Review: “The Odyssey and Living Legacy of sieur de la Nérolle”
Review of Yasmine Rajapakse’s “The Odyssey and Living Legacy of sieur de la Nérolle.” Neptune Publications. Rs. 2,000.
In November 1656 the Dutch chased Rajasinghe II of Kandy away from Colombo, violating a treaty which had promised to cede the capital to the king. On June 24, 1658, with the surrender of Jaffna, the Dutch took over Sri Lanka, and five months later, on November 20, a resolution was passed by their Council praising the Almighty for having helped them to evict the Portuguese; Paul E. Pieris tells us that while these celebrations were ongoing, “[a] Jesuit was beheaded and 11 others were hanged, their bodies being left to rot on the gibbets.” Meanwhile in France, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, soon to be Minister of Finance, had purchased a Barony in Seignelay.
We are told that Rajasinghe was “like a caged tiger.” One day he would vent his fury on the Dutch and the very next he would inform the Governor, Van Goens, that he appreciated their services. Anxious at preserving their interests, the Dutch humoured him by sending gifts, missives, entreaties — and ambassadors.
In 1664 an attempt by his own courtiers to depose him was foiled, the result being that the mercurial king became more and more belligerent. Ironically, this brought him closer to the Dutch and to any power that promised him to expel the Dutch. In 1671 a soldier named Henricus van Bystervelt, in Kandy on a mission, found himself arguing with a Dane in the Court who had called for the king to get rid of the Hollanders. Over a year before, in January 1670, Louis XIV had signed a secret treaty ending hostilities between their countries with Charles II of England, clearly bent on war with the Dutch Republic. All these were to have far reaching consequences on Sri Lanka.
Yasmine Rajapakse’s lucid, accessible account of the history of the de La Nérolle (or De Lanerolle) family in Sri Lanka takes us back to this enigmatic past. It was in the reign of Parakramabahu VI that, as K. M. de Silva has noted, Sri Lanka reached the peak of its cultural contacts with other countries. But before the onset of Western colonialism, these contacts were at best limited to the region.
Following a century of massacres, conversions, and pillages by the Portuguese, the arrival of the Dutch afforded the government an opportunity to build open contacts with the Western world. In the pre-Nayakkar era, as Gananath Obeyesekere observed, the Kandyan Court became a flourishing “cosmopolitan panorama”, open to all yet also restricted to a few. There were contacts made with Catholic refugees, Protestant priests, Muslim traders, Tamil swamis, and English diplomats.
The first expedition by the British, in 1762, had failed and ended with the signing of an onerous Treaty which led to a widening of contacts with other Western powers. Indeed, even before the British, the Court had tried its luck with another European power, in one sense an unlikely ally: France. Yasmine’s book is about France, Sri Lanka, the links between the two, and how they all began with one expedition and one man; that expedition and that man form the epicentre of the book.
It’s one of the more inscrutable paradoxes of world history, but France, which had helped bridge the world from the Middle Ages to the modern era through the famous Fairs of Champagne, receded to the background with the rise of the Mediterranean. The great historian Fernand Braudel, pondering on his home country towards the end of his days, faulted the aristocracy, the State, and the sheer size of France for it not being able to catch up with the other Western powers. Until the reign of Louis XIV (the “Sun King”) and Colbert, France survived on its domestic economy; that, more than anything else, kept it away from maritime trade.
Yasmine’s book does not suffer from a lack of sources. It is, Dr Sinharaja Tammita-Delgoda readily admitted at the launch ceremony, replete with the kind of sources it needs. In that regard the picture it paints, of the kings, the emissaries at his Court, and the powers outside, is multifaceted, though not at the cost of literary marksmanship. Indeed, there are moments when the narrative takes on a facetious tone: writing about the betrayal of Caron after Louis XIV declares war on the Dutch, and the Commander de La Haye’s return to France, for instance, Yasmine punctures the despair of French defeat by (consolingly?) adding that Caron drowned on his voyage back.
When she turns to the subject of her work — the de La Nérolle family — she presents it in the style of a meticulous historian by giving us several viewpoints of the man from different sources: everyone, from Robert Knox to the first Governor of Pondicherry, François Martin, is quoted and footnoted. Admitting straight away that the military log books, “the only sources of information about him”, refers to the first de La Nérolle sporadically, Yasmine informs us that she had to go to the archives in Angoulême to trace the family ancestry more properly. Even then, as she makes it evident, references to what de La Nérolle’s wife, Jeanne Dauphin, did in his absence turned out to be not just sporadic but also hazy. Still, Yasmine manages to keep it clear.
The modern period, said to have begun with the Reconquista of Iberia by Portugal and Spain and the discovery of America by Columbus, witnessed an intensification of divisions within Christianity: the world, split between Christianity and Islam until then, now split between Catholicism and Protestantism. France did not escape this: the Huguenot de La Nérolles converted to Catholicism after the Edict of Nantes, which had ensured protection for French Protestants, was revoked by Louis XIV.
The last surviving Huguenot of the de La Nérolles, now stranded in Kandy, stuck to his convictions; halfway through her book, Yasmine sketches out the religious debates between his group (castigated as “heretics”) and Oratorian missionaries.
We are told that while the latter won the debate (their arguments, that the Reformation was unnecessary, since there was nothing to reform, and that the cult of saints was not akin to the worship of idols, convinced even the “idol worshipping” king), they were nevertheless impressed by his persistence. This was quite obviously a time of cultural crisscrossing which none of the traditional texts, the Rajavaliya, the Culavamsa, or the continuation of the Mahavamsa, had depicted; their emphasis on the ruler’s patronage of Buddhism is thus, in part at least, what makes Yasmine’s study so useful.
Today there are, as Mahinda de Lanerolle tells us in the preface, de Lanerolles everywhere, in every possible field. Yasmine traces them almost effortlessly at the end of her book: the conclusion, in that sense, is a coming together of every observation, remark, and suggestion she’s made before. And not just with regard to the de La Nérolles, since in the course of her study Yasmine touches on other families who were “held in captivity” — like Gascon, author of some of most beautiful love poems from the Court, later executed for having dared to love Narendrasinghe’s queen.
Sri Lanka, justifiably touted as a Sinhala and Buddhist country, was Sinhala and Buddhist only insofar as the definitions of these terms at the time allowed it to be. In all other respects, contact with other civilisations and cultures was not unheard of and certainly not discouraged and restricted. It was, as Yasmine notes, with the advent of the Nayakkar kings that the cosmopolitanism which had flourished until then began to erode, and for a good reason: as “aliens” from another country, the Nayakkars would have prioritised the need to win and keep the trust of Buddhist locals.
There is no doubt that Narendrasinghe’s decision to bury Joseph Vaz’s body in the city in Kandy would have been frowned upon at the time of the Nayakkar kings. As with Catholic missionaries, so with foreign emissaries: the de La Nérolles, sheltered in and assimilated as part of the Kandyan polity until then, opted to leave their nidagam property and joined the Dutch in 1765, more than 100 years after the Dutch claimed Colombo and chased Rajasinghe II out. With that a new chapter in the de La Nérolle saga began, and that too Yasmin charts with remarkable alacrity. Indeed, the author’s enthusiasm makes this an easy read. It is short, it is packed with the right amount of footnotes and endnotes, and above all, it informs and entertains.