Tag Archives: Dutch Ceylon

Blessed Joseph Vaz: Part 5 – Travel to Ceylon (Sri Lanka)

Myself . 

By T.V. Antony Raj


Map - Goa to Jaffna
Map – Goa to Jaffna


In March 1686, Joseph Vaz left Goa secretly and set out on foot to go to Ceylon without informing anyone. However, he obtained the blessings of his Prefect and the Cathedral Chapter of Goa.

Father Paulo de Souza, Brother Stephen, accompanied Joseph Vaz along with his loyal domestic servant John.

They traveled to Tellichery where people told them that the Dutch were ever vigilant and might deem Father de Souza to be a European because of his fair complexion. Moreover, Vaz noted that it would not be possible for them to land in Ceylon as a group without arousing suspicion. So, Vaz sent his two companions, Father Paulo de Souza and Brother Stephen back to Kanara.

Vaz proceeded to Cochin (now Kochi) with his servant John carrying a bag that contained sacred vestments and other accessories for celebrating Mass.

From Cochin, they traveled on a Moorish ship to Quilon (now Kollam). The ruthless captain of the ship demanded more as fare. Since they had no more money to pay the extra sum, the captain started scolding them. With great patience, they bore the affronts and the insults. The captain then seized their only possession – the bag containing the sacred vestments and other accessories for celebrating Mass. A Christian from Quilon was about to help him, but the Episcopal Governor of Cochin who was there  paid their fare.

In the 17th century, the Portuguese maintained their power in Kerala with their settlements and trade centers. They concentrated mainly on the port towns of Cochin, Calicut, Cannanore, and Quilon. In 1663 due to the Dutch Invasion Portuguese Empire declined. The Jesuits in Kerala transposed their Vaippicotta Seminary to Ambazhakad (Sambalur). The Jesuits started a house of Jesuits, Vidyapeeth (St. Pauls’ College) and a seminary for Christians of St. Thomas.

When Joseph Vaz and John reached the Jesuit College, the Jesuit priests received them cordially. They advised Vaz that if he wanted to enter Ceylon he should put aside his torn, threadbare soutane, and dress like a “coolie”. The Jesuits offered them coarse loincloth like the ones used by the slaves of the Dutch. Vaz humbly accepted their advice and the loincloth.

After reaching the Coromandel Coast, Vaz studied the Tamil language assiduously for that was the language spoken in the Northern part of the Island of Ceylon.


View of the Dutch port Tuticorin, Coromandel Coast, India in 1672.  'Tutecoryn' by Philip Baldaeus, from 'Nauwkeurige beschrijving Malabar en Choromandel, derz. aangrenzend rijken, en het machtige eiland Ceylon', Amsterdam, 1672. (Source: columbia.edu)
View of the Dutch port Tuticorin, Coromandel Coast, India in 1672. ‘Tutecoryn’ by Philip Baldaeus, from ‘Nauwkeurige beschrijving Malabar en Choromandel, derz. aangrenzend rijken, en het machtige eiland Ceylon’, Amsterdam, 1672. (Source: columbia.edu)


By the end of March 1687, Joseph Vaz and John reached the Coromandel Coastal town of Tuticorin captured by the Dutch in 1658. The harbour in Tuticorin was even then well known as a pearl diving and fishing centre of the Paravar community.


'Pearl fishing on the coast of Tuticorin by Paravars using thoni' from 'La galerie agreable du monde. Tome premier des Indes Orientales.', published by P. van der Aa, Leyden, c. 1725 (Source: columbia.edu)
‘Pearl fishing on the coast of Tuticorin by Paravars using thoni’ from ‘La galerie agreable du monde. Tome premier des Indes Orientales.’, published by P. van der Aa, Leyden, c. 1725 (Source: columbia.edu)


The Paravars used the thoni, one of the oldest known indigenous country sea vessels for pearl fishing. The thoni was also used to transport goods and people between India and Ceylon in the Palk Strait. So, Vaz envisaged to board a thoni from Tuticorin to go to Ceylon. But, the town of Tuticorin and the harbour were under the control of the Dutch.

In Tuticorin, Vaz met a Jesuit priest who had been his companion in the College of St. Paul in Goa. On knowing the reason for Vaz’s disguise as a coolie and to maintain the camouflage, the Jesuit priest treated Vaz like a bondservant. Whenever Vaz ventured out he went about disguised as a mendicant.

A hawk-eyed Dutch officer in charge of the harbour area suspected the furtive ways of Vaz. He presumed that, Vaz in disguise, was waiting for the opportunity to travel to Ceylon by sea. He ordered his subordinates, not to allow anyone to embark for Ceylon without his permission. However, the Dutch officer died shortly. The new officer who took charge, not knowing the reason for the order given by his predecessor allowed Joseph Vaz and John to board a thoni that set sail to Ceylon.

The thoni met with a storm and drifted away from the normal course. After several days of drifting, the vessel reached the island of Mannar. Joseph Vaz, John and the others on the vessel were reduced to skeletons for want of food.

There were many Catholics in Mannar, but Joseph Vaz was not aware of this fact. He and John begged to sustain themselves.


Painting of a Kattumaram in Sri Lanka (Source: patrickgibbs.com)
Painting of a Kattumaram in Sri Lanka (Source: patrickgibbs.com)


Two months later, Joseph Vaz and John were taken in a kattumaram (catamaran)  by local fishermen to the town of Jaffna, located at the Northern tip of Ceylon.

When Joseph Vaz and John landed in Jaffna, they were famished and almost half dead. Since they needed food and a place to rest, they knocked on many doors, but were chased away by almost all the Tamil households there.  Finally, a woman allowed them to spend the night in a dilapidated hut near her house.

As a result of fatigue, hunger and thirst, Joseph Vaz suffered from an acute form of dysentery. As dysentery often led to epidemics and death at that time, any form of dysentery was much dreaded by the people both in India and Ceylon. When the neighbours saw that Vaz was not even able to walk, they carried him on a litter to the nearby forest. They left the ailing man there exposed to the intemperate weather and to the mercy of the wild animals.

John looked after his master, day and night. During the day, he went to the town and begged for food to feed the sick man. Eventually, John too contracted the disease.

Without any other alternative left for them, they prayed to God and awaited death.

Their faith was rewarded in the form of a lady who had come to the forest to gather firewood. Out of pity, she supplied them daily a bowl of kanji (broth). After some days, thanks to the kind-hearted woman, their health was restored.

However, Joseph Vaz knew that greater trials and tribulations were in store for him on the island.


Next → Part  6 – The Apostle of Sri Lanka in Jaffnapattinam

← Previous: Part 4: Persecution of Catholics in Ceylon by the Dutch






Blessed Joseph Vaz: Part 4 – Persecution of Catholics in Ceylon by the Dutch

Myself . 

By T.V. Antony Raj


Early handcoloured woodcut 1513 map of Ceylon from M. Waldseemuller (Source: vintage-maps.com)
Early handcoloured woodcut 1513 map of Ceylon from M. Waldseemuller (Source: vintage-maps.com)
Portuguese Ceylon

Early in November 1505, Dom Francisco de Almeida, the first viceroy of Portuguese India sent his son Dom Lourenço de Almeida with a fleet of nine vessels to attack the Moorish spice ships making for the Red Sea by way of the Maldives. Adverse winds drove Dom Lourenço’s fleet to the coast of Ceylon in the neighbourhood of Galle. After replenishing their stock of water and fuel, they set sail for  Colombo.neighbourhood of Galle. After replenishing their stock of water and fuel, they set sail for  Colombo.


Flag of the Kingdom of Kotte (Source: Pheonixter/wikipedia.org)
Flag of the Kingdom of Kotte (Source: Pheonixter/wikipedia.org)


The identity of the ruler in power in Kotte at the time of the arrival of the Portuguese has been a matter of dispute for some time. The accepted theory propounded by historians S.G. Perera and H.W. Codrington was that the ruler of Kotte at the turn of the 16th century was Vira Parakramabahu VIII.

In 1961, Senerat Paranavitana using evidence from the Sinhala chronicle, the Rajavaliya, a reinterpretation of a Sinhala inscription (the Kelani Vihara Inscription, of 509), and evidence from Portuguese sources made a strong argument that the ruler was not Vira Parakramabahu VIII but Dharma Parakramabahu IX and fixed his reign from 1491 to 1513.

G.P.V. Somaratne in his 1975 monograph accepted this conclusion, though he concluded that Dharma Parakramabahu IX ruled from 1489 to 1513. Most scholars have accepted this theory.

So, in 1505, Dharma Parakramabahu IX was the King of Kotte. He succeeded his father Parakramabahu VIII as king of Kotte.

The arrival of the Portuguese flotilla was reported to the King’s Court in Kotte and it was decided to receive them amicably. A message was sent demanding of the strangers what they desired at the King’s port. Lourenço sent back a reply that he was a merchant, a servant of the King of Portugal, driven out of his course to Ceylon, and that he would be glad to open a friendly trade.

The King directed the Portuguese to send a representative to discuss matters with him. An officer named Fernão Cotrim appointed as a Factor set out with a native escort. The natives did not want the foreigners to know that their Capital was mere two hours’ journey from the sea. So, the escort took Fernão on a circuitous route. They travelled for three days crossing hills and fording many streams.  “As the ‘Parangi’ went to Kotte” is the Sinhalese proverb that is still used in Sri Lanka preserving the memory of this ruse.

Fernão explained to the King’s Ministers the errand on which the Portuguese had come. He asserted that their only wish was for peaceful trade. Moreover, he assured the King that the Portuguese would undertake to protect his coasts against all enemies.

The offer found acceptance with the King and his Council, and they consented to the proposed terms. Fernão returned to the fleet and reported the success of his mission. The offer found acceptance with the King and his Council, and they consented to the proposed terms.

Fernão returned to the fleet and reported the success of his mission. Lourenço was highly pleased. To celebrate, he ordered a salvo of artillery to be fired. The terrified peaceful inhabitants of the port regarded it as a hostile demonstration.

Thus began the realm of the Portuguese Ceylon.

Gradually, the Portuguese occupied Kotte and went on to conquer the surrounding Sinhalese kingdoms. In 1565, the capital of Portuguese Ceylon moved from Kotte to Colombo.

Attempts by the Portuguese to convert the locals to Christianity caused friction with the native Sinhalese Buddhist and Hindu people.

Dutch Ceylon

The natives in Ceylon found the Portuguese rule was rather burdensome. So, the king of Kandy invited the Dutch to help defeat and liberate the country from the Portuguese. The Dutch signed the Kandyan Treaty on March 28, 1638 with King Rajasinghe II. Article XVII of the treaty stipulated:

“will not allow in his kingdom any priest, fri ar or ecclesiastic (Roman Catholic) personality, because they foster rebellions and are cause of the ruin of the kingdom, and will expel all those living there at present.”will not allow in his kingdom any priest, friar or ecclesiastic (Roman Catholic) personality, because they foster rebellions and are cause of the ruin of the kingdom, and will expel all those living there at present.”

After signing the treaty, the Dutch became the protectors of the country. They embarked on a war against the Portuguese. They captured the Portuguese forts, one by one.

The Dutch captured the Portuguese forts at Batticaloa on May 18, 1638, at Negombo in 1640, at Colombo on May 12, 1656 and finally on June 21, 1658, the last Portuguese fort in Jaffna fell into the hands of the Dutch. The Portuguese, after being forced to sign a treaty with the Dutch, left Ceylon.

There were 415 Churches and Chapels and about 70 thousand Catholics in Ceylon when the Portuguese left the island.

The Dutch drove out around 50 missionaries from Colombo and closed all the Catholic churches and chapels. They persecuted the Catholics.

The Dutch Ordinance dated September 19, 1658 decreed the penalty of death against all Catholics who would give shelter to a priest.

The Dutch took elaborate precautions to prevent Catholic Missionaries from India who wanted to land secretly in Ceylon. All people, even the lowliest coolie, who wished to go to Ceylon had to appear before the Dutch commander of Tuticorin to get a pass from him.  Dutch cruisers guarded the South Indian Coast. Their captains had special instructions to make sure that no priest  lands in Ceylon.

With the Catholics deprived of churches, priests, and the holy sacraments, the Dutch completely wiped out the practice of Catholicism in Ceylon. Calvinism became the official religion of the Island of Ceylon.

Carmelites and other missionaries working in South India sent reports to the Propaganda Fide in Rome about persecution of the Catholics in Ceylon. The authorities in Rome tried to find a solution. Pope Innocent XI requested Leopold I, Archduke of Austria to impress upon the Stadtholder William III of Orange (Dutch: Willem III van Oranje) ruler of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, and Overijssel of the Dutch Republic to allow the entry of non-Portuguese missionaries sent by Rome. But the Dutch authorities in Ceylon were adamant in their refusal.

Plight of the Catholics in the Kingdom of Kandy

In the Kingdom of Kandy, King Rajasinghe II allowed the Catholics full freedom to profess their faith. In fact, he favoured them, for he considered them as more honest and more faithful than his Buddhist and Hindu subjects. Even then, the lot of the Catholics was pitiable.

Now that the Portuguese had left the Island of Ceylon, and with the intrigues of the Dutch Calvinists, the Catholics found themselves deprived of the ministry of the priests and of their spiritual help. The old Catholics bore it better, but it was not the same with the new converts, who, to persevere needed to be under the guidance, otherwise they would relapse, by and by, into their own olden ways.

The arrival of twelve Missionaries, expelled by the Dutch from Colombo sought refuge in Kandy. They revived for a time the faith of the abandoned converts. But some of the priests were recalled to India as there were too many for the needs of the Christian community of Kandy. But later on, when those priests who were left in Kandy died, they could not be replaced, for the Dutch watched carefully the coasts of India and Ceylon to prevent the landing of any Catholic priest from India.

Ten years after the Portuguese lost Colombo to the Dutch, there remained only three priests in Kandy. Sadly, two of them, forgetting their sacred calling apostatized and had accepted high positions at the King’s Court.

As such, only one priest, Father Vergonse, a Jesuit, remained in Kandy in 1668. He was a venerable old man, but his age and infirmities rendered him almost useless. He took care as much as he could of the Christians of the capital, but those who lived dispersed in the Kingdom of Kandy were for many years deprived of all religious aid. Robert Knox, the English sailor, a contemporary, gives us a sad picture of the religious state of the Catholics:

“For they have no churches, no priests, and so no meetings together on the Lord’s days, or Divine Worship, but each one reads and prays at his own house as he is disposed. They sanctify the day chiefly by refraining from work, and meeting together at drinking houses. They continue the practice of Baptism; and there being no priests, they baptize their children themselves with water in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost and give them Christian Names.”

In 1678, Father John of Jesus of the Augustinian Order, on his way from Macao to Goa, landed secretly in Colombo. He remained there for a few days. During that time, he heard 800 confessions, and reconciled with the Holy Church five apostates, who for the sake of an employment under Government had become Protestants.

Again, two years later, in 1680 a Canon of the Cathedral of Goa, whom the Archbishop Dom Anthony Brandão had sent to visit the Portuguese Missions in China, on his way back from Macao to Goa, landed in Colomb on account of repairs to the ship on which he travelled. He had to put on a disguise and to hide his character as otherwise the Dutch Calvinists would have cast him into prison. Even so, he made himself known to some Catholics, and many came secretly at night to receive the Sacraments.

These were the only priests whom the unfortunate Catholics of Ceylon saw during the first 38 years of the Dutch domination.

The Canon of the Cathedral of Goa, on his return to Goa, related what he had seen. He spoke with emotion of the misery of the poor persecuted Christians of Ceylon. Among those who listened to him was 29-years-old Joseph Vaz.

When Joseph Vaz wanted to go to the island to help the Catholics there to keep alive their faith in Christ. But the Padroado in Goa denied him permission as they feared that the Dutch would kill him.

Determined to risk his life and undertake the perilous journey, Vaz made no plans nor cared about the provisions for his journey.

Joseph Vaz relinquished his post of Provost of the Goan Oratory and asked Father Pascoal da Costa Jeremias to act as the new Provost.


Next → Part  5 – Travel to Ceylon (Sri Lanka)

← Previous: Part 3:  The Apostle of Kanara