- (Dis)connected Empires: Imperial Portugal, Sri Lankan Diplomacy, and the Making of a Hapsburg Conquest in Asia by Zoltán Biedermann
This book examines diplomatic relations between Portugal and Sri Lanka in the sixteenth century. At its heart lies the question: What [End Page 166] led to the conquest of Sri Lanka by the Hapsburg rulers of Portugal in 1597? From the outset, the author asserts that the Portuguese did not set out to colonize Sri Lanka. Instead, allegiance was pursued by successive kings of Kōṭṭe who viewed a tributary relationship with the Portuguese as a way of securing the status of cakravarti—supreme overlords of the island. By the mid-sixteenth century, the rulers of Kōṭṭe had successfully allied themselves with Portugal. But different understandings of empire, and what it means to rule, led them to miscalculate the role of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka. Through this captivating history, Zoltán Biedermann challenges the usefulness of "connectivity" as a framework for studying global history. He argues that, while connections could facilitate the global transmission of ideas, miscommunication and break downs were frequent. (Dis) Connected Empires traces the way in which cultural misunderstanding paved the way for the colonization of Sri Lanka.
Far from a simple story of European conquest and invasion, this book qualifies and complicates the story of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka. At times, a reader unfamiliar with the reigns, rulers and historical development of the two polities might be overwhelmed by the competing and overlapping narratives. But the broad chronology and detailed explanation of events are essential to Biedermann's argument: that the Iberian conquest of Sri Lanka was the outcome of a long historical process with multiple agents. To support his assertions, he draws primarily on European diplomatic correspondence and chronicles, but also makes judicious use of the extant Sri Lankan chronicles. The result is a balanced interpretation of the past.
The book opens with a careful and critical look at "connected history" and the difficulties inherent in writing global history. Although Biedermann concedes that the study of connections can be fruitful, he questions the assumption that inter-cultural communication was always successful. The second chapter describes the initial contact between the agents of the Estado da Índia and the kings of Kōṭṭe, from Lourenço de Almeida's arrival in Sri Lanka in 1506 up to the accession of Bhuvanekabāhu VII in 1521. According to Biedermann, the Portuguese did not show much initial interest in the island but "were pulled into Sri Lanka by local elites" (p. 47) who were eager to foster tributary relations with a foreign power. Chapter 3 unpacks the Lankan concept of Empire which the author likens to a set of wooden matrioshka dolls. Within this system of "nested empires" each ruler governed independently and free from interference. Biedermann outlines the expectations of the rulers of Kōṭṭe in this regard: "Outside the island, John III was expected to patrol the seas and [End Page 167] maintain resources that might be deployed to protect Kōṭṭe … Inside the island, he was expected to let go of his resources and place them under the authority of the ruler of Kōṭṭe" (p. 89). It becomes clear that this concept of nested empires, which prized ties of suzerainty, directly conflicted with the European idea of empire which fixated on sovereignty and was modelled on Imperial Rome.
Over the course of the sixteenth century, both Portugal and Kōṭṭe experienced important religious shifts. Chapter 4 explains how, in the 1540s, conversion emerged as a key diplomatic tool, used by princes and petty rulers of Sri Lanka to challenge the hegemony of Kōṭṭe. Although Bhuvanekabāhu VII (whose authority was predicated on Buddhism), refused conversion, other princes accepted baptism as a means of strengthening ties with the Portuguese. Biedermann presents the infamous looting of the Temple of Buddha's Tooth by the Portuguese in...