May 30th, 1999
© Akhilesh Mithal

Enriching Anglo-Indian Relationships


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It might surprise some readers to know that King Alfred had made a vow in 878 (Anno Christi) that if he won London back from the Danes, that besides sending gifts to the pope in Rome and alms for the poor Christians of the Eternal City, he would also send alms for distribution to "the poor Christians" of St Thomas at Mylapore in India.

This idea, i.e. the ninth century English sending alms to Indians, is similar to "sending coal to Newcastle". From early days, like the heyday of the Greeks and the Romans and right down to the 18th and 19th centuries it was India which had the wealth to make it the cynosure of the world. Milton’s verse about the Devil uses Indian wealth as a standard. He says:

High on a throne of royal state, which far outshone the wealth of Ormuz or of Ind, or where the gorgeous East with richest hand, showers on her kings, barbaric pearl and gold Satan exalted sat.

As readers can see it was presumptuous for a poor country like England to send alms to India. 

As success attended King Alfred’s arms the Bishop Sighelmus of Sherbourne was dispatched to Rome and India on his behalf to fulfil the oaths sworn and the promises made. In all reason our prelate should have come back in rags and really poverty stricken at having given away his all to relieve the misery of the poor people he visited. In fact, he brought back jewels and spices!

But not all visits by the English were so misguided. 

The next English visitor, also a priest, made amends and we shall detail the salient points of his sojourn in India. This will show how sensitive persons exist in all communities and their interface makes for a positive reaction and a constructive outcome.

Our subject, Thomas Stephens, was born to a London trader about 1549 at Bushton in Wiltshire and grew to become a truly religious person. The friends he had included Edmund Campion and Thomas Pounde, both distinguished Roman Catholics of the period.

Pounde was, initially, in great favour with Queen Elizabeth Tudor. When she abjured Catholicism and the Pope she thought it the duty of all her loyal subjects to follow suit. Those who did not were seen by her as disloyal traitors. This attitude resulted in the falling from grace and favour of Thomas Pounde. He was imprisoned and stayed in gaol for 30 long years. Being a devout soul he accepted his fate as the will of God and himself added further, more severe bodily austerities to his already straitened circumstances.

Both Pounde and Stephens had been attracted to the Society of Jesus because of its self-abnegation. Its members, the Jesuits neither sought nor accepted high ecclesiastical office as such rich and lush positions appeared unchristian to them. On the plus side was the rigid oath and vow of obedience to the Order as well as their utter devotion to the Holy See. The duo had been reading letters from Jesuits serving in the Indies. Both the sufferings as well as the numbers of conversions made were impressive enough to fascinate and bemuse the young men. They were ready, willing and anxious to join. They made preparations to depart for Rome.

At this critical juncture Pounde was betrayed to the Queen’s spies and imprisoned. Stephens escaped to Rome by the skin of his teeth and was enrolled among the novices of St Andreas on 20 October, 1575.

Thomas Stephens did not forget his unfortunate friend in prison in England. In 1578, he recommended Pounde’s admission into the Society in absentia. The plea succeeded. The original document preserved in the Public Records Office, Brussels throws a flood of light on the character of Pounde and the circumstances of the day.

Father Stephens was able to impress his superiors with his passion and zeal for serving in the East and 4 April, 1579 saw him sail out of Lisbon.

When the ship arrived in Goa on 24 October, 1579, Stephens became the first Englishman to reach India by the route of the Cape of Good Hope. His letters to his trader father and other members of his family were full of fascinating detail of great value to the people looking for commercial opportunities. He himself was totally preoccupied by his own calling. That of converting the heathen to Christianity. In a letter dated 24 October, 1583 to his brother, he writes that soon after his arrival he was attacked by a very serious illness. On recovery he was promoted — "advanced to Holy Orders" as "there was an enormous number of souls to be harvested" and "very few labourers" to perform the task.

Stephens’ first parish was the Peninsula of Salsette, just north of Bombay and under the dominion of the Spanish king. His success may be judged from the fact that when he arrived Salsette had only 8,000 Christians; 14 years later there were 35,000; and by the time of his death 1619 the peninsula was almost entirely Christian.

This signal success sets Father Stephens above and apart from his peers and we shall detail the reasons in another column.


© Akhilesh Mithal, 1991-1999. All rights reserved.
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