Posted by: lrrp | February 8, 2006

Did Portuguese Missionaries wear Swords? by GASTON PERERA

Once again R. M. B. Senanayake has come forth to enlighten us on things Portuguese. The last time he did so (Island of 14/1/2004) was on their methods of conversion and then his own methods were exposed (Island of 4/2/2004) as quite questionable. He deliberately half-quoted, misquoted, distorted and twisted what the real historian of Portuguese times, Tikiri Abeysinghe, had said to suggest falsely that he supported RMB’s views – methods that could also be described in more unpleasant words.

Now writing on this burning question of whether Portuguese missionaries wore swords he seems to have learnt the lesson and is more circumspect. He does not name names this time. He relies on the unknown. He cites the authority of a ‘historian’ who is nameless, unidentified, and anonymous `F1

‘According to a historian of the Portuguese period,’ he says, ‘there are no instances referred to in the historical records where priests carried swords, except on one occasion —- ‘

(He goes on to describe that occasion, of which more later.)

But who is this historian? What is his name? Why can he not be identified? Why cannot the title of his historical work be mentioned? Why cannot the precise citation be provided with page reference? What are this ‘historian’s’ sources?

If, as RMB says, his concern is ‘for your readers to get a correct perspective’ is this information not important? If information is verifiable, then readers will be confident that it is not a figment of imagination and ‘questionable methods’.

If indeed this is an issue of earth-shattering importance, it would be quite correct to say that missionaries of the time did not regularly wear swords as a part of their religious habit. That is not practical, nor would even a regular soldier do so. But the fact of the matter is that, when the need arose, the missionaries not only wore swords but used them. The real historical record is replete with such instances and, what is more, those instances are recounted, quite candidly and frankly, by none other than the very missionaries themselves.

For instance, when it is said

‘—- they unite piety with a warlike spirit. They assist at the Mass with swords at their side to show that virtue is compatible with the use of

the sword —-,’

it is no imaginary ‘historian’ writing. This is none other than the Father Superior of the Jesuits in Ceylon making his report in his Annual Letter of 15th December 1564. It is reproduced in full by Fr. Vito Perniola (hereafter VP) in his monumental ‘The Catholic Church in Ceylon `F1 The Portuguese Period’ in volume 3 at page 487 and in Fr. S.’G.’Perera’s article in the Ceylon Antiquary and Literary Register, Volume 5 and 6.

In the above instance it could be stated these priests wore swords for demonstrative purposes. But there are innumerable other instances in the real historical record where priests not only carried swords and weapons but actually used them and played an active part in fighting. These instances too are recounted by priests themselves.

At a siege of Colombo Paulo Trinidade, a Franciscan himself, says of the Franciscans –

‘ —- our Fathers, taking up arms, went to defend the walls and bastions.’

And again –

‘Nor did they abstain from military duty ——-. They stood as sentinels on the walls, by day and by night, they repelled the invading army.’

(Conquista Spiritual do Oriente, pp 112 etseq.)

It was not only the Franciscans who wore swords, carried and arms and fought. The Jesuits were equally at the forefront when it came to that. In another Annual Letter, that of 3rd December 1632, the Father Superior reports that the Jesuit fathers guarded a rampart

‘ —- which they defended bravely’

(VP, Vol. 3, p 231)

Nor was it only in defence and sieges that the Catholic priests of those times wore swords and carried arms and proved themselves doughty warriors. They were equally ready to fight in any armed encounter on the field. A Portuguese adventurer, M. Fernandes, reporting his expedition to Kandy to the Viceroy in Goa relates how in an affray ‘ —- a friar who was going with me had to come to the rescue and it fell to his share to kill
three persons.’

(VP, Vol. I, p. 177)

These are just some instances in the real historical record of priests wearing and using swords and weapons. These could be multiplied in any reading of Queyroz, Gonzaga, Trinidade and the missionary reports in Fr. Perniola. If therefore any imaginary historian asserts that ‘there are no instances referred to in the historical record’, the sad and only conclusion is a monumental ignorance on the part of the imaginary historian and, of course, on those who cite him.

This imaginary historian has, as referred to above, pronounced that there is only ‘one occasion’ in his historical record where a Portuguese priest wore a sword. This ‘one occasion’ is described as a priest leading Portuguese troops across a river ‘with the sword at his side’. Now, if any further proof is required that ‘monumental ignorance’ is not an exaggerated description, this is it. There are two, independent Portuguese sources that relate this incident – Trinidade at page 89 and Queyroz at page 613. The appalling irony is that neither anywhere make any reference whatsoever to a sword. Both sources clearly and distinctly state that Friar Gaspar da Magdalena stepped into the river bearing only a Cross. (Of course, Queyroz adds that ‘a beautiful Woman, clad in white’ appeared and preceded the father, but then that is Queyroz.). To pontificate that this was ‘the one occasion’ in the historical record that a Portuguese priest ever wore a sword is, therefore, simply hilarious.

The fact of the matter is that when the need arose, Portuguese missionaries did not hesitate to wear a sword and even use it. The fact of the matter is that in the real historical record the Portuguese missionary played many parts, as the need arose. Apart from their role as Religious, their Administrators in Kandy also functioned as informants, spies and agents for their Captain-General; they functioned as ambassadors, sometimes for Kandy and sometimes for the Portuguese; they even functioned as marriage-brokers at times. They themselves did not see or record that this multi-faceted role was in any way discordant or had contradictions. For behind any such apparent contradiction or disparity there was one over-riding unifying purpose to which they were committed `F1 the evangelization of Ceylon. Sometimes it had to be done by converting the infidel, sometimes by fighting him. That was how the missionaries of the time saw things. As Queyroz says,

‘To arms, to arms, to arms and let not Catholic hearts bear to see Heresy reigning in Ceylon.’

That was how the missionary of the time too saw his role. The missionary of the time! That was the ethos of the times, the mind-set of period. Why, then, should anyone 500 years later feel uneasy when it is uncovered and exposed? Does it somehow arouse a sense of guilt? And therefore a compulsion to do a white wash job?

The thing about white-washing the Portuguese – or bashing the Portuguese, for that matter – is that such an approach is based on emotion. It is not founded on hard evidence. It is not objective. It is not dispassionate. And when it is accompanied by an ignorance, in the monumental league, one can only dismiss it as trivia. Why cannot those who wish to make pronouncements on things Portuguese, and I mean Portuguese-lovers and Portuguese-bashers alike, study the real historical record first so that a discussion could be meaningful. Till such time one can only refer them to the advice of a sage (Kierkegaard, I think) – ‘Whereof one is ignorant, thereof one must be silent.’


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