Like Trying to Grasp the Moon: Reassessing Sino-Spanish Diplomatic Relations, 1575–95

Thursday, January 7, 2016: 1:20 PM
International Ballroom A (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
Ashleigh Dean, Emory University
Fr. Pedro de Alfaro, O.F.M., arrived without permission at the Chinese port of Canton in 1579, intent on converting the Chinese to Christianity. Within six months, he lost what few converts he had managed to gather and was forcibly returned to his former post in Manila following an arrest for espionage. His mission is generally regarded as a mere footnote in the larger history of Catholic missionaries in early modern China, but his reports and his expulsion from China sparked an international incident at a precarious moment in Sino-Spanish relations. Prior to Alfaro’s arrival in Canton, Spain, flush with their earlier successes in the Americas and now with a foothold in Asia, had seriously considered an armed conquest of China. Alfaro’s reports forced them to recognize that Ming China was much more powerful than they had considered and that a conquest would in no way be feasible. This mission, therefore, prompted a major reassessment of Spain’s position in regards to China, despite its utter failure from the point of view of the Spanish. While Sino-Spanish relations have often been overlooked in favor of the more fruitful diplomatic and trade relationship between China and Portugal in the same period, they represent an important aspect of the development of trade and diplomatic links across the early modern Pacific. Alfaro’s failure to remain in China resulted in a re-assessment of Spain’s interactions with the Ming; however, his categorization as a failure in the mission historiography has resulted in this shift in relations going largely unnoticed in the historiography. This “failure” illuminates not only Sino-Spanish relations in the late sixteenth century, but also how we interpret and analyze unsuccessful events as historians.