Book Talk

Zoltan Biederman, (Dis)connected Empires: Imperial Portugual, Sri Lankan Diplomacy and the Making of a Habsburg Conquest in Asia, 2018, pp. 255. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198823391.

~ Nira Wickramasinghe, Leiden University

In (Dis)connected Empires: Imperial Portugual, Sri Lankan Diplomacy and the Making of a Habsburg Conquest in Asia, Zoltán Biederman traces the shift from diplomacy and commerce to conquest in the island of Sri Lanka under imperial Portugal, the turning point being the dynastic union in 1580 of  the crowns of Spain and Portugal forged by the Spanish Habsburgs. This book seeks to answer a candid question: why and how was Sri Lanka conquered? The eight chapters of the book offer an exhaustive anatomy of a colonial conquest.

Biederman expertly navigates the reader through the local scene, one of ”fragmented, multi-centric polities” (p. 60) demonstrating a masterful understanding of elite politics in the Kotte kingdom. At the time, Kotte was the most powerful kingdom in the island,  whose king postured as a cakravarti,  acted as an overlord, and claimed tribute from other polities that invariably tried to evade obligations. The book ends in the first decade of the seventeenth century with the conquest of the island by Philip II.

Biederman’s thesis on how a gradual divergence evolved into a conquest builds upon the foundational works of Tikiri Abeyasinghe,  Chandra Richard de Silva, and the more recent  groundbreaking contributions of Alan Strathern.[1] He challenges nationalist historiographic conventions—without naming names—that view the Portuguese arrival as that of  an expedition predisposed to conquer.[2]  Biederman argues for the need to capture a “richly textured” past by writing a revisionist history of the early modern period that counters tendencies to overemphasize the imperial ambitions of the Portuguese. This is done by embracing the principles of connected history pioneered by Sanjay Subramanyan.[3] Rather than a history of Sri Lanka, what  Biederman offers is a reflection on the interconnected world of the 1500s,  where conquest happened but after a long prelude where commensurability allowed dialogue between the various parties.

In the first half of the book,  Biederman suggests that, whilst some ideas and the political idioms built around them, notably the universalist idea of empire  and the notion of “contained conflict” (p. 22) were perceived as commensurate by the various parties involved, dissonances also came to the fore.  Biederman boldly advances that the Portuguese became embroiled in power struggles between regional kings through the action of ambitious local elites. The Kotte kings who dominated needed access to external trade and military resources in order to fend off contenders of the Rayigama and Sitavaka polities and therefore control of the imperial centre.  This was not uncommon behaviour. Tributary submissions to an overseas polity was a familiar path followed in the past by rulers who since the fourteenth century had paid tribute to China and to kingdoms in South India.

Chapter 6 is a captivating retelling of the conversion and baptism of the young king of Kotte, Dharmapala, in 1557  less as an act of faith than as a politically motivated move. This event  had important consequences: it led to dissatisfaction among sinhalas culminating in an upheaval after which 30  Buddhist monks were executed. It also spawned a catholic radicalisation in the kingdom and the  destruction of Buddhist temples.   In the midst of this turmoil, the context was set for the 1580 donation that stated that after King Dharmapala’s death, his kingdom would be handed to the king of Portugal and his heirs. This donation accomplished the “full, legally binding integration of Sri Lanka into the Iberian imperial body” (p. 160).  Biederman asserts that this act was motivated by a bid to stall the expansion of Sitavaka. The Portuguese, however, understood it as a concession that sovereignty over the island was vested in the king of Portugal rather than a continuation of  the old tributary system. Conquest followed quite naturally from this redefinition of the rules of the game.

 (Dis)connected Empires is impressively broad in its scope, thus abiding by its global history framing. The book is carefully researched, the author marshalling  Portuguese language sources that include diplomatic missions, political letter-writing, as well as cartography and objects of art. The native voice, however, remains muted. Perhaps a deeper foray into the poetic writings in Sinhala of Alagiyavanna, a poet, magistrate, and civil servant who served in the court of Sinhalese kings as well as Portuguese rulers would have given an additional angle to a story essentially told through colonial sources.[4]

Biederman’s writing explains rather than illuminates. It does not  aim to recreate a world and a time for the reader, rather tells her how to interpret it.  There are absences. One misses,  for instance, the foot-soldiers in a story of warfare. This  tends to give this book a somewhat passé flavour in spite of its very up to date theoretical  musings on global history, cosmopolitanism and empire.  One could imagine a different book that evaluates the image of the Portuguese as reluctant imperialistst, and that would give  a central rather than peripheral place to less known events and trends such as the pillage of the Temple of the Tooth in 1551,  the evolving structure of  caste and labour, or the birth of the idea of race (raça), that remain shadows in Biederman’s narrative.

These quibbles apart, (Dis)connected Empires is an impressive work of erudition, densely argued though often weighty in its language. It is a work of real distinction that will offer many rewards to specialist readers of global history, Asian connections, and colonialism,  who  decide to take the journey along the tortuous connected routes described so eloquently by the author.


(This review was initially published in The Journal of Asian Studies, 79 (1), 2020, 250- 252. It is republished in TAP Book Talk with the reviewer’s consent)

[1]. Abeyasinghe, Tikiri.  Portuguese Rule in Ceylon 1597-1612  (Colombo: Lake House 1966)  ; de Silva, Chandra Richard. The Portuguese in Ceylon 1617-1638 (Colombo : H.W Cave and Company 1972); Strathern Alan, Kingship and Conversion in Sixteenth Century Sri Lanka: Portuguese Imperialism in a Buddhist Land, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2007)

[2]. Much of the nationalist historiography on Portuguese rule belongs to the realm of popular history and relies on translations of Portuguese sources. See Perera, C. Gaston The Portuguese Missionary in 16th and 17th century Ceylon. The Spiritual Conquest, (Colombo: Viitha Yapa Publications, 2009).

[3]. Subrahmanyam, Sanjay. “Connected Histories: Notes towards a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia.” Modern Asian Studies 31, no. 3 (1997): 735-62

[4]. See Stephen C. Berkwitz, Buddhist Poetry and Colonialism. Alagiyanvanna and the Portuguese in Sri Lanka, (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2013).

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