On 16th November 2018, a twenty-six-year-old American missionary called John Allen Chau was killed by an isolated tribe on the island of North Sentinel, part of the Indian island territories of Andaman and Nicobar in the Indian Ocean. Chau was reportedly attempting to make contact with a 30,000-year-old isolated tribe known for their hostility towards outsiders, in order to convert them to evangelical Christianity. As part of his goal to proselytize to them, it is believed that Chau attempted to befriend them by offering scissors, safety pins, fish and a football. The tribesmen were unimpressed by his trinkets, and reportedly shot Chau to death with arrows. Indian authorities have as yet been unable to retrieve his body.
Chau’s death was widely reported by the international media, with public reaction mostly that of derision. He has been accused of attempting cultural imperialism, as well as breaking Indian law while under a tourist visa. An article in Slate noted that “to many, it seemed like Chau approached the island with a cartoonish style of Western swagger.” Besides the obvious dangers of introducing epidemic diseases to a people who might lack the proper immunities, many felt that Chau’s foolhardy mission smacked of Western cultural arrogance and a colonialist mentality.
These negative connotations are understandable. As Western powers began carving up territories in Asia, Africa and the Americas at the dawn of the age of High Imperialism, Western missionaries were often at the forefront of the colonization process. Many were willing agents in the Europeans’ stated goal of bequeathing Western civilization to an uncivilized world, adamant in their belief in Western cultural superiority and condemnatory of the cultural practices of their colonized subjects. The French even gave it a term: mission civilisatrice.
Like Chau, there was another group of daring missionaries some 500 years ago, dedicated to bringing Western civilization and the Christian message to Asians, even if it meant facing danger and death. These were the legendary Jesuits, agents of a worldwide missionary organization in the service of the Roman Catholic Church. Unlike Chau, however, the Jesuits had a far bigger and longer lasting legacy within much of Asia, including China, India and Japan. For much of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Jesuits proved instrumental in facilitating early contacts and exchanges between Asia and the West and helping to catalyze early modern globalization, including in international relations, knowledge exchange, acculturation and inter-cultural dialogue.
The Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits as they were commonly known, was an ascetic male-only religious order established in 1540 by a Spanish Basque nobleman named Ignatius of Loyola with the blessing of the Pope. Ignatius had originally been an ambitious army officer who was severely wounded in a battle with the French in 1521. With his military career over, the hospitalized Ignatius was inspired to seek glory by devoting himself to God instead, after reading about the lives of saints. The society he founded naturally had a military character to it; with Ignatius elected as its first General. Originally set up to combat the ongoing Reformation, the Jesuits soon began to concentrate on missionary work after Vasco De Gama’s discovery of an oceanic passage to India in 1497–99. With the Portuguese beginning to insert themselves within the intricate maritime trade routes of Asia, the Jesuits hoped to exploit these new commercial links to spread the Catholic faith.
The Jesuits found that proselytizing in Asia differed from what other missionaries had encountered in the New World, mostly due to differing power dynamics. They weren’t preaching to a conquered people with the backing of a colonial government: they were operating within independent and sophisticated civilizations with their own long-established hierarchies, institutions and societal practices.
Having to improvise, many Jesuits discarded the self-righteous haranguing typical of other missionaries in favor of policies of accommodation, syncretizing Catholicism with local beliefs to fit circumstances on the ground. The most celebrated Jesuits would be those who, to borrow a later colonial phrase, went native. The legendary Francis Xavier (1506–52), during his travels in Japan, shed the image of an apostolic beggar favored by his Order in favor of refined clothing, and resolved to only eat rice and soup like the bonzes (monks), in order to emphasize his religious mission. In Ming China, the celebrated Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) appropriated the appearances and lifestyles of both the Buddhist monks and the Confucius-learnt literati in order to integrate himself with the Chinese elite. The Tuscan Roberto de Nobili (1577–1656), based in Madurai in modern day Tamil Nadu, left the Jesuit residence to dwell in the Brahmin quarters of the city, adopting saffron garb and becoming a strict vegetarian in the manner of a sannyasi (Hindu ascetic).
These pioneers of a new style of missionary work attempted to fuse the prevailing religious traditions of their host societies with Christian theology, in order to make its tenets more acceptable. For this to happen, the Jesuits had to study and respect Eastern wisdom, rather than simply demonize it. De Nobili studied the Hindu scriptures and became proficient in Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit, and argued that the teachings of the Church were in fact the fifth Veda, complementing the four canonical Vedas (sacred texts) of Hinduism.
Ricci, on the other hand, famously attempted to draw monotheistic parallels between Confucianism and the abstract Chinese concepts of tian (heaven) and shangdi (sovereign on high) with the Christian notion of a personalized and independent deity. His approach courted controversy: detractors argued that he was using a Christian-tinged reading of ancient Chinese texts to win acceptance among the literati. Regardless, this larger policy of cultural accommodation and pragmatism would become the standard approach of the Order throughout Asia.
The Jesuits also hoped to foster evangelization indirectly through the dissemination of Western sciences, hoping to prove the superiority of Western civilization. Ricci introduced modern European maps into China, copying and revising several and translating them into Chinese. He would thus play a significant role in the history of Chinese cartography. His efforts were certainly appreciated at the time: copies of his maps appeared in two of the major Chinese encyclopedias published in that era. Father Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1592–1666) won acclaim from the Ming Emperor in 1639 for his efforts to help reform the Imperial Calendar (important for determining auspicious and inauspicious dates). After the fall of the Ming in 1644, the new Qing dynasty installed Schall as head of the Imperial Bureau of Astronomy, and he formed a particularly close relationship with the young Emperor Shunzhi (who referred to him affectionately as grandpa). In Mughal India, Jesuit missionaries were involved in the imperial observatories set up in Jaipur and Delhi.
Besides the dissemination of scientific thought, the Jesuits were also the purveyors of European artistic styles. Successive missions to the court of the Great Mughals of India failed in their primary aim of converting the emperor Akbar (the Constantinian approach), but their illustrated Bibles and devotional oil paintings introduced the court artisans to new subject matter and the stylistic conventions of Late Renaissance Europe. A flurry of murals, paintings, jewelry and ornaments depicting Christ, Mary and the saints were produced and used to decorate the imperial throne rooms, tombs, harems and caravanserais of the major cities of Fatehpur Sikri, Lahore and Agra.
European visitors to the Mughal courts between the 1590s and 1660s were often astonished to find imperial palaces and tombs adorned with paintings of Christian subjects in a supposedly Muslim empire. A Portuguese correspondent at the Mughal court noted that “there are so many saints that … you would say it was more like the palace of a Christian king than a Moorish one.” Beyond aesthetics, these images also provided new mediums to convey the language of Mughal kingship to their subjects. For the Japanese, always enthusiastic about anything foreign, devotional art also became the new vogue. A contemporary noted that the Japanese “wear rosaries of drift wood on their breasts, hang a crucifix from their shoulders or waist” in some superficial appropriation of the ritualistic, rather than ideological, elements of Christianity.
While the Jesuits served as a conduit for Western sciences and knowledge to enter Asia, the information flowed in both directions. For many Westerners, the written works of these itinerant missionaries presented them with the most comprehensive knowledge of these faraway civilizations available at the time. This influenced how East and West perceived each other. Whether writing about the splendor of the courts of the Great Mughals, commentaries on Chinese philosophy or the political instabilities of pre-Shogunate Japan, the Jesuits were often acute in their observations, if undoubtedly biased.
As much as Eastern rulers may have appreciated the Jesuits for bringing Western sciences, material goods and new artistic conventions into their realms, the lives of many Jesuits in Asia proved precarious. Dependent on both European commercial links and the patronage of local rulers for the survival of both themselves and their missions, the success of early Christianity in much of Asia would ebb and flow with the local political enviroment.
Nowhere was this more visibly demonstrated than in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Japan. In order to ensure the survival of their nascent church, the Jesuits inserted themselves into the burgeoning trade between the Portuguese and Japanese and the profits it created. As long as these Black Ships brought much needed material goods (particularly firearms), many daimyos (feudal lords) were happy to accept the presence of missionaries. Some even forced their subjects to convert to Catholicism to attract even more European traders.
However, under the second unifier of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the patience of the authorities began to grow thin. The Jesuits were accused of being allied with recalcitrant daimyos in the south, as well as subverting Japan’s delicate feudal balance, while interactions with the newly arrived English and Dutch (rival Protestant nations) made the authorities aware of the recent Iberian conquests in South America and the Philippines, in which missionaries had played a significant role. By the time of the establishment of Tokugawa Ieyasu as the third (and last) unifier of Japan in 1603, Japanese tolerance had evaporated. By 1639, the Jesuits were banished, Catholicism had been brutally stamped out and many Christians tortured and killed. The eradication of a vibrant Christian community of some 30,000 went hand in hand with the closing of the country to much of European contact for over 250 years. Whether intended or not, the Jesuits played a role in informing how the Japanese, as well as other Asian rulers, would attempt to control relations with a rising West.
At the dawn of early modern globalization, The Society of Jesus played a larger-than-life role in facilitating East–West contacts and intercultural exchanges. Like the unfortunate John Chau, they were driven to brave danger in order to spread Christianity to the East by providing glimpses into their own worlds, while, ironically, having to learn to accommodate and respect Eastern ways and traditions in the process. Modern relations between Asia and the West must ultimately pay some homage to the plucky followers of Ignatius of Loyola.