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Missionary Tropics: The Catholic Frontier in India, 16th-17th Centuries.

Ines G. Zupanov. Missionary Tropics: The Catholic Frontier in India (16th-17th Centuries).

History, Languages, and Cultures of the Spanish and Portuguese Worlds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. xvi + 374 pp. + 17 b/w pls. index. illus. map. bibl. $75. ISBN: 0-472-11490-5.

Ines G. Zupanov's first book, Disputed Mission: Jesuit Experiments and Brahmanical Knowledge in Seventeenth-century India (1999) centered on Roberto Nobili and his strategy for achieving conversion through accommodatio in the seventeenth century. In Missionary Tropics she continues her exploration of the problems associated with the Jesuit mission in India, looking for ways to explain missionary activity on a somewhat broader temporal scale. To this end Zupanov uses the tropics and "tropicality" as a metaphor to analyze the process of conversion in pre-British India, constructing a narrative that returns repeatedly to the climate and its perceived connection (in European eyes) with idolatry, sensuality, and vice. Moreover, she explores the problems inherent in the vernacularization of the Christian message and rites, including the subsequent reemergence of vestigial, indigenous elements that, like tropical vines, became interwoven with Christianity and reinterpreted it in unexpected ways.

The book is divided into three sections. The first, "Tropical Saints and Relics," comprises two chapters comparing and contrasting the biographies of St. Francis Xavier and St. Thomas, and the uses to which their respective relics were put. The second, with three chapters exploring a variety of Jesuit experiences in India, is titled "Tropical Virtues and Vices." One centers on Antonio Gomes, whose failed career occasions a discussion of the Jesuit methods and the tension between the striving for ever higher individual achievement and obedient self-effacement to the order's hierarchy. Another chronicles the career of Antonio Criminali, whose death as a martyr in 1548 provides an opportunity to discuss the complex Jesuit approach to the question of martyrdom. The third, discussing and contrasting two treatises (by Diogo Goncalves and Jacome Fenicio, Jesuits working in India in the early seventeenth century), documents the Jesuit interest in the anthropology of paganism and their discovery of Hinduism. The third part of the book, "Disciplining the Tropics," is composed of two chapters. The first, discussing the Jesuit medical mission in India, recounts the lives of two Jesuit physicians and shows how the order, some of whose members were notable physicians, ultimately shied away from actual medical treatment as it assumed the task of regulating hospitals, improving hygiene but subordinating corporeal health to the end of spiritual conversion in Portuguese India. The following chapter recounts the Jesuits' mastery of the Tamil language, which furthered conversion to Christianity. Ironically, by converting the Christian message into the language of those they wished to convert to Christianity, the Jesuits frustrated the Portuguese's desire to impose their language on their empire in Asia. Finally, the epilogue ("Tropical Textures") traces the career of Pedro Luis Bramane, the only native Indian to have become a Jesuit priest during the entire period of Jesuit missionary activity work before the suppression of the order in 1773, and tries to bring to a close several of the themes that recur throughout the book.

It is easy to summarize the major components of this book, but evaluating it is a difficult task because here is much to praise in its content, but in its design and presentation there is much to occasion dissatisfaction. The unquestionable scholarship of the author and her close reading of voluminous primary-source materials make her analysis of considerable interest to other researchers in the area, and ought to interest general readers as well, if they persevere at the task. The extensive, near-exhaustive bibliography is also both impressive and useful. It is unfortunate, however, that both the basic history and the new material are presented in such a disconnected fashion. This mode of presentation is intentional. At the outset the author describes her approach as attempting to construct a "cultural cartography" of religious encounters in India (2), which--because of problems posed by the languages and cultures which became interrelated in the story of Jesuit evangelization in India, and with "eclectic borrowing" from a variety of cognate fields--"may resemble a tropical tree with tendrils and branches growing in all directions" (5). This approach can offer rich rewards for the diligent reader, who may well be stimulated by exposure to concepts and interpretative paradigms drawn from a wide array of recent analyses, often postmodern or postcolonial. Zupanov does create an interesting historic tapestry, employing many and varied cultural threads and with as many layers of meaning as she can incorporate into it. The result is an intentionally loose fabric, which, faithful to the Jesuit reports from India that serve as her major sources, is "tropical in overgrown intertextuality" (13). It is because the resulting text is both dense and loosely woven that the reader must be so diligent. The wealth of detail is interesting, but it is often difficult for the reader to tease out a coherent story. Perhaps so many contemporary historians seem oblivious to the centrality of story in writing histories because (like Zupanov) they have difficulty deciding what "Archimedian standpoint" (5) to select as they pry apart and open up layers of meaning in surviving historical evidence. Historians who make a selection as to their standpoint, and live with the consequences, tell stories which, if less complete, are more coherent, and make fewer demands on their readers than does Missionary Tropics.


Bronx Community College, The City University of New York, Emeritus
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Author:Ryan, James D.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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