South Africa - Ian D. Colvin

The First Martyr

All the Portuguese missionaries were not like the fierce Jesuit who held his crucifix before the eyes of the poor tortured Moors at Sena. So at least we may gather from the story of another of the Order, the first Christian martyr of South Africa. There may be some among my readers who think that all the old Jesuits were like Father Monclaro, fanatics who loved the rack and the Inquisition, and tortured English sailors for the good of their souls. But some were bad and some were good, and some were cruel and some were gentle, just as other men the world over, and the Father whose bones you have heard of in "the maws of the crocodiles and the iguanas," was as sweet and brave a soul as Livingstone himself or St. Francis, or any other of those holy men whose lives are like candles in this "naughty world."

His name was Father Dom Gonšalo da Silveira, and when he was a young man he went from Portugal to India, and lived a very holy life in the Jesuit College at Goa. It was through his labours that the great Cathedral of St. Thomas was built, and all his brother-priests thought him almost as saintly a man as Francis Xavier himself. He was for ever fasting and praying and reading his breviary and meditating on the lives of the saints, and all the twenty years he lived in India he spent in working for the glory of God and the good of his Order. So when at last it happened that a chief near Sofala turned Christian, and asked the captain of Mozambique, who was his godfather, that missionaries might be sent to his country, it is not surprising that the good Gonšalo was chosen for the work, and it is easy to imagine with what joy he undertook it. He was a simple man, as I gather; he did not know very much of the world outside the cloisters of his convent, and he believed that the savage chiefs of Africa were just like the kings and princes of his native land, except that they lived in ignorance of God and the blessings of baptism. So he packed up his new cassock and his surplice, his breviary, a picture of the Virgin, his lives of the saints, his altar stone, the bone of a saint, and his chalice, and set forth very simply upon his great adventure. With him went Father Andre Fernandes, an old man with white beard and hair, almost as holy and as unworldly as Father Gonšalo himself, except that he thought perhaps a trifle more about his food and the other necessities and comforts of our vile body; and the third of the party was a lay brother of the Order, Andre da Costa, who served the other two with due humility and faithfulness. These three holy men took ship for Mozambique, and while on the caravel Father Gonšalo spent his time in writing a discourse in praise of the Mother of God, which, we may depend upon it, was very beautiful, though he himself says that "it was no more ornament and grace to her than the words and imaginations of a soul so imperfect towards the most High Virgin."

When they arrived at Mozambique, they embarked for Sofala in a little Moorish boat, in which, as Father Andre tells us, you could not stand, nor sit, nor lie down. Father Andre grumbled a little that his superior should have chosen to sail in so uncomfortable and perilous a craft rather than go in the captain's own ship, as they might have done. Why the holy man chose to embark in this little cockleshell we are not told; it may be because it was the season of Lent, when good Catholics mortify the flesh; it may be because St. Paul and others of the saints had suffered much by shipwreck, or perhaps it was that the sailors of the captain's ship were, as sailors are now, somewhat given to the use of oaths and words that hurt the ears and the hearts of saintly men. But whatever the reason, so it was. They set out in this little cranky Moorish boat, which had not a nail in its whole structure, and whose planks were sewn together with the fibre of the cocoa-nut palm. It was after the monsoon had broken and the wind came down upon them in great black squalls. One may imagine the three good priests hunched up under the lee of the boat's side, for the tiny cabin was too foul for their stomachs, with no room to lie down in even on the hard boards, and unable to stand because of the tossing and the wind, while the Arab boatmen beat the planks for luck, or cried out to the seabirds to give them a fair breeze. It was Lent, you must remember, and they were fasting on rice and butter, honey and beans. Father Andre tells us how he asked his superior if a second bowl of beans might be allowed to him, "because as I said I had lost my appetite for rice," and the poor lay brother who did the menial work gave out altogether, upon which the father allowed him to eat meat thenceforth. And so fasting, drenched with rain and scorched with sun, with an ache in every bone from the hard planks and sharp corners of the boat, they sailed for twenty-seven days till they came to Sofala, where the lay brother was nursed and grew better. But they only stayed there five days, and then set sail again, this time for Inhambane, a little place just upon the Tropic of Capricorn. By this time the fever had seized upon Father Gonšalo, and he lay in the boat very nigh unto death, with his two friends watching over him.

So at last they reached their port, as Father Gonšalo describes it, "the most fitting place to inspire devotion that I have ever seen, with lawns all commanding a view of the sea." Here Father Gonšalo remained, shaken with ague, while he sent Father Andre on to Tongwe to interview the noble monarch of the land. How they both at last reached that potentate I need not tell you in detail. It was a long journey, and Father Andre went on foot. His new shoes pinched him, and first he walked barefoot and then he cut the shoes where they hurt him. "The dew was so heavy and so cold that it was marvellous." He found many rivers on the road, "which pleased or vexed me according to the time of day," and on one blessed evening he came upon the house of a chief who "brought me some green beans and a bowl of what must have been a paste of meixoira, and beans boiled, and this food seemed to me so good that it occurred to me that mixing and seasoning was a waste of time." But he arrived, and when Father Gonšalo was sufficiently recovered he too was brought on in a litter, though he was still so weak that he fell upon the sand at the end of the journey, and thus Father Andre found him, "without being able to raise his head he spoke to me." The lay brother came too; but this poor wretch was in a state of health so miserable that he had to be sent back to the coast.

In those days, as I need not tell you, they had no quinine, neither had they syrup nor physic nor sugar of roses, which were the cures they believed in; but they bled themselves and ran till they perspired, and so by these means and God's grace in the end they grew a little better. Then they set about to convert the heathen, and to cure them of their evil practices. For they found them not only scantily dressed and wearing horns upon their heads, but with the most indefinite notions in the matter of wives. Father Gonšalo gives a list of five of their errors, one of them being that "they swear by blowing in each other's faces and not by the name of God." However, they were very willing to receive baptism, and the good father baptized them in platoons. The chief he called King Constantino, and the chief wife was called Queen Isabel, while the sons and the courtiers and the counsellors of the realm were renamed after the leading fidalgos of Portugal. What these elephant-eating, rhinoceros-hunting, black and naked savages thought of their new names and their new faith is not known to us, but the good men rejoiced in the success of their pious work, and we find Father Andre writing to Goa, with a fine eye for the use of local colour, "of your charity, beloved brother, let the picture of the judgment which I have asked for contain devils with horns."

But while Father Andre was thus planning to root out their evil superstitions, Dom Gonšalo had determined on a great undertaking, which was nothing less than to baptize the Monomotapa himself. Now the Monomotapa was the supreme king of those parts. He could muster overwhelming strength when he wanted to make war, so that naturally he had great influence over the whole of the country, and Father Gonšalo thought that if he could only convert this great emperor everything else would be made easy. But the monarch lived far away in the heart of Africa, in a wild and desert country, and it would take many long months to reach him.

Nevertheless, the saintly man made up his mind to do it, so he bade farewell to Father Andre and the lay brother, whom he left to establish the new church among the savages with the horns, and plodded back to the coast.

Now by this time, which is just about four years before Shakespeare was born, Portuguese traders and adventurers had gone far into the land of Africa. They were four hundred miles up the Zambesi, and one of them, Antonio Caiado by name, was actually, as it was then put, a nobleman at the court of the Monomotapa. Most of these people were, I imagine, rough and ready traders, who themselves, as another good man has told us, did not know fish day from flesh day, and cared not one clay bead whether the savages with whom they traded were Christian or heathen. But they were good-natured fellows, and they helped Father Gonšalo on is journey.

We may follow him then coasting along in his little ship, and with him an altar which he set up when he landed and said Mass before it, even when the sun was so hot that it blistered his tonsured head, and when he reached the Zambesi he embarked in a little pinnace manned by the rough pioneers of the river trade. "He begged them," we are told, "for the love of God not to be scandalised or surprised at the retirement in which he must keep himself from that time until they disembarked, for nothing would be accomplished without first communing with God in prayer. He asked them to hang a cloth round the awning of the pinnace, and here he went into retreat, speaking to none for eight days, and only eating once a day a handful of roasted grain, and refusing everything else, and with this he drank a cup of water. Here he remained in constant meditation after he had said his office, and if any time remained he spent it in reading the lives of the saints." Thus the good man voyaged up that savage river, sitting in calm reflection like a Buddha within his curtain. Perhaps he may have looked out sometimes on that scene which Livingstone saw three hundred years afterwards, the dark woods lively with the song of the kinghunter, the mangrove jungle with its bunches of bright yellow fruit, the golden flowers of the hibiscus, the screw palms as tall as steeples, and the native huts standing on piles among the bananas on the swampy shore. He must have looked over the level grassy plains and seen the round tops of the palms hanging like green clouds in mid-air, and he must have been entertained by the great flocks of geese and spoonbills, herons and flamingoes, the starry kingfishers, or the huge hippopotamuses blowing spray from their nostrils and shaking the water from their ears. And so he arrived at Sena, where, as Livingstone said, one is sure to take fever on the second day, if by chance one escapes it on the first day, and thence like Barreto's army he travelled overland to Tete. He had to go high above the river along mountains which rose three thousand feet to the skyline, covered with dense thorn-bush and black boulders heaped upon one another, so hot that they blistered the feet and burned the throat as dry as a limekiln. At Tete the holy Father met a good fellow called Gomez Caelho, who was a great friend of the king's and could speak the language, and the two set out together across country, for it was a long weary journey from the river to the chief town of the Monomotapa. "The Father," says the story, "carried the church ornaments on his shoulders, often crossing rivers with the water up to his neck, and carrying the altar stone, the chalice, and the other holy implements of the mass upon his head, or holding them up in his hands," as more precious to him than life. One river, we are told, was so wide that the poor man, burdened as he was with his church furniture, could not wade through its waters, so the Kafirs got a great earthenware pot of the sort that they store their corn in, into which they put the holy man, and so swam with him to the other side. You may imagine it if you like,—the rushing waters, the pot swaying this way and that, and the good Father within hugging his dear possessions to his breast, his tonsured head above the rim, and his face mildly apprehensive, looking out upon that strange world, while the black polls of the Kafirs bobbed around him.

And so he came at last to the Great Place, to the capital town of the Monomotapa. He made something of a sensation, no doubt, in his cassock and surplice as he went through circle upon circle of clay-built, straw-thatched huts. The naked warriors who basked in the sun, the women with hoe in hand or pitcher upon head, must have crowded round to look at him, and the fat little black children who rolled in the warm dust with the dogs and the poultry no doubt roared with terror at the sight. But Antonio Caiado, who lived, as I have said, at the Monomotapa's court, and was "very friendly and familiar with the king," had been at pains to inform the great monarch that the Father was a very noble man and one of the principal people in India. So he was well received in the royal enclosure where the young king sat with his noble mother and his wizards and warriors and drumbeaters and music-makers behind. The king offered him gold and cows and a large number of wives, and when the Father, "with great humility and gratitude," refused the gift, His Royal Highness, as we are told, was astounded, and was heard to remark that as the stranger desired nothing of these things which were desired by all, "he must have been born of the herbs and had his origin in them."

The priest was at first a great favourite, for since the world began kings have been fond of novelties; and, moreover, he had brought a nice assortment of presents from Mozambique. Now one of Dom Gonšalo 's dearest possessions was "a very beautiful picture of our Lady of Grace" which the king, according to the story, very much desired to possess. Accordingly, the father went to the royal bedroom—if the word may be used for an apartment which had neither bed nor wash-hand stand—and there he arranged a kind of oratory with rich hangings, and in the centre placed the picture of our Lady. "For four or five days, the king, who is still quite young, being half asleep, the Lady of the picture appeared to him, surrounded by a divine light of soft and glorious splendour, and spoke to the king with a great and gentle sweetness of countenance." By such miraculous means the Monomotapa was instructed in the faith, and after the good Father had catechised him sufficiently he was baptized with the name of Dom Sebastian, his Lady Mother being christened Dona Maria. Then there was a great killing of cows in the royal capital; the Father distributed the meat among the poor, "by which the people were greatly edified," and all the people, noble and plebeian, wished to become Christians."

Alas, this bright dayspring of success was but brief. "The devil," as the monkish chronicler states, "could not bear to see the triumphant spoil of souls, over whom he had lorded it peacefully for so many years"; and some Moors from Mozambique, who earned a precarious livelihood as wizards at the capital, were just as envious, or so at least Antonio Caiado would have us believe. They drew lots with four sticks and told the king that the good Father was really a moroo, the very worst sort of wizard, who had come with a dead man's bone and other medicines to stop the rain and take the country and kill the king. This they said was the meaning of the water which had been poured upon the royal head. All this the king heard with much alarm, and he determined at once to put Dom Gonšalo to death.

From Antonio Caiado's letter and from other accounts gathered from eye-witnesses, it is possible to imagine this good man's last evening upon earth, "on the Saturday before the Sunday of St. Susanna," 1561. He knew what was coming, for he had been warned by his friend, and so he sent the vestments and the chalice and the other ornaments of the mass to Caiado's house, so that they might not be desecrated by his murderers. Imagine, then, the inside of a round hut of mud and straw bare of everything but a crucifix and lit by the glimmer of a little lamp. The Father is bowed and thin and yellow, for he has been sore stricken by fever, and he has lived, never touching meat, on "a little millet cooked with herbs and some bitter fruits found in the thicket." He is dressed in his new cassock with a surplice over it as for a great occasion, and he prays without ceasing. Caiado enters, and he greets him with "a face wreathed in smiles." "I am better prepared to die," he says, "than the enemies who are to kill me. I forgive the king, who is but a youth, and his mother, because the Moors have deceived them." Caiado is moved to tears and takes his leave, but sends two of his servants to bear him company. They remained all night and saw all that happened. The Father walked up and down upon a piece of ground near the hut until close upon midnight. His steps were hurried, as if he wished to be already free and reigning with Christ; his eyes were nearly always raised to heaven, his hands now raised, now extended in the form of a cross, his deep and heartfelt sighs came from his inmost soul." Then he entered the hut and prayed before the crucifix, and lay down on a mat of reeds with the crucifix beside him and the lamp alight.

And so I should like to leave the poor good man, but as he slept and the night drew towards morning and the servants watched, a dark figure crossed the light in the door. Then another and another, black and naked savages, till eight of them stand over the sleeping form on the mat. At least it did not take long to extinguish the flickering spark. A knee on the chest, a rope round the neck, perhaps one groan and the blood at mouth and nose. And so the end; as the old monk says, "he gave up his spirit to the creator."

When Antonio Caiado and his servants came the next day at dawn they found a track of blood leading to the river and on the floor lay a broken crucifix.

Such was the "happy end," as he himself would have called it, of the holy Father Dom Gonšalo da Salveira, the first Christian martyr of South Africa. His bones were never found; but the story of his life and death has in itself the virtue of a relic.

And now let me go back for a moment to his friend Father Andre Fernandes, whom he left building up, as he thought, the infant church of Tongwe. From his letters to his brethren at Goa we learn how gradually he came to see that neither the waters of baptism nor the picture of the judgment nor his own Christian teaching had any effect upon these graceless savages. They first took him for a wizard, and then they grew tired of his rebukes and his threats of hell fire, and came near to killing him with their assegais. "Nevertheless," he says, "I do not think I was ever overcome with terror by their threats, so as to desist from boldly reprehending them for their superstitions, even the king himself, in such a manner that the people were alarmed by what I said and feared to be present at the time." And then they left the poor old man alone to starve to death if he liked, so that he had to sell everything that he had for food, his candlesticks and the foot of a copper cross and part of his clothing. "After this," he says, "I began to be more sparing and only ate once a day, and if I felt very weak at night I ate a few mouthfuls, not of bread or meat but a sort of caterpillar, or of vegetables of this country, the worst thing possible to my taste; and though I wished it I could not have had more than a little, having only a small cake of it every day." So he dragged on with an occasional alms of eggs or milk; and it gave him great anxiety that when he should die there would be none to bury him, because the savages "only buried those to whom they were bound." So, he says, "I thought that I would dig a grave at the foot of the chest on which I slept, so that if they tried to open it to take what was inside, which was of small value, in opening it they would cast me into the grave, and I was satisfied with this remedy."

At last, after two years of this so wretched life, the poor old man was commanded by his Provincial to return to Goa, and we last hear from him on the coast being well cared for and recruiting his former strength, "for I had lost all or part of my faculties, and felt them all diminished." And so we may bid farewell to these two pious and simple souls, who endeavoured so heroically to grow figs upon thistles.