"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.

But if cinnamon was the main attraction, Ceylon provided others in the form of precious stones, pearls, elephants and ivory, which led to the Portuguese building a fort at Colombo in 1518. From early days they had hopes of converting to Christianity one or other of the three kings who divided the island between them in 1521, but the civil warfare which resulted, and in which the Portuguese became embroiled, did not facilitate the work of conversion. It seemed for a time that they might achieve their object when Dharmapala, the last king of the Kotte dynasty, which claimed paramountcy over the island, died childless in 1597, for by a deed of gift dated seventeen years earlier he had bequeathed his dominions and the overlordship of Ceylon to the King of Portugal. This donation was not recognized by the rulers of the highland kingdom of Kandy, who maintained their independence in a series of wars remarkable for their bitterness and their vicissitudes.

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