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  • Conflict and Conversion: Catholicism in Southeast Asia, 1500–1700 by Tara Alberts
  • Michael Pearson
Conflict and Conversion: Catholicism in Southeast Asia, 1500–1700. By Tara Alberts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. xvii+ 242 pp.

There is much to like in this interesting new book, which looks at the efforts of Catholic missionaries in the early modern period in Melaka, Siam and two areas of what is now Vietnam. Alberts is [End Page 488] widely read not only on Catholics in Asia, but also on missionary work, conversions and the Church generally, and the histories of the three areas treated. As she notes, Southeast Asia is a good place to test general theories about conversion, and the factors that are most important to that process (p. 205).

Alberts is frank about the problems that she faced in writing a study of this sort, given the sources that she inevitably had to use. The sources are virtually all from European missionaries or European travellers. Yet much of the action was undertaken by local people — those who converted and also those who converted others. These people remain silent in Alberts’ sources. What it meant to convert is thus filtered through the triumphalist accounts of missionaries.

A familiar theme in all such studies is the matter of accommodation: how completely must the convert renounce his or her past religious, and even social, practices? This question applies of course to China and India as much as to Southeast Asia. Alberts puts it like this:

[It was] the problem of the legitimate extent of accommodation: how far missionaries and their converts could change the traditional behaviours and cultural accoutrements of Catholic belief and practice before orthodoxy was compromised and the convert ceased to deserve the title.

(p. 203)

Another much studied theme is the rather ungodly competition between the various religious orders and state-aligned missionaries. Missionaries constantly competed with and criticized one another and other orders. In Part I of the book, Chapters One and Two detail these “turf wars” over who was to control missionary efforts in different areas. These jurisdictional disputes gravely hampered the conversion effort. In addition, a lack of priests, let alone bishops, meant that an initial conversion or at least expression of interest often could not be followed up on. This factor hindered the imposition of orthodoxy as represented by the Tridentine norms of Counter-Reformation Catholicism.

Chapter Three is perhaps the most interesting part of this monograph. It describes the “conversion potential” (p. 47) of the three areas under discussion. Melaka was unfavourable. Islam was too well entrenched; it also was very flexible, accommodating and [End Page 489] resilient. In Siam the problem was not hostility but rather indifference from local people. Their religious needs were well met by Buddhism, which in turn was helped by the extensive patronage of Siam’s king. Quite different was the experience in Tonkin and Cochin China, where substantial gains were made. This was not really to do with the “nature” of local people, but rather with the fact that these areas, unlike Siam, were in a state of turmoil during the period in question, both religiously and politically. There was massive social dislocation and change. This is, of course, a familiar theme in studies of new religions and conversions in general.

Chapters Four and Five in Part II of the volume study missionary methods. There were debates over what to wear, whether missionaries should try to appear poor and whether big churches were better than small ones. As in China, a knowledge of mathematics and also of Western medical techniques turned out to be very useful “in presenting an appearance of scholarship and erudition” (p. 105).

Chapter Five covers tools of evangelism — that is, what was done to secure thorough conversions rather than mere surface changes in religious practice. Hosts of written guides were produced to facilitate such conversions. However, as we find out in Part III, “Converts to Christianity”, what worked best were spiritual services offered to desperate people and communities hoping for a miracle. Chapter Six concentrates on baptism, penance and the Eucharist and on the ways in which they were taught and modified in the three areas...


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