Christianity and colonialism: Columbus, St. Xavier and Gandhi
While the people and the princes of Europe were struggling to free themselves from the hold of religion, Christianity found the means to expand in newly discovered lands. So, while the Roman Empire had collapsed centuries earlier, a new world empire, Christian Empire, was about to begin. Its founder was a mariner of genius and a ruthless mass murderer known as Christopher Columbus. He was to revive the Christian theocratic empire and plant it in the Americas. It was colonialism in the name of God and Christ. In his letter to his sponsors Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, Columbus wrote:
“I should be judged as a captain who went from Spain to the Indies to conquer a people numerous and warlike, whose manner and religion are very different from ours… and where by divine will I have placed under the sovereignty of the King and Queen your Lords, an Other World, whereby Spain, which was reckoned poor, is become the richest of countries.”
Only for Christians
And this was to be in the name of Christ. According to his letter to ‘Their Christian Majesties,’ Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain: “Your Highnesses have an Other World here by which our holy faith can be so greatly advanced from which such great wealth can be drawn… And I say that Your Highnesses ought not to consent that any foreigner does business or sets foot here [in America], except Christian Catholics, since this was the end and the beginning of the enterprise, that it should be for the enhancement and glory of the Christian religion…”
This Christianization of the Americas was followed by the greatest genocide in history, surpassing the Islamic record in India and even the horrors inflicted by Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Whole civilizations of Native Americans were exterminated. Historians estimate that 85 percent of the native populations in the Americas were wiped out. Bartolomé de Las Casas, a contemporary of Columbus and an eyewitness to the massacres wrote:
“As for the vast mainland [Mexico and its neighbors] which is ten times larger than Spain, … we can be sure that our Spaniards with their cruel and abominable acts, have devastated and exterminated the rational [non-Christian] people who fully inhabited it. We can estimate very surely and truthfully that in the forty years that have passed, with the infernal actions of the Christians, there have been unjustly slain more than twelve million men, women and children. In truth, I believe without trying to deceive myself, that the number of slain is more like fifteen million.”
Indian Christian leaders who shed crocodile tears over the treatment of the tribal people in India – why are they silent about the genocide of Native Americans? Textbooks in Europe and America freely mention these. Las Casas, a Christian priest himself, made no bones about Christian greed being the culprit:
“Their reasons for killing and destroying such an infinite number of souls is that the Christians have an ultimate aim, which is to acquire gold, and to swell themselves with riches in a very brief time and thus rise to a high estate disproportionate to their merits. It should be kept in mind that their insatiable greed and ambition, the greatest ever seen in the world, is the cause of their villainies.”
The Portuguese were every bit as rapacious as the Spaniards, but their scope in India was checked because of the presence powerful kingdoms like the Vijayanagar. Still, ‘Saint’ Xavier instituted the Goa Inquisition which was worse than anything in Europe. Thousands were burnt at the stake. It is no coincidence that of all the regions in India, only Goa has no culture to speak of. It comes into the news only when there is some murder, rape or some such atrocity.
Such rapacity is by no means limited to the Catholic Church. Protestant British missionaries also played an active role in advancing imperial interests. The staunchly Protestant missionary David Livingston, who is projected as a great humanitarian, was a British imperial agent. He let out the truth in a letter to a close friend:
“All this machinery had for its ostensible objective the development of African trade and promotion of civilization; but what I can tell to none but such as you, in whom I have confidence, is that I hope it may result in an English colony in the healthy high lands of Central Africa.”
Devil quoting scripture
Kenyan freedom fighter Jomo Kenyatta put it in more colorful language: “When the missionaries came, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray’. We closed our eyes. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible!”
This is not limited to Africa. In India also, in most cities, prime properties are owned by the Churches, thanks to the generosity of the British rulers. (Unless it was a gift they received from Jesus.) The maharajas have lost their privileges like the privy purses, but the churches have kept their colonial benefits. They have also retained their links to foreign institutions like the Vatican, Church of England and the like. The British rewarded the missionaries for supporting their colonial rule.
Of late, with Hindus objecting to aggressive missionary activities, Church leaders, including the Pope, have begun invoking Gandhi and his nonviolence. This is like the Devil quoting scripture. The Pope failed to mention that Gandhi also said: “If I had the power to legislate I would outlaw conversions.” Nor did he ask his flock to follow Jesus’s teaching to turn the other cheek. The churches’ record during the colonial period leaves no doubt they were colonial institutions fiercely opposed to the national movement. Hardly any Christians participated in the Freedom Movement. They had their faces turned to Europe. Seven decades after Independence things have changed little.
The missionaries went much further than ordinary Britishers in supporting such brutal laws as the Rowlatt Act and even the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre. In 1920, the Christian Missionary Review described Gandhi as an “unscrupulous and irresponsible demagogue”. It said that unless put down, Gandhi and his nationalism would emerge as “one of the dangerous phenomena of present day politics in India”.
The Madras Christian College Magazine, in its October 1921 issue, declared, “We have always regarded the doctrines he has been preaching and the policy he has advocated as pernicious.” The journal then went on to offer a homily: All those who want “peace and sobriety of life and progress” should reject the “sophistry of non-violence”. It is strange now that the Pope should be invoking the same Gandhi and his “sophistry of nonviolence”!
Bishop Henry Whitehead not only supported the Rowlatt Act but went on to denigrate the nationalist agitation and its leaders as irresponsible and ungrateful. Another missionary publication, The Young Men of India, heaped praise on Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the brutal Lt Governor of Punjab, who forced Indians to crawl before white women saying that he was “the strongest and best ruler the country has had in modern times”. The Harvest Field, another missionary journal, was quick to point out that during the nationalist uprising against the Rowlatt Act, Indian Christians were not found “wanting in loyalty to the (British) Government”. The International Review of Missions was clear in its pronouncement that the means and methods adopted by the British to put down the uprising in Punjab were neither un-Christian nor a blot on British rule.
After the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, Marcella Sherwood, speaking on behalf of the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society, and Rev Canon Guildford, representing the Church Missionary Society, were to later applaud Gen Dyer’s brutality, saying it was “justified by its results”. The Christian Missionary Review, describing Gen Dyer as a “brave man”, said his action was “the only means of saving life”. Missionaries saw nothing wrong in brutality and the massacre, finding them “neither un-Christian not a blot on British rule!” This, when many ordinary men and women in Britain were ashamed of the brutality and denounced it.
Against India ruled by Indians
This is not just a matter of history. India churches remain subservient to foreign organizations like the Vatican. Its priesthood, though more politicians than spiritual leaders, are appointed by foreign officials like the Pope. They have never reconciled to India being a free country. They act as though Indians including Hindus should behave like the subjects of an imperial power. They also hold on to privileges that they received from their former colonial masters.
This raises a fundamental question: can these colonial institutions, still owing allegiance to foreign masters, still enjoy tax and other privileges? This should be the topic for a new debate. This also explains the persistent hostility of ‘human rights’ activists like John Dayal to nationalist aspirations.
It is a matter of regret that while there is no shortage of Bible thumping missionaries and secular ignoramuses, there is no Biblical scholarship worth the name in India. The Indian intelligentsia seems to lose its critical faculties and give in to slavish inertia when it comes to studying the sources of Christianity. A few Hindu scholars like the late Ram Swarup have analyzed Christianity from a pluralistic Hindu perspective, but I know of no serious work on the history of Christianity by an Indian scholar, Christian or Hindu. There is The Goa Inquisition: The terrible tribunal for the East by A.K. Priolkar (Voice of India, New Delhi), but it a specialized monograph that covers only one aspect of the subject. It is, however, an outstanding work and an indispensable source.
By N S Rajaram