Indigenous Agency and Colonial Ambitions in the Madurai, Mysore, and Carnate Missions, 1606–1760

Sunday, January 9, 2011: 8:50 AM
Grand Ballroom Salon C (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Paolo Aranha , European University Institute
The mission that the Italian Jesuit Roberto Nobili (1577- 1656) established in the interior parts of South India, starting from the Tamil cultural capital of Madurai in 1606, has been usually considered as an outstanding example of a non-colonial form of Christian expansion outside Europe. The peculiar form of cultural adaptation promoted by Nobili, expanded by later missionaries also to the regions of Mysore and Carnate (today Andhra Pradesh), has been presented as an anticipation of the theological concept of inculturation, typical of post-colonial Christianity. However, these interpretations fail to acknowledge that the Madurai mission was part of the Portuguese royal patronage (Padroado Real) on the ecclesiastical structures established within or near its seaborne empire. The Portuguese Jesuit João de Brito, beheaded in 1693 in the Marava region, became both a symbol of the Madurai mission and a hero of the Portuguese overseas expansion. If the intention that led to the establishment of this mission was fully consistent with a colonial project, nonetheless the enterprise started by Nobili achieved a considerable success also because Christianity provided effective symbolic resources to new emerging communities in a time of political and social instability. The Jesuits were blamed in Europe for adapting Christianity to the “pagan” environment of South India. This was the origin of the so-called “Malabar Rites controversy”, an important step in the process that led to the suppression of the Society of Jesus in Portugal in 1759. However, it was the overwhelming agency of a vibrant community of neophytes and the leadership of Indian catechists that eventually led to the indigenization of a Portuguese colonial project.