Tag Archives: Fernão Cotrim

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