13 Nov 2022  |   05:35am IST

Goa’s inquisition facts, fiction and factoids

With his new book on the Goa Inquisition, Alan Machado (Prabhu) forces us to rethink all that we believe about this institution. Was it as brutal as made out to be? Why did it come about and what did it do? Who built up a ‘Black Legend’ about it? With what motives? His detailed, five-to-six year-long study casts new light on a debate that has often clouded our understanding of Goa.
Goa’s inquisition  facts, fiction and factoids

Where does one begin to tell a story that began over 450 years ago? Of an institution that operated for 250 years? A story deliberately kept secret by that very institution, a fact that allowed others to malign and distort that story and create a Black Legend, mostly without credible evidence, that many of us believe in today?

How much of that story is true, how much false, how much just motivated propaganda? The narrative of Goa’s Inquisition that most of us are familiar with comes mainly from secondary sources, written almost exclusively by Dutch and English writers. They had reason to create the Black Legend, and they created it without access to the rich resource of primary documentation kept secret through the centuries.

Inquisitors recorded the proceedings of every case and preserved them in a secret room (secreto) of the Sabayo Palace. In 1623, Inquisitor Figueira compiled a report (Reportorio) of all case files preserved in the secreto. It is available in Lisbon’s BibliotecaNacional along with a list of autos-da-fe compiled in 1863 by Antonio Moreira. An inventory of all files and other documents created in 1774is available in Lisbon's ArchivoNacional de Torre do Tombo.

My estimate of the total number investigated comes to between 20,000 and 25,000. They tell us a different story than what the Black Legend would like us to believe.

You may well ask why we should trust these documents. For the simple reason that these documents were never meant to be released to the public. The inquisitors believed they were doing God’s and the king’s work. They had no reason to falsify records.

I would like to make a clarification here. While we have about 100 auto-da-fe lists, we have hardly any detailed case files. This is because many were destroyed during the Maratha invasion of 1684 when some documents were sent to Murmugao fort for safe keeping, and others burnt. After the closure in 1812, documents not sent to Rio were most likely burnt.

This absence of information allowed English and Dutch Protestant writers to create the Black Legend during a time when the Netherlands and England were engaged in continual warfare with Spain, and Britain was convulsed by a violent confrontation between Catholic and Protestant factions. The Spanish Inquisition, a Catholic institution belonging to an enemy country, was the ideal target for a vicious propaganda offensive. That Black Legend engulfed Goa’s Inquisition.

Rev Buchanan, a Protestant Englishman, brought this narrative to India at a time when Britain was rapidly expanding its territories in India. It gave him an opportunity to undermine Britain’s main Christian rival in India, Catholic Portugal. The Inquisition and “its fires...lately lighted at Goa” became his principal target. This was blatant misinformation. The fires had died down long since.

Priolkar’s book played a pivotal role in forming public opinion in India. Sadly, just about a third deals with Goa’s Inquisition proper. A major part consists entirely of Dellon’s and Buchanan’s narratives. The rest relies mainly on selective secondary sources.

Without accessing primary sources, Priolkar asserts that “the story of the Inquisition is a dismal record of callousness and cruelty, tyranny and injustice, espionage and blackmail, avarice and corruption, repression of thought and culture and promotion of obscurantism...”. Powerful rhetoric, but untrue. I’m sure Priolkar would have changed his tone if he had access to the vast primary archival resource being digitized and posted online today.

Goan writers of a Catholic background like Tristão de Bragança Cunha also substituted motivated rhetoric for facts and analysis in their propaganda offense against Portuguese rule.

The available auto-da-fe lists contain the names of just 17 women who were burnt in Goa. Most were poor, elderly widows from deprived sections of society, almost certainly prematurely aged by a life of hard labour. It requires an elastic imagination to believe that they could have tickled an inquisitor's fancies.

So, what do these documents tell us?

[1] Goa’s Inquisition was the premier institution used by Portugal to impose a new identity on its subjects and secure their loyalty through ‘social disciplining’.  It attempted to mould diverse and wide-spread subject populations into one nation by being a guardian of religious orthodoxy and imposing a uniform social and cultural code modeled after that in Portugal.

[2] Francis Xavier had nothing with establishing the Inquisition in Goa. All he did was write a letter in 1546, 14 years before the inquisitors arrived in Goa, to the king asking him to send the Inquisition to Asia to counter Jewish and Muslim influences.

[3] The first inquisitors were sent to Goa primarily to counter the perceived threat from the Cristaos-Novos and Islamic influences, not from gentios. Cristaos-Novos (converts from Judaism and Islam) merchants controlled Portugal’s Asian trading network. Rising Ottoman power and long-established Muslim influences in the Indian Ocean and overseas trade routes threatened Portuguese interests.

[4] Goa’s Inquisition could not have operated for 252 years without active support from the State, Church, and elite social groups (naiques).

[5] The Sabayo Palace from which the Inquisition operated was known in Konkani as ‘VhoddlemGhor’. We have two plans of the building dated to 1634 and 1779. It was located near the Se Cathedral and the RuaDireita. Very surprisingly, the 1779 plan carries a legend which states that the large rooms (eight in number) on the ground floor were always rented out to the Gentios (Hindus). One of them was a butcher’s shop. It not only undermines the security of the prison, but also reflects on the power of the inquisitors.

[6] The Inquisition’s authority did not extend to non-Christians unless their offences were related to undermining the Christian character of the State and hindering the Inquisition's operations.

[7] For converts there was no turning back from Christianity. The Inquisition’s operations extended beyond doctrinal issues into the realm of socio-political affairs. The edict of 1736 was an attempt to influence Christian consciences in minute matters of everyday life.

The prosecution of bigamists and sodomites came within the Inquisition’s purview because such offences were seen as threatening the social order. So too, the socially under-privileged castes and professions were confined within the boundaries prescribed by State, religion, and society.

The Inquisition was used against rival European nations in situations where the military option was not feasible by targeting select individuals, for instance Dellon. Anyone dealing with Muslim States, Portugal’s principal rivals in Asia, were similarly prosecuted. When Maratha activity threatened the Estado da India, it was most active in most vulnerable areas and secured bonds of loyalty en masse like in Assolna and Cuncolim, Tivim and Aldona.

[8] Society at large was the Inquisition’s eyes and ears. The Inquisition could never have functioned without the great number of denunciations it received.

[9] A primary focus of an investigation was to obtain a confession and abjuration from a guilty person. Reconciled persons demonstrated their sincerity by humbly undergoing the punishments imposed on them. Execution was generally reserved for the  impenitent, obstinate and dogmatic relapses, and serial sodomites. An execution was a public acknowledgement of the Inquisition’s failure to bring around a guilty person.

[10] Torture and the flames of an auto-da-fe have been successfully implanted in our minds by the Black Legend as an authentic image of a uniquely unrelenting and sadistic Goan Inquisition. However, statistics show Goa’s Inquisition in a far more lenient light than that of Evora and Lisbon, or for that matter, contemporary England.

[11] Following the General Council’s recommendation that converts be treated with “mildness” so that they were not driven away from the Church, in the early years, the Inquisition severely punished transgressing converts only for the second relapse, that is the third time.

[12] The Inquisition’s judicial procedure was governed by well-drafted regulations and implemented by qualified officials appointed after due diligence. Many of its features can be seen in modern courts.

[13] Goa had three courts, Civil (for civil matters), Ecclesiastical (for church matters), and the Inquisition which dealt with heresy, apostacy, gentiladade, sorcery, bigamy, sodomy, offences related to Islamism and Judaism, priestly violations (heresy and doctrinal errors, impeding the Inquisition, solicitation in the confessional, sigilism), obstruction the Inquisition’s operations, etc. It had no jurisdiction over non-Christians except when they were seen to lure Christians away from faith or impeded the Inquisition.

[14] While the Inquisition conducted its trials in great secrecy, it held a very public ceremony to publicise its judgements and especially highlight its motto ‘Justice and Mercy’. This ceremony was the auto-da-fe (literally ‘act of faith’). I highlight the central theme of an auto-da-fe: The abjuration and reconciliation of a heretic who had been automatically excommunicated when taken into custody.

[15] The Inquisition’s activities in Bardes open interesting insights into its motives. It was most active here as the Maratha threat intensified (1664-1736). The construction and defence of the network of fortifications between Colvale and Tivim between 1635 and 1681 imposed a heavy burden on its inhabitants economically and by way of forced conscriptions of younger men. Food production fell drastically. Many of Tivim’s and Aldona’s inhabitants migrated to Kanara. Here, like in Assolna (1686) and Cuncolim (1694), it obtained mass formal oaths of loyalty from converts. In 1664, 104 persons from Tivim, 73 from Moira, and 23 from Sircaim abjured em forma (formally). Mapusa saw its highest numbers in 1651 when 16 members of the Braganca clan (Chardo, ganvkars) were sentenced.

[16] Aldona features prominently in the first years after conversions, and again as the Maratha wars intensified. In the earlier phase many names that appear in Ghantkar’s translation of ganvkari records between 1595 and 1605 can be found. The first Aldonkar to fall foul of the Inquisition was Lourenco Ferrao of the third vangod. He appeared at the auto-da-fe at the Se Cathedral in 1592 for consulting sorcerers and sacrificing goats and roosters at temples.

[17] At least 287 priests, about 1.5% of the total number, were investigated for various offences.

[18] The Inquisition has been accused of causing large scale emigrations. Analysis of historical evidence clearly shows this is untrue. Some influential Brahmans who chose to resist coercive conversion laws were expelled or left Goa from the 1560s. However, the majority remained and rose to prominence as diplomats, interpreters, and mainly in economic and commercial spheres. Major emigrations of Christians spanned a century (1650-1750). This period coincides with the beginning and peaking of Maratha invasions of Goa and the fall of the Provincia do Norte. In 1689, for instance, the viceroy advised the king that Sambaji’s invasion of Bardes had caused many natives of Tivim to emigrate to Kanara. By 1784, Kanara contributed to perhaps 20% of the combined Goa-Kanara Christian population - about 50,000.

[19] During this period of peak Christian emigrations from Goa, the Inquisition focused almost entirely on the Provincia do Norte (71% of cases). It had delegated much of its responsibility of maintaining the social order, though not its judicial powers, to naiques drawn from prominent and influential local Goans.

[20] The number of persons investigated, compiled from the 1774 inventory and auto-da-fe lists, is roughly 19,000. Socially deprived members of society (castes and professions) comprise the highest percentage. Non-Christians constituted 25%.

[21] Details available from 136 auto-da-fe lists reveal 177 were executed and the effigies were burnt of 154 who were absent or dead.  

[22] Spiritual instruction and penances, wearing ‘costumes of infamy’ (sanbenito, carocha) were common punishments for Christians. Other punishments included terms in the gun powder factory or galleys, exile, and fines. Whipping was also common, especially for non-Christians. In later years, some non-Christians escaped punishment by converting. About 4% of those investigated were absolved.

I'll end this article on a personal note. I did not find any Macedos from Aldona on the auto-da-fe lists.


Iddhar Udhar