Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Portuguese era Dark chapter in Sri Lanka’s history


I wish to respond to the article published on a social media platform (April 06, 2021) under the caption ‘Was Portuguese proselytisation ruthless as portrayed?’ by P.K. Balachandran, as I find the contents inaccurate, misleading and contrary to well established historical facts.

The writer Balachandran relies on Sir James Emerson Tennent, Colonial Secretary from 1841 to 1850, and his book Christianity in Ceylon (John Murray, London, 1850), to make the assertion that the Portuguese proselytisation efforts were benign and harmless, and if there had been any lapse or transgression somewhere that was due to a lapse on the part of a local official.

Portuguese Captain – Generals extended favours, partiality and if there was any state assistance to the converts to Christianity, that was because it was their common religion.

Balachandran quoting Tennent says:

There is no proof that compulsion was resorted to by them for the extension of their own faith or violence employed for the extinction of national superstitions.” (By national superstitions” he meant the other faiths).

The probability is that the priests and missionaries of the Portuguese were content to pursue in Ceylon the same line of policy and adopt the same expedients for conversion which had already been found successful by their fellow laborers on the opposite continent of India.”

Tennent is further quoted as saying both in India and Ceylon, the cultural tools used by the Catholic missionaries had proved to be more effective than coercion and violence.

Another reason for the preference for cultural tools was that the Portuguese missionaries in India and Ceylon could not count on the support of the Portuguese State apparatus which was necessary to use coercive methods.

The amount of assistance from civil power, on which the Roman Catholic clergy could rely, did not ordinarily extend beyond the personal influence of the Captains-General at Colombo,” Tennant says and adds that if at all there was State assistance these were favours and partiality exhibited by successive Governors to all who were willing to conform to their religion.”


Balachandran contradicts his observations based on Tennent in this article with Balachandran’s own observations on Portugal’s reign of Terror in a previous article where he had based himself on Prof. P. V. J. Jayasekera’s book: Confrontations with Colonialism Vol:1 1796-1920 (Vijitha Yapa, 2017).

See How Lankan Buddhists won the battle against proselytisation”… ( Lankaweb – November 23rd, 2020)

Since Tennent published his book ‘Christianity in Ceylon’ in 1850, there has been extensive studies done both in Sri Lanka and overseas, and particularly in India on the criminal methods that Portugal employed to conquer and convert native populations to Christianity.

Balachandran should have double checked the points made by Tennent by comparing them with the research of scholars like Queyroz, Fernao de, (The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon), C.R. Boxer, Tennakoon Vimalananda, Tikiri Abeysinghe, (Portuguese Rule in Ceylon 1594 – 1612), Paul E. Peiris, G.P. Malalasekera, among others.

Portugal introduced the Catholic Inquisition, which began in Spain and spread all over Europe, to the Portuguese colonies, including Ceylon, in its Empire in Asia. The most notorious of all them is the ‘Goa Inquisition’.

In Europe, the Goa Inquisition became notorious for its cruelty and use of torture. Voltaire wrote: Goa is sadly famous for its inquisition, which is contrary to humanity as much as to commerce.

The Portuguese monks deluded us into believing that the Indian populace was worshipping the devil, while it is they who served him.”

European entry into Asia

The European entry into Asia, commencing with the Portuguese in the 16th century, was driven by two principal factors, namely the aim of colonising Asian countries for purpose of trade and exploitation of natural resources, and converting the inhabitants of these lands to Christianity.

The Portuguese had as one of its primary aims the propagation of the Christian faith in the newly ‘discovered’ lands of Asia, including Sri Lanka (called ‘ Ceilao’ by the Portuguese) and the realisation of this aim was accompanied by steps taken to suppress wherever possible all other religions extant in these lands namely Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.

Crown Patronage of missionary activity in the East

The Portuguese authority to spread Christianity in the East was derived from the Papal Bulls issued by the Popes namely Calixtus III, Nicholas V, Alexander V1 and the Pope’s Treaty of Tordesillas (in 1492), which divided the newly ‘ discovered’ lands between Spain and Portugal, and imposed on the rulers of these countries the duty of propagating the Christian faith. The Western part of the world was allocated to Spain and the Eastern part to Portugal.

To the Portuguese the Christianisation of newly ‘discovered ‘lands was a State objective. The Portuguese Crown maintained the entire ecclesiastical establishment in the East.

The Doctrine of Padroado (jus patrionatus established by the Papal Bulls of 1514) provided the authority for missionary work to be in the hands of the Portuguese Crown in areas where Portugal claimed political rights.

The noted historian C. R. Boxer says” The conviction that Portugal was the missionary nation above all the others in the Western World – Alferes da Fe, ‘ standard bearer of the faith’ as the poet – playwright Gil Vicente boasted – was widespread and deeply rooted among all classes”.

Royal despatches addressed to Vice-roys, Governors and Bishops began with these words (or words to that effect) in the opening sentence” For as much as the first and principal obligation of the Kings of Portugal is to forward the work of conversion by all means in their power”

The Padroado has been loosely defined as a combination of the rights, privileges and duties granted by the Papacy to the Crown of Portugal as patron of the Roman Catholic missions and ecclesiastical establishments in the regions of Africa, Asia and Brazil.

The Padroado Real or Royal patronage of the Church overseas was one of the most cherished prerogatives of the Portuguese Crown. It was to become the cause of bitter disputes between Portuguese missionaries and other Roman Catholic powers.

Diogo do Couto, the Portuguese Soldier cum Chronicler says in his sixth book ‘Decada’ (1612) that” The Kings of Portugal always aimed in this conquest of the East at so uniting the two powers, spiritual and temporal, that the one should never be exercised without the other”.

Father Paulo de Trindade, the Franciscan Chronicler, writing in his ‘Spiritual Conquest of the East’ at Goa in 1638, says ‘the two swords of the civil and the ecclesiastical power were always so close together in the conquest of the East that we seldom find one being used without the other: for the weapons only conquered through the right that the preaching of the Gospel gave them, and the preaching was only of some use when it was accompanied and protected by the weapons”.

It is in the exercise of the Padroado Real that we see the close collaboration between the Church and the State in the promotion of Christian missionary activity in conquered lands.

An important component of this relationship was the doctrinal position of the Papacy, which was vigourously upheld by the Church that ‘temporal possessions were occupied unlawfully by the infidels’ in conquered lands and that these ‘should be allotted among the faithful’.

There was an inter-locking policy of temporal and spiritual objectives where benefits flowed to both the Vatican and Portugal.

Verdict of historians on Portuguese rule in Ceylon

Learned Historians and commentators now generally regard the arrival of the Portuguese in the year 1505 as the beginning of the Dark Age in the history of Sri Lanka.

The Portuguese through a policy of cunning statecraft and ruthless terror were able to govern the coastal areas of the island for most of the next 150 years, until the Dutch replaced them in 1658.

The Rajavaliya describes the entry of the Portuguese to Sri Lanka thus: – “There is in our harbour of Colombo a race of people, fair of skin and comely withal. They don jackets and hats of iron, rest not a minute in one place but walk here and there. They eat hunks of stone and drink blood.”

Several noted historians and commentators have expressed their indignation over the methods employed by the Portuguese during their period of dominance in the following words:

Sir James Emerson Tennent

Sir James Emerson Tennent refers to the Portuguese conduct in Sri Lanka in these terms-

“There is no page in the story of European colonisation more gloomy and repulsive than that which recounts the proceedings of the Portuguese in Ceylon.

Astonished at the magnitude of their enterprises, and the glory of their discoveries and conquests in India, the rapidity and success of which secured for Portugal an unprecedented renown, we are ill-prepared to hear of the rapacity, bigotry and cruelty which characterised every stage of their progress in the East.

They appeared in the Indian seas in the three-fold character of merchants, missionaries and pirates. Their ostensible motto was amity, commerce and religion. Their expeditions consisted of soldiers as well as adventurers, and included friars and chaplain majors. Their instructions were to begin by preaching, but, that failing, to proceed to the decision of the sword.”

Paul E. Peiris

The historian Paul E. Peiris observes: They found in Ceylon a contented race, and a fairly prosperous country, and it is melancholy to reflect that they succeeded in producing nothing but chaos.

Out of a long list of high – born Hidalgos whom Portugal sent to Ceylon, it is difficult to point to one name as that of an enlightened statesman and high – principled administrator.

No stately fabric remains as compensating for that religious fanaticism to which ample witness is borne by the devastated ruins of those lovely structures which the piety of generations had strewn broadcast over the country.

Their bequest to the Dutch was a colony of half -castes, a failing agriculture, a depopulated country, and a miserable and ill – conditioned people they had in Ceylon an opportunity almost unique in the experience of European nations in the East, but their moral fibre had proved unequal to the occasion”.

G.P. Malalasekera

G.P. Malalasekera in his Ph.D. dissertation which was later published as a book under the title ‘The Pali Literature of Ceylon’ makes the following comment in lucid language on the high-handed methods employed by the Portuguese in pursuit of their colonial objectives which included conversion of the people of the country into Christianity and the concomitant repression of Buddhism:

“Every stage of their progress was marked by a rapacity, bigotry, cruelty and inhumanity unparalleled in the annals of any other European colonial power.

Their ferocity and their utter indifference of all suffering increased with the success of their army; their inhuman barbarities were accompanied by callousness which knew no distinction between man, woman and child; no feeling of compassion was strong enough to stay their savage hands in their fell work.

To terrify their subjects and bring home to them the might of the Portuguese power, they committed atrocities which had they not been found recorded in the decades of their friendly historians, seems too revolting to be true.

Babes were spitted on the soldier’s pikes and held up that their parents might hear the young cocks crow. Sometimes they were mashed to pulp between millstones, while their mothers were compelled to witness the pitiful sight before they themselves were tortured to death. Men were thrown over bridges for the amusement of the troops to feed the crocodiles in the river, which eventually grew so tame that at whistle they would raise their heads above the water in anticipation of the welcome feast.”

Methods employed for conversion and suppression of non-Christian religions

The Portuguese used a number of methods in their pursuit to convert people to Christianity and suppress non – Christian religions prevailing in territories under their control. They can be distinguished as follows:

(i) Carrot and Stick Policy

The Portuguese used a carrot and stick policy in converting people living in the immediate vicinity of Portuguese strongholds particularly along the West Coast of India and in the lowlands of Sri Lanka.

ii) Enactment of harsh and oppressive laws

The Portuguese lawmakers enacted a large number of harsh and oppressive laws with the aim of putting a stop to the public practice of non – Christian religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam in territories controlled by the Portuguese.

These laws were followed by a number of other decrees designed to favour converts to Christianity with Portuguese patronage.

The Ecclesiastical Councils at Goa laid down rules for missionary work and these rules had a significant bearing on the conduct of Christian missionary work in Sri Lanka, particularly after 1567. The pioneer Ecclesiastical Council of 1567 in adopting a series of decisions were guided by three main considerations, namely:

a) All religions other than orthodox Roman Catholicism were intrinsically wrong and harmful in themselves. b) The Crown of Portugal had a fundamental duty to spread the Christian faith and the power of the State must be utilised to support the work of the Catholic Church c) Conversion of non-Christians into Christianity must not be made by force, for nobody comes to Christ by faith unless he is drawn by the love of God.

The third consideration stated above on non -use of force was negated by several other decisions of the Council which had the sanction of law by virtue of promulgation of a Vice-regal decree at Goa in December 1567. This decree enacted among other things the following decisions of the Ecclesiastical Council:

All heathen places of worship in Portuguese controlled areas should be demolished.

All non-Christian clergy, teachers and holy men must be expelled.

All their sacred texts such as the Koran should be seized and destroyed whereever found.

Buddhists and Hindus must be prohibited from visiting their respective temples in the neighbouring provinces under the control of other rulers.

The transit passage of Asian pilgrims to these places of worship must be prohibited.

The celebration of non–Christian weddings and religious processions must be strictly forbidden.

Conversions from either Islam to Buddhism to Hinduism, and vice – versa were not allowed but the conversion to Christianity from other religions should be permitted and encouraged.

Every married man should be required to practise monogamy irrespective of his religion.

Non–Christian orphans should be required to be handed over to Christian guardians or foster parents and then baptised by Catholic priests.

Christians should be forbidden to live together or lodge with non – Christians

2. In addition the Portuguese authorities are held as responsible for the following repressive practices, which if adopted today would, be tantamount to explicit violation of human rights and cultural genocide:

In Goa nominal rolls were made of Hindu families and they were forced in groups of fifty to visit local churches and convents and listen to Christian sermons on alternate Sundays.

Fines were imposed on a sharply escalating scale on those who made attempts to keep away from complying with these obligations.

There was official and legal discrimination against non-Christians who were denied public employment.

On the other hand public offices and remunerative posts were reserved for Christian converts only and where there was no such reservation the latter group was favoured.

Buddhist Temples, Hindu Kovils and Muslim Mosques were systematically destroyed by the Portuguese conquistadors and Roman Catholic churches were built on or near the sites of such destruction.

Incomes drawn from the lands belonging to Buddhist Temples, Hindu Kovils etc. were channelled to support and maintain Roman Catholic Churches and missionary educational institutions.

The penal laws against the public practice of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam which, were enacted after 1540 in some of Portugal’s eastern possessions were inspired by laws that had been adopted in European countries against the practice of what the then European rulers considered as ‘heretical’ or ‘subversive’ forms of Christianity.

For example, the treatment of the Roman Catholics in England during the period of the Reformation, the exclusion of Jews from public life in many parts of Europe, and the torture and burning at the stake of ‘ witches’ were based on such penal laws enacted during the period of the Christian Inquisition.

C.R. Boxer observes:”It is obvious that these discriminatory and coercive measures, if they did not actually force people to become Christians at the point of the sword, made it very difficult for them to do anything else.

Deprived of their priests, teachers, holy men, sacred books and public places of worship, not to mention the free exercise of their cults, it was confidently expected by the legislators of 1567 that ‘ the false heathen and Moorish religions’ would wither and die on territory controlled by the Portuguese Crown”.

However, it must be noted that the application of these laws in Portuguese controlled territories varied significantly according to the time, place and circumstances and more importantly according to the disposition of the arch bishops, Vice-roys and Captain – Generals (in Sri Lanka) whose decision-making powers were immense.

It must be stated that the great abuses that took place in almost all of the Portuguese overseas mission – fields, including the use of force and farcical baptism of ignorant converts, did not proceed unnoticed and without a protest by some members of the Catholic Clergy living in Portugal.

C.R. Boxer refers to a petition to the Portuguese Crown drawn up at Lisbon in February 1567 by the Bishops of Ceuta, Lisbon, Tangier, Angra, Portalegre, Lamego and the Algarve protesting against the use of unsavoury methods by Portuguese missionaries overseas.

Boxer then adds that it was unlikely that seven leading Portuguese prelates would have made such grave allegations unless they were quite certain of their facts).

iii) Strategic conversions

The Portuguese missionaries were aware that some of the methods employed to convert Buddhists and Hindus into Christianity were dubious and indefensible.

But nevertheless, they still persisted with rough and ready methods of conversion in the knowledge that though the first generation of converts were likely to be superficial Christians, their descendants would become devout Christians in due course of time.

The Bishop of Dume, the pioneer prelate of Goa, was aware of these outcomes and he is reported to have said in 1561 that those who remained inside Portuguese territory and accepted baptism rather than be expelled for refusing to become Christians could hardly be expected to become good Christians ‘ yet their children will become so ‘.

C.R. Boxer comments ‘This is, in fact, exactly what happened ‘and he compares this position to a similar situation that occurred in Europe where the descendants of the Saxons, Teutons and Slavs, who in many instances were forcibly converted to Christianity, later became ardent Christians.

iv) The Ruler and the Ruled must be of the same faith

Both, the Catholics and Protestants in Europe readily accepted the principle that the Ruler and the Ruled should belong to the same faith, which is expressed in Latin as follows: ‘cujus regio illius religio ‘.

Conversion was no longer a question of faith. The conversion of kings was sought because their subjects were expected to follow as a matter of course. The Portuguese wrote to their King in Lisbon as follows: “If the King became a Christian that would be sufficient for all to become the same: this your Lordship can take as certain, for such is the nature of this people”

The Portuguese missionaries in Sri Lanka launched a concerted campaign to achieve this result when they forced the grandson (Dharmapala) of King Bhuvenakabahu to renounce his Buddhist faith and adopt Roman Catholicism as his religion.

The noted historian P. E. Pieris observes that ” the king’s change of religion was a grave political blunder: the social organisation of his people was based on Buddhism, and his defection could not fail to estrange them from him, the more so when the revenues of their most venerated shrines were being diverted towards Christian propaganda.It was not long before the Portuguese priests guided his counsels, Portuguese officers controlled his army, and Portuguese names were the fashion at Court. ”

v) Forcible conversion of orphans

The use of force was permitted in a series of royal and vice–regal decrees in respect to the conversion of Hindu orphans in Goa and Bacalm in India.

Legislation enacted both at Lisbon and Goa specifically authorised the use of force in removing orphans from the custody of their relatives, guardians, or friends.

They were then taken to the College of Sao Paulo of the Company of Jesus in Goa and baptized, educated and catechized by the Fathers of the College.

It is quite possible that similar measures were adopted in respect of Buddhist and Hindu orphans living in Portuguese controlled territories of Sri Lanka.

vi) Gun boat policy

The Portuguese used force or the threat of the use of force as a tool in their conversion policy. The writings of Jesuit priests who served in Catholic missions in various parts of Portuguese controlled territories in Asia substantiate the adoption of this practice.

Padre Alexandre Valignano, a well – known Jesuit priest who organised the Jesuit mission in Asia, observes that some of the indigenous people in the East were incapable and primitive in respect of matters concerning God, and consequently reasoning would not make an impression as force.

He laments that it would be difficult to establish Christian communities ‘among the Niggers’ and more difficult to preserve such communities except in areas under Portuguese rule, or in regions where the Portuguese power could be extended such as the sea coast through the use of the Portuguese naval fleet that can ‘cruise up and down, dealing out favours and punishments according to what the people there deserve’.

Padre Alexandre Valignano adds that the striking success of the missionary work of Francis Xavier on the Fishery Coast was primarily due to the deliberate mixture of threats and blandishments.

The Portuguese fleet lying off shore had the capacity to deprive people of their fishing and sea borne trade and using this power Xavier influenced a large number of people living in coastal areas to embrace Christianity.

C.R. Boxer observes that ‘gunboat ‘policy methods were widely prevalent among the Portuguese missionaries in the East and adds that the term ‘Christian militant’ was no figure of speech.

vii) Exploiting Buddhist injunctions against taking away of animal life

The Portuguese were well aware of the Buddhist reverence for all forms of life and the strict injunctions against the taking away of any form of life including animals whatever the need.

Kill and eat is not a Buddhist tenet. On the contrary Christianity takes the view that animals and plants were created by God for the benefit of humans and therefore man is free to kill animals and eat their flesh.

Christian missionaries in predominantly Buddhist and Hindu lands achieved their most notable successes among the fisher castes and classes.

Those who engage in vocations involving the breeding of animals for slaughter as well as destruction of animals, which are considered as Wrong Livelihoods, attract deep – seated prejudice in conventional Buddhist and Hindu societies.

The Portuguese missionaries exploited this position and converted a large mass of fisher folk, ‘who found acceptance and enhanced self – respect in Christianity.

viii) Similarities in outward manifestation of the Roman Catholic Church vis-a-vis Buddhism and Hinduism

The use of images, incense, rosaries, orders of monks and nuns, colourful ceremonies and Churches etc. created a superficial similarity in the outward manifestation of Roman Catholicism vis – a -vis Buddhism and Hinduism, and in turn these similarities also contributed towards making the transition from the indigenous religions to the Roman Catholic faith relatively more convenient.

In contrast the austere practices of the Protestant religions failed to impress the mass of the common folk in territories under Dutch and later British control.


Historian J.H. Elliot says: The history of the Portuguese intrusion into the Indian Ocean is an epic of ruthless savagery. “In the bloody annals of the European conquest of Asia, Portuguese barbarity stands out. Indeed, it apparently was an essential component of the Portuguese’s strategy to subdue the local populations. This use of terror will bring great things to your obedience without the need to conquer them,” Afonso de Albuquerque, chief strategic mastermind behind the Portuguese expansion into Asia and intermittently known as the ‘Terrible’ or the Great,” wrote to the King of Portugal in 1510 after the sacking of the Indian city of Goa.

I haven’t left a single grave stone or Islamic structure standing,” he boldly claimed. In another letter to the king, he wrote: I tell you, sire, and the one thing that’s most essential in India: if you want to be loved and feared here, you must take full revenge.”


1. Repression of Buddhism in Sri Lanka by the Portuguese (1505 – 1658)

2. How Portugal forged an Empire in Asia


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