Jesuit Letters from Japan and India. Including an Account of the Death of Rudolph Aquaviva and the "Martyrs of Cuncolim"

JESUITS. JAPAN. INDIA. Fróis, Luís (1532-1597); Valignano, Alessandro (1539-1606), et alii

Nuove Lettere delle Cose del Giappone, Paese del Mondo Novo, Dell'anno 1579. infino al 1581. Con La Morte d'Alcuni Padri della Compagnia di Giesu'.

Venice: Appreso I Gioliti, 1585


Octavo: 16 x 10.5 cm. 188, [11] pp. Collation: A-M8, N4

One of several 1585 editions (first ed. 1584)

Bound in modern cartoncino. A very good copy with some minor repairs, lightly washed. With a fine woodcut headpiece and Jesuit emblem on the title page and numerous decorative head- and tailpieces and initials, including one of a dragon, throughout.

This collection contains the following letters from the Jesuit missions in Japan: Francesco Carreón, writing from Kuchinotsu, 1 Dec., 1579; Gregorio de Céspedes, 1579; Lorenço Mexia, at Bungo, 20 Oct., 1580; three letters by Luís Fróis, Miyako, 14 April, 1581; 19 May, 1581; and 29 May, 1581; Francesco Cabral, 15 Sept., 1581. The final letter is by Alessandro Valignano, written at Goa 28 Dec., 1583.

The Japan letters provide accounts of the chaotic state of affairs in Japan, the turmoil caused by near-constant warfare and power struggles, and the peripatetic lives of the Jesuits, who were in constant danger of being imprisoned, tortured, or executed. The letters include detailed accounts of various conversions and persecutions (both of the Jesuit fathers and their Japanese converts), the complex attitudes of the Japanese towards Christianity, and information on Japanese culture, geography, and climate.

The final letter, written by Valignano, details the deaths of the Jesuit Martyrs of Cuncolim,  who were killed on Monday, 25 July 1583, in the village of Cuncolim in the district of Salsette, territory of Goa, India. The “martyrs” were the Italian Rudolph Acquaviva, the Spaniard Alphonso Pacheco, the Swiss Peter Berno, the Portuguese Anthony Francis, and Brother Francis Aranha, also a Portuguese. In addition, the Portuguese layman Gonçalo Rodrigues, and some Indian youths, Dominic, Alphonso, Francis Rodrigues, Paul da Costa, and ten others were also killed.

While prosecuting their mission of Conversion in Cuncolim, the Jesuits and their companions desecrated a Hindu temple by urinating in it (a relatively mild, if repugnant, form of desecration; on an earlier excursion, Father Berno had set fire to another temple) and destroyed a sacred anthill. In addition, they killed a cow that was also an object of worship and hurled its entrails into a sacred well, thereby defiling it. The understandably outraged citizenry set upon the Jesuits and their companions, killing them with scimitars, lances and arrows. They then threw their bodies into a well. The five Jesuits quickly achieved great fame as martyrs and at last, in the 19th century, were elevated to sainthood, while the lay Indians who were slaughtered with them were ignored.

It should be remembered that three of the five Jesuit martyrs were in Cuncolim as chaplains to a force of Portuguese soldiers sent to exact harsh reprisals for indigenous resistance to Portuguese rule and the Jesuit campaign of forced conversion. In this context, the killing of the Jesuits is remembered by the people of modern day Cuncolim as one of the first acts of revolutionary resistance to European rule in India.

Of course, the letter, written in December of 1583 by the Jesuit Provincial of India, Alessandro Valignano, glorifies the “martyrs” and, in true martyrological style, vividly describes the deaths of Acquaviva and his companions.

“The Pagans then fell upon them; Father Rudolph received five cuts from a scimitar and a spear and died praying God to forgive them, and pronouncing the Holy Name. Father Berno was next horribly mutilated, and Father Pacheco, wounded with a spear, fell on his knees extending his arms in the form of a cross, and praying God to forgive his murderers and send other missionaries to them.

“Father Anthony Francis was pierced with arrows, and his head was split open with a sword. Brother Aranha, wounded at the outset by a Scimitar and a lance, fell down a deep declivity into the thick crop of a rice-field, where he lay until he was discovered. He was then carried to the idol, to which he was bidden to bow his head. Upon his refusal to do this, he was tied to a tree and, like St. Sebastian was shot to death with arrows.

“The bodies of the five martyrs were thrown into a well, water of which was afterwards sought by people from all parts of Goa for its miraculous healing. The bodies themselves, when found, after two and a half days, allowed no signs of decomposition.”(Catholic Encyclopedia)

Streit, Bibliotheca Missionum, IV. 1639; Sommervogel, II, col 492; Cordier, Sinica, 75; Laures 170