Italian Capuchins in the Atlantic

Eva Dal Canto, Universität Zürich

The religious and social impact provided by Capuchin Missionaries in the – so called- Portuguese Atlantic Area has been widely studied by a significant number of scholars in the last few decades, stressing the importance of the role these Missionaries played as in religious as in earthly matters. This sub-project aims on focusing on the dynamics behind this by studying the economic, political and religious relations between Capuchin Missionaries and other actors. Travelling and living in a vaste interconnected space between Italy, Lisbon, Brazil and West Central Africa ( Old Kingdom of Kongo, Angola, and São Tomé), the missionaries had to interface with several different realities and seldom had to rely on others’ support for their well being, in exchange for their religious and also, political and economic suggestion. Establishing in the aforementioned areas during the second half of the 17th century, they found themselves playing a key role as para-diplomatic and supposedly neutral agents in the on going struggles for power; while the Thirty Years War was fought in Europe, its effects heavily rebounded on West Central Africa and Brazil, where the Dutch launched an offensive against Portuguese possessions by occupying north eastern Brazil (1630-1654) and Sao Tomé and Luanda (1641-1648), hence destroying the Portuguese monopoly over relations between Europe and Atlantic Africa. Also, the Dutch represented a significant threat on the process of evangelization, being considered as “heretics” by Catholics and, especially, by the missionaries. Other than that, the two Iberian Crowns were internally struggling to maintain their power and the Portuguese nobility highly feared the Spanish threat on overseas possessions;  hence, the Papacy, with its operators, could sensibly tip the scale. 

The Capuchins who left from Italy were accountable to the Papacy – through its Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith- to the Portuguese Crown and to local authorities in the Kingdom of Congo, establishing strong relations with them, but also interacting with free and enslaved Africans, Amerindians, Portuguese and Dutch merchants and settlers. How did political and social configurations shape their networks? How were migratory, religious and commercial networks interrelated? What knowledge of markets, agriculture and medical/botanical resources did missionaries mediate? What was their diplomatic impact in a continously changing political setting? How did they contribute in shaping new types of religious devotion? And, finally, how did they get to play a key role in the process of colonization?