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GREAT FIGURES OF THE MISSIONARY WORK – Missionaries in Borneo island (1)

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

With the loss of Malacca in 1641, one year after the restoration of Portugal’s independence (during 60 years the country was under Spanish rule, in a peculiar political system known as “dual monarchy”), communication with the island of Borneo was made by Portuguese adventurers and missionaries and directly connected to the port of Macau – after the loss of Malacca –  the last stronghold in the Far East.

A few decades before that event, in August 1578, a Portuguese galleon visited Brunei. Seeing advantages in having the foreigners nearby for mercantile reasons,  the local king, Sultan Saiful Rijal, asked the crew to remain there. However, these sailor and merchants, unwilling to become embroiled in the conflict between the empire of Brunei and the kingdom of Spain, chose to continue their journey. This ship, in a very bad state as a consequence of a typhoon, would eventually be shipwrecked off the port of Cavite, in Manila.

Brunei’s tolerance towards Portuguese missionaries is evidenced by the presence of two Jesuits (surnamed, Araújo and Veiga) who were living there at that time, as author Graham Saunders points out on page 58 of his book History of Brunei.

However, there have been several setbacks in this matter, due to overzealousness and some fanaticism. In 1587, Father Francisco de Santa Maria, on board a Portuguese ship, landed at Muara, and built a chapel there, daring to speak to the sultan of the virtues of Christianity and the falsities of Muhammad’s teaching. Although during this period the relations between Spain and Brunei were normalized, the religious was beheaded and his remains carried away by his compatriots.

In 1691, in a gesture of symbolism reminiscent of the beginning of maritime exploration, perhaps in an attempt to recover the old tradition of setting stone marks with the king’s coat of arms — a quintessence of king Dom Manuel (1469-1521), which had a first phase in 1509 and 1513, with the stone marks erected in Sumatra and at the mouth of the Pearl River, and a second phase between the years 1520 and 1523 — the merchant Luis Francisco Coutinho, a descendant of vice kings of India, built, in the middle of the small island of Ngaju, in the south of Borneo, “a great cross made of incorruptible wood with a panel on which were engraved the coat of arms of the Crown of Portugal and the following words: Lusitanorum virtus et gloria.

The once frequent contacts between the port of Borneo and the Indian ports became less and less frequent, although in 1761 there was news of the financing by the royal treasure of two missionaries who were bound for Sumatra and Borneo.


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