The first Priests in Vietnam

Great Figures of the Missionary Work

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

Contemporary of Macau and Malacca, Hoi An, a riverside town south of Danang, on the Vietnamese coast, was known as Faifo. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, it was one of the most important international ports in Southeast Asia.

During my visit there, in the middle of 1990s, I realized that its inhabitants knew that the Portuguese merchants – whom they call putao-nhá – were the first Europeans to arrive in Vietnam. However, they weren’t aware that to their northeast, over a thousand kilometers away from their land, the territory of Macau – where some Vietnamese were beginning to “immigrate” and many others there had found refuge after months adrift in the South China seas, exposed to the elements (the so called “boat people”) – had had more than four centuries to get used to the presence of those strangers with long nose and body hair, who, among other things, brought the shotgun and the Holy Cross to these Oriental parts.

Nguyen Dru, one of the several local painters I met in Hoi An, spoke French and English with remarkable fluidity, especially given the rare occasions he had to communicate with foreigners. “There are many Westerners who visit our country, but the vast majority have no direct contact with us,” he complained, wondering then, somehow quite astonished: “But, there are Portuguese people living in Macau?”

Although he did not know about the historical links between Portugal and Macau, Nguyen was aware that was a group of Portuguese adventurers who, in 1516, inaugurated the era of Vietnamese contact with the Western world. Among these adventurers, the name of Duarte Coelho, who also left footprints in Brazil, is the most relevant. The stone landmark (the “Padrão”) still has to be found, the one that Coelho left somewhere on the coastline of the ancient kingdoms of Tonkin, Cochin and Champa, which correspond to current Vietnamese territory.

The Portuguese had refused on several occasions the offer from local rulers to build up a neighborhood and a trading post in the ancient city of Tourão (current Danang), although there they had traded heavily, as in Faifo and Sinoa (current Hue), and also at ports further north, nearby Hanoi.

Much remains to investigate, to demystify and to disclose with regard to the relations of the Portuguese with the rival families of Nguyen and Trinh, gentlemen of the Conchichina and Tonkin kingdoms respectively, both loyal vassals of the Emperor of China. Both one and the other have always tried to attract the Portuguese merchants to its area of influence, although there have been long periods of interdictions to trade and even wars, caused mainly by the excessive zeal of the missionaries who reached everywhere borne by the vessels. It’s them, and their adventures, that we will address in the coming chronicles.

Throughout the expansion process, religion and commerce have always been associated, for better or for worse. So that they could freely exercise their activity, priests and merchants had to be in possession of valuable gifts. In that matter, the kings Trinh and Nguyen were insatiable. Essential for the maintenance of good relations was the supply of military technology, weapons and men who gave training to the military forces of the local hosts. In this area one must stress the role of a half-breed of Macau, João da Cruz, and main smelter in the imperial capital of Sinoa. There are today, spread all over, within the walls of the fortress of that city, cannons, bowls, pots and other bronze objects bearing his seal.

As we said, in the wake of the merchants, in 1527, came the Dominican missionaries, and, in 1535, the first military, Captain Antonio Faria, reportedly responsible for the Portuguese trading post establishment in Faifo.

The Portuguese ships coming from Macau or Malacca, or the Castilians vessels coming from Manila, had always a chaplain among the crew. Its task was to administer the sacraments during the usually long and dangerous trips. However, such priests, mostly Dominicans and Franciscans, only felt obliged to serve their kings. They didn´t do any particular efforts in the evangelization of those unknown folks. Neither had the urge of learning those exotic and peculiar languages…

Some of the first European missionaries entering Conchichina in order to introduce a new religious model were three Spanish Franciscan friars. They left Manila and (after a sojourn in their residence in Macau) were received by Mau Hop (1562-1592, the last king of the Mac Dynasty. Among them was Diego de San José, which was captured on Hainan Island, after surviving a violent storm that docked the boat in which he was traveling. With the help of his friend Mateo Ricci, Jesuit missionary in China, he was freed and sent back to Macao. From there, returned to Manila, in 1585, and died in Acapulco, years later.

Thus, due to various political and social adversities and to the fact they did not speak local languages, the first missionaries in the region – Franciscans and Dominicans – did not succeed with their task of making conversions among the Gentiles.

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