Monument of the Battle of Randeniwela (රන්දෙනිවෙල පෘතුගීසි සංහාරය)

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When we come to write an account of the battle, we find our own records woefully scanty and inadequate. Our chronicles regard it almost with indifference. The Culavamsa does not even mention it by name. The Rajavaliya has a passing reference to a few lines. The Alakesvarauddhaya does not deal with the Kandyan period at all. The other literary source consists of the War Poems, the Hatan Kavi. There are two such poems where the battle is referred to, the Parangi Hatane and the Maha Hatane. But these are literary compositions whose sole purpose is panegyrical, to eulogise Rajasinha and their figurative style and extravagant metaphors—‘bullets rattling like raindrops’—cannot be made the basis of any conclusions.

So here also, to recount the Battle of Randeniwela one has to turn to Portuguese sources. There are four extant Portuguese accounts of the battle—in Queyroz’s ‘Conquest’, Ribeiro’s ‘Historic Tragedy’, Menezes’s (the Portuguese general’s son, who wrote this version to justify his father) ‘Rebelion’ and an anonymous account called the ‘Jornada’. It is this latter that is most reliable and the others seem to be based on this. For, written in 1635, just 5 years after the events it describes, it is the earliest account. Secondly, the internal evidence shows the author took part in the action and therefore what is said is first-hand. Finally, its credibility is established by the accuracy of its topographical details—the description of the Mutiyangane temple, for instance. But even this has gaps—the actual course of the battle for instance.

The events that led up to the battle must be recounted if this account is to be meaningful. In fact, it is such a compound of daring, intrigue, treachery and quixotic notions of honour that it reads like a dramatic thriller.

The principal actor in the drama is Constantine de Saa Noronha, a blue-blooded fidalgo and the Captain-General of the Portuguese in the island. All accounts speak of him in glowing terms as a man of high principles, a strict disciplinarian, incorruptible, loved by his men and remarkable for his fairness to the ‘blacks’ in whom he also, rather naively, placed absolute trust. The fact that he came to be known as “kusal neti deviyo” among the local people shows that our oral tradition remarkably confirms this picture. The epithet combines in one phrase both the high regard he was held in as well as pity and regret at his tragic end.

The other actor who actually started the train of events is the Prince of Uva, Prince Kumarasinghe, the real heir to the throne but dispossessed by his uncle in favour of his own son, Rajasinha. Queyroz refers to his ‘lofty ideas’; Menezes in the ‘Rebelion’ describes him as ‘being of ambitious ideas’ and ‘the greatest enemy the Portuguese had’. Exiled to Uva he daringly commences offensive action against the Portuguese, obviously to provoke them to retaliate.

The third actor in the drama is a band of lowland chieftains holding high office under de Saa as commanders of his lascorin or local forces and implicitly trusted by him. They are secretly conspiring with Kandy to destroy him and end the Portuguese menace.

With the Prince of Uva rampaging in Portuguese territory, the conspirators, with ulterior motives, urge de Saa to retaliate. His own captains dissuade him pleading they do not have the men. It goes against a man so high-souled as de Saa to ask for aid but reluctantly he agrees to appeal to Goa. The response is a stunning and utterly undeserved rebuke—stop trading in cinnamon and get on with the war. Deeply hurt and insulted beyond measure he decides to obey these suicidal orders and against all advice leads an invasion of Badulla to punish “the impertinent Prince of Uva”.

The expedition was badly undermanned. Generally Portuguese accounts of numbers involved in these affairs are always unreliable, the tendency being to inflate enemy figures while deflating their own to magnify their achievements. Here Queyroz says de Saa scraped the barrel and could only find 500 Portuguese (400 according to Ribeiro) while the lascorin forces of the conspirators amounted to 13,000. They were opposed, he says, by a force of 40,000 Kandyans.

The description on the commemoration monument where the Battle of Randeniwela took place
The description on the commemoration monument where the Battle of Randeniwela took place

The expedition set out in early August and marched through Hanwella, Sitawaka, Ratnapura, then probably Beragala and scaled the slopes of what is now Needwood Group to Idalgashinna, taking 15 days to do so and then a further 3 days to get to Badulla.

Prince Kumarasinghe in the meantime was waiting in the fortified city with all the appearances of making a stiff resistance and at the last moment in the classic Kandyan manoeuvre of trying to lure the enemy to pursue and get lost in the mountains, abandoned the city. But de Saa was too wise to fall for that. He entered Badulla and spent the day setting up his headquarters in the strategically situated Mutiyangane temple—with “a stone wall and a ditch on one side and the river [the Badulu Oya obviously] on the other” as the Jornada says. The next day he spent in sacking and torching the city, particularly the Kataragama devale, and ravaging the countryside—destroying ‘more than 2000 measures of rice in the stalk’ and all the cattle he could find.

The Kandyan forces moved in the night to surround the city and block the Portuguese retreat by the route they came. The next morning the Portuguese see the mountains ringing Badulla swarming with the enemy. As the realization that they are trapped slowly sinks in the next blow falls. One of the conspirators in an act of double-crossing that is the leitmotif of Sinhala history reveals all the plans of the conspiracy to de Saa.

The latter must have thought it was not prudent to confront the traitors so far from home. He must have decided the only recourse open to him was to break out and fight his way to the coast, hoping to return to Colombo that way, perhaps by boat. He issues orders to leave tomorrow. The trap was sprung by the conspirators as they were leaving the next morning.

The Portuguese marched in a 3-wing formation, the conspirators and their lascorins forming the vanguard and the rear guard. As they left the temple and began fording the Badulu Oya one of the conspirators in the rear guard suddenly whipped out his sword and beheaded the Portuguese closest to him, stuck the head on a spear and held it aloft. That was the agreed signal. The Kandyan forces came charging down on the flank of the Portuguese, the vanguard turned round and attacked from the front while the rear guard did the same from behind. Crossing over to the Kandyans on the battle-field was of course standard lascorin procedure, so much so that they were really Kandy’s best weapon. Now taken completely by surprise and attacked on three fronts it was a tense moment for the Portuguese but their commanders rose to the occasion. They steadied the men and, as always happened, their firepower gave them the edge and enabled them to fight off the attack.

Then commenced a nightmare 2-day retreat, fighting continually and harassed by the Kandyans all the way.

The route of the retreat cannot be ascertained with any certainty from the sources. If it was the shortest, the easiest and the most direct it had to be through Passara and down the Lunugala slopes of what is now the tea estates of the Hopton group. Another view is that the route lay through Demodera, Ballakatuwa and down the slopes of a cocoa plantation, which apparently, till a tourist hotel came up recently, had a well-marked track used for driving buffaloes to Wellawaya.

Whatever it was, hounded remorselessly by the Kandyans and fighting desperately, the Portuguese struggled down to the plain and the sources say he crossed a river. This has to be the Kirinde Oya because it is the only river in this area. It is clear therefore that once on the plain de Saa spotted the river and swung right to cross it and put it between himself and the pursuing Kandyans to set up camp for the approaching night.

Two events now occurred which proved catastrophic to the Portuguese. An unexpected, unusual and terrific thunderstorm burst on them. The rain came in blinding sheets the land was inundated, the river flooded, the men were soaked to the skin and, the bitterest blow of all, their powder and fuses were sopping wet. Such a disaster at such a time may well have shaken the faith of the men and all the sources question why it should happen. Even the usually devout Queyroz, who usually sees white-clad females leading the Portuguese troops, asks whether this was a ‘conspiracy of Heaven’.

The truth of this catastrophe is confirmed by our oral traditions but in a very indirect way. For this information, I am indebted to the Revd. Mirahawatte Dhammapala of the Bodhirajaramaya temple at Randeniya. He pointed out to us a village halfway up the slope which, he said was called Meedeniya. The belief among the villagers is that a party of Kandyan archers was stationed here during the fighting with orders to shoot fire arrows—arrows tipped with burning arecanut husk, kamaranka puwak—at the place where the Portuguese had spread their powder out to dry. This oral tradition has nothing to say about a storm but why should the Portuguese have to dry their powder?

The other catastrophe befell the Portuguese after the storm had abated when an alarming report came in that the rearguard had still not crossed the river. They were trapped on the other side surrounded by the Kandyans. The rearguard was composed of the best Captains of the expedition and the loss of his finest troops just at this desperate moment would have been disastrous. De Saa rushed back across the river to their aid but though his efforts were desperate he could not cut through the masses of Kandyans and had to abandon his efforts and return before he himself was cut off.

A night of utter despair follows. Without food or shelter, their clothes still dripping wet they spend the dark hours in prayer or trying to dispel the dismal forebodings about the battle to come.

Where this battle was actually fought we do not know for certain. At present a monument has been erected at the 9th kilometer post on the Ella-Wellawaya road near the village of Randeniya to commemorate it. Since we know the Portuguese forces crossed the Kirinde Oya the battle-field has to be on its western bank and has to be in the vicinity of Randeniya. For one thing, there is the nature of the land here. It is all flat and open, rolling paddy fields mostly. The other evidence is that of toponyms. Every village in the area, every hamlet, even the physical features have names with military connotations. Hewankandure—a stockade for soldiers; Ballakatuwa (a corruption for Balakotuwa)—fort; Hingurukaduwa—the hiding place or store for swords; Ulhititenne—a place where palisades were set up; Hinapahuwa (a corruption for sena pahuwu)—a place where the army fell back; Kolabure (a corruption for kalebale)—a fracas or uproar; a hill called Udawadiya—a camp on the heights; even Randeniya itself—plain of soldiers.

Even the names of adjoining fields and properties in the area are resonant with military significance. For this information, I am indebted to Mr. Mervyn Wijesinghe, a prominent resident and land-owner of the area who in his retirement runs the well-known Don Diogo guesthouse at Wellawaya. The name of his own stretch of paddy fields in the title deeds is mentioned as Sudupanawela, a corruption for suddha-pannapu-wela : the field where the white was chased. Then there is Polgaswela—the field where coconuts were dashed (in victory celebration). But the most macabre is Meekandawela, a corruption for mini kanda wela—the field of corpses.

But wherever the battle was fought the next day, we know very little of what happened there. None of the sources provide a continuous and coherent account of events. What is stated is so scrappy and disjointed that it is not possible to reconstruct meaningfully either the tactics involved or the course of fighting. We are told in a general sort of way that the fighting was prolonged—‘from 6 in the morning till 2 in the afternoon’. We are also told the fighting was fierce—the Portuguese fought ‘with the utmost valour’ and the Kandyans ‘with great force —and fury’. But by piecing all the stray hints and statements together one can broadly configure what happened.

At dawn, the Portuguese were ready. De Saa addresses the troops in a stirring speech in which he says they must fight to the end. A herald arrives now from the Kandyans with an offer of life for surrender which is scornfully spurned. They then form to march out—de Saa discards his armour for ‘breeches and doublet’. As they move out the Kandyan army surges forward ‘in the form of a half moon which gradually spread out into a complete circle’. The course of the fighting that must have ensued with intervals for the rest of the day must have been mostly as described in the following passage in Menezes’ ‘Rebelion’:

 ‘Our little force remained in the center hard-pressed and confounded. They tried in vain to discharge the arquebuses, for their powder was wet and useless and their slow matches extinguished. They marched on, astonished at the skill with which the enemy wounded them from afar with their arrows and arquebuses; and having recourse to their swords which alone they could freely use, the barbarians dared not come to close quarters for they were killed as soon as they came up to our ranks.’

 In other words, it seems they were surrounded and shot at from afar and fought only with their swords, killing any foe that came within reach.

But why did the Kandyans allow this to go on for 8 long hours? This is the great puzzle about the Battle of Randeniwela. It could not be that they lacked courage or were timid and half-hearted. The Portuguese sources themselves testify to the ‘force—and great fury’ of their onslaught. And it is the Portuguese historians themselves who elsewhere bear testimony to the fearlessness and fanatical fighting qualities of the Kandyans. It could not be that they lacked the men. Even if they did not quite muster Queyroz’s 40,000 the numbers were heavily on their side and they had to deal with only a paltry 400 at the most. Besides, and this is the most telling fact, the Portuguese were without that one advantage which always gave them the edge over the Kandyans in every encounter—their firepower. And yet with all these circumstances heavily stacked against the Portuguese, the Kandyans could not overpower this handful of 400 men from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Why? This is the great puzzle about the battle.

The explanation may lie in an assertion made by Queyroz in his account and repeated both by Menezes and Ribeiro. That explanation relates to the nature of the orders issued to the Kandyan troops. Incredible though it sounds they were ordered, it seems, to capture the Portuguese, at least de Saa, alive. If this is correct the rationale may have been the salutary effect on the people’s morale when the Portuguese were paraded in chains around the country. Or, more probably, the self-aggrandizement of the leader! It is possible—Rajasinha was not noted for respecting human lives. For the Kandyan troops, this unreasonable and suicidal order would have been like asking them to fight with their hands tied while the Portuguese slaughtered them. Queroz’s explanation is given colour by three factors. It explains the heavy casualties on the Kandyan side—4000 according to Queiroz, almost 10% if his estimate of troop strength is right. It explains the almost charmed life that de Saa seemed to have borne in the fighting—”those who lost their lives there at the point of his sword exceeding 60″. It explains why the fighting ceased almost abruptly when the field commanders “informed the Princes that unless he [de Saa, that is] was killed, the damage would be incredible” and the orders were rescinded and the Kandyan archers moved in. de Saa was shot to death then and Luis Gomez Pinto soon after. The remaining Portuguese, about 50, then laid down their arms.

The manner of de Saa’s dying was dramatic. His bodyguards had been killed earlier and only his Father Confessor fought by his side. One arrow strikes his breast and he falls. He tries to rise but is struck again on the shoulder and falls again. The Father Confessor bends over him to shield him. The sequel is almost dream-like. The archer draws to shoot again. A Portuguese notices it and takes aim to fire at the archer—obviously, the guns were firing again by now. Just then de Saa struggles to his knees again asking for absolution from the Father. The Portuguese fires just as he is rising. De Saa takes it full in his breast and sinks for the last time, murmuring, “I rejoice that mine own kill me.”

There was one bravura display of defiance before the end. A Portuguese soldier seized the Portuguese flag and ate it!

De Saa’s head was cut off on the battlefield and taken around the country and its subsequent history is part of Queyroz’s familiar forays into the miraculous.

One other puzzle remains. The Portuguese everywhere in the island were paralyzed by the news. Colombo was totally unprepared and ready for the taking. de Saa had feared it and had sent desperate warning messages the night before the battle. This was the time for Kandy to follow up Randeniwela, take Colombo by storm and end the Portuguese menace. Why did they not? Why did they take 26 whole days to come up giving the Portuguese time to prepare and ask for help? Queyroz, ever ready to denigrate the barbarian, the infidel, the pagan, says Rajasinha was having a sex orgy with his dancing girls and Wijepala was having a gambling session with his Portuguese captives. Is that true? This is where we feel the need for our own sources most. We will never know. What we do know is that when the Kandyans came up and besieged the fort the Portuguese were ready for them. The siege ultimately failed.

Still, the Portuguese presence on the island was doomed. They never really recovered from the shattering defeat at Randeniwela.

by Gaston Perera
The Island

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Map of The Monument of the Battle of Randeniwela

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Route from Wellawaya to The Monument of the Battle of Randeniwela Route from Bandarawela to The Monument of the Battle of Randeniwela
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Distance : 31 km
Travel time :1 hour
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