Tuesday, 25 November 2014

ST. FRANCIS XAVIER AND THE HEALTH OF THE PORTUGUESE EMPIRE



The symbolic importance of St. Francis Xavier to the people of Goa need not be repeated every time we discuss his miracles, or every ten years when his mortal remains are thrown open for public veneration and display. Venerated as Goencho Saib, the importance of his incorruptible body for the colonial as well as the post-colonial administration of Goa (for purposes of tourism) can also be clearly seen.

His importance as someone who watches over Goa, has clearly outlived the colonial times. As I write this column, the preparations for this year’s Exposition seem to be slowly progressing: hopefully, from Old Goa looking like a “war zone”, in the words of a friend, to being orderly and organized. While many of the stories surrounding the miracles of Xavier are fairly commonly known in Goa with more emphasis placed on the religious and spiritual efficacy, they are rarely told as stories that had a particular historical context. What else, other than the healing and efficacious powers of the saint, can these miracles tell us?

While dwelling upon the symbolic importance of Xavier through time, let me refer to Pamila Gupta’s essay, “‘Signs of Wonder’: The Postmortem Travels of Francis Xavier in the Indian Ocean,” to locate the miraculous powers of Xavier in a particular historical context. Through her reading of biographies and/or hagiographies of Xavier written by his fellow Jesuits, largely around the time when the drive for his canonization was gaining momentum, Gupta argues that these ‘signs of wonder’ or miracles (in common parlance) associated with the remains of Xavier tell us about alternate networks of circulation of trade and colonialism in Portuguese Asia.  As such these networks of circulation and stories associated with Xavier’s incorruptible body were not directly linked to imperialism and colonialism emerging from European centers. Rather, they opened up new experiences of colonialism through travel by sea, Christianization, and the patterns of monsoon winds.

Gupta broadens her field of analysis to view Xavier’s incorruptible body as simultaneously “a commodity, a gift, a relic, a person, and a thing” that allows her to see how the mortal remains were treated in Sancian, Malacca, and Goa against the backdrop of the reach of Portuguese commercial and political power, and the success of Jesuit missionary activities in these regions. These three places are not simply associated with the mortal remains in Xavier’s postmortem travels, but they were also actively part of his travels and missionary activities while he was alive.

After Xavier’s death in Sancian, his mortal remains could not be fully appreciated there “because of the limits of Portuguese statehood – Sancian was less a colonial outpost than a temporary safe haven for commercial traffic at this time” that necessitated the transfer of his incorruptible body to Malacca. Though, Xavier’s mortal remains did show miraculous signs in Sancian, the Portuguese settlers there failed to honor him with a proper burial. Moreover, though there was an absence of a “sustained church and state activity”, Xavier still exhibited numerous signs of incorruptness and sanctity.

In Malacca, however, Xavier’s mortal remains were received with a greater honour. His mortal remains were taken out in a procession in that city, where immediately some people were healed. Xavier also rid Malacca of an ongoing plague, his sanctity “rubbing off onto this colonial outpost [that is, Malacca] in a way reminiscent of European relics which often acted to protect and secure its new community”. But during the five months that Xavier’s mortal remains were kept in Malacca, they were damaged yet again due to the grave being too small. Moreover, the burial in Malacca happens in the absence of his fellow Jesuits (like in Sancian) and the Governor of Malacca, suggesting an absence of the powers of the church and the state. Gupta states that “in the end, Xavier’s poor treatment during his internment here exposes the vulnerabilities of church, state, and [Portuguese] public, thus prompting his subsequent removal from Malacca”.

The city of Goa being the capital of the Portuguese presence in Asia, and a place whose importance is not just confined to the political and commercial, but also encompasses the symbolic, receives the would-be saint with much honour and celebration. Gupta makes a fine observation in this regard: “Unlike both Sancian and Malacca, where his corpse was intermittently valued and poorly treated, Xavier is fully appreciated in Goa. Moreover, the elaborately ritualized reception of Xavier’s holy relic in Velha Goa will be unlike either of the events that were staged in Sancian and Malacca; that Xavier intercedes in exposing a perfect balance of church, state, and public at this valued site also explains why his postmortem travels end here”.

If we try to reflect on Gupta’s view of the telling of Xavier’s remarkable story of postmortem travels as an act that bestows a different value on the object of the story – Xavier and his incorruptible body – we can appreciate how Xavier was simply not a missionary who wanted to convert people to Christianity, but as in life and death somebody who ‘performed’ miracles and exhibited ‘signs of wonder’ within a specific and definite historical context. In life and in death, Xavier emerges as a person who struggled against the Portuguese administration in Asia. Like Xavier, the Portuguese administration also struggled to maintain the health of its Empire.

Miracles do happen – perhaps even on an everyday basis – but it is important to also see them within a historical framework and not outside of it.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 26 November, 2014)

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