In 1510 the Portuguese conquered Indian Goa when it became a major centre of the
spice trade their stay lasting over 450 years. During this time Christian conversions
started with the help of the Inquisition only Catholicism being allowed. Many Hindu
temples were destroyed and mass conversion to Christianity took place. Goa reached
its Golden Age with over 300 churches and a population of 40,000.
In 1961 Jawaharlal Nehru sent armed forces and India took over Goa.
Most of the Goa Inquisition's records were destroyed after its abolition in 1812,
and it is thus impossible to know the exact number of the Inquisition's victims.
Based on the records that survive, H. P. Salomon and I. S. D. Sassoon state that
between the Inquisition's beginning in 1561 and its temporary abolition in 1774,
some 16,202 persons were brought to trial by the Inquisition. Of this number, it
is known that 57 were sentenced to death and executed in person; another 64 were
burned in effigy. Others were subjected to lesser punishments or penanced, but the
fate of many of the Inquisition's victims is unknown. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goa_Inquisition)
In Portugal, where I live, people generally speak in glowing terms of the "Golden
Age" of Goa. It was then, during the latter half of the sixteenth century, that a
fabulously lucrative spice trade turned a sleepy, palm-shaded Indian port into a
world-renowned, multi-cultural city of elegant palaces, churches, gardens, and markets.
Yet on reading about this legendary colony, I soon discovered a far darker side to
the story . . .
Shortly after Portuguese troops conquered Goa from the Sultan of Bijapur in 1510,
they began forcing the tens of thousands of Hindu residents to convert to Christianity.
In 1540, during a wave of fanaticism, they destroyed 300 Hindu temples, many of them
built in ancient times. Then, in 1545, a Spanish-Jesuit missionary, named Francis
Xavier, petitioned the Portuguese Crown to establish the Inquisition. Once the king's
approval had been secured, the former Hindu population of Goa, as well as the hundreds
secret Jews living there, found themselves at the complete mercy of the Church. Simply
keeping a statue of Shiva in a family shrine, or whispering a Hebrew prayer over
the grave of a loved one, became a serious criminal offence. Those discovered to
be practicing their old beliefs in secret were summarily arrested and tortured in
dungeons, kept in shackles by priests hoping to force them to divulge the names of
friends and family members who had joined them in their "heretical" practices.
Prisoners who refused to identify others or give up their beliefs in Hindu or Jewish
"sorcery" were strangled by executioners or burnt alive in public Acts of Faith -
from 1560 all the way up to 1812, when the Inquisition was finally abolished.
As a writer, I've always been very interested in exposing instances of injustice
that other people would prefer to forget, and as soon as I read about this neglected
period of unrelenting persecution, I realized I wanted to make it the background
for a new volume of my Sephardic Cycle, a series of independent historical novels
about different branches and generations of a Portuguese-Jewish family named Zarco.
The first two novels in this cycle are The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon and Hunting Midnight,
both international bestsellers.
I felt particularly inspired (and angered!) upon learning Francis Xavier, the fanatical
priest ultimately responsible for the torture of tens of thousands of Hindus and
Jews, had been canonized by Pope Gregory XV in 1622. As far as I know* he remains
the patron saint of all the missions of the Catholic Church.
Even though victims of persecution were only ever given their freedom on the condition
that they never reveal what they had suffered while in prison, a few courageous men
and women dared to write about their experiences - sometimes in excruciating detail
- and I was soon able to obtain copies of their narratives. These texts enabled me
to accurately describe the workings of the Inquisition and helped me to give emotional
depth to the characters in my book who suffer at the hands of the Church - Tiago
and Berekiah Zarco, as well as Phanishwar Bakliwal. They also filled me with admiration
for the authors and instilled in me an urgent desire to give greater voice to their
One other important facet to the book I should speak about...
A few years before reading about Goa, I had an idea for a novel that would be a reinterpretation
of Shakespeare's Othello, in the tradition of Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres (which
reworked King Lear) and Jean Rhys's The Wide Sargasso Sea (which explored some unresolved
mysteries in Jane Eyre).
What I wanted to do was take Iago and Othello back to an earlier time when - inside
my fictional narrative - they were childhood companions. I felt excited about this
idea because it had always seemed to me that the reasons given by Shakespeare for
Iago's vicious hatred of Othello were flimsy at best.
What had truly caused the rupture between the two men?
I speculated that it was something traumatic that had happened during their youth,
long before the action of Shakespeare's play. Maybe Iago came to seek his Moorish
friend's destruction because of a betrayal he could never forgive - something so
terrible that it even justified murder.
As I considered the possibilities for this book, I saw that - more than anything
else - I wanted to discover why Iago had embraced evil. Understanding the nature
of evil - and its allure -has always seemed essential to me, maybe because my central
reference point for modern history has always been the Holocaust.
Then came my discovery of the Goa Inquisition, and I realized that I had found the
perfect setting for my reinterpretation of Shakespeare. Here was a time and place
of wealth and glory, but also of suspicion, fear, cruelty, and vengeance. Here,
I would be able to submerge my reinvented "Othello" inside a dramatic story that
would interest readers whether or not they had ever seen or read the Shakespeare
play. And here, placing my imagination inside a time of merciless religious persecution,
I might be able to write something important about the nature of evil and its consequences