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Jesuits and World History


Religion and Trade through Jesuit Eyes: Bringing Early Modern Central Asia into the World History Classroom

Daniel J. Watkins


     Situated between the Indian subcontinent, Siberia, China, Northern Iran, and the Caspian Sea, the region of Central Asia appears in the world history classroom all too infrequently.1 Although key to the famous Silk Road trade route, Central Asia somehow precipitously falls off the radar of the standard narrative of introductory world history courses after the conquests of Chinggis Khan and the exploratory travels of Marco Polo in the thirteenth century. With the creation of maritime networks linking Europe, Africa, India, China, and the New World in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the region becomes a mere footnote in the early modern period. It often reenters the scene only with the narrative of Russian imperialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Though an expansive area with diverse peoples, Central Asia, according to R.D. McChesney, "occupies a place disproportionate to its resources, population, and territory" in the Western historical imagination.2 For such a large region, the paucity of attention that early modern Central Asia garners marginalizes it for students of world history.

     This lacuna is due in part to the prominence of a narrative of "decline" that has long dominated scholarship on Central Asia. In brief, some scholars have maintained that Central Asia experienced a significant socio-economic and cultural decline during the early modern period that negated its relevance to global history. The decline followed the end of the Timurid dynasty and the conversion of Central Asian nomads to Sunni Islam. For Berthold Spuler, the cultural decay experienced in Central Asia came as a result of increasing political and cultural isolation from the newly founded Safavid Shi'i state. Thus began a "period of decline and decay" that turned the history of early modern Central Asia into mere "provincial history."3 Yuri Bregel, along with a number of Russian scholars before him including Vasily Vladmirovich Barthold, located Central Asian decline in the "global shift of the main routes of international trade as a result of the great geographic discoveries of the end of the fifteenth century."4 The advent of maritime trade routes between Europe and Asia subverted the lucrative Silk Road trade and dealt a "severe blow to the Central Asian economy." The decline, however, was not simply economic in nature. Bregel also wrote that the end of the Timurid period resulted in a "gradual political and cultural decay and stagnation."5 In both Spuler's and Bregel's interpretations, Central Asia fell victim to external developments and lapsed into a social, cultural, and economic malaise that lasted until the Russian conquest in the nineteenth century. Consequently, for S.A.M. Adshead, Central Asia shifted from "a maker of world history . . . [to] its recipient."6 While revisionists over the past few decades have sought to overturn this narrative of Central Asian decline, the effects of this interpretation still permeate the world history classroom.7

     The goal of this essay is not to engage in the scholarly debate over Central Asia's decline in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries.8 Instead, the discussion below proposes a pedagogical point. In the world history classroom, it is not only possible but also advantageous to incorporate Central Asia into the overarching narratives of early modern global history. Like many other parts of the world, Central Asia became a destination for Jesuit missionaries whose task it was to learn about, engage with, and ultimately proselytize local populations. These Jesuits produced written accounts of their missions, and these records reveal more than simply the successes and failures of Jesuit evangelism. They provide details of Central Asian religious practices, spiritual beliefs, and commercial activity. Functioning as an "interconnection" between the cultures of Central Asia and Western Europe, these Jesuit missions attach Central Asia to two major themes in the study of world history: the experience of new religious cultures and the proliferation of international trade.9 The missionary journeys of the Portuguese Jesuit Bento de Goes and the Italian Jesuit Ippolito Desideri provide unique perspectives on Central Asia's societies and cultures in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries respectively. Like many other travel narratives from this period, the accounts of their travels shed light on how the experience and description of foreign religious cultures and the advent and continuation of large-scale international trade linked diverse peoples around the globe for the very first time.

I. Jesuits and Their Reports

Bento de Goes and Ippolito Desideri were two of countless Jesuit missionaries to depart Europe for unfamiliar lands. Evangelical missions—defined more specifically as "itinerant ministry or 'ministry throughout the world' for the 'greater help of souls' "—had been a central activity of the Society of Jesus since its inception.10 The Society's founding documents, the "Five Chapters" and the papal bulls Regimini militantis ecclesiae and Exposcit debitum, all indicate that the central purpose of the Society of Jesus was to work toward the "progress of souls" and the "propagation of the faith."11 The drive to bring the Catholic faith to all the unbelieving peoples of the world took Jesuit missionaries to China, India, the Americas, and indeed Central Asia. In their travels, Jesuits were instructed to keep regular accounts of their experiences and to send back annual reports of the progress of their missions. From these relations one can learn about far more than their successes in converting non-Christians. The travel diaries, letters, and official reports of missionaries display a panoply of social and cultural detail and serve as one of the best European sources on non-Western communities in the early modern period.12

     Bento de Goes was born on the island of San Miguel in the Azores in 1562. For most of his early life, Goes was a soldier in the Portuguese army serving mainly in India. Tired of life as a combatant, he applied for membership into the Society of Jesus and was admitted as a lay-member and novice in April 1588. At the end of the sixteenth century, he along with two other Jesuit brothers, Jerome Xavier and Emmanuel Pinheiro, were invited to the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. Goes must have made a good impression on Akbar, because by 1601 the "Great Mogul" asked for his assistance in negotiating a peace with a provincial ruler in India.13 As his reputation grew, Goes soon gained a new mission: to find and make contact with the peoples of the mysterious land of "Cathay," thought to be located somewhere north of the Himalayas. Cathay was believed to be a vast kingdom with a large population of Christians.14 The significance of a Christian kingdom in the heart of Asia was too great to overlook for Jesuit missionaries hoping to spread their faith throughout the continent. The potential for allies in their great evangelical enterprise convinced Goes's superiors to send the Jesuit on a mission to find the famed principality. At forty years old, Bento de Goes set out on the dangerous journey from India to Xinjiang that would last for the duration of his life.

     Goes recorded his experiences in a travel journal, but it failed to survive him. The standard explanation for this missing document appears in what has become the normative text of Goes's travels—chapters twelve, thirteen, and fourteen of Book Five of Matteo Ricci's memoir entitled Della entrata della Compagnia di Gesù e Cristianita nella Cina.15 First translated into Portuguese for the members of the Society of Jesus, the memoir fell into the hands of another Jesuit, Nicolas Trigault, who rendered it into Latin and distributed it throughout Europe under the title De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas, suscepta a Societate Iesu, ex P. Matthaei Ricci eiusdem Societatis commentarii, libri V.16 This Latin version has served as the base text for most modern translations that exist today, including the most recent English version China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Matthew Ricci, 15831610.17 According to Ricci, upon Goes's death some locals seized his journal and destroyed it, hoping to cover up any record of debts owed to the Jesuit. Ricci reconstructed the story of Goes and his experiences based on some of Goes's letters, the fragments of the journal that survived, and the oral testimony of Goes's traveling companion, who survived and continued unabated to Beijing where he relayed the account to Ricci himself.18 A slightly different account of Goes's journey also exists among the relations of the Jesuit Fernão Guerreiro, translated into English by Charles Herbert Payne in 1930.19 Guerreiro even included the texts of some of the letters Goes composed and sent to Jesuits in India and China during his journey. Thus, the account of Bento de Goes's mission is a composite text constructed from a variety of sources largely from the printed texts of Ricci's journals and Guerreiro's relations.

     Bento de Goes's travels began in 1603 from the Mughal city of Lahore where he joined a caravan of merchants destined for the Kingdom of Kashgar in present day Xinjiang. Disguised as an Armenian and taking on the name Abdullah Isai in order to "pass freely" through the Mughal Empire and Central Asian states, Goes travelled with an Armenian Christian companion by the name of Isaac.20 Passing as a merchant, Goes took with him a variety of goods that could be sold along the way to sustain his journey as well as some devotional materials such as a cross, copies of the Gospels of John and Mark, and a breviary.21 Goes's caravan travelled from Lahore through northern Pakistan to Kabul and then from Kabul through northern Afghanistan, southeast Tajikistan, and the Hindu Kush and Pamir mountain ranges to Yarkand in Xinjiang. After a brief side trip across the Taklamakan Desert to the oasis of Khotan, he joined another caravan of merchants to Suzhou where he eventually died, unable to rejoin the Jesuits in Beijing.22 The journey lasted over four years, and Goes travelled some four thousand kilometers before meeting his end.23

     A century later, the hierarchy of the Society of Jesus sent another one of their members, the Italian Ippolito Desideri, into Central Asia. Desideri's journey to Lhasa came after a few earlier Jesuit exploits in Tibet. In 1624, the Portuguese Jesuit António de Andrade set up a mission in Tsaparang in Western Tibet that lasted for about a decade. Two other Portuguese Jesuits, Estavão Cacella and João Cabral, founded a short-lived mission in Shigatse at around the same time. Finally, Johannes Grueber and Albert d'Orville, an Austrian and a Belgian respectively, undertook a journey from Beijing through Tibet to Agra from 1661 to 1662.24 By the time of Desideri's mission in the early eighteenth century, however, it had been some fifty years since Jesuit missionaries had had contact with the region. Desideri's mission became the most notable of all the attempted Jesuit connections with Tibet.

     A native of Pistoia in central Italy, Ippolito Desideri was born in 1684, the son of a doctor. He entered the Jesuit novitiate in Rome in 1700 and was educated shortly thereafter at the Jesuit Collegio Romano. In August 1712, Desideri petitioned the superior general of the Society of Jesus, Michelangelo Tamburini, to become a missionary "to the Indies"—a request that was summarily approved just one day later.25 On September 27, 1712, he departed Rome and made his way to India by way of Lisbon and around the Cape of Good Hope, landing in Goa one year later. After his arrival in Goa, Desideri travelled to Delhi, Lahore, through Kashmir to Srinagar, and into Tibet. He settled in Lhasa on March 18, 1716 some two years and four months after originally departing Goa. Desideri spent the next six years in the region around Lhasa studying the Tibetan language and culture, meeting with the king and other dignitaries, and preaching. His mission ended following a conflict with a group of Capuchin Fathers who arrived in Lhasa and informed him that they alone were given jurisdiction to operate a mission in Tibet.26 Desideri subsequently left Lhasa in 1722 and returned to Europe where he recorded his experiences.

     Unlike Goes, Desideri's story comes to us from his own hand. Composed mainly during the years after his return to Europe, Desideri's Historical Notices of Tibet chronicle his travels to and from Lhasa and provide detailed information on the culture, politics, environment, and especially the religion of the peoples of Tibet.27 Desideri crafted the work carefully, writing and rewriting it some five different times.28 While he seemed intent on publishing the work, it remained in manuscript form until its rediscovery in 1875 and partial publication in 1904.29 While the Historical Notices of Tibet did not take its final form until he was back in Rome, it is clear from the level of detail in the narrative that Desideri likely kept a travel diary and copies of letters that he had sent and received while in Asia.30 Desideri never formally "finished" the work—for reasons unknown to us today—but the extant manuscripts ended up at the archives of the Society of Jesus in Rome and the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze. Michael Sweet's and Leonard Zeilling's most recent critical edition of the Historical Notices of Tibet compiles the various manuscripts into one coherent English translation.31

     The missionary journeys of Bento de Goes and Ippolito Desideri provide us with rare glimpses at the social, cultural, and political realities of portions of early modern Central Asia. Though through a European lens, their observations illuminate a region that many teachers of world history today leave opaque. Their accounts are filled with fascinating anecdotes of interactions with inhabitants of Central Asia, local customs and practices, as well as broader themes that place Central Asia firmly within the trends of an increasingly integrated globe. The accounts of Goes and Desideri allow Central Asia to be a part of some of the most important conversations in the study of world history.

II. Encounters and Experiences with Foreign Religions

One of the most significant topics in the world history classroom is the way that peoples throughout the globe encountered religious traditions and communities far different from their own. During the early modern period, the world's population became increasingly familiar with the wide range of religious cultures extant throughout the globe. Missionaries of all sorts carried their particular religious values to new communities.32 Merchants too brought back reports of unique religious beliefs espoused by peoples in distant locales. These interactions between religious traditions produced both conflict and communication, violence and syncretism. It forced religious scholars to reassess their own tradition's claims and to examine the merits of new creeds. Bento de Goes and Ippolito Desideri connected early modern Central Asia to this same process occurring worldwide. As missionaries in the Society of Jesus their narratives are replete with experiences with adherents of other religious traditions and descriptions of the tenets and practices of new faiths. In particular, Goes shared numerous interactions with Muslims on his journey through the region, and Desideri provided one of the first thorough descriptions of Tibetan Buddhism in the eighteenth century.

     Though on different journeys at different times, Goes and Desideri both dedicated much of their efforts to proselytizing their Catholic faith. In Karashahr, for example, Goes was brought before a local ruler to discuss his religious beliefs.33 According to Ricci's triumphalist account, Goes spoke before the ruler and a group of mullahs and "defended the truth of Christianity with . . . cogent reasoning." Indeed, Goes was allegedly so successful in promoting his faith that the ruler, "nodding approval of everything he said," determined that Christians "really were Misermans, meaning true believers," and subsequently invited Goes to stay for the night at the palace.34 Shortly after arriving in Lhasa in March 1716, Desideri similarly testified to political elites. Brought before one of the king's advisors, Desideri reportedly claimed that his reason for being in Tibet was "to guide others along the direct path to salvation, and . . . to rescue everyone who had strayed into error and lead them to [the] holy Law, the only true path, outside of which there is no other way to reach Heaven and achieve eternal happiness." The king later granted Desideri "full permission to speak freely in public and private, to whomever it might be, about the truth of [the] holy faith, and to carry out the duty that had brought [him] there."35 As their colleagues in the Society of Jesus did throughout the globe, Goes and Desideri shared the tenets of their faith with non-Christians throughout Central Asia.

     The two Jesuits were not the only ones proselytizing. The accounts of their travels through the region include a number of instances when the local population sought to convert the European foreigners. Guerreiro's relations, for example, tell of how some religious leaders in Yarkand desired to convert Goes to Islam. Apparently they had a high opinion of Goes, for they reasoned that it was "grievous to think that one so worthy of respect must die and go to hell." Consequently, they discussed the possibility of winning him to their faith. One of the leaders "made the affair his own and used every means he could devise to carry it through." After Goes predictably resisted, the leaders eventually dropped their designs.36 Ricci's narrative includes numerous other accounts of times when either Goes or his Armenian companion were confronted by Muslim locals and encouraged to convert. While these accounts may be exaggerated or possibly even invented, the episodes suggest that Goes may not have been the only one in Central Asia interested in spreading his religion. The shared evangelical visions of the Catholic Goes and the Muslims that he met brought the two sides into contact with each other and provided an impetus for each group to experience the religious traditions of the other.

     In their effort to proselytize more effectively, the Jesuits spent considerable time studying and describing the religious cultures of Central Asia. In many of their overseas missions, Jesuits studied the local language, culture, and religious practices of the peoples that they sought to convert. Their ability to "adapt" the Christian message to foreign cultural contexts enabled them to evangelize with greater effectiveness.37 Goes and Desideri, thus, also tried to understand the new religious systems that they encountered in Central Asia. While traveling through Kafiristan in northeast Afghanistan, for example, Goes took notice of a group of non-Muslims who "always dressed in black when they went into their temples." He identified them as non-Muslims because when passing through one of the towns of the region Goes found that Muslims were not allowed into the town "under pain of death."38 In this brief account, Goes produced one of the first European observations of the Siah-Posh (or "black robed") Kafirs, who allegedly fled to this mountainous region in the ninth or tenth centuries, and presented it, with the help of Ricci, to a European audience.39 Later, Goes' story included a description of the calling of the adhan in Yarkand:

     Every Friday a [muezzin] comes to the market-place . . . and in a loud voice bids all men remember that it is Friday, and that it is their duty to attend the principal mosque and perform the ceremonies and prayers ordained in their [Qur'an]. Afterwards twelve men come forth from the mosque armed with [leather] thongs, with which they chastise all whom they meet who have not said their prayers; and those who are beaten are absolved from their sin.40

     These accounts provide an intimate view of two religious cultures in Central Asia from the perspective of the seventeenth-century European Catholic. Goes' travels afforded him the unprecedented opportunity to observe non-Christian religiosity in action and to relay the details of that experience to a global audience.

     Even more detailed and impressive a description of religious traditions in Central Asia is Desideri's account of Tibetan Buddhism in the eighteenth century. Desideri devoted the entire third book of his Historical Notices of Tibet to the "unique religion observed in Tibet." He covered the role of the Dalai Lama, Tibetan monasticism, the Tibetan beliefs of metempsychosis and divinity, and Tibetan morality among other topics. His thorough understanding of Tibetan religion was a result of the behest and support of the King of Lhasa, who regularly sent monks to him in order to "see . . . how [he] was progressing in the study of [the Tibetan] language and religious books." Indeed, the king sent Desideri to a nearby educational institution and gave him "free access to enter and . . . be given and shown any book that [he] might want, and have the doctors of religion and teachers explain to [him] any point or difficult passage that [he] should request."41 Though the king died while he was away studying, Desideri nevertheless put the time to good use and produced a description of Tibetan religion that, though polemical at times, was one of the most useful studies of that religious culture for the Western world before the nineteenth century. Indeed, Trent Pomplun has described Desideri's Historical Notices of Tibet as "among the first works of modern Tibetan Studies" and "an important source for historians of early modern Tibet" even though his reading of the religion was through a distinctly Catholic lens.42

     As the two Jesuits came to understand the religious cultures that surrounded them, they also took advantage of opportunities to engage in discussions with proponents of these non-Christian religions. Before the King of Kashgar, Goes engaged in a conversation with some mullahs about prayer. The mullahs asked Goes in which direction he faced when he prayed and discovered the answer that "it made no difference how they faced to pray because God was everywhere." The mullahs explained that they faced west, and the group discussed the topic further; when all was finished, Ricci reported that the mullahs thought Goes's responses were sound and judged that "Christianity also might possibly have some good in it."43 Desideri too conversed with locals about the differences in their religious traditions. After reading a short work on Christianity that Desideri gave him, the King of Lhasa concluded that there were many interesting ideas in Christianity that were different from Tibetan religion and called for a "serious and thorough discussion" on them. In particular, he questioned Desideri's acceptance of a "supreme being whose nature is single, uncreated, and incorporeal" and rejection of the doctrine of metempsychosis. Conversations with lamas and Desideri's study led the Jesuit ultimately to confess that though there were many points on which Christians and Tibetan Buddhists disagreed, there were also some aspects of the religions that were "not so different," including, most particularly, much of Tibetan morality and monastic discipline.44

     Bento de Goes and Ippolito Desideri present fascinating case studies of experiences that occurred throughout the early modern world. The two Jesuits travelled to places that few Europeans had visited and thus had unique opportunities to engage and observe unencountered religious cultures. Much like European missionaries among American Indians, the peoples of West Africa, and the Chinese court, Goes and Desideri happened upon very different religious traditions and described them in their writings. Though motivated by evangelical zeal, the two Jesuits studied and learned about these non-Christian religions in Central Asia and passed along this knowledge to interested readers in Europe. Their efforts can be seen as part of a larger movement to study and compare the world's religions in a systematic way—a movement that gained momentum during the early modern period and provided the foundation for the scholarly study of comparative religions during the nineteenth century.45 Their narratives, moreover, place the oft-overlooked Central Asia and its religious culture into the conversation on this important topic for the study of early modern world history.46

III. International Trade

Little introduction is needed to establish the importance that new international trade networks played in connecting distant corners of the globe during the early modern period. European maritime trade is often seen as the main contributor to this process, but other merchant networks existed, connecting disparate regions of the world and transporting a wide variety of goods. Merchants are some of the most significant figures in the "integrative history" of the globe during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries.47 By understanding their experiences, one gains a firmer grasp of a central aspect of world history in the early modern period.

     Both Bento de Goes and Ippolito Desideri traveled with merchant caravans going from India through Central Asia. Commercial connections between India and the various states of Central Asia had existed for centuries before the advent of the early modern period and continued in various forms during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries.48 At different times, Goes and Desideri travelled with Indian and other merchants using the same arduous caravan routes that transported goods of a wide variety to different parts of the Asian continent.49 In so doing, they became useful observers of this international trade.

     The narratives of Goes and Desideri provide fascinating anecdotes about the lives and experiences of merchants in Central Asia. Ricci's account described how Goes dressed as an "Armenian merchant" in order to blend into the environment more effectively and enjoy safe passage through Central Asia.50 One of the letters written by Goes and included in Guerreiro's relation confirmed that the disguise consisted of Goes growing a "beard reaching to [his] breast and long hair, as [wa]s the fashion amongst these people."51 The caravan with which he travelled from Lahore to Kashgar included some "five hundred persons, with numerous mules and camels and wagons."52 Ricci's narrative also communicated how difficult the journey was for these merchants. Forced to travel along rocky paths and steep ascents, Goes tumbled from his horse at one point, and Isaac, his companion, fell off a cliff on one of the paths toward Yarkand. The merchants also endured attacks from robbers. Outside of Kabul, for example, some bandits assaulted Goes's caravan leaving many "mortally wounded"; Ricci explained that "it was only with great difficulty that both lives and baggage were saved."53 In another interesting episode outside a small town along the present day border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, Goes's merchant company was persuaded to enter into a civil dispute between the political leader of the town and rebels from the surrounding area. The town's leader forced the merchants to fight with him because he was afraid that the rebels would successfully attack the caravan and take their horses, giving them a distinct military advantage in their raids on the countryside.54 Later, Goes was attacked by robbers while in the rear of the caravan and only escaped by throwing them his hat which they allegedly fought over while Goes fled.55 Goes's journey portrays some of the dangers of merchant life and reveals how banditry posed problems for Central Asian trade networks just as it did for trade networks around the globe.

     Desideri successfully avoided marauders and bands of rebels, but his experiences with the caravan to Tibet were no less informative of the experiences of merchants. First, Desideri confirmed that though tucked away in some of the most difficult terrain on the planet, Tibet enjoyed "a great deal of trade and commerce," particularly with merchants from Kashmir.56 He illuminated how towns along trade routes made money by levying taxes on those carrying goods through the region. In one Tibetan town, "some officers of the customs house" demanded of Desideri himself a sizeable sum of money "as the duty on the merchandise purportedly carried by [him]."57 Goes too confirmed the existence of these types of excise taxes a century earlier.58 In the fortress town of Kuti, Desideri described the lifestyle of merchants and the trade with Tibet:

     There are many big and important local merchants in Kuti who have very large houses with many apartments and storerooms. They take travelers into their homes, serve them food, and find them animals or . . . servants or anything else they need and make their arrangements with the customs officials and other matters. Although one must pass through customs when going to Tibet with merchandise, this is not the case when departing; one then only pays a small toll for each person who wants to leave this kingdom, even if he is not carrying anything with him.59

     Desideri not only confirmed the widespread use of tolls and excise taxes but also suggested that trade through this area was lucrative enough that merchants could afford "very large houses with many apartments and storerooms." One is also surprised by the decent treatment that these merchants seemed to give to passing travelers who were afforded not only room and board but also assistance with the customs process. A far more docile tale than Goes's, Desideri's account of merchant life provides a snapshot of the practical experiences of commercial activity in the early modern period.

     The two Jesuits also expounded upon the types of goods that were making their way from India to Central Asia and eventually to China. While in Yarkand, Goes witnessed the mining of jade that served as a "most valuable article for trading," particularly with the Chinese emperor who allegedly paid a high price for the stone.60 Ricci described the many products made of jade in the region around Yarkand and its two varieties obtained either from the river or from quarries in the mountains.61 Desideri explained that many of the Kashmiri merchants whom he encountered "engaged in the wool trade" between Central Asia and India.62 He also noted that occasionally merchants came through Tibet from other parts of Central Asia, presumably heading toward India, selling "well-bred horses, white cloth, and other articles."63 Indeed, the sale of horses was a vital one for the Mughal Empire, which relied upon the import of horses particularly for military use.64 The textiles that Desideri mentioned also made up a part of a much larger caravan trade of textiles, particularly northern Indian cotton, throughout the region.65 Desideri identified the transit of various Chinese goods going into Tibet, including tea, "tobacco, silks, and other textiles."66 He even went into some detail about the cultivation of the unique and "valuable" resource of musk, collected from musk deer in Tibet.67 Throughout their travels both Jesuits paid close attention to the types of goods traded and carried by merchants throughout Central Asia.

     The testimonies of Desideri and Goes help historians place Central Asia in the larger picture of the economic transformations of the early modern world. Though often considered a commercially isolated region during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, Central Asia hosted enough merchant activity to attract the attentions of two itinerant missionaries whose purposes were far from international trade. Their anecdotal records are certainly not comprehensive, but they provide a glimpse into how this overlooked region remained connected with some of the broader developments in global economic activity. There is no better confirmation of this connection than Desideri's account of the aftermath of the Zünghar invasion of Tibet in 1717. A few years after the conquest of the Zünghars, the Chinese emperor sent a large army to claim the region and avenge an earlier military defeat. By Desideri's account, it was an "immense army," the best of the emperor's soldiers, supplied so generously that it was "beyond belief, inconceivable, unless one has had first-hand knowledge of the vast wealth of China and the immense scale on which military equipment is manufactured in this empire."68 The Chinese army successfully conquered Tibet and in its wake, according to Desideri, brought a significant economic impact:

     I do not know if I will be believed, but I just want to declare that I am not exaggerating when I say that I saw all of this with my own eyes. Once the Chinese arrived in Tibet . . . this vast kingdom was soon so quickly glutted with silver that for the Tibetans it became nearly worthless and they had to be forced by government edicts and penalties to accept it in trade and in contracts. It is not to be wondered at, this over-supply, almost a flood of money: the emperor had given every officer and soldier five years' pay in advance, and besides that, every one of them had come well provided with goods to sell so they could return home to their country having turned a good profit after the anticipated victory. The silver (following Chinese custom) was not minted into coins but was simply and plainly cut into large, medium, and small pieces. For the sake of the convenience of using coins, the Tibetans now send these pieces from Lhasa to Nepal to be exchanged by weight with the coins minted by one of the three minor kings who are the masters of the kingdom of Nepal. Of course these minor kings are quite happy to change their ordinary coins for silver at equal weight; by this exchange alone each of them, and especially the minor king of Kathmandu, makes an enormous profit.69

     What makes this account so interesting is how it fits into the larger story of global trade in the early modern period. According to Dennis Flynn and Arturo Giráldez, the "birth of global trade"—or that moment when "all important populated continents began to exchange products continuously"—came about effectively in the latter half of the sixteenth century and was predicated on the global distribution of one product in particular: silver.70 Emerging from the mines of Potosí, among other places, silver was transported by Europeans across the Atlantic to Europe but ultimately also from Manila to China. China became, in the words of Flynn and Giráldez, "the world's silver sink" or the destination for the lion's share of the world's silver.71 In Desideri's brief vignette, one can see where this silver ended up in the eighteenth century. Placed in the hands of Chinese soldiers, it flooded Central Asia, causing inflation to such a degree that governmental authorities were forced to intervene. This silver subsequently trickled south to Nepal where financiers exchanged it for large profits. Desideri's narrative thus identifies the place of Central Asia in what may be considered the most significant single global trade system in the early modern period.72 In telling the story of the birth of world trade, one can benefit from how the writings of the Jesuits Goes and Desideri place this often overlooked region of Central Asia into this larger narrative.73

IV. Early Modern Central Asia, Jesuit Sources, and the World History Classroom

In an introductory world history class, there are an abundance of topics and places on which to focus. Instructors must make choices about what to include and why. The goal, of course, should be to choose subjects that illustrate the interconnected history of the globe and the shared experiences of its peoples. This essay proposes early modern Central Asia as a fruitful place to study in the context of global, "integrative" history. By way of Jesuit sources—namely the narratives of Bento de Goes and Ippolito Desideri—one can situate Central Asia into two major themes that link various parts of the world during the early modern period: experiences with new religions and international trade. World history classrooms can use these two topics to show how different parts of the world were becoming increasingly integrated during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries through the exchange of knowledge, cultural traditions and material goods. The narratives of Goes and Desideri suggest that Central Asia need not be excluded from this larger conversation about global connections in the early modern world.

     Jesuit sources serve as vehicles to transport Central Asia back into the heart of the world history classroom. One of the contributing factors to the dearth of Central Asian topics in world history classes is the lack of accessible primary sources through which students can acclimate themselves with the peoples and cultures of this region. There have been attempts to remedy this problem recently, most notably an anthology of primary documents on Central Asian history edited by Scott Levi and Ron Sela.74 The more sources that are available to students the more it will be possible for Central Asian history to be integrated into world history courses. The narratives of Goes and Desideri provide compelling accounts of the region and how it can be compared to other parts of the globe. They exist, moreover, in English translations, introduce students to new geographical locales, and include entertaining anecdotes that are sure to catch students' attentions. More importantly they provide an intimate and accessible perspective on an area that can seem daunting and alien to American students.

     These Jesuit sources also function as good materials for helping students to think critically about historical documents. Though the accounts of Goes and Desideri are descriptive, they portray the activities of the two Jesuits in very stylized and intentional ways. Jesuit missionary reports were used to legitimize the Society's endeavors to potential sponsors and the larger public. They also functioned as a form of travel literature, entertaining readers with stories of adventure, intrigue, and heroism. They were, in brief, narratives constructed for a purpose. This simple point becomes abundantly clear when reading the accounts of Goes and Desideri. Their characterizations of the peoples in Central Asia and their missionary successes at times strain credulity. Are we to believe that all the rulers whom Goes and Desideri encountered during their travels were so very interested and impressed by the two Jesuits? Are we to believe that the Jesuits' preaching brought kings and their courts to tears? Though some may claim that these extravagancies make their accounts of Central Asia untrustworthy, the more nuanced and perhaps more accurate perspective is to see these sources as vested both in the realms of reality and performance. As Sweet and Zwilling explain: "The story of Desideri's extraordinary and adventurous travels and endeavors is the wholly true tale of a courageous, tenacious, and brilliant personality; if he sometimes skews his narrative to show himself in the best possible light and heightens the very real historical drama with rhetorical invention, the reader will make allowances for this, as we do with fictionalized history and with most pre- and early modern and numerous contemporary biographies and memoirs."75 In addition to their value as observers of Central Asian religion and trade, these Jesuits provide contemporary students with the opportunity to think about the complexity of historical sources and the role that they play in the writing of history.

     Finally, the accounts of Goes and Desideri in Central Asia exemplify the extraordinary value of the Society of Jesus for the world history classroom. It is difficult to find an organization that is more heavily invested in weaving the world's many regions together into a single tapestry. The Jesuits functioned as a body whose members stretched into as many corners of the globe as could be expected in the early modern period. While their activity in some regions such as China and Latin America garner the lion's share of attention from historians and history classes today, Goes and Desideri reveal the intentions of the Society's members to reach all peoples throughout the world. Goes and Desideri traversed some of the planet's most forbidding terrain in order to accomplish the goals of their order to propagate the Catholic faith. Consequently, for the student of world history, the Jesuits become an invaluable source for information about diverse societies. In recording their experiences of encountering adherents of other religious traditions and their observations of commercial life in Central Asia, Goes and Desideri brought an overlooked region and its peoples into the larger narrative of world history. The Jesuits are thus historical middlemen, taking the stories and traditions of overlooked peoples in the remotest parts of the globe and placing them into the hands of the twenty-first-century student of history.

Daniel J. Watkins is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. His research focuses on the history of the Society of Jesus in eighteenth-century France though he has broader interests in the history of religions in comparative and global contexts, intellectual history, and the cultural history of early modern and modern Europe. He can be contacted at


I would like to thank a number of colleagues and friends who provided invaluable help with this essay. First and foremost is Professor Scott Levi whose class served as the forum in which the ideas herein first arose. Professor Levi provided guidance throughout the development of this piece and functioned as an indispensable source to me for all things Central Asian. Thanks also go to Professor Dale K. Van Kley, Stephanie Honchell, and Daniel Vandersommers for their suggestions in editing the piece. Finally, I must thank Professor Tom Taylor for organizing this forum and for allowing me to take part in it.

1 Scholars have defined the geographical constraints of Central Asia in many ways. Some limit the region to the territories corresponding to the five former Soviet and now independent republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Others expand its definition to include any or all of the regions of Xinjiang, Afghanistan, Mongolia, and Tibet. It is not within the goals of this article to weigh in on this debate; for the purposes of this essay, Central Asia will refer to the region in its most expansive sense. More important than its exact geographic location is its place outside of the constraints of the Russian, Safavid, Mughal, and Ming empires for most of the early modern period. For further discussion on this topic, see the introductions and prefaces of most survey texts of Central Asia including the following: Svat Soucek, A History of Inner Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), ix–xiii; S.A.M. Adshead, Central Asia in World History (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), 6–14.

2 R.D. McChesney, Central Asia: Foundations of Change (Princeton, NJ: Darwin Press, 1996), 1.

3 Berthold Spuler, "Central Asia from the Sixteenth Century to the Russian Conquests," in The Cambridge History of Islam, vol. 1, ed. P.M. Holt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 470.

4 Yuri Bregel, "The Role of Central Asia in the History of the Muslim East," Asia Society Occasional Papers (Afghanistan Council, 1980), 10; Yuri Bregel, "Barthold and Modern Oriental Studies," International Journal of Middle East Studies 12, no.3 (1980): 385–403.

5 Bregel, "Role of Central Asia," 10.

6 Adshead, Central Asia in World History, 177.

7 For some examples of pieces that have argued against, specifically, the universal economic decline of Central Asia in the early modern period, see the following: Andre Gunder Frank, "ReOrient: From the Centrality of Central Asia to China's Middle Kingdom," in Rethinking Central Asia: Non-Eurocentric Studies in History, Social Stricture and Identity, ed. K.A. Ertürk (Reading: Ithaca, 1999), 11–38; Scott C. Levi, "India, Russia, and the Eighteenth-Century Transformation of the Central Asian Caravan Trade," Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 42, no. 4 (1999), 519–548; Morris Rossabi, "The 'Decline' of the Central Asian Caravan Trade," in The Rise of Merchant Empires: Long-Distance Trade in the Early Modern World, 13501750, ed. James Tracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 351–370.

8 For an in-depth discussion of the effects of the decline thesis on the study of early modern Central Asia within the larger framework of world history, see: Scott C. Levi, "Early Modern Central Asia in World History," History Compass 10/11 (2012): 866–878.

9 An "interconnection" denotes an "historical phenomen[on] in which there is contact linking two or more societies, as, for example, the spread of an idea, institution, or religion, or the carrying on of a significant amount of trade between societies." See: Joseph Fletcher, "Integrative History: Parallels and Interconnections in the Early Modern Period, 1500–1800" Journal of Turkish Studies 9 (1985), 37.

10 John O'Malley, The First Jesuits (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 299. O'Malley cites Ignatius of Loyola. The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, trans. George E. Ganss (St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1970), 268.

11 See the texts of these documents in John O'Malley and others, eds., The Jesuits II: Cultures, Sciences, and the Arts, 15401773 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), xxxiv–xxxv.

12 For a good overview of the Jesuit relations, specifically the relations in the context of the seventeenth-century missions to North America, see the helpful introduction in Allan Greer, ed., The Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth-Century North America (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000), 1–19.

13 Cornelius Wessels, Early Jesuit Travellers in Central Asia, 16031721 (The Hague: Martinus Nijoff, 1924), 7–11.

14 Donald Lach and Edwin J. Van Kley, Asia in the Making of Europe, vol. 3, A Century of Advance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 147.

15 Miguel A. Bernad, Five Great Missionary Experiments and Cultural Issues in Asia (Manila: Cardinal Bea Institute for Ecumenical Studies, 1991), 35 n. 1. Though Ricci's original manuscript was lost for many years, Bernad writes in a short bibliographic section of his book that it was rediscovered "among old papers" in Italy. For more on the editions of Ricci's writings, see: Bernad, Five Great Missionary Experiments,147–157.

16 Bernad, Five Great Missionary Experiments, 147.

17 China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Matthew Ricci, 15831610, trans. Louis J. Gallagher (New York: Random House, 1953).

18 China in the Sixteenth Century, 518–521; Wessels, Early Jesuit Travellers, 2.

19 Jahangir and the Jesuits: With an Account of the Travels of Benedict Goes and the Mission to Pegu, from the Relations of Father Fernão Guerreiro, S.J., trans. Charles Herbert Payne (New York: Robert M. McBride & Co., 1930).

20 China in the Sixteenth Century, 500–501.

21 The list of devotional items brought by Goes is confirmed in a letter from Goes to one of his fellow Jesuits serving at the mission to the Mughal court, Father Jerome Xavier. See: Jahangir and the Jesuits, 131–132.

22 Today, Suzhou most commonly refers to a city on the eastern coast of China in the Jiangsu province, but the Suzhou identified in these sources was presumably further to the west (likely in the present-day Gansu province) since it was a town on the very edge of Ming imperial control.

23 Philip Caraman, Tibet: The Jesuit Century (Saint Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1997), 31.

A number of retellings of Goes's journey exist in English including some creative dramatizations of the voyage. See the following: Wessels, Early Jesuit Travelers, 1–42; Bernad, Five Great Missionary Experiments, 33–56; Caraman, Tibet: The Jesuit Century, 9–32; George Bishop, In Search of Cathay: The Travels of Bento de Goes, 15621607 (Gujarat: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1998); and Wilfred P. Schoenberg, Garlic for Pegasus: The Life of Brother Benito de Goes of the Society of Jesus (Westminster, MD: Newmans Press, 1955).

24 For brief accounts of these missions, see: Caraman, Tibet: The Jesuit Century, 33–103; Wessels, Early Jesuit Travellers, 43–68, 120–204.

25 Trent Pomplun, Jesuit on the Roof of the World: Ippolito Desideri's Mission to Eighteenth-Century Tibet (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 18, 22, 39–40, 45.

26 Caraman, Tibet: The Jesuit Century, 107–128; Pomplun, Jesuit on the Roof of the World, 131–159.

27 The best version of Desideri's Historical Notices of Tibet is the most recent edition by translator Michael J. Sweet and editor Leonard Zwilling. The edition includes an excellent explanatory introduction, copious notes, and a series of appendices with documents related to Desideri and his mission. See: Mission to Tibet: The Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Account of Father Ippolito Desideri, S.J., trans. Michael J. Sweet, ed. Leonard Zwilling (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2010).

28 Mission to Tibet, 62.

29 Mission to Tibet, 62.

30 Mission to Tibet, 65.

31 For a thorough explanation of the various manuscripts of Desideri's work and the details of how the two scholars managed the task of reconstructing the Historical Notices of Tibet, see the third section of their introduction to Mission to Tibet, 62–109.

32 Joseph Fletcher notes that Catholics were not the only missionaries making proselytizing journeys during the early modern period; he calls attention to the missionary activity of the Qadiri, Naqshbandi, and other Islamic orders, the Yellow and Red sects of Tibetan Buddhism, and even the domestic spread of the White Lotus sect in China. See: Fletcher, "Integrative History," 52–53.

33 In Gallagher's text, Karashahr (a.k.a. Yanqi), a small town in Xinjiang west of Lake Bosten, is referred to as "the city of Cialis" and governed by "an illegitimate son" of the King of Kashgar. See: Gallagher, China in the Sixteenth Century, 510. For more on Karashahr, see: Henry Yule, ed., Cathay and the Way Thither: Being a Collection of Medieval Notices of China, vol.3 (Taipei: Ch'eng-Wen Publishing Company, 1966) 232–235 n. 4.

34 China in the Sixteenth Century, 511.

35 Mission to Tibet, 177–179.

36 Jahangir and the Jesuits, 139.

37 For explanations on various modes of Jesuit "adaptation" in their overseas missions, see the essays included in part five of O'Malley, The Jesuits II: Cultures, Sciences and the Arts, 15401773 and Yu Liu, "The Intricacies of Accommodation: The Proselytizing Strategy of Matteo Ricci," Journal of World History 19, no.4 (2008): 465–487.

38 China in the Sixteenth Century, 501–502.

39 For an overview of the peoples of Kafirstan and their religious culture, see: Amar Singh Chohan, A History of Kafferistan: Socio-Economic and Political Conditions of the Kaffers (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 1989), 1–25, 57–87.

40 Jahangir and the Jesuits, 142–143.

41 Mission to Tibet, 180, 187–188.

42 Pomplun, Jesuit on the Roof of the World, 3. See chapter 3 for a more in-depth explanation of Desideri's account of Tibetan Buddhism and how it reflected his own concerns with issues that were of central importance for early modern Catholics in Europe.

43 China in the Sixteenth Century, 508.

44 Mission to Tibet, 186–187.

45 On this topic see: Guy Stroumsa, A New Science: The Discovery of Religion in the Age of Reason (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

46 For a different approach in connecting the religious culture of Central Asia to other parts of the globe, see Alanna Cooper's recent study of Central Asian Jewry in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries: Alanna E. Cooper, Bukharan Jews and the Dynamics of Global Judaism (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2012).

47 Fletcher, "Integrative History."

48 Scott C. Levi, introduction to India and Central Asia: Commerce and Culture, 15001800 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007), 1.

49 For more on the Indian merchant communities in Central Asia, see: Stephen Dale, Indian Merchants and Eurasian Trade, 16001750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Scott C. Levi, The Indian Diaspora in Central Asia and its Trade, 15501900 (Leiden: Brill, 2002).

50 China in the Sixteenth Century, 500.

51 Jahangir and the Jesuits, 130.

52 China in the Sixteenth Century, 501.

53 China in the Sixteenth Century, 502.

54 China in the Sixteenth Century, 503.

55 China in the Sixteenth Century, 504.

56 Mission to Tibet, 158.

57 Mission to Tibet, 181.

58 China in the Sixteenth Century, 502.

59 Mission to Tibet, 460.

60 China in the Sixteenth Century, 506.

61 China in the Sixteenth Century, 506.

62 Mission to Tibet, 162.

63 Mission to Tibet, 162.

64 Levi, "India, Russia, and the Central Asian Caravan Trade," 526–528. Levi argues that the Mughal import of horses from Central Asia remained significant in the eighteenth century, when Desideri was travelling and writing, at least in part because of the political instability and widespread rebellion in the empire at that time.

Desideri noted later in his Historical Notices of Tibet that Tibetan horses were also of a very high quality: "medium in size, strong, and with an ability to hold up under hard work and long journeys . . . especially through mountains and snow." Furthermore, he estimated the normal cost of such a horse in relation to Italian currency as "around twenty five scudi." See: Mission to Tibet, 220.

65 Dale, Indian Merchants and Eurasian Trade, 22–24.

66 Mission to Tibet, 162.

67 Mission to Tibet, 218–220.

68 Mission to Tibet, 255–256.

69 Mission to Tibet, 257.

70 Dennis Flynn and Arturo Giráldez, "Born with a 'Silver Spoon': The Origin of World Trade in 1571," Journal of World History 6, no.2 (1995): 201.

71 Flynn and Giráldez, "Born with a 'Silver Spoon'," 202–218.

72 For more on the importance of the silver trade for the emerging global economy of the early modern period, see: Richard von Glahn, "Myth and Reality of China's Seventeenth-Century Monetary Crisis," Journal of Economic History 56, no.2 (1996): 429–454; Dennis Flynn and Arturo Giráldez, Metals and Monies in an Emerging Global Economy (Aldershot: Variorum, 1997); Dennis Flynn and Arturo Giráldez, "Cycles of Silver: Global Economic Unity through the Mid-Eighteenth Century," Journal of World History 13, no.2 (2002): 391–427;

73 For more on the creation of the global economy during the early modern period, see: Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System, vol. 2, Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy, 16001750 (New York: Academic Press, 1980).

74 Scott C. Levi and Ron Sela, eds., Islamic Central Asia: An Anthology of Historical Sources (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010).

75 Mission to Tibet, 13.

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