The conquest of Jaffna by the Portuguese under Captain General Constantine de Sa in 1620-21 spelt the demise of the independent Kingdom of Jaffna and the beginning of subjugation under colonial rulers.
The Portuguese who had conquered the Sinhalese Kingdom of Kotte in 1505 did not show much interest in Jaffna initially because Jaffna did not produce those commodities, which the Portuguese were keenly interested in. In the second half of the sixteenth century, however, they became aware of the strategic importance of Jaffna. In the first place, a stronghold in Jaffna would give Portuguese complete control over trade and shipping within a triangle comprising Chilaw, Cape Comorin and Palk Strait. Secondly, Jaffna Peninsula served as transit route through which the King of Kandy, who displayed strong resistance to the Portuguese, received military reinforcements from South India. This appraisal of Jaffna as a passageway to the South haunted the Portuguese right throughout their rule. Thirdly, Jaffna was not altogether devoid of resources. It was a trade center of elephants. Urukathurai, earlier known as Uratota, was the port to which elephants from other parts of the Island were brought and shipped abroad. Interestingly enough the present name of Kayts comes from the Portuguese: Cues dos elefantes-namely elephantes guay guay.
A pretext to capture Jaffna presented itself when the King of Jaffna, Sekarasasekaran VII, known as Sankili, cruelly murdered about six hundred newly baptised Catholics in the island of Mannar. Constantine de Braganza led an expedition to Mannar in 1560 and captured it. Sankili sued for peace and promised to pay tribute, so that the King could remain independent.
But the tributary status came to an end with the defeat and the death of the Tamil King Puviraja Pandaram Pararajasingham in 1591. The latter had attacked the Portuguese in Mannar with the help of the forces of Nayak of Tanjore. Besides, the Kings of Jaffna had obstructed the missionary work of conversion undertaken by the Portuguese and, what more, had aided the King of Randy to obtain help from South India. Edirmanasingham, the son of the former King, was installed as the new ruler. Thus started a period of Portugal-Jaffna clientship.
The newly appointed ruler, however, was sucked into the power struggle between the Nayak of Tanjore and the Portuguese. In 1620, the last ruler of Jaffna, Sankilian II, was captured and in the following years Jaffna became part of Portugal’s Overseas Empire.
As a result of this annexation, Portuguese became supreme in the Palk Strait and were able to control the lucrative trade off the pearl fisheries in the Gulf of Mannar. Jaffna Patnam (as they called it) was maintained as a separate entity from their other maritime possessions. Though the Portuguese followed the traditional system of administration, they heaped periodically tax burdens upon the people to the extent that these were “reduced to the almost misery.”
In sharp contrast to the number of forts in the South, they built only one in Jaffna town and another one at Kayts. This lack of enthusiasm to strengthen their position militarily may be due to their conviction that the people of Jaffna were “weak”, “quiet and mild” and not prone to rebellion without outside help.
The main contribution of Portuguese rule in Jaffna was the introduction of Roman Catholicism. Such a firm foundation of Catholicism was laid that the Church became, and still continues to be, a powerful, influential and healthy force in the life of the Tamils of the Peninsula.
Regrettably the Portuguese wantonly destroyed quite a number of Hindu temples and introduced many other measures against the Hindus.