By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Today, the Tamil-speaking Jaffna peninsula is a bastion of orthodox Saivism – a Hindu sect based on the worship of Lord Siva. But according to Prof. Tikiri Abeysinghe, in the 16th and the 17th centuries, under Portuguese sway, the peninsula was entirely Catholic, though only nominally so.
In “Jaffna under the Portuguese”, which was first published in 1986, Abeysinghe (who taught history in Colombo University) says: “ 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.”
Abeyasinghe notes that in the period 1624-1626, the Franciscans alone converted 52,000 Jaffna Tamils. “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 says. 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”.
Why Mass Conversion?
The reasons for the en-masse conversion of Jaffna Tamils were many. The first was the proselytizing zeal of the Portuguese, who unlike the Dutch and the English who followed them, 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. The third reason was the strategic importance of Jaffna, especially the western port of Mannar, for trade as well as 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 fifth reason was the docility of the Jaffna man. Philip de Oliveira, who led the expeditionary force, which captured Jaffna in 1619, described the Jaffna man as being “generally passive or weak”.
Intrigues Against Portuguese
However, the Kings of Jaffna, in alliance with the Sinhala Kings of South Sri Lanka and the Nayaks of South India, did trouble the Portuguese at the initial stages. 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 Christian converts among the fishermen of the Parava caste in Mannar. In 1543, St Francis Xavier had visited Mannar and converted 600 Paravas. 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 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 under pressure from his Hindu subjects to break the shackles for the sake of their religion and culture, Edirmanasingham alias Pararasa Sekaran struck an alliance with the Nayak rulers of Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu 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.
When Pararasa Sekaran died in 1617, his chosen successor was assassinated by Sankili Kumaran, a nephew. 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.
Destruction of Local Leadership
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.
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.
“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.
Baptism Under Duress
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. 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.
Economic Ruination of 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. 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 to the Wanni. Some went across the Palk Strait to Rameswaram on the Indian side.
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. Only the coastal Paravas, who apparently saw Catholicism as a liberation theology, stuck to Catholicism.