John de Brito (João de Brito, 1647-1693) was one of the earliest Jesuit missionaries in India to adopt elements of the local culture in his evangelization. He was eventually martyred because of his success and his steadfast refusal to accept honors and safety. He was born of Portuguese aristocracy and became a member of the royal court at age nine and a companion to the young prince later to become King Peter II. When de Brito was young, he almost died of an illness and his mother vowed he would wear a Jesuit cassock for a year if he were spared. He regained his health and walked around court like a miniature Jesuit, but there was nothing small about his heart or the desire that grew to actually become a Jesuit. Despite pressure from the prince and the king, he entered the Jesuit novitiate in Lisbon Dec. 17, 1662 when he was only 15 years-old. He studied classics, with an interruption because of health problems, then philosophy. He wrote to the superior general in 1668 asking to be sent to the east as a missionary, but had to finish theology first. He was ordained in February 1673 and left Lisbon for Goa in mid-March, arriving the following September. He studied more theology in Goa and was asked to remain as a teacher but he desired to be a missionary and to seek the glory of martyrdom.
Father de Brito worked in Madura, in the regions of Kolei and Tattuvanchery. When he studied the India caste system, he discovered that most Christians belonged to the lowest and most despised caste. He thought that members of the higher caste would also have to be converted for Christianity to have a future. He became an Indian ascetic, a pandaraswami since they were permitted to approach individuals of all castes. He changed his life style, eating just a bit of rice each day and sleeping on a mat, dressing in a red cloak and turban. He established a small retreat in the wilderness and was in time accepted as a pandaraswami. As he became well-known, the number of conversions greatly increased.
He was made superior in Madura after 11 years on the mission, but he also became the object of hostility from Brahmans, members of the highest caste, who resented his work and wanted to kill him. He and some catechists were captured by soldiers in 1686 and bound in heavy chains. When the soldiers threatened to kill the Jesuit, he simply offered his neck, but they did not act. After spending a month in prison, the Jesuit captive was released. When he got back to Madura, he was appointed to return to Portugal to report on the status of the mission in India. When he reached Lisbon ten months later, he was received like a hero. He toured the universities and colleges describing the adventurous life of an Indian missionary. His boyhood friend and now-king, Peter II noticed how thin, worn and tired his friend looked; he asked him to remain at home to tutor his two sons, but de Brito placed the needs in India above the comfort of the Portuguese court. De Brito sailed again to Goa and returned to the mission in Madura when he arrived in November 1690. He came back despite a death threat that the raja of Marava had made four years earlier. The Jesuit missionary travelled at night from station to station so he could celebrate Mass and baptize converts.
His success in converting Prince Tadaya Theva indirectly led to his death. The prince was interested in Christianity even before the prayers of a catechist helped him recover from a serious interest. De Brito insisted that the prince could keep only one of his several wives after his baptism; he agreed to this condition, but one of the rejected wives complained to her uncle, the raja of Marava who sent soldiers to arrest the missionary on January 28, 1690. Twenty days later the raja exiled de Brito to Oriyur, a neighboring province his brother governed. The raja instructed his brother to execute the troublesome Jesuit who was taken from prison on February 4 and led to a knoll overlooking a river where an executioner decapitated him with a schimitar.