"Barefooted, with a crucifix, and a rosary round his neck, with staff and breviary in hand, his shoulders weighed down with the burden of the requirements for his altar, this missionary penetrated the forests, swam across the streams, climbed the most rugged mountain districts... [etc.], in order to win souls." Thus did an admirer describe Fr. José de Anchieta SJ. One is struck by the thought that his travels throughout the Portuguese territories of South America might have been easier had he had less ecclesiastical paraphernalia.
Today, zealous and idealistic young people join CUSO, the Peace Corps or a host of other NGOs and head to the Third World to save people from various forms of misery. This is the contemporary version of the great missionary endeavors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when zealous and idealistic young people joined the Jesuits, the Franciscans or a host of other religious orders and headed for the New World to save people's souls. St. José de Anchieta was one of this vast number. Born in the Canary Islands in 1534, he went to school in Portugal and at age seventeen joined the Jesuits, thanks to the inspirational reports coming back to Europe from Francis Xavier. He was sent to Brazil and laboured there from 1553 until his death in 1597.
There is a tendency to see development and liberation as modern inventions, by which we overcome the benightedness of all previous generations. And yet in the sixteenth century, the Jesuits in Brazil came up with a strategy for the development and liberation of the native people, who were under attack. For the Portuguese were ruthless colonizers who needed slave labour, and found the native people at hand to fill the requirements. (Contemporary capital no longer heads into the bush with guns and chains to fill its need for cheap labour. The mechanisms of trade imbalances, foreign debt and structural adjustment programs are much less crude, and more effective.)
The Jesuits tried to settle the nomadic tribes into aldeias, small villages where they could imbibe Catholic doctrine and morality, learn trades and letters, and gain a measure of protection from slave raiders. José de Anchieta was the major architect of this missionary strategy (whose full flowering was to come later with the reducciones among the Guarani of Paraguay), and through his unremitting labours he achieved heroic virtue. For some ten years he served as the superior of the Jesuit province of Brazil and directed this enterprise, visiting far-flung and isolated mission stations and continuing to search out new tribes who could be gathered and formed into a Christian people.
He achieved an impressive degree of cultural mobility. He is well known for writing a grammar, several catechisms and many religious songs and verses in Tupi, the general native language of Brazil. He also composed 2,086 Latin couplets in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, thus whiling away the tedium during several weeks as a hostage of the Tamoya tribe.
To be sure, he lacked the benefits of contemporary anthropological consciousness. He encouraged native crafts, music and liturgy, but these were somewhat cosmetic in the face of the cultural violence inherent in imposing the transformation of nomadic tribes into Christian villagers. Furthermore, he was a collaborator. The fact of colonization did not trouble him, and he cheerfully worked at colleges for the colonists when not in the bush. The church in the Portuguese colonies was under the control of the government in the system known as the padroado real, royal patronage. But the crown was also a protector, albeit lukewarm, of the native people from the depradations of the colonists, and Anchieta made fiery protests against slavery.
The Prime Directive of the USS Enterprise, by which the powerful scrupulously avoid interference in the cultures of the weaker, has always been a pious bit of science fiction. Colonization was going to swamp the native people one way or another, with or without the church. In his efforts to save souls, Anchieta, whether conscientized or not, also saved lives and cultures. Were he alive today, he would still be working for development and liberation, seeking to protect peoples from the violence of new colonial powers.
The one criticism I have of St. José de Anchieta is that his desire to save souls was somewhat misplaced. The souls of the native peoples were fairly safe; those of the Portuguese and other colonizing Europeans, good Christians though they were, were in grave danger. Things don't change much. There are still souls to be saved, and no need to travel to the forests and slums of Brazil to look for them.
Martin Royackers SJ works in a rural development project in Annotto Bay, Jamaica. He was Compass's managing editor from 1990 to 1994 and is now its Jamaica correspondent.
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld