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Portuguese Colonial Cities in the Early Modern World (review)

From: The Catholic Historical Review
Volume 96, Number 3, July 2010
pp. 553-555 | 10.1353/cat.0.0800

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In Portuguese Society in the Tropics (Madison, WI, 1965), Charles Boxer—”the doyen of the Anglo-American school of Portuguese historiography,” as Liam Brockey notes—called on scholars to turn their attention to the cities of the early-modern Portuguese empire. The wide-ranging essays in Brockey’s book are an important contribution to this still-neglected theme. Church historians will be especially interested in Brockey’s excellent introduction and in the first of the book’s three parts—“Religion and Empire”—which consists of articles by José Alberto Rodrigues da Silva Tavim, Charlotte de Castelnau-L’Estoile, and J. S. A. Elisonas.

Tavim focuses on the Jewish presence in Portuguese Africa and Asia in the sixteenth century. Among the many strengths of his article is his understanding of the differences among professing Jews, New Christians (converts from Judaism and their descendants, who were assumed to be orthodox Catholics), and crypto-Jews. Historians often fail to make crucial distinctions among these three groups. Tavim underscores the divergent experiences of Jewish communities in Africa and Asia, beginning with

the recognition of rabbis and the designation of ghettos, judiarias, in [North African] cities after the Jewish minority in continental Portugal had ceased to enjoy a legal existence. . . . No such legal recognition of free [i.e., professing] Jews was accorded in the cities of Portuguese Asia.

(p. 23)

Tavim’s survey of Jewish communities contains fascinating references to their relations with the Catholic missionary church, including a little-known disputation (conducted in Ormuz between 1549 and 1551) between the city’s rabbis and Father Gaspar Barzaeus of the newly founded Society of Jesus.

In “The Jesuits and the Political Language of the City,” Castelnau-L’Estoile follows the shifting fortunes of the Society of Jesus in Salvador da Bahia during the early-seventeenth century. Like the Jesuits in other cities in Brazil, the Jesuits in Salvador were entrusted by the Crown with the distribution of Indian labor to Portuguese settlers. Disputes over a 1609 law that bolstered the Jesuits’ authority led to sustained conflict in the city, and in 1610 the settlers, with the barely concealed support of the governor, rioted against the Jesuits in Salvador. Four years later, however, the crown revoked the legislation as well as the Jesuits’ monopoly over the control of Indian labor. Yet the governor now feared the unrest that removing the Jesuits from the Indian villages that they had created might provoke. “As a result,” Castelnau-L’Estoile concludes, “an about-face took place in which . . . popular opinion as well as local authorities shifted to [a position] which favored the Jesuits’ keeping their aldeias [villages] and retaining their role with the Indians” (p. 53). The final act of this drama of reconciliation took place in 1622, when civic authorities joined the Society in an elaborate commemoration of the canonizations of Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier. Drawing on little-studied documents in the Jesuit archives in Rome, Castelnau-L’Estoile provides a convincing and detailed analysis of the manifestations in Salvador of the tension between the Society and the settlers that is one of the defining features of the history of colonial Brazil.

One of the key elements of Elisonas’s argument is contained in the reference to Japan in the title of his article, “Nagasaki: The Early Years of an Early Modern Japanese City.” In contrast to Portuguese historians who have suggested that Nagasaki’s urban plan made it a Portuguese city, Elisonas argues that the development of Nagasaki followed a distinctly Japanese pattern. The principal contribution of the Portuguese to early-modern Nagasaki was their role in the opening of the city’s harbor to trade with foreign merchants in 1571. This was followed in 1580 by the donation of Nagasaki to the Society of Jesus by the devout neophyte Dom Bartolomeu Omura. Revising his characterization of the Jesuit colony in previous work, Elisonas argues that “[t]o call this place a civitas Dei was perhaps injudicious. Civitas Societatis Iesu is closer to the mark. In any event, Nagasaki was never a civitas Lusitanorum” (p. 73).

Over the next thirty years, a strong community of lay Christians took root in Nagasaki. Elisonas provides a compelling...