BOOK REVIEW: Ines Zupanov’s Missionary Tropics

Zupanov, Ines. Missionary Tropics:The Catholic Frontier in India (16th-17th Centuries) University of Michigan: Ann Arbor, 2005.

Conversion as a Work of Classification and Translation

            In Missionary Tropics, Ines Zupanov examines the Portuguese Jesuit missionary project in India from the beginning of the sixteenth up to the establishment of the East India Company and British imperialism in the seventeenth century. Zupanov closely analyzes the wealth of devotional literature and Jesuit letters such as those of Francis Xavier, Diogo Goncalves, Jacome Fenicio, and Jesuit martyrs. The author attempts to move beyond hagiography, nationalistic histories, and that of institutions to contribute a more critical understanding of Jesuit missions. Missionary Tropics is divided into three parts: the first examines St. Francis Xavier and Thomas the Apostle and the role of sacred relics in Asia; the second examines the experiences and representation of missionary work in India such as the romanticization of martyrdom; and the third part examines missionary reports and attempts to understand Indian culture and religion. Zupanov posits two themes throughout her book—tropics and translation.

Describing her method as cultural cartography, Zupanov analyzes the narratives of missionaries and their construction of a “tropics”—the geographical and metaphorical space of India. In Jesuit narratives, the ‘tropics’ appears as idolatrous, dangerous, but also having potential and beauty. Zupanov explains that the Jesuit missions were a “laboratory of modernity” (14) whereby which Jesuit missionaries experimented, recorded, discovered, reformulated, and made sense of their missionary experiences. Several times throughout the book Zupanov mentions that Jesuits attempted to separate the religious and social in their understanding of India. For example, in “Chapter Five: Tropical Sins and Sins of Hinduism,” Zupanov examines how Jesuits identified and classified “true marriages” among different castes in the Malabar region. She notes how missionary texts interpreted indigenous institutions to be “pagan,” “senseless machines,” and an “outgrowth of a disordered imagination governed by carnal desires.” (192) This epistemological frame is crucial to understand how Jesuits made sense of foreign cultural and religious practices and also how they approached missionary conversion.

Zupanov connects this process with that of “translation.” As demonstrated in the analysis of marriage, sacred relics, and medicine, missionaries translated foreign cultural and religious practices into the epistemological frame of Catholic dogma. In many of the Jesuit texts, missionaries casted value judgments upon indigenous institutions. Besides cultural translation, missionaries also invested in the linguistic translation of Christianity from Portuguese to Tamil. Zupanov explains that “conversion can be defined rather as an intentionally false equation posturing as simple translation.” (27) Her last chapter on the “successful” conversion of the Paravas uses the work of Michel de Certeau to analyze how translation was used to transform the “’out there’ into ‘over here’”. (258)

Zupanov’s close and critical analysis of Jesuit letters and literature reveals a unique perspective into the Portuguese Jesuit missions in India. Through this approach Zupanov sheds light upon the anxieties, logic, and challenges of missions and demonstrates how missions were processes and exchanges between dogma and cultural realities.

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