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Portuguese rule ruined Jaffna: Historian

Prof Tikiri Abeyasinghe says this in his book ? Jaffna under the Portuguese, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Apr 10, 2006 22:32 IST

Today, the Tamil-speaking Jaffna peninsula in north Sri Lanka is a bastion of orthodox Shiva worshipping Hindus.

But historians say that during Portuguese rule in the 17th century, it was entirely Catholic.

The fascinating story of how and why Jaffna became Catholic en masse, and why it reverted to Hinduism with equal alacrity when the Dutch replaced the Portuguese in 1658, is told by Prof Tikiri Abeyasinghe in his book Jaffna under the Portuguese, which was first published in 1986.

"Portuguese documents reporting conversions in Jaffna do so invariably in multiples of thousands. Even allowing for exaggeration, natural to this type of document, the success achieved by the missionaries was striking," he says.

Abeyasinghe, who was Professor of Modern History in the University of Colombo till 1985, notes that in the period 1624-1626, the Franciscans alone converted 52,000 Jaffna Tamils.

"According to detailed statistics furnished in Friar Paulo da Trinidade's work, there were in Jaffna in 1634, over 70,000 adult Christians and children being instructed in the faith under 25 parishes of the Franciscans alone."

"Taking that figure as a rough basis for the calculation of the total number of Christians in Jaffna under the care of the 42 parishes, one gets the figure 115,000," he concludes.

Antonio Bocarro's report of 1634 states that in Jaffna, "nearly all natives are Christians".

Fernao de Queiros, the renowned Portuguese chronicler of Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then called) had described Jaffna as being "wholly Christian".

Reasons for conversion

The reasons for the en masse conversion of Jaffna Tamils were many.

The first was the proselytising zeal of the Portuguese, who unlike the Dutch and the English who followed, were hell bent on converting people to Christianity as much as they were interested in trade and territory.

The second was the unquestioned military and political power that the Portuguese exercised over the population of Jaffna, due to a variety of factors.

The third reason was the strategic importance of Jaffna, especially the western port of Mannar, for the trade as well as the security of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka.

The fourth was the anti-Christian stance of some of the powerful rulers of Jaffna, which infuriated the Portuguese.

The last, but not the least, was the fact that the Jaffna man was non-aggressive, non-militarised, and towards the end, leaderless also.

Prof Abeyasinghe points out that in contrast to the Sinhala population in Kotte in South West Sri Lanka (which had also come under the sway of the Portuguese) the population in Jaffna was peaceful, and not given to resistance and revolts.

Philip de Oliveira, who led the expeditionary force, which captured Jaffna in 1619 to firmly establish Portuguese power there, described the Jaffna man as being "generally passive or weak".

A top Portuguese official, Lancarote de Seixas, described them as "quiet and mild, without any military training," and therefore less likely to rebel unless instigated by "outsiders".

And outsiders, mainly from Tamil Nadu and Kerala, had played a big role in the military history of Jaffna prior to the advent of the Portuguese.

The Kings of Jaffna traditionally used South Indian mercenaries, who the Portuguese called "Badagas" for their defensive and offensive operations.

The soldiers were either from the Nayakdom of Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, or they were Muslims from Calicut in Malabar, Kerala.

How the Jaffna kings were subdued

Initially, the Kings of Jaffna, in alliance with the Sinhala Kings of South Sri Lanka and the Nayaks of South India, did trouble the Portuguese.

In his paper The Kingdom of Jaffna before the Portuguese conquest (Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka) Prof S Pathmanathan of the University of Peradeniya gives an account of the political history of Jaffna before the Portuguese take over.

The Portuguese intervened in Jaffna for the first time in 1543, when Sankili, the King of Jaffna, seized some wrecked Portuguese cargo vessels and began persecuting Chirstian converts in Mannar.

In 1543, St Francis Xavier had visited Mannar, on the Western coast, and converted 600 Paravas, a caste of fishermen and pearl divers there.

The Paravas were a depressed class, oppressed by Jaffna's rapacious officials and persecuted by Arab Muslim traders, who eyed the pearl fisheries.

Since the converts were automatically deemed to be Portuguese subjects, Sankili was alarmed.

He saw in this a grave threat to Jaffna's economy and security.

The immensely valuable pearl fisheries would be out of his control. The Parava area in Mannar could become a bridgehead for a Portuguese invading army.

Therefore, in 1543 itself, Sankili sent an expedition to Mannar and slaughtered the Parava converts.

St.Francis Xavier promptly appealed to the Portuguese state to punish the Jaffna King.

But it was only in 1558 that Constantine de Braganca captured Jaffna. Sankili escaped to Trincomalee.

Subsequently, he made peace with the Portuguese and came back to power, but without control over Mannar.

He had lost control over the shipping and trade in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Strait, a major source of revenue for his Kingdom.

The Jaffna Kingdom then went into a period of great political instability. As in other parts of Sri Lanka, rival claimants to the throne were using the Portuguese to press their claims.

In 1570, the Portuguese put their protégé Periyapulle on the throne. But in 1582, Periyapulle was overthrown by Sankili's son, Puviraja Pandaram.

Like his father, Puviraja Pandaram followed an anti-Portuguese policy. He sought the help of the Zamorin of Calicut and attacked Mannar. But the expedition failed.

In 1591, the Portuguese took the battle to Jaffna and massacred 800 of Puviraja Pandaram's soldiers who were South Indian mercenaries, including Muslims from Calicut.

The Portuguese put Edirmanasingham, who took the title Pararasa Sekaran, on the throne.

But he was under pressure from his Hindu subjects to break the shackles for the sake of their religion and culture, which needed close contact with the Nayak rulers of Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu.

Pararasa Sekaran struck alliances with the Nayaks of Thanjavur and also the Kings of Kandy, Vimaladharmasuriya I (1593-1604) and Senarat (1604-1635) who were anti-Portuguese. He proceeded against the Catholic converts too.

Pararasa Sekaran died in 1617. His chosen successor was assassinated by Sankili Kumaran, a nephew of Pararasa Sekaran's.

After usurping the throne, Sankili Kumaran sought recognition from the Portuguese.

But when there was no response, he invited the Nayaks of Thanjavur to help him get out of the clutches of the Portuguese.

In 1619, the Portuguese marched on Jaffna and took it over completely. Sankili Kumaran tried to escape to India by boat. But he and his family, with all their jewels, were seized in mid sea.

Indigenous leadership destroyed

According to Abeyasinghe, Sankili, his sister, his four nephews, and the heir to the throne, were exiled to Goa in Western India, the seat of Portuguese power in the region.

Abeyasinghe quotes Philip de Oliveira, the man who took Jaffna, as saying that "all those who so much as have a royal smell about them" should be as far away from Jaffna as possible.

In accordance with this policy, another set of Jaffna royals were sent away to Goa in 1624.

With the exit of the Sankili clan, the Jaffna man gave up all hopes of resisting the Portuguese.

He accepted Portuguese rule, including the need to convert to Catholicism, though most unwillingly.

Royal exiles converted

"In Goa, these royal exiles lived under surveillance, many of the younger members being lodged with religious orders - males in the College of Kings at Bardez, and the females in the Convent of Santa Monica in Goa".

"Eventually, many of them, like the younger (Sinhala) royalty from Sitawaka and Kandy, entered holy orders," Abeyasinghe says.

The historian says that the Portuguese might have used force to make the young royals join the Catholic religious orders. And the motive was clearly political.

In letter to Portugal dated December 13, 1634, Viceroy Conde de Linhares suggested that the younger members of the Jaffna family should be encouraged to enter religious orders, as some of them had already done or were on the point of doing, in order to avoid problems that would arise if they were "to marry and have issues."

Abeyasinghe says that the Portuguese wanted to ensure that none of Sankili's family members became a rallying point of a revolt in Jaffna in the future.

Conquest opens doors to mass conversion

Although St Francis Xavier had begun conversion in 1543 itself, it was only after the complete take over of Jaffna in 1619, that conversions took on a mass character.

The Franciscans were followed by the Jesuits in 1622. The Portuguese authorities fixed the number of parishes for Jaffna (minus Mannar and Mantota) at 42 to be divided among the Franciscans and the Jesuits.

In order to increase the number of converts rapidly, they resorted to what Abeyasinghe calls "general baptism".

Quoting Trinidade and Queiros, he says that in a typical case of general baptism in a village, the announcement of the arrival of the Portuguese missionaries would be made by tom tom.

The villagers in question would be asked to assemble and then a missionary would ask them to reject their "false" gods and accept "one true God".

"It was not a request; it was almost a command backed by the authority of the Portuguese government" Abeyasinghe notes.

This is because the missionary would invariably be accompanied by the local Portuguese officials and the native chiefs who supported them.

"Fear of a fine or corporal punishment with cane and stock would ensure their regular attendance at church on Sundays and feast days," Abeyasinghe adds.

A later Dutch writer gave a different explanation for the Jaffna Tamil Hindus' willingness to convert.

Abeyasinghe quotes this un-named writer as saying that the Hindus believed that there were different paths to salvation and that there was nothing wrong in accepting Catholicism.

In a sense, this theory helped the convert to revert to Hinduism without a second thought, when the Portuguese quit in 1658.

Portuguese ruin Jaffna

But Portuguese rule ruined Jaffna, Abeyasinghe says. Though the Jaffna peasant was not dispossessed, he had to pay heavy taxes, which the Portuguese kept hiking from time to time.

The production level remained low. As Bocarro said: "the land has little commerce. It has no merchandise. It has no water other than that from the sky".

In addition to the rapacious government, the Catholic priests were extorting money.

The cash from the Jaffna treasury was being used to fund Portuguese settlements elsewhere. Nothing was ploughed back into the local economy.

According to Fernao de Queiros, the Portuguese chronicler par excellence the people of Jaffna had been "reduced to the utmost misery" under Portuguese rule.

In the absence of the possibility of waging war or revolting, the only option for the people was to migrate.

And migrate they did to the Wanni jungles south of the peninsula. Some went across the Palk Strait to Rameswaram on the Indian side.

To give just one example, the village of Puthur, which had 100 households to begin with, had only 14 in 1645.

It is, therefore, not surprising that when the Dutch overthrew the Portuguese in June 1658, the people of Jaffna were immensely relieved.

The refugees not only came back to Jaffna, but shed Catholicism and reverted to Hinduism en masse. Some of course, took to the Protestant religion of the Dutch.

Only the coastal Paravas, who apparently saw Catholicism as a liberation theology, stuck to Catholicism.

(PK Balachandran is Special Correspondent of Hindustan Times in Sri Lanka)

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First Published: Apr 10, 2006 12:57 IST