In the Language of the Land: Native Conversion in Jesuit Public Letters from Brazil and India

In: Journal of Early Modern History


This paper begins with a simple problem: given the implicit Ignatian model for conversion and of conversion narratives for those already within the Christian fold, how did Jesuit missionaries in the colonies represent native conversion? To what extent were these colonial conversion narratives responding to the demands of Jesuit representational norms and to what extent did they reflect local realities? To address this question, this paper will examine stories of conversions of natives in public letters sent from Bahía and Goa and their immediate environs during the first thirty years of the missions in Brazil and India—annual letters but also other letters which were published in popular collections such as the Nuovi Avisi delle Indie di Portogallo series printed in Venice. The public cartas particulares, as opposed to the private hijuelas, were meant to be carefully crafted, and were explicitly intended to give a good account of the mission to the public in Europe. Since the public letters considered here were guided by Ignatius’ epistolary conventions and often placed into wide circulation, they provide an index of the rhetorical strategies and conversion narratives deemed successful by the Jesuit order in Europe in a period when Ignatius’ influence was still strongly felt.

  • 7

    Xavier, Epistolae, 169. On the huge impact of this letter in Europe, see Epistolae Mixtae, Vol. I (Madrid, 1900), 225.

  • 9

    Xavier, Epistolae, 170-71.

  • 10

    Richard F. Young, “Francis Xavier in the Perspective of the Shaivite Brahmins of Tirucendur Temple,” in HinduChristian Dialogue: Perspectives and Encounters, ed. Harold G. Coward (New York, 1990), 6479.

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  • 11

    Xavier, Epistolae, 173-4.

  • 14

    Xavier, Epistolae, 174.

  • 16

    Xavier, Epistolae, 174.

  • 25

    Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Exchanging Perspectives: The Transformation of Objects in Subjects in Amerindian Ontologies,” Common Knowledge 10, no. 3 (Fall, 2004): 463-484. As Viveiros de Castro’s writings on European observations of the Tupí in early colonial Brazil demonstrate, perspectivalism has the quality of a civilization trait that can be reasonably extrapolated to the sixteenth century. See Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, A inconstância da alma selvagem e outros ensaios de antropologia (São Paulo, 2002).

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  • 28

    Nóbrega, Cartas do Brasil, 56.

  • 29

    Nóbrega, “Informação das Terras do Brasil,” Cartas do Brasil, 66.

  • 31

    See for example, Nóbrega, Cartas do Brasil, 20.

  • 50

    Miguel Vaz to D. João III, 1545, DI I, 70.

  • 53

    By 1583, Alessandro Valignano noted that the Christians numbered 10,000, in part because the Jesuits would return to rebuild their churches following the intermittent attacks by Bijapur. DI VIII 920.

  • 54

    Paul Axelrod and Michelle A. Fuerch, “Flight of the Deities: Hindu Resistance in Portuguese Goa,” Modern Asian Studies 30, no. 2 (May, 1996): 387-421.

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  • 56

    This is reported in the annual of 1564, penned by Jorge Caldeira in Goa on December 11, 1564, DI VI, 371.

  • 58

    Manuel Gomes. Rachol, December 1, 1560. DI IV, 754.

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