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Faith in Conquest: Colonialism and Catholic Conversion in Goa

Responding to: Religious Freedom Research Project Summer 2018 Fellowship Reports

By: Aditi Rajeev Shirodkar

July 9, 2018

At the height of the brutal evangelizing mission in colonial Goa, European missionaries, travelers, and residents wrote with astonishment of colonized Goans’ fervent embrace of Christianity. Converts seemed to display more discipline and passion in their profession of the faith than the Portuguese colonizers themselves. However, because of this demonstrated surrender to a faith imposed upon them, Goans provoked anxieties regarding the sincerity of their conversions and were subject to persecution—both punished by colonial authorities and ostracized by fellow indigenes.

My dissertation tackles the fraught concept of “forced conversion” with a two-fold exploration of religious agency and freedom. First, in contrast with existing studies that have focused on resistance or syncretism or accommodation in colonial conversion (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991, 1997; Engelke 2004; Henn 2014; Keane 2007; Vicente 1988; Xavier 2008), my dissertation focuses on submission to an imposed religion: a phenomenon that can be studied extensively beyond the case of Goa—for example in the Philippines, Mexico, Iceland, and even the United States. Second, I demonstrate how such ardent submission to religion defies political expectations of obedience and leads various political actors to mobilize the figure of the ardent convert to anchor disparate forms of domination.

While dominant theories suggest that religious conversion occurs when the benefits outweigh the costs (Finke and Stark 1992; Gill 1998; Gryzmala-Busse 2012), the kind of zeal that emerged and persisted in colonial Goa in the face of social and material disincentives highlights an affective relationship to religion that is beyond mere prudence. I argue that in enacting the ritualistic procedures of Christianity that colonial missionaries forced upon them, native converts cultivated dispositions in line with Christian teachings, and formed intense emotional attachments to their new religion, exceeding the demands of imperial rule. Being inducted into the same epistemic community as their rulers, converts assumed common categories of value, virtue, and duty; they even shared interpretations of history. But they invoked these categories in affirming very different political ends, demanding inclusion and the right to also partake in the evangelizing missions. As a result, rather than being subsumed within the colonial space of domination, converts vastly expanded their domain of action. As Christians, they were the moral peers of their imperial rulers. I argue that colonial conscription into Christianity provided Goans with the spiritual and intellectual vocabulary to stake claims to moral authority and thereby question the political terms by which they were governed.

Such an ardent profession of faith stoked anxieties of insincerity among the Portuguese for theological and political reasons. Portugal’s claim to sovereignty in India was rooted in the need to convert pagan souls, and the Church fathers emphasized the need for sincerity in the act of conversion. Politically speaking, however, the colonizers expected conversion to produce loyal, obedient vassals by establishing parameters for acceptable behavior, and any deviance raised concerns about sincere conversion. In exceeding colonial parameters and asserting their independent relationship with Christianity—through appeals to Rome, for example—native converts undermined Portugal’s moral authority and threatened the empire’s conditions of rule. Thus, Catholic conversion in Goa demonstrates how the specific theological content of a universalistic religion could undergird both political assertions to violent domination as well as countervailing appeals for equality and freedom.

Questions about sincerity in the act of conversion color present-day politics as well. Religious minorities with histories of “forced conversion” continue to be treated with suspicion in postcolonial societies like India, where Hindu nationalists often deride Christians as “lapsed Hindus” —remnants of foreign incursions who must be either reformed or expelled. My dissertation contends that conversion demands special attention because it can be more disruptive to public life (Viswanathan 1998) than other religious experiences—radically altering understandings of self and community, generating new ethical imperatives, challenges, and opportunities, and raising important questions about the politics of religious devotion.

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Faith in Conquest: Colonialism and Catholic Conversion in Goa