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The Odyssey and Living Legacy of sieur de La Nérolle

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By Uditha Devapriya

Review of Yasmin Rajapakse’s The Odyssey and Living Legacy of sieur de La Nérolle: The French Lieutenant of the Expedition Escadre de Perse to Ceylon in 1672.

Neptune Publications,
98 pages, Rs. 2,000.

Europe’s imperial forays into the East were shaped by a long line of events, dating back to the Reconquista of 1492. These events sealed the fate of one part of the world: limited until then to occasional encounters with the West, Africa and Asia eventually turned into colonial outposts. That, in turn, had a profound impact on the course of politics in Europe; rocked by economic changes and religious tensions, it became a hotbed of conflict.

These developments did not escape Sri Lanka. Conquered by succeeding waves of South Indian dynasties, the country had its first taste of European colonialism in the mid-16th century. With its logic of exploitation and proselytisation, Portuguese rule lasted for more than half a century. Its inception coincided with the inception of the Kandyan kingdom, its collapse with the onset of the Dutch-Portuguese War. Taking advantage of these shifts and developments, Kandyan rulers sought Dutch support to overthrow the Portuguese. The ruse worked, though not entirely to the satisfaction of the Kandyans.

In November 1656, Dutch forces forced Rajasinghe II away from Colombo, contrary to the terms of an agreement that had pledged to cede the capital to Kandy. With the surrender of Portuguese forces in Jaffna on June 24, 1658, the Dutch established their rule in the country. We are told that five months later, on November 20, officials passed a resolution praising God for helping them evict their foes. Paul E. Pieris observes that while these celebrations were taking place, “[a] Jesuit was beheaded and 11 others were hanged, their bodies being left to rot on the gibbets.” These were obviously spoils of war.

One of the most idiosyncratic of the Sinhalese kings, Rajasinghe II was arguably the most tempestuous. We are told that he acted “like a caged tiger.” One day he would vent his fury against the Dutch, and the very next he would tell them that he appreciated their services. Anxious to secure his goodwill, the Hollanders for their part humoured him by sending him gifts, missives, entreaties, and ambassadors. At the peak of his reign, Paul E. Pieris notes, he had collected a large and perfect menagerie of foreigners and diplomats; perhaps the most well known of these was Robert Knox, taken prisoner in 1660.

Yasmin Rajapakse’s book is about one of these officials. At once lucid and accessible, it is rich in sources and packed with details. As she notes at the very beginning, though much has been written about the subject of her work, very little has been verified. What Rajapakse’s account attempts to do, then, is make sense of the man behind the legend, deconstructing one of the more intriguing periods in our history.

The subject of several apocryphal and anecdotal accounts, sieur de La Nérolle’s life has never been seriously examined until now. While a number of essays, articles, and even books have been written about him, none of them has attempted to place his story in the context of his times. This is what Yasmin Rajapakse tries to do in her book. Guided by her intense passion for French and Sri Lankan history, she traces de La Nérolle’s trysts with the island to certain political developments in 17th century Europe.

Rajapakse begins her account, understandably enough, with the land of La Nérolle’s birth. France in the 16th century, she notes, was different to the country it would later become. With an abundance of resources, officials did not feel the need to expand into other regions, especially in the East, as the Portuguese, Dutch, and British were doing. All that changed in the second half of the century, in particular after the establishment of the French East Indies Company. Hemmed in for so long by rival European powers, it realised that to contend with them, it had to go out and explore. To that end, under Louis XIV, the “Sun God”, the French STate began to build up a strong naval force, to pursue trade in the East Indies.

At the time France was witnessing not just economic change, but social upheaval. Religious tensions had become the order of the day, with schisms between Catholics and Protestants spilling over to the country’s political life. One of the more prominent officials of the French East Indies Company was François Caron, a Protestant-Huguenot refugee born in Flanders. Caron’s career resembles that of many petty officials who went on to hold high positions in the Orient: working as a kitchen assistant at the age of 19 in the Dutch East Indies Company, he mastered Japanese and became the President of the Company and Admiral of the Dutch Fleet. Falling out with the Company, he later switched allegiances to the French.

Caron’s first task was to establish trade in the East Indies. Louis XIV’s Minister of State, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, had envisioned a series of reforms that would help France stand on par with the rest of Europe. To this end, Caron’s proposal, that the French Navy go beyond the Pacific and into the Indian Ocean, was well received.

Having been involved in the Dutch capture of Negombo from the Portuguese in 1644, Caron soon realised that Ceylon figured in his scheme of things, and communicated as much with Colbert. In 1669 he despatched a letter to Rajasinghe II, informing him of France’s intention to “forge a lasting friendship” with his Court. A year later Colbert summoned a naval force, baptising it Escadre de Perse, or “Squadron of Persia”, and sailing from La Rochelle in March 1670 to the coast of Koddiyar, or Trincomalee, in March 1672.

All these details seem superfluous, but they are vital to Rajapakse’s narrative. We are told that Rajasinghe II received the first two diplomats sent by the French mission to Kandy well. We are told that he agreed with their proposal to counter the Dutch. Yet Dutch designs on the island and on Kandy being what they were, they could not prevail for long against their competitors. The upsurge of war between Holland and France in 1671 did not help resolve these confrontations, and in the end, barely a year after settling in the East of the island, the French fleet, or what was left of it, evacuated and abandoned Trincomalee.

Yasmin Rajapakse reflects on the reasons for these failures, noting not just the logistical problems that French soldiers had to face, but also the capability of the French fleet tasked with securing conveniences across the Indo-Pacific. This is where she gets to the subject of her study. Before setting sail back home, French officials despatched yet another mission to Kandy. The man chosen to head this mission, who would remain in Kandy despite his wishes and plans, was a young lieutenant attached to the fleet, the sieur de la Nérolle.

Who were the de La Nérolles? Rajapakse traces them to a family of military officials from the village of Charante. Today, of course, there are many De Lanerolles in Sri Lanka, with a separate but related line bearing the name Lenora. In France the de La Nérolles faced the brunt of the country’s official religious policy, converting from the Protestantism of their youth to Catholicism after Louis XIV cut their privileges. This, no doubt, made Lieutenant de La Nérolle, stranded in Kandy, the sole Protestant or Huguenot from his family. As Rajapakse makes it clear in her account, that had a profound impact on his relations with not only the Sinhalese kings, but also the many foreign emissaries at the Kandyan court.

The Kandyan kingdom of the 17th and 18th centuries, as countless historians have pointed out, was a flourishing cosmopolitan enclave. Open to a great many foreign influences, it occupied a world of its own. Sinhalese kings had made contacts with Catholic refugees, Protestant priests, Muslim traders, Hindu swamis, and European diplomats. Rajasinghe II’s fascination with the latter endeared him to Westerners.

These policies were maintained by his successors, two of which Sieur de La Nérolle served: Wimaladharmasuriya II and Vira Parakrama Narendrasinghe. De La Nérolle went on to endear himself so well to the Kandyan Court that, in 1723, he was not just permitted to marry a woman from a prominent noble family, but also conferred with the title of Mudiyanse.

A beneficiary of Kandyan largesse, de La Nérolle found himself enjoying a status few others did. Though there were obvious strategic motives to their decision to tolerate and reward foreign officials, the Sinhalese kings went out of their way to ensure that the Europeans in their realm were taken care of. Often they took them into their confidence, granting them access. For their part, European emissaries remained respectful of local customs, especially the King’s patronage of Buddhism. This did not, however, mean that they abandoned their way of life: writing of de La Nérolle, for instance, Rajapakse tells us very clearly and candidly that he “was known to be vehemently anti-catholic.”

It was the Frenchman’s rigid anti-Catholicism, in fact, which compelled him to denounce Joseph Vaz as a spy to Wimaladharmasuriya II. The latter at once ordered his men to seize the priest, yet upon realising that he was “a harmless Catholic ascetic”, he let him go. This by no means resolved tensions between the Huguenot and the Papist: Rajapakse relates a particularly lively debate between de La Nérolle and a later Catholic ascetic frequenting the Kandyan kingdom, Jacombe Gonçalves, played out in front of Narendrasinghe over matters of faith such as the relevance of saints and idols to the Church.

In what can be taken as a testament to the influence of the Portuguese Church in Sri Lanka, the avowedly Sinhalese Buddhist king sided with Gonçalves, convinced by his defence of the worship of idols. Though Rajapakse does not mention it, it is possible that the king’s own partiality to “idol-worshipping” made him favour the Catholic priest, a fact which may explain his patronage of not just Gonçalves, but also other priests. Gonçalves for his part conspired to convert de La Nérolle’s closest aide, Pedro Gascon of “Daskon” fame, a ruse that eventually succeeded. Meanwhile, having sided with the Catholic priest, the ever sharp and intrepid Narendrasinghe threatened to hand sieur de La Nérolle over to Catholic adversaries unless he “cease his rant” against their Church.

All this changed with the advent of the Nayakkars. A Telugu dynasty from South India, the Nayakkars found themselves in the midst of a swirling mass of conspiracy at the Kandyan Court. Though commanding the loyalty of Sinhalese nobles and Buddhist priests, they had to prove their allegiance to Sinhalese culture and Buddhist practices. Unlike their predecessors, they had to be more public about their patronage of those practices. This obviously meant shedding off all foreign accretions, not just within their family, but also within the kingdom. Faced with the “atmosphere of uncertainly and insecurity” that followed this, the La Nérolle courtiers in Kandyan Court felt compelled to leave. With their exit, Rajapakse concludes, the family line shifted from the hill country to the Dutch-controlled South.

The Odyssey and Living Legacy of sieur de La Nérolle is unabashedly a labour of love. Well researched and well sourced, it is replete with enough references to qualify it as a first-rate work. The only discernible error, on page nine, is a misdating of a letter sent by Caron to Rajasinghe II. What makes it stand out well in other respects is the author’s love for French culture and Sri Lankan history. A Francophone and, I daresay, Francophile, Yasmin Rajapakse first came to us onboard Bonsoir. Though not a professional historian, her account of sieur de La Nérolle puts her above many professionals in the country, whose abandonment of the most basic principles of scholarship is to be deeply regretted. At the end of it all, this is what distinguishes Rajapakse’s work, and what distinguishes her.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com



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BRICS emerging as strong rival to G7

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It was in the fitness of things for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold a special telephonic conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently for the purpose of enlightening the latter on the need for a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Russian-initiated blood-letting in Ukraine. Hopefully, wise counsel and humanity would prevail and the world would soon witness the initial steps at least to a complete withdrawal of invading Russian troops from Ukraine.

The urgency for an early end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which revoltingly testifies afresh to the barbaric cruelty man could inflict on his fellows, is underscored, among other things, by the declaration which came at the end of the 14th BRICS Summit, which was held virtually in Beijing recently. Among other things, the declaration said: ‘BRICS reaffirms commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.’

It is anybody’s guess as to what meanings President Putin read into pledges of the above kind, but it does not require exceptional brilliance to perceive that the barbaric actions being carried out by his regime against Ukrainian civilians make a shocking mockery of these enlightened pronouncements. It is plain to see that the Russian President is being brazenly cynical by affixing his signature to the declaration. The credibility of BRICS is at risk on account of such perplexing contradictory conduct on the part of its members. BRICS is obliged to rectify these glaring irregularities sooner rather than later.

At this juncture the important clarification must be made that it is the conduct of the Putin regime, and the Putin regime only, that is being subjected to censure here. Such strictures are in no way intended to project in a negative light, the Russian people, who are heirs to a rich, humanistic civilization that produced the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, among a host of other eminent spirits, who have done humanity proud and over the decades guided humans in the direction of purposeful living. May their priceless heritage live long, is this columnist’s wish.

However, the invaluable civilization which the Russian people have inherited makes it obligatory on their part to bring constant pressure on the Putin regime to end its barbarism against the Ukrainian civilians who are not at all party to the big power politics of Eastern Europe. They need to point out to their rulers that in this day and age there are civilized, diplomatic and cost-effective means of resolving a state’s perceived differences with its neighbours. The spilling of civilian blood, on the scale witnessed in Ukraine, is a phenomenon of the hoary past.

The BRICS grouping, which encompasses some of the world’s predominant economic and political powers, if not for the irregular conduct of the Putin regime, could be said to have struck on a policy framework that is farsighted and proactive on the issue of global equity.

There is the following extract from a report on its recent summit declaration that needs to be focused on. It reads: BRICS notes the need to ensure “Meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries, especially in Africa, in global decision-making processes and structures and make it better attuned to contemporary realities.”

The above are worthy goals that need to be pursued vigorously by global actors that have taken upon themselves the challenge of easing the lot of the world’s powerless countries. The urgency of resuming the North-South Dialogue, among other questions of importance to the South, has time and again been mentioned in this column. This is on account of the fact that the most underdeveloped regions of the South have been today orphaned in the world system.

Given that the Non-aligned Movement and like organizations, that have espoused the resolution of Southern problems over the decades, are today seemingly ineffective and lacking in political and economic clout, indications that the BRICS grouping is in an effort to fill this breach is heartening news for the powerless of the world. Indeed, the crying need is for the poor and powerless to be brought into international decision-making processes that affect their wellbeing and it is hoped that BRICS’s efforts in this regard would bear fruit.

What could help in increasing the confidence of the underdeveloped countries in BRICS, is the latter’s rising economic and political power. While in terms of economic strength, the US remains foremost in the world with a GDP of $ 20.89 trillion, China is not very far behind with a GDP of $ 14.72 trillion. The relevant readings for some other key BRICS countries are as follows: India – $ 2.66 trillion, Russia – $ 1.48 trillion and Brazil $ 1.44 trillion. Of note is also the fact that except for South Africa, the rest of the BRICS are among the first 15 predominant economies, assessed in GDP terms. In a global situation where economics drives politics, these figures speak volumes for the growing power of the BRICS countries.

In other words, the BRICS are very much abreast of the G7 countries in terms of a number of power indices. The fact that many of the BRICS possess a nuclear capability indicates that in military terms too they are almost on par with the G7.

However, what is crucial is that the BRICS, besides helping in modifying the world economic order to serve the best interests of the powerless as well, contribute towards changing the power balances within the vital organs of the UN system, such as the UN Security Council, to render them more widely representative of changing global power realities.

Thus, India and Brazil, for example, need to be in the UNSC because they are major economic powers in their own right. Since they are of a democratic orientation, besides pushing for a further democratization of the UN’s vital organs, they would be in a position to consistently work towards the wellbeing of the underprivileged in their respective regions, which have tremendous development potential.

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Queen of Hearts

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She has certainly won the hearts of many with the charity work she is engaged in, on a regular basis, helping the poor, and the needy.

Pushpika de Silva was crowned Mrs. Sri Lanka for Mrs. World 2021 and she immediately went into action, with her very own charity project – ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

When launching this project, she said: “Lend a Helping Hand is dear to me. With the very meaning of the title, I am extending my helping hand to my fellow brothers and sisters in need; in a time where our very existence has become a huge question and people battling for daily survival.”

Since ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ became a reality, last year, Pushpika has embarked on many major charity projects, including building a home for a family, and renovating homes of the poor, as well.

The month of June (2022) saw Pushpika very much in action with ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

She made International Father’s Day a very special occasion by distributing food items to 100 poor families.

“Many are going without a proper meal, so I was very keen, in my own way, to see that these people had something to keep the hunger pangs away.”

A few days later, the Queen of Hearts made sure that 50 more people enjoyed a delicious and nutritious meal.

“In these trying times, we need to help those who are in dire straits and, I believe, if each one of us could satisfy the hunger, and thirst, of at least one person, per day, that would be a blessing from above.”

Pushpika is also concerned about the mothers, with kids, she sees on the roads, begging.

“How helpless is a mother, carrying a small child, to come to the street and ask for something.

“I see this often and I made a special effort to help some of them out, with food and other necessities.”

What makes Pushpika extra special is her love for animals, as well, and she never forgets the street dogs that are having a tough time, these days, scavenging for food.

“These animals, too, need food, and are voiceless, so we need to think of them, as well. Let’s have mercy on them, too. Let’s love them, as well.”

The former beauty queen served a delicious meal for the poor animals, just recently, and will continue with all her charity projects, on a regular basis, she said.

Through her charity project, ‘Lend a Helping Hand,” she believes she can make a change, though small.

And, she says, she plans to be even more active, with her charity work, during these troubled times.

We wish Pushpika de Silva all the very best, and look forward to seeing more of her great deeds, through her ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ campaign.

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Hope and political change:No more Appachis to the rescue

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KUPPI on the current economic and political crisis: intervention 1

by Harshana Rambukwella

In Buddhist literature, there is the Parable of the Burning House where the children of a wealthy man, trapped inside a burning house, refuse to leave it, fearful of leaving its comfort – because the flames are yet to reach them. Ultimately, they do leave because the father promises them wonderful gifts and are saved from the fire. Sri Lankans have long awaited such father figures – in fact, our political culture is built on the belief that such ‘fathers’ will rescue us. But this time around no fathers are coming. As Sri Lankans stare into an uncertain future, and a multitude of daily sufferings, and indignities continue to pile upon us, there is possibly one political and emotional currency that we all need – hope. Hope is a slippery term. One can hope ‘in-vain’ or place one’s faith in some unachievable goal and be lulled into a sense of complacency. But, at the same time, hope can be critically empowering – when insurmountable obstacles threaten to engulf you, it is the one thing that can carry you forward. We have innumerable examples of such ‘hope’ from history – both religious and secular. When Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, ‘hope’ of a new beginning sustained them, as did faith in God. When Queen Viharamahadevi set off on a perilous voyage, she carried hope, within her, along with the hope of an entire people. When Martin Luther King Jr made his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech, hope of an America where Black people could live in dignity, struck a resonant chord and this historical sense of hope also provided inspiration for the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.

This particular moment, in Sri Lanka, feels a moment of ‘hopelessness’. In March and April, this year, before the cowardly attack on the Gota Go Gama site, in Galle Face, there was a palpable sense of hope in the aragalaya movement as it spread across the country. While people were struggling with many privations, the aragalaya channeled this collective frustration into a form of political and social action, we have rarely seen in this country. There were moments when the aragalaya managed to transcend many divisions – ethnic, religious and class – that had long defined Sri Lanka. It was also largely a youth led movement which probably added to the ‘hope’ that characterized the aragalaya. However, following the May 09th attack something of this ‘hope’ was lost. People began to resign themselves to the fact that the literally and metaphorically ‘old’ politics, and the corrupt culture it represents had returned. A Prime Minister with no electoral base, and a President in hiding, cobbled together a shaky and illegitimate alliance to stay in power. The fuel lines became longer, the gas queues grew, food prices soared and Sri Lanka began to run out of medicines. But, despite sporadic protests and the untiring commitment of a few committed activists, it appeared that the aragalaya was fizzling out and hope was stagnant and dying, like vehicles virtually abandoned on kilometers-long fuel queues.

However, we now have a moment where ‘hope’ is being rekindled. A national movement is gathering pace. As the prospect of the next shipment of fuel appears to recede into the ever-distant future, people’s anger and frustration are once again being channeled towards political change. This is a do-or-die moment for all Sri Lankans. Regardless of our political beliefs, our ideological orientation, our religion or class, the need for political change has never been clearer. Whether you believe that an IMF bailout will save us, or whether you believe that we need a fundamental change in our economic system, and a socially and economically more just society, neither of these scenarios will come to pass without an immediate political change. The political class that now clings to power, in this country, is like a cancer – poisoning and corrupting the entire body politic, even as it destroys itself. The Prime Minister who was supposed to be the messiah channeling international goodwill and finances to the country has failed miserably and we have a President who seems to be in love with the idea of ‘playing president’. The Sri Lankan people have a single existential choice to make in this moment – to rise as one to expel this rotten political order. In Sri Lanka, we are now in that burning house that the Buddha spoke of and we all seem to be waiting for that father to appear and save us. But now we need to change the plot of this parable. No father will come for us. Our fathers (or appachis) have led us to this sorry state. They have lied, deceived and abandoned us. It is now up to us to rediscover the ‘hope’ that will deliver us from the misery of this economic and political crisis. If we do not act now the house will burn down and we will be consumed in its flames.

Initiated by the Kuppi Collective, a group of academics and activists attached to the university system and other educational institutes and actions.

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