Sunday, August 30, 2009

We grant you,The full and free facility to capture and subjugate Saracens and pagans, and other unbelievers and enemies of Christ whomsoever and.....!

In search of souls: the Catholic missionaries in 16th and 17th century Sri Lanka


Gaston Perera has had a long march towards historiography. A graduate in Western Classics, he had served in the Inland Revenue department during his entire career in the Public Service, and on retirement had taken to writing. He had started his literary career writing historical novels, then graduated into historiography when he first dealt with the wars between the Portuguese and the Sinhalese, and now looks at the missionary activities of the Portuguese.

The present work runs into 412 pages of text. It is divided into 6 parts and 22 chapters. The Parts are named ‘The Ideology of the Conquest’, ‘Organization of the Conquest’, `The Conquistador’, ‘The Strategy of Conquest’ ‘The Tactics of Conquest’, and the ‘Conclusion’. Within these Parts, the text is presented under various headings to focus on what is dealt within that chapter.

Like in his work on the military history, here too the text is interspersed with quotations from the sources he uses to substantiate his statements. Conceived holistically he discusses the legal and religious authority for the missionaries to conduct their business of conversion, looks at the type of persons sent here as missionaries, discusses their emoluments, the strategies adopted, their success and failure, and presents his conclusions.

In search ... page 16

For people who wouldn’t have had much information on the work of the missionaries, who they were, and how and where they worked during the Portuguese administration of the maritime areas (1505/1518-1656/1658), the book yields valuable information. The author has also shown the bias of contemporary or near contemporary writers on missionary activities as well as of some modern writers like Fr. S. G. Perera and Fr. V. Perniola, which is an eye-opener to read or re-read those authors. The candor of Gaston Perera in this aspect is commendable.

The author says he is looking at the work of the missionaries from a ‘nationalistic’ point of view. I wouldn’t really know what it means, but to me it is obvious that he looks at the information available to him without a bias towards the Catholics. I said Catholics because all the contemporary information on the subject is by Catholic priests writing home about their work. In that sense all credit is due to him for not concealing uncomfortable facts.

As in his earlier volume, here too, the sources available to the author, as said earlier, had been Portuguese, for there is hardly any contemporary local information on missionary activities. Hence, what the author has used and quotes in his work are all from relevant authorities and contemporary or modern writers on the subject.

At the very outset the author notes the religious and legal basis for the work of the Portuguese. In 1542, the Roman Pontiff Nicholas V addressed a Bull (a formal papal document) known as Dum Diversas to the king of Portugal, where he said,

"we grant you

The full and free facility to capture and subjugate Saracens and pagans, and other unbelievers and enemies of Christ whomsoever and wheresoever settled;

to invade and conquer their kingdom, their dukedom, countries, principalities;

to seize any goods whatsoever …. Held and possessed by these same Saracens, pagans, unbelievers and enemies of Christ:

to reduce to slavery their inhabitants

to appropriate perpetually for yourself and your successors the kingdoms " the possessions and goods of this sort converting them to your own use"

Thus the missionaries sent from Portugal, as far as they were concerned, had all the authority they needed to do whatever they wished to do during their mission of conversion.

Later, the First Provincial Council of Goa which met in 1568, had said that the infidel should be brought into the Church with ‘gentleness and benignity’, but also with ‘benefits and favours’.

The author discusses in detail how these instructions were put into practice, and especially where ‘gentleness and benignity’ had been put into the backyard or forgotten. What had been uppermost in the mind of the missionaries –Franciscans and Jesuits- had been how successful a picture they could send home.

The methods of conversion or tactics of conversion had been many. For instance, attention has been drawn to the disputations had with the Buddhist priests as soon as the Franciscans had come in 1542. The author queries, how they could have had such disputations without a knowledge of Sinhala and of Buddhism. Later on he says it must have been thro’ interpreters, but also asks, even if they were available, were they competent?

One aspect or the most important aspect of conversion was baptism. Missionaries are seen to have been suffering from a mania in this aspect. There are many accounts in the book on the fulfilling of or accomplishing this requirement. However, of those accounts one act in Jaffna where a half-born child is baptized, stands out for its crudity and repugnance. I will not give the details here, but those who would wish to read it could do so in the book.

In conversion they had looked at what is called vertical conversion and horizontal conversion. Vertical conversion was to start with the king, so that if it was successful, the process will peter down to the masses. Here, the attempt on Bhuvanekabahu VII (1521-1551] was utterly unsuccessful, and finally he had died from a gun-shot by a Portuguese soldier.

The antipathy the Portuguese missionary had towards Bhuvenekabahu is well documented. It was due to his strong opposition to conversion of himself and of his subjects. His nomination of Dharmapala, his grandson, is also discussed, and may interest students of history. On the matter of succession the author says ‘Rarely in the past [2000 years] had the throne passed from one ruler to the next peacefully’. This general statement is not accurate, but I will not discuss it here, as it seems extraneous to the subject matter under review.

The second attempt at vertical conversion was of Vikramabahu of Kandy, which was a sort of deal ‘your arms and I will convert’ and had also been a sham. However, later on there had been other nobility who had become Christians, perhaps for various reasons, other than the appreciation or understanding of the doctrine itself.

There is an interesting discussion on the establishments of Colleges, or educational institutions. Those known as Pai dos Christaos had been mainly for evangelization. In a description of such an establishment in Jaffna, the account says the orphans were collected by the Merinho every morning and was brought to the school in procession following a Cross carried in front. Further it is said that the aim was to instruct them on Christianity, so that they would become good interpreters to spread the gospel. The language deficiency of the missionaries had remained a significant drawback right thro’ their working period in the island.

The temporal conquest was a pre-requirement for spiritual conquest or conversion. With the soldier and the arms in front, the task of the missionary was made easier. When the country revolted or the soldier failed, the missionary also failed. As the Provincial Council of Goa of 1568 had advocated, many benefits and inducements were offered to the converts and prospective converts.

Employment to them and denial to others, the liberty to wear western dress, freedom from capital and other punishments on showing the sign of the Cross, and also freedom from being subject to the marala badda or death duty, service tenure and other taxes due to the king. It was creating a state within a state. But on this latter Bhuvanekabahu had struck back, and had confiscated the lands of the converted. That action is said to have had adverse effects on the conversion process.

The missionaries had been paid an allowance by the state, and according to the computations given by the author, they had been quite handsome. In addition they had also enjoyed the revenues of the villages donated by Dharmapala [1521-1597], and have had also the collection from various fines like what the converted had to pay to bury in the church burial grounds. It is said that sometimes when a man could not pay the fees he was fined, put in a stockade and whipped. The irony here is they were not action by the temporal authority but by the spiritual authority.

The book is replete with details on practically every aspect of conversion. But, now, I will confine myself to one more matter. That is the 1563 donation of temple lands by Dharmapala to the Franciscans. From the account given by the author, it had been a double edged weapon. It gave revenues to the missionaries to carry out their ‘educational’ activities, while depriving the temples of their incomes, and threatened their very existence. The man who engineered this donation is said to be Fr Joao Villa do Conde.

Thus the Portuguese, both soldier and missionary, apart from physically destroying the temples, kovils and mosques, had also seen to it that the Buddhist temples were effectively put out of action of their traditional activities of preaching and teaching. The ‘spiritual conquest’ had certainly gone hand in hand with the temporal conquest!

The last chapter briefly describes the socio-cultural influences of the Portuguese occupation from a religious point of view. For instance there is the present day marriage ceremony, the concept of monogamy, the contribution of Church art and architecture, dance and drama, music and musical accompaniments, dress and attire and forms of religious practices that had gradually passed into the Sinhala society. It is said that it was not a one-way affair, as local ideas and customs too had gone abroad thro’ the missionaries.

Another point which comes to my mind is that the Portuguese surnames which survive to date no doubt come from the period of Portuguese occupation of the maritime areas of the island. But what about the survival of Catholicism itself after the Portuguese? The missionaries, except for one, had abandoned their flock in 1656 and had left the island; later the Catholics were persecuted by the Dutch (1656-1796), and the British, unfavourable at first, relaxed the restrictions later. With all such impediments, still, 06.1% of the population today are Catholics, and they are the large majority among the Christians.

Thus, is the present Catholic population in Sri Lanka a group coming down from Portuguese times, or are they due to the later efforts of persons like Fr Joseph Vaz, an indigenous priest, who had smuggled himself into Jaffna as a beggar in 1687, and re-commenced the Apostolic mission there? From historical sources in Sri Lanka it seems that hardly any evidence can be garnered for the presence of a Catholic population in the island during the Dutch administration and in the early 19th century. Of course there had been some priests working in the Kandyan areas, but whether such activity was a continuation of the activities of the Portuguese missionaries seems to be something which might need further research.

Finally, we note that the book is printed on good paper with clear font, and is strongly bound with sewn sections. The printer’s devil has been completely banished. The cover is attractive with the picture of a casket identified as the Robinson Casket, after the name of its donor to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The picture of the casket in the front cover and its enlarged sectional detail in the back cover is excellent. It would be interesting to find out where and when it was made and who the craftsman was. Gaston Perera is of opinion it must be a native work with Christian influence.

To end, it is a pleasure to record that the book is a well compiled detailed account of the Catholic missionary activities in 16th and 17th century Sri Lanka, which no historian or any other person interested in the history of the island, and especially on the introduction of a foreign religion and a foreign culture can afford to miss.

Haris de Silva


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