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The Military Economy of Seventeenth Century Sri Lanka: Rhetoric and Authority in a Time of Conquest

  • Author(s): Pirani, Cenan
  • Advisor(s): Subrahmanyam, Sanjay
  • et al.
Abstract

From the end of the sixteenth century, the overseas administrative arm of the Portuguese Crown, the Estado da ?ndia Oriental, sought to gain complete territorial control of the island of Sri Lanka and outlined the tenets of the military project dubbed in administrative letters, “the Conquest of the Island of Ceylon”. Such efforts however would be impeded by military rebellions (ie. mutinies and desertions) by native military personnel in Portuguese service, where a rebellion that occurred in 1630 severely weakened the Estado's position in the island from which it could not recover. The specific event, the death of a Portuguese general at the hands of his own Christianized native troop, left a deep imprint on Portuguese memory. Decades later, the chronicler Fern?o de Queiroz claimed the event, which paved the way for the European's eventual removal from the island by 1658, bore testament to the unbridgeable cultural and religious schism between the Portuguese and the native Sinhala people, an established viewpoint in current historiography.

This study focuses attention on the documentation in Portuguese, English, Spanish, and Sinhalese written during the more active moments of the conquest period (1580-1640) in order to test such well-established views. Starting with the more general question of how anyone captured and maintained territorial authority in the island, since native island kings were said to have encountered similar challenges in keeping the loyalties of their military personnel, the study argues that any person or group vying for territorial authority was required to engage with a military service market consisting of personnel from inside and outside the island. One's posterity depended on how well one could recruit, compensate, and keep such personnel in service.

This case study is influenced by the topics and themes of larger studies on war in early modern South Asia and the Indian Ocean World, from which common challenges regarding territorial expansion are identified. Such pervading themes are enveloped in the concept 'military economy'; a political and economic system of war that understands military personnel to be its central agents.

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