Posted by: lrrp | February 8, 2006

Forced Conversions by the Portuguese? by R.M.B. Senanayake

Goebbels said that a lie oft repeated becomes accepted as the truth. So it is with regard to the view that the Portuguese made conversions to Christianity by force. Even a Christian Editor of a Sunday newspaper has in his editorial stated so in the most matter of fact way.

But what are the facts? To learn about history we have to go to historians. T.K Abeysinghe wrote a book on the history of the Portuguese period titled “Portuguese Rule in Ceylon published in 1965.He has a separate chapter on Missionary Activity. He states that missionary activity in Ceylon began with the arrival of the Franciscans in response to the invitation by the king of Kotte Bhuvanaka Bahu VII. The official policy with regard to conversions was as stated in an official document of the Church “it is not licit to bring anyone over to our faith and baptism by force with threats and terrorism”.

On page 209 of his book he specifically addressed this issue of forced conversions. Here is what he says ” These facts should enable us to resolve the vexed question whether conversions in Ceylon were effected by ‘force’ or at the point of the sword. —At the outset it may be stated quite categorically that there is no evidence that conversion by force or at the point of the sword was attempted. The policy laid down in the council at Goa was adhered to.

Of course all conversions were not genuine and with the tide of war the number of converts rose and fell as explained by Abeysinghe. He refers to the criticism of the Portuguese historian Queyroz that the ‘Sinhalese make religion a matter of convenience’. This was particularly applicable to the refugees who fled war and battle and moved under the Portuguese. But all were not political converts. He explains the attraction of Christianity to the fishing caste ( who were the largest number of converts) as follows:

“A community whose occupation involved the violation of the first precept of Buddhism” and “The fishing classes would be beyond the pale of traditional society. But in Christianity they found acceptance. Hence the appeal of Christianity to those whom the old society for religious and cultural reasons was not willing to accommodate within its fold.”

The Portuguese were involved in continual war with the Sinhalese kings and then as even now it was considered that all is fair in love and war. The combatants destroyed what was considered sacred to the enemy. So the Portuguese destroyed temples and the Sinhalese destroyed churches and killed missionaries.

After the revolt of 1603, priests were killed and churches destroyed by the Sinhalese. Here’s what Abeysinghe says “The Catholic priest and the church became the first target of rebels or enemies such as Edirille Bandara, Kangana aratchi or Nikapitiye Bandara”.

Many converts reverted to their old faith after the territories were captured by the rebels.

Abeysinghe refers to documents of the missionaries which refer to ‘converts were living in the manner of the gentiles-that is to say they had virtually gone back to the older faith” So Citizen D’s claim that once a convert by force will continue to be a convert, is not correct.

The converts really became established in their faith only after the departure of the Portuguese and during the Dutch occupation when the Catholics were persecuted. This point too was made by Abeysinghe. He says “If they (the converts) had all embraced the new faith from motives other than those of sincere conviction, there is no explanation for their loyalty to Catholicism during the years of the Dutch persecution” So if the Christians continue to hold to their faith it is not because of force or material inducement as stated by critics.



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