In the 16th Century, the principality of Sitawaka, in South Central Sri Lanka acquired a reputation for resolutely opposing the Portuguese who were trying to dominate the Western coastline which was the principal entry point for Europeans.

Sitawaka’s King, Mayadunne (1521-1581), was greatly helped in this task by the navy of the Zamorin of Calicut. The force was composed of, and led by a community of Kerala Muslims called the Moplahs.

Verily, the history of Sri Lanka’s armed resistance to the Portuguese cannot be written without mentioning the critical role played by the Zamorins of Calicut and their navy comprising Moplah Muslims.

As in the case of Mayadunne, the Zamorins of Calicut were also tormented by the Portuguese who, after landing in 1498, demanded iniquitous trading concessions which not only abridged the power of the local ruler, but also ate into the businesses of the Moplahs who were a leading trading community involved in both domestic and international trade. Since they were seafarers too, the Moplahs also functioned as the naval arm of the Zamorins.

The Portuguese who landed in Sri Lanka in 1505, built a fort in Colombo, and by 1518, were wielding power in the Western coastal region. They demanded from Vijayabahu VI (1513-1521), the then- ruler of Kotte (the principality in which Colombo fell), a monopoly over the purchase of cinnamon from the royal stores at a fixed price.

This led to armed clashes between the King and the Portuguese in which Vijayabahu VI was invariably defeated. He was forced to accept a grossly unequal trade agreement.

The Moplah Muslims from Kerala were an important trading community in Kotte too. The Portuguese’s demand for monopoly over cinnamon trade hurt the Moplahs’ business in Kotte. The Moplahs were staunch allies of the King of Kotte. They also had the support of the Sinhalese traders because the latter also resented the aggressive behaviour of the Portuguese.

In 1521, following the death of Vijayabahu VI, the Kingdom of Kotte broke into three with the three sons of the King getting a part each. Mayadunne became the ruler of Sitawaka in South Centre; Bhuvanekabahu VII got Kotte proper on the Western coast; and the third sibling Pararajasinghe alias Raigam in the South.

As the inheritor of Kotte with the ports of Colombo and Negombo, Bhuvanekabahu VII had to face the Portuguese head-on. The Moplah traders of Kotte prevailed upon Bhuvanekabahu VII to renege on the deal giving a monopoly over cinnamon trade to the Portuguese.

The Moplahs told the King that the Portuguese were selling Lankan cinnamon in Europe and West Asia at a 300% profit and that after buying all the cinnamon from the King at a fixed price.

However, the weak Bhuvanekabahu VII decided to take a softer line. In 1522, he asked the Portuguese to let him keep 40 Bahars (I Bahar = 226.8 kg) of cinnamon for the ‘Kingdoms trade with East Asia. The Portuguese flatly refused to accept any dilution of their monopoly.

Bhuvanekabahu VII retaliated by giving the Portuguese poor-quality cinnamon and also delaying deliveries. On their part, the aggrieved Moplah traders began to smuggle cinnamon to West Asia.

In 1525, the Moplahs sought military help from the Zamorin of Calicut, who sent a naval force under Admiral Ali Hasan. Ali Hasan attacked Portuguese ships in Colombo.

But fearing the arrival of Portuguese reinforcements from Goa, Bhuvanekabahu VII turned against the Moplahs and attacked Ali Hasan’s Moplah fleet.

But this not only shocked the Moplahs but proved to be very unpopular among the local Sinhalese, especially the cinnamon dealers, who had cordial ties with the Moplahs in contrast to bitter relations with the Portuguese.

The Moplahs of Kotte fled to Sitawaka, where they were welcomed with open arms by its ruler, Mayadunne. Mayadunne’s act was applauded by the Sinhalese of Sitawaka who looked upon him as a defender of their interest against the Portuguese.

Such public support encouraged Mayadunne to seek the help of the Zamorin of Calicut to drive the Portuguese out of Kotte. When the Zamorin’s navy comprising Moplahs arrived, Mayadunne declared himself “Chakravarthi” or Emperor.

This alarmed Bhuvanekabahu VII who promptly sought the help of the Portuguese in Goa, who sent 10 troop ships in 1528. Fearing defeat, Mayadunne made peace with Bhuvanekabahu VII. With that the Portuguese troops left Kotte.

But trouble arose again in 1533 when the Portuguese tried to force a revised trade deal on Bhuvanekabahu VII of Kotte. They wanted to burn all the poor quality cinnamon given to them by the King so that these did not fall into the hands of their business rivals, the Moplahs. They also demanded that the King agree to a lower price. The weak King agreed.

But the Moplah traders were incensed. Fed up with the Kotte King, they appealed to Mayadunne of Sitawaka to attack the Portuguese. They also negotiated a deal with the Zamorin of Calicut to bring down a force to take on the Portuguese. In 1536, the Zamorin sent a force of 4000 men under Adm.Ali Ibrahim. To counter it, Bhuvanekabahu VII sought Portuguese help. Eleven vessels arrived in 1537 from Cochin under Adm. Martin Affonso de Souza.

By the time this happened, Mayadunne had made peace with Buvanekabahu VII. The Kotte ruler sent back the Portuguese duly compensated. But on his volition, the Portuguese commander Martin Affonso de Souza pursued the Moplah fleet and defeated them at Mangalore on the Karnataka coast.

The peace deal between Mayadunne and Buvanekabahu VII proved to be ephemeral. Mayadunne was itching to fight with Buvanekabahu VII as the latter’s trade deal with the Portuguese continued to irk him. He again sought military assistance from the Zamorin of Calicut, who sent 8000 men in 50 ships under the joint command of Moplah generals, Kunjali Marakkar, Payichchi Marakkar and Ali Ibrahim.

As in the past, Bhuvanekabahu VII sent Portuguese troops from India. 650 Portuguese in 25 ships under de Souza set sail for Sri Lanka again. En route the Portuguese caught up with the Moplah fleet and inflicted a crushing defeat on it on February 25, 1538.

But on arrival in Colombo, the Portuguese found that Bhuvanekabahu and Mayadunne had patched up again. However in 1540, the brothers were fighting each other again. Bhuvanekabahu knew that Mayadunne was eying the Kotte kingdom as he had already assumed the title of ‘Chakravarthi’. Again, Mayadunne sought the Zamorin’s help and Bhuvanekabahu sought Portuguese help.

A Portuguese fleet under the command of Adm. Miguel Ferreira arrived at Negombo and destroyed the ships of the Calicut navy anchored there. Ferriera’s fleet came to Colombo and burnt all the Calicut ships there too.

Ferriera demanded that Mayadunne hand over to them, the Marakkar naval commanders he was sheltering. Mayadunne replied that it would be unethical to hand them over as they had been given refuge. He promised a good compensation in lieu of surrender. But Ferreira would have none of it. He insisted on having the Marakkars dead or alive.

Left with no option, Mayadunne beheaded them, including Payichchi Marakkar, and sent the heads to Ferreira. This ended the Zamorin’s alliance with Mayadunne and all Sri Lankan Kings. The Zamorin and the Moplahs swore not to give any military help to any Sri Lankan ruler.

With the Portuguese gaining the upper hand in Kotte, especially after the installation on the throne of Dharmapala, Bhuvaneskabahu VII’s grandson who had converted to Catholicism, Mayadunne felt highly insecure. He agreed to become a vassal of the Portuguese King.

However, his successor, Rajasinha, continued to fight the Portuguese, though, unsuccessfully. Not having naval power, unable to import manpower from India, and being deficient in firearms, the Sri Lankan forces were no match for the Portuguese.

Cover Photograph: Political map of Sri Lanka in the 16th Century