ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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An Entangled History

Jesuit Missionaries in Brazil and India

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.

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Updated On : 28th May, 2020
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