In Portugal, where I live, people generally speak in glowing terms of the "Golden Age" of Goa. It was then, during the latter half of the sixteenth century, that a fabulously lucrative spice trade turned a sleepy, palm-shaded Indian port into a world-renowned, multi-cultural city of elegant palaces, churches, gardens, and markets. Yet on reading about this legendary colony, I soon discovered a far darker side to the story . . .
Shortly after Portuguese troops conquered Goa from the Sultan of Bijapur in 1510, they began forcing the tens of thousands of Hindu residents to convert to Christianity. In 1540, during a wave of fanaticism, they destroyed 300 Hindu temples, many of them built in ancient times. Then, in 1545, a Spanish-Jesuit missionary, named Francis Xavier, petitioned the Portuguese Crown to establish the Inquisition. Once the king's approval had been secured, the former Hindu population of Goa, as well as the hundreds of secret Jews living there, found themselves at the complete mercy of the Church. Simply keeping a statue of Shiva in a family shrine, or whispering a Hebrew prayer over the grave of a loved one, became a serious criminal offence. Those discovered to be practicing their old beliefs in secret were summarily arrested and tortured in dungeons, kept in shackles by priests hoping to force them to divulge the names of friends and family members who had joined them in their "heretical" practices.
Prisoners who refused to identify others or give up their beliefs in Hindu or Jewish "sorcery" were strangled by executioners or burnt alive in public Acts of Faith - from 1560 all the way up to 1812, when the Inquisition was finally abolished.
As a writer, I've always been very interested in exposing instances of injustice that other people would prefer to forget, and as soon as I read about this neglected period of unrelenting persecution, I realized I wanted to make it the background for a new volume of my Sephardic Cycle, a series of independent historical novels about different branches and generations of a Portuguese-Jewish family named Zarco. The first two novels in this cycle are The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon and Hunting Midnight, both international bestsellers.
I felt particularly inspired (and angered!) upon learning Francis Xavier, the fanatical priest ultimately responsible for the torture of tens of thousands of Hindus and Jews, had been canonized by Pope Gregory XV in 1622. As far as I know* he remains the patron saint of all the missions of the Catholic Church.
Even though victims of persecution were only ever given their freedom on the condition that they never reveal what they had suffered while in prison, a few courageous men and women dared to write about their experiences - sometimes in excruciating detail - and I was soon able to obtain copies of their narratives. These texts enabled me to accurately describe the workings of the Inquisition and helped me to give emotional depth to the characters in my book who suffer at the hands of the Church - Tiago and Berekiah Zarco, as well as Phanishwar Bakliwal. They also filled me with admiration for the authors and instilled in me an urgent desire to give greater voice to their bravery.
One other important facet to the book I should speak about...
A few years before reading about Goa, I had an idea for a novel that would be a reinterpretation of Shakespeare's Othello, in the tradition of Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres (which reworked King Lear) and Jean Rhys's The Wide Sargasso Sea (which explored some unresolved mysteries in Jane Eyre).
What I wanted to do was take Iago and Othello back to an earlier time when - inside my fictional narrative - they were childhood companions. I felt excited about this idea because it had always seemed to me that the reasons given by Shakespeare for Iago's vicious hatred of Othello were flimsy at best.
What had truly caused the rupture between the two men?
I speculated that it was something traumatic that had happened during their youth, long before the action of Shakespeare's play. Maybe Iago came to seek his Moorish friend's destruction because of a betrayal he could never forgive - something so terrible that it even justified murder.
As I considered the possibilities for this book, I saw that - more than anything else - I wanted to discover why Iago had embraced evil. Understanding the nature of evil - and its allure -has always seemed essential to me, maybe because my central reference point for modern history has always been the Holocaust.
Then came my discovery of the Goa Inquisition, and I realized that I had found the perfect setting for my reinterpretation of Shakespeare. Here was a time and place of wealth and glory, but also of suspicion, fear, cruelty, and vengeance. Here, I would be able to submerge my reinvented "Othello" inside a dramatic story that would interest readers whether or not they had ever seen or read the Shakespeare play. And here, placing my imagination inside a time of merciless religious persecution, I might be able to write something important about the nature of evil and its consequences.
(2) THE GOA INQUISITION
The Goa Inquisition was the office of the Portuguese Inquisition acting in Portuguese India, and in the rest of the Portuguese Empire in Asia. It was established in 1560, briefly suppressed from 1774–1778, and finally abolished in 1812. Based on the records that survive, H. P. Salomon and I. S. D. Sassoon state that between the Inquisition's beginning in 1561 and its temporary abolition in 1774, some 16,202 persons were brought to trial by the Inquisition. Of this number, it is known that 57 were sentenced to death and executed; another 64 were burned in effigy. Others were subjected to lesser punishments or penance, but the fate of many of those tried by the Inquisition is unknown.
The Inquisition was established to punish apostate New Christians—Jews and Muslims who converted to Catholicism, as well as their descendants—who were now suspected of practising their ancestral religion in secret.
In Goa, the Inquisition also turned its attention to Indian converts from Hinduism or Islam who were thought to have returned to their original ways. In addition, the Inquisition prosecuted non-converts who broke prohibitions against the observance of Hindu or Muslim rites or interfered with Portuguese attempts to convert non-Christians to Catholicism.
While its ostensible aim was to preserve the Catholic faith, the Inquisition was used against Indian Catholics and Hindus and also against Portuguese settlers from Europe (mostly New Christians and Jews but also Old Christians) as an instrument of social control, as well as a method of confiscating property and enriching the Inquisitors.
Most of the Goa Inquisition's records were destroyed after its abolition in 1812, and it is thus impossible to know the exact number of those put on trial and the punishments they were prescribed.
(3)In 1567, the campaign of destroying temples in Bardez met with success. At the end of it 300 Hindu temples were destroyed. Enacting laws, prohibition was laid from December 4, 1567 on rituals of Hindu marriages, sacred thread wearing and cremation. All the persons above 15 years of age were compelled to listen to Christian preaching, failing which they were punished. In 1583, Hindu temples at Assolna and Cuncolim were destroyed through army action. "The fathers of the Church forbade the Hindus under terrible penalties the use of their own sacred books, and prevented them from all exercise of their religion. They destroyed their temples, and so harassed and interfered with the people that they abandoned the city in large numbers, refusing to remain any longer in a place where they had no liberty, and were liable to imprisonment, torture and death if they worshipped after their own fashion the gods of their fathers." wrote Filippo Sassetti, who was in India from 1578 to 1588. An order was issued in June 1684 for suppressing the Konkani language and making it compulsory to speak the Portuguese language. The law provided for dealing toughly with anyone using the local language. Following that law all the non-Christian cultural symbols and the books written in local languages were sought to be destroyed.
Methods such as repressive laws, demolition of temples and mosques, destruction of holy books, fines and the forcible conversion of orphans were used.
(4)A JEWISH PAST ANNIHILATED OVER TIME
PANAJI: The British preserved the urban heritage of the Jews in Bombay, but their counterpart's legacy in Old Goa including ruins of their settlement have disappeared without a trace, Ivar Fjeld, a Norwegian writer said.
Hundreds of Jews were living in Old Goa and had contributed, at one stage, to the building of the former capital during the brief rule of Yusuf Adil Shah (1498-1510). Later, it became famous as one of the largest cities on par with London of that era, Fjeld stated. "The Muslim ruler who was tolerant to people of all religious groups had invited Jews to participate in the construction of the city," Fjeld said.
He was speaking at a function to mark the release of two books, Bombay, exploring the Jewish urban heritage by Shaul Sapir and Jewish martyrs of Old Goa. Fjeld has authored the second book.
Tracing the history of Jewish presence in Goa, he said that the commander of the fleet under the Muslim ruler was a Jew named Gaspar da Gama. "There were two Jewish diamond merchants named Martins," he said.
A street in Old Goa was called Rua dos Judeus or the street of the Jews. "There were synagogues in the city, as acknowledged by historian, Jose Nicolau da Fonseca in his book A historical and archaeological sketch of the city of Goa," Fjeld said.
Fjeld said Jews were burnt at the stake during the inquisition, which lasted from 1560 to 1812. Heretics and Christians who practiced ancestral religion or Jewish rites were brutally tortured and killed, he said. Among those who were burnt included famous botanist, Garcia de Horta's sister.
Another researcher, Pius Malekandathil, has referred to the cruel annihilation of 84 Jewish converts over a time span of 31 years from 1560 to 1591. But Fjeld said that not only Christians who refused to give up Judaism but even Hindus were victims of the crimes and that we should pray for forgiveness for the perpetrators.
Fjeld suggested that a Judeo Christian heritage of west coast of India trust to be formed soon should ask the Portuguese government to tender an apology for the crimes.
Fjeld clarified that he is not a historian, but his findings are based on content in other works. "The knowledge of this dark chapter in our history is hidden and needs to be uncovered," Fjeld said.
Deputy head of mission of Israeli consulate general, Mumbai, Mathan Zamir, Ralphy Jhirad and members of the Jewish community in India attended the function.
(1)Epilogue to ‘Guardian of the Dawn’ - Constable 2005
In 1510 the Portuguese conquered Indian Goa which became a major centre of the spice trade. During their 450 years occupation they established the Inquisition and only allowed Catholicism. Many Hindu temples were converted into churches with mass conversion to Christianity with over 300 churches for a population of 40,000.
In 1961 India absorbed Goa.
Most Inquisition records were destroyed after its abolition in 1812 so the exact number of their victims is unknown. Based on surviving records between its start in 1561 and temporary abolition in 1774, 16,202 persons were brought to trial. Of these, we know 57 were sentenced to death and executed and 64 burned in effigy. Others were subjected to lesser punishments or penanced, but the fate of many victims is unknown