Blessed Joseph Vaz: Part 9 – The Apostle of Sri Lanka in Prison in Kandy


Myself . 

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Image source: blejosephvaz.wix.com
Image source: blejosephvaz.wix.com

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Imprisonment in the Kingdom of Kandy

Espionage was loathed in Kandy and foreigners  were not allowed to Espionage was loathed in Kandy and foreigners  were not allowed to enter the city without permission. If any foreigners did happen to enter in a dubious manner, they were not allowed to get out of the kingdom. They were imprisoned in the “Maha Hiragé” (“Great prison”) and were held there for four to six years.

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Robert Knox (1642-1720) of the East India Company, by P. Trampon
Robert Knox (1642-1720) of the East India Company, by P. TramponTramponTramponTrampon

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Robert Knox was an English sailor. His father, also named Robert Knox was a sea captain. In 1657, Oliver Cromwell issued a charter granting the East India Company a monopoly of the Eastern trade. Father and son joined the service of the Company. On January 21, 1658, when the younger Knox was almost 17 years old, both he and his father boarded the ship “Anne” that left London on trade missions to the East Indies.

After sailing for about a  year and nine months, the ship encountered stormy weather in the Bay of Bengal. The ship lost its mast. With torn sails, they put ashore near Kottiar Bay, the estuary of Mahaweli Ganga, in Trincomalee, on November 19, 1659. There, the officials of King Rajasinghe II impounded the ship. The two Knoxes and 16 crew members were taken to the capital as captives.

After sailing for about a year and nine months, the ship encountered stormy weather in the Bay of Bengal. The ship lost its mast. With torn sails, they put ashore near Kottiar Bay, the estuary of Mahaweli Ganga, in Trincomalee, on November 19, 1659. There, the officials of King Rajasinghe II impounded the ship. The two Knoxes and 16 crew members were taken to the capital as captives. Although the crew was forbidden from leaving the kingdom, they were treated fairly leniently.

At that time, tension prevailed between King Rajasinghe II and some of the European powers.

When the king heard of their arrival in the capital, he sent for them. Sadly, the elder Knox had inadvertently angered the king by not observing the expected formalities in the presence of the king. Later, while the elder Knox was resting under a tamarind tree the king’s men took him captive.

Most of  the sailors engaged themselves in knitting garments.  Others took on animal husbandry, breeding poultry, growing paddy, and even distilling arrack. Young Robert Knox became a lender like the Afghans of old in Ceylon. He did not lend money, instead he gave paddy with 50% interest charged on it.

Some sailors became the favourite boys of the king and were mobilized into his armed forces. Among them, a Richard Varhan was appointed commander of the king’s 970 soldiers’ regiment.

A few married local women and settled down in the country.

In due course, the two Knoxes were separated from the rest of the crew and were kept for some time in a village called Bandara Koswatte close to Wariyapola in the North Central Province. There, both were afflicted with malaria. Eventually, the father died in February 1661 after a long illness.

In 1679, Robert Knox and his only companion, Stephen Ruthland made their final escape through Anuradhapura. They trekked along the banks of Malwatu Oya, then Dutch territory.

On October 16,1679, after being captive for almost 20 years, Robert Knox and his companion reached the Dutch Fort at Arippu, situated about 10 miles (16 km) away from Mannar Island. From there they went to Mannar. From Mannar, they set sail for Batavia. Robert Knox reached London in September, 1680, when he was 40 years old.

In his book “An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, in the East-Indies: together with an account of the Detaining in Captivity the author and divers other Englishmen now Living there, and of the author’s miraculous escape,” Robert Knox wrote that from 1658 to 1681 not less than thirty-four Englishmen had been placed under custody like he was held, in the Kingdom of Kandy.

 Joseph Vaz under “House-arrest”.

Robert Knox was held captive by King Rajasinghe II. Now it was his son, King Vimaladharmasurya II, who held Joseph Vaz, John and Antonio Sottomayor as prisoners.

King Vimaladharmasurya II was an educated, and a superior man. He had broader views than the Indian princes of his time. He dreaded the return of the Portuguese to Ceylon. He was in no way hostile to Catholics. He allowed a certain amount of freedom to the Catholics in his dominions to follow their faith.

Joseph Vaz and Antonio Sottomayor found that there was no way to appeal because even a claim for justice against the king’s order was considered high treason.

The guards would not permit them to move even four steps. No food was provided and they spent five days in extreme hunger. Then, out of pity, the guards gave each of them a handful of Finger Millet (Sinhalese: Kurokkan; Tamil: Kel-varaku) once a day.

The three prisoners were kept under strict observation as ordered by the king. After observing them for five days, the guards reported to the king that they found the priest meek and modest, and they could not conclude whether he was a spy or not.

A few days later the King came to see the prisoners. He spoke a long time with Joseph Vaz and went away quite convinced that Nauclairs de Lanerolle’s denunciation was groundless.

So, the King let Antonio Sottomayor free. He then ordered to remove the priest and his servant from the “Maha Hirage” and transferred to the custody of an official called “Dissawe“. Joseph Vaz was provided a comfortable lodging and was well cared for with food provided at the King’s expense. However, he was forbidden to go out of his lodging. It was like the modern day “house-arrest”.

Gradually, the rigours of captivity relaxed. Since the Dissawe and his guards found the priest and his servant to be harmless, they left them alone, and allowed them to walk freely within the jail premises.

What he could not achieve by preaching, he compensated by resorting to the ministry of charity. From the daily ration allotted to him, Vaz reserved for John and himself the bare minimum required for one meal a day and distributed the rest among the poor.

Joseph Vaz Learns Sinhalese

During his travel on the Coromandel Coast and his stay in Tuticorin and Jaffna, he had studied Tamil. Now he took pains to study the Sinhalese language to help him in his apostolic work. Since he already knew Tamil, he translated the Catechism books into Tamil and Sinhalese. He wrote the Stations of the Cross in the two languages. He also prepared a vocabulary in Sinhalese for the use of future missionaries.

They remained under house arrest for more than two years. By his exemplary life, he won the heart of King Vimaladharna Surya II and the Buddhist monks. The rigors of the imprisonment went on diminishing as the months passed.

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Next → Part  10: Beginning of the Apostolate in Kandy

← Previous: Part  8: The Apostle of Sri Lanka Arrested at Weuda on the Way to Kandy

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