Skip to main content Accessibility help

Calude d'Abbeville and the Tupinamba: Problems and Goals of French Missionary Work in Early Seventeenth-Century Brazil

  • Laura Fishman (a1)


The Catholic church during the era of the Catholic Reformation experienced great vitality and vigor. Missionary activity was one of the clearest indications of this renewed spiritual energy. Simultaneously with Catholic revitalization there occurred the expansion of European commerce and colonization. In the wake of the Age of Discovery portions of Africa, Asia, and the New World became more accessible to Europeans. The Catholic church, by means of its religious orders, carried Christianity to the inhabitants of these regions. The drive and dedication which led to reform of the church within Europe also fueled an intense missionary commitment towards the people of other continents. The dedication and zeal of the regular clergy reflected the apostolic tradition within the church, but this older ideal was enhanced by a new spirit of expansionism. The Catholic religious orders shared the urge of many of their secular contemporaries to take advantage of new opportunities for growth overseas.



Hide All

1. Latourette, Kenneth Scott, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, 7 vols. (New York, 19371945), 3:137139, 140, 173, 182, 184, 242244.

2. For a comprehensive account of European colonial activity in Brazil, see Hemming, JohnRed Gold: The Conquest of the Brazilian Indians, 1500–1750 (Cambridge, Mass., 1978). The outstanding contemporary account of the sixteenth-century Huguenot colony is Léry, Jean de, Histoire d'un Voyage Faict en la Terre du Brésil, ed. Gaffarel, Paul, 2 vols. (Paris, 1880).

3. d'Abbeville, Claude, L'arrivee des peres capucins en 1'Inde Nouvelle, appellée Maraguon, avec la reception que leur ont faict les Sauvages de ce pays, & la conversion d'icieux à nostre Saincte Foye (Lyon, 1613).

5. D'Abbeville's letters were again published in Paris in 1613 along with additional letters dated 27 August 1612, some of which were written by his colleague Father Arsene. The title, once again, reflects the Capuchins’ enthusiasm for their work and optimism regarding its success: Discours et congratulation a la France. Sur l'arrzvée des peres Capucins en l'lnde nouvelle do I'Amerique meridionale en la terre do Brasil … Avec la reception que leur ont laid les sauvages de cepays б la conversion d'icieux à nostre sazncte foy … (Paris, 1613).

6. Rochefort, Charles de, The History of the Caribby-Island, trans. Davies, John (London, 1666), pp. 270271,298, 309313;Lescarbot, Marc, Nova Francia, trans. Erondelle, P. (London, 1609), pp. 213, 243245; and Léry, Jean de, Histoire, 2:94, 109112. This is but a brief sampling. Travellers to various regions are unanimous in their praise of Indian hospitality.

7. The leading scholar is Axtell, James, The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America (New York, 1985); see also “Some Thoughts on the Ethnohistory of Missions,” Ethnohistory 29 (1982): 3541.

8. Hemming, , Red Gold, pp. 1516, 44, 198199, notes the generosity of the Brazilian Indians and also their desire for trade and allies.

9. Yves d'Evreux, the Capuchin father who continued d'Abbeville's work among the Tupinamba, contrasts his own two-year stay in Brazil with the four-month visit of d'Abbeville; see the “Epistre” in his Suitte de L'Histoire des Choses Plus Memorable Advenües en Maragnan (Paris, 1615), no pagination.

10. d'Abbeville, Claude, Histoire de Ia Mission des Peres Capucins en l'lsle de Maragnan et terres circonvoisines ou est traicte des singularitez admirables et des Meurs merveilleuses des Indiens habilans de cepais (Paris, 1614) (hereafter cited as HM).

11. The earliest Spanish missionaries to the New World debated whether or not the native inhabitants were capable of conversion to Christianity. In 1537 Pope Paul III issued his bull Sublimis Deus, which asserted that the American Indians were truly human and thus capable of receiving the faith. See Hanke, Lewis, “Pope Paul III and the American Indians,” Harvard Theological Review 30 (1937): 65102; and, more recently, “The Theological Significance of the Discovery of America,” in First Images of America: The Impact of the New World on the Old, ed. Fredi Chiappelli, 2 vols. (Berkeley, 1976), 1:363374.

12. ; HM, “Epistre,” no pagination.

13. Ibid., pp. 322–323.

14. Léry, , Histoire, 1:3233, 2:5960, 62;Rochefort, , History, pp. 276279; and Lescarbot, , Nova Francia, p. 151.

15. Ronda, James P., “The European Indian: Jesuit Civilization Planning in New France,” Church History 41 (1972); 388389, discusses the problems that Jesuit missionaries in Canada faced in understanding native forms of religious belief. See also Trudel, Marcel, “La Rencontre des Cultures,” Revue d'histoire de l'Amérique française 18 (1965): 477516; and Cornelius Jaenen, J., Friend and Foe. Aspects of French-Amerindian Cultural Contact in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (New York, 1976), pp. 4143.

16. See Hodgen, Margaret T., Early Anthropology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Philadelphia, 1964);Atkinson, Geoffroy, Les Nouveaux Horizons de la Renaissance Française (1935; reprint, Geneva, 1969), 8081, 83, 8587; and Huddleston, Lee Eldridge, Origins of the American Indians: European Concepts, 1492–1729 (Austin, Tex., 1967).

17. Yves, d'Evreux, Suitte, pp. 2920–293, 296;Boucher, Pierre, Histoire Veritable et Naturelle des Moeurs et Productions du Pays de la Nouvelle France (Paris, 1664), pp. 113114; and Lescarbot, , Nova Francia, pp. 154, 165, 170.

18. HM, pp. 99, 126, 323.

19. Ibid., pp. 322–325, 327.

20. Ibid., pp. 280, 282, 311, 313–314.

21. Métraux, A., “Les Précurseurs de l'ethnologie en France du XVIe au XVIIIe siècle,” Cahiers d'histojre mondiale 7 (1963): 721738.

22. HM, p. 95.

23. Ibid., pp. 88, 103.

24. Neill, Stephen, A History of Christian Missions (Baltimore, 1964), pp. 178179.

25. For a general discussion of this issue and a specific bibliographical guide, see Bowden, Henry Warner, American Indians and Christian Missions: Studies in Cultural Contact (Chicago, 1981).

26. HM, pp. 165–166, 168–169.

27. Ibid., pp. 287–288, 291–295. In spite of his horror, d'Abbeville describes these practices in graphic detail.

28. Ibid., p. 260.

29. Ibid., pp. 296–297.

30. Ibid., p. 270.

31. Ibid., pp. 270–271. French travel literature of this era frequently notes Indian nudity and the absence of shame at this condition, comparing the American natives to Adam and Eve before the Fall. See Atkinson, Geoffroy, Les Relations de voyages do XVIIe Siécle et l'Evolution des ldées (1924; reprint, Geneva, 1972), pp. 133134.

32. HM, p. 271.

33. Ibid., pp. 128, 277.

34. Ibid., pp. 278–281. French travel writers of the Early Modern era often highlighted many virtuous characteristics which they perceived among native New World societies and then used these observations as a lesson in moral conduct for contemporary Europeans. See especially the two works of Chinard, Gilbert, L'Exotisme Américain dans la Littérature Française an XVIe Siècle (1911; reprint, Geneva, 1970); and L'Amériqne el le Rèue Exolique dans la Littérature Françazse an XVIIe et au XVIIIe Siècle (Paris, 1934). The idealization of Indian society and the pointing to native virtues as a means of criticizing aspects of European culture were especially strong in the writing of Claude d'Abbeville's colleague Yves d'Evreux; see n. 9 above.

35. HM, p. 285.

36. Ibid., p. 266.

37. Ibid., pp. 125–126.

38. Ibid., p. 104.

39. Ibid., pp. 103–106.

40. Ibid., pp. 95–97, 114–117. Hemming, , Red Gold, pp. 910, 3639, 198, notes that French traders in the early sixteenth century utilized the Tupinamba to cut and transport Brazilian dyewood. The Indians worked in exchange for goods, especially metal tools. In the early seventeenth century at Maranhão the natives helped the French build Fort Saint Louis. Unlike the Portuguese, who established permanent settlements in Brazil, the French did not enslave the Tupinarnba.

41. HM, p. 169. French missionaries who worked among the Hurons of Canada also objected to sexual relations between native women and French men. But, unlike Abbeville, the Jesuit missionaries to the Hurons were generally suspicious of lay French influence among the Indians and regarded French political and economic motives as a potential threat to native society. See Trigger, Bruce G., “The French Presence in Huronia: The Structure of Franco-Huron Relations in the First Half of the Seventeenth Century,” Canadian Historical Review 49 (1968): 107141;Axtell, , The Invasion Within, pp. 6062, 64, 69; and Jaenen, Friend and Foe.

42. HM, pp. 169, 88, 315–316, 104.

43. Whether or not force should be used to convert the American Indians to Christianity was an issue that engaged sixteenth-century Spanish theologians in heated debate. See Hanke, Lewis, Anistotle and the American Indian (Bloomington, 1959).

44. HM, pp. 86, 103. This passage also states that French soldiers will defend the Indians against their enemies.

45. Axtell, “Some Thoughts on the Ethnohistory of Missions,” maintains that various American Indian tribes accepted Christianity as a means of protecting themselves against destruction by the more powerful Europeans. For the natives, “conversion” often meant adding Christian prayers and rituals onto a deeply entrenched traditional belief system. Hemming, , Red Gold, pp. 202204, 206, states that in addition to material advantages the Tupinamba genuinely enjoyed participation in Catholic religious ceremonies. The shamans were especially eager for instruction, believing that knowledge of the new Christian “magic” would enhance their own powers.

46. Hemming, , Red Gold, pp. 210212, 215.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed