ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Conversion, Catholic Institutions, and Colonialism in Portuguese-controlled Northern Sri Lanka, 1618-1658


Esler Dominic - Independent researcher, Independent researcher (anthropology), St Andrews, United Kingdom


45 – South Asian–Portuguese relationships from the fifteenth century to the present: Colonialism, interactions, and identities


 The priests who accompanied (and sometimes preceded) the expansion of Portuguese rule in Sri Lanka comprised the first of several waves of Catholic missionary activity, and Catholicism was central to Portuguese control of the northern kingdom of Jaffna between 1618 and 1658, the final decades of Portugal’s local presence. During this period the missionaries claimed to have converted almost all local people, an experience that is often associated today with oppression, violence, and the destruction of Hindu temples. Catholicism also appears to have been shed quickly by many after the Dutch took control in 1658, although the Portuguese period plays a different role in the collective memory of Catholics, who compare it to persecution perpetuated by local Hindu rulers and the Dutch. However, despite these contemporary perceptions, the ways in which the Portuguese established and organised Catholicism have been relatively unexplored, particularly in contrast to research on later missionary work under the Dutch and the British. This presentation will explore Portuguese conversion methods and the construction and administration of Catholic institutions, foregrounding the occasionally conflictual relationship between the Church and the State of India as well as missionary attitudes to local culture and society. It will help to understand not only opposition to Catholicism under the Portuguese, but also the persistence of Catholicism among some in the face of later Dutch hostility.