Previous The Indian Background
The Portuguese Church in India
Portuguese traders and missionaries had arrived in India before the coming of the Moghuls. Vasco da Gama established his trading footholds for the King of Portugal in 1498. Landfall in Calicut (a city on the Malabar coast) was achieved in 1498. Although there were Jews, followers of Islam and Syrian Christians established on the Malabar coast, the subcontinent remained primarily Hindu. From their base at Calicut, the Portuguese established other trading missions on the subcontinent. The trade city of Goa was taken by force of arms in 1510. It became the base for the Portuguese empire in Asia, including India, Southeast Asia, China, and briefly Japan. The Portuguese mission of da Gama was invested with ecclesiastical and temporal rights by an exclusive Papal Bull. This authorized Da Gama to search for converts to the faith as well as to trade for spices.
The existence of a Syrian Christian community both surprised and dismayed the Portuguese. The Syrian Christians, on the other hand, welcomed their new-found Portuguese cousins with open arms. They acknowledged them as brothers in Christ and shared Eucharist with them. The Portuguese missionaries established an ecclesial authority under the patronage of the King of Portugal. Under this system (the Padroado), the King of Portugal was authorized to establish all bishoprics in India. The Syrian Christians posed a problem in that they already had their own dioceses and bishops (some six of them were recognized by the Portuguese and even granted financial subsidies). It was this system that was to create bitter contention for the next 400 years and more, involving political struggles within Portugal, between Portugal and her colonies and the papacy, and within the Roman Curia. You can read more about the history of relations between the Portuguese and Indigenous Churches here - Apostolic Succession of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch.
This conflict, which became acute during the nineteenth century, forms the background to the emergence of the Archbishop whom Fr. Vilatte traveled to Colombo to meet in 1891.