Portuguese wrote the darkest imperialist chapter-Book review: A 16th Century Clash of Civilizations, the Portuguese Presence in Sri Lanka by Dr. Susantha Goonatilake
Posted on February 19th, 2011
H. L. D. Mahindapala-Editor, Sunday and Daily Observer (1990 – 1994). President, Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association (1991 -1993). Secretary-General, South Asia Media Association (1993 -1994)
Dr. Susantha Goonatilake’s book A 16th Century Clash of Civilizations, the Portuguese Presence in Sri Lanka is a penetrating searchlight that probes the hidden and the darker areas of the Portuguese period. Of the three Western colonialists the Portuguese were the worst. The ruthless cruelty documented in Dr. Goonatilake’s book will not give room for another Ranil Wickremesinghe to invite any Portuguese to celebrate even their mother’s birthday, if by any chance she was born in Sri Lanka. In inviting the Portuguese to join him in celebrating the coming of the Iberian imperialists Wickremesinghe, as usual, not only failed to grasp the realities of the present but even the past. He asked the Portuguese to come and celebrate the 500th anniversary starting from 1505. But Gaston Perera, who had specialized on the Portuguese period, states that Donald Ferguson demolished this myth in 1910. “Citing official documents Ferguson had proved that the Portuguese came in 1506 and not 1505,” he confirmed in a private correspondence sent to me. Alan Strathern too argues that “most professional historians agree that it was more likely the Portuguese first arrived in 1506 than in 1505” – (p.3, Kingship and Conversion in Sixteenth-Century Sri Lanka, Portuguese Imperialism in a Buddhist Land. Cambridge University Press, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2010)
We, of course, were brought up on the textbooks written by Fr. S. G. Perera, the standard authority of the time. So when he who wrote that Don Lorenzo de Almeida arrived on November 15, 1505 it was passed down to us as the final word on the subject. His text book on the Portuguese period was rather an anodyne account of the failed military adventures of the Portuguese and their intrigues to capture Kanday-Uda Rata (Anglicized as Kandy). The persistent resistance of the Sinhala people, aided and abetted by the jala durga, vana durga and the giri durga foiled the Portuguese attempts to conquer Sri Lanka. Fr. Perera’s history of this period consisted mainly of providing useful outlines for the students but it failed to capture the spirit and the passions of the time. Perhaps, his Catholicism restrained him from going deeper into the savagery of the Portuguese who had no qualms about destroying and desecrating the sacred sites of the Buddhists and Hindus.
In history lessons taught at secondary level we were also titillated by the rhetoric of Dr. Colvin R. de Silva who introduced the Portuguese with a broad sweep of his colouful phrases. He wrote in his introduction to his history of the British period: “If the vagaries of wind and wave first brought the Portuguese to Ceylon, the lure of cinnamon kept them in the Island.” (p.1. Volume 1, Ceylon Under the British Occupation, 1795 – 1833, Navarang, 1995). But the Portuguese colonial adventures in Sri Lanka went far beyond “the lure of cinnamon.” Besides, they were not going to stop at the temporal conquest of Ceylon. They came armed with the sword on one hand and the Bible on the other which meant that the spiritual conquest went hand in hand with the territorial conquest. Both were pursued with abominable cruelty. For instance, when the Portuguese marched through a street to attack Jaffna it was led by a Catholic priest who carried the banner of Christ in front. (p.110 – SG quoting the Portuguese historian Couto’s History of Ceylon — 1597). Jaffna Kingdom, a latter day product of the 13th century, was the first to fall completely, “ a contrast to the continuous struggles in the rest of the country” p.105 – SG).
Dr. Goonatilake’s rejects the “attempt to rewrite history and whitewash Portuguese atrocities…. explicitly ruling out any discussion of the mass destruction caused by the Portuguese”. He focuses on the “civilizational factor” ignored by “the pro-Portuguese Gulbenkein Foundation graduates” like C. R. de Silva and Tikiri Abeysinghe and broadens his scope of studies to include prime sociological factors. The strength of the book is in going beyond the military expeditions, plots and counter plots of the Portuguese predators to explore the cultural, intellectual and industrial strands that came out of the Portuguese encounter. It is the broadening of the perspectives that makes the reading an exciting adventure.
Catholicism and Buddhism feature as the two major “actors in Sri Lanka’s clash of civilizations.” (p. xxxii). But he also covers the clash between the Hindu – Catholic cultures as well adequately. Both cultures met the same fate under the destructive, genocidal Portuguese rule. The Catholic Church, the lasting legacy of the Portuguese rule along with baila (dance), did not come out of a divine intervention but through the bloody sword of the inhuman Portuguese. The difference between Catholicism and other Christian denominations is that they were less inhuman. The professed piety and holiness of the Catholic Church today, which amounts to insufferable humbuggery, are mere cover-ups to escape the sins of spilling the blood of the innocent Sinhalese and Tamils who stood up to the brutalities committed in the name of the God and Church.
God had nothing to do with the barbaric Church that destroyed cultures wherever they went. The Catholic Church spread its tentacles and became the first global multi–national through the brutalities and the political ideologies pursued by the Church. Then as now the Popes (including Pope Benedict XVI ) have been complicit in mass scale war crimes and crimes against humanity and before Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith pontificates on measures that are needed for reconciliation and rehabilitation he and the Church that he represents must apologize and beg forgiveness from the people of Sri Lanka for the brutalities perpetrated by the Church – crimes committed deliberately as a result of the official doctrines endorsed by the Popes.
Dr. Goonatilake, an internationally recognized sociologist, explores this aspect of the Catholic political ideology breeding Catholic violence on an inhuman scale with meticulous detail. His book, makes you wonder as to how any Sri Lankan Catholic priest could walk this earth in the name of God when each of them carry the sinful baggage of their forefathers crimes against humanity. They have not given up their old habits yet even after the records have condemned them as ideological freaks who have had no compunction in blessing violence that promotes their political agenda. Fr. S. J. Emmanuel, the former Vicar General of Jaffna, is a living example. According to his own political confession he is nothing but a Tamil Tiger dressed in Catholic garb. He is a racist fanatic who had globally campaigned to justify Velupillai Prabhakaran – his God on earth.
In our time the Catholic Church owes an apology to the Catholic congregation in Sri Lanka, let alone the other religionists, for the partisan politics of the Churchmen who, like Fr. Emmanuel, actively supported the political criminal in the Vanni. Besides, I have not come across a single statement of condemnation made by the Pope or Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith when the Tamil Catholic Churchmen hijacked the statue of Holy Mary from Madhu and ran into Tiger held territory. Is this a religious act or a political act? Does this mean that Holy Mary belongs only to the Tamils? Is this why Fr. Emanuel threatened to write a separatist theology for the Tamils as if only the Tamils are the children of God? There isn’t a more egregious public act than this to establish the links of the Catholic Church to the Tiger terrorists.
All the crimes committed by the Catholic Church to establish its earthly supremacy, particularly by destroying other civilizations in African, American and Asian continents, can be traced directly to the imperialist ideologies of the political Popes whose successes in serving Mammon far exceeded that of serving the Christian God or man. The execrable politics of the Catholic Church from Portuguese times can be traced back to the not-so Holy See. Dr. Goonatilake reveals the origins of Vatican politics succinctly and graphically. He exposes how Pope Alexander VI had wild sex parties “with naked men and women in erotic poses” performing on a mass scale for the unholy pleasure of His Holiness. Not satisfied with this Alelxander VI even had sex with his daughter, Lucrezia when she was only 17 – an under-aged girl. Nothing has changed in the Church considering the mass scale abuse of children by the holy fathers of the Church in all continents. But they get away while the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, living next door to the Vatican, is charged with abusing a 17-year-old prostitute.
Full scale imperialism of the West began when Pope Nicholas V issued the first Bull in 1452 which gave King Alfonso of Portugal “the general and indefinite powers to search and conquer all pagans….to capture and subjugate Saracens and Pagans other unbelievers and enemies of Christ whomsoever and wherever settled; …..to invade and conquer their kingdoms, ….Countries, Principalities… Land, places, villages, camps, possession….To reduce to slavery their inhabitants ….(and) to appropriate (them and their lands) for the king of Portugal.” Shades of this ideology seemed to have grabbed the imagination of the Tamil Catholic priests in serving their King in the Vanni. There are, of course, the stories of the Good Samaritans of the Church who did social service to the poor and the needy. But that too was done with the ulterior motive of winning new converts to the Church.
The overall story of the Catholic Church is one of crimes committed against God and man by the so-called representatives of God on earth. The Portuguese brought this religious ideology with the blessings of the Pope. It is a horrendous story and Dr. Goonatilake has told it with well-documented facts and figures. It is a book that every student of politics and religion should read to get a view of the perverse politics of Catholic politicians dressed in the garb of Christianity.
(The first part appeared in Lakbima News )