A Selection from "Set All Afire: A Novel about Saint Francis Xavier" | Louis de Wohl | Ignatius Insight
A Selection From Book Four of Set All Afire: A Novel about Saint Francis
Xavier | Louis de Wohl | Ignatius Insight
A ship, a small merchantman, built at
Goa, and serving the coastal route. The pepper ship, they called
it, because it brought pepper from Cochin to Goa, pepper, that
most precious article. The whole of the Portuguese Empire of the
Indies was built on pepper. There were other spices, of course,
and there was silk from the faraway, unapproachable land called China—unapproachable because every foreigner trying to land
there was instantly killed, according to the standing orders
of the Emperor. But pepper was the main thing.
Francis and his three Tamil students were the only passengers.
He almost wept as Goa vanished in the mists of the morning sun.
Somehow the rumor of his departure had got around and a huge crowd
had come to see him off, Father Almeida and Father Campo and other
priests, Violante Ferreira with her nice young daughter, both
in tears, Father Diogo de Borba of course, with all his students,
and hundreds and hundreds of others; they upset the entire traffic
near the port. And as the ship left, they had sung the Credo,
rhymed as he had taught it to the children. How they loved singing,
these joyful people. They sang when they plowed their fields,
sang when they worked on the wharves. And there were the children,
his children, tossing hibiscus flowers at the ship, bobbing up
and down ....
Leaving them was a kind of dying. And now started the voyage
Father de Borba had told him a good deal about the Paravas, and
no one could have given him better information. Eight years ago
Father de Borba had been there himself, in the course of the War
of the Ear.
Every girl child on the Pearl Fisher Coast had the lobes of her
tiny ears pierced. Little leaden weights were inserted into the
ears and these weights were gradually increased, till at last
they were large enough for the enormous earrings that would be
put in on the day of the girl's marriage. They were the sign of
the married state and a Parava woman's pride and badge of rank
An uncouth, greedy Moslem trader—one of the many who cheated
the poor pearl fishers out of their goods, won by so much effort
and under constant danger from sharks and stingrays—tore
such a ring off the ear of a young Parava woman, tearing her earlobe
at the same time. Outraged, the Paravas killed him and everyone
of his kind they could lay their hands on. Then came the armed
feluccas to burn down the Parava villages and the pearl fishers
asked for Portuguese protection.
And Dom Martini de Sousa, Gran Capitan of the Seas, arrived with
his fleet. Francis had heard the story from Marcello, but Father
de Borba had a few things to add. He and a few Franciscans had
gone ashore with the troops, and the priests—numbering no
more than six— had baptized twenty thousand natives. They
tried to instruct them, too, but the fleet had to go on and priests
were needed on board ....
Since then the Paravas had had to be left to themselves, except
for a few priests going over at Easter, from Cochin.
And now it was eight years since the War of the Ear.
The little ship, the pepper ship, was careful not to sail too
far out into the dangerous waters of the Indian Ocean. Hugging
the coast, it stopped for a day at Mangalore, for two days at
Calicut, for another two at Cochin. Then it sailed along the Travancore
Coast and round Cape Comorin to Manapad.
There Francis and his three students went ashore.
"Flat country", said Coelho, the oldest of the students,
and the only one who had received major Orders and was a deacon.
"Good for us, because there won't be so many wild animals.
Bad—because there is little shade." He opened his parasol.
They found a little grotto, where Francis said Mass.
Far away, to the north, a few catamarans stood out in the ocean.
"Pearl fisher boats", explained Coelho. "One of
the men is diving now. Can you see, Father?"
"Yes—he's holding something in his mouth, something
"His knife. For sharks."
Francis made his bundle ready and swung it over his shoulder.
"You said you know the way to Tuticorin", he said.
"I know it, Father. I—I hope I do."
Rice paddies. A few laborers working in a millet field, with
a number of completely naked boys jumping around and throwing
stones at something, Francis could not see what it was.
"They're chasing parrots away", explained Coelho.
Coconut palms and banyan trees and limes and mangoes. With those
and the fish they can get from the ocean, at least they have enough
to eat, thought Francis. Of course, fish had to be eaten at once;
they putrefied at almost the moment they were taken from the water.
A cow appeared suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, and the workers
in the field turned towards her and bowed their heads.
"They hope for the droppings", said Coelho. "It
is a sacred animal, you know, and the droppings are a certain
cure for a great many diseases, when mixed with the food of a
man. That is what Hindus believe", he added hastily, as he
saw Francis look at him with horror.
"But these people are supposed to be Christians!"
"Some of them, yes, Father. Many of them. Not all. And there
is no priest. Things get mixed up..."
" .. with the dung of cows", said Francis grimly.
He had to restrain himself from walking up to the men and tackling
them then and there. It would have been foolish. The thing to
do was to go to the heart of the country and to work from there
towards the periphery. That was what Father Ignatius would do,
They closed their parasols, as they entered a forest—if
the maze of trees of all kinds and sizes, of high grass and strange
plants could be called a forest.
"Look out for snakes, Father", warned Coelho. "Most
of them will not attack—except when they believe that they
have been attacked. You must be careful not to tread on them.
They will never believe that you didn't do it deliberately."
Mansilhas might have said that. Mansilhas. Perhaps he and Father
Paul had arrived by now. They should have arrived long ago.
Suddenly he stopped. From a tree something was hanging upside
down, an animal, not unlike a huge bat. But surely there could
be no bats of that size! It had a horrible head, black or dark
brown, with large, pointed ears. It looked like a devil.
One of the younger students jumped up and clubbed it to earth
with his parasol. A few more strokes and it was dead.
"What did you do that for?" asked Francis with disgust.
"Verrie good to eat", the student grinned. "Flying
fox, Father. Wonderful, when cooked."
A country where they held cows sacred and cooked devils. He gave
awry smile. "Let's go through the Credo in Tamil again, Coelho",
he said. "I must learn it. Visuvasa manthiram—
paralogath iyum—pulogathiyum—sarvesar—anai athiokia—bhaktiyaga..."
"Visuvasikirain"; Coelho helped out.
Francis sighed. "Why must every word in Tamil have at least
six syllables", he complained. "Avarudya—yega—suthanagya—namudaya..."
"Nathar Yesu", said Coelho, beaming. "Christuvayum..."
"Ah yes, now I know: athikiya—bhakthiyaga visuvasikirain—ivar
ispirithu santhuvinalai karpomai urpavithu archayasishta kanni
Mariyaiyidathilai nindru piranthu".
"Wonderful, Father", said Coelho. "You are making
"I know the Ten Commandments", said Francis, "and
the Pater and the Ave, but I'm hopelessly lost with the exposition
of the Faith and the story of the Gospels. Tell me, Coelho, I
know there are those who speak Hindi and Konkani and Tamil, but
tell me, quite honestly and frankly how many other languages are
there in India?"
"Oh, quite a few", said Coelho, looking away. "There
is Pushtu and Urdu and Gujarati, and Telugu and Kanarese and Bengali
and Singhalese and Gondi and Malayan and... ."
"That will do", said Francis. They went on silently
for a little while. Then Francis said, "Let's get on with
the Credo where we left off. Ponchu—pilathinkizhai—padupattu—
The names of the villages they passed were of the same ilk. Alantalai,
Periytalai, Tiruchendur, Talambuli, Virapandianpatnam, Punaikayal,
Palayakayal, Kayalpamam and Kombuturé.
He did not stick to his original idea, to start working only
when he had reached Tuticorin. He could not wait. It was bitter
to see the shrines and temples on the way, with obscene gods of
stone performing obscene actions on temple friezes, with phallic
symbols abounding; bitter to see trembling villagers watching
overfed cows eating all their food without daring to disturb the
sacred animals; bitter to hear that the pearl fishers paid a good
percentage of their catch to sorcerers for spells and talismans
against the bite of sharks, and paid still more for mantrams against
any other kind of danger, trouble and illness.
At Kombuturé they told him about a woman who had been
three days in labor and was dying, although her husband had paid
the sorcerer for all the aid he could give and the house was full
of mantrams of all kinds.
Coelho shook his head sadly. "The demons are more powerful
than the sorcerer and the mantrams", he murmured.
Francis exploded. "Where is that house?" he asked.
Coelho and the other two students tried to hold him back, but
they might as well have tried to stop the monsoon with their hands.
Francis stalked into the house.
The sorcerer, with two apprentices, was squatting on the floor;
all three of them were drumming on some kind of musical instruments
and chanting invocations at the top of their voices. They had
put a kettle on the floor, filled with some burning substance
that sent up clouds of stinking smoke. In a corner of the room
the husband and at least half a dozen youngsters of all ages were
crouching, moaning and rolling their eyes in abject fear.
A grotesque figure of clay and half a dozen mantrams were tied
to the body of the suffering woman.
Francis took one look. Then he seized the kettle and swung it
at the sorcerer and his helpers. They did not wait for what might
happen next, but jumped up and raced out. Francis threw the kettle
after them, untied the idol and the mantrams and threw them out
A midwife, sitting at the feet of the woman, looked up at him
as if she were seeing a demon. The woman herself kept her eyes
closed. Now that the noise had subsided, Francis could hear her
He knew nothing of childbirth. The hospitals in which he had
nursed his patients in Paris, Venice, Lisbon and Goa were only
for men. He thought the woman was dying, as he had been told that
she was. She certainly looked as if she were dying. And into a
dying woman's room he brought his Lord. It was all he could do
and all he set out to do.
"Coelho— translate. Tell her that I am coming in the
name of the Lord who made heaven and earth..."
Coelho's lips were trembling a little. Perhaps Father Francis
was not quite aware of the risk they were taking. Now if the woman
died, as surely she would, the sorcerer would say that it was
all the fault of these interfering strangers...
"Translate", ordered Francis. "I command you."
Coelho translated. The woman opened her eyes. She fastened her
gaze not on Coelho but on the strange face of the white man with
its complete absence of fear, with its tranquil smile. Being a
woman, she recognized love when she saw it.
"Tell her, Our Blessed Lord wants her to live with him forever.
Tell her what he wants her to believe. Visuvasa manthiram—paralogathiyum
She stared at Francis. Her lips moved a little and then she echoed
"Are you ready to accept what you have heard?" asked
Francis gently, when Coelho had finished translating the last
part of the Creed. "Can you believe it?"
Oh yes, she could. She could.
He took the New Testament out of his pocket and read out the
story of the birth of the Christ Child. Coelho translated again.
From time to time he looked towards the entrance of the house.
The crowd outside was growing larger and larger. They would never
get away alive. He was sweating. But he went on translating.
"Water", said Francis. When they brought it to him,
he baptized the woman.
Coelho, looking on, prayed for all he was worth. In a state of
utter confusion he implored God to save their lives, to save the
woman, to prevent the sorcerer from making the villagers storm
the hut, to have mercy on him, on Father Francis—on everybody.
A sudden tremor went through the body of the woman, she threw
back her head and gave a loud cry. Instantly the midwife sprang
Francis took a step backwards.
At first he did not know that labor had started again after hours
of interruption. But he knew it soon enough.
Minutes later the child was there, and a few seconds later yelling
Outside the villagers broke into a howl of enthusiasm that shook
Two hours later Francis had baptized the husband, three sons,
four daughters and the newly born infant, another son.
Coelho was grinning from ear to ear.
But for Francis this was no more than the beginning. He stepped
outside, where the villagers were still howling their joy to heaven
and asked for the headman. Coelho had to tell him that Father
Francis wanted the entire village to accept Jesus Christ as their
God and Lord.
The headman scratched himself thoughtfully. They would do so
gladly, but they could not—not without the permission of
"Where is that Rajah?" asked Francis curtly.
Coelho passed on the question. The Rajah was far away, very far
away, but there was an official here, who represented him. He
had come to collect the taxes for his master.
Francis went to see him at once.
The tax collector was at first a little suspicious. If these
people accepted this new belief, would they still be willing to
pay their taxes to the Rajah? They would? Well...
Francis began to explain the tenets of Christianity to the man
who listened politely. In the end he gave permission in the name
of his master. He himself? No, no. This new thing seemed very
good, but he himself could not accept it. He was the Rajah's man.
The Rajah would have to give the order to him personally.
"It is a pitee—a great pitee", said Coelho, when
the man withdrew, rather hastily. "We could have called him
It took all next day to baptize every man, woman and child of
the village and two days more to tell them at least the rudiments
of what they must know.
As they left, they saw the woman with her newborn babe in her
arms standing in the door of the hut, smiling at them and making
the sign of the Cross.