by Mary Harrington
Saturday, 18
January 2020
Weekend read

How Jesuit missionaries invented spin

First-Mass, by-Victor-Meirelles (National Museum, Rio di Janeiro)

This week’s long read pick is Architects of Empire, from history professor Ananya Chakravarti at Aeon magazine. It explores the public and the private correspondence among Jesuit missionaries of the 16th and 17th centuries and suggests that much of the cultural schemas developed in the course of this work, as well as the propagandising dissonance between its public and private presentation, remain with us today as enduring legacies.

The Jesuits, she writes, presented two very different pictures of their missionary work in public and private letters:

In his public letters, [Frances Xavier] extolled the great prospects of his [India] mission. He told of how the pagans outnumbered the Moors (Europeans believed that pagans were easier to convert than Muslims) and that even the Moors themselves would be easily brought to the light, due to their great ignorance. To his fellow Jesuits, however, Xavier wrote of an infernal, apocalyptic landscape of belligerent cannibals and hell-beasts.
- Ananya Chakravarti, Aeon

Despite the triumphal spin of their public missives, the Jesuits’ private letters suggest a far messier reality of competing indigenous and missionary cosmologies. Rather than a one-way ideological steamroller, the missionary outposts often had to adapt to local cultures in a practice that became known as ‘accommodatio’.

Chakravarti suggests that it was partly new missionaries’ shock at discovering actual pagans to be considerably less receptive to the Jesuits’ message that drove the emergence of the Jesuits’ hierarchy of cultures.

In this schema some pagan cultures – such as the indigenous ones of South America – were considered worthy only of obliteration, while others were so close to the European as to be worthy of accommodatio. This, she suggests, was perhaps more related to those cultures’ ability to resist conversion than any intrinsic properties of the culture itself. This cultural hierarchy remains with us today, Chakravarti argues, as ‘one of the most pernicious legacies of empire, surviving well past the era of colonial rule itself.’

So, too, she argues, is the dissonance between spin and reality, employed with the aim of propagandising interlinked political and ideological aims. She quotes George Bush in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib scandal, urging listeners not to doubt US imperial destiny:

The greatest weapon in the arsenal of democracy is the desire for liberty written into the human heart by our Creator. So long as we remain true to our ideals, we will defeat the extremists in Iraq and Afghanistan
- President George W Bush

It is tempting, when thinking about the histories of Christianity and European imperialism, to treat them  both as unambiguous. Either these temporal and spiritual empires must be presented as wholly evil, or else we must gloss over the physical and ideological violence their spread entailed.

But while her stance is critical of the ideological and political costs of empire, Chakravarti’s essay stops short of knee-jerk condemnation. It invites us to consider both the scale and ambition and also the fracture, propaganda and doublethink involved in these colossal spiritual and political movements – and the ways in which their intellectual frameworks and political visions remain with us today.


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