10 Aug 2021  |   04:43am IST

The extinct convent of Old Goa which formed the black priests well ahead of USA

The extinct convent of Old Goa which formed the black priests well ahead of USA

J. M. John Marshal

When the early modern era of human history was flooded with the busy slave trade of the enslaved Africans, the convent of St. Dominic in Old Goa acted as the site of consolation and refuge for the enslaved. August 8th marks the feast of St. Dominic the founder of the Dominican order of the Catholic church. The followers of St. Dominic were known as the Dominicans and they established their first convent in India in today’s Old Goa by 1548. Owing to the Anti-religious policy of the Portuguese this convent was confiscated in 1835 and it became extinct.

Beginning in about 1530 many African slaves were imported from East Africa to Goa. They were generally used by the Portuguese in business, on farms, in domestic positions and in other menial jobs in Goa. They were treated very cruelly by their Portuguese masters. However, the convent of the Dominicans afforded shelter to them. The Dominicans formed them into a confraternity and exhorted their masters to give them kind treatment. The slaves fled in such numbers to this convent. Unfortunately, the Dominicans had limited funds at their disposal (600,000 to 800,000 reis) and they were obliged to moderate the tone of their sermons. But they did everything possible in their limited capacity to emancipate the African slaves who experienced unjust cruelty at the hands of their masters.

In the early modern Goa, the church was instituted and controlled by the Portuguese priests. The native Goans themselves faced challenges in becoming Priests. In that challenging climate there were a few African priests among the clergy and those priests who were able to rise to such a position all served at the Convent of Santa Barbara in Chimbel. The Dominicans established their Convent of Santa Barbara in Chimbel in the early 17th century. The African priests who served in this convent were Fathers Miguel, Constantine (also called Prince Mapeze), and his brother Joas. They were the sons of the emperor of Monomotapa in East Africa (This empire existed in the territories of the countries of Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique & South Africa between 1430-1760).

Since the beginning of the 17th century the Dominicans were authorized to operate in this Mutapa empire. Father Miguel was the son of a Mutapa king Kapararidze. The governor of Mozambique, Nuno Alvares Pereira entrusted him to the Viceroy of India, D. Miguel de Noronha, Count of Linhares (1629-34) who in turn entrusted him to the Dominican friar Luiz de Espirito Santo. The young prince was sent by him to Goa and he was educated by the Dominicans. He was then sent to Lisbon where he received the Dominican habit and took the religious name – ‘Miguel da Presentacao’. After few years he was ordained a priest and sent to Bacaim (Todays Vasai, near Mumbai). Later he was appointed as the vicar of the Convent of Santa Barbara in Chimbel. In 1650 the king of Portugal asked this prince-friar to succeed as the emperor of the Mutapa empire. However, this virtuous friar humbly declined the offer and preferred to stay in Goa in the village of Chimbel. He taught theology and he became famous for his piety. In 1670 the master genera of the Dominican order, Thomas Rocaberti, awarded him the title of Master in Theology. He probably died shortly afterwards.

When racism shut down the way for the emancipation of the enslaved, the Dominicans in the early modern Goa tried their best to counter this by providing a sacred asylum for the oppressed and promoting some Africans for the priesthood. It was in 1886 that the United States of America had its first African priest. However, the fact that Goa had formed illustrious African priests’ centuries before, thanks to the efforts of the sons of St. Dominic is a matter of pride for every Goan.

(The writer is a Goa-based researcher on the Carmelite religious congregation).


Iddhar Udhar