Goa Inquisition: General Outlines

Preliminary Considerations

i) The world was not the same as it is now. Goa was colonised by Portugal. Colonial imperialism took precedence over everything.

ii) The sacred and secular were not separate. It is French revolution that will finally bring the separation of the Church and the State

iii) The purpose of the institution of inquisition was to check and eliminate heresy / errors in catholic faith. It was used to control lapse of faith and preserve purity of catholic identity. Scholars today look at it as an attempt to impose a monolithic faith.

iv) Fears like hidden Jews among the Christians, influence of Islam, Nestorianism in Kerala, relapse of the new Christians into their old ways, presence of Buddhist ideas…. Led to the intuitions of the tribunal in Goa.

v) The Goa inquisition was not limited to Goa alone but was extended to Portuguese territories in India and other parts of the East (from Sofala to Macau). One has to factor this while considering the huge number of cases that it handled. It did not just handle Goan cases.

vi) Like Portugal , the weak judicial system when it came to matters of faith, led some in Goa to ask for the establishment of the office of inquisition. The weak juridical system was often accused on the basis of personal hatred.

vii) Organization of the tribunal : a)the inquisition had to function based on strict laws, b) it had to be run by a body of officials: a prosecutor, apostolic notary , bailiff, solicitor and Jailor, c) maintain books in which denunciations and reconciliations could be recorded, d) its deliberations/ sentences that required the guilty to be handed to secular authorities had to be copied and sent to Lisbon

viii) Goa being viewed as another Portugal by the colonizers modelled the setting up and functioning of inquisition unto the model of the one that was in Portugal.

ix) The fact the new Christians were automatic subjects of the tribunal it has been noted by some scholars that inquisition also dissuaded some from converting to Catholicism.

Foundation of the Goa Inquisition

i) One can trace some beginnings of the setting up of the tribunal in 1554, it never really took off till finally in 1561 when it finally got established.

ii) The Goa inquisition is the first Tribunal outside the Portuguese territories.

Work of the Inquisition

  1.  Between 1561 and 1623 it tried approximately 3, 800 cases of which 44% were new Christians guilty of what was thought to be reverting to paganism , 18% were new Christians accused of Islamism, 9 % of them were accused of Judaism, 10% Blasphemy, 8% bigamy, 7% were accused of obstructing the work of the holy office, 1.5 % were accused of Protestantism and few cases of trial those who were accused of sodomy were also found. (These figures are taken from the paper of Paviva J.P, (2017), ‘the inquisition Tribunal of Goa: Why and What purpose,’ Journal of Early Modern History 21 (2017) 565-593).
  2. Between 1561 to 1812, we can trace that it had sentenced more than 200 people to death. (These figures are taken from the paper of Paviva J.P, (2017), ‘the inquisition Tribunal of Goa: Why and What purpose.’ Journal of Early Modern History, 21 (2017) 565-593).
  3. Given the geography of its jurisdiction and lack of personnel to man it, it could not check the rise of heresy and several heretics remained free. The inquisition was definitely abolished in 1882.


  1. The main object of inquisition of Goa was to fight heresy. Tried it check its rise in different forms.
  2. When sacred and secular mingled it tried to give justice in religious affairs. Today heresy, apostasy and the like is not a criminal. We are in a secular space where criminality and criminalisation of human conduct is different. although, some may wish to return to the old days through different kinds of fundamentalisms and fascisms.

Inquisition: Structure and Functioning

Its Scope

The court of inquisition put the new Christians on trial for heresy. Heresy is chiefly doctrinal. But in this context it had to do with practice. Any return to the practices before one’s conversion were thought to be heretical. This is why justice in matters of faith was based on the criminality that was calculated on the basis of one’s return to the practices, customs and traditions of the old faith.

Therefore, the inquisition had direct jurisdiction over the new Christians. It can also put others (relatives of the convert) on trail only if they obstructed the practice of catholic faith. Only Christians could be sentenced to death. Others who were judged for obstructing the practice of catholic faith could not be killed. They could be imprisoned.

The Crimes it Judged 

There were 56 Acts/ crimes that could put the new Christians on trial of inquisition. Here are as some of them:

  • Distribution of betel leaves ( veedo) on auspicious occasions
  • Having Tulsi plant anywhere in the property
  • Singing the traditional songs called Vovio
  • Anointing the bride and bridegroom with coconut milk and haldi
  • Observing vigil on the sixth night of the birth of the baby ( sotte rati)
  •  Holding a feast in the memory of a dead ancestor ( shraddh)
  • Using cow dung to police the floor and walls of the house
  • Cooking rice without salt
  • Observing fast on a certain days of the week
  • Wearing of Sarees and dhotis
  • Wearing of bindi or sandalwood paste on the forehead
  • Use of musical instruments like cymbals and celebration of the harvest festival called shigmo


Anyone could report the neo-convert to the court of inquisition and become the witness of the religious crimes committed by the accused .

The accused person was then arrested. His/ her property was seized and part of it was given to the one who reported the case and became the witness in the tribunal and the rest was taken over by the crown.

Torture is said to be used to obtain confessions. The worst torture was a public event called Auto da Fe, meaning trial by fire which was held once a year or once in two years where the convicts were burnt alive.

Once arrested one has to wait for the trail to begin. The case was heard by the grand inquisitor and his two assistants. After several rounds of hearings the grand inquisitor gave his judgement.


Besides, death and imprisonment, there were other punishments wherein those guilty were punished by withdrawal/ stripped of privileges and were freed with stern warning.


New studies that compare the functioning of inquisitorial courts in territories under Portuguese processions indicate that these courts were not just policing heresy among the new converts. They also added to the power and prestige of Portuguese imperial interest. This means it also worked as a political tool in the production of Portuguese imperial enterprise.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao