Galleons and Globalization

This year world-wide celebrations commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of Matteo Ricci, the remarkable Italian Jesuit pioneer of cross-cultural understanding who opened China to the west and vice versa. Ricci and the early Jesuit missionaries fostered a notion of "salvific globalization," stemming from the Great Commission of Jesus to preach the gospel to all nations. But these early Jesuits coupled their primary mission-inspired contacts with an early—if contested--notion of inculturation (making the gospel present in and through the categories of the receiving culture). The Chinese rites controversy over the adoption of some Confucian rites for honoring the dead led, eventually, to the repudiation of Jesuit inculturation in India, Japan and the Paraguay Reductions. A fascinating—and award-winning--recent book by a young Canadian scholar, Luke Clossey, Salvation and Globalization in the Early Jesuit Missions (Cambridge University Press, 2008) uses letters and biographies of some fifty-three early Jesuits in Germany, China and Mexico to underscore how this Jesuit "salvific globalization" also played into material globalization, trade and the transfer of ideas.

To celebrate the Ricci anniversary, the University of San Francisco has mounted two ambitious exhibits. Thomas Lucas S.J., the Director of USF’s Thatcher Gallery, put together the show, “Galleons and Globalization: California Mission Arts and the Pacific Rim." He and Antoni J. Ucerler S.J., a scholar in Japanese History at Oxford University, also gathered early books printed on myriad Jesuit presses in Japan, Mexico, Peru, China and the Philippines. These early imprints from those far-flung countries, cover topics such as theology, philosophy, language, astronomy and cartography related to missionary activities in the region. The book exhibit is entitled, “ Early Mission Printing in Asia and the Americas."


The Acapulco-Manila Galleons plied the Pacific trade routes from 1565 to 1815. Fairly soon, the Spanish Galleons discovered that the return trip from Manila to Acapulco was expedited by sailing north to Alta California (the present-day state) around Mendocino Point. Over the years, this globalized trade route exchanged American silver for Asian porcelains, silks, spices and luxury goods, providing a steady trans-Pacific trade in books, artworks, liturgical and practical objects as well as food stuffs. With artifacts amassed from Japan, Macau, England, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, The National Museum of the Philippines and from private collections, “Galleons and Globalization” presents a rich assemblage of the material as well as salvific globalization of early missionary outreach. Perhaps, the inter-mixture of the two kinds of globalization is aptly caught in a remarkable painting from Mission Dolores in San Francisco, entitled "Our Lady of The Galleons," upper right, showing the Madonna and child entering San Francisco bay in the late 18th century. With that Madonna and child, however, came empire, guns, trade and sometimes exploitation of the native peoples.

Many of the Galleons sunk in storms at sea. From one such wreck off the coast of Mexico archeologists unearthed a rich trove of Chinese porcelains. Other artifacts in the exhibit show how the Coastal Mowok Indians retrieved some of the lost porcelains from ship wrecks and reworked them into their own designs and usages, sometimes embedding the porcelain into abalone shell formats. A famous ship-wreck in 1606, off Manila, led later archeologists to retrieve Samurai sword guards ( suggesting Japanese aboard that Spanish ship), South American silver and pottery, alongside the Chinese porcelain.

Long before the lifting up, in the twentieth-century, of California as part of the "Pacific rim," California figured in far-flung globalized trading. Many of the artifacts in the show come from the California missions. They illustrate ornate Chinese silken chasubles; ivory crucifixes ( the ivory’s provenance from either Asia or from Portuguese Africa) which adorned California mission walls. One crucifix belonged to Benicia Vallejo, daughter of the last Mexican governor of California. Again, long before the gold rush, Californios women of Spanish stock wore lovely silk shawls imported from China.

One striking statue of the risen Christ from a California mission derives the Paraguay Reductions. Somehow it found it way northwards, most likely through the Jesuit missions in Baja California. When the Jesuits were disbanded, their missions were taken over by the Franciscans who sent some of the Baja California religious art northward.

Much of the exhibit focuses strongly on Asian influences on California or South American material culture. But the influence bent both ways. A remarkable exhibit pictures and lists nearly a hundred of North American plants which migrated back to the Philippines, hosted on the returning Galleons. Other remarkable artifacts in the exhibit display splendid examples of the so-called Jesuit ware pottery manufactured in Macau. There were hybrids, too. A lovely polychrome sculpture of the Holy Family includes ivory faces and hands for Mary and Joseph, while the infant Jesus is swaddled in clothes made in Peru. Some remarkable artifacts from Japan include a bronze of Mary, fashioned after the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, Kannon. Another displays Matteo Ricci’s world famous map of the world made for China, as it was transposed by the Japanese rulers (even at a time of their stamping out Christianity). On that map, in Japanese, Spain is signaled out as "The capital of Christianity."

This early globalization also saw a rapid transmogrification not just of trade routes but of the exchange of ideas, largely through the invention of the printing press. Jesuits in Asia adopted the earlier Chinese woodblock form of printing (which pre-dated Guttenberg’s movable type). Elsewhere, Jesuit presses were founded in Mexico (1539), Peru (1584), India (1556), the Philippines (1593). The book exhibit shows a splendid edition of an early translation of a book into Japanese. Another exhibits a map of the route Jesuit Father Kino took to reach California, proving, once and for all, that California was not an island. A treasure is the early Tercero Cathecismo, autographed by Jose de Acosta S.J., the Spanish Jesuit, often called "The Pliny of the New World" for his keen observation of native flora and fauna and customs in the New World. In conjunction with the exhibit of these rare books, a three day international symposium is planned for September 24-26: "Legacies of the Book: Early Missionary Printing in Asia and the Americas”, focusing on early Jesuit printing to transmit the faith, knowledge and culture.

Perhaps no more fitting tribute to Ricci on his anniversary can be found than to pick up on his stress on inter-cultural dialogue between Europe and Asia, using his signal motifs of "friendship," " the sharing of natural knowledge" and a deeply inculturated and respectful way to link these to evangelization: bringing the good news of Jesus to all cultures, as, in return, other non-Christian cultures instruct Christians. anew and in ways they have hitherto not seen. how better to embody the universality of the message of Jesus.

John Coleman, S.J.

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Gabriel Marcella
8 years 4 months ago
This event will do justice to the remarkable history of the Acapulco-Manila Galleon (also known as the Manila Galleon), to the Spanish legacy in the Pacific, and the role of intrepid Jesuits who linked the far flung cultures of the Pacific rim. Let's hope that the exhibit comes to a Jesuit university on the East Coast. It's an amazing story that needs to be told.
8 years 4 months ago

It is on our to do list when my wife and I are in San Francisco visiting our son in October.  I got interested in the Jesuit influence in Asia after watching Shogun on television almost 30 years ago.  I also have a friend who takes people on tours in the old Jesuit missions in Bolivia.
8 years 4 months ago
I was interested in the Jesuits in Japan after watching Shogun on DVD.  I read that the character of Fr. Alvito in the movie was based on  João Rodrigues, a Portuguese Jesuit .....


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