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Jesuits and World History


Passage Denied! Dangers and Limitations of Jesuit Travel Throughout Eurasia During the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Frederik Vermote


     From 1685 until 1698 the French Jesuit Philippe Avril (1654–1698) made three attempts to travel from France to China. Avril left Paris in 1684 and traveled south to Rome and further on to Livorno where he set sail for Aleppo, Syria. Though this first leg of his travel was done partially overland and partially by ship, Avril continued his travels to China mostly overland. From Aleppo, he convinced an Armenian merchant to take him to Axum, crossed the Tigris, was saved from drowning in the Tigris, traveled through Persia, until he reached Astrakhan, a city on the left bank of the Volga close to the Caspian Sea in present-day southern Russia. From there, Avril was assured that it took only two more months of travel to the border of China or 111 days of caravan travel from Astrakhan to Beijing in total. If this were the case and if one avoided (near-) drowning experiences in rivers and the Mediterranean Sea and delays caused by rulers demanding education or entertainment and other dangers such as untrustworthy merchants, then Avril asserted that the overland journey from France to China could be completed in as little as six months! In addition to speed, Avril repeatedly claimed that traveling to China overland was significantly safer than by sea.

     Avril defended these two advantages of overland travel in his travel account entitled Voyage en divers états d'Europe et d'Asie, entrepris pour découvrir un nouveau chemin à la Chine (Paris: 1692), which was translated one year later in London as Travels into Divers Parts of Europe and Asia, Undertaken by the French King's Order to Discover a New Way by Land into China. Avril wrote it in 1690, in France. At this point, he may have collected a great deal of information on Eurasian geography, but he had not reached China or traveled east of Astrakhan! What had happened to Avril after arriving in Astrakhan June 1686 can perhaps best be described as a series of (very) unfortunate events. It started with a war in central Eurasia, blocking the direct route. Thus, Avril decided to travel to Moscow where he could join a Chinese merchant caravan on its way back to Beijing. Unfortunately, Jesuits had to go through great pains to travel legally across Russian Christian orthodox territory, and, supposedly because he did not hold the right papers and passport, Avril was turned back to Europe from Moscow. Rather than returning all the way to France, Avril waited in Poland for another travel companion and the right papers. He tried again the next year and he was turned back again. After that, he traveled to Constantinople, through Persia and the Ottoman Empire where he was arrested, released, and then fell seriously ill.1 Exhausted he finally returned to France where he wrote his travel account. After this five year long odyssey, Avril still argued that his overland route was faster and safer if only the Russians were a little more trusting ("good-natured") and would allow passage. During the mid 1690s Avril tried one last time to travel to China. This time, against all the principles defended in his earlier travel account, he boarded an English ship in Surat, India, which was to take him directly to southern China. To top off all unfortunate events described above, Philippe Avril died in a shipwreck August 18, 1698, not far from the coast of Taiwan. He never saw China.

     From the sixteenth until the eighteenth century, Jesuit missionaries such as Philippe Avril established Christian communities on a global scale, spreading from the areas today known as Germany, Canada, Mexico, and Paraguay in Europe and the Americas, to the missions of Japan, China, and India in Asia. These were just a few of the many places in which members of the Society of Jesus worked and lived. If there was one organization that incorporated the global travel of people, ideas, and goods during the so-called early modern world period, the Society of Jesus was about as global as they come and it has earned them a mention in many if not all world history textbooks. These "stormtroopers of the Pope" were part of the Catholic counter-reformation and followed closely on the heels of other European "explorers." Traveling aboard Spanish and Portuguese ships, Jesuits fit the larger narrative of the age of European maritime exploration during the early modern world perfectly. So why was Philippe Avril convinced that overland travel was both safer and a faster way of traveling the world in 1692? Why did he seem to think that more than two thirds of European missionaries who boarded ships in European ports died or never saw their intended destination? How can students and scholars make sense of Avril's seemingly nonsensical statements regarding travel during the early modern world? In line with the February and June 2013 Forum in World History Connected, I will examine the nature of Jesuit travel accounts such as Avril's and connect it to a new way of teaching the topic of Jesuits in world history. Corresponding to what the authors of Crossroads and Cultures: A History of the World's Peoples, reviewed by Michael J. Galgano in the October 2012 World History Connected as "the next step" in world history textbooks, I will outline how the topic of Jesuits can fit the "Counterpoint" section in a world history class and become part of a more nuanced narrative of European travel during the early modern world.2 Additionally I explore how teachers can use internet sources such as travel logs available on google books in combination with databases to deepen the students' understanding of Jesuit history and world history.

     In 2011 I assigned Timothy Brook's Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World to a class of world history students.3 Brook's description of the seventeenth century as "an era [not] of first contacts but an age of second contacts with repeated meeting," might have suggested that gradually world travelers reached their destination of choice more reliably. However, Brook also explained that "the seventeenth century became the great century of shipwrecks" due to the desire to build bigger ships that could carry larger cargos but were less equipped to navigate "offshore channels."4 In class discussions, students were amazed by the diversity of shipwreck survivors stranded onto the China coast, what Brook calls the "extra ordinary cross section of humanity on the Guía's passenger list."5 Travelers from every continent were about to experience a rough shakedown by Chinese militiamen. Apart from this human turmoil, my students wondered where all these people came from and where they had hoped to arrive. What happened to the survivors afterwards? Towards the end of our discussions of the "dawn of the global world," I was pleased to observe that students had gained a nuanced understanding of the idea of a progressively more integrated world and the dangers of tentative global travel.

     Perhaps shipwrecks and the continuous frustration of traveling to places where he did not want to be was what made Avril's account so fascinating and somewhat typical of the Jesuit missionary experience at the time. Before leaving on his travels, Avril relied on work by a fellow Jesuit missionary, Philippe Couplet (1623–1693), who had recently traveled back from China to Paris to collect more missionaries and resources for the Jesuit missions in the Far East. Couplet lamented that out of every 600 Jesuits sent to China, only a hundred would arrive. Within the Society of Jesus Couplet was a procurator or procurer—today he would be called a resource manager—so he should have had a fairly good grasp of the reliability of sending people and goods along Jesuit global networks. Even though Couplet may have exaggerated the number of travel casualties to heighten the likelihood of martyrdom—a sought after religious ideal—and even though travel logs often included a canon of natural hazards related to maritime ventures, two databases, one that contains all missionaries sent from Lisbon to Asia in between 1541 and 1758 and one that tracks all missionaries sent from the whole of Europe to China from 1581 until 1774, confirm that close to 40% of all missionaries died or were "redirected."6 The databases also show that deaths during maritime travel did not significantly decrease from 1650 until 1750.7 Whereas Avril died in a shipwreck in 1698, Couplet died on the high seas between Madagascar and Goa in 1693, when luggage fell on top of him.

     Students are rarely excited about databases. I assume this is because they realize people are not data. Statistical numbers do not do justice to the complex and intense human dramas that unfolded on the high seas aboard a crowded Portuguese carrack. An impersonal 0 in column M (entitled "Survived travel to Asia") is what remains of the story of how for example Nicolas Trigault, another Jesuit "resource manager" like Philippe Couplet, lost his older brother in 1618. Jesuit travel logs on the other hand bring to the forefront the people that balanced on the edge of global connections. Some toppled over and perished; others survived multiple shipwrecks (with a maximum of four) and lived to see their faraway destinations. Though only statistical analysis can combine the scattered information given in travel logs and observe patterns that supersede these personal stories of adventure and grief, when teaching students who are taking a world history survey, I set aside databases and theoretical conceptions of world history to start our investigation with people and all the excitement that comes with global travel in 1700: storms, tropical diseases, and encounters with pirates.

     In doing so, my approach resembles what Tonio Andrade and Sugata Bose call a global micro-history. Tonio Andrade's concept of a global micro-history is based upon the need to restore balance in the way world history has been written.8 He states that "we've made great strides building powerful models of global historical structures and processes: global silver flows, strange parallels, divergences great and small."9 This type of world history, comparative and connective, has developed great social scientific models, but it has also ignored personal stories and real people. Andrade believes that, since "human dramas . . . make history come alive," we "should adopt microhistorical and biographical approaches to help populate our models and theories."10 This is what he calls a global micro-history.

     Sugata Bose similarly defines the concept of global micro-histories in his work A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire.11 Bose's approach aims ". . . to avoid the high degree of abstraction that characterizes so much of global, oceanic, interregional, and comparative histories in which real human beings and their agency vanish from view."12 "The weaving of broad patterns of interregional networks is matched . . . by the unraveling of individual tales of proconsuls and pirates, capitalists and laborers, soldiers and sailors, patriots and expatriates, pilgrims and poets."13 Bose continues that his "series of micro-histories . . . have to strike a balance: they must avoid an exclusive obsession with the particular that leaves the whole out of view as well as sidestep an all-encompassing meta-narrative on networks of capital and labor that is insensitive to actual life experiences."14

     In addition to Andrade's and Bose's rationalizations for a global micro-history approach, I believe the concept of global micro-histories is useful because it incorporates and defines both sides of global contact during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: its limits and its extent. Students already know about the 'explorers' and missionaries who reached the Americas, India, and China. When looking closely at travelers aboard these ships or caravanserai, we will also learn what happened to those who drowned, died of scurvy, or simply got lost and never returned.

     As a result, global micro-histories are a history of connections and a history of disconnections. This type of world history is not either connective history or comparative history (Patrick O'Brien splits the world history field in these two categories15), but it combines both approaches to write a history of global links (made by either networks or people) while simultaneously writing a history with a focus on those instances where the global did not connect or integrate people and networks.16 Sometimes world historians do not react well to connections that do not bring integration of two different cultures, peoples, or civilizations.17 Nonetheless, to illustrate to students the difficulties and painstaking character of European maritime expansion during the revered "Age of Exploration," it is useful to provide what the authors of the latest world history survey textbook call a "counterpoint" narrative and the stories of Jesuit travelers such as Avril, Couplet, and many others supply just that.

     The drama is online. Thanks to google books, Avril's travel log has been scanned and made available for free, just like the accounts of many other seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century travelers.18 What was once only accessible to academic researchers in stuffy archives is now a click away from being downloaded onto a student's iPad or iPhone. To increase the students' enthusiasm for these sources, I remind them that when doing research into Jesuit sources, one of those sites of knowledge is the Vatican Secret Archives. This very place starred in the 2009 movie "Angels and Demons," and while it is not as secret a place as depicted in this Hollywood franchise nor what the newspaper the Telegraph describes as a "hi-tech cross between the Pentagon and the lair of James Bond baddy" in which one risks to be suffocated just like the lead character played by Tom Hanks, the same historical documents that are preserved in the Vatican are now online.19

     Before the lingering feeling of having escaped the danger of suffocation disappears, students have downloaded the French and English versions of Avril's travel account. Provided with a list of names and places visited by additional early modern travelers and encouraged to browse through the related books section lower on the page, the students are now facing the task of reading the actual primary source. They examine tales of travel frustration. Forget about that time you missed your flight and the subsequent connection, this is a whole different level and time: people with strange customs and beliefs, robbers and exotic animals, and fires aboard ships. This last "inconvenience" urges the passenger to choose between two possibly equally painful deaths. While reading these documents, there will come a moment when something simply does not make sense. Depending on the place where readers dove into a travel account such as Avril's, this moment of incomprehension with what the source is saying may come sooner rather than later. Inevitably the reader will question whether the writer was fully rational when he recorded this absurd place, people, or custom he encountered on his travels. How to make sense of this?

     The Indian historians Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam warn for and express excitement for just this moment, particularly in Jesuit sources.20 Alam and Subrahmanyam discuss the meeting of Catholics and Muslim theologians at the courts of Indian rulers such as the sultan of Bijapur or the Mughal emperor Jahangir during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They describe this get-together and the ensuing theological debate as not too far from "the proverbial meeting between the irresistible force and the immovable object."21 The scene is as follows: sultan 'Ali 'Adil Shah, the young, curious ruler whose thirst for knowledge is about to be filled, requests the Jesuits to come to court so they can discuss religious matters with Muslim scholars. The sultan wants to test his own faith, and the Jesuits eagerly oblige because this might be the chance to convert the Indian ruler, which in turn might lead to the conversion of his entire empire. After days of waiting the Jesuits gain access to the sultan, the debate starts, tensions rise, and something nonsensical happens. Something so irrational, not only the reader is lost, but the Jesuit recorder of events has also lost the plot. The Jesuits expected the sultan or the Muslim scholars to ask questions regarding topics such as the divinity of Christ, the nature of the Trinity, etc. Instead the Sultan asked if Christ had promulgated a Christian dress code, what the Jesuits' opinion was on elephants' meat, and if drinking urine was a sin.22 The Jesuits at court did not know what these questions meant. The Jesuit writer of the primary source did not know what "these fatuous questions" meant. He made record of them and continued without further explanation. However, by recording the questions he did not understand, the Jesuit recorder has allowed "an alien voice" to enter the Jesuit source, what Carlo Ginzburg called a "leak."23 Alam and Subrahmanyam are excited because this is where the source gains dissonance or multiple layers that can tell us more about the actual encounter between the Jesuits and their South Asian counterparts, something outside the Jesuits' control. In this case, the sultan wanted to make fun of the unsophisticated nature of the Christian belief. Christianity had no theological position on these matters whereas Islam or certain Hindu ascetic groups did.24 Similarly, when Avril states that sea travel to China was far too dangerous and took longer in comparison to overland travel readers are very puzzled. Did Avril not die aboard one of these ships since he failed to reach China overland three times? Did the Jesuits not travel aboard Portuguese and Spanish ships to the destination of their liking? Why would anyone, let alone a European missionary, still travel overland along the scattered remains of the silk road, a route thoroughly made obsolete by the European maritime explorations?

     A different type of Jesuit source, which happens to be the basis of statistical databases on Jesuit travel, can help to answer these questions. Partly due to the vast amounts of surviving Jesuit sources, scholars such as Joseph Dehergne have attempted to organize this information by collecting biographical (and accompanying bibliographical) information on all Jesuit missionaries who traveled from Europe to China. Similar lists exist for Jesuit missionaries to several other destinations. By going through these bios, it is easy to count the travelers who were killed by pirates, who died of tropical diseases, or the rare cases of missionaries who died of rare afflictions such as crushed by luggage or frustration. To organize and keep track of pirate attacks it makes sense to enter this information into a program such as excel, and that is the start of your first historical database. In his conversations with Jesuit resource managers, Philippe Avril studied Jesuit sources and similarly tried to compile lists to gauge the probability of reaching China alive.25 He came to the conclusion that it was very unlikely for French Jesuits to travel aboard Portuguese ships to China, which is why he became such an ardent supporter of overland travel, precisely because it avoided the Portuguese. While French travelers were not more likely to die aboard ships, evidence from modern databases confirms that French missionaries were more likely to be either refused aboard Portuguese ships or, if admitted, they were redirected to any place but China.26 Especially during the time that Avril tried to find his way to China, the Portuguese were much opposed to allow French Jesuits aboard their ships. The reason for this was the French king Louis XIV's support for maritime expeditions to the Qing Kangxi emperor. The Portuguese wanted to protect their access to Asian markets and had frequent violent encounters with all other European competitors such as the Dutch and the English. What made the pill extra bitter to swallow was that the French were a fellow Catholic empire that used French Jesuits as negotiators with the Chinese and thus ignored the papal right of patronage granted exclusively to the Portuguese. As a result, any French Jesuits were suspect. Competition between European powers forced Avril to investigate non-maritime routes. Unfortunately for him, the expanding Muscovite empire was as protective of its communication and trade networks to China as the Portuguese. Ultimately, this made his journey significantly harder. In some way, Avril did join the ranks of European "explorers," but he never worked as a missionary in Asia. Instead of reaching China within six months from France, Avril took thirteen years and drowned just before he ever reached the destination of his utmost desire.

Frederik Vermote is an Assistant Professor of History at the California State University, Fresno, where he teaches World and Asian history and researches the local and global dimensions of the Jesuit networks and finances between Europe and China from 1612 until 1778. He can be contacted at

Figure 1
  Table 3.1 Number of Jesuits Sent to China, Number of Jesuits Redirected, and Jesuit Deaths (on their Way to China)  

Figure 2
  Table 3.2: Survival, Death, and Redirection Rates According to Groups of National Affinity (of Jesuits Sent to China)  



1 See Glenn J. Ames and Ronald S. Love, eds., Distant Lands and Diverse Cultures: The French Experience in Asia, 16001700 (Westport: Praeger, 2002), 219.

2 See Michael J. Galgano's book review in The World History Connected, Vol. 9: 3 (October 2012). In the introduction of Crossroads and Cultures: A History of the World's Peoples, the authors stipulate that the Counterpoint section serves to remind students that alternative paths were possible and existed alongside the master narrative explained in the rest of the chapter.

3 Timothy Brook, Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (New York: Bloomsbury, 2008).

4 Brook, 193–194.

5 Ibid.

6 These two databases are part of my doctoral dissertation research and are based on Joseph Dehergne's, Répertoire des Jésuites de Chine (Rome: Institutum Historicum, 1973), Aloys Pfister's, Notices biographiques et bibliographiques sur les Jésuites de l'ancienne mission de Chine. 15521773 (Shanghai: Imprimerie de la Mission Catholique, 1932–1934), and finally Josef Wicki's, "Liste der Jesuiten-Indienfahrer 1541–1758," Portugiesische Forschungen der Görresgesellschaft. Erste Reihe: Aufsätze zur portugiesischen Kulturgeschichte, 7 (1967): 252–450. For more scholarship on statistics based on Jesuit sources, see Nicolas Standaert, "The Jesuit Presence in China (1580–1773): A Statistical Approach," Sino-Western Cultural Relations Journal, Vol. XII (1991), 4–18 and Jean-Pierre Duteil, Le mandat du ciel: le rôle des jésuites en Chine, de la mort de François-Xavier à la dissolution de la Compagnie de Jésus, 15521774 (Paris: AP éditions-Arguments, 1994), 28–34.

7 Scholars such as Robert Woodberry who compiles and analyzes databases of religious travel during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries have expressed doubt that there was a significant decline of travel related deaths within Asia until the middle of the nineteenth century.

8 Tonio Andrade, "A Chinese Farmer, Two African Boys, and a Warlord: Toward a Global Microhistory," Journal of World History 21:4 (2011), 573–591.

9 Andrade, 574.

10 Andrade does acknowledge "the most effective precedents" of scholars "who haven't been associated with the world history movement" such as Jonathan Spence (A Question of Hu), Linda Colley (The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh), Nathalie Zemon Davis (Trickster Travels), and Leonard Blussé (Bitter Bonds). Andrade, "A Chinese Farmer, Two African Boys, and a Warlord," 574.

11 Sugata Bose, A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).

12 Bose, 22–23.

13 Ibid.

14 Bose, 78–79.

15 See Patrick O'Brien, "Historiographical Traditions and Modern Imperatives for the Restoration of Global History." Journal of Global History, 1:1 (2006), 3–39.

16 In line with Joseph Fletcher's approach in "Integrative History: Parallels and Interconnections in the Early Modern Period, 1500–1800," Journal of Turkish Studies, 9 (1985), 37–57.

17 This idea—connections but no integration—was brought to light by Desmond Cheung who acted as a discussant for a panel at the annual Association of Asian Studies conference, Toronto 2012.

18 Go to the website of Google books and enter "Philippe Avril" into the search engine. You must search within the books category of Google, not in the web category. The fourth link is the English translation of 1693, the eighth link is the original French document. The Bayern Staatsbibliothek provided the English translation in 395 pages. It can be downloaded in PDF format by clicking on the link entitled PDF in the top right corner, which appears when one is already viewing the book via the Google books reading tool. Another way is to hover over the red link entitled "Read Ebook" in the top left corner and click on your preferred way of reading the document.

19 Published May 27, 2010 by Nick Squires entitled, "the Vatican opens its Secret Archives to dispel Dan Brown myths.

20 See Muzzafar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Writing the Mughal World: Studies on Culture and Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), chapter six, especially pages 253–255 and 285–287.

21 Alam and Subrahmanyam, Writing the Mughal World, 249.

22 Alam and Subrahmanyam, Writing the Mughal World, 254.

23 Alam and Subrahmanyam, 286. Carlo Ginzburg, "Alien Voices: The Dialogic Element in Early Modern Jesuit Historiography," in History, Rhetoric, and Proof (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1999), 71–91. Another great strategy is to look at the Asian sources of the same intellectual debate.

24 Alam and Subrahmanyam, 255.

25 One of these lists was provided by Philippe Couplet, who had no doubt shared his catalogue of Jesuits who had been sent to China up until the 1680s, entitled Catalogus Patrum Societatis Iesu, qui post obitum S. Francisci Xaverii ab Anno 1581, usque ad Annum 1681, In Imperio Sinarum Jesu Christi Fidem propugnârunt, ubi singularum nomina, ingressus, predicatio, mors, Sepultura, libri Sinicè editi recensentur. Couplet published this catalogue as a second work following Ferdinand Verbiest's Astronomia Europaea sub imperatore Tartaro Sinico Cám Hy appellato ex umbra in lucem revocata (1687). See Ferdinand Verbiest, Astronomia Europaea sub imperatore Tartaro Sinico Cám Hy appellato ex umbra in lucem revocata (Dillingae: Joannis Caspari Bencard per Joannem Federle, 1687).

26 See Frederik Vermote, "The Role of Urban Real Estate in Jesuit Finances and Networks Between Europe and China, 1612–1778" (PhD. Diss., University of British Columbia, 2013), 92–93.

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