A seventeenth century Jesuit in Goa
Review by Nicholas Schofield
Think of the Elizabethan Jesuits, and one’s mind immediately turns to heroic martyrs and secret missioners – the world of Campion, Southwell and Persons.
Thomas Stephens is not normally included in this impressive list; and yet, as this well-written and researched book by Nicholas Fogg points out, he deserves greater recognition as a pioneering missionary. Unlike many of his confrères, though, he worked among the jungles of Goa rather than the hills and woods of England.
Born in 1549 at Bushton Manor in Wiltshire, Thomas Stephens was educated at Winchester College and (probably) New College, Oxford. Influenced by a Jesuit lay brother, Thomas Pounde, Stephens embraced the Catholic Faith and entered the Jesuit novitiate in Rome in 1575.
Sailing to Goa
Four years later he found himself aboard the Săo Lourenço sailing out of Lisbon towards the mission field of India. A letter sent to his father describes the voyage in detail and his amazement at seeing sharks, flying fish and a Portuguese Man of War (‘like a cocks coombe but the colour much fairer … and beareth underneath in the water strings which save it from turning over’).
Stephens was probably the first Englishman to sail round the Cape of Good Hope and the first to ‘make a significant impact’ on the sub-continent, long before the days of the East India Company and the Raj. He was not, however, the first Englishman to visit India. Fogg reminds us that as early as 883, if the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is to be believed, Alfred the Great sent two of his household to Rome and then ‘also to India and St Thomas and St Bartholomew’ – a fact that my Goan and Keralan parishioners were interested to hear!
Letters and news
Much of what we know about Stephens’ life come from his surviving correspondence. It is astonishing that such communication was possible, despite the many obstacles, though there was no such thing as next day delivery: one letter sent from his brother in France was dated 28 May 1581 and reached Goa on 24 October 1583. It brought news, among other things, of the martyrdom of St Edmund Campion. Stephens’ missionary enterprise was clearly known about in interested circles in England, not all of which were Catholic – indeed, early English merchants arriving in Goa appealed to him for support in the face of official suspicion. The letter to his father describing his voyage to Goa was also sufficiently well known to be quoted in Principall Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English Nation by Richard Hakluyt, an Anglican priest.
Given the limited sources available to the biographer, it will come as no surprise that the majority of Forgotten Englishman is not specifically about Stephens but examines the context of his life, much of which will probably be unfamiliar – at least it was to this reviewer. There are interesting sections on Goa as the ‘Rome of the East,’ its various institutions (including the Inquisition), the St Thomas Christians, the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great, and the Jesuit missionary Roberto de Nobili.
The Father of Christian Literature in India
Nevertheless, Stephens’ achievements are undisputable. He compiled the first Konkani grammar and catechism – the latter was only the second book to be printed in an Indian language and the first in Konkani. He helped develop the Latin script of Konkani (Romi Konkani), now used by around 7% of Konkani speakers.
Stephens also wrote the Christian Purāna (1614) in a mixture of Konkani and Marathi, telling the salvation story in a way that was rooted in the local culture. Since Christian concepts could not always be readily understood, Stephens used more familiar concepts – Vaikuntha, the eternal home of the Supreme Lord Vishnu, seemed a good borrowing for Heaven, or mokşa/mukti for salvation (meaning emancipation). The work is regarded as a masterpiece of Indian literature, and its author has been called the ‘Father of Christian Literature in India.’
This Wiltshire Jesuit continues to be remembered in Goa: there is, for example, a Father Stephens Academy School in the Vasei (Bassein) District and an institute devoted to issues related to the Konkani language, the Thomas Stephens Konknni Kendr (TSKK). Hopefully, this book will serve as a reminder that Elizabethan Catholics had an impact far beyond this sceptred isle.