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Inside the world of ‘Saint’ Francis Xavier: From spearheading inquisition of Goa to tormenting the lives of local Hindus

Priolkar describes the era of inquisition spearheaded by Xavier as the age of "callousness and cruelty, tyranny and injustice, espionage and blackmail, avarice and corruption, repression of thought and culture and promotion of obscurantism."

On this very day of May 6 in 1542, ‘Saint’ Francis Xavier set his foot in India in the newly established Portuguese colony in Goa. His mission was to enlighten the heathen natives with the light of God and instil in them his fear. While monotheism was not new to India with the arrival of merchant class Arabs to the genocidal Turkish invaders, Xavier was here to spread the message of Jesus Christ. Saint Xavier is a revered name globally, with many a teaching institution named after him across the breadth of India.

Coming to terms with Xavier’s dark legacy of not only justifying practices like Inquisition but orchestrating them, mass conversions of local populations in the Indian Subcontinent thus becomes a contentious issue. However, an assessment of history in India’s civilizational context unlikely makes Xavier look like yet another missionary on a catholic mission. With an aim to propagate Christianity in India and make its foundations even stronger, Xavier instituted the concept of Inquistion – an institution set up within the Catholic Church to root out and punish anti-Christian behaviour laid out by orthodox Christianity. Inquisitions were nothing but 16th-century concentration camps where the Catholic Church’s doctrines and politics were imposed upon native populations by European colonial powers.

Saint Xavier who thought of dark-skinned natives as ‘devils’, hid many such within him. The Modern day ‘Goencho Saib’ (Father of Goa), in the annals of history, comes out of his closet as a leader of many atrocities and harbinger of abuses against the Hindus of Goa. Here is a slice of Francis Xavier as an unapologetic Spanish missionary on Indian soil, well beyond the divine glorifications and reserved relics that behold his legacy.

The Portuguese Inquisition of Goa

The Inquisition started functioning in Portugal in 1541 while subsequent to its rule, it was established in India in 1560. The first demand for the establishment of the Inquisition in Goa was made by St. Francis Xavier who had attained sainthood in Rome by then. In a letter addressed from Amboina (Moluccas) to D. Joao III, the king of Portugal, on May, 16, 1545, he wrote, “The necessity for the Christians (in the Portuguese Indian capital of Goa) is that your majesty establish the Holy Inquisition, because there are many who live according to the Jewish law, and according to the Mahomedan sect, without any fear of God or shame of the world. And since there are many who are spread all over the fortresses, there is a need for the Holy Inquisition and of many preachers. Your majesty should provide such necessary things for your loyal and faithful subjects in India.”

The Auto-de-Fe, an annual event to publicly humiliate and punish the heretics, it shows the Chief Inquisitor, Dominican friars, Portuguese soldiers, as well as religious criminals condemned to be burnt in the procession. Courtesy: Wikipedia

And thus started an era of darkness through which thousands of Hindus underwent enmasse religious conversions to orthodox christanity, by coersion or compulsion. The Inquisition had to be introduced in Portugal mainly for the grooming of the newly converted Christians, who had been forcibly converted from Judaism, to stop them from reverting to the practices of their old faith. “The Inquisition in India, on the other hand, had to play a similar role not only in relation to the new converts from Judaism but also those drawn from Hindu and Muslim religions,” Anant Kakba Priolkar in his book ‘The Goan Inquisition’ notes.

While material rewards and threats to livelihood played a lion’s share in converting the natives to the new religion, conviction to convert voluntarily among the local Hindus played a comparatively minor role in leading such conversions. Priolkar notes that one of the reasons that explain why the neo-converts continued to follow many practices pertaining to their old faiths and local culture in secrecy while being Christian only in name. Following these practices meant indulging in beliefs which were heretical (seditious) to the Christian worldview.

The arrival of Francis Xavier in India

Francis Xavier, in his account of the voyage wrote, “We left Lisbon on the 7th of April 1541, and reached India on the 6th of May of this the following year, having thus spent a year and more in the voyage, which is generally made in about six months.”

Around five months after having arrived at Goa, ‘the capital of Portuguese India’ Xavier toured the countryside, estimated the geography and extent of the Christian mission in India. He vividly describes Goa as a ‘fine-looking city, entirely in the hands of Christians’. Before Xavier arrived in India, missionary work had already started. Xavier was fascinated by institutions of the Christian supremacy including a convent of Franciscans, a ‘magnificent’ cathedral with a large number of canons, and several other churches which were being built across Goa. “There is good reason for thanking God for the Christian religion flourishes so much in this distant land in the midst of heathen,” he exclaimed.

His work in India includes patronage given to building churches across Malabar, the construction of which was volunteered by local neo-converts. The funding for the construction of the new churches was managed by diverting the money raided off while looting the Hindu temples. Xavier was particularly fascinated to see ‘a large and very handsome stone cross’, which was gilt all over. “I cannot express to you what joy I felt in looking at it. It seemed like the might of the cross appeared victorious in the midst of the dominion of the unbelievers,” such mentions in Xavier’s diaries give an insight into how lowly he thought of Indians as a race.

Basilica of Bomb Jesus, which holds mortals of St Francis Xavier to this day. Image: Telegraph

It is interesting to note that Vasco de Gama, when he first rounded the Cape of Good Hope and reached India in 1499, is said to have set up six crosses at different places and laid the practice of the same.

In Goa, Francis Xavier lived in a Hospital, that looked after the sick and often found time to hear confessions from society. Besides the sick, it was the local populace that lined up before the hospital to make their confessions in front of the saint from Spain who attracted much vanity. In the mid-day, he used to go to the prisons, and after giving the prisoners instructions on how they should abide by the tenets and become loyal servants of the God. Xavier paid regular visits to the Church of Our Lady, where he imparted religious education to children — as many as three hundred at a time. He notes of teaching prayers, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments to children who were eventually brought to the Christian fold. Upon this, the Bishop of Goa ordered the same to be done in the other churches.

Thus, Francis Xavier became increasingly popular among the Portuguese administration. He touched every strata of the society to enlighten them with the ‘grace of God’. However, his soft targets were the Brahmins, who often acted as centrifuges in his conversion activity. The influence of Brahmins, who topped the caste heirarchy stopped the so-called lower populations from adopt newer religious paths.

The Muslims in the erstwhile Bijapur Sultnate, and some of the native heathens (Hindus), who were rich and powerful held a considerable influence upon the Portuguese rulers on account of their numbers, influence, and trade. This kept up away from the loopholes of conversions while they made no pretence of hiding their religions in front of the catholic regime. The lower castes, however, were subjected to Xavier’s designs of conversions given their overall misery and stature in the social sphere. However, there are recorded instances of lower castes revolting against missionaries and turning back to their older ways, throughout the history of colonized Goa.

Franci Xavier preaching the heathens in Goa, 1619 Source: [https://baroqueart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=object;BAR;pt;Mus11_A;15;en&cp]

Xavier notes that a certain college had been founded at Goa,in which native boys from all parts of India were ‘educated’ with an intention that they would eventually become Priests for their own countries, or at least interpreters for other missionaries. “The College was endowed with an annual revenue by the Government out of funds which were taken away from the idolatrous priests,” Xavier writes in his memoirs.

Fr. James Brodrick, well-known biographer of St. Xavier too talked about the limited knowedge St. Xavier had of Hinduism and its many sects. He writes, “St. Francis Xavier’s knowledge of Hinduism was, if possible, even less adequate than his few biased notions of Mohammedanism. Though the Portuguese had been in India for over forty years, none of them appears to have made the slightest attempt to understand the venerable civilization, so much more ancient than their own, on which they had violently intruded.

Attrocities against Hindus

When cases of the local population challenging the missionaries, came to the front, the Portuguese governor made sure that the heathen ‘violators’ are deserving of punishments and correction. The era of Inquisition started with an intent to show the Hindu populace its place. It saw a series of evangelical atrocities against the local populace of Goa, especially the Hindus who were converted to Christianity in large numbers by every means possible. Besides baptism, the Portuguese destroyed the temples and broke the Hindu idols into pieces. Traditional cultural practices were discouraged against the imposition of this new religion with which St. Xavier rose as a cult figure.

According to Portoguese researcher António José Saraiva, Hindus were the primary target for persecution who were punished for their faith. He estimated that over 74% of those sentenced were charged for continuing to carry on with their Hindu practices even after being converted by the Jesuits. Filippo Sassetti, an Italian traveller and merchant who was in India from 1578 to 1588, noted that fathers of the Church charged Hindus for referring their sacred texts and exercising their religion. “They destroyed Hindu temples, and so harassed and interfered with the people that they abandoned the city in large numbers, refusing to remain any longer in a place where they had no liberty, and were liable to imprisonment, torture and death if they worshipped after their own fashion the gods of their fathers,” he writes.

From the advent of Goa to the Portuguese in Goa till 1566, 160 Hindu temples were razed to the ground. A coerced campaign started by Franciscan missionaries between 1566 and 1567, destroyed around 300 Hindu temples in Bardez (North Goa). In Salcete, (South Goa), approximately another 300 Hindu temples were destroyed by the Christian officials during the Inquisition. Portuguese letters would often boast of razing or burning all Hindu temples in its colonies.

Illustration depicting attrocities during the Inquisition

It was only in the September of 1774, that the minister of Portugal Marquez de Pombal, in order to bring reform, passed a law that made the Inquisition practically defunct while it was finally abolished in 1820. From 1540s to 1782, the ignoble practice convicted 28000 people of violation of heracy to various forms of punishment. A conservative estimate notes the brutal burning of 1454 persons alive in the incarceration. Today, with many claims, there stands no official record of the number of persons who lost their lives as a result of tortures during the trials.

“(Indians) being black themselves, consider their own colour the best, they believe that their gods are black….the great majority of their idols are as black as black can be…and seem to be as dirty as they are ugly and horrible to look at,” Xavier had noted.

Priolkar descrribes the era of inquisition spearheaded by Xavier as the age of “callousness and cruelty, tyranny and injustice, espionage and blackmail, avarice and corruption, repression of thought and culture and promotion of obscurantism.” He notes that whenever an Indian writer who undertakes to tell Goa’s real story, would easily be accused of being ‘inspired by ulterior motives’.

Historians who have attempted to document the horrific exercises in proselytization, charted by Xavier and willingly funded by the empire have single handedly referred to arrival of Xavier in India as a watershed moment in Goa’s Inquisition history. Religious bigotry and conversion, fostered by the Inquisition, strengthened the roots of the empire while it trampled the Hindu populace under its might.

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