The Portuguese “Discovery” of Sri Lanka, The Battle of Cannanore, & The Exploration of Madagascar

Manuel I, King of Portugal (1469-1521)

Epistola Emanuellis Regis Portugallia Julio II. Pontifici Maximo in qua ipsum certiorem reddit di quadam victoria habita habita [sic!] adversus Indos. [25 September 1507]


Folio: 26 x 19 cm. [8] pp. 4 unsigned leaves.

A clean, borad-margined copy with slight paper loss (far from the text) to the upper, outer corner. Paper with unidentified water mark.

A fascinating and important letter from King Manuel I of Portugal to Pope Julius II reporting on the first contact between the Portuguese (led by Lourenço de Almeida) and the inhabitants of Sri Lanka, the exploration of Madagascar by Tristão da Cunha, and Almeida's naval victory off the coast of India, over the fleet of the "Saracen" Zamorin, which consisted of 200 ships manned by Indian and Ottoman crews armed with Milanese canons.

The letter was printed at Rome (BM STC Italian p. 232) and Paris, almost certainly in late 1507 or early 1508 (though both publications are undated.) Both editions are extremely rare. The Paris edition is held at Minnesota and BN Paris. The Rome edition is held at the British Library, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, Wolfenbüttel, and Luther Seminary Library, MN.

The Portuguese knew of Sri Lanka (called Tambapanni by the island's inhabitants, and Ceilão by the Portuguese) from at least 1498, at the very dawn of King Manuel I's efforts to establish trade relations with India. Various reports described Sri Lanka as an island rich in pearls, elephants, cinnamon, and other spices. Portuguese knowledge of the island's inhabitants was more limited; they were identified as Brahmins, whose "king and people worship idols."

"In 1505, Viceroy Francisco de Almeida received instructions from his king to 'discover' Sri Lanka. His son, Lourenço de Almeida, who was soon after sent to the Maldives to intercept Muslim traders, was blown off course and forced to make landfall in Sri Lanka."(da Silva)

The letter includes a vivid account of the Portuguese ambassadors' audience with Dharma Parakramabahu VII, the king of Kotte:

"There was a very large hall, at the end of which the king's throne, shaped like an altar, was set in great splendor. On that throne sat the king, according to the fashion of his country, wearing on his head horns, resembling a diadem and adorned with the most precious stones, as are found in the island. Around the king's throne stood six men, three on the right and three on the left holding large torches, which were lit, though it was day. There were many large silver candlesticks also lit. A multitude of nobles and gentlemen filled the hall on either side, leaving a passage in the center, which gave free and unhampered access to the king. The king received our ambassadors with great honor as they approached that place, listened to them very gladly, replied to our demands most politely and settled everything peacefully and favorably with our men. Of these demands, one was that he would give us annually one hundred and fifty measures of cinnamon, the best found in the island. Then and there he delivered the first tribute."

"The letter illustrates the ways in which the Portuguese king used his successes in the East to boost his prestige in Europe and gives some indication that King Manuel thought the event to be of great importance. The document also suggests that King Manuel believed that the ruler of Kotte had offered tribute to him, while [a 16th c. Sri Lankan source] states that the King of Kotte saw it merely as an exchange of gifts. Finally, the letter gives us a near contemporary account of how an indigenous king received a Portuguese envoy."(Ibid.)

Next comes a long account of Almeida's victory at the Battle of Cannanore (March 1506), a decisive naval engagement fought off the coast of Cannanore (Kannur), India. It was a remarkable victory, in which Almeida's small squadron devastated the fleet of the "Saracen" Zamorin, which consisted of 200 ships manned by Indian and Ottoman crews armed with Milanese canons. The letter concludes with the announcement of Tristão da Cunha's "discovery" of Madagascar.

The news of these great achievements was celebrated at Rome (but one can imagine not at Venice) with three days of ceremonies, culminating in a procession on 21 December 1507 in Saint Peter's.

For a discussion of this letter (and a partial transcription), see Donald Ferguson, “The Discovery of Ceylon by the Portuguese” in 1506, Journal of the Asiatic Society Vol. XIX, No. 59 (1907) p. 340 ff.