- Kingship and Conversion in Sixteenth-Century Sri Lanka: Portuguese Imperialism in a Buddhist Land
Buddhist-Christian relationships in Southeast Asian countries have a history that goes back to colonizations of the Portuguese, Dutch, British, and French beginning in the sixteenth century. By studying the story of those early occupations, one can predict with some accuracy the nature of the relationships between Buddhists and Christians today.
In Kingship and Conversion in Sixteenth-Century Sri Lanka, Alan Strathern, research fellow in history at Clare Hall, Cambridge, unearths a piece of the story that helps us understand the antipathy that exists today between Buddhists and Christians in Sri Lanka. As the title indicates, it is a book with a small thesis, limited geographical scope, and of short temporal duration. That is, it is a scholarly book that examines why a Christian monarchy was never established in sixteenth century coastal Sri Lanka during the one hundred years of colonial presence and rule of the maritime regions (ca. 1600–1658) by Roman Catholic Portugal.
Strathern breaks new ground by delving into letters written by Portuguese churchmen, which have not previously been used in histories of this period. He ignores neither traditional Buddhist sources (the vaṃsa tradition in Sri Lanka) nor traditional Christian sources (principally Portuguese Jesuit Fernao de Queiros’s The Temporal and [End Page 221] Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon). And he is candid about his debt to the “presiding scholar” of the Portuguese period in Sri Lanka, C.R. de Silva, and also the “other expert in the field,” Jorge Manuel Flores. But the heretofore unused Portuguese letters provide the other side of the conversation that helps explain much.
Strathern’s broader periodization begins with the Portuguese’s first incursions into Sri Lanka in 1505 and ends with the collapse of the Portuguese rule in the coastal regions to the Dutch in 1658. But his real focus is on the reign of the most important Sri Lankan monarch during this period, King Bhuvanekabāhu VII, who reigned from 1521 to 1551. It was King Bhuvanekabāhu’s policies regarding the Portuguese and particularly his welcoming of Christian missionaries that have created such controversy among historians of this period, both Sinhalese and Portuguese (and other Western historians). For some, Bhuvanekabāhu was weak and vacillating, for others strong and consistent. For some Bhuvanekabāhu was a captive, powerless vassal, for others a ruler of agency and foresight, making decisions that were the very best he could do given the overwhelming might of the Portuguese navy.
Strathern’s conclusion, finely argued and carefully nuanced, is that Bhuvanekabāhu should be given more credit that he is usually given for wise kingship. But the pointed question that Strathern decides is key to the role Bhuvanekabāhu plays is his decision not to convert to Christianity, at an important period in Southeast Asian history when “conversion” to Christianity had become more than a religious decision—it had become a political and economic strategy of some weight, a decision that many other rulers of this period in south India and elsewhere were making as a matter of expedience. Why, asks Strathern, did Bhuvanekabāhu not make the same decision?
The answer comes in three explorations that form the three parts of the book. The first is an exploration of the question of kingship in South and Southeast Asia during this period, specifically the role that kings conquered by colonial powers played. Strathern calls this the Temporal Question. The second is an exploration of what happened to these political dynamics when Christian missionaries are thrown in the mix. Strathern calls this the Spiritual Question. Third is an exploration of the overall effect on these two factors on the colonial powers, indigenous nationhoods, and the two religious institutions, Buddhism and Christianity.
The sixteenth century in Sri Lanka was a time of unavoidable political alliances. The irresistible power of the colonizing power in Sri Lanka, beginning with Portuguese in 1505, meant that one could either fight to the death...