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An Entangled History

Jesuit Missionaries in Brazil and India

Divya Kannan ( teaches at the Department of History, Shiv Nadar University, Greater Noida.

The Empire of Apostles: Religion, Accommodatio, and the Imagination of Empire in Early Modern Brazil and India by Ananya Chakravarti, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018; pp xiv + 356, ₹995, hardcover.

Ananya Chakravarti’s The Empires of Apostles: Religion, Accommodatio, and the Imagination of Empire in Early Modern Brazil and India, situated across various temporal and spatial scales, is held together by the use of historical bio­graphies. She narrates the life journeys of six Jesuit missionaries belonging to the Society of Jesus; a Jesuit organisation inextricably linked with the fluctuating fortunes of the Portuguese empire in south-western India and Brazil. That the empire’s fortunes were never absolute is at the core of this richly detailed and nuanced work that seeks to challenge traditional historiography on the subject. The author brings to life the myriad ways in which the location of Jesuit missionaries in these regions constantly shifted back and forth from being marginal actors to the centre of the Portuguese empire in the 16th and 17th centuries. Her scholarship makes a remarkable contribution in bringing South Asia and Latin America together in dialogue by employing postcolonial frameworks deftly to interrogate the ambiguities of global politics.

The lives of the Jesuit missionary men—Francis Xavier, Manuel da Nóbrega, José de Anchieta, Thomas Stephens, Baltasar da Costa, and António Vieira—depict a complex, and often fraught relationship between the imperial Crown and the Church. The Jesuits, though universal in tone, were often particularistic in conduct. The performance of their politics as figures of temporal and spiritual authority, embedded in Portuguese expansionist regimes, is a running theme across the book. In their interactions with various local power groups in India and Brazil, the missionaries revealed their loyalty to the Portuguese imperialistic project as fundamental to the propagation of Christianity. This was most evident in the initial mis­adventures of Francis Xavier, one of the most celebrated Jesuits in the 16th century, in Malabar, where he had come to prevail upon the lower-caste Parava fishing community. Utterly dismayed at the stiff opposition of the “heathens,” particularly the upper-caste Brahmins, and the possibility of not earning adequately “trustworthy” converts, Xavier was compelled to leave the region sooner than expected (p 65). However, his travails and anxieties lay buried within private correspondence or hijuelas to fellow missionaries in other parts of the world and supporters back home. On the surface, he put forth the need for the Church and Crown to act together. However, Chakravarti excavates these written records further, despite the absence of adequate indigenous voices, to weave a complicated picture of Jesuit activity in local missionary spaces. She delves into these dense archives marked by ­different languages to demonstrate the strategies adopted by the Jesuits to ­attract converts to their fold when tools of coercion and the threat of imperial annexation often tended to fail. Prime among the strategies that evolved out of experience and pragmatism, undergirded by Jesuit theological discourses and indigenous cosmology, was that of accommodatio. As the name suggests, accommodatio was employed repeatedly by Jesuits to adapt elements of local belief systems and social practices to convey Christian theological ideas. The strategy of accommodatio went hand in hand with the evolution of what the author calls the “religious imaginaire of empire” (pp 7–10), wherein the Jesuit priests firmly believed that they were destined to play a crucial role in enlarging the Portuguese empire. In truth, in the face of the messy reality of colonial politics, they clung to accommodatio to equip them with a language by which they would not fade into oblivion.

The Politics of Accommodatio

What did accommodatio entail? Chakra­varti’s sharp insights take the readers into these layered, and sometimes violent, spaces of interaction between the missionaries and the communities among whom they lived: in India, the lower-caste Paravas fishing community in Malabar and various Hindu caste communities in the coastal region of Goa, and the Tupiniquin village of Piratininga of southern Brazil. It was based on their everyday encounters with indigenous people, ranging from acceptance to resent­ment, that the missionaries developed accomodatio. For instance, José de Anchieta’s poetical corpus was a result of his deep understanding of the need to connect with Tupi culture in Piratininga. In his case, he utilised the Tupi song to launch an attack on the tribe’s orality (p 141). The reorientation of the Tupi song was imperative as it demonstrated to the Jesuits that missionaries could not solely rely on the Crown’s military agenda to propagate Christian civility. However, faced with bitter resentment caused by the intrusion of such notions into Tupi warfare rituals and marriage, Anchieta grew disillusioned; a sign of the limits of accommodatio and, in many ways, the religious imaginaire of the empire itself.

While, in the 16th century, Xavier and Anchieta strongly held that their purpose lay in forging new Christian communities among the “ignorant” and “savage” heathen, they knew that they had to embed themselves as cultural and linguistic intermediaries as well. Chakravarti emphasises this repeatedly to argue that the missionaries were utterly conscious of their role in these colonial encounters. Despite numerous interruptions from below, the missionaries cautiously tread a path in which they could not entirely alienate their nascent Christian communities by forcing upon them Christian codes of conduct.

In Brazil, the order was faced with the realisation that their newly founded Christian congregations were not divorced from their pre-Christian social systems of organisation and ritual. In this regard, a question of particular vexation for the Jesuits was that of Tupi warfare in which revenge was central. To distract supporters, in his communication back home, Anchieta depicted that the “gentile enemies defeated, but they also created local Christian martyrs, whose actions were a model of bravery” (p 151). He adapted his language and infused it with idioms of Christian virtues to disguise the violence he associated with warfare rituals.

These converts were, after all, not the ideal believers the Jesuits had hoped to uphold as the best of the lot. In the missionary’s eyes, the Tupis’ culture of warfare in which converts and non-converts participated together could be transformed via accommodatio (p 177). But, the underlying message was clear. In spite of familiarity with the language and adoption of local symbolism and figures of authority, such as the shamans or karaibas, the tools of proselytisation, learnt in the monastic orders of Europe, did not yield the exact desired fruit.

Similarly, for instance, Jesuit missionaries came to be at the heart of global politics, but could not survive without indigenous catechists, as was evinced by Baltasar da Costa in Madurai where he negotiated his position between the lower-caste Paraiyans and the political elites of the Nayaka society. Chakravarti notes that the catechists in Madurai were significantly more effective in evangelising their brethren than the Jesuits themselves (p 269), an example of the limits of accommodatio. In short, the Jesuits in the colonies occupied a far more precarious position than they would have liked to believe.

Yet, despite the reality of the missionary message remaining at odds with indigenous structures of authority and custom, the missionaries did not remain mute spectators in the theatre of the ­empire. As the chapter on English Jesuit Thomas Stephens shows, they were privy to the violence underlying the projects of conversion in the regions as well. Surrounded by various Hindu groups in the small village of Salcete in Goa, Stephens witnessed brutal massacres of Jesuits and their sympathisers preceded by the corrupt nature of missionary work (p 199). His position as a non-Portuguese only complicated his experience of factionalist Jesuit politics and competing European rivalry in the Indian Ocean. Towards the end of his career, Stephens also resigned to literature and produced the Discurso Sobre a Vinda de Jesu Christo (Discourse on the Coming of Christ), popularly known as Krista Purana. Though well-versed in the vernacular languages such as Konkani and Hindustani, his ­decision to write it in Marathi, the high poetical language used mostly by the Brahmins, revealed Stephens’ bias and “a hierarchical understanding of the conditions of accommodatio” (p 208). Like Anchieta in Brazil, he could not “fully insulate himself and his missions” from the local reality (p 227). Such narratives of an entangled history abound in the book that seeks to expose the fractures of the Portuguese empire from within.

The book’s narrative style takes you back and forth in these intercultural encounters, which were unequal but not unusual. Chakravarti asserts that the mismatch between their actions on the ground and their religious beliefs forced the Jesuits to realise that the Crown did not always consider the Church on its side. In India, the Portuguese remained one among many political players vying for regional territorial power. Thus, Jesuits were party to many conversations with local kings and military forces in order to secure their already fragile hold.

Past as Present

In the story of accommodatio, thus, lies the story of the Portuguese empire itself. The missionaries’ sense of self-importance was eclipsed by the larger political schema by the advent of the 17th century. With the repeated onslaughts of the Dutch on maritime trade and naval ­warfare, the missionaries had to face a ­retreat, ideologically and otherwise. It was, by default, an admission that the triumphalist vision of the empire was fraught with moral and political frailties.

Chakravarti, however, does not stop merely at chronicling the past. By referring to the stances of moral imperialism adopted by the Catholic Church in the present, she demonstrates a longer history of global Christianity. Herein lies the biggest strength of the book, as the past is constantly in the project of shaping the present. In the contemporary world, as the Catholic Church grapples with ­crises in faith of younger members and the demand for democratisation from churches in the global South, the interconnected histories of South Asia and Latin America allow the reader to contextualise the situation better. Such scholarship is not commonplace, as the imagination of postcolonial thought is heavily on the influences of metropoles on colonies. Chakravarti attempts to move away to show the flows of intercultural encounters to reveal that the missionary project, akin to the imperial one, was never straightforward. Especially in the ways in which Christianity has evolved in varying cultural landscapes, the story of the Jesuits shows that what happened in reality in the colonies did not always correspond with ideologies propagated in the West. Here, she makes a case for the historian as a secular critic to re-evaluate the role of the Church in the politics of imperialism and urges that a “historicization and demystification of empire is crucial to the work of anti-imperialism” (p 321).



Updated On : 28th May, 2020


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