Posted by: lrrp | May 31, 2008

‘Rajavaliya’, ‘Mahawansa’ don’t back forced conversion theory

I refer to the diatribe by Mr. Gaston Perera on my article denying that the Portuguese converted the Sinhalese to Christianity by force, under the by-line “Stuff of history in dramatic novel.”

I first like to refer to the paragraph highlighted by the Editor where GP refers to a statement in Mr. G. P. Malalasekera’s work ‘Pali Literature of Ceylon’ where he quoted a statement by Faria Y. Souza in his Aisa Portugueza about the alleged missionary methods of the Portuguese – “begin by preaching but that failing, proceed to the decision of the sword.” Mr. Perera goes on to ask “What do these words mean? And says “It was Professor Malalasekera’s reference to it that sparked off Fr. S. G. Perera’s lecture. But nowhere in that whole lecture did he explain or counter this statement”.

This is of course not true and I reproduce below from the lecture by Father S. G. Perera.

Father SGP said in his lecture that in this statement in Volume the First, Part I the second Chapter the Fifth, Faria y Souza had not yet even begun to speak of Ceylon. He sarcastically went on as follows “But what more can you want than the ipissima verba of the fanatical King, clear unhesitating unmistakable? How could the Franciscans hesitate to obey the behests of their liege lord? It is scarcely possible to go further. Yet he did not say that they actually did so; he does not say clearly and definitively that the Catholics of Ceylon were made that way; he did not say that the Franciscans proceeded to the decision of the sword.

“That final conclusion was left to a colleague, to Professor David Hussey — In the course of his work “Ceylon and World History“ (used as a school textbook) he stated thus “The Portuguese priests , says he, thought it their duty to convert the heathen by any means in their power. They therefore called in freely the help of the government and even of the troops. Many Sinhalese were baptized at the point of the sword”. Father SGP remarks that “he was not hitherto known as a student of Ceylon history”.

Father SGP went on to say that it is because of this statement in a history book prescribed by the colonial government that so many people came to believe that the Portuguese made their converts at the point of the sword the oral tradition that GP speaks of. “Such a unanimity is after all the only ground for our historical opinions. The only rational explanation of such a unanimity in condemning with one accord the Portuguese methods of conversion seems to be that the conclusion is forced on every student of history — For these estimable persons were not alive at the time these methods are said to have been applied. They must have found them recorded somewhere or deduced them from recorded data; or else they should not be so tremendously positive and assert it in such unqualified terms.

“He proceeds in a sarcastic tone the logic of these persons that ”The proof of the statement must be there, if only we look for it. If you and I keep an open mind and divest ourselves of any prejudice, because it concerns our family history, we too ought to find, what so many others have found, that the Portuguese landed in the country with sword in one hand and the cross on the other; that they set to work with both hands and that we are the outcome of that ambidextrous activity. That investigation we must make—“

He was stating that there was no evidence for Hussey to reach this conclusion. He could not of course state that there will never be any evidence even in the future but stated quite emphatically that no evidence was available up to then.

His entire lecture was against the statements made by Malalsekera and Hussey to point out that there was no such force used. He said that he never read of any person converted at the point of the sword.

Mr. Gaston Perera juxtaposes different paragraphs from Father S. G. Perera. He quotes the statement of Father S. G. Perera that he stresses caution about coming to a conclusion because of the paucity of information). But he made it clear it is not because he fears anything will be found but because it would not be safe to make such sweeping statements in history. Mr. GP omits the statement before the same paragraph where he states “you will find that there is not the slightest justification in there for the statement of the local writers that the Portuguese used force and violence”. It is after this statement that SG made the statement about his hesitancy to assert it too emphatically. Isn’t this emphatic enough and is that why Mr. GP omitted it from his quotations from S. G. Perera.

Contemporary Portuguese writers did not say there were forced conversions in Ceylon.

SG also said “Neither Joa de Barros, nor Diogo de Couto, neither Correa nor Castenheda, neither Menezes, nor Ribeiro nor Queyroz nor any of the others who are our authority for the history of the Portuguese nor the contemporary documents published from time to time in Portugal or Goa or England or Ceylon speak of any single person forcibly converted nor give any solid ground for the assertion that the Portuguese converted at the point of the sword.“ He also went to say “I very much doubt whether any of those who pompously and emphatically and in such round terms asserted that the Portuguese converted this island by force and violence has the faintest proof to put forward”. (page 157)

What the Sinhalese chronicles say about the issue

Mr. GP says although there is no evidence, there is a strong oral tradition that the Portuguese converted by force. How did this ‘oral tradition’ referred to by Mr. GP arise? Father SGP ascribes it to the early English writers some of them Anglican clergymen.

These English writers who came long after the Portuguese made this charge and this is the source for the tradition. But before that S. G. referred to the Sinhalese sources for the Portuguese period.

He says the Rajavaliya has some references to the Portuguese. But it does not say a word to support the statement that the Portuguese baptised at the point of the sword. Here is what it says “From that day forward (i.e. from the date of the arrival of the Viceroy 1552) the leading men of the city of Kotte, coveting the wealth of the Portuguese, and many low caste people unmindful of their birth, inter-married with the Portuguese and became proselytes.” So the explanation is the greed for wealth not force.

Here is what according to SG, the Mahawansa says “the infamous Parangis, the infidels, the impious ones who at the time of Rajasinghe had still remained behind in the town and now dwelling here and there, rich in cunning, endeavoured by gifts of money and the like to get their creed adopted by others.” No mention of force either.

Dutch writers did not say there were conversions by force by the Portuguese

How did the oral tradition that the Portuguese converted by force arise? Father SGP says “The Dutch writers who followed the Portuguese did not make such statements. Dutch writers like Baldeus, nor Valentzi nor any of the others like Schouter or Saar or Schwitzer ever accused the Portuguese of making forcible conversion although they spoke ill of them in other respects.”

Early English writers are the source of the wrong oral tradition

It is the English writers who came long afterwards and worked in the colony who started this story about forced conversions, according to SG. The conversions had long since taken place and the missions had ceased to exist about a century and a half before they came. But we find some British writers, like, Captain Percival and James Cordiner asserting that the Portuguese made forced conversions without any evidence whatsoever. Robert Knox and Emerson Tennent however made no such references. It is the assertions without any evidence that these British writers made, that has become the oral tradition. It is their opinions that have been repeated by a succession of local writers. There was no such unbroken tradition from the Portuguese times.

But what does Emerson Tennent say “Notwithstanding every persecution, however the Roman Catholic religion retained its influence and held good its position in Ceylon. It was openly professed by the immediate descendants of the Portuguese, who remained in the island after its conquest by the Dutch; and in private it was equally adhered to by large bodies of natives both Sinhalese and Tamil, whom neither corruption nor coercion could induce to abjure it”. He (Tennent) also stated “There is no proof that compulsion was resorted to by them (Portuguese) for the extension of their own faith or violence employed for the extinction of the National Superstition.

Writers like “Cordiner must have been but imperfectly informed when he states that the Portuguese compelled the natives of Ceylon to adopt the Roman Catholic religion without consulting their inclinations and that the Dutch unlike them had refrained from the employment of open force for the propagation of their religious faith; and Hough in his important work on Christianity in India has adopted his assertion without examination. On both points the historical evidence is at variance with these representations. I have discovered nothing in the proceedings of the Portuguese in Ceylon to justify the imputation of violence and constraint.” So that is what Emerson Tennent the historian said.

GP says just because there is no evidence to substantiate the claim that there were conversions by force does not mean there were no such conversions. It also does not mean there were forced conversions either. Recently there was medical evidence led at the inquest that Soma Thero died of natural causes. But there are Buddhist monks and laymen who continue to accuse the Christians of murdering him. There is nothing that the Christians can do to dispel such falsehoods.

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