"Christians and Spices": Portuguese Missionaries in Ceylon, 1515-1658

C.R. Boxer finds that the methods used - or alleged to have been used - by Portuguese proselytizers more than three hundred years ago, remain a “living issue in Ceylon politics.”

“Christians and spices” was the answer allegedly given by one of Vasco da Gama’s men to some astonished Tunisian traders on the west coast of India who asked what had brought the Portuguese pioneers round the Cape of Good Hope to Calicut in 1498. The close association between God and Mammon, which was the hall-mark of the Portuguese missionary and commercial empire in the East, was also responsible for their arrival in Ceylon seven years later. Sri Lanka, “the supremely beautiful island,” was then the only place in the world where the stunted cinnamon tree was cultivated, and its fragrant bark yielded a spice which was even more highly valued than the Malabar pepper and the Moluccan cloves, mace, and nutmegs which had originally tempted the Portuguese to the East.

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