João Ribeiro

The historic tragedy of the island of Ceilão

Asian educational services

New Delhi, 1999
bibliothèque insulaire
édité dans l'océan Indien

parutions 1999

The historic tragedy of the island of Ceilão / Captain João Ribeiro ; transl. from the Portuguese by P. E. Pieris. - New Delhi : Asian educational services, 1999. - XVI-266 p. ; 19 cm.
ISBN 81-206-1334-1
FROM THE INTRODUCTIONIn March 1640 João Ribeiro started from the mouth of the Tagus in the fleet which conveyed João da Silva Tello, Conde de Aveiras, who was on his way to assume the duties of Viceroy of India ; and he was still a boy of fourteen years when he reached Ceylon the following October, one of a body of four hundred soldados. Except for an interval of a few months, he continued on service in the island till 1658, and rise to the rank of captain in the army. In that year the last of the Portuguese possessions in Ceylon surrendered to the Hollanders, and Ribeiro was transferred to India, where he served for another nineteen and a half years. In October 1680 he returned to his own country, and shortly after commenced to write his « Fatalidade Histórica », which was dedicated to King Dom Pedro II on the 8th of January 1685.

In 1701 a greatly abbreviated and curiously garbled French translation of the work was published by the Abbé Le Grand at Paris, Trèves, and Amsterdam, and of this an English version was issued in 1847 by Mr. George Lee of the Ceylon Civil Service. In the meantime the Academia Real das Sciencias of Lisbon had in 1836 published the original Portuguese, and it is from this edition that the present translation is made.

We know from the great work of the Jesuit Fernao de Queiroz that there were several Portuguese who had recorded the narrative of their experiences in Ceylon ; some of these memoirs have at last been traced but none has so far been made available to the public. To Ribeiro therefore belongs the credit of being the first European who has left to us a detailed account of the country from personal knowledge. A hundred years of pitiless warfare […] had reduced the Sinhalese who still maintained their independence, to a small handful concealed among the forests of the mountain highlands. The effort however had cost the Portuguese dear, and they had not the strength to resist the onslaught of the Hollanders who now appeared on the scene under the guise of the mercenaries of the Sinhalese King.

The details of this last struggle as narrated by Ribeiro are of interest, though they are found to be somewhat coloured by the imagination of the veteran soldier, and marred by lapses from accuracy due no doubt to the distance of time at which they were committed to writing. The chief value of his work however, arises not from his account of the military operations, but from his delightful observations on the life and customs of the Sinhalese, and the internal conditions of the country as he saw it. To him Ceylon was always « the loveliest parcel of land the creator has placed upon this earth » ; and as he painfully toiled at his indictment of the mad folly which had robbed his country of this beautiful land, the glamour of her loveliness grew more and more on him. He painted her as the Portuguese who had revelled in the comfort of the obsequious east had seen her ; he could not see those horrors by which his countrymen had brought a curse upon themselves. None the less his work is equalled by that of de Queiroz alone in the knowledge which it has preserved to us about the conditions of life in Ceylon in the middle of the seventeenth century.

In the present edition the third book, with Ribeiro's valuable comments on the colonial policy of his country, has for the first time been translated in full, while the interpolations from other authors, which appear in the second edition, have been omitted as being no longer required for the guidance of students of the period.
  • « Histoire de l'isle de Ceylan » traduite du portugais par l'abbé Le Grand, Amsterdam : Chez J.L. de Lorme, 1701
  • « Fatalidade histórica da ilha de Ceilão », Lisboa : Academia das Ciências, 1836
  • « Ribeiro's History of Ceilão […] » transl. from the portuguese by P. E. Pieris, Colombo : Colombo Apothecaries Co., 1909
  • « Fatalidade histórica da ilha de Ceilão » dir. e coment. Luís de Albuquerque, transcrição em port. actual Maria da Graça Pericão, Lisboa : Alfa, 1989

mise-à-jour : 22 mars 2007