- Conflict and Conversion: Catholicism in Southeast Asia, 1500–1700 by Tara Alberts
The position of Southeast Asia between India and China, two central population cores, has contributed to its extraordinary diversity (especially, and most challenging for historians, of languages) and importance (proverbially, events here controlled prices in Venice), even though it remains the most understudied history of major world regions. In her introduction Tara Alberts reminds us of the attraction and significance of the region for early-modern Europeans, which makes its neglect today all the more painful, and her scholarship all the more welcome.
The relative obscurity of the region allows Alberts to present scholarship that intrigues because of the sources, rather than because of new interpretations; her extensive archival work means much of this material will be new even to students of Southeast Asia. The volume looks specifically at three places, well chosen for their distinctiveness in missionary outlook: Malacca (in modern Malaysia) with its “fanatical” Muslims; Ayutthaya (roughly modern Thailand) with its “apathetic” Buddhists; and Tonkin and Cochinchina (roughly modern Vietnam), where Christianity’s prospects seemed—and proved to be—brighter. This is the story of missionaries coming from a complex institutional background to lands equally complex in their culture and politics; in the first parcel of chapters, Alberts provides readers new to either world with lucid introductions. Next comes a shorter study of missionary methods, with substantial subsections considering their mode of dress, their use of science and healing, and their development of a catechetical literature. The [End Page 183] final third turns formally to the converts, considering their engagement with the sacraments and devotions of the Church before focusing on two specific groups of converts: women and slaves.
A favored sentence opener, sometimes thrice in a single paragraph, is “Yet …” This is an account that derives its forward momentum less from a one-directional interpretive argument than from all the U-turns inherent in the messiness of sources documenting human life. Readers get a sense of the processes of conversion and resistance, information well organized and well indexed for readers. The text is thickly footnoted; the bibliography stretches to thirty pages. Concise methodological reflections will likely check off the theorists’ boxes without trying the patience of the empiricists. The contours of Alberts’s commentary largely follow trends in the recent scholarship of Southeast Asia, where Islam and especially women have become popular topics.
Although it rewards in the human details, the book has little that would surprise a student of early-modern Catholic missions. As in other parts of Asia, we see the trampling of images as test of religious identity and anxiety about individuals being properly hatted and bearded. The many primary sources—documents in Latin and the romance vernaculars, found in Rome, Lisbon, Paris, Manila, and Goa—that animate the book make clear that this is no fault of the author. The sources are necessarily written by missionaries, and what impresses is how closely their challenges and solutions here (and how the authors presented here) match those of their co-religious in other parts of the world. It will be interesting as historians make increasing use of extant indigenous sources (which are, as Alberts reports, few and laconic) to see how, if at all, the account given here will be emended.