Blessed Joseph Vaz: Part 12 – The Apostle Visits Dutch Colombo


Myself . 

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Bird's eye view of Colombo. Mid-17th Century water colour painting. The Vingboons-Atlas, ARA, The Hague.
Bird’s eye view of Colombo. Mid-17th Century water colour painting. The Vingboons-Atlas, ARA, The Hague.
Colombo

Today, Colombo is the largest city and the commercial capital of Sri Lanka. It is located on the west coast of the island and next to Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, the official capital of Sri Lanka. Colombo is often referred to as the capital since Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte is a satellite city of Colombo.

In the days of the Sinhalese kings, Colombo was one of the many seaboards frequented by Arab Moors and South Indian traders.

In 1505, when the Portuguese explorers led by Dom Lourenço de Almeida first arrived by chance on the island they called the town “Colombo”.

Some say the name “Colombo” is derived from the classical Sinhalese name Kolon thota (කොලොන් තොට), meaning “port on the river Kelani”.

Another group says the name is derived from the Sinhalese phrase “kola ambia thota” (කොල අඹ තොට) meaning “Leafy mango grove”.

The coat of arms of Colombo from the Dutch Ceylon era.
The coat of arms of Colombo from the Dutch Ceylon era.

A coat of arms of Colombo from the Dutch Ceylon era has a leafy tree with a dove perched on its branches. In addition, the Dutch have included a dove (Latin: Columba), thus creating a pun on the town’s name.

In the 13th century, the author of the oldest Sinhalese grammar, Sidatsangarava, wrote about a category of words that belonged to early Sinhalese. He lists words such as “naramba” (to see) and “kolamba” (ford, harbour) as belonging to an indigenous source. Hence, “kolamba” may also be the source of the name of the commercial capital Colombo.

On realizing how Colombo was strategically located, and control of Ceylon was necessary for protecting their coastal establishments in India, the Portuguese made a treaty with King Parakramabahu VIII (1484 -1508), the King of Kotte. The treaty enabled the Portuguese to trade in the island’s crop of cinnamon and gave them full authority over the coastline in exchange for the promise of guarding the island’s coast against invaders from other countries across the seas. After expelling the Arab Moors from Colombo and establishing their trading post, the Portuguese built a fort – a small stockade of wood, in 1517.

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Town of Colombo on the large pleasant Island of Ceylon which is rich in Cinnamon. Mirror image engraving afterSchouten's view which looks on the harbour directly from the north.
Town of Colombo on the large pleasant Island of Ceylon which is rich in Cinnamon. Mirror image engraving after Schouten’s view which looks on the harbour directly from the north.

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This part of Colombo is still known as Fort (Sinhalese: kotuwa ; Tamil: koattai). The area immediately outside Fort, a commercial hub even now, is known as Pettah (Sinhalese: pita kotuwa ; Tamil: purakoattai) meaning ‘outside the fort’. Colombo soon became a grand town fortified by twelve bastions.

The Kingdom of Sitawaka (Sinhala: සීතාවක) located in south-central region of the Island, emerged from the division of the kingdom of Kotte following the Vijayaba Kollaya (Spoiling of Vijayabahu) in 1521. King Mayadunne, the chief antagonist of the Portuguese, established the new Kingdom of Sitawaka, with Seethawakapura now known as Avissawella as its capital.

Sitawaka offered fierce resistance to the Portuguese. Before long, King Mayadunne annexed much of the Kotte kingdom and forced the Portuguese to retreat to Colombo. He repeatedly besieged Colombo forcing the Portuguese to seek reinforcement from Goa in India. Over the course of the next seventy years, the Kings of Sitawaka dominated much of the island. Despite its military successes, Sitawaka remained unstable. It had to contend with repeated uprisings in its restive Kandyan territories. With its often devastating conflict with the Portuguese, the Kingdom of Sitawaka collapsed soon after the death of its last ruler, King Rajasinghe I, in 1593.

Following the fall of the Kingdom of Sitawaka, the Portuguese, with Colombo as their capital, established complete control over the coastal area of Ceylon.

In 1638, the Dutch signed a treaty with King Rajasinghe II of Kandy. Through this treaty, the Dutch assured the King assistance in his war against the Portuguese in exchange for a monopoly of the island’s major trade goods. The Portuguese resisted the Dutch and the Kandyans, but from 1639, they were gradually defeated in their strongholds.

The Dutch captured Colombo in 1656 after an epic siege. The 93 Portuguese survivors were given safe conduct out of the fort. Although the Dutch initially restored the captured area back to the Sinhalese kings, they later refused to turn them over. Thus, they gained control over the island’s richest cinnamon lands. They took possession of Colombo and all the other maritime ports on the Island of Ceylon.

The Dutch altered the fortifications of Colombo. They laid out the streets in a more regular grid pattern and are still so today. They reduced and confined the fort to the western part of the town. Since they found the present Pettah area to be the active centre when they captured Colombo, they called it ‘Oude Stad‘ or ‘Old Town’. Thus, they divided Colombo town into two parts.

Johann Jacob Saar, a German sailor, soldier, and author, served 15 years as a mercenary in the service of the Dutch East India Company in Southeast Asia. He spent about eight years in Ceylon. In 1662, he published an acclaimed account of his journey. He wrote:

“In 1656 we cut off the beautiful town of Colombo, the finest houses of the town were entirely demolished, only one-third of the town near the sea was fortified, while on the landside the town was surrounded by water, and when these works are completed which were expected to take ten years, the place will be twice as strong as before.”

The Dutch allowed the walls and fortifications around the ‘Oude Stad’ to remain, but they were subsequently removed. The only remnant that now exists of Portuguese Colombo is a huge boulder of rock that bears a cross and the Coat of Arms of Portugal. This was discovered by workmen in 1875 when the south-west breakwater of the Colombo harbour was being built. It was then removed from its original site and set up in Gordon Gardens adjoining the house of the President.

Joseph Vaz visits Colombo

After the miracle of the rain, when restrictions on his movement was removed, Joseph Vaz sneaked into the territories possessed by the Dutch. He availed himself of the freedom to pay a visit to Colombo.

The Catholic community of Colombo, which flourished under the Portuguese, was now a complete wreck. The Dutch desecrated some of the elegant churches built by the Portuguese and the were now in ruins. They transformed many others into Reformed churches.

All Catholic priests were banished.

The Portuguese Catholic schools were replaced by Calvinist schools. Under heavy penalties, the Dutch forced the Catholic parents to send their children to those schools, where the children were made to lose their faith in the Catholic Church.

On Sundays, all Catholics were forced to attend the Calvinist services.

The Catholics had to practice their faith in the greatest secrecy. Prayer in common was considered a crime, and if found, the Calvinist meted out heavy penalties.

When Joseph Vaz came to the Colombo, the Catholics gathered around him. He beseeched them to persevere in their Faith. He met the Catholics at night, in houses situated in remote areas. Vaz heard their confessions, offered Mass and administered Holy Communion. His words inspired them to face the persecution by the Dutch. Many apostates asked to be reconciled with the Church.

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 Next → Part 13 – Missionaries Arrive from Goa

← Previous: Part 11 – The Miracle of Rain in Kandy

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