Sri Lankan military history: book recomendation

The title is Kandy Fights the Portuguese: a Military History of Kandyan Resistance. It covers (obviously) the Portuguese era of this island’s history. The book is a very good read for 2 main reasons:

  1. The author C Gaston Perera writes well.
  2. He REALY knows what he’s writing about.

Thankfully he lacks post modern flourishes or the kind of pretentious artiness you’ll find on this blog. Its all about delivering the content clearly. In my opinion the author succeeds in doing this because he knows how to bring the past to life with fascinating, relevant details in their historical context.

The level of detail in this book is quite staggering and diverse. The webs of feudal obligations of the Kotte kingdom that gave the Portuguese a formidable native military. The technical prowess of the Kandyans to create portable mountain artillery and build elaborate fortifications. King Vimala Dharma Surya’s ability to forge an effective military machine AND a sustainable state out of very little. The giddying levels of psychological warfare that led the hapless Portuguese to their doom (repeatedly). And of course the layers of betrayals and double cross where the only priority is personal power at any cost (that one we should be familiar with).

Yet none of these are dropped on the reader without context- which is established on a solid foundation of facts. A tight structure of methodical set of steps lead to deeper and wider stages of understanding. A glance through the table of contents gives a very good idea of this process. The blurb about the book on the Vijitha Yapa online store does a good job of summarising the book’s structure better than I can.

The facts that are the building blocks of this book are heavily cross referenced with multiple sources. The details of battles alone are painstakingly established with quotes from Portuguese accounts, dissections of Sinhala sources, and analysis of geographical terrain. Certain details are even further backed up with latter period Dutch and English sources.

All too frequently there are asides about the sources themselves and what those say of the period. The even meaning of words in Sinhala poems are interrogated to extract clues that may corroborate other accounts. The motives of the authors are considered in weighing each source. When the historical record is incomplete or inconclusive the author says so quite bluntly. Then shows you where and why (with characteristic fussiness) exactly where the records are lacking.

All this would make up for dull painful reading if it wasn’t for the writing. The author keeps the words meaningful and relevant. There’s variation to keep things from being slow. Discussion on strategy, the terrain, and context of the socio-economic factors of the time (both global and local). You get to meet the key players like King Vimala Dharma Surya the first (how ever you want to spell his name) and the tragic Portuguese-captain general, Constantino de Sa de Noronha. Despite a documentary detachment there is a humane treatment of the past. An unobtrusive sensibility that those who suffered and their tormentors were humans, not to be painted in convenient silhouettes.

By the first third of the book, I was fully sold on the author’s scholarly credentials and wish he’d skip a bit of the detail to make the story more dramatic. But this is not a novel – just the story of what happened and why (as much as the facts permit).

I read this book slowly across many weekday nights and in the stolen moments that life in 21st century Colombo would allow. By the 2nd chapter I was reaching for its guilty pleasure when ever I could.

I won’t apologise for sounding worse than a pandering fan boy. Fact is I enjoyed reading this book and learnt a lot from it. Its not meant as a tome just for history scholars but for anyone who likes a good read. I’m also grateful for the refreshing perspective of our phase in history. The bad bad days of the Portuguese wars with its cruelly and greed is so familiar. Yet far worse than anything that goes on today.

Disclaimer: I wasn’t paid to write this by anyone.


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