#AsiaNow Speaks with Ananya Chakravarti

Ananya Chakravarti is Associate Professor of History, Georgetown University and author of The Empire of Apostles: Religion, Accommodatio and the Imagination of Empire in Early Modern Brazil and India, published by Oxford University Press and recipient of an honorable mention for the 2020 AAS Bernard S. Cohn Book Prize.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

The book is interested in how Europeans came to imagine empire in the early modern world through their cultural encounters with indigenous peoples around the world. In particular, by focusing on Jesuit missionaries, I wanted to trace the evolution of a religious vision of empire. Jesuits struggled to coordinate commitments to their local mission, to the universal church, and to the Portuguese empire, and in framing their activity within these three scales of meaning they came to propound a specifically religious imaginaire of empire. The book also tries to write the history of empire from the outside in, focusing not on metropolitan narratives, but on placing cultural encounters in Brazil and India at the heart of an intellectual genealogy of imperial thinking. The central puzzle of the book is thus: given the experience of give-and-take and their numerous failures in the non-European world, how did Europeans come to elaborate an enduring vision of cultural and political dominion over others, and what role did religion play in the process?

What inspired you to research this topic?

There’s a historiographical answer and there’s a personal one. Here, I’ll focus on the personal. My sister still laughs at how I, a science nerd who would bristle at any religious ritual as a child, came to study the history of religion. I came to the U.S. as an undergraduate student one week before 9/11, intent on studying physics, and secure in the knowledge that religion had no part to play in our modern lives. 9/11 and, more specifically, the imperial wars that were then unleashed in its name, profoundly affected my intellectual and political development. I think the roots of my interest in religion and empire are an outgrowth of that.

Why Brazil and India? When I became disillusioned with economics and decided to switch to history for my PhD, Latin America seemed a logical choice since I’d pursued a certificate in Latin American studies as an undergraduate. I started my doctoral program intent on studying modern Brazil but during my first archival trip to Rio, I couldn’t get this olfactory confusion out of my head: Brazil smelled like India. The source of this confusion was telling: many of the fruits I’d grown up eating, for which I only knew the Bengali name, had come originally from Brazil and there they were, in shining heaps on the counters of lanches and juice bars on Rio’s streets. That initial shock of recognition led me to find more concrete historical ties between these two places to which I feel a deep connection.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

My research took me from London to the picture-perfect fields of Lancashire, from Goa to the hills of Kodaikanal, from Rome and Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro. (For aspiring historians: pick your research topic wisely, for you too may find yourself in such places.) Mundane difficulties aside (finding affordable housing in Rio is akin to a miracle), being constantly on the road for archival research was far easier than I would have imagined. I managed to find a real sense of home in many of these places, particularly Goa and Lisbon, where I spent the longest stretches. Making connections to local scholars was also easier than I expected and I’m deeply grateful for the warmth and generosity I encountered everywhere, from archival staff and professional academics to the many friends I made along the way.

What is the most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

Archival research can sometimes feel like unspooling huge tangled balls of shiny wool—you never know which skein to follow through to the end. Like all historians, I found tantalizing threads that I couldn’t really pursue in the book. I’ll mention two, one disturbing and the other fascinating. In Rome, I found a coded letter (the letter was decoded by Jesuits headquartered there) on a scandal unfolding in early seventeenth-century Goa. The letter described a prostitution ring where young girls were being used by priests (it included salacious details including an orgy held in a tank of water—an early modern Jacuzzi, if you will.) Shockingly, the letter suggested keeping the scandal under wraps, for reporting it to the Inquisition would undermine the nascent mission since so many of the local parish priests were implicated. I read this around the time the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church was unfolding, and it was difficult not to let the present affect how I thought about the past.

The second (and happier) example was a proposal from the late seventeenth century sent from India by a group of merchants with a plan to colonize Mozambique on behalf of the Portuguese crown. While the proposal itself was interesting, the marginal notation made in Lisbon was utterly fascinating. It described the merchants as being Muslims from India and then noted that they had gone on to Marseilles. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on here, but someone really needs to figure it out!

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s influence is obvious in how I reframe South Asian history in global contexts and think through connection. Methodologically, I think I am deeply influenced by how Latin American historiography has handled colonial records, especially with a view to excavating indigenous experience. John Monteiro’s loss to the field is hard to overstate in this regard. The work of a generation of superb Brazilian anthropologists, such as Alcida Ramos, Carlos Fausto, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, was also deeply influential. My focus on Catholicism in South Asia and Jesuits in particular owes much to Ines Zupanov’s pioneering work. I hope my work contributes to that of scholars like Tatiana Seijas who have sought to empirically connect Asian and Latin American history.

What are you working on now?

My current book project is a history of the Konkan coast that centers Goa, usually excluded from the mainstream of South Asian historiography by dint of its Portuguese and Catholic pasts, not as a space of exception but as a linchpin of a regional cultural ecology. This coast has long been one of the subcontinent’s main borderlands to the wider worlds of the Indian Ocean and beyond. Yet, historiography overlooks this coast, perhaps because it was always fragmented along political lines. I find South Asian historiography to be quite statist in how it frames the horizons of its research, taking as given the boundaries posited by elite projects of power. By focusing on histories of intracoastal mobility, especially among slaves, on language, and on cults of deities of place, I hope to show how we might recover other geographies of the past in South Asia beyond polities and states. The book also includes my first foray into ethnographic work, which not only enriched my archival research but will hopefully allow me to think through the temporal division that my period (the teleologically named “early modern”) uneasily straddles. I am interested in histories of continuity that look beyond framing colonialism as rupture, which I hope this methodology might help me do.

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