Saint Joseph Vaz was born on April 21, 1651 in the village of Benaulim, Goa, India.
In 2012, Rev. Fr. Anthony Hemantha Peiris of the Diocese of Badulla, Sri Lanka, wrote the Lyrics in Sinhala and also composed the music of the hymn sung in the following video to commemorate the birth of the Saint of India and Sri Lanka.
Rev. Fr. Michael Rajendram Pillai of the Diocese of Galle translated the lyrics were Tamil.
The hymn is sung in both Sinhala and Tamil languages in the same Melody.
During the last months of 1709, Joseph Vaz suffered from a peculiar kind of fever, which subsided for a short time and then recurred with renewed force. Though weak, during the periods when the fever subsided he visited the Mission. He went even as far as Kottyar on the southern coast. He had no proper lodging there. Years of continuous work and hardships fatigued him and broke his constitution.subsided he visited the Mission. He went even as far as Kottyar on the southern coast. He had no proper lodging there. Years of continuous work and hardships fatigued him and broke his constitution.
In January 1710, Joseph Vaz became seriously ill and there was no physician to attend to him. As soon as he felt a bit better, sent him off on a bullock cart. After eight days, he reached Mahanuwara.
In the capital, he was given good medical attention. After careful nursing, infections and fever left him, but he was found himself weak. Though he regained a bit of strength, his legs were partly paralyzed.
He asked Father Jacome Goncalvez to come to the capital and entrusted him with the care of the Catholics.
Inspite of partial paralysis, Joseph Vaz never ceased to work. He could no longer go on distant excursions as before. People saw him daily on the streets of the capital, dragging himself in extreme pain with the help of a stick. He visited the sick in their houses.
Every morning sitting in front of his door, he taught children Catechism. When his sufferings did not allow him even to do that, he spent the whole day in prayer.
Though Joseph Vaz recovered, he was weak. From then on, he was unable to leave the Church premises again, but whenever a call came to attend the sick and if Father Jacome Goncalvez or any other priest was not there, then he would immediately set out, but carried in a dooly (a kind of litter suspended from men’s shoulders, for carrying people or things; a modified stretcher).
On one occasion, when the bearers were descending a hill, he fell off the dooly. He was unconscious when the bearers picked him up. They brought him back to the church. He suffered body pain for about four months. He bore his illness with great fortitude.
In spite of his illness, Joseph Vaz undertook eight days of spiritual exercises prescribed by the Oratorian Rule. He considered himself a great sinner. He received the Sacrament of Penance every day as well as Holy Communion.
Joseph Vaz realized that it was time to resign from office, both as Vicar General and Superior. From then on, he spoke of death only.
On January 15, 1711 Joseph Vaz wrote the order of change of charge from him to Father Jose Menezes.
On the morning of January 16, 1711, Joseph Vaz wanted to make his confession. He dragged himself to the church as usual, attended Mass, received Holy Communion and went through his daily spiritual exercises. That day, he requested a stunned Jacome Goncalvez to have the holy oils ready for the last anointing.
When Father Goncalvez anointed him, Joseph Vaz made all the responses to the prayers for the sick and the dying. He kissed the crucifix which Pope Clement XI had sent as a gift to him through Monsignor Charles Thomas Maillard de Tournon, the Papal Legate. He requested Father Jacome Goncalvez to send the Crucifix to the Oratory in Goa.
Fathers Goncalves and Miguel Francisco Ignatius de Almeyda asked Josep Vaz to give them a message that they could etch on their stricken hearts. After a few moments of thought, the dying priest said in Sinhalese:
“Remember that one cannot easily do at the time of death what one has neglected to do all his life. Live according to the inspirations of God.”
Just before midnight on Friday, January 16, 1711, Joseph Vaz expired with Fathers Jacome Goncalves and Miguel Francisco Ignatius de Almeyda, beside his deathbed.
The young King Vira Parakrama Narendra Sinha, greatly affected by the death of his friend, the saintly priest Joseph Vaz declared a three-day mourning. He ordered all Catholics of his Court to attend the funeral. Many Catholics came from Colombo and other parts of Ceylon to attend the grand funeral.
After a solemn funeral ceremony, the body of the great Missionary was laid to rest in front of the high altar in the church he had built on the shore of the Bogambra lake.
Later on, a rumour spread that the Oratorian priests had exhumed the body of Joseph Vaz and had taken the remains to Goa. This distressed the King. However, Father Jacome Goncalves opened the tomb in the presence of a few nobles of the Court and show them that the body was still lying there.
King John of Portugal bestowed the highest praises on Joseph Vaz in a letter dated April 11, 1726. He called him:
“The model of Missionaries, a great servant of God, and founder of a truly apostolic Mission.”
During the Portuguese rule in Ceylon, the attitude of the rulers towards non-Christians had been oppressive and destructive. The concept of the time was that all religions except Christianity were wrong and had no right to exist.
The Portuguese forces pillaged and plundered Buddhist and Hindu temples and converted a few into Catholic churches. They gave the Franciscans all the lands of the Buddhist and Hindu temples.
Although Joseph Vaz desired people to convert to Christianity, he followed a policy of tolerance, co-existence and friendliness towards the adherents of other faiths. When nursing the sick during the smallpox epidemic or distributing alms to the poor, he treated both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He never resorted to the destruction of their temples nor offered favours and privileges to converts. He convinced the non-Christians by his self-sacrificing charity, service to fellowmen, and by leading an exemplary saintly life.
Joseph Vaz demonstrated to the Church of his time an alternate way to approach the non-Christians, different from that followed by the Church in alliance with the state.
In the olden days, people in India and Ceylon considered their kings divine. Hence, the rulers rarely appeared before their subjects. Even great dignitaries and nobles of the land prostrated on the ground when they approached the king.
Buddhism is an ancient and tolerant religion. It never obstructed the dreams and passions of Joseph Vaz. He revealed this aspect of Buddhism in his communication with the Kings. He never made any distinction of faiths while serving the people on the hostile Island of Ceylon. The unbounded charity of Joseph Vaz was one of the reasons, why King Vimaladharmasurya II respected him. The King considered the priest as an awesome supernatural being. For him, the priest was an enigma.
The way the King conversed familiarly with Joseph Vaz and taking him to his private chambers for chatting astonished the nobles, dignitaries, and the people.
Father Emmanuel de Miranda was stationed in Colombo, the most dangerous and exposed place. He had organized the Catholics of that town so well that they came out openly and even protested against the Dutch penal Laws.
In 1706, when Joseph Vaz wanted to visit Kottiyar on the eastern coast with Father Jacome Gonsalves, he fell mortally sick and was unable to walk. Yet, placing his full trust in God, he continued the 14 days long journey on foot until he arrived in Puttalam.
King Vira Parakrama Narendra Sinha of Kandy
King Vimaldharmnasurya II of the Kingdom of Kandy, patron of Joseph Vaz died in 1707. His 17-years-old son Vira Parakrama Narendra Sinha succeeded him and reigned for 32 years. He was the last Sinhalese King of the Kingdom of Kandy.
Vira Parakrama Narendra Sinha was a pious monarch, and like his father lived in peace with the Dutch invaders. He devoted himself to the furtherance of literature and religion.
The young monarch proved to be an even greater supporter of Joseph Vaz and his Missionaries than his father.
A few days after the death of Father Joseph Carvalho, the young King passed before the church with a large retinue. He ordered his elephant to stop in front of the church. He then sent one of his courtiers with his condolences to Joseph Vaz, saying that he would like him to bring more priests of such great virtue as his deceased nephew to Kandy.
According to the law of the land, the dead ought to be buried outside the towns and villages, but the King allowed Joseph Vaz to entomb the body of Father Joseph Carvalho in the church. Later on, the King extended this privilege to all the Oratorian Fathers. Such instances of royal favour made a great impression on the people. It helped to boost the Apostolate of Joseph Vaz and his Indian Catholic Missionaries from Goa.
However, persecution of the Catholics by the Calvinist Dutch raged outside the Kingdom of Kandy. Without the protection given to the Missionaries by the Buddhist Kings of Kandy, it would not have been possible to establish the present flourishing Catholic communities in Ceylon.
Having now resident Missionaries in all the principal towns of Ceylon, Joseph Vaz was continually on the move. In 1708, the health of Joseph Vaz began to decline, and yet he visited his Missions.
In 1709, there was a rebellion against the young King Narendra Sinha headed by his own uncle. At that time, Father Manoel de Miranda and Jacome Goncalvez were with him in the capital. Sensing that there would be inevitable robberies and sacking of properties, the priests distributed beforehand everything that was in the Church to the poor, without keeping anything for themselves. Keeping the doors of the Church open, the three priests committed themselves to prayer and sung the office of the dead during the rebellion.
None of the rebels or looters attacked the Church and its properties. After the rebellion was over, a great amount of help from unexpected quarters came to them, which was more than what they had distributed before the rebellion.
Joseph Vaz carried his mission to the main centres of the island with his group of Goan Bammon (the Roman Catholic Brahmin) priests. As their Superior, Joseph Vaz directed the work of all the Missionaries. The priests under his leadership and inspiration moved about undercover and served the persecuted Catholic population in Ceylon. Joseph Vaz paid them frequent visits, encouraging them with his indefatigable zeal. He was cherished and venerated by all.
As there were resident Missionaries in all the principal towns of Ceylon, Joseph Vaz was continually on the move. He visited the Missions along with one or two priests and a few devoted Catholics. He went from village to village wherever there were Catholics or the hope of converting the Buddhists and Hindus. Sometimes, he went out of his way to visit a single Catholic.
Many former Catholics, who under compulsion or for worldly interests apostatized, returned to the Catholic Faith after performing required penance.
Joseph Vaz had taught the Christian Faith to a young man from an influential family. He was a page at the Royal Court and was bound to go wherever the King went. As the lad wished to become a Christian, it was not always possible for him to avoid going to the temples along with the King.
Seeing the precarious position of the young man, Joseph Vaz advised him to withdraw from the Court. Following the advice of the priest, the lad went to a remote village to live. Sadly, because of the idle life in the village, the young man, now living far from the saint, lost his innocence. By and by, he plunged into vice. Eventually, he got married.
When Joseph Vaz came to know the fate of the young man, he prayed to God for him, and hoped that he would one day become an instrument in the hand of God for the salvation of many.
One night when the young man tried to sleep, he remembered his early youth, of the saintly priest and of his pious instructions.The thoughts tormented him. Struck with remorse at his apostasy, and at the wicked life he had led since, he spent the rest of the night in prayer. At dawn, he along with a Catholic neighbour went to the capital.
Since Joseph Vaz had gone to visit the Missions, the young man found Father Pedro de Saldanha whom he did not know. So, without revealing his identity to the priest, he humbly begged the priest to admit him among the catechumens.
After a few days, Father Saldanha on observing the young man’s piety and knowing he was perfectly instructed in the Christian Faith wished to baptize him. Then, the young man prostrated himself at the feet of the priest and told him his story. He made a general confession and resolved to expiate his crime by working for the glory of God and left.
Some days later, Father Saldanha went to his place, baptized him and his family, and blessed their marriage. The once recalcitrant young man now brought over to the Catholic Faith forty more people.
The news of such the mass conversion infuriated the anti-Christian mob. They were afraid that the conversion of the young man would induce others to follow his example, and that he would use his influence to help the priests in their Apostolate.
The Buddhist mob knew from their past encounters with the King that neither political considerations nor their threat of rebellion could move him from his sincere affection for the Catholic priests. So, they sought to rouse his religious and his superstitious sensitivity.
At that time, as even now, the Buddhists of Ceylon were imbibed with all the superstitions of the Hindus. For the Hindus, the cow was most sacred. In many countries in India, killing a cow was the greatest and heinous crime that one could ever commit. It was equal to murdering three Brahmins on the shores of the sacred Ganges. And, the punishment decreed for the crime of killing a cow was death.
The mob told to King that Father Pedro de Saldanha had baptized the young man, once a page of the King and all his companions with the blood of a cow. As such, it was clear that his Superior Joseph Vaz and his Missionaries too were killing many cows. The Buddhist King, in dire indignation, ordered the last six converts, whom Father Saldanha had baptized, thrown into prison and to confiscate their properties.
This was a great setback for Joseph Vaz. Fearing a renewal of persecutions, he prayed to God to avert this new danger from His Church. Fortunately, there were then two factions at the Royal Court: one opposed to the Catholics and hostile to the Catholics, and the other enlightened, or indifferent, and hospitable to the Catholics. The latter faction approached the King and proved to him that the Catholic Missionaries had been slandered; that the Catholic Missionaries never killed cows; and that they baptized the converts with water to which they added a little oil with balm.
The King, realizing his folly immediately ordered the release of the six prisoners and restored their properties. The released men went straight from jail to the church to thank God for their liberation.
It was the last persecution that the Catholics of the Kandy Kingdom had to suffer during the lifetime of Joseph Vaz. From then onwards the saintly priest was able to spread the Catholic Faith in peace in the whole kingdom.
.In 1668, after the smallpox epidemic ceased entirely, life turned back to normal in the capital. Leaving Father Joseph Carvalho to take care of the Catholics of the capital, Joseph Vaz went visiting the Missions and the villages.
In 1699, Joseph Vaz went to Gurubevelle, a village to the east of Colombo. There he met Father Jose Menezes, appointed by him as the missionary of Puttalam, Negombo and its districts up to Sitawaka and Colombo. Despite the vigilance of the Dutch, Father Jose Menezes and the Catholics there had instructed their Buddhists brethren in Christianity in and around Gurubevelle. In the short space of 13 days, Joseph Vaz baptized more than a thousand.
The Dutch Governor of Colombo, on knowing what was taking place in Gurubevelle, ordered the arrest of the two priests. A company of Dutch soldiers came to the village and surrounded the house in which Joseph Vaz was staying. At that time, Jose Menezes was not there.
The soldiers then barged in and searched the house, and although Joseph Vaz remained all the time among them, they did not see him.
The anxious Catholics who had assembled outside the house saw Vaz in the midst of the Dutch soldiers. They expected the arrest of the priest at any moment. But the soldiers could not see him. Joseph was invisible to them. Joseph Vaz, with the box containing the requisites for Mass, passed among the soldiers, but they did not see him.
The Dutch soldiers were sure that the priest was hiding somewhere in the house and searched every nook and corner. But they did not find him nor did they find any incriminating evidence to prove that people had assembled there for a Catholic service. However, in one room, they saw a lady and were bewildered. The lady asked them whom they sought. But the officer and the soldiers seized with terror fled from her sight and found themselves outside the house.
Ashamed for having run away from a woman, they once again entered that particular room and found nobody there. And, they saw on the spot where the lady had been standing a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Filled with awe, they went away without touching the statue. The infuriated soldiers returned to Colombo and reported the failure of their expedition to the Governor.
At once the news spread throughout the region that the Blessed Virgin had appeared in that house, and people came in haste to venerate the statue.
The infuriated soldiers returned to Colombo and reported the failure of their expedition to the Governor.
Joseph Vaz left Gurubevelle on a boat on the Kelani River. He went to Seethawakapura (now known as Avissawella), the capital of the Kingdom of Sitawaka. Though the Dutch territory was only a few miles away, Vaz established his headquarters there.
On knowing that Joseph Vaz had gone away from the capital, a group of Buddhists decided to take strong measures to prevent the progress of Christianity in the kingdom. They approached the King and asked him to arrest Father Joseph Carvalho and also forbid Joseph Vaz to set foot again in the Kingdom of Kandy. When they saw that the King would not give in to their demands, they threatened him with rebellion.
Since the leader of this Buddhist faction was a powerful Kandyan Chief, the King out of fear of being the cause of a rebellion yielded to their demands. He agreed to exile Father Josep Carvalho from Kandy. However, the King sent one of his Catholic officials to the priest to assure him that he would suffer no harm and that he was free to take along with him whatever he possessed.
Yet in spite of the King’s assurance, the Buddhist mob manhandled the priest. Carvalho took refuge in a country house that belonged to a Catholic named Anthony de Herta, a few miles from the capital, on the other side of the river.
Twenty-five days after Carvalho’s departure, the Buddhist mob led by their Chief, razed the church to the ground.
On learning about the events in Kandy during his absence Joseph Vaz wept.
A few days later, a dreadful malady afflicted the Chief. He was unable to move his legs. A hideous ulcer appeared on his tongue, and putrid pustules covered his entire body. People considered his fate as a just punishment from God for driving away the priest and demolishing the church after desecrating it.
At the end of 1699, Joseph Vaz returned to Mahanuwara with Father Joseph Carvalho, who had been expelled from the capital at the instigation of Buddhist Bhikkus. The two priests constructed a new church. Joseph Vaz then went into service for the king, translating Portuguese books into Sinhalese. From this vantage point, Vaz intensified his ministry and converted some Sinhalese nobles to Catholicism.
Joseph Vaz declines the office of
the Vicar Apostolic of Ceylon
Pope Clement XI received news of the Apostolate of Joseph Vaz conveyed from Goa. The Pope, sent a Papal Legate, Monsignor Charles Thomas Maillard de Tournon, Patriarch of Antioch (and afterwards Cardinal), with instructions to make inquiries about the work of the indefatigable Joseph Vaz in Ceylon and the Mission he founded and render him every assistance.
In December 1703, Maillard de Tournon arrived in Pondicherry, India. Deputed by the Bishop of Mylapore, Father Paulo de Sa, the Parish priest of Kodulur, welcomed him. The Papal Legate inquired from the priest about Joseph Vaz and his Apostolate work in Ceylon. Impressed by what he gleaned, the Papal Legate proposed to make use of his extensive powers to appoint Joseph Vaz the Vicar Apostolic of Ceylon.
The Papal Legate sent a letter to Joseph Vaz through Father Francisco da Cruz, an Oratorian priest stationed in Tamilnadu. The latter sent a courier to Joseph Vaz along with a beautiful crucifix inlaid with silver sent by the Papal Legate as a present to Joseph Vaz.
Being a humble person, Joseph Vaz had not taken pains to describe much about his Apostolate work and had avoided taking the credit for himself. So, he deliberated over what this appointment could lead to. He had seen enough of the ecclesiastic squabbles that resulted from the appointment of the Vicars Apostolic in the Padroado regions. Since his Mission in Ceylon belonged and had its seat in Padroado territory of Goa, he feared that accepting the Papal Legate’s nomination would mean the ruin of the Church in Ceylon, which he had planted and nurtured with great personal sacrifice.
Replying to the letter of the Papal Legate, Joseph Vaz said he was confused when he received the letter, which in his humility he felt unworthy of and signed his reply as an unworthy servant. He excused his delay in replying saying that he was not worthy of corresponding with persons of so high dignity and submissively thanked him for the crucifix.
On receipt of the reply from Joseph Vaz, Monsignor Maillard de Tournon wrote to the Sacred Congregation of the Propaganda Fide that he had proofs of the virtues the humble priest and the “modesty with which be brushed aside some miracles which are said to be operated by God through him“.
This explains why Saint Joseph Vaz is commonly portrayed in a simple surplice with a bishop’s mitre and crozier beside him.mitre and crozier beside him.
Six more Missionaries come from India
In 1705, the Superior of the Goa Oratory sent six more priests to Ceylon. They were: Pedro de Saldanha, Manoel de Miranda, Joseph de Jesu Maria, Miguel Francisco Ignatius de Almeyda, Basil Baretto and Jacome Goncalvez.
After reaching Ceylon and meeting Joseph Vaz, Father Jacome Goncalvez wrote to his Perfect in Goa:
“That ejaculation ‘Oh my Jesus‘ which he used in his sermons in Goa to excite fervour in our hearts, I have now heard many times repeated by him by day and night…
He always carries with him a piece of white cloth to wipe his face for he often sweats due to fatigue or has tears of compunction…
He is always absorbed in God and forgets himself…
At the first sermon we heard from him in Tamil, we saw the people crying because they understood him. Even though we could not understand him, we felt also like crying because the way he was preaching he was moving our hearts..
During the journeys, he always holds fast to the beads of the rosary and recites it alternately with his companions with great devotion.”
Of these six priests, we have more information about Father Jacome Goncalvez than the other five priests.
Father Jacome Goncalvez
Jacome Goncalvez was the eldest son of Thomas Goncalvez and Mariana de Abreu. They lived in the parish of Our Lady of Piety (Piedade), Divar, Goa. Though the Goncalvez were Konkani Brahmins, they had been Christians for more than two generations. They were among the first converts at the beginning of Portuguese rule in Goa.
Jacome studied at the Jesuit College of Goa. He enrolled in the University of Goa, probably Collegio São Paulo, and obtained the degree of Bachelor of Arts. In 1696, he joined the Academy of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Goa to study theology. He also held the post of an organist, and this led him to appreciate poetry, prose and music.
In 1700, Jacome Goncalvez was ordained a priest of the Oratorian Order in Goa, India. On January 1705 he was appointed to the chair of philosophy at the Collegio São Paulo, but he relinquished it the same year to go to Ceylon.
Father Jacome Goncalvez left Goa on May 9, 1705 and arrived at Talaimannar, Ceylon on August 39, 1705. At the time, he knew Konkani, Portuguese, Latin and Spanish.
During the long journey from Goa to Talaimannar, he studied Tamil. He improved his knowledge of Tamil by reading Tamil classics written on ola leaf (palm leaf manuscripts).
There were now ten Oratorian Missionaries in Ceylon, all natives of India. Joseph Vaz was now able to organize the Catholic Mission in Ceylon. He divided the Ceylon Mission into eight districts and appointed a priest to each, to serve the needs of the Catholics. Soon, the number of adherents to Catholicism grew rapidly.
Father Jacome Goncalvez mastered the Tamil language during his first assignment on the islands of Mannar, Arippu, Musali and other places in the Mannar district. He also learnt Dutch. Joseph Vaz then sent him to Mahanuwara to learn Sinhalese in the Malwatta Chapter, known for their high and elegant mastery of the Sinhalese language. He also studied Sinhalese under the tutelage of educated laymen like Gaskone Adikaram.
Joseph Vaz and Jacome Goncalvez worked on the creation of Catholic literature comparable to that of the Buddhist literature.
Jacome Goncalvez, became a specialist in Tamil and Sinhalese languages. He won name and fame in the literary history of Sri Lanka, as a classical poet in Sinhalese and as a writer of about forty books. He is rightly called “the creator of Catholic literature in Ceylon”. He wrote many of his works at Bolawatta, near Negombo. Since there was no printing press, he employed 12 Sinhalese clerks to copy his works.
S.G. Perera, in his book “Life of Blessed Joseph Vaz Apostle of Sri Lanka” says:
“[Jacome Goncalvez has been called] the most successful missionary that this island [Sri Lanka] ever had, the creator of Catholic literature in Ceylon, whose name is still held in benediction and whose literary works in Sinhalese and Tamil are still in daily use in the church of this island.”
Located in the central and eastern part of the island, the Kingdom of Kandy known in Sinhalese as Mahanuwara Rajadhaniya, was an independent monarchy founded in the late 15th century. It was initially a dependent kingdom of the Kingdom of Kotte. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Kingdom of Kandy established itself as an independent monarchy. To ensure its survival the Kingdom at various times allied itself with the Jaffna Kingdom, the Madurai Nayak Dynasty of South India, Kingdom of Sitawaka, the Portuguese and finally the Dutch.
The capital of the Kingdom of Kandy has been known by various names. Some scholars suggest that the original name was Katubulu Nuwara. However, the more popular historical name officially is Senkadagala Siriwardhana Mahanuwara (meaning ‘the great city of Senkadagala of growing resplendence’). This long name is generally shortened to ‘Mahanuwara‘ (meaning ‘Great City’ or ‘Capital’) or simply as “‘Nuwara‘.
The Sinhalese called the region “Kanda Uda Rata” (“the land on the mountain”) and “Kanda Uda Pas Rata” (“the five counties/countries on the mountain”). The Portuguese shortened this to ‘Candea‘ and used it as the name for both the kingdom and its capital. The English transformed the Portuguese word to ‘Kandy’.
Through the thick jungles and the many mountains only a few paths led to the capital of the Kingdom of Kandy. Due to the mountainous terrain was easy to defend the few roads. The subjects of the kingdom kept these routes secret, and they were aware that revealing any paths to a foreigner was an offense punishable by death.
The mountains and the thick forests hindered commerce with neighbouring kingdoms and movement of goods to and from ports and harbours. But this encumbrance proved to be an invaluable asset in guaranteeing the safety of the Kingdom of Kandy from attacks by its neighbours and by the marauding foreign colonialists.
The English East India Company
The English were first of the major European maritime powers of the 17th century to enter the East India trade. The English East India Company was founded in 1600 as The Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies. It gained a foothold in India in 1612 after the fourth Mughal Emperor Nur-ud-din Mohammad Salim, known by his imperial name Jahangir, granted it the rights to establish a factory or trading post, in the port of Surat on the western coast.
The Dutch East India Company
In 1602, the Dutch established the Dutch East India Company or the United East India Company (Dutch: Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, VOC). The States-General of the Netherlands granted the chartered company a 21-year monopoly to carry out trade activities in Asia.
France was the last of the major European maritime powers of the 17th century to enter the East India trade. Six decades after founding the English and Dutch East India companies, and at a time when both companies were multiplying factories on the shores of India, the French still did not have a viable trading company or a single permanent establishment in the East.
In 1642, to revive commercial intercourse with the East, Cardinal Richelieu formed a new Company named “La Compagnie des Indes” for the sole purpose of trading in the Indies. Letters patent, dated June 24, 1642, accorded it privileges for 20 years. On December 4, 1642 Cardinal Richelieu died.
In 1664, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the Minister of Finances, restructured the Company and designated it as La Compagnie française des Indes Orientales (The French East India Company) to compete with the English (later British) and Dutch East India companies in the East Indies. He sent an expedition to Madagascar, discovered by Marco Polo in 1298, and then forgotten.
In 1667, the French East India Company sent out another expedition, under the command of François Caron. The French reached Surat in 1668 and established the first French factory in India. In 1673, the French acquired the area of Pondicherry from the Kiladar of Valikondapuram under the Sultan of Bijapur and thus laid the foundation of Pondichéry.
The French in Ceylon
François Caron had spent 30 years working for the Dutch East India Company, including more than 20 years in Japan. He suggested to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the Minister of Finances that set a firm foot in India, it was necessary to capture some land and hold it in absolute possession. The captured place he said should be unassailable by the natives. Then they could use it as a stronghold for commercial operations with the inhabitants of the mainland. For this purpose, like Albuquerque, he favoured the occupation of the island of Ceylon, then partly occupied by the Dutch. He also pointed out the commercial advantages which France would gain by participating in the spice trade.
The war between King Louis XIV and Holland served as a pretext for the French to attack the Dutch in India and to make an attempt to get for themselves a slice of the wrecked Portuguese Empire.
When Colbert approved Caron’s project, a fleet under the command of Admiral de la Haye, a man with a bad reputation who had quit high civil employment to gratify his passion for warlike operations, was placed at the disposal of Caron to carry out his design.
French Capture Trincomalee
On March 21, 1672, Admiral de la Haye appeared before Batticaloa with a squadron of 14 ships. Seeing Batticaloa Fort well defended, he did not stop there. After saluting the Dutch flag, which salute was returned from the fort, he set sail for Trincomalee.
Having cast anchor in the Bay of Kottyar, Admiral de la Haye landed his troops there because he knew that Trincomalee belonged to the King of Kandy and not to the Dutch.
Overjoyed at the news of the landing of the French, King Rajasinghe II, conceived the plan of an alliance with them to drive out the Dutch.
On March 25, 1672, three days after the French landed in the Bay of Kottyar, King sent a high dignitary of his Court to Trincomalee to welcome Admiral de la Haye and enter into friendly relations with him.
Admiral de La Haye returned the compliment by sending to Kandy three officers, Dorgeret, de La Garde and Fontaine. King Rajasinghe II received them cordially. During the audience, he placed on the neck of each a rich chain of gold and presented them with swords and muskets of the finest Kandyan workmanship. Two of the officers remained in Kandy, the third returned to Trincomalee, accompanied by an ambassador who had full power of concluding with de la Haye a treaty to expel the Dutch from Ceylon.
The King’s ambassador was closely followed by a messenger bearing a Charter by which King Rajasinghe II gifted the Bay of Kottyar and of the surrounding territories to the French.
On May 17, 1672 they planted the French flag both at Kottyar and in Trincomalee taking possession of those places in the name of Louis XIV King of France and of Navarre.
Just when the French finished landing the guns necessary to defend the fortress, a Dutch fleet of 14 vessels under Commodore Rylackoffe van Goens, came in sight. The Dutch officer asked the French to evacuate Ceylon. Admiral de La Haye refused and prepared to defend Trincomalee and Kottyar, and he waited for King Rajasinghe’s army to arrive to help him fight the Dutch. Thus, three weeks passed.
Meanwhile, the position of the French admiral was becoming more and more difficult. He did not have enough troops. Four hundred soldiers and sailors had become invalids. From some skirmishes with the Dutch, the admiral had already seen how little he could rely on the badly armed Kandyan troops.
The Dutch received reinforcements from Colombo. , Under these circumstances the French admiral deemed it more prudent to give up the contest, at least for the time being.
When the King requested Admiral de la Haye to remain in Ceylon, he replied that he would return soon with a larger army and in the meantime he was sending to Kandy, Monsieur de Laisne Nauclairs de Lanerolle who would stay at the King’s Court as ambassador of King Louis XIV, the King of France.
Admiral de la Haye weighed anchor on July 9, 1672, and the Dutch fleet positioned in battle order, saluted the French flag. Admiral de la Haye set sail for Mylapore, then known as St Thomé or San Thome, on the Coromandel coast. He left behind a few soldiers to guard the garrison at Trincomalee. The French soldiers who had been left behind, had no other alternative than to cede Trincomalee and the garrison to the Dutch fleet.
Monsieur de Laisne Nauclairs de Lanerolle
Nauclairs de Lanerolle was a worthless person. He was a Huguenot, a rabid protestantprotestant
Lanerolle’s conduct from the very beginning clearly showed that he had been ill-chosen to represent the interests of France in the Kingdom of Kandy. He made himself obnoxious to all by his stupid vanity.
It was the custom in Kandy that no one could pass in front of the royal palace except on foot. There was certainly nothing disparaging in it, a simple show of respect to the King. Lanerolle and his suite had to pass through that street to reach the quarters, which the King had allotted for him and his men. When asked, Lanerolle refused to dismount. Uttering profanity (words of contempt), he rode under the balcony of the King’s apartment. The rascal had forgotten that the French fleet was no longer in Trincomalee and that he was at the absolute mercy of the King of Kandy. The King was much embittered by the Frenchman’s attitude, but pretended to ignore his bravado.
A few days later, Lanerolle and his men arrived at the palace. The Court dignitaries received them. It was the custom that every foreign envoy should await the royal audience for two hours.
Even though Lanerolle knew of this strange etiquette, yet after a few minutes expressed his surprise that the King did not appear. After having waited for about fifteen minutes, he exclaimed that it was an insult to leave him waiting so long, and left the hall. All the entreaties from the gentlemen of his suite had no effect. Some officials of the Court, wishing to avoid a scandal, tried to stop him. But when the vain Frenchman drew his sword, they let him go, and he returned to his quarters without having seen the King.
The King felt much offended, ordered Lanerolle to be seized and flogged until he fainted. After the flogging was over, Lanerolle and his men were put in chains and cast into prison.
The gentlemen of Lanerolle’s suite managed to explain that they did not approve the conduct of their Ambassador. They said that they had done all they could to prevent this stupid conduct of their Chief. When the Court officials corroborated to this fact, they were set free of the chains, but Lanerolle had to spend six months in prison in chains. After that, there was no more chance of their return to France, and they were kept prisoners in Kandy.
They were supposed to be maintained at the King’s expense, but in reality they were so neglected that in order not to starve, they distilled arrack and sold it to the natives. They bitterly reproached to Lanerolle to have been the cause of their distress, and scandalous quarrels arose among them.distilled arrack and sold it to the natives. They bitterly reproached to Lanerolle to have been the cause of their distress, and scandalous quarrels arose among them.
Such was the state of things when Robert Knox came to Kandy.
Nauclairs de Lanerolle, remained in Kandy. He married and settled there and later gained some influence at the King’s Court. He tried to influence some Catholics to embrace Calvinism, among them being the family of the relative of Antonio Sottomayor who had befriended Joseph Vaz.
Joseph Vaz arrested at Weuda
Joseph Vaz hoped to make Maha Nuwara, the capital of the Kingdom of Kandy, the centre of his future missionary activities.
In August 1692 after his apostolate of one year and nine months in the Puttalam area, Joseph Vaz along with his servant John and his new acquaintance Antonio Sottomayor left for Maha Nuwara, the capital of the Kingdom of Kandy, ruled by King Vimaladharmasurya II, who had succeeded his father, King Rajasinghe II.
The distance between Puttalam and Kandy is about 82 miles (132 km). On their way, they had to pass through the village named Weuda situated 18 miles from Kandy. Weuda was an important check-post before entering the capital. In this village, Antonio Sottomayor had a house and was staying there with his family. It took them about eight days to walk from Puttalam to Weuda.
Leaving Joseph Vaz and John with his family, Sottomayor went to Kandy to get the visa for the priest to enter the city. Meanwhile, Vaz started preaching to Sottomayor’s family and their neighbors.
Antonio Sottomayor was not aware that Nauclairs de Lanerolle had converted his relative to Calvinism. As soon as the French Huguenot, learned that Sottomayor wanted to bring a Catholic priest into Kandy he went to the King’s court. He told the king that Antonio Sottomayor was trying to help a Portuguese spy to enter Kandy in the garb of a Priest.
The king directed his soldiers to arrest Sottomayor first and then go to Weuda and bring the priest and his servant staying in his house.
Joseph Vaz and John bound in chains were taken to the Capital by the king’s soldiers. Charged as Portuguese spies, they were incarcerated along with Sottomayor in the “Maha Hiragé” (“Great prison”).
“Leaving behind his home, his family, the comfort of his familiar surroundings, he responded to the call to go forth, to speak of Christ wherever he was led. Saint Joseph knew how to offer the truth and the beauty of the Gospel in a multi-religious context, with respect, dedication, perseverance and humility. This is also the way for the followers of Jesus today.”
– Pope Francis in his homily at the canonization of Joseph Vaz, Sri Lanka’s first saint on Wednesday, January 14, 2015.
The kingdom of Kandy comprised the interior of the island of Sri Lanka. The Dutch occupied the western coastal region with three administrative command posts in Jaffnapattinam, Colombo and Galle.
In the northeast, the island had two harbours, Trincomalee and Batticaloa, which the Dutch occupied on behalf of the king of Kandy. In fact, the king did not want the presence of the Dutch there. Nevertheless, the Dutch manned the two harbour towns to prevent any other foreign nation communicating with the king.
Puttalam was the only commercial harbour on the island that was free from Dutch control. It was under the direct control of the king of Kandy. Yet, Puttalam was constantly a bone of contention between the kingdom of Kandy and the Dutch colonialists.
In Puttalam too, Joseph Vaz had no problem of communication with the local people because most of them were conversant in Portuguese Creole.
Ceylon Portuguese Creole
When the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka in the early 16th century and conquered the coastal area they used a pidginized version of Portuguese – the Ceylon Portuguese Creole, for communication with the natives. By the early 17th Century, the Ceylon Portuguese Creole was in use in the Portuguese controlled littoral. It was also known in the kingdom of Kandy.
Due to the dearth of women, the Portuguese soldiers took Tamil and Sinhalese women as wives. From this union, sprang the “Portuguese Burgher” population of Sri Lanka, which soon adopted the Portuguese Pidgin as their language, which eventually Creolized. When the Dutch evicted the Portuguese in the 17th century, history repeated. The Dutch soldiers took local wives. In contrast to the time of the Portuguese, there was a semi-European nubile population available on the island, and the Dutch mainly married Portuguese Burgher women. This kind of union formed the base for the “Dutch Burgher” community.
The Dutch continued to use Creole Portuguese so that this language continued to thrive until well into the British period, which started in 1798. During the British period, Creole Portuguese was still used by the Wesleyan missionaries, who also produced some literature in the language, but it started to decline when the community switched to English or emigrated to Australia and South Africa.
Catholics in Puttalam
There were a little over one thousand Catholics in the town of Puttalam and in the villages surrounding the harbour. There was a Church constructed by the Portuguese Jesuits. The Catholics of the Puttalam region had been deprived of priests and the sacraments for almost fifty years from the time the fort at Negombo fell into the hands of the Dutch in 1640.
In Puttalam, most of the Catholics had received baptism, but had not participated in the holy sacrifice of the Mass at any time in their life. So, they welcomed Joseph Vaz in their midst.
Unlike Jaffna, in Puttalam Joseph Vaz administered the sacraments openly without fear. The Catholics of the surrounding villages too profited spiritually by his presence in Puttalam.
On August 15, 1690 Vaz wrote a letter to the Prefect of the Oratory in Goa about his ministry in Putalam.
Joseph Vaz often visited the villages of the Kalpitiya peninsula, which consists of 14 serenely beautiful islands. Most of the people of Kalpitiya are fishermen.
He also visited the interior villages in the district of Puttalam, inhabited by Mukkuvars and Paravars such as Manattivu, Tetapola, Manpuri.
A village called Maha Galgamuwa
On the banks of the Maha Galgamuwa tank, about 37 miles (60 km) from Puttalam via Miyellewa, was a Catholic settlement. In 1667, when the Dutch captured the coastal belt of Kalpitiya, the Catholics there feared persecution and decided to seek a place of safety to practice their faith. King Rajasinghe II of Kandy provided the freedom of worship to Catholics in his kingdom. Some Catholics from Kalpitiya, belonging to the ‘Mukkuwa‘ Community and spoke Tamil, left their villages and homes, and settled down in a small jungle area in Maha Galgamuwa close to the tank which came under the protection of the King of Kandy. The place they settled down in Maha Galgamu, is now known as Joseph-Vaz-Puram in Tamil and Juse Vaz Pura in Sinhalese. Their kinsmen still live in Puttalam and the Kalpitiya peninsula.
The settlers constructed a church dedicated to Saint Anthony of Padua.
Joseph Vaz often visited this vibrant Catholic community in Maha Galgamuwa. On one occasion, the villagers complained to him about their lives and crops threatened by wild animals, especially the wild elephants and lived in constant fear of snakes. So, Vaz blessed a wooden cross made of two unpolished pieces of ebony wedged together and planted it at the entrance to the village to safeguard the village from wild elephants and venomous snakes.
The Shrine of Saint Joseph Vaz at Maha Galgamuwa
The inhabitants Maha Galgamuwa today are mostly Catholic. There is a large, 400-years-old Palu tree at the Shrine of Saint Joseph Vaz at Juse Vaz Pura, Maha Galgamuwa. According to the locals, it is under the shade of this tree that Joseph Vaz ministered to the villagers. Now, this ancient Palu tree, supported by concrete columns, is under the protection of the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens.
The locals consider the ground under the shade of the Palu tree sacred. Also, they believe that those bitten by snakes survive after drinking water mixed with the sand. The villagers also use the sand in their homes as protection against wild animals. The elephants still come to the village at night, wading along the banks of the Maha Galgamuwa tank, but they do not harm the village.
The villagers have treasured the cross up to this day. Sadly, the candles lit to it by the faithful over the centuries have partly burnt the cross. Now the cross is enshrined in an altar beside the Palu tree.
The shrine also has a separate altar for the wooden Cross that Saint Joseph Vaz brought from India. It is enshrined between life-size statues Saint Joseph Vaz and Saint Francis Xavier.
The Catholics of the Kurunegala diocese celebrate the Annual Feast of Blessed Joseph Vaz at Galgamuwa Shrine on a grand scale.
Joseph Vaz visits the villages of Sath Korales
In 1597, after taking over the Kotte kingdom, the Portuguese divided the regions under their rule into four administrative divisions: Matara, Sabaragamuwa, sathara korale and sath korale.
Joseph Vaz had contact with the villages of Sath Korale, the seven districts lying between the coast of Puttalam and Kammala where the command of Colombo commenced. There were more Catholics in these villages than in Puttalam, but they were without a priest after the fall of Negombo into the hands of the Dutch in 1640.
Ten years later, around 1650, two Jesuits, tried to help the Catholics in secret from Jaffna. But the Dutch apprehended them. One of the priests fled and the other was imprisoned. The Dutch then passed strong legislation banishing all Catholic priests, especially the Jesuits from entering the island.
Joseph Vaz was the first priest to have contacted these Catholics after 40 years. He understood their sad plight and furtively administered the sacraments.
Joseph Vaz visits Madhu
During the first half of the 16th century, the Portuguese missionaries from India, especially under the authority of Saint Francis Xavier brought Roman Catholicism to the Kingdom of Jaffna. Catholicism soon spread southward in the coastal regions.
Manthai, historically known as Maanthottam in Tamil (“Garden of the Deer”) is a coastal town in the Mannar district of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. It is about 9 miles (14 km) from Mannar. In the ancient days, there was a harbour in Manthai, but it is now buried in the sand.
Madhu, then a small hamlet, in the Mannar district is 18 miles (29 km) from Manthai as the crow flies.
In 1670, to escape the persecution of the Catholics by the Dutch, 20 families from Manthai came over to Madhu. They brought along with them the statue of Mary installed in their church. About the same time, around 700 Catholics migrated from Jaffna peninsula into the Wanni forests. After these two communities met in the jungles, they built a shrine in the forest for Mary’s statue.
In the late 17th century, Joseph Vaz, and later the Oratorian priests who came from Goa expanded the small shrine in the forest into a Church.
In a corner, inside the present Madhu Church is a pit containing the blessed soil of Madhu, known in Tamil as “Madu mannmann” (Tamil: மடு மண்) which the faithful take home. It is believed that applying the soil on the affected areas of the body will cure the maladies of the afflicted. It is held that when Joseph Vaz arrived first came to that location he planted a cross about 100 metres away from the church and blessed the soil. The place is known in Tamil as metres away from the church and blessed the soil. The place is known in Tamil as Siluvai Sumantha Veli (Tamil: சிலுவை சுமந்த வெளி) and it is from here that the soil is taken and placed in the pit.
Joseph Vaz leaves Puttalam for Kandy
In 1687, Pascoal da Costa Jeremias to whom Joseph Vaz relinquished his duties of Superior of the Goan Oratory died. Father Custodio Leitão took charge as the new Superior.
Many businessmen from the Kingdom of Kandy frequented the Puttalam port. A Catholic businessman of Portuguese descent named Antonio Sottomayor, met Joseph Vaz. He said that there were many Catholics in the Kingdom of Kandy and they wanted a priest to minister to them. Sottomayor further said that he had a relative in the court of Kandy and through his influence he could obtain the necessary permission for Vaz to enter the Kingdom.
At that time, Joseph Vaz met a Portuguese priest named João de Braganza. He had entered Puttalam directly from India and was ministering to the Mukkuva community in and around Puttalam. Vaz consulted Braganza about going to Kandy. He wanted Braganza to explore the possibilities of securing an entry into Kandy for him. When Braganza showed interest on going himself to the Kingdom of Kandy, Vaz gave in to his wishes. Unfortunately, Braganza fell ill and returned to Goa.
After Braganza’s departure, Vaz wrote a letter on August 15, 1690 to the Prefect of the Oratory in Goa asking him whether he should continue his apostolate in Ceylon or return to Goa. In that letter, he mentioned Father Braganza:
“… in case any letter or order is to be sent, it should be done in a way Fr. Joao de Braganza will tell and he will give other particulars of this mission”.
In 1691, after four years of missionary work Joseph Vaz was almost captured by the Dutch. He decided to go to Kandy to avoid the vigilant Dutch from Colombo and to take refuge there.
“Blessed Joseph Vaz was our beloved Apostle. In many ways, he was a pioneer in the history of our country and the Christian faith. In fact, after Dutch persecution, which lasted 150 years, there would be no priest on the island without him.”
– Bishop Vianny Fernando, President of National Joseph Vaz Secretariat.
In 1591, André Furtado de Mendonça led the second Portuguese expedition to the Jaffna kingdom. The capital of the Jaffna Kingdom, also known as the Kingdom of the Aryacakravarti was Nallur. During that expedition, the King of Jaffna, Puviraja Pandaram (Tamil: புவிராஜ பண்டாரம்) was killed.
The Portuguese then installed the dead king’s son Ethirmanna Cinkam (Tamil: எதிர்மன்னசிங்கம்) as the King of the Jaffna kingdom. This arrangement gave the Catholic missionaries freedom to propagate the Christian faith. However, the incumbent king, resisted the missionary activities. In 1595, the King of Portugal ordered to remove him from the throne. But colonial authorities in Goa did not oblige as Ethirimanna Cinkam was not overly disruptive to their colonial interests.
In 1617, Cankili II (Tamil: சங்கிலி குமாரன்) a tyrant, came to the throne after a bloody massacre of the royal princess and the regent Arasakesari. The Portuguese colonists in Colombo rejected his regency. He then invited military forces from Thanjavur Nayaks and Malabari Corsairs to help him fight the Portuguese.
In 1618, Phillippe de Oliveira built the Portuguese Fort in Jaffna.
Phillipe de Oliveira moved the center of political and military control from Nallur to Jaffnapatao (Jaffnapattinam).
The subsequent rule by the Portuguese deployed forced conversion of the population to Roman Catholicism. Most people fled the core areas of the former Jaffna kingdom due to excessive taxation.forced conversion of the population to Roman Catholicism.
After a three-month siege, the Portuguese lost their last stronghold in Ceylon, Fort of Our Lady of Miracles (Fortaleza de Nossa Senhora dos Milagres de Jafanapatão) to the Dutch East India Company (VOC) on June 24, 1658 . With the fall of Fort at Jaffnapattinam, the Dutch took Portuguese as prisoners of war and expelled all Portuguese from Ceylon.
Joseph Vaz in Jaffnapattinam
Joseph Vaz presumed that like in Mannar, there ought to be Catholics in Jaffnapattinam too. Cured of dysentery, Vaz wanted to find the Catholics in Jaffnapattinam and begin his mission. So, he wore a rosary around his neck and started begging for food, all the while observing and studying the reactions of the natives. He was fully aware that if the Dutch or any native Calvinist knew that he was a Catholic he would be subjected to ill-treatment, and death would soon follow.
Dom Pedro of Jaffnapattinam
One family in particular treated him well and he guessed that they were Christians. One day he asked the head of that family, whether he would like to see a priest and receive the sacraments. The man froze. The next time Vaz went to beg at that house, the man took him to the house one of his friends, a young man named Dom Pedro.
Dom Pedro belonged to the Tamil Vellalar caste, a dominant group of agricultural landlords who migrated from the neighbouring Southern Tamil kingdoms in India since the 13th century. He was rich and his family members, all Catholics, were held in esteem by the Tamils of Jaffna.
In the hope of getting an appointment to a high Government position under the Dutch, he had renounced the Catholic Faith and had become a Calvinist. However, a few years later, Emmanuel de Silva, an old friend of his father, made him realize the enormity of his defection from the Catholic faith. Troubled by his apostasy, Dom Pedro disavowed Calvinism. He did severe penance and reconciled with the Catholic Church.
Joseph Vaz then understood through his friend that though Dom Pedro was on good terms with the Dutch, he was, in fact, a fervent Catholic, but behaved as if he were not, to hoodwink the Dutch.
After the preliminary introductions, Vaz revealed his identity to them. He showed his credentials as Vicar Forane of Kanara, which he had conscientiously brought with him.
The apostleship of Joseph Vaz began that night when he celebrated the first Mass in Jaffna. The Catholics were happy because for more than 30 years they did not have the privilege to attend Mass. The young members of the community had never seen a priest. They had been baptized and instructed in the Catholic Faith by their parents.
From then on the Catholics of Jaffnapattinam met in Dom Pedro’s house in secret for some time. Dom Pedro and his friends told Vaz that Jaffnapattinam being the headquarters of the Dutch command in the north of Ceylon, it was dangerous for him to remain there. They advised him to go to Sillalai, a hamlet ten miles away from Jaffna.
Joseph Vaz in Sillalai
Rich in vegetation, and surrounded by paddy fields in the North and West and villages in the South and East, Sillalai got its name from a ‘small oil mill’ (Tamil: ‘siria aalai‘) in the area which extracted oil from gingelly seeds, margosa (neem) seeds and the seed of the honey tree or butter tree (ill upai). Over time, ‘siria aalai‘ became Sillalai.
The villagers (even now), venerated the statue of ‘Kathirai Matha‘ (‘Chair Mother’) – a rare depiction of Mother Mary seated on a chair holding baby Jesus on her lap. The Portuguese who landed at the small port of Sambil, about three to four kilometres west of Sillalai brought the statue to the hamlet.
The villagers took great pains to protect the statue from the Dutch. They moved it from place to place and hid it in deep wells and abandoned huts.
As advised Vaz went to Sillalai. The Moopar (local catechist) provided a walled house for Vaz and John. The villagers built a hut nearby and Vaz used it as the church. From then on, Sillalai became the headquarters of his apostleship. From Sillalai, he visited Jaffnapattinam and the surrounding villages. Wherever he went, the Catholics hid him in their houses.
To avoid suspicion, he performed his apostolate at night with small groups of Catholics in attendance. He would walk from Sillalai to Jaffnapattinam at night to avoid the Dutch.
In Sillalai, if anyone gave him any gift or money he would send that person to his host, the Moopar. He distributed the entire collection of money among the poor.
The “sammanasu swamy”
Joseph Vaz lived a simple life. He always ate sitting on the ground with rice served on a banana leaf. He slept on a grass or bamboo mat spread on the floor. His life of poverty can be summarized in his own words from a letter written to his nephew:
“Be content with what you are provided in the Community; be it in the refectory, or in the infirmary or in the wardrobe or in the cubicle, do not desire anything more by any other means, take the things assigned to you as the best in these places.”
Joseph Vaz a model of chastity. He was a modest, well composed, grave, cautious and reserved person. In the confessional, his eyes were always low and would never raise them to stare at the ladies confessing to him. In a letter to his nephew, Joseph Vaz wrote:
“Grid us Lord with the girdle of purity and extinguish in our loins the fire of lust, so that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide in us”.
The people admired Joseph Vaz. Because of his virtues they called him “sammanasu swami” (Tamil: “சம்மனசு சுவாமி”) meaning the “angelic priest”.
Guided by the catechist, Joseph Vaz traveled throughout the Jaffna peninsula. He found the task of caring for the flock, was a bit burdensome for one priest. On December 14, 1688, Vaz wrote his first letter from Ceylon to the Provost of the Oratory requesting him to send a helper.
At that time, Laurens van Pyl was the Governor of Dutch Ceylon. The Dutch commander of Jaffna region was forcing the people to follow Calvinism. He was annoyed to note many people believed to be apostates of the Catholic Church and enjoyed the favours of the Dutch authorities were no longer frequenting the Calvinist Kirk. Dom Pedro, in particular, was one such person.
The Commander imputed the change in the Catholics of the Jaffna peninsula to the Jesuits of Manapad in South India, who, he believed, had succeeded in coming over to Ceylon in secret.
The Dutch arrested many people they believed to be Catholics. He tortured them to denounce the person or the Jesuit priests responsible for bringing about this situation. The Commander then announced a reward for the head of the Catholic priests. But the faithful Catholics watched over Joseph Vaz.
On Christmas night of 1689, Dutch soldiers surrounded the house where the congregation was celebrating the midnight liturgy with Joseph Vaz administering the sacraments. On entering the house, the soldiers arrested those inside. They desecrated the sacred images and divested the women of their clothes. They rounded up around 300 Catholics that night in and around the neighbourhood. But to their dismay, the priest was not among the prisoners. The soldiers wondered how he could have escaped.
In 1690, Father Andre Freyre, the Jesuit Provincial of Malabar, gave an account of this incident in a letter he wrote from Manapad to Dom Miguel de Almeida, the Portuguese Governor of Goa. He wrote:
“Fr. Joseph Vaz, a Brahmin, who was sent from Goa to take charge of the Christians at Jaffna, discharges his duties with such devotion, that all consider him a saint. He not only looks after the natives but after the Europeans too. Although the heretics search everywhere for him, they can never come upon him, for, like another Proteus, he escapes them under a variety of disguise.”
In the morning, all the arrested people were brought before the Commander of Jaffnapattinam. He let off the women and children. He retained eight rich and influential men, including Dom Pedro and Emmanuel de Silva. He let the others go after imposing heavy fines.
The Commander ordered them to abjure the Catholic Faith or face death. All said that they were ready to die for their faith. Thinking that the sight of torture would denounce their Faith. the Commander ordered Dom Pedro, the youngest among the eight, to be beaten with rods, until he should abjure Catholicism or die under the blows. Dom Pedro bore the torture unflinchingly. When the young man lost consciousness, the Commander ordered his bloody body to be thrown into prison with the other seven. When Dom Pedro regained consciousness, he beseeched his companions to persevere in their Faith with courage, and then died peacefully.
The Commander, then confiscated the properties of Emmanuel de Silva and the six others and condemned them to hard labour for life.
The Commander, then confiscated the properties of Emmanuel de Silva and the six others and condemned them to hard labour for life. He sent them to a fortress, which the Dutch were then restructuring, as labourers. None of them even thought of escaping this torture by renouncing the Faith. Eventually, they all died martyrs. The martyrdom of Dom Pedro and of his seven companions was the most glorious fruit of the apostolate of Joseph Vaz at Jaffna.
Joseph Vaz fled Jaffnapattinam and went deep into the jungle to escape from the Dutch. He crossed to Vanni, the mainland area of Northern Sri Lanka. From there, he reached Puttalam, then, a part of the Kandy kingdom, ruled by King Vimaladharma Surya II, who had ascended the throne in 1687, the same year that Joseph Vaz had entered Ceylon. He was the son of King Rajasimha II (1635 – 1687).
With the help of some Catholics, he continued his apostolate in Puttalam.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.