Friday, January 21, 2011

How Some Bangladeshi Catholics Got Portuguese Names

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These are only a few examples of Portuguese surnames
still continuing for the last 400 years among a section
of the Roman Catholics in Bangladesh

Doodle (Dhaka: May 24, 1993) © Jerome D'Costa


The 15th century is the one that saw a number of explorations of new countries and territories. Portuguese explorers discovered and explored new territories in the western Africa. The Spanish also discovered some islands in the Atlantic Ocean. On October 12, 1492, Italian navigator Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo in Italian), on behalf of the Spanish monarchy, discovered North America when he landed in one of the islands of the Bahamas.

The New World Divided Between Spain and Portugal

Through the intervention of Pope Alexander VI and the Treaty of Tordesillas on June 7, 1494, newly-discovered lands outside Europe were divided between Spain and Portugal.

After several decades, the Pope also signed a concordat (agreement) with the monarchs of Spain and Portugal, and allowed them to set up Catholic dioceses in new lands and appoint their Bishops. For this privilege, the monarchs agreed to bear the expenses of sending missionaries and provide financial and other help for the mission upkeep. This system was called Padroado system.

Portuguese Expansion in India

In 1498, Portuguese navigator Vasco-da-Gama, with the help of an Arabian Muslim navigator, familiar with the sea route to India from East Africa, discovered the way to Calicut (present Kozikode) of the State of Kerala in India. With this discovery comes the meeting of the East and West through the sea navigation.

In 1500, the Portuguese conquered Cranganore (presently Cannanore) in India. In 1506, they took over Cochin and in 1510 Goa.

From 1500 onwards, Portuguese missionaries (Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians and Jesuits) accompanied Portuguese conquerors and traders and started their proselytizing work in Portuguese-connected coastal districts of India. Their efforts brought about thousands of new Catholics converted mostly from the low-caste Hindus.

The Portuguese in Bengal and Conversions to Christianity

When we speak of Bengal, we mean both the territories of present State of West Bengal in India and the country of Bangladesh (which was previously known as East Bengal). Portuguese traders from the west coast of India, especially Goa, began their forays to Bengal in 1517.

In time, the Portuguese received permission from the Mughal emperor and had their settlements at Satgaon and later in Hooghly of West Bengal. Then they settled in Arakan of present-day Myanmar (Burma) and Diang and Chittangong of Bangladesh. Missionaries also followed them. In the coastal areas, there were some intermarriages between the Portuguese men and local women.

Father Francesco Fernandes and Father Domingo da Sousa -- two Portuguese Jesuit missionaries from Hooghly -- with the permission of Raja Pratapadittya (1561-1611), built the first church of Bangladesh at Chandecan (also called Chandika, Iswaripur or Old Jessore) in the Sunderbans forest area of the present district of Satkhira. They dedicated their church on January 1, 1600. Later, Father Francesco Fernandes and Father Andre Boves built a small chapel in Chittagong. This is the second church of Bangladesh. The first Mass was offered there on June 24, 1601. Later Portuguese Jesuits had to discontinue their work in Bangladesh area, but they were replaced by Portuguese Augustinian priests.

Christianity also spread to Bhulua (old name of Noakhali District), Bacola (or Bakla or Chandradwip or Bakerganj), Chandipur (Chandpur), Padrishibpur of Barisal District, Tejgaon of present Dhaka city, Dhaka, Nagori (of Gazipur District), Sripur (of Munshiganj District, but eroded into the Padma River), Loricul (or Norikul of Dhaka District), Katrabo (or Katarab of Dhaka District), and Hosenpur (of Netrakona District), and so on.

According to the Analecta Augustiniana (Augustinian Analects or selected reports) of 1682, the whole of Bengal had 27,000 Catholics. Among them, the West Bengal had 12,880 Catholics and East Bengal or Bangladesh had 14,120 Catholics: Dhaka - 2,000, Chandipur (Chandpur) - 2,000, Loricul (Noricul) - 2,000, Tejgaon - 700, Iswaripur or Old Jessore - 400, Bhusana (in present Gopalganj District) - 20, and Dianga (Diang) and Chittagong - 7,000.

The Portuguese, who married local Bengali women, naturally converted them to Christianity. In some other cases, no doubt, there were forced conversions, but, in most cases, missionaries converted low-caste Hindus, who were victims of discrimination and ill treatment from fellow high-caste Hindus. In order to improve their status, they accepted Christianity. It is to be noted that conversions to Christianity from Muslim community were very few.

Muslims and Hindus in the Indian subcontinent (present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) used to call the Portuguese and other Europeans, who were whites, Firingi (or Feringhi), and local converted Christians, who were dark in colour, Kala Firingi -- kala means 'dark.' The Arabic/Persian word of Farang means 'foreigner.' From farang evolved the word Firingi (or Feringhi).

The Introduction of the Portuguese Names

Like Portuguese-converted Catholics elsewhere in the world, Roman Catholic Christians in the greater Dhaka District, and the districts of Chittagong, Noakhali and Barisal still carry Portuguese names, especially surnames (last names) instead of their paternal names they had at the time of their conversions. When the Portuguese first converted them, they gave them the first names after Catholic saints and changed their Bengali surnames to Portuguese ones.

This change of names had dual purpose: First, the Portuguese wanted that local converts take the changed names so that they could be identified instantly as Christians. Second, they wanted to uproot the new Christians from the influence of their former Hindu society. They knew that if names were changed, these people could not revert to their former religion, nor could they be accepted easily by their Hindu relatives.

Some of the first names that the Portuguese gave to the new Christians were thus: Antonio (Anthony), Augustinho (Augustine), Domingo (Dominic), Pedro (Peter), Rosa (rose), Maria (Mary) and so on. These first names continued for a long time, but, later, with the arrival of non-Portuguese missionaries, the first names began to be given in English.

The Portuguese surnames, though, are still continuing today in Bangladesh. Some of these are: Ascensao (Ascension of Jesus), Costa (coast), Corraya or Correia (belt; strap), Cruz (the cross of Christ), da Costa or D'Costa (of or from the coast), da Cruz or D'Cruz (of or from the cross), da Rosario (da Rozario) or D'Rosario or D'Rozario (of or from the rosary -- of the Virgin Mary), da Sa or D'Sa (of or from the manor house; this particular Portuguese surname is wrongly written as Dessai in Bangladesh -- actually, Dessai or Desai is an Indian Gujrati word meaning 'landlord'), da Silva or D'Silva (of or from the forest), da Sousa (da Souza) or D'Sousa (D'Souza) (of or from the salt-marsh), Dias (days), Dores (sorrows), Gomes (a man; a male), Gonsalves (battle; one who fought without weapons), Mendes (son or descendant of Mendel or Mendo), Palma (palm tree), Pereira (pear tree), Pinheiro (pine tree), Peres (or Pires or Piris) (rock), Purificasao (purification), Rego (ditch; furrow), Ribeiro (river), Rodrigues (famous power), Rosario or Rozario (the rosary of the Virgin Mary), Serrao (of or from the mountain), Silva (of or from the forest), Sousa or Souza (salt-marsh), and Toscano (a man from Tuscany -- of Italy).

This legacy of these Portuguese names is still alive. Now with increasing migration of Bangladeshi Catholic Christians, these names are also visible among them in different part of the world.

--This write-up of mine first appeared in Ahoban, an annual publication
of the Bangladesh Catholic Association of Ontario (BCAO), Toronto, (Christmas, 2010),
it's edited by Ronny Gregory Mazumder.





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