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Blessed Joseph Vaz: Part 12 – The Apostle Visits Dutch Colombo

Myself . 

By T.V. Antony Raj


Bird's eye view of Colombo. Mid-17th Century water colour painting. The Vingboons-Atlas, ARA, The Hague.
Bird’s eye view of Colombo. Mid-17th Century water colour painting. The Vingboons-Atlas, ARA, The Hague.

Today, Colombo is the largest city and the commercial capital of Sri Lanka. It is located on the west coast of the island and next to Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, the official capital of Sri Lanka. Colombo is often referred to as the capital since Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte is a satellite city of Colombo.

In the days of the Sinhalese kings, Colombo was one of the many seaboards frequented by Arab Moors and South Indian traders.

In 1505, when the Portuguese explorers led by Dom Lourenço de Almeida first arrived by chance on the island they called the town “Colombo”.

Some say the name “Colombo” is derived from the classical Sinhalese name Kolon thota (කොලොන් තොට), meaning “port on the river Kelani”.

Another group says the name is derived from the Sinhalese phrase “kola ambia thota” (කොල අඹ තොට) meaning “Leafy mango grove”.

The coat of arms of Colombo from the Dutch Ceylon era.
The coat of arms of Colombo from the Dutch Ceylon era.

A coat of arms of Colombo from the Dutch Ceylon era has a leafy tree with a dove perched on its branches. In addition, the Dutch have included a dove (Latin: Columba), thus creating a pun on the town’s name.

In the 13th century, the author of the oldest Sinhalese grammar, Sidatsangarava, wrote about a category of words that belonged to early Sinhalese. He lists words such as “naramba” (to see) and “kolamba” (ford, harbour) as belonging to an indigenous source. Hence, “kolamba” may also be the source of the name of the commercial capital Colombo.

On realizing how Colombo was strategically located, and control of Ceylon was necessary for protecting their coastal establishments in India, the Portuguese made a treaty with King Parakramabahu VIII (1484 -1508), the King of Kotte. The treaty enabled the Portuguese to trade in the island’s crop of cinnamon and gave them full authority over the coastline in exchange for the promise of guarding the island’s coast against invaders from other countries across the seas. After expelling the Arab Moors from Colombo and establishing their trading post, the Portuguese built a fort – a small stockade of wood, in 1517.


Town of Colombo on the large pleasant Island of Ceylon which is rich in Cinnamon. Mirror image engraving afterSchouten's view which looks on the harbour directly from the north.
Town of Colombo on the large pleasant Island of Ceylon which is rich in Cinnamon. Mirror image engraving after Schouten’s view which looks on the harbour directly from the north.


This part of Colombo is still known as Fort (Sinhalese: kotuwa ; Tamil: koattai). The area immediately outside Fort, a commercial hub even now, is known as Pettah (Sinhalese: pita kotuwa ; Tamil: purakoattai) meaning ‘outside the fort’. Colombo soon became a grand town fortified by twelve bastions.

The Kingdom of Sitawaka (Sinhala: සීතාවක) located in south-central region of the Island, emerged from the division of the kingdom of Kotte following the Vijayaba Kollaya (Spoiling of Vijayabahu) in 1521. King Mayadunne, the chief antagonist of the Portuguese, established the new Kingdom of Sitawaka, with Seethawakapura now known as Avissawella as its capital.

Sitawaka offered fierce resistance to the Portuguese. Before long, King Mayadunne annexed much of the Kotte kingdom and forced the Portuguese to retreat to Colombo. He repeatedly besieged Colombo forcing the Portuguese to seek reinforcement from Goa in India. Over the course of the next seventy years, the Kings of Sitawaka dominated much of the island. Despite its military successes, Sitawaka remained unstable. It had to contend with repeated uprisings in its restive Kandyan territories. With its often devastating conflict with the Portuguese, the Kingdom of Sitawaka collapsed soon after the death of its last ruler, King Rajasinghe I, in 1593.

Following the fall of the Kingdom of Sitawaka, the Portuguese, with Colombo as their capital, established complete control over the coastal area of Ceylon.

In 1638, the Dutch signed a treaty with King Rajasinghe II of Kandy. Through this treaty, the Dutch assured the King assistance in his war against the Portuguese in exchange for a monopoly of the island’s major trade goods. The Portuguese resisted the Dutch and the Kandyans, but from 1639, they were gradually defeated in their strongholds.

The Dutch captured Colombo in 1656 after an epic siege. The 93 Portuguese survivors were given safe conduct out of the fort. Although the Dutch initially restored the captured area back to the Sinhalese kings, they later refused to turn them over. Thus, they gained control over the island’s richest cinnamon lands. They took possession of Colombo and all the other maritime ports on the Island of Ceylon.

The Dutch altered the fortifications of Colombo. They laid out the streets in a more regular grid pattern and are still so today. They reduced and confined the fort to the western part of the town. Since they found the present Pettah area to be the active centre when they captured Colombo, they called it ‘Oude Stad‘ or ‘Old Town’. Thus, they divided Colombo town into two parts.

Johann Jacob Saar, a German sailor, soldier, and author, served 15 years as a mercenary in the service of the Dutch East India Company in Southeast Asia. He spent about eight years in Ceylon. In 1662, he published an acclaimed account of his journey. He wrote:

“In 1656 we cut off the beautiful town of Colombo, the finest houses of the town were entirely demolished, only one-third of the town near the sea was fortified, while on the landside the town was surrounded by water, and when these works are completed which were expected to take ten years, the place will be twice as strong as before.”

The Dutch allowed the walls and fortifications around the ‘Oude Stad’ to remain, but they were subsequently removed. The only remnant that now exists of Portuguese Colombo is a huge boulder of rock that bears a cross and the Coat of Arms of Portugal. This was discovered by workmen in 1875 when the south-west breakwater of the Colombo harbour was being built. It was then removed from its original site and set up in Gordon Gardens adjoining the house of the President.

Joseph Vaz visits Colombo

After the miracle of the rain, when restrictions on his movement was removed, Joseph Vaz sneaked into the territories possessed by the Dutch. He availed himself of the freedom to pay a visit to Colombo.

The Catholic community of Colombo, which flourished under the Portuguese, was now a complete wreck. The Dutch desecrated some of the elegant churches built by the Portuguese and the were now in ruins. They transformed many others into Reformed churches.

All Catholic priests were banished.

The Portuguese Catholic schools were replaced by Calvinist schools. Under heavy penalties, the Dutch forced the Catholic parents to send their children to those schools, where the children were made to lose their faith in the Catholic Church.

On Sundays, all Catholics were forced to attend the Calvinist services.

The Catholics had to practice their faith in the greatest secrecy. Prayer in common was considered a crime, and if found, the Calvinist meted out heavy penalties.

When Joseph Vaz came to the Colombo, the Catholics gathered around him. He beseeched them to persevere in their Faith. He met the Catholics at night, in houses situated in remote areas. Vaz heard their confessions, offered Mass and administered Holy Communion. His words inspired them to face the persecution by the Dutch. Many apostates asked to be reconciled with the Church.


 Next → Part 13 – Missionaries Arrive from Goa

← Previous: Part 11 – The Miracle of Rain in Kandy








Blessed Joseph Vaz: Part 11 – The Miracle of Rain in Kandy

Myself . 

By T.V. Antony Raj


Image source: roystonellis.com
Image source: roystonellis.com

Joseph Vaz began his apostolate in Kandy amidst great difficulties. He devoted himself to the spiritual needs of the Catholics of Kandy. He assembled them for regular Mass and catechism classes, and visited those who were unable to come to the Church due to old age and infirmity. Due to the dearth of priests for many years the once faithful had reverted back to their old customs and superstitions. Now, many of these came to his Church from remote villages as soon as they came to know that a priest was in the city.

In 1695, Nauclairs de Lanerolle, the French Huguenot unable to bear the progress of Joseph Vaz’s ministry, used all his influence to poison the King’s mind against the priest.

King Vimaladharma Surya II was, as mentioned before, a sovereign with a superior mind. He had high regard for Joseph Vaz. The King admired his virtue and his spirit of renunciation of worldly pleasures.

Lanerolle sought an audience of the King. He brought with him a few Bhikkhus (Buddhist monks). During his meeting with the King, the Huguenot focussed on the dangers which were threatening the Kingdom unless the King used drastic steps to stop the advance of the Catholic Religion. He once again asserted that Joseph Vaz was a Portuguese agent beyond doubt, who organized the Catholics and converted Buddhists to the Catholic faith to create a powerful group; then when he had enough number of adherents to his faith, he would raise a rebellion and call the Portuguese from Goa to help him. Lanerolle therefore entreated the King to save his Crown, before it was too late. He asked the King to raze to the ground the church built by Vaz and the Catholics, and expel the priest from the Kingdom of Kandy.

The King replied sternly to the Huguenot, that he was fully convinced that the priest was not a Portuguese spy, but had undertaken a perilous journey and had undergone many hardships only for the sake of bringing spiritual help and solace to the abandoned Catholics of his Kingdom; and it would, therefore, be unworthy of him to persecute a poor man who had sought refuge in his capital.

The rebuked Frenchman was quiet for some time. A few weeks later he came before the King surrounded by more Bhikkhus. He again insisted on the expulsion of Joseph Vaz from the Kingdom of Kandy. He told the King that the strength of his political power was founded on the religious conformity of the people of his Kingdom. He pointed out that at the time of the Portuguese rule, three Kings of Kandy on becoming Catholics, lost their throne because their Buddhist subjects rebelled against them. So, he warned that the same would certainly happen to him if the priest was allowed to convert his subjects to the Catholic Faith. He then went on to advise the King to never tolerate a foreign religion being preached in his Kingdom, least of all the religion of the Portuguese, the greatest enemies of the Kings of Kandy.

The King after listening to the long tirade of the Huguenot, answered him curtly that though it was true that he hated the Portuguese who had fought his father, he anyhow, had high regard for the Catholic Religion, which was anyhow much better than the creed of the Calvinists.

The Bhikkhus then complained that the church built by Joseph Vaz was now much more frequented than the Buddhist temples and wanted the King to stop the priest from preaching his faith.

The King told the Bhikkhus, that they should emulate the Catholic priest: preach and instruct the people about Buddhism, attend to the sick, teach people to give alms to the poor, gain the love of the people, and so on. If they did so, he said, their temples would not be deserted, and the people would flock to the temples, instead of going to the Church built by Joseph Vaz.

The Bhikkus then complained that the servants of the palace whose duty was to bring flowers to the Buddhist temples now refused to do so saying that they had become Catholics.

The king replied that if Catholics in his service were not willing to carry flowers to the temples, he could dispense them from it as there were so many Buddhists who will be too glad to render that service.

Humiliated by the manner of the King, who openly favoured the priest, Lanerolle conspired with some Buddhist chiefs, powerful enough to give orders in spite of the King. They threatened Joseph Vaz and ordered him not to admit the Catholics and others who came to his Church. Joseph Vaz answered them, saying:

“We have an obligation to search and invite the Christians and to see that others become Christians, and it would be a grave sin not to receive those who come in search”.

Instigated by Lanerolle and the few Buddhist chiefs,  rowdies ridiculed, vilified, harassed, the Catholics on their way to the Church. They even went to the extent of plucking away the rosaries from the necks of women and children. But the Catholics did not stop coming to the Church.

This kind of persecution increased day by day and Joseph Vaz became anxious. The King, it is true, was favourable to the Catholics and resisted the solicitations of their enemies, but Joseph Vaz doubted whether the King would protect the Catholics when threatened with an uprising by the Buddhist mob as planned by Lanerolle and of his Buddhist confederates.

When the situation became critical, a remarkable miracle came to the rescue of Joseph Vaz.

The Miracle of the Rain

The rainy season in Ceylon begins usually between the middle of May and the beginning of June, but in the year 1696, there was a severe drought in the central region of Ceylon. As rain is necessary for the cultivation of rice the harvest failed. All other crops suffered as well. The drought caused much hardship to the people in the Kingdom of Kandy.

King Vimaladharma Suriya II requested Buddhist monks to perform Pirith (spiritual chant) to invoke the gods to provide rain and the Hindu Brahmins to conduct special Pooja to invoke Lord Varuna, the Hindu god of rain. Even after a week of ceremonies by the Bhikkus and the Brahmins, not a single drop of rain fell anywhere in the kingdom.

Then the king requested Joseph Vaz to pray to his God for rain. Vaz replied that he “would pray with greater fervor in obedience to the royal command.” He then told the king to “remain firm in faith, and if it would serve divine glory the land would abound with water since all the elements obey His divine commands as the Creator of heaven and earth”.

With firm faith in God, Joseph Vaz erected an altar in the open at a central place. A large crowd surrounded him. After placing a cross on the altar, he knelt down and prayed to God for rain.


Saint Joseph Vaz praying for rain during the drought of 1696 in Kandy (Source :en.radiovaticana.va)
Saint Joseph Vaz praying for rain during the drought of 1696 in Kandy (Source :en.radiovaticana.va)


.While he prayed, the sky filled with heavy dark clouds, and an abundant rain poured down. In a short time the deluge inundated the famished Kingdom. Water seeped into the cracks of the parched paddy fields. All the irrigation tanks filled to the brim.

Amid such a torrent the people saw with amazement the altar, the cross, and the spot where Joseph Vaz was kneeling while praying, remained dry. Not a drop of water had fallen on them. The King and the people marvelled, at this phenomenon and called it a miracle.

St.Anthony's Cathedral, Kandy (Source: kandydiocese.net)
St.Anthony’s Cathedral, Kandy (Source: kandydiocese.net)


Now, at the place where this miracle was wrought in Kandy stands St. Anthony’s Cathedral.

This miracle impressed the people, and many Buddhists and Hindus came to Joseph Vaz for baptism. Many apostates who had become Calvinists, after having performed penance reconciled with the Church.

King Vimaladharma Suriya II was so pleased he gave Joseph Vaz protection, and freedom to travel anywhere in the Kingdom of Kandy to preach the Catholic doctrines. Joseph Vaz also obtained the king’s permission to get more priests from Goa.

Joseph Vaz then built a proper church and dedicated it to Our Lady, the Mother of Christ. He used the missionary method of inculturation. He composed a para-liturgy in Sinhalese and Tamil.

Joseph Vaz used his newly acquired freedom to visit all the regions of the kingdom of Kandy. Now he was able to cross the Mahaweli Ganga without any hindrance. At times, he also sneaked into the territories possessed by the Dutch.


 Next → Part 12 – The Apostle Visits Dutch Colombo

← Previous: Part  10: Beginning of the Apostolate in Kandy