What Hindered the Spread of Protestant Christianity in Ceylon?

Vasco Da Gama reached Calicut in India on the 28th May, 1498. With this discovery of a sea route from Europe to the East, a new era of history for India and Ceylon was begun. For the next four centuries European trade, culture, and religion powerfully affected the age-old civilizations of Asia. The history of Asian countries during this period is largely the record of external stimulus from the West and the internal reaction of the Asian people to this foreign influx.

One of the men sailing with Vasco Da Gama is alleged to have said to Tunisian traders on the west coast of India who asked what had brought the Portuguese to the East, “We have come for Christians and spices.” Cinnamon was an expensive, commercial item in that day, and the cinnamon forests of Ceylon—to say nothing of the arecanuts and precious stones—were great attractions to the trade-minded Portuguese. But the millions of people in Asia were the chief object of interest to the Franciscan, Jesuit, Augustinian, and Dominican missionaries who were sent to the East by the Roman Catholic Church. The first Catholic missionary to set foot on the island was a Franciscan friar, Father Vicente, who arrived in 1505. For the following one hundred and fifty years, all the major Catholic orders engaged in missions among the Ceylonese people.

These missionaries used a variety of methods. The Jesuits developed dramatic performances in both Tamil and Sinhalese, by which they taught the people stories from the Bible. Without passing judgment on the method itself, it must be observed that dramatic performances became very popular among the Ceylonese, and today Buddhists themselves use drama in connection with religious celebrations. In the Jaffna area, where Roman Catholicism sank its deepest roots, dramatic performances were so much a part of Jesuit missionary strategy that permanent stages were built by the side of the churches.

Catholicism has always made much use of ritual and pageantry in missions, and the Ceylonese people responded to such ceremonialism remarkably well. The attractiveness of Catholic ritual was a major factor in the success of those missions in Ceylon. The extreme measures used by the Jesuits in India do not appear to have been used in Ceylon. There was, however, a far greater degree of adaptation to the Hindu traditions and modes of worship than Protestants would ever have accepted as legitimate missionary policy.

Educational institutions of various kinds were established by the Roman Catholics. The schools were controlled by the Church and its clergy, though the government assisted by granting the revenues of some villages for erecting school buildings and supporting the teachers. Most of the schools were elementary village schools, but there were also secondary and college levels at Colombo, Jaffna, and Galle. The Franciscans maintained a training college for teachers. The Jesuits, whose work at Mannar looked so promising, planned to establish an Oriental University where the curriculum would include Sanskrit and Tamil. The plan did not materialize, though this type of school was opened by Jesuits at Punicael in South India.

The Roman Catholic clergy in Ceylon were under the direction of the bishop at Goa. Sufficient numbers of priests were provided so that the churches and schools in the territories controlled by the Portuguese were adequately superintended. Each church had its own priest, and the local priest was expected to stay in his assigned area and evangelize the people there. The clergy made much use of the Portuguese language, and it seems that the early missionaries did not bother much about learning the Ceylonese languages but relied upon interpreters. An ecclesiastical council was held at Goa in 1567, at which the importance of fluency in the vernacular was emphasized. This admonition was repeated by later Councils, and the Portuguese civil authorities added a certain amount of pressure also, for it was agreed that the use of the vernacular was vitally necessary for successful missionary work. Some of the Franciscan friars became excellent linguists, but others among the clergy paid little heed to the wishes of their superiors in this matter. Very few of the Catholic missionaries showed concern for the study of the Buddhist and Hindu sacred books, but were only intent on breaking down these ancient religions. On the whole, however, they did effective work. They identified themselves with the Ceylonese people, even being willing to side with the people in opposing certain government measures.

Coercion and religious discrimination were practiced by the Portuguese in the hope that the Ceylonese might in this way be turned to Christianity. Although the Council at Goa, in 1567, had declared that “Conversions must not be made by force, since the grace of God can be confirmed by Him alone,” various laws were passed that brought pressure on non-Catholics to accept baptism. Marriage ceremonies and religious processions could not be conducted publicly by Buddhists, Hindus, or Moslems, and no conversions were allowed from Islam to Hinduism or to Buddhism, and vice versa, but only to Christianity. Monogamy was decreed for everyone, irrespective of their religion; and men who were already living with more than one wife (or co-habiting with more than one concubine) were ordered to dismiss all except the one whom they had first married. All orphaned children were to be given Christian tutors or foster-parents; and if one of the partners in a pagan marriage was converted, the children and property were to be given into his (or her) keeping. Christians were not allowed to live or lodge with non-Christians, nor were the former to have other than strictly business dealings with the latter. Nominal rolls were to be made of all heathen families, and they were to be sent in groups of fIfty to receive Christian instruction in the local churches and convents on alternate Sundays. Fines were levied on those who tried to evade this obligation. Non-Christians were to be officially and legally discriminated against, and converts equally favored, in all appointments to public offices and remunerative posts.

A great deal of temple-wrecking took place during the Portuguese period, and the missionaries were in part responsible. The stately temple of Vishnu at Dondra was destroyed in 1587, and three important temples at Trincomalee were broken down in 1624. One of the Portuguese governors of Jaffnapatam boasted that he had destroyed five hundred Hindu temples in that area. Iconoclasm was practiced against both Buddhist and Hindu idols as part of the overall attack on these non-Christian religions.



The Portuguese missionaries often had reason to regard the behavior of their own countrymen as the main hindrance to the spread of the Catholic religion. Francis Xavier made strong statements in this connection, and the immoral actions of the Portuguese conquerors in Ceylon bore out what Xavier said about India. Baldaeus, using a Portuguese source, described the tactics of the Portuguese commander, Lopo de Britto, who built a new fort at Colombo in 1520. The Sinhalese caused him trouble, and in response de Britto and his men attacked the Sinhalese community du ring the hottest part of the day when most of the people were resting. The men fled, and de Britto commanded the soldiers to tie the women and children to the doorposts of their houses in order to induce the men to return and acknowledge their submission to the Portuguese. When the Sinhalese men did not quickly return, de Britto ordered the soldiers to set on fire the houses where the women and children were tied, thereby forcing the Sinhalese men, who loved their families as de Britto well knew, to rcturn in order to save their dear ones. By this gesture, the Portuguese saved themselves from further attack and won the submission of the Sinhalese. The cruelty of their action, however, was enough to earn the hatred of the Sinhalese for many years afterward, and provided the Sinhalese with a tale with which to illustrate the moral wantonness of the Portuguese. Such things do not promote Christian missions.

Tradition has often claimed that the Portuguese made their conversions “at the point of the sword.” This was not true. Many became Christians for material reasons, no doubt, but the reality of the conversions to Roman Catholicism was later proved by the resistance the Catholics displayed to Dutch attempts to wipe out Catholicism. The Catholic missionaries accomplished something the Dutch were not able to do, in that they converted several Ceylonese monarchs and leading nobles of the island. Political expedience, rather than Christian conviction. may have prompted such conversions, but nevertheless they did provide the freedom for missionary operation among the inhabitants which the Catholic missionaries desired. To this day, many high caste and influential Ceylonese people bear names that are derived from the Portuguese, dating from the time when their ancestors were baptized by the Catholic missionaries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The Dutch, when they captured Ceylon from the Portuguese, were still smarting over the persecution they themselves had suffered at the hands of Spanish Catholics. The intolerance and persecution that the Dutch meted out to the Portuguese converts in Ceylon might be interpreted simply as a reaction to Spanish oppression of Protestant Hollanders in Europe. There is another factor, however, that had much greater significance in the Ceylon situation. Catholics in Ceylon were viewed by the Dutch as a threat to the political security of the island. The stern persecutions that marked the early stage of Dutch supremacy in Ceylon -1658-1687—were aimed at rooting out all traces of Portuguese power and influence. The almost ruthless suppression of Catholics during this period must be understood in relation to the insecurity the Hollanders felt at the possibility of a Portuguese attempt to recapture the island.

When the Portuguese forts surrendered to the Dutch (Galle, 1640; Colombo, 1656; Jaffna, 1658), the terms of surrender in every case provided for the safe and speedy deportation of the Catholic clergy. From that time on, no Catholic priest could legally be on the island. All Catholic religious practices were forbidden. One of the Dutch edicts read as follows:

All subjects and inhabitants belonging to this commandment are strictly forbidden to practice any Roman Catholic rites or ceremonies in public or to attend the same on the penalty that the holder of such gathering shall pay 12 rix-dollars and those who are caught attending the same 3 rix-dollars each which money shall be distributed in three portions, namely—to the apprehender, to the officer (be it) Dissave or Fiscal in whose jurisdiction the same takes place, and the deaconate and if it can be discovered by whom such meeting was summoned and the ceremonies performed, they shall be put into Chains for 3 years without mercy and sent to Colombo.

These were the “dark days” for the Catholics in Ceylon. During these years they were without priests to administer the sacraments or to give them comfort and encouragement. Some of the nominal converts reverted to paganism or went over to the Reformed Church. But those who weathered the storm were the hard core believers, and they formed the persevering nucleus of Roman Catholics that continued through the Dutch era.

The Dutch used every possible means to destroy Catholicism in Ceylon. Their attack upon the Catholic priesthood was greater than their condemnation of the Buddhists and Hindus. 1n 1658 a placaat was issued, forbidding, on pain of death, the harboring or concealment of a Roman Catholic priest. In 1715 a proclamation was issued that forbade not only all public assemblies on the part of Catholics, but also the administration of baptism by Catholic clergymen. In 1733, and again in 1745, the edict of 1658 was republished which forbade the housing of a Catholic priest. A law forbidding the education of a Roman Catholic for the ministry was issued in 1748, and three years later it was repeated. That same year, 1751, another law reiterated the condemnation of any celebration of the mass on the island. All of these repeated edicts and declarations on the part of the Dutch could only mean two things: first, they were unremittant in their hostility toward the Roman Catholics; and second, their efforts at wiping out Catholicism in Ceylon were unsuccessful, and therefore new and severer laws needed to be passed and old edicts republished.

The Dutch practiced their own type of iconoclasm, and their destruction of Catholic images was a source of great exasperation to those who sympathized with Catholicism. When the Dutch were bombarding Colombo, they took a statue of the Apostle Thomas, cut off its nose, knocked it full of nails, and on the 16th November, 1656, shot it out of a mortar into a ditch occupied by the Portuguese. In some instances, religious items and statues were removed when the Catholic clergy departed, but those things that remained were often treated by the Dutch after the manner of the St. Thomas statue.

From the Roman Catholic point of view, the hero of Catholic perseverance during the Dutch period in Ceylon was Father Joseph Vaz, a Brahman and a member of the Congregation of the Oratory of Goa. Father Vaz came to Jaffna disguised as a Dutch slave in 1687 and began an underground ministry to the Catholics of the Jaffna district. Father Vaz and the other Oratorian missionaries from Goa, all of them Indians, were the key factors in preserving Catholicism amid the pressures which the Dutch exerted. Priests eluded the Dutch and administered the sacraments in secrecy. Sometimes Catholics were caught in the act of conducting worship services and were severely punished by the Dutch authorities, but nevertheless they persevered. The Sinhalese kings, disgruntled over their relations with the Dutch, harbored Catholic priests within their territories, out of reach of the Dutch. Transient priests moved in and out of Dutch-controlled areas, encouraging the people to resist the Dutch, to stay away from the Reformed Church services, to pay fines rather than send their children to the Dutch schools, and in general, to be the bane of Dutch missionaries.

An Englishman, Robert Knox, who was kept as a prisoner by the Sinhalese king at Kandy from April 1660 to October 1679, has given the following description of the Catholics at Kandy during the days when priests were effectively banned from the island by the Dutch:

If any enquired into the religious exercise and worship practiced among the Christians here, I am sorry, I must say it, I can give but a slender account! For they have no Churches nor priests, and so no meetings together on the Lord’s Days for Divine Worship, but each one reads or prays at his own house as he is disposed. They sanctify the day chiefly by refraining from work and from meeting together at drinking houses. They continue the practice of Baptism; and there being no priests, they baptize their children themselves with water and use the words, “In the Name of the Father, and of the son, and of the Holy Ghost” and give them Christian names. They have their friends about them at such a time, and make a small feast according to their ability and some teach their children to say their Prayers, and to read and some do not…Indeed, their religion at the best is but negative, that is, they are not heathen, they do not comply with the idolatry here practised, and they profess themselves Christians in a general manner, which appear by their names, and by their beads and crosses that some of them wear about their necks.

In the Minute Book of the Colombo Consistory, there is a moving letter, written in 1750 by a Roman Catholic community near Negombo, appealing to the Dutch authorities for religious liberty. “We are Catholic Christians and we wish to bring up our children to be Catholic Christians also,” the appeal reads. “We are beginning to doubt our faith,” the parents pleaded. because of the conflicting religious teachings that they heard “from their own children. They assured the Dutch that they did not wish to rise against their authority, but they did want to avoid the fines imposed against them when they resisted having their children baptized and educated by the Reformed clergymen. “We will serve the East India Company,” the parents concluded, “but we will never give up our Catholic faith.”

The appeal, however, was rejected. The government asked the consistory for its opinion, and the consistory replied that no relaxation whatsoever ought to be granted to the Catholics, fines for non-attendance at church and school should be maintained, no Catholics should be appointed to public offices, and the baptism of a Catholic priest should never be regarded as legal or valid. The government replied that the consistory had gone beyond bounds in telling the government what should be done. Furthermore, the government advised the clergy that instead of depending so much on laws and compulsion, the clergy ought to “acquire a thorough and familiar knowledge of the native languages,” and thus to instruct the people more effectually and reclaim them from popery. The governor and his council referred the question of baptism to the authorities at Batavia, and they decided that it was impractical to limit official appointments to Protestant candidates exclusively. Despite their hesitation to apply the law in a strict manner, however, the government rejected the plea for religious liberty and continued its former policy toward the Roman Catholics.

Strangely enough, the strength of Catholicism increased during most of the Dutch period, whereas the strength of t.he Reformed Church decreased as time went on. The explanation of this lies largely in the fact that the Catholic Church abroad did not forget the Catholics in Ceylon after the Portuguese had been expelled from the island. Priests were sent to keep the Church alive. Paradoxically, during the eighteenth century, the number of Catholic priests in Ceylon was always greater than the number of Reformed ministers. The mission of the Oratorians from Goa was voluntary, enthusiastic, and mixed with enough peril to give it strength and appeal among the Ceylonese people. The Coanese were independent of government control, while the predikanten of the Reformed Church were employees of the Company. The persecutions that the Catholics suffered had the effect of giving to Ceylonese Catholicism a resilience which the Reformed Church might well have envied.

As Roman Catholic activity increased during the latter part of the eighteenth century, the strength and zeal of the Dutch diminished. Most of the anti-Catholic placaats lost their edge and open breaches of the law went unpunished. Part of the reason was that Catholicism had penetrated the Dutch community itself. In 1762 the legality of Roman Catholic baptisms and marriages was recognized. In 1774 the authorities at Colombo allowed Catholic priests to reside in the city and even to build churches. The Roman Catholic Church in Ceylon, upon the arrival of the British in 1796, had proved by its resistance to the Dutch and its internal growth both the effectiveness of early Catholic missions during Portuguese times and the value of the continued ministrations of the Goanese missionaries to the persecuted Catholics in Ceylon.

Continuing his series on the story of Reformed missions in Ceylon, Prof. Roger S. Greenway of Mexico City, Mexico, in this article explains how the tenacity, methods and zeal of Roman Catholic missionaries in “dark periods” prevailed over the attempts of the Reformed to win the people of that island to Protestantism. Here the importance of proper Biblical methods of missions comes into sharp focus.