Published:  12:28 PM, 19 February 2021

The Goa Inquisition

The Goa Inquisition

-Riffat Ahmed
The universe’s history is so vast, it may as well be infinite. Hence, the fact that several excerpts of it have been hidden or unknown by the masses is not unforeseen. Still, certain events of the past are vital for us to know, be it for the bravery, shock value, or mere horror of it. The latter of the three brings us to the Goa Inquisition, a horrid period in time during which the ethnic cleansing of thousands of Hindus, Muslims and non-Christians alike were carried out by the Portuguese. 

First commenced in the 12th century, the Inquisition consisted of an influential set of people chosen from the Catholic Church who were in charge of finding and punishing heresy. Their main goal was to abolish other religions and chastise those who did not obey accordingly. They were notorious for their overly brutal punishments, especially towards the Jewish and Muslim population. The Inquisition was authorized in Portugal in 1536, at the request of John III, the Portuguese king of that era. This order was first targeted towards Spanish Jews residing in Portugal but in 1560, as an expansion of Portuguese India, it was introduced into Goa.

The first discovery of the Indian subcontinent by the Portuguese was in 1498, when Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer, reached the Malabar Coast of Calicut, India, by sea through Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. Upon discovering this sea route along with the spices and goods India had to offer, he returned to his country to inform the kingdom of his findings. Six years and many happenings later, India was added to the list of colonial states ruled by the Portuguese Empire as the State of India or Portuguese India. 

Goa, now called old Goa, consisted of Salcette, Bardez and a few nearby islands. Before the Portuguese, Goa was under the rule of the Muslim king, Ibrahim Adil Shah who was a part of the Adil Shah dynasty. The Adil Shah dynasty was always in a quarrel with many other entities, the Vijayanagara Empire being one of them. Thus, it was no surprise that greedy eyes were upon Adil Shah’s territories, particularly by a privateer of the Vijayanagara Empire, Timoji.

Alfonso de Albuquerque was a naval general officer and a perfect bait for Timoji. Albuquerque had already made significant progress in establishing Portuguese colonies in the East, notably setting up a Portuguese port in Cochin. He had set out to battle an army sent by the Egyptian Mamluk Sultanate but Timoji informed him that a few of them were seeking refuge in Goa and that it would be easier to capture them there. This enabled Timoji to use Albuquerque’s powerful army to invade Goa. In 1510, after a second attempt,  Albuquerque was finally able to conquer Goa. Timoji had assumed Albuquerque would not see much value in Goa and hence would leave after receiving a handsome monetary reward. But unbeknownst to him, Albuquerque had plans to place Portuguese territories there. Upon failing to follow orders(likely because of his displeasure), Timoji was fired from his governmental position soon after.

The Portuguese crowd in Goa were appalled to see the natives following religions other than Christianity. Even before the official implication of the Goa Inquisition, there are records showing blatant, outrageous discrimation towards non-Christians. In 1541, orders were made for temples to be destroyed and their lands to be handed to Catholic missionaries. John III, the Portuguese king, also called for the end of the practice of Hinduism. This included banning public Hindu festivities, dismissing priests and punishing those who would create Hindu imageries on Portuguese properties. Mosques that were located in Portuguese estates were imposed with exclusive religious taxes. 

In 1542, the king sent Francis Xavier, a Catholic missionary, to Goa to impose Christianity on the masses. Xavier was one of the first members of the Society of Jesus, a religious community focused on preaching the words of Jesus Christ. Xavier was a man of blind faith. His hatred for Hinduism was inexplicable, evident in a letter he wrote to the Society of Jesus about the indescribable joy he felt when he saw Hindu idols being destroyed by the very people who worshipped them. It was very obvious that he would adapt any and every inhumane means to establish to obliterate Hinduism.

The Portuguese heavily frowned upon the crypto-religious, aka the Crypto-Jews, Crypto-Muslims, Crypto-Hindus, who were practising their religions while masking themselves as Christians. Many, displeased at the discovery of more and more crypto-religious people, would often write to their king, requesting action. One of these people was Xavier, who, in 1545, wrote to King John III, demanding the commencement of the Inquisition in Goa. But it wasn’t until eight years after Xavier’s death that the plan was set in motion. 

After King John III’s passing in 1557, his only heir was his infant grandson, Sebastian, so the regency was passed along to Dowager Queen Catherine. Queen Catherine was very heavily influenced by Cardinal Henry, John III’s brother. Henry was a very devout Catholic and was determined in bringing the Society of Jesus to Portuguese colonies around the globe. Hence, it was for his persistence that Queen Catherine established the Goa Inquisition in 1560. 

If the pre-Inquisition period was the flickerings of a flame, the placement of the Inquisition was the instigator that turned it into a wildfire. Hundreds of pages of laws and punishments were passed down by an unhinged Portuguese inquisitor with no one to challenge them. Non-Christians were put at a disadvantage in every way possible to compel them into Christianity. Only Christians were allowed to be members of public offices, village clerks or even witnesses in court. Employment opportunities were also only given to Christians. An order was passed that allowed members of the Society of Jesus(Jesuits) to seize orphan or fatherless children and prepare them for conversion. In some cases, the parents of the kids were still alive. The parents’ properties would also be confiscated. People who did convert were given advantages. New Christian women were allowed to inherit their parents’ properties, which, previously, only men were able to. In 1570, a law was passed that exempted converted Christians from land taxes for 15 years.

In 1567, 300 or so temples were demolished in Goa, with restrictions placed on building new ones. Churches took their places. Strict bans were placed on carrying out Hindu marriage and cremation rituals. People could be arrested for simply having an idol at home. In 1684, the Kohlani language, along with any other local languages were forbidden, forcing people to only speak Portuguese. Languages, like Marathi, Sanskrit and Arabic, that were used to write religious books were also banned.

Alongside restrictions and destructions, non-Christians were also being brutally tortured and murdered ever since the Portuguese stepped foot in Eastern soil. Reports dating back to 1539 even suggest the execution of a Christian was carried out due to heresy. Records also show the brutal murder of a Christian individual who was accused of Judaizing in 1543. He was sat on a garrote and then burned to death. The Portuguese had a particular hatred for Spanish Jews who had taken refuge in India, hence making them frequent targets of torture. 

Goan historian Teotónio R. de Souza writes, in his thesis, about grave events such as a “mass baptism”. It was started by the Jesuits where they would browse Hindu areas in search of victims, who they would then rub pieces of beef on, making them “unholy” to others of their kind. Hence, those people would have no choice but to convert to Christianity. Teotónio R. de Souza also says the intention of this Inquisition was not to spread Christianity but to erase Hinduism and Jews in the East.

From 1560 to 1774, when the Inquisition was put on temporary hold, more than 16,000 people were found to have been tried at the inquisitor’s court. The majority of them were inhabitants of Goa, an equal mix of Christians and non-Christians. Seventy-one public punishments called auto-de-fé(the act of faith) were reported to be carried out, where individuals would be tied up and forced to confess to their sins. Inability to do so would result in penalties ranging from torture to being burned to death. 

Based on a recent account, fifty-seven alive and sixty-four dead people had their bodies doused in a fire. Aside from this, more than 4000 people were subject to various other punishments. The dire cries of people being tormented to their death echoed through the prisons, as documented in a book written in 1687 by a witness named Delone, a French traveller. But, records of the Inquisition were promptly wiped out by the Portuguese after its eradication, so we may never know how many people were really killed.  

Aside from a short pause from 1774 to 1778, the Goa Inquisition persisted for 252 years, till 1812, when it was forced to be abolished. During those painfully long years, non-Christian natives of Goa had to dwell in fear of their lives merely because of their religious and cultural identities. Yet, to this day, many worship and praise Francis Xavier’s remains in Goa, unaware that he was the instigator and contributor to an abhorrent genocide. This reveals just how well hidden this event in time has been from the general population. But, just how we have learned about the Holocaust, this period in history is also very necessary for us to recognize so it is not kept in the dark forever.

Riffat Ahmed is the Chairperson of Siddiqui's International School, Treasurer of Bangladesh English Medium School Forum and a Psychology graduate from the University of Dhaka

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