Bassein (or Vasai) is about 30 miles north of Bombay. The Portuguese ruled this place for about 205 years (1534-1739 A.D). In 1498 A.D Vasco da Gama arrived at the harbour of Calicut (Kozhikode) on the western coast of India. It was after this that the Portuguese established their power on the western coast of India. During that time John III of Portugal had ascended the throne of Portugal. He appointed Nuno da Cunha as the Governor of Goa in order to conquer the island of Diu from the sultan of Gujarat. Under his leadership, the Portuguese started endeavours to conquer the island of Diu. The Portuguese tried to siege Bassein, because they believed that conquering Bassein would provide them a strategic momentum to acquire Diu.
During this period Da Cunha learned that the Sultan Bahadur Shah of Gujarat had sent his forces to build a small fort in Bassein. Governor Nuno da Cunha soon realized that if the Sultan built the fort in Bassein, their desire to conquer Diu would soon be vanished. Ultimately Governor Nuno da Cunha decided to conquer Bassein, after consulting the council of Fidalgos (noblemen) in Goa. Portuguese Fidalgos and thousands of naval soldiers sailed in the direction of Bassein on 150 ships. A battle took place between the Portuguese forces and those of the Sultan of Gujarat on 20 January 1533, which was won by the Portuguese on the feast day of Saint Sebastian. The fort came into the actual control of Portuguese on 23 December 1534 when Bahadurshah signed a treaty with the Portuguese to hand over the complete authority of Bassein. Following the event, Captain Garcia de Sá was appointed to build Fort Bassein and the work began on 20 January 1536.
A number of rich Portuguese Fidalgos living in the different towns were attracted to Bassein’s natural beauty, pleasant climate, and abundant wealth. They came to Bassein and built castle-like palaces in the vicinity of the fortress. Because of these changes the area took on characteristics of a European city. The Portuguese king issued a special order and gave this city the status of ‘Évora’ i.e. a city in Portugal. The Portuguese nicknamed the city as "Dom Baçaim (Bassein)" mocking the numerous "Dom (a Portuguese title for Sir)" people residing in the city of Bassein. The prosperity of Bassein increased such that it was considered among the richest cities among the Portuguese colonies in the world at that time. The dominion of the Portuguese in this part increased and the city became the capital of the Portuguese Province of the North of India; Goa being the capital of Portuguese Province of South.
Garcia was born in 1557. Documents in the Lisbon Archives (ANTT) describe him as "natural de Agaçaim" (a resident of Agashi village) in Bassein. His father was a Portuguese soldier and his mother a Canarim as the Portuguese called the inhabitants of the Konkan. Modern scholars such as Gense and Conti accept the fact that Gonsalo’s mother was from Bassein.
According to Garcia's companion, Marcelo de Ribandeneira, who became a historian and is considered as the most authentic source on his life, Garcia once told him that his mother was from Bassein and his father a Portuguese soldier. Hence the papal bull declaring Garcia a saint mentions that he was Basseinite (a native of Bassein). As the child of a European father and an Indian mother he was a mestiço in the Portuguese sense of term.
Garcia spent eight years (1564-1572) in Fort Bassein. The fort was reserved for the European people and their servants. According to the policy adopted by the Portuguese colonial government, any Portuguese who got married with a local woman was given certain privileges. So Garcia’s father was permitted to quit the job and stayed in the fort as a civilian employee, and because of that his family came to reside inside the fort. He studied at the Jesuit school of Fort Bassein and helped in their Igreja do Santo Nome de Jesus (Church of the Holy Name of Jesus), now known as St. Gonsalo Garcia Church. Here Garcia came into contact with the Jesuit priest, Sebastião Gonsalves, who became a friend and guide throughout his life. During his stay with the Jesuits, he learned grammar, philosophy and Roman history.
Garcia was willing to accompany to Japan the Jesuit missionaries who were sent there from Bassein. In 1569 he told Gonsalves about his desire to go East, but his request was turned down as he was quite young. But in 1572 Gonsalves permitted him when he was fifteen. He surprised Garcia by disclosing that he had also decided to leave for Japan. The two missionaries left Bassein together in the first week of March 1572 and reached Japan the following July. During the course of his voyage, Garcia learned Japanese with the help of a Japanese native who accompanied them on the same ship.
Garcia was appointed a catechist (Japanese: dojuku) by the Jesuit missionaries he had accompanied. As a missionary, he went about in public places drawing children to himself by his amiable disposition, by his fluency in the language of the country and by his kindness. Garcia reached one and all and soon became a favorite with the Japanese. He served them faithfully as a catechist for eight years. In the meantime, he had expressed the desire to join the Jesuit Order. Though promises of admission were held out to him, his Indian ancestry proved to be a bar to his entry in the Society of Jesus. Finally Garcia lost hope and left the company of the Jesuits, much to their regret.
On leaving the Jesuits, Garcia went to another city named Alacao. There he established himself as a merchant. He did not, however, lose his spirit of piety and Christian zeal because of his new career. Gradually, his business transactions expanded and he was able to found new establishments. His commercial relations brought him into contact with all the ranks of Japanese society. His business flourished and he gained great wealth. Still, at heart, he remained a religious man in word and deed. Later, he resolved to become a Franciscan Friar. His petition for admission to the Friars Minor, which he made to the Guardian of the Franciscan friary in Manila was accepted. In this way, as a Friar Minor, Garcia began the second phase of his missionary activities.
Garcia was very much delighted when he was accepted into the Franciscan order. In Manila, he came into contact with the Franciscan missionary, Friar Peter Baptist, who remained his companion until their shared death. Garcia started his career as a catechist in Manila. The main advantage for him was his ability to speak the Japanese language. From the different parts of Japan, people began to send him invitations to return. It was at this time that the King of Spain wanted to send a delegation to Japan. The Spanish Governor of Manila selected Peter Baptist as the leader of the delegation, and, since he did not know the Japanese language, Garcia was selected as his translator as well as his companion. Garcia was so happy with this offer that he immediately accepted the responsibility. The missionaries left Manila on 21 May 1593 and reached Hirado, a harbor in Japan, on 8 July 1593.
In Japan, Garcia became the center of attraction, as he knew Japanese language well. After facing some initial difficulties the Franciscans settled in Japan and began their missionary work in Kyoto, Osaka, etc. The Japanese shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi was very friendly with these Franciscans. It was a time when Jesuits were facing lot of opposition in Japan. The people of Japan appreciated the simple way of living adopted by these Franciscan missionaries. It helped them to accelerate their conversion program. Many Japanese, including their overlords. began to accept Christianity. Slowly Japan became the great center of evangelization for the Franciscan missionaries.
The Franciscans were very successful in their conversion policy. In response, however, the traditional religious lenders began to express opposition. They tried to influence the shogun to take action against the Franciscans and to expel them, but the shogun refused to budge. The situation, however, took a turn for the worse with the arrival of the ill-fated Spanish ship San Felipe. It was bound from Manila to Acapulco, but due to a terrible tempest, it was driven onto the coast of Japan. It was laden with gold and silver when it anchored in Urado Bay. The captain of the ship, Francisco de Olandia, while conversing with the Japanese customs officials, spoke of "La Espanha de los Conquistadores" and boasted that the King of Spain had captured many countries in the world. He told them that the King of Spain sent the missionaries first to instigate the people against their ruler. When the matter was reported to Toyotomi, he became enraged. The situation was exploited by Yakuin Zenso, his physician and close advisor. The shogun issued an order to arrest and execute all Christian missionaries in Japan. The Franciscans, including Peter Baptist, Garcia and others were arrested on 8 December 1596 and were sentenced to death. There were three Jesuits also, including the native seminarian, Paul Miki.
On 4 January the prisoners who had been sentenced to death began their journey from Kyoto. They traveled six hundred miles from Kyoto to Nagasaki through Sakai, Okayama, Hiroshima, Shimonoseki, and Karatsu. They reached Nagasaki on 4 February 1597. The next morning they were taken to a hill known as Nishigaoka where Terazawa Hazaburo, the brother of the Governor of Nagasaki, had planned for the crucifixion to take place. As Garcia was prominent among the missionaries, he was given the middle place. There Garcia met one of his friends from Fort Bassein, Francis Rodrigues Pinto, to whom he said: "My good friend, God be with you. I am going to heaven. A hearty hug to Father Sebastião Gonsalves on my behalf".
The execution started at 10 o'clock in the morning. He, Peter Baptist, and the other friars were crucified, along with fifteen teenage boys who were members of the Third Order of Saint Francis, as well as the three Jesuits. The condemned were so tired that they could not endure it for long and within half an hour everything was over. The two soldiers who worked as executioners completed their task by stabbing their spears into the missionaries' chests. The Portuguese and Japanese Christians attending the execution broke past the guards and started soaking pieces of cloth in the blood of the executed, gathering lumps of the blood-soaked dirt, and tearing up their religious habits and kimonos for holy relics. The guards beat the relic-hunters away and order was reestablished. Terazawa positioned guards all around the hill, with strict orders not to allow anyone near the crosses. After completing the task, Terazawa withdrew from the hill.
After the sensational drama, the corpses of the victims were neglected by the local authorities thinking that they would be eaten by the vultures. But for nearly forty days they remained intact. Afterwards it was reported in The Examiner (12 March 1904) that the Portuguese brought the head of Garcia to India, where it was kept at Fort Bassein. They carried it to Goa when they left Bassein in 1739 (page 82). Since the author of the article does not mention the source of the information, it cannot be taken to be a historical fact.
Then followed a series of miracles on the concerned hill in Nagasaki. So in 1627, thirty-five years after the crucifixion of the martyrs, Pope Urban VIII declared Garcia and his co-martyrs as ‘Blessed Ones’ and permitted the Jesuits and the Franciscans to venerate them. This permission was extended to other religions later on, but in 1629 the same Pope completed the beatification of these martyrs.
The matter was neglected for more than two centuries. It was once again taken up in 1862 and on 8 June 1862 Pope Pius IX did the canonization of Gonsalo Garcia and his co-martyrs. Brother Gonsalo Garcia became St. Gonsalo Garcia. The first catholic Saint of India and the Indian Sub-Continent, and 8 June 2012 marked the 150th anniversary of his canonization.
Garcia's memory is kept alive with a college named after him in Vasai. He is the patron saint of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Vasai and his feast day is a joint one for the group of martyrs, held to celebrate his day of heavenly birth on February 5. Thomas Dabre, the Bishop of Vasai, says Garcia's relevance even today lies in the universalism of his charity and love. A small statue of Gonçalo Garcia was taken from Portugal to Recife in Brazil as early as 1745 by a local Brazilian -because of his brown complexion (a further proof of his Indian ancestry)- where his veneration soon took off.