The Mappers of Tartary

Great Figures of the Missionary Work

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

When we speak about the history of the Portuguese Expansion, there invariably come to our minds ships facing towering waves fanned by squalls or drifting in totally stagnant lulls in the equatorial region. But the fact is that not infrequently the men of those times dared to abandon the security of their vessels to venture inland. The saga of the “Bandeirantes” in Brazil and the exploitation of African continental masses or the large Asian spaces submitted to Islam – the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Iran, Afghanistan and India of the Great Mogol – the immense Tartary and Tibet, or even China itself, proves that the Portuguese were not afraid to depart from the seas.

These intrepid pioneers (in what concerns Asia, they were mostly men of the Company of Jesus) opened a new era: the era of scientific observation. Nevertheless, encyclopedias and current atlases keeps ignoring them completely. And why is so? Probably due to ignorance of the facts and/or mere contempt for a nation and a people, whose real value has never been recognized on the stage of history.

Born in Lisbon on 31 August 1713, Felix da Rocha opted for the China mission after eight years of studies – four of philosophy and four of theology. He entered the mainland in 1735, after having attended higher studies in the seminar of Macau. Subsequently, in 1738, he joined the Beijing court, where he became an astronomer. The emperor saw in him a man of great science and virtue and, therefore, had him in high regard. His superior, Ignacio Koegler describes Rocha as “a young man, living genius and penetrating and eager to learn.”

In 1753 he was appointed by the Emperor Qialong as advisor to the Court of Mathematics. After the death of its director, Hallerstein, he became responsible for the Astronomical Observatory in Beijing. In 1755, as a reward for having mapped the regions of Turkestan and Tartary, inhabited by nomadic tribes, he was appointed by the emperor Mandarin of second order. In that huge task, Rocha had the precious help of Father Pedro Espinha, a fellow Jesuit.

Felix da Rocha would return to those inhospitable lands, once again in the company of Pedro Espinha, defying all kinds of dangers and again in order to finish the job: to observe the latitude, deduce the longitude, the orographic curves and the distances. In total the two priests determined forty-three geographical locations. They were the first Europeans to traverse such remote areas since the passage of their fellow countryman Bento de Gois, a century and a half earlier, in his epic journey in search of the mythic Cathay.

On two occasions, on 20 August 1774 and in March 1777, Felix da Rocha would be sent to the small Tibet, eastern Tibet (it just had been attached to the Chinese Empire), in order to draw the map of the entire region.

Felix da Rocha and Pedro Espinha’s maps served as the basis for studies and reports on Central Asia, today known worldwide, made by Klaproth, Ritter and Alex Humboldt. As usually happens in similar cases, these Europeans won all the laurels, relegating to oblivion the Portuguese pioneers.

In 1770, the Jesuit Cibot wrote, by the way, the following: “there have just been published maps and news about regions recently conquered, without the mention of the names of our Portuguese priests that, by imperial order, collected the data and the coordinates of these same places.”

In the year 1750, in a letter to D. Policarpo de Sousa, Bishop of Beijing (he had landed in Macau, coming from Portugal, in 1726) Felix da Rocha remarked: “I am the oldest of those who are in the Beijing mission, because all the priests I met there, except your Excellency, have now gone to another life and none since I’m here has served more than myself, facing all the hardships of the snow, cold, danger and all kinds of trouble. But as everything is done in God’s name, only from him will I have the prize, as I hope in His Divine Goodness.”

Father Felix da Rocha served as prosecutor of the Portuguese mission in Beijing and provincial deputy in 1754 -1757 and 1762 to 1766. His intervention was preponderant for the release of the Portuguese prisoners in Nanjing – priests Araújo, Viegas, Pires, Dinis Ferreira and José da Silva – so that they could return safely to Macau.

Felix da Rocha died in Beijing on May 22, 1781.

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