe had invited Portuguese to come to Sri Lanka and rejoice 500 years of their ancestors arriving at our country. Are we to take Wickramasinghe is not aware about the Portuguese mayhem that Sir James portrayed with great feeling. I wonder.

  6. Fran Diaz Says:

    Our thanks to Senaka Weeraratne for his well researched article, and we also thank those who wrote in their comments.

    What can we say about asking for Reparation and an Apology to Lanka from then Colonial powers, especially Portugal, but ‘better late than never’. The time has come the world over for self examination of nations of their own actions in the near past, historically speaking. It may prove to be a difficult task for the earlier pirating nations, skimming the globe in search of others’ wealth and subjugating entire countries into slavery, or near slavery.

    It is said that “justice delayed is justice denied’, and justice has been denied to the vast majority of Buddhist Sinhala people of Sri Lanka for nearly 500 yrs. It is indeed time to set matters right again and lift our heads up again in simple human dignity. It will not only heal the Sinhala Buddhists, but also heal those who perpetrated crimes against our people.

    We hope that the long overdue Reparation and Apologies are made by all of our ex-Colonists, the Portuguese especially, for the damage done to Sri Lanka and her People. Sri Lankan treasures still in museums of ex-colonists should be returned to the Sri Lankan people and displayed in the Colombo Museum. I think the organisation to approach in this regard is the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) based in Geneva, Switzerland.

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