The Dutch capture of Ceylon in 1656 has oft been cited as a landmark in the protracted agony of the Estado da Índia. The fall of Ormuz and Malacca in 1623 and 1641 respectively, the loss of the Moluccas trade to the Dutch and the blockade of Goa pale into insignificance in the face of the loss of Ceylon which the Portuguese had occupied since 1518. Second only to Goa in administrative importance, and a vital defensive link, Ceylon’s eminence was founded on pearls, gemstones, elephants, spices and, above all, cinnamon. As such it was a worthy target for the worldly Hollanders of the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie who, over a period of twenty years, intrigued, traded and fought to oust the Portuguese.
In this masterful monograph Mr. Winius shows that an assessment of this fall in terms of the clash of super-powers and the victory of the stronger is an over-simplification and treats the Sinhalese situation from the broad perspective of the Iberian, European and American, as well as Asiatic, context. European considerations, Portuguese diplomacy with England and France, the Hague truce and the Spanish border threat affected Portuguese Asiatic policy. Within Asia, the oriental mosaic of intrigue and the love-hate relationship between the Dutch and Kandy contributed to the ebb and flow of Portuguese fortunes. The conflicts of interest between the VOC and the States General and within the Portuguese empire are well documented. The aspirations and priorities of the Crown, the viceroy in India and the captain-general in Ceylon, were often totally at variance. Distance from Lisbon, bureaucratic incompetence, poor appointments, dishonesty and self-interest on the part of the Goan fidalguia and Portuguese civil servants in Asia were as much to blame for the fall of Ceylon as lack of manpower, weapons, and reinforcements. The Portuguese were also dogged by sheer bad luck. The student of historical ‘ifs’ will find a fertile hunting-ground in this narrative—if Constantino de Sá had not turned back in the hills of Uva, if Francisco de Sousa Coutinho had not been ordered to leave his embassy, if the Count of Sarzedas had not died suddenly. But the conclusion that Portuguese negotiators in Asia were simply out-maneuvered by the likes of van Diemen and Pieter Boreel and even the wily Raja Sinha II is inescapable. In the unravelling of this political cat’s cradle Winius has been singularly successful.
In weighing the relative weights of Asiatic and American interests at the court in Lisbon he has been less successful. The problems faced by Portugal in the South Atlantic, the Dutch invasion of Brazil, the impact on Portuguese colonial policy and European diplomacy of the restoration of the monarchy in 1640 are described. The author suggests that part of the originality of his work lies in establishing that “the shift of Portuguese interest from India and the Indian Ocean to Brazil and the Atlantic took place during the mid-seventeenth century, and not only after the discovery of Brazilian gold in the 1690s,” but this point will come as a surprise to few Brazilianists. Winius clearly Illustrates that Portuguese official and unofficial support for the War of Divine Liberty (1645-54) was given priority over urgently needed help for Ceylon. But he fails to portray any soul-searching or conflict of interests in this policy and the reader, on the basis of the evidence presented, has no alternative other than the conclusion that for once the councillors of Dom João IV made a cold-bloodedly realistic appraisal of the relative importance of Ceylon and Brazil and that their decision in favour of the latter was wholly justified at the time. Economic data on Portuguese revenue from cinnamon and other Sinhalese commodities are not presented and constitute a drastic omission for a true assessment of the motives governing this Crown policy.
Winius’ major contribution has been to portray the fall of Ceylon using Portuguese materials from private and public archives. This is a good story, well told, and with excellent descriptions. Perhaps, unwittingly, he has given us the key to the decline of Portuguese India in the index: it is onomastic. Human crimes of omission, as much as political factors, resulted in the loss of Portuguese Ceylon.