How Trade and Popes wrecked India’s Thomas Christians.

Calcutta woman

When the Portuguese established the colony of Goa, they were seeking primarily to establish routes of commerce. Their machismo in simply eliminating the opposition served this end well. However, the Portuguese also felt a moral imperative to help the local “Thomas Christian” population they found there.

The primary method of the Portuguese to further this goal was still to utilize political power and threats. While they had some success in this, the overall results are questionable.

The Portuguese relied on political pressure, established by force of arms, to “Romanize” the Thomas Christians. In so doing they caused the non-compliant groups to not only splinter, but established an alien form of Christianity that has been in decline since their departure and withdrawal of force.

Who were the Thomas Christians

The indigenous Christians in India are collectively named the Mar Thomas Christians because they claim to have been founded by the Apostle Thomas.

While this link is debated, we can say for certain that they have been linked to the Syrian Orthodox Church since around A.D. 300.[2] Interestingly, when westerners had first encounter the Thomas Christians they were very non-evangelical. They were content to form and maintain isolated clans, without much interest in proselytizing.[3] This is actually in stark contrast with the Oriental Orthodox Churches general spirit; the Oriental Orthodox sent missionaries far and wide. They even established churches in such faraway lands as China and India itself of which the Thomas community is a part.[4] 

While Leonard Fernando and G. Gispert –Sauch leave much unsaid regarding the Mar Thomas Christians in their book Christianity in India, they do classify  interrelationship between the Thomas Christians and Hindu religious cultures as quite comfortable. Thomas Christians are even at home among Hindu culture and participating in Hindu festivals. [5] They also when polled retain some mindsets of the Indian caste culture, expressing desires to maintain “racial-spiritual purity.”[6][7] 

This further separates the group from the general spirit of the Syrian Orthodox groups, and firmly contextualizes them to an Indian ideal that runs counter to a western focus on evangelism, purity or worship forms, and “inquisition.” I have reservations how “Abrahamic” the Thomas attitude is; positively, they also illustrate a community that existed peacefully as a minority within a foreign culture for a thousand years while maintaining its distinct Christian and ethnic identity.[8]

Mar Thomas Christians
Image circa 1865, Public domain, courtesy of wiki-commons

Enter the Portuguese

When the Portuguese first arrived in India they found both alien cultures and an admixture of familiar ones.

Some of the results were even rather comical.

The Land of India, about 1475
The Land of India, about 1475, image courtesy of Getty Open Project

When Vasco da Gamma entered Calicut in A.D. 1500, he mistook the local Hindu temple for a Christian Site.[9] He was pleased that there he found much familiar. He saw holy-water blessings and a “small image said to represent our lady,” as well as the “other saints painted on the walls of the church, wearing crowns.”[10] 

Part of the reason for the confusion, was that the Portuguese in India were looking to find Christians (and not make Christians) so as to bypass the Muslim world’s control on international trade.[11] Legend had it there was an Eastern kingdom on the far side of the Islamic expansion. De Gamma had just assumed he had found them, and he pursued his main goal: economics.

It was only when the difference of religion was finally realized, probably amid some embarrassment, did the Portuguese start to consider the latter missionary endeavors that would be carried out by men such as Francis Xavier and Robert De Nobili half a century later.

Military concerns

Italian battle scene
Italian battle scene, image courtesy of Getty Open Project

If de Gamma was looking for Christians, it might have been because there were two Moorish members of the antagonist religion he was trying to bypass.

Earlier, In 1498 da Gamma had made his very first entry into Calicut harbor and he sent a man ashore. The locals took him to where two Moors lived. He found the two Moors were able to speak Castilian and Genoese; the first thing they told the Portuguese man was, “Go to Hell! Who brought you here anyways?” [13]

Despite the colorful reception, one of the Moors was actually brought on-board and he seemed rather positive and cordial. In fact he bragged that the Portuguese would find many riches.[14]

Getting to them would turn out to be an issue; however, since the Portuguese soon found that the important commercial ports as well as the local Christian population were under Islamic political control.[15]

They weren’t kind to the Inca, but at least they were equally mean to all

The Arabs record that the Portuguese and Muslims could not co-exist in the area, as not long after reaching India the Portuguese/Islamic group relations soured. 

Eventually, the Muslims needing to bolster their strength allegedly tried to turn the local Hindu rulers against the Europeans.[16] However, military technology had shifted strongly in favor of the Europeans who readily resorted to force of arms. In the end it was expedient to excise both the Muslim and Hindu power in the area to resolve their diplomatic impasse.[17]

The military defeat of the Moors and local rulers marked the need for a political establishment to replace them in Goa. The area became a colony that for the rest of the Portuguese colonial era would be the main strategic and mission base of the Portuguese endeavor in the Indian ocean.[18]


Cannon Law more meddeling than Sharia

The Thomas Christians appear to have been initially positive in their opinion of the Portuguese. The Portuguese were perceived by the local church leadership as both powerful enough to offer protection against the Moors and Hindu parties, and accepting of their faith enough to even ask them to perform a local Mass.[19]  The Moorish rulers in particular had not made themselves welcomed among the Thomas Christians by politically circumscribing their rites and subjecting them to high taxation per Sharia.[20]

Saint Ignatius of Loyola's Vision of Christ and God the Father at La Storta
Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s Vision of Christ and God the Father at La Storta, c. 1692. Image courtesy of LACMA

Christian Indians, ignorant of Papal politics, at first had good reason to hope that the Christian Portuguese would at least leave them alone. Sadly, the Portuguese had already decided themselves that they had no rights either under their own Cannon Laws. In fact, Cannon Law would prove far more meddling. 

The Papal Bull, Inter cetera drafted in 1456, was worked politically so as to give “supreme ecclesiastical authority” to the new order of the Jesuits over India, granted under the King of Portugal’s right to place all Bishops in India.[21] 

As far as the Portuguese colonial power was concerned, by divine decree the local Thomas institutions had to submit authority over their own ancestral churches. The Portuguese, for their part, intended to use this authority mostly to correct what they saw as gross errors in the Indian church. Some of their objections included married clergy, local traditions such as placing a rope around a bride’s neck instead of a ring on her finger, and the use of the word Nestorius in their liturgy. The last one had the Portuguese convinced that the Indians were indeed burnable heretics.[22]

It was a slow ratcheting up of control

It is to the initial Colonial Portuguese’s credit that for a while they allowed the native Christians to retain some autonomy. Still, the fact that the power conflict between the colonist and the leadership of the indigenous Church spanned over one hundred fifty years started to wear out officials pressed for results and as the conflict stretched on, the colonial government applied increasing pressures.

The Portuguese at first just meddled.

They worked to convince the native leaders it was expedient to simply swear they were not Nestorian, that they were royal to Rome, and to call a synod to refine the Syrian rite.[23]

Still, it was even then not simply a matter of polite discussion. Already aggressive, even the early stage of the conflict saw the introduction of the inquisition into India. Happily, this was not conducted in the same manner as Spain, and the inquisition in the early stages to as its main goal preventing Indian Christians and converts alike from leaving once they joined the Roman denomination and to root out and correct any undesirable native practices, not to blatantly attack the natives.[24]

That did not please the bureaucrats

A generation later in 1599, the Portuguese, seeing that their goals for large scale conversion were not met, escalated to active threats.

They forced the local Archdeacon to break with the Thomas church’s Syrian ties, and to call a synod to not only “fix” the Syrian rite but to westernize the whole service.[25] The Portuguese were beginning in this new era to strong arm the locals and resentment was building. Things really came to a head when the Portuguese decided to arrest a Syrian Orthodox Church delegate. He was on friendly terms with the local congregation but they deported him as an Eastern Heretic.[26]

The locals, who by now assumed the worst of the Portuguese, thought the delegate was in fact murdered and rioted.[27] While the initial frustrations were vented by the riot; the struggle over whether to retain Native traditions or allow their church to be westernized still festered and flared up from time to time.

In 1659, a group of Thomas Christians decided they had had enough and ordained their own indigenous clergy.[28] Others followed suit and eventually the conservative side of the Thomas Church broke into four different denominations.[29] 

The strong arm tactic not only failed to “Romanize” the church, but it caused schism to tear up the church had been in India. 

Roman Catholic persecution of Hindus didn’t work either

Calcutta woman
Photographic Views of Calcutta by J. Sache. II. (cover title), about 1865, image courtesy of Getty Open Project

We can compare the Portuguese method of dealing with the local Christians with how they dealt with the local Hindus.

In the colony of Goa the Portuguese attempted to convert the natives but were not pleased by the rates of natives converting on their own.

While the idea of using political pressure had been fermenting at least as early as 1522,[30] but was not implemented until around the start of the seventeenth century. These events were concurrent with the rising pressure on native Christians, and it further exacerbated the “Rome” versus “India” Zeitgeist.[31]

According to the policy named the Rigor of Mercy, Hindus were expelled from civil work, taxes were levied, and pagan worship was forbidden.[32] This outright attack initially seemed successful, yet the results were not long lasting.[33]

Eighty years after the program, an eyewitness in 1815 estimated that the churches in India had lost two-thirds of their membership.[34]  Today, modern census numbers put the number of Christians in Goa, as of 1991, as less than thirty percent.[35]  

The trend for Christianity in the area is thus downward. If we had census data concerning the Thomas Christians and other religions before the Portuguese arrived… one wonders if there would be any noticeable increase and were.

Conclusions

From a Catholic point of view, the interactions with the Thomas Christians were a success. Eventually the area became predominantly Catholic, and obedient to Rome.[36]

For the Portuguese, they eventually got access to trade routes and made a lot of money.

From the position of the remaining Thomas Christians the Portuguese introduced sectarian splits and shattered the existing group cohesion. And until the liberation of the colony offered no extra personal freedoms.  

If we are unconcerned about the economics of 17th century Portugal, nor the number of diamonds in the Popes crown, then the success of Catholics for “Christianity” in the area of Goa is questionable.

After the initial government program of almost forcing conversions the number of Christians total in Goa has continued to slip. While the Thomas Christians showed no interest in evangelism, they at least had a thirteen hundred plus year record of survival. Now their community is fractured and its long term sustainability is unknown.  The Roman Church has probably put whatever bridges where there down and its so called “successes” seem to have been limited to subjugating local Christians to their denomination after much cruelty and centuries effort.

The main prerogative of the Portuguese was not initially mission but to open a route of commerce. Hence, when they were frustrated in this path by the local powers, they resorted to cannon balls and received what they wanted. When the objective of proselytizing was given to the colonial trading post, in their defense these men of arms never resorted to muskets.

Still the leaders, trained to think in terms of war and violence in both politics and religion, never developed any different approach then to raise the specter of violence to inter-faith dialogues. 

The Machismo that made them good colonist made them bad missionaries.


 

Bibliography

da Silva Rego, A., and T. W. Baxter. Ed., Documentos sobre os Prtugueses em Moҫambique e na Africa central, in A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450-1990, ed. Klaus Koschorke, Frieder Ludwig, and Mariano Delgado. Grand Rapids: Eerdmens, 2007.

Dubois, J A. Letters on the state of Christianity, in A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450-1990, ed. Klaus Koschorke, Frieder Ludwig, and Mariano Delgado. Grand Rapids: Eerdmens, 2007.

Fernando, Leonard, and G. Gispert-Sauch. Christianity in India. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Herculano, A., and Castello de Paiva. Ed., Roteiro da Viagem de Vasco da Gama em MCCCCXCVII, in A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450-1990, ed. Klaus Koschorke, Frieder Ludwig, and Mariano Delgado. Grand Rapids: Eerdmens, 2007.

Jenkins, Phillip. The next Christendom: the coming of global Christianity. New York: Oxford, 2010.

Koschorke, Klaus., and Frieder Ludwig and Mariano Delgado, A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America,1450-1990. Grand Rapids: Eerdmens, 2007.

Michael, S M. Dalits in modern India. Los Angeles: Sage Pub., 2007, accessed 5 May 2013; available from http://fuller.worldcat.org/title/dalits-in-modern-india-vision-and-values/oclc/609573120&referer=brief_results; Internet.

Pope Calixtus III “Inter certa,” in A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450-1990, ed. Klaus Koschorke, Frieder Ludwig, and Mariano Delgado. Grand Rapids: Eerdmens, 2007.

Priolkar, A K.  The Goa Inquisition, in A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450-1990, ed. Klaus Koschorke, Frieder Ludwig, and Mariano Delgado. Grand Rapids: Eerdmens, 2007.

Ravenstein, E G. Ed., A Journal of the First voyage of Vasco da Gama in A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450-1990, ed. Klaus Koschorke, Frieder Ludwig, and Mariano Delgado. Grand Rapids: Eerdmens, 2007.

Schurhammer, G. The Malabar Church and Rome during the Early Portuguese Period and Before, in A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450-1990, ed. Klaus Koschorke, Frieder Ludwig, and Mariano Delgado. Grand Rapids: Eerdmens, 2007.

Citations

[2] Fernando. Christianity in India, 59-62.

[3] Ibid. pg. 65.

[4] Phillip Jenkins. The next Christendom: the coming of global Christianity (New York: Oxford, 2010), 29.

[5] Fernando. Christianity in India, 107.

[6] Ibid. pg. 61.

[7] S. M. Michael. Dalits in modern India (Los Angeles: Sage Pub., 2007, accessed 5 May 2013) available from http://fuller.worldcat.org/title/dalits-in-modern-india-vision-and-values/oclc/609573120&referer=brief_results; Internet. The author traces up the history of the caste system and how the racial prejudice dynamics of the Vedic culture continued and amplified during the development of Hinduism. He argues in India it is normal for a caste to see itself as its own ethnicity, and for inter-caste relations to display aspects akin to racial bigotry.

[8] Fernando. Christianity in India, 62.

[9]  E. G. Ravenstein. Ed., A Journal of the First voyage of Vasco da Gama in A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450-1990, ed. Klaus Koschorke, Frieder Ludwig, and Mariano Delgado (Grand Rapids: Eerdmens, 2007), 9.

[10] Ibid. Loc. cit. – all quotes on the same page.

[11] Fernando. Christianity in India, 73.

[12] Ibid. pg. 73.

[13] A. Herculano and Castello de Paiva. Ed., Roteiro da Viagem de Vasco da Gama em MCCCCXCVII, in A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450-1990, ed. Klaus Koschorke, Frieder Ludwig, and Mariano Delgado (Grand Rapids: Eerdmens, 2007), 8.

[14] Ibid. loc. cit.

[15] Fernando. Christianity in India, 77.

[16] G. Schurhammer. The Malabar Church and Rome during the Early Portuguese Period and Before, in A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450-1990, ed. Klaus Koschorke, Frieder Ludwig, and Mariano Delgado (Grand Rapids: Eerdmens, 2007), 12.

[17] A. da Silva Rego and T. W. Baxter. Ed., Documentos sobre os Prtugueses em Moҫambique e na Africa central, in A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450-1990, ed. Klaus Koschorke, Frieder Ludwig, and Mariano Delgado (Grand Rapids: Eerdmens, 2007), 11-12.

[18] Fernando. Christianity in India, 76.

[19] Koschorke. A History of Christianity, 12.

[20] Fernando. Christianity in India, 77.

[21] Pope Calixtus III “Inter certa,” in A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450-1990, ed. Klaus Koschorke, Frieder Ludwig, and Mariano Delgado (Grand Rapids: Eerdmens, 2007), 13-14.

[22] Fernando. Christianity in India, 76-77.

[23] Ibid. pg. 78.

[24] Ibid. pg. 123.

[25] Ibid. pg. 78.

[26] Ibid. loc. cit.

[27] Ibid. loc. cit.

[28] Ibid. loc. cit.

[29] Ibid. pg. 79.

[30] A.K. Priolkar. The Goa Inquisition, in A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450-1990, ed. Klaus Koschorke, Frieder Ludwig, and Mariano Delgado (Grand Rapids: Eerdmens, 2007), 15-16.

[31] Fernando. Christianity in India, 116.

[32] Ibid. pg. 119.

[33] Ibid. loc. cit.

[34] J. A. Dubois. Letters on the state of Christianity, in A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450-1990, ed. Klaus Koschorke, Frieder Ludwig, and Mariano Delgado (Grand Rapids: Eerdmens, 2007), 55.

[35]Fernando. Christianity in India, 119.

[36] Patrick Johnstone and Jason Mandryk, Operation World: 21st Century Edition (Paternoster, 2001), 322.

Post Author

Paul is the founder of Religible.com and a life long Christian with a childhood interest in systematic theology. He holds an M.Div. from Fuller Theological seminary and hopes to use his education to better his fellow man. He also operates an automotive blog, has worked at Google, and has diverse life interest.

reformedmonk – who has written posts on Religible.


You may also like

Leave a Reply