Conversions, the Papuan and Lankan way
No. I have never been to this large Pacific Island of Papua New
Guinea nor do I hope to go there in my limited future. But I got tickled
by the conversion adventures of an Irish Christian missionary, Father
O'Neil as recorded by him, especially as it opens a window on the varied
human dramas that have been staged in the world especially in the name
Conversions, especially unethical conversions is almost a dirty word
today. It is with gritted teeth that we speak about or write about the
Portuguese who came here with the Bible in one hand and sword in
another, as poetical historians put it. Much resistance was offered and
that is mostly due to the fact that we already had a very
well-established religion here. Further force was used for these
conversions in an island where the first conversion of the natives to
Buddhism was a completely peaceful one, a Dhamma Vijaya victory.
To come to our main story, the Irish monks decided to get bronzed by
the equatorial sun of the Pacific island area as late as the 20th
century. No religion existed there but to recompense there was a simple
belief woven around two figureheads, one standing for good named Nutu
and the other for evil, Saia. The opposition was always needed to create
a balance. Father O'Neil who led the team later wrote a book on the
whole conversion drama, titled We, the People. He, according to the
book, had never been bored in this strange land corroded by sea and
roofed by emerald hills. Here is an excerpt from the chapter titled, "On
converting a primitive."
"You come to a village for the first time. You see a little child and
wishing to show like a political candidate that you do not eat children
but are very fond of them, you in tone, "Ata boy, Tootsie Wootsie.Fuzzy.
Wuxxy.Pikkini (gibberish that no one understands) and move on swollen
with good will to convert the tribe.
Languages in Papua New Guinea are being lost and may only
survive in ceremonies.
But alas! The boy thus patted had died a few days later of a fever.
For a few weeks after that, parents used to hide their children when the
Father was on his conversion rounds attributing the death to the
affectionate pat by an Evil Incarnate, in the form of a white ghost come
from a far off country. That weakened his Christian propaganda in the
Pacific Islands for quite a time.
But the young catechist never gave up. So persistent was he that
they, the natives finally yielded. There were many missionaries going
around by this time and all White, that the bemused natives could hardly
differentiate one from the other.
Here is a conversation to prove the point.The friar having lost his
way somewhat talks to a native hunting in a forested area. "Is there a
The native proudly waxes on his village.
"Yes. My village, Pomio is just ahead. We have now got a Government
office and hospital too. Also a Mission across the Bay. "Really boons.
He adds that a priest comes all the way from Mal Mal to hold Mass. The
author of We, the People, writes that the White friars roaming in this
island were so alike to the natives that "were I to stand before them,
they would not recognise me."
The friars tried to clothe the native girls who went about in leaves,
but the natives opposed it. To them it was just covering innocence. The
clothes hiding their bodies provides unnecessary curiosity and triggered
vile acts. Yet they got on, despite such differences.
The author of We the people is the Parish priest of Mal Mal sited
near the Parish of Pul Pul. The names are musical, just as the islands
were lovely. At the time of the Great Conversion, the island was mostly
matted primeval forest and swampland with blue green hills merging into
the skies and providing a heavenly backstage to God's intentions with
the Pacific ocean itself kicking up colonnades of blue water.
It was an ideal hub for God's work that the Father intended of
pooling the pagans to the flock. The converter himself was a Post
graduate scholar in Metaphysics in a European university who knew how to
get round "the pagans."
The friar said the conversion of a primitive is a slow and difficult
work and weighed down with plans that go awry. But we were far from
primitives when our coastal people were subject to the cruel tactics of
conversion of General Azavedo who threw overboard the Kelani river those
who refused to be converted. And pierced infants with spikes while
mothers let out wails of grief.
Of lesser horror was the conversion of 60,000 Buddhists and Hindus on
one single day along the North Western coast. That was again in the
Portuguese era. It is surmised that the conversion was facilitated by
the fact that most of them were fisherfolk, to whom the Pancha Seela had
been a deterrent to their career.
"Thou shalt not kill". But now not only no explicit taboo was set on
killing, but even a special saint appointed to look after those going
out to sea. Added to them were those going over, lured by plums of
titles, offices and wealth.
Queroz gives an account of how all the high officers in the Kotte
Royal Court converted to Christianity along with king Dharmapala in
1551. The Bandaras and the Ekanaikes threw overboard their national
identities and transformed themselves into Pereras, Costas, Kureras and
what not, names that they still carry though some reverted in faith.
Tha Papuan New Guineans, to their credit had retained their original
names such as Gogoreakapangamalogo! (one who deceives by words)!
Viewing from the point of human history these forms of conversion
stand out as stark human drama, some humorous, some benign, some
outrageous and demonic.
And gods above, they never were aware of what was happening down
below in their name. for, excuse me, most of them were non-existent.