Posted by: lrrp | February 8, 2006

Portuguese forced conversions? by Gaston Perera

Soon half-a-millenium would have lapsed since the advent of the Portuguese but it is remarkable how despite the passage of time what they did here should still continue to excite attention. To be interested in and speak of what they did is fine, but for heaven’s sake, if we must, then when we do let us also speak the whole truth.

This is what one would like to see in a Mr. R.M.B.Senanayake’s recent foray into Portuguese Missionary Activity where he dismisses as an “oft-repeated lie” that the Portuguese converted by force. He says T.K.Abeysinghe (!) “wrote a book” (!) in 1965 (!) and cites him as authority and even quotes a sentence or two from what is the late Tikiri Abeysinghe’s (TA) doctoral thesis, “Portuguese Rule in Ceylon, 1594-1612”, published in 1966. But while he cites him as authority what is puzzling is the queer reluctance displayed to quote TA in full so that the whole truth about his views be made known.

For instance he quotes the reference TA makes to the First Council in Goa that laid down missionary policy –

“—— it is not licit to bring anyone over to our faith and baptism by force with

threats and terrorism.”

There he stops abruptly. Why? Why does he not continue? Why does he not also quote the very next sentences of TA which contains the telling comment of TA himself on this decree, which reads as follows –

“But this was not a declaration of religious toleration and merely eschewed the use of force to induce conversion. The same Council approved the use of force to prevent the worship of other religions in Portuguese territories —- . Thus the renunciation of the use of force for conversion was little more than a piece of quibbling sophistry.”

The same strange halt to his reading process occurs later where he triumphantly quotes from TA what he has convinced himself is the crowning argument against forced conversions-

“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 of Goa was adhered to.”

(The operative word here is “evidence”, but of that later.) But in this instance too why does Mr. S apply the guillotine here and abruptly stop reading any further and, as it were, close the book. Why does he not continue and expose in full and without fear TA’s real and expressed views? Why especially does he not reproduce in full the conclusion of that passage, which reads –

“In such circumstances, both to raise the question of force and to attempt to rebut it is to unduly simplify the psychology behind the acceptance of a new religion. If one must raise this question then it should be framed differently: not whether Catholicism was propagated by force, but whether force was employed against Buddhism and Hinduism.”

I wish I could stop there, but there is more. There is the issue of the attraction of Christianity to the fisher caste. One of the reasons TA offers in explanation of this is that their livelihood conflicted with Buddhist doctrine. This Mr. S quotes with alacrity. But TA has offered another and “simple” explanation where he says –

“The livelihood of the community depends on the sea over which the Portuguese had mastery. They believed, if they became Catholics, the Portuguese would protect them and more important, would not harass them. Even Francis Xavier was aware of the value of this factor in inducing the fishermen of South India to become Catholics and did not hesitate to exploit it.”

Why is this “simple” explanation completely omitted?

But the most telling symptom of the affliction is the last. The topic now is the attacks on Cathlolic churches and priests. “Here’s what Abeysinghe says,” announces Mr. S. triumphantly and quotes-

“The Catholic priest and the church became the first target of the rebels such as —.”

Here’s what Abeysinghe actually says –

“Thus it is seen that the fortunes of the church during these years were inextricably interwoven with those of Portuguese power and the hatred evoked by that power in the minds of the Ceylonese reacted adversely on the fortunes of the former. THAT IS WHY the Catholic priest and the church became the first target of the rebels such as — .”

When a writer is quoted for authority – especially an eminent, respected and utterly unbiased scholar who is now no more – it is a pity that a reader is denied the whole truth about his views. There are words to describe this kind of selective quoting but one refrains from using them. Just as one should refrain from imputing motives.

At one point Mr. S. ceases relying on TA’s authority and launching on his own makes this assertion –

” —then as even now it was considered all is fair in love and war. The combatants destroyed what was sacred to the enemy. So the Portuguese destroyed temples and the Sinhalese destroyed churches and killed missionaries.”

The destruction of Buddhist temples was therefore an act of war. They were destroyed in the course of fighting by “combatants”. Forsaking the authority of TA and making an assertion like this can only emanate from his own in-depth study of Portuguese history. It is a pity he does not state the sources and authority he has discovered in the course of his study for this pronouncement. It is a great disadvantage to scholar and layman alike because the sources and authority lesser mortals have access to reveal that the destruction of Buddhist temples was the direct result of expressed official State and religious policy, not war. Some of those sources and authority are –

The Decrees of the first Council in Goa; The Royal Decree on Pagan Temples of 25th February 1581; Queroz ( pp 666, 714, 715, 717 ); Father S.G. Perera ( Historical Sketches-p 169 ); Father Martin Quere ( Christianity in Sri Lanka – p 196 ).

In fact some of the sources reveal that the destruction and vandalism was done sometimes by the missionaries themselves –

“The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka: the Portuguese Period” – Fr. V. Perniola (Vol. II, pp 321,434, 437); “Historical Gleanings” – Fr. W.L.A. don Peter (p 13); “Ceylon, the Portuguese Era” – Paul E Pieris (Vol. II, p149)

But never mind all these. The authority Mr. S. himself cited earlier and no
w abandons, the authority he would have us go “to learn about history” – TA himself has this to say on the subject –

“The same Council [i.e. the first council of Goa] —— laid down that heathen temples must be demolished, all non-Christian priests and teachers must be expelled and their religious literature destroyed.”

—(Portuguese Rule in Ceylon, p.206)

It would be interesting therefore to know the sources for this view that the destruction of Buddhist temples was merely the result of war. Or is it that we should recall that admonition of Alexander Pope in his couplet about the “Pierian spring.”

This debate on the question of forced conversions by the Portuguese is not of recent origin. Many others have discussed it; men of eminence and learning, that is. The most bravura performance occurred nearly 75 years ago. Professor G.P. Malalasekera had just published his “Pali Literature in Ceylon” in the preface to which he had referred to the instructions the Portuguese king had given the missionaries as recorded by Faria Y Souza in his Asia Portugueza – “to begin by preaching but that failing to proceed to the decision of the sword.” (Faria Y Souza was also a historian, the kind of man we are advised to go to “to learn about history.”). At about the same time a Professor Hussey had published a history text book for schools in which it was stated, Sinhalese were baptized at the point of the sword.” The Catholic establishment was up in arms. This was still the time it was in its confrontationist mode. The echoes of the Kotahena riots where a Catholic mob had broken up and mauled a Buddhist procession had not quite died down – vide “The Kotahena Riots and their Repercussions” by K.H.M. Sumathipala in the Ceylon Historical Journal, Vol. 19, p.65. A powerful response was therefore indicated and the heavy artillery was brought up for the counter-attack. Father S.G. Perera was the chosen champion and in characteristic polemical style he came out all guns blazing. A public meeting was organized and there he delivered a lecture on “Portuguese Missionary Methods”. This was later published in 1962 together with some of his other articles in book form by the Colombo Catholic Diocesan Union under the title, “Historical Sketches”.

In his lecture he made two points among others –

1. Despite all his wide reading among Portuguese authorities he had not “ever read of any person converted at the point of the sword” and “I never found any proof of force.” (Historical Sketches -p.157)

2. The need for extreme caution in coming to any conclusion because of the paucity of information – “I hesitate to assert it too emphatically and say that you will find absolutely nothing; not because I fear that anything will be found but because I know that it is never safe to make a sweeping statement in matters of history. I will put it cautiously and conditionally–. (Ibid. p. 156)

TA is not alone therefore in declaring there is no evidence of forced conversions. Father S. G. Perera too confirms there is no proof. So do many other eminent historians. Sir Emerson Tennent in his “Christianity in Ceylon” agrees at p.8. Father W.L.A. don Peter also agrees –

“—— there is no evidence that conversion to Catholicism was ever made by force

—(Franciscans and Sri Lanka – p151)

Father Martin Quere says “an unbiased study —— does not warrant such a simplistic picture.” (Christianity in Sri Lanka under the Portuguese Padroado -p. 185).

But at the same time the popular belief is and has been the very opposite. How could this be? How could a belief prevail so doggedly? How could it persist down the ages and be so widespread? But this is the oral tradition and it is easy to dismiss it as an “oft-repeated lie.”

The oral tradition is certainly irreconcilable with the categorical and unconditional assertions of scholars and historians. What they have emphatically laid down is that there is no proof or evidence of forced conversions. They have to say so. They must say so precisely because they are historians and scholars, trained in the historical discipline who will never compromise their academic integrity with statements that cannot be substantiated with irrefutable proof and evidence. And for forced conversions by the Portuguese there is none such. But having said that one should also, perhaps, bear in mind the difficulty of finding such evidence. We are familiar nowadays with arguments about the difficulties of proving unethical conversions. Acceptable evidence would be such evidence as is recorded somewhere or deduced from records. In the case of Portuguese conversions where would the evidence be but in documents recorded by Portuguese missionaries? There are none from the Sinhala side (vide Fr. S.G. Perera, for instance – HS, p. 154). Would they record something which is contrary to their given instructions?

But how could such a vigorous oral tradition originate and spread so widely and persist so undiminished through the centuries? To say there is no smoke without fire is as cheap as calling it an “oft-repeated lie”. I think two reasons could be identified why it should flourish so strongly.

Firstly, there are traces in Portuguese records that hint at a dark side. How else would one explain the Portuguese King’s instructions to his missionaries recorded by the Portuguese historian Faria Y Souza in his Asia Portugueza – “begin by preaching but that failing, proceed to the decision of the sword”. What do these words mean? It was Professor Malalasekera’s reference to it that sparked off Fr. S.G. Perera’s famous lecture. But nowhere in that whole lecture did he explain or counter this statement. (In a footnote to the published version he suggests it only authorizes force against those who prevent preaching. (HS p. 168). Then there is a letter a Jesuit priest, J. Salanova, sent to his superior where he actually argues for the use of force in conversion. He writes –

“The principal cause why conversions are so few is ——- it is not enough to invite ——; it is necessary to compel them——.”

—(Fr.V. Perniola The Catholic Church in Ceylon – Vol.II, p.94)

Perhaps, it is the existence of such traces that is at the root of the caution and hesitation Fr. S.G.Perera expressed in that lecture about coming to any firm conclusions about forced conversions and his admonition not “to make sweeping statements in matters of history”. But Fr. Martin Quere is more open and less cagey. He says –

“There were occasions when the pressure exerted by the civil authorities to induce their subordinates to become Christians was such that we would consider it today tantamount to the use of coercion and force.”

—(Christianity in Sri Lanka – p. 191)

The occasions referred to relate to the missionary drive in Jaffna, first by don Braganza and, after its conquest, by de Oliveira where those who were unwilling to, or did not, attend the preaching of the Gospel were either imprisoned or exiled. There is thus many a seed of truth to make the oral tradition about forced conversions to flourish.

The second reason why the oral tradition has flourished has to do with the semantic jiggery-pokery on which Portuguese missionary policy was based. When forced conversion is solemnly condemned there is a massive equivocation in the use of the word “forced”. The casuistry originated at the First Council in Goa where the policy was laid down. Don’t use force, it said with a straight face. And immediately went on to define what is not force. Smashing the infidel’s temples, destroying his statues, burning his religious literature, hounding out his priests, building churches on the ruins of shattered temples, expropriating temple lands and revenue – no, this is not force. Luring the infidel with material blandishments and office and preferential tax and judicial treatment – no, this is not force. In other words, don’t drive him to baptism him at the actual sword-point, but make it impossible for him to practise his religion. It is the chicanery in this decree that gave the green-light to missionary and soldier alike to go on the rampage and launch a brutal and ruthless persecution and destruction of Buddhism. It is the jesuitry behind this missionary approach that TA identified when he asserted the real question is –

“whether force was employed against Buddhism.”

Father Martin Quere himself is not unaware of the equivocation. In a letter published circa January 1991 in the Daily News (?) under his name on the question of Portuguese Conversion he himself distinguishes two meanings in the word “force”. One is “physical force”, of which he says he has found no instance in Portuguese conversions. The other meaning is “moral force”. The example he gives of the latter is that Jaffna missionary drive referred to earlier.

No wonder the oral tradition flourishes!

Half-a-millenium, as I said at the beginning. It is easy to condemn the practices of a past age, perhaps, looking at it from our modern outlook and judging it by our present liberal standards. Apologists for Portuguese practices often say that and certainly there is much truth in that.

The Catholic Church of today does not advocate the destruction of Budhhist temples. It has set its face even against what is described as unethical conversions today. Besides there were practices among the Sinhala people that today would be described as unsavoury. So forgiving the past is not a bad idea. Not forgetting, no.

But, please, for heaven’s sake, if we must speak of it, we must speak the whole truth.



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