The Historiography of the Jesuit Missions in India (1500–1800)
(8,137 words)

Ines G. Županov

Last modified: November 2016


From Letters to History in the Early Modern Period

The very first Jesuit mission started in India with the arrival of Francis Xavier (1506–52) in 1542. This is one of the reasons why the first Jesuit historiographies (written exclusively by the Jesuits) were either written in or about India, a geographical term, today corresponding to South Asia, but which in the early modern period often encompassed the entire Asia or at least what the Portuguese, who were the patrons of the Jesuit missions, called Estado da Índia. As a new religious order specifically available for overseas missions by a special vow to the pope, the Jesuits were aware of the need to produce and show the results of their engagement and to publish them, as the use of the printing press was gaining ground, for their European sponsors and benefactors. Jesuit written reports and their correspondence provided materials for the first histories of the order. It is safe to say that the absence of the past stimulated the production of historiography. These histories were meant to be read widely and to edify European audience, and to entice new recruits and provide the template for the missionary action. They were both apologetic and factual, since each detail, whether about missionary successes, obstacles, or martyrdoms, was seen as a step forward to the ultimate triumph. This teleological coloring of the historiographical account was also closely interwoven with Catholic providentialism. Jesuit historiography thus captured both the historical processes and the lives and itineraries of the historical actors, most of whom participated—willingly and self-consciously—in writing their own history.

The earliest publications of missionary letters from India, such as the famous Copie d’une lettre missive envoyée des Indes (Paris, 1545) by Francis Xavier, can be taken as the first Jesuit historiographical effort at printing primary sources.1 Jesuit historiography, therefore, proleptically starts with the present, in which the historical actors were still alive and writing about themselves. Jesuit history, in fact, had been simultaneously in the making and already in use as a template for action. The use of history was further divided, as was almost every Jesuit cultural practice, between internal and external. The history for the insiders, besides its apparent edifying and exhortative character, aimed primarily at the integration of an ever-growing and diversifying membership, and consequently at establishing an efficient conflict-solving strategies. Another particularity of the early Jesuit historiographical practices that remains its most important feature even today is that the texts were written in many different languages and supported by different patrons. Letters by the missionaries in India, working exclusively under the Portuguese padroado (the royal patronage of the missions), appeared in print in the sixteenth century, often simultaneously in Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, German, French, and Latin. Even those edited and translated remain precious documents since not all original autographs are extant.2

As is well known, it was during the generalship of Francisco de Borja (in office 1565–73) that Juan Alfonso de Polanco (1517–76), who organized the secretariat and centralized correspondence for the generals, wrote about the necessity to initiate a work on the history of the Society of Jesus: “Since some kind of history of the Society is desired from various parts, it would be appropriate if each college sent information (unless it is already sent) concerning its foundation as well as all remarkable events that happened until now, noting down times and places.”3 In 1567, Gonçalo Alvarez (1525–73) who was sent to India as visitor had as an additional task to find some local fathers able to write a history of the Society’s presence in India. He found none, claiming that the missionaries in India prefer to work than to write.4 However, according to Robert Streit, the first history, or a short digest of historical events in the Asian missions, was written by Manuel da Costa (1540–d. after 1572) in 1568 and sent to Rome where Giovanni Pietro Maffei (1533–1603), a famous Jesuit humanist, translated it into Latin and published in Dillingen in 1571 under the title Rerum a Societate Iesu in Oriente gestarum ad annum usque a Deipara Virgine MDLXIII commentarius.5 This was, however, a rather modest beginning before Alessandro Valignano’s (1539–1606) Historia del principio y progresso de la Compañía de Jesús en las Indias Orientales (1542–64), left in manuscript until the twentieth century, provided material for Maffei's Historiarum Indicarum libri xvi [Florence, 1588].6

Already in the late sixteenth and the early seventeenth century, there were two types of Jesuit historians: those who were also missionaries or had travelled in Asia and those who were professional, “armchair” historians in Rome or other important Jesuit college/university towns. Some like Valignano, and later on Sebastião Gonçalves (1555?–1619), provided the information and facts to the metropolitan historians and subsequently their own manuscripts remained unpublished. Gonçalves’s Primeira parte da historia dos religiosos da Companhia de Jesus e do que fizeram com a divina graça na conversão dos infieis a nossa sancta fee catholica nos reynos e provincias da India Oriental was not just any kind of information but an important source to draw from for the preparation of Xavier’s beatification and canonization process.7 It was famously sent from Goa in 1614 accompanied by the relic of the future saint’s right arm, which is today encased in silver reliquary and placed on the right hand side altar in the Gesù Church in Rome.8

Metropolitan histories in the same period were likely to be published in Latin, a lingua franca of Jesuit scholarship, but Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian versions were also available for the larger public, as we see in cases such as Luis de Guzmán’s, Historia de las missiones que han hecho los religiosos de la Compañía de Jesús.9 What they all had in common, even when their titles indicated that they were history of the Society of Jesus, is that the first part was usually in fact a biography of Xavier. However, when the process of canonization of Ignatius and Xavier gained momentum by the end of the sixteenth century and the early decades of the seventeenth, the vitae of the two founding fathers were published in separate volumes: such were Horatio Tursellino's Vita Francisci Xaverii (Rome, 1594), often reprinted and translated into Italian and French, and João de Lucena's Historia de vida do padre Francisco de Xavier (Lisbon, 1600), translated by a Jesuit Lodovico Mansoni and published in Italian in 1613 by the printing press of Bartolomeo Zannetti. The second Portuguese edition by Bento José de Souza Farinha appeared only in 1788, but the text had been very influential in Portuguese literature.10

A comprehensive general history of the Portuguese Jesuit assistancy, which itself stretched across the oceans and girdled the world, was Fernão Guerreiro’s Relacam annual das cousas que fizeram os padres da Companhia de Jesus, in five parts, published at the turn of the seventeenth century.11 His volumes were based on Jesuit correspondence, in particular annual reports from the missions, and he organized them chronologically with entries that combined biographical, ethnographical, and geographical descriptions. His text penetrated, on an almost capillary level, all subsequent “national” or regional histories of the early Jesuit missions, from Brazil to Japan. His synthetic chapters on the progress of the Jesuit mission at the Mughal court, during its most promising time of Akbar’s rule, and the venture into Tibet in search of land route to Cathay had been taken up and published with much wider success by Pierre du Jarric (1566–1617) whose Histoire des choses plus memorables advenues tant ez Indes Orientales, que autres païs de la descouverte des Portugais, appeared in three parts (the second in 1610 and the third in 1614).12 Du Jarric who also wanted to be sent overseas as a missionary, compensated for his sedentary career in Bordeaux by becoming a historian. In this work, he exhorted the king of France, Henry IV (r.1589–1610) to imitate Portuguese royal endeavor and support Catholic missions. Among his sources beyond Guerreiro he explicitly mentioned Maffei, Tursellino, Guzmán, Lucena, although he claimed in his “Advertissment au lecteur” (vol. 1, no pagination) to have been in direct touch with missionaries such as Alberto Laertio, who had been posted in India and who had commented on the history already published in Europe. Obviously, the history of a mission was considered all the more authentic if confirmed by a missionary in situ.

What the Portuguese publications called simply Cartas (Letters), written mostly in Portuguese by the Jesuit missionaries with a first-hand knowledge, were renamed histories when translated. The New Historical Reports (Nova relatio historica or Newe Historische Relation) or New Indian Relations (Indische Newe Relation) signal a transitional genre between letter (a witness report) and history.13 The printing press was therefore accelerating the process of making recent present events into fixed past, controlled by the Jesuit imprimatur. However, it would not be long before these letters were also appropriated by non- and anti-Jesuit press.

Another unpublished history by a missionary in India is História do Malavar by Diogo Gonçalves (d.1640). The manuscript that Joseph Wicki dated to around 1615 is interestingly not simply a history of the Society of Jesus but a combination of a geography and an ethnography of Kerala.14 It seems to have been written in the first place for the Portuguese colonial administration in order to provide strategic advice for a possible conquest of or at least an attack on one of the rich temples. It was also, of course, directed at the Jesuit missionaries, offering them information and instructions on how to respond to Indian idolatry and customs. These kinds of texts in which Jesuits used their history writing skills, although not necessarily for histories of the order, were many, and some were written in vernacular languages of the missions. For example, Jerónimo Xavier (1549–1617), the nephew of the Jesuit saint, wrote in Persian the life of Jesus, Mir’āt al-quds (The mirror of holiness) and the life of St. Peter, among other works.15 Xavier’s life was, on the other hand, included in all histories of the order from that of Guerreiro to Jesuit compilations of their famous European writers, such as Juan Eusebio Nieremberg’s (1595–1658), Vidas exemplares, and in histories of particular provinces such as Bartholomé Alcázar’s (1648–1721) Chrono-historia de la Compañía de Jesús en la provincia de Toledo.16

Jesuits were in the early modern period actors in and writers of their own and other peoples’ histories. They were both local and global heroes for their Catholic audience. Their identities were also multiple, and they were appropriated in the historiography of different localities. One can start as a native of Toledo, Rome or Lisbon and end up a Japanese or Indian or Brazilian martyr. Thus one and the same Jesuit would be registered in different historiographical projects. For example, a Jesuit who spent most of the time in India may also appear in Antonio Franco’s Imagen de virtude em noviciado de Companhia de Jesus in Coimbra and in Antonio Cardim’s Ramalhete of the Japanese martyrs.17 Jesuit Indian early modern historiography reached its apogee in Daniello Bartoli’s (1608–85) multivolume oeuvre on the history of the Society of Jesus, published in Rome in Italian and Latin between 1650 and 1673 and republished many times over in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His Asian history, separate from those of Japan and China, included Xavier’s life and travel all the way to the mission at the Mughal court by Rodolfo Acquaviva (1550–83) and his martyrdom in Salcette in 1583.18

Jesuit historiography written by Jesuits, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries century resembles a single composite body of cross-references, borrowings, and multiple translations. It was both densely factual and apologetic although “national” styles and inclinations were clearly discernible. The Italian view of Bartoli can be compared with the Portuguese view in Francisco de Sousa’s Oriente conquistado.19 Both narrate the first half-century of Jesuit presence in India with barely disguised national agendas but within a universalizing framework. Another Jesuit historian, Fernão de Queiros’s (1617–88) work remained unpublished in the seventeenth century except for the Historia da vida do veneravel irmaõ Pedro de Basto.20 Queirós was a prolific writer with a long Jesuit career in India (fifty-three years), but he had the misfortune to lose his writings in the 1664 fire in the Goan College of St. Paul.21 Many Jesuit literary and historical works were lost in similar disasters and/or through subsequent archival neglect. Thus his major historical work Conquista temporal e espiritual de Ceylão written by the end of his life remained in manuscript and was published only in the twentieth century from only two extant manuscripts. Although it chronicles Portuguese success in conquering Sri Lanka and the reasons for its subsequent loss, it is a detailed history of the Jesuit and Franciscan missions on the island.22


From Jesuit Historiography’s “French” Turn to Protestant Critique

It is clear that in the late seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries, Jesuit historical writings and what can be called “historical sources” from India, take clearly national and defensive stands. With the arrival of the French Jesuits, sent by the French king and defying Portuguese padroado system, the letters written from the two missions in Tamil Nadu, an already famous Madurai mission under the padroado and the Mission du Carnate, a French mission on the east coast of India, were immediately published in a famous collection entitled Lettres édifiantes et curieuses.23 While the publication of the Cartas in the early years of the Society of Jesuit had been haphazard, the French letters in this collection were from the start a self-conscious effort at promoting the new French missions. The letters were not simply reproduced, but retailored by the editors in Paris.24 Some of the volumes were published in German, while a famous English translation by John Lockman was a hostile appropriation.25

The publication of the LEC was a veritable machine de guerre of the French Jesuits against multiple enemies, both Catholic and Protestant. In addition to Portuguese ecclesiastical padroado, the French Jesuits were also involved in a bitter struggle with Capuchins and the Missions Etrangères de Paris (hereafter MEP) in Pondicherry, and with numerous theologians in Rome, with whom they exchanged “literary” punches concerning the Malabar rites controversy. As the Propaganda Fide strove to replace the padroado in the missionary field in Asia, in particular, the Jesuits found themselves in a difficult position. Inspired mostly by Jesuit strategies and “modernized” by the more extensive use of the printing press, they both cooperated and resisted Roman efforts to centralize missionary activities.

Another front opened by the LEC was to shut down reports by various and increasingly famous travelers in India, French libertines, and Protestants and coming from rival European nations such as Britain, the Netherlands, and Germany. The LEC thus became an ongoing “history” of the French Jesuit mission since there was nobody either in France or in Rome to write one. In fact, it can almost be said that Jesuit historical writing was not as much in fashion as it used to be during the Iberian and Roman sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This was probably due to the fact that missionary historical writing had been appropriated by secular institutions and political powers that looked at Jesuit intelligentsia with increasing suspicion.

The Society of Jesus in France was bracing for a fight against very articulate enemies at home, some of whom came straight from the Jesuit colleges and who were eventually associated with the Enlightenment.26 Epistolary form in general became a preferred means of expression in the century, in which many certainties were shaken and self-apologetic histories were mistrusted. To win over French literary public, the missionaries in India produced erudite and descriptive texts and letters in which distant peoples and their histories were variously portrayed as congealed in ancient (European) time or as people who “forgot” (or were tricked into forgetting) their own Christian origins. Jesuit speculations about connections between Brahmans and Jews, and many other conjectures were incorporated into some of the most important Enlightenment projects such as Bernard and Picard’s, Cérémonies et coutumes.27 Practically until the end of the century, the Jesuits in the Carnatic Mission worked to counter the ideas of the esprits forts in Europe through their exceptionally enlightened erudition and what Michel de Certeau (1925–86) called the “hermeneutics of the other.”

As the opposition to the Society of Jesus grew, everything the Jesuits wrote from the missions was used against them in Protestant historiography. Moreover, from the early years of the eighteenth century, a rival Christian mission in India, that of the German Pietists from Halle in Tranquebar, a Danish enclave on the Coromandel Coast, started producing, partly in imitation of the Jesuits, their own missionary historiography. Their letters and reports were published from 1708 onwards as Hallesche Berichte and some of them were translated into English and published in Propagation of the Gospel in the East that started appearing in 1709 by the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge and in various other histories.28 The sharpest tongue among the Protestant historians of the early eighteenth century had formerly been a Catholic, Mathurin Veyssière de la Croze (1661–1739). He wrote Histoire du christianisme des Indes, a history in which Jesuits, Portuguese and French, figure very prominently side by side with other Portuguese ecclesiastical actors.29 Veyssière de la Croze established a very long history of Christianity in India, preserved by the St. Thomas Christians in Kerala, while he portrayed the Jesuits and the Portuguese as those who came to pervert and corrupt the pristine message and this ancient community that had originally resembled a Protestant sect.

Briefly, up to the eighteenth century Jesuit historiography (written by Jesuit authors) and historiography of the Society of Jesus (histories about the Jesuits) meant mostly the same thing. Only Jesuit authors wrote about their own history, although in the seventeenth century some Jesuits extended their contributions to other literary, scholarly, and historiographical projects. As Jesuit and European interest in other peoples’ pasts grew, although diachrony was often collapsed into ethnography, the Society of Jesus itself became increasingly subject to the historiographical opinions and representations constructed by others. The apogee of negative assessments occurred in years leading to and after the suppression of the order. In Portugal, the accusations against Jesuits ranged from their role in the failure of the empire and education to the Society’s inappropriate response to 1755 earthquake.30


Survival and Renewal

The Jesuit historiography of the Indian Jesuit missions resumed after the restoration of the Society of Jesus and the first missionaries, who all came from France, first to Bengal (1834) and then to Tamil Nadu (1837), and who had to deal with very different political situation in India, in France, and within the Catholic Church.31 Joseph Bertrand (1801–84) came as a missionary in 1837, and upon return to France in 1845, he started publishing book after book on the history of the Madurai mission. Just as the LEC more than a century earlier symbolically appropriated the Madurai mission for the French Jesuits by way of printed translations of the Jesuit letters such as those of Roberto Nobili (1577–1656) and of other padroado missionaries, Bertrand’s four volumes of the La mission du Maduré repeated successfully the gesture of Francization.32 Bertrand’s intention was not simply national as was the intention and the result of the LEC, but rather it was to provide continuity between the mission that he and a few other Jesuits from Lyons province reopened with that of the old Society of Jesus and its mission in Madurai. The publication of this and other histories that followed were to fill in the gap of absences, quarrels and ongoing controversies among the Catholic ecclesiastics and with those who were their traditional enemies, such as Protestants.

In the meantime, between the suppression and restoration, the MEP, an institution that in many ways emulated, even if reluctantly, the French Jesuits, especially in using historiography and printing for self-promotion, gained visibility and credibility among the French Catholics. It was precisely in competition with the MEP that Bertrand started his own Jesuit missionary historiography. In the first volume of La mission du Maduré, in his dedication to the bishop of Langres, Bertrand specifically referred to a book written in 1843 (1842 in fact) by unmentioned author “so dear to our hearts,” one to whose text he wanted to offer a more “radiant testimony.”33 Despite his extremely polite manner, Bertrand’s intention was to revise the historical narrative of the MEP priest Jean-Félix-Onésime Luquet (1810–58), one of the first historians of the MEP in India.34

If countering the MEP historiography of the Jesuit presence in Tamil Nadu was one of the most important incentives for the new French Jesuit historiography of the nineteenth century, Bertrand’s strategy was to make known the “primary sources,” since he believed, as did the historians of the period (such as Leopold von Ranke [1795–1886]) that the “facts” could speak for themselves. Of the four volumes, three are compilations of published and unpublished missionary letters and documents from the Jesuit archives, all related to the Madurai and Carnatic missions, from their inception until the suppression. Thus he translated from Italian, Portuguese, and Latin the letters of the founders such as Nobili and Antonio Vico (1565–1640), and other letters from the late seventeenth century, before ending with the short life of João de Brito (1647–93), beatified in 1853, three years after the publication of the third volume (1850).35 The fourth volume contains most of the eighteenth-century letters published in the LEC. Only the first volume was a compendium of knowledge about Indian social and cultural customs, geography, and Jesuit presence in India in comparative framework with other missions, garnished with his opinions on various other controversial and burning contemporary subjects such as “the formation of native clergy.”

With two volumes of Lettres édifiantes et curieuses de la nouvelle mission du Maduré, Bertrand continued his publication efforts to help refound the Madurai mission.36 In the introduction to the first volume, he gives an apologetic and interesting first account of the period during the suppression and the tribulations of the Jesuits who remained in place, followed by eleven of his own letters and fourteen of other missionaries. By combining historical narrative and original missionary letters, the seam between an actor’s account and an historical narrative was smoothly ironed out, especially when it just happened to be one and the same person speaking. What was overlooked in the process is that all the letters that were selected for publication were expurgated of all information considered unedifying, disturbing, or superfluous.


Revival of Jesuit Scholarship during the British Colonial Period

However, Jesuits’ obsessive control of their own history was compromised by other historical actors in India in the eighteenth century, in particular by information-hungry British administrators-cum-orientalists. The life of the Jesuit Costanzo Giuseppe Beschi (1680–1747) had been written in Tamil before being translated into English and published in 1840.37 The British were not interested as much in Beschi’s life as in his work since he was recognized by the budding British orientalists as having been an extraordinary Tamil scholar, grammarian, and poet.38 Jesuit history in the nineteenth century was also appropriated by the MEP historiography. The five volumes by Adrian Launay, Histoire de christianisme en Inde (1898) is organized by regions and towns and by chronological events, and it narrates (and celebrates) the history of the MEP from 1776 onwards. It includes Jesuit missionaries only when it is impossible not to mention their contributions to the earlier history and in the nineteenth century.39 Perhaps the most comprehensive if concise and apologetic history of the old and the new Madurai missions, starting with Nobili and ending in 1891, was published three years later in Paris by Auguste Jean, a missionary in Madurai himself.

Not long afterwards, in the early twentieth century, Jesuit historiography experienced waves of revival, some of which were related to specific occasions, such as the anniversary of the restoration of the Society of Jesus. In fact, the general, Frans Xavier Wernz (in office, 1906–14) invited all the members to commemorate the first hundred years of the restoration by, among other festivities, recording the Society’s history from 1814 onwards. One such work was Leon Besse’s La mission du Maduré: Historique de ses pangous.40 With its geographical organization, the narrative proceeds district by district and parish (pangou) by parish, and it is a mine of quantitative information: parish records of those who received sacraments, numbers of churches and chapels, lists of missionaries and their catechists, and similar. With this framework, he was able to intertwine the past and the present. In fact, his approach echoes a general colonial obsession of census-taking that the British were in process of imposing on India.41 Besse’s history chronicles the reconquest of Indian missions that took half a century, and his unkind statements about “Goan priests” and “propagandists” betray the tension with their major rivals among the existing Catholic clergy.

Most of the general historical works or hagiographies of particular Jesuit martyrs and saints written by the Jesuits in the twentieth century are about the “old” (pre-suppression) Society. Some of these historians were also missionaries at one point of their lives. Although they collected primary sources and conducted thorough research, their printed books were mostly hagiographies without precise references and they all practiced auto-censure of anything that might disturb an edifying narrative. Such were books and chapters published by Jean Castets, Alexandre Brou (1862–1947), Domenico Ferroli (1887–1970), Auguste Saulière (1885–1966), and others, although some of them were erudite scholars. Along the large spectrum of the Jesuits’ published historical works, some ranged from melodramatic, romantic, and pious constructions and fictionalization rather than historical scholarship to the impressive collection of empirical sources and the positivist scholarship of historians like Joseph Wicki (1904–93), Georg Schurhammer (1882–1971), Peter R. Bachmann (d. after 1972), Pierre Dahmen (d. after 1924), and others.

The distinction between pious fiction and history had been discussed, at times to the point of furious verbal altercations, even among the Jesuit writers. These unedifying stories are revealed only sporadically and in sugar-coated language in prefaces of other books. Thus we learn that the immensely learned and active historian Auguste Saulière exchanged punches with famous Jesuit historian and biographer of Francis Xavier, James Patrick Broderick (1891–1973) over his life of João de Brito, Red Sand.42 Broderick reproached him for not writing “a critical biography with all the usual apparatus.”43 On the other hand, Saulière also got angry with the writer Vincent Cronin, to whom he gave access to his materials and manuscripts on Roberto Nobili. However, according to Saverimuttu Rajamanickam, Saulière disliked Cronin’s text and refused to co-sign the book.44


Indian Jesuit Historians and Decolonization

Around the time Saulière died in 1966, a new generation of Tamil Jesuit historians appeared on the scene. Rajamanickam consecrated his whole life and historical scholarship to Roberto Nobili and by the time he finished and published his doctorate The First Oriental Scholar (1972) he had already published twenty-three books in Tamil containing mostly what he identified as Nobili’s texts. This kind of specialization, directed towards the goal of beatification and canonization of the chosen Jesuit hero, was quite common. Saulière also completed his Red Sand around the time of João de Brito’s canonization.

In addition to French Jesuit scholarship focusing mainly on South India, which was also their missionary base, in other parts of India Jesuit historians specialized in other missions and in other historical topics having to do with Indian history. Posted in Jesuit colleges turned universities, and later on in Jesuit research institutes established in Bombay, Calcutta, Goa, New Delhi, Pune, and many other places, the Jesuits ceased to be “missionaries” and some became professional historians. A Catalan, Enric Heras de Sicars (1888–1955), or under his better known anglicized name of Henry Heras, became a famous historian and archeologist, and professor of history at the St. Xavier's College in Bombay.45 The career of Henry Hosten (1873–1935), a Belgian Jesuit, stationed in Darjeeling, was equally rich, since he was another prolific historian and translator. His work still remains in good part unknown since his publications were scattered in different historical journals in British India, such as Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal.46 He was probably better known as a research source to various famous non-Jesuit British historians such as Edward MacLagan who wrote The Jesuits and the Great Mogul.47

In the period after Indian independence, Indian Jesuit historiography had been Indianized with the first generation of Indian-born Jesuit historians such as a Goan, John Correia-Afonso, the author of—among many other published works—the book Jesuit Letters and Indian History.48 The establishment of the Xavier Center for Historical Research in Goa (Altoporvarim) under its first director Teotonio R. de Souza, who was followed by Charles Borges and more recently Délio Mendonça, added a new dimension to historical research by taking up a more national, regional, and “decolonized” perspective. In fact, Jesuit theologians, writers, and scholars who worked in other fields such as Sanskrit or Tamil literary culture, in particular Anand Amaladass and Francis X. Clooney, contributed also to Jesuit historiography.49 This does not mean that ever more numerous Indian Jesuit historians cultivated a uniform style. On the contrary, they were and continue to be inspired by different historical schools and they choose topics according to their own social convictions. Some were in particular engaged in denouncing Eurocentrism and colonial attitudes in the Old Society, while others denounced social policies that accepted Brahmanical and high-caste attitudes to Dalits and the Jesuit complicity in promoting caste divisions. Indian Jesuit history thus became a contested field among the Jesuits and it also fed into larger discussions among Christian theologians on inculturation. While most of these discussions were important, especially in the Indian public arena, they were often based on theological arguments, cultural explanations, and internal personal quarrels. As a consequence they did not always produce rigorous and acceptable historiography and they rarely cared to use sources and archives critically and philologically.


Back to the Archives: Jesuit and Non-Jesuit Scholarship in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

Two unsurpassed historians whose critical editions of original documents opened Jesuit history to non-Jesuit historians, and who set the highest standards of the discipline were Georg Otto Schurhammer (1882–1971) and Josef Wicki (1904–93). Schurhammer’s biography of Francis Xavier is still the only biography in which (almost) every single piece of evidence concerning the life and writings of the saint are properly referenced.50 Most of his other articles scattered in various journals and books had been collected in his Gesammelte Studien.51 His publications include topics related to all Asia and to the Portuguese empire in the early modern period. If in his historical works he expressed some opinions that sound dogmatic or “politically incorrect” and provided a narrative that was clearly apologetic, his volumes of edited sources are still extremely useful. Such are for example the Die Zeitgenössischen Quellen zur Geschichte Portugiesisch-Asiens (1932) and Epistolae S. Francisci Xaverii aliaque eius scripta (1944–45) co-edited with Josef Wicki.52

Josef Wicki’s name is well known to every historian of Indian Jesuit and church history in the early modern period because he was the editor of the eighteen-volume Documenta Indica published as part of the collection of Monumenta Historica Societatis Iesu (MHSI). These volumes were published within the span of forty years between 1948 and 1988 and covered the period between 1540 and 1597. Each volume contains up to hundred pages of introduction, bibliography, detailed archival and prosopographical notes, as well as a detailed index.53 The eclipse of Latin as a “lingua franca” of the Jesuit scholarship is clearly visible, since from the volume 14 the editorial apparatus and the footnotes appear in English. Wicki was editor of all major Jesuit unpublished historical texts from the sixteenth century such as those of Sebastião Gonçalves, Diogo Gonçalves, and Valignano in addition to other documents and treatises.54 Between themselves, Schurhammer and Wicki had covered in their publications, either as editors of sources or in their own articles and chapters, most of the most important documents on Jesuit history under the Portuguese padroado in India. All historians, Jesuit and non-Jesuit of the second half of the twentieth century started their research by first checking their works and bibliography for references and sources.

There are a number of historians such a Charles Boxer (1904–2000), an erudite interested in Portuguese empire, who used Jesuit sources and even edited some of them. Other historians primarily interested in intellectual history and the history of Orientalism also employed and sometimes edited Jesuit sources. Sylvia Murr, whose major work included an edition of Gaston-Laurent Coeurdoux’s (1691–1779) (lost) text on Moeurs et coutumes, also wrote a monograph on the role of French Jesuit philosophical reflections and responses to the literature of the French philosophes of the Enlightenment.55 Gita Dharampal was one of the first to write on the Malabar rites controversies, at the time when Jesuit historians themselves avoided the issue and left this part of Jesuit history relatively poorly studied.56 The most recent articles by Adone Agnolin, Paolo Aranha, and Sabina Pavone are promising to fill in this gap, as is a forthcoming volume on the rites controversies in the early modern period.57

The reason Jesuit history in general and Indian history in particular attracted non-Jesuit historians has something to do with the interest in global interactions, transnational corporations, postcolonial critique, interdisciplinary approaches with anthropology and literature blending into historiography, and the rise of the social history of science. Jesuit early modern documents, coming in quite well preserved series (such as collections of letters) were recognized in the 1980s as a mine for testing hypotheses and for tracking global flows of people, objects, and ideas. No other early modern religious order had the same quality of sources and easy access to their archives. No other archives contained documents which, for example, already in the sixteenth or seventeenth century adopted a comparative approach and were global in scope.

With different goals in mind, historians were attracted to Jesuit intelligence, experience, and ingenuity. Dhruv Raina came from history of science and discovered Jesuit astronomy in India and in Paris.58 Sanskritists, Pierre-Sylvain Filliozat and Gérard Colas, also contributed articles, while following in the steps of older Indologists whose pedigree goes back to Jesuit missionaries such as Jean Calmette (1692–1740) and Jean François Pons (1688–1752).59 Historians such as Joan-Pau Rubiès, Danna Agmon, Giuseppe Marcocci, Ricardo Ventura, and Will Sweetman all studied Jesuit sources for their different projects concerning intellectual history, history of the French colonialism, history of the Inquisition and Portuguese empire, and history of Protestant missions.60

Centered on Jesuit missions as places of epistemological experiments and cultural encounters are works by social and cultural historians such as Ines G. Županov, Ângela Barreto Xavier, Ananya Chakravarti, and Margherita Trento.61 Partly inspired by microhistory and partly employing the tools from their subdisciplines such as literary history (of Marathi and Tamil respectively) Chakravarti and Trento are both in the process of reclaiming Indian voices from the Jesuit sources.

In the last couple of decades, the interest in Jesuit history grew exponentially, to a point where voices were heard about omissions and elisions of other missionary orders. Jesuit historiography became a victim of its own accomplishments. When the dust settles, it will be clear that it was scholarship based on ample, well preserved, widely and “democratically” accessible (and now digitalized) archives that is the key to historiographical success. Jesuit history in the early modern period is both too important to be neglected because it is part of our common heritage and also too important to be left to narrowly partisan and celebratory Jesuit historiography.


For more bibliographical information, consult Boston College Jesuit Bibliography: The New Sommervogel Online (NSO).


^ Back to text1. Copie dunne lettre missive envoiee des Indes, par monsieur maistre François Xavier… (Paris, 1545). (accessed August 23, 2016). For the full list of these early letters see John Correia-Afonso, Jesuit Letters and Indian History: A Study of the Nature and Development of the Jesuit Letters from India (1542–1773) and Their Value for Indian Historiography (Bombay: Indian Historical Research Institute, St. Xavier’s College, 1955).

^ Back to text2. These early published letters are listed in Correia-Afonso, Jesuit Letters, 176–86.

^ Back to text3. Sanctus Franciscus Borgia, quartus Gandiae dux et Societatis Iesu praepositus generalis tertius, vol. 2 (Madrid: Typis August. Avrial, 1894), 739–39.

^ Back to text4. Alessandro Valignano, Historia del principio y progresso de la Compañía de Jesús en las Indias Orientales (1542–64), ed. Joseph Wicki (Rome: Institutum Historicum Societatis Iesu, 1944), 33–34.

^ Back to text5. See Correia-Afonso, Jesuit Letters and Indian History, 114 and Robert Streit, Bibliotheca missionum, vol. 4 (Münster-Achen: Achener Missionsdrukerei A.-G., 1929), 249.

^ Back to text6. Giovanni Pietro Maffei, Historiarum Indicarum libri xvi (Florence, 1588).

^ Back to text7. Sebastião Gonçalves, Primeira parte da historia dos religiosos da Companhia de Jesus e do que fizeram com a divina graça na conversão dos infieis a nossa sancta fee catholica nos reynos e provincias da India Oriental [1614], ed. Joseph Wicki, 3 vols. (Coimbra: Atlântida, 1957–60).

^ Back to text8. Ines G. Županov, Missionary Tropics: The Catholic Frontier in India (16th–17th Centuries) (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 81.

^ Back to text9. Luis de Guzmán’s, Historia de las missiones que han hecho los religiosos de la Compañía de Iesus para predicar el sancto Evangelio en la India Oriental, y en los reynos de la China y Iapon (Alcalá: por la biudade Juan Gracián, 1601).

^ Back to text10. Horatius Tursellinus, De vita Francisci Xaverii (Rome: Ex typographia Aloysii Zannetti, 1596); João de Lucena's Historia de vida do padre Francisco de Xavier (Lisbon: Pedro Crasbeck, 1600).

^ Back to text11. Fernão Guerreiro’s Relacam annal das cousas que fizeram os padres da Companhia de Jesus, naspartesda India Oriental, & em algumas outras da conquista deste Reyno (Lisbon: Pedro Craesbeeck, 1611) published in five parts. Modern edition: Relacão anual das coisas que fizeram os padres da Companhia de Jesus nas sua missões, ed. Artur Viegas, 3 vols. (Coimbra: Imprensa da Universidade, 1930, 1931, 1942).

^ Back to text12. Pierre du Jarric, Histoire des choses plus memorables advenues tant ez Indes Orientales, que autres païs de la descouverte des Portugais, 3 vols. (Bordeaux: Simon Millanges, 1610–14). British historians in the twentieth century used his work extensively for piecing together the history of the Mughals. See Akbar and the Jesuits: An Account of the Jesuit Missions to the Court of Akbar by Father Pierre Du Jarric, S.J., trans. and ed. C. H. Payne (New York & London: Harper & Brothers, 1926). C. H. Payne also published Jesuit letters from Mughal court during Jahangir’s reign, translated from Guerreiro’s history, Jahangir and the Jesuits with an Account of the Travels of Benedict Goes and the Mission to Pegu, trans. C. H. Payne (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1930).

^ Back to text13. For example, letters by Nicolao Pimenta appeared in German compilations such as the one in Mainz in Latin version as Nova relatio historica de rebus in India Orientali à patribus Societatis Iesu, anno 1598. & 99. gestis: A R.P. Nicolao Pimenta, visitatore Societatis Iesu, ad R.P. Claudium Aquavivam… (Mainz, 1601) and in German as Newe Historische Relation und sehr gute fröliche und lustige Bottschaft (Dillingen, 1601). See general bibliography in Donald F. Lach and Edwin J. Van Kley, Asia in the Making of Europe, Volume III: A Century of Advance (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 1986–93.

^ Back to text14. Diogo Gonçalves, História do Malavar, ed. Joseph Wicki (Münster: Aschenforffshe Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1955).

^ Back to text15. Pedro Moura Carvalho, Mir’āt al-quds (The Mirror of Holiness): A Life of Christ for Emperor Akbar, trans. Wheeler M. Thackston (Leiden: Brill, 2012).

^ Back to text16. Bartolomé Alcázar, Chrono-historia de la Compañía de Jesús en la provincial de Toledo: Segunda parte (Madrid: Juan Garcia Infançon, 1710), 207–15. Juan Eusebio Nieremberg, Vidas exemplares y venerables: Memorial de algunos claros varones de la Compañía de Jesús, vol. 2 (Madrid: Alonso de Paredes, 1647), 215–46.

^ Back to text17. The Jesuit obsession with recording lives and deaths of their members is well known. António Franco’s prosopographical oeuvre registers Jesuits according to the colleges they attended in Portugal. This is at times the only source for the missionaries’ early lives in Europe. António Franco, Imagem da virtude em o noviciado da Companhia de Jesus do Real Collegio do Espirito Santo de Evora do Reyno de Portugal (Lisboa, 1714); António Franco, Imagem da virtude em o noviciado da Companhia de Jesu na corte de Lisboa (Coimbra, 1707); Franco, Imagem da virtude em o noviciado da Companhia de Jesus no Real Collegio de Jesus de Coimbra em Portugal, 2 vols. (Évora, 1719). Probably the most popular genre of Jesuit history in the seventeenth century were biographies of the Jesuit martyrs such as the work of António Francisco Cardim (1596–1659), Elogios, e ramalhete de flores borrifado com o sangue dos religiosos da Companhia de Iesu, a quem os tyrannos do Imperio de Iappaõ tiraraõ las vidas (Lisbon: Manoel da Sylva, 1650).

^ Back to text18. See Daniello Bartoli, Missione al Gran Mogor del Padre Rodolfo Aquaviva…: Sua vita e morte (Rome, 1714). First published in 1653, it was added to the third edition of Asiaticae historiae in 1667.

^ Back to text19. Francisco de Sousa, Oriente conquistado a Jesus Christo pelos padres da Companhia de Jesus da província de Goa (Lisbon: Valentim da Costa Deslandes, 1710).

^ Back to text20. Fernão de Queiros, Historia da vida do veneravel irmaõ Pedro de Basto coadjutor temporal da Companhia de Jesus, e da variedade de sucessos que Deos lhe manifestou (Lisbon: Miguel Deslandes, 1689).

^ Back to text21. He managed to save only one manuscript, that of the life of Pedro de Basto. Fernão de Queiroz, The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon, trans. and ed. S. G. Perera, 3 vols., vol. 1 (New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1992; [1st ed. Colombo, 1930]), 6*. The original Portuguese text was published by P.E. Pieris in Colombo in 1916.

^ Back to text22. Queirós’s Conquista temporal remains the most important single source for over 150 years of Sri Lankan history.

^ Back to text23. Lettres édifiantes et curieuses (henceforth LEC), a collection of missionary letters published in Paris in thirty-four volumes between 1702 and 1776.

^ Back to text24. There were four editors at different moments. The most important was Jean Baptiste Du Halde between 1709 and 1743.

^ Back to text25. John Lockman, Travels of the Jesuits, 2 vols. (London: John Noon, 1743).

^ Back to text26. See Sylvia Murr’s articles and books, in particular, Sylvia Murr, L’Inde philosophique entre Bossuet et Voltaire: L’indologie du père Coeurdoux, vol. 2 (Paris: EFEO, 1987).

^ Back to text27. Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde représentées par des figures dessinées de la main de Bernard Picard: avec une explication historique, & quelques dissertations curieuses, 7 vols. (Amsterdam: J.F. Bernard, 1723–37).

^ Back to text28. Propagation of the Gospel in the East: Being and Account of the Success of Two Danish Missionaries, Lately Sent to the East-Indies for the Conversion of the Heathens in Malabar (London: J. Downing, 1709).

^ Back to text29. Mathurin Veyssière de la Croze, Histoire du christianisme des Indes (La Haye: chez Frères Vaillant, & N. Prevost, 1724).

^ Back to text30. See Emanuele Colombo and Niccolò Guasti, “The Expulsion and Suppression in Italy and Portugal: An Overview”, in The Jesuit Suppression in Global Context: Causes, Events, and Consequences, eds. Jeffrey D. Burson and Jonathan Wright (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 125.

^ Back to text31. The Jesuits returned to Goa only in 1935. See Délio Mendonça, “Jesuits in Goa: Restoration after Suppression (1759–1935)”, Archivum historicum Societatis Iesu 83, no. 165 (2014): 131–60. Some Jesuits remained in Pondicherry even after the suppression and were absorbed by the MEP.

^ Back to text32.  Joseph Bertrand, La mission du Maduré d’après des documents inédits, 4 vols. (Paris: Librairie de Poussielgue – Russand, 1847–54).

^ Back to text33. Bertrand, Mission du Maduré, 1:v.

^ Back to text34. Lettres à Mgr l'évêque de Langres sur la Congrégation des Missions-Etrangères (Paris: Gaume frères, libraires-éditeurs, 1842). This work was a general history of the MEP and written before Luquet went to India. The only other earlier history was Histoire de l'établissement du christianisme dans les Indes orientales (Paris: Mme Devaux, 1803) by Antoine Sérieys, chronologically running up to 1679.

^ Back to text35. This third volume provided, among other sources, materials for Jean-Marie Prat’s Histoire du bienheureux Jean de Britto (Paris: Librairie Central de la Société, 1853).

^ Back to text36. Lettres édifiantes et curieuses de la nouvelle mission du Maduré, 2 vols. (Paris: J.B. Pélagau, 1865).

^ Back to text37. The author of the Tamil version was A. Muttusami Pillai, a Catholic Brahman from Pondicherry, employed as Tamil munshi (secretary, translator, and teacher) by the British in Madras. A. Muttusami Pillai, Brief Sketch of the Life and Writings of Father C.J. Beschi or Vira-mamuni: Translated from the Original Tamil (Madras: J.B. Pharoah, 1840).

^ Back to text38. See articles in Thomas R. Trautmann, ed., The Madras School of Orientalism: Producing Knowledge in Colonial South India (New Delhi; Oxford University Press, 2009).

^ Back to text39. Adrien Launay, Histoire de christianisme en Inde: Pondichéry, Maïssour, Coïmbatour, 4 vols. (Paris: Ancienne Maison Charles Douniol, P. Téqui Successeur, 1898).

^ Back to text40. Leon Besse’s La mission du Maduré: Historique de ses Pangous (Trichinopoly: Imprimerie de la Mission Catholique, 1914).

^ Back to text41. Christophe Z. Guilmoto, “Chiffrage et déchiffrage: Les institutions démographiques dans l’Inde du Sud coloniale,” Annales: Économies, sociétés, civilisations 47, no. 4–5 (1992): 815–40.

^ Back to text42. Auguste Saulière, Red Sand: A Life of St. John de Britto, S.J., Martyr of the Madura Mission (Madura: Nobili Press, 1947). See Albert M. Nevett, John the Britto and His Times (Anand: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1980).

^ Back to text43. Nevett, John the Britto, ix.

^ Back to text44. S. Rajamanickam, The First Oriental Scholar (Tirunelveli: De Nobili Research Institute, 1972), and Vincent Cronin, A Pearl to India: The Life of Roberto de Nobili (London: Hart-Davis, 1959).

^ Back to text45. He arrived in India in 1922 and founded the Indian Historical Research Institute (1926), which trained numerous historians and Indologists. Although his specialty was ancient and medieval Indian history, he also wrote The Conversion Policy of the Jesuits in India (Bombay: Indian Historical Research Institute, 1933). See also tributes to Heras by his successors in the St. Xavier College: John Correia-Afonso, S.J., ed., Henry Heras: The Scholar and his Work (Bombay: Heras Institute of Indian History and Culture, 1976). Melchior Balaguer, “Fr Henry Heras (1888–1955),” in Jesuits in India in Historical Perspective, ed. Teotonio R. de Souza and Charles Borges (Macau and Goa: Instituto Cultural de Macau and Xavier Center for Historical Research, 1992), 297–300.

^ Back to text46. Hosten’s manuscripts and documents (Hosten Collections) are preserved in the library of the Vidyajyoti College of Theology in New Delhi.

^ Back to text47. Edward Maclagan, The Jesuits and the Great Mogul (New York: Octagon Books, 1932).

^ Back to text48. John Correia-Afonso, Jesuit Letters and Indian History (Bombay: Indian Historical Research Institute, 1955, 2nd ed. 1969). See also his Letters from the Mughal Court (Anand: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1980) and Indo-Portuguese History: Sources and Problems (Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1981).

^ Back to text49. Among their various works, see Francis X. Clooney, Fr. Bouchet’s India: An 18th-Century Jesuit’s Encounter with Hinduism (Chennai: Satya Nilayam Publications, 2005) and Anand Amaladass and Ines G. Županov, eds., Intercultural Encounter and the Jesuit Mission in South Asia (16h–18th Centuries) (Bangalore: Asian Trading Corporation, 2014).

^ Back to text50. Georg Schurhammer, S.J. Francis Xavier: His Life, His times, trans. Joseph Costelloe, vol. 2: India (1541–1545) (Rome: Jesuit Historical Institute, 1977).

^ Back to text51. Schurhammer, Gesammelte Studien, II–IV. Herausgegeben zum 80. Geburtstag des Verfassers, ed. Lászlo Szilas, S.J. (Rome and Lisbon: IHSI and Centro de Estudos Históricos Ultramarinos, 1963–65).

^ Back to text52. Epistolae S. Francisci Xaverii aliaque eius scripta (Rome: Monumenta Historica Societatis Iesu, 1944–45).

^ Back to text53. Volume 14 and 15 were co-edited with John Gomes.

^ Back to text54. O livro do “pai dos cristãos,” ed. Joseph Wicki (Lisbon: Centro de Estudos Históricos Ultramarinos, 1969); Missionskirche im Orient: Ausgewählte Beiträge über Portugiesisch-Asien (Immensee: Neue Zeitschrift für Missionswissenschaft, 1976); Die Schrift des P. Goncalo Fernandes S.J. über die Brahmanen und Dharma-Sastra (Madura 1616) (Münster: Aschendorff, 1957); Alessandro Valignano, Historia del principio y progresso de la Compañía de Jesús en las Indias orientales (1542–64) (Rome: Institutum Historicum S.I., 1944); Tratado do P.e Gonçalo Fernandes Trancoso sobre o hinduismo (Maduré, 1616) (Lisbon: Centro de estudos históricos ultramarinos, 1973).

^ Back to text55. Murr, L’Inde philosophique entre Bossuet et Voltaire, vol. 1.

^ Back to text56. Gita Dharampal-Frick, La religion des Malabares: Tessier de Quéralay et la contribution des missionnaires européens à la naissance de l'indianisme (Immensee: Nouvelle revue de science missionnaire, 1982).

^ Back to text57. Paolo Aranha, “The Social and Physical Spaces of the Malabar Rites Controversy,” in Space and Conversion in Global Perspective, eds. Giuseppe Marcocci, Wietse de Boer, Aliocha Maldavsky, and Ilaria Pavan (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 214–33. Sabina Pavone, “Inquisizione romana e riti malabarici: Una controversia,” in A dieci anni dall’appertura dell’Archivio della Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede: Storia e archivi dell'Inquisizione (Rome: Scienze e lettere, 2011); 145–61. Ines G. Županov, ed., The Rites Controversies in the Early Modern World (Leiden: Brill, 2017). Adone Agnolin, “Destino e vontade, religião e política: Companhia de Jesus e Ilustração na disputa póstuma dos ritos do Malabar,” História unisinos 13, no. 3 (2009): 211–32 (doi: 10.4013/htu.2009.133.01).

^ Back to text58. Dhruv Raina, “Problematic Comparisons: Jesuit Savants in 17th- and 18th-Century India and China,” in L’Inde des Lumières: Discours, histoire, savoirs (XVIe–XIXe siècle), eds. Marie Fourcade and Ines G. Županov (Paris: EHESS, 2013), 335–58.

^ Back to text59. Pierre-Sylvain Filliozat, “L’approche scientifique du sanscrit et de la pensée indienne par Heinrich Roth, S.J. au XVIIe siècle,” in L’oeuvre scientifique des missionnaires en Asie, eds. Pierre-Sylvain Filliozat, Jean-Pierre Mahé, and Jean Leclant (Paris: Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres), 17–30. Gerard and Usha Colas, “Les manuscrits envoyés de l'Inde par les jésuites français entre 1729 et 1735,” in Scribes et manuscrits du Moyen Orient, ed. François Déroche and Francis Richard (Paris: BnF, 1997), 345–62.

^ Back to text60. See their articles in Amaladass and Županov, Intercultural Encounter.

^ Back to text61. Ines G. Županov, Disputed Mission: Jesuit Experiments and Brahmanical Knowledge in Seventeenth-Century India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999) and Županov. Missionary Tropics, Jesuit Frontier in India (16th–17th century) (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005). Ananya Chakravarti, “The Many Faces of Baltazar da Costa: Imitatio and accommodatio in the Seventeenth-Century Madurai Mission,” Etnogáfica 18, no. 1 (2014): 135–58. Margherita Trento, “Śivadharma or Bonifacio?: Behind the Scenes of the Madurai Mission Controversy (1608–1619),” in Županov, ed., Rites Controversies in the Early Modern World.

Cite this page
Ines G. Županov, “The Historiography of the Jesuit Missions in India (1500–1800)”, in: Jesuit Historiography Online. Consulted online on 30 March 2017 <>
First published online: 2016

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