Architects of empire


The Miracles of Saint Francis Xavier (1619-22) by André Reinoso. Saint Francis Xavier was a missionary and co-founder of the Jesuit order. PHOTO/Courtesy Museu de São Roque, Lisbon/AKG

Jesuits knew the miserable truth of European empire in India and Brazil, yet their writings rendered it grandiose and sacred

On 12 May 2010, the former pope Benedict XVI addressed a gathering at the Cultural Center of Belém in Lisbon. The building, though modern, evokes nostalgia for the Portuguese empire, which spanned six centuries, from the capture of Ceuta in 1415 to the handover of Macau in 1999. Here, the stone caravel of the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) projects the heroic image of the Portuguese past, cultivated by António de Oliveira Salazar’s fascist Estado Novo rule, over the waters of the Tejo river. Nearby, in the Jéronimos Monastery, Vasco da Gama and the bard of Portugal’s empire, Luís de Camões, lie side by side. While da Gama’s legacy is immortalised in the adjoining Praça do Império (Empire Square), the warning from Camões regarding imperial ambition as that ‘canny consumer/of treasures, of kingdoms and empires’ seems largely forgotten in this corner of Portugal’s capital.

Here, Benedict XVI reminded his listeners that the Portuguese have been ‘deeply marked by the millenary influence of Christianity and by a sense of global responsibility’. It was the ‘Christian ideal of universality and fraternity’, he claimed, that led to ‘the Discoveries and … the missionary zeal which shared the gift of faith with other peoples’. The missionary impulse, Benedict said, led Portugal, ‘to establish relations with the rest of the world’. Invoking Camões’s words, he exhorted his listeners to draw upon ‘prophetic courage and renewed capacity “to point out new worlds to the world”’.

Benedict XVI did not use the word ‘empire’. Earlier, at a gathering of bishops in Brazil, he portrayed the indigenous peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean as ‘knowing and welcoming Christ, the unknown God whom their ancestors were seeking’. The arrival of Christianity in the Americas, Benedict said, ‘did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbian cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture’. To Benedict, Christianity in the Americas came not with genocide but with a happy cultural synthesis. Humberto Cholango, president of the confederation of the Kichwa peoples of Ecuador, responded scathingly by affirming the vitality of Catholicism in contemporary indigenous culture, but also reminding Benedict XVI that the sword of empire had long been one of the most effective weapons in the Church’s arsenal.

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