Piety and Power

In 1787, Monsignor Pierre Joseph Georges Pigneau de Behaine, bishop of Adran, returned to France after two decades of ex¬traordinary adventures in a remote Asian land, Vietnam, then known to Europe as Cochinchina. A handsome priest in his for¬ties, a large pectoral cross adorning his black silk cassock, he dazzled the courtiers at Versailles, the baroque palace of Louis XVI. His pious demeanor, flavored by a touch of oriental mystery, intrigued the la¬dies, and his infallible politeness even disarmed potential rivals for royal favors. But he was upstaged by a child whom he had brought with him, Nguyen Canh, the seven-year-old son of a pretender to the throne of Vietnam.
Dressed in red and gold brocade, an incongruous Hindu turban atop his head, the little prince exuded exotic charm. Queen Marie Antoi¬nette bestowed her patronage on the boy by permitting him to play with the Dauphin—the heir apparent—and a court musician com¬posed a hymn to honor the “illustrious infant.” Her personal hair¬dresser celebrated the visitors with a chic new coiffure, le chignon a la cochinchinoise, and a court poet acclaimed Pigneau as successor to the legendary missionary Saint Francis Xavier.
Though he welcomed the lavish indulgence, Pigneau had a deeper purpose. He had come to France to lobby for an ambitious scheme— the creation, under French auspices, of a Christian empire in Asia. He died before the dream reached fulfillment, but, through the sheer drive of his personality, he propelled France toward the conquest of Vietnam a hundred years later.
Other Europeans had preceded Pigneau to Southeast Asia. Indeed, for a mixture of motives, Western expansion in Asia had been gaining momentum since the fifteenth century.
The riches of the East, real and fabled, tantalized Europe. Travelers like Marco Polo had returned with breathless tales of Burmese temples “covered with gold a full finger thick,” and Indian shores whose “sands sparkled and glittered with gems and precious ores.” But no Asian treasure matched its pepper, nutmeg, clove and other spices essential to preserve food, especially in the warmer climates of southern Europe. Unlike silks and jewels, which only the affluent couia afford, spices were in universal demand, and they yielded profits of a thousandfold or more on European markets. Importing them from Asia, though, was a dangerous business. Merchants braved storms, pirates and cruel competitors to transport their cargoes, and many perished in the effort. “Where wouldn’t they go for pepper!” wrote Joseph Conrad in evocation of their memory: “For a bag of pepper they could cut each other’s throats without hesitation, and would forswear their souls. . . . The bizarre obstinacy of that desirfc made them defy death in a thousand shapes; the unknown seas, the loath¬some . . . diseases; wounds, captivity, hunger, pestilence and despair. It made them great! By heavens! it made them heroic; and it made them pathetic, too, in their craving for trade with the inflexible death levying its toll on young and old.”
By the late fourteenth century, the dynamic city-state of Venice had cornered the European spice market through shrewd deals with the Muslim powers that controlled the land routes to and from Asia. So rival European powers, determined to shatter the Venetian monopoly, conceived of reaching Asia by sea—either across the Atlantic or east¬ward around the Horn of Africa. Along with spices, religious fervor also obsessed them. Memories of the aborted Crusades still stimulated Europe, whose kings and princes dreamed of outflanking Muslim influence, which extended beyond the Indian Ocean to the Indonesian archipelago, the most abundant source of spices. That spirit fueled nobody more fiercely than Prince Henry the Navigator, the third son of the Portuguese king, John I. By 1450, the Muslims had occupied Spain and Portugal for seven centuries, and to Henry, a militant Cath¬olic mystic, their destruction was a sacred duty. He had fought them in Africa as a youth, but he gradually shaped a geopolitical strategy that also offered commercial advantages: by opening sea lanes to Asia, he would contain Islam, promote Christianity in the East and further trade. Accordingly, he perfected the Portuguese fleet and established Europe’s first maritime academy to train sailors scientifically.
In 1454, Pope Nicholas V endorsed Henry’s enterprise with a bull granting Portugal the exclusive franchise in Asia to “bring under sub¬mission . . . the pagans of the countries not yet inflicted with the plague of Islam and give them knowledge of the name of Christ.”
Forty years later, after Columbus had discovered America, the Por¬tuguese reconfirmed their Asian domain in a treaty with Spain that recognized Spain’s prerogative to exploit the Western Hemisphere. During the century ahead, Portugal would explode out of Europe in a spectacular burst of energy.
Vasco da Gama, the greatest Portuguese explorer, led an armada of four ships around the Cape of Good Hope, landing on the western coast of India in 1498. His armed galleons rapidly enforced Portugal’s claim on the area. They intercepted alien vessels, confiscated their goods and burned them, justifying this brigandage with the argument that the “common right to all to navigate the seas . . . does not extend outside Europe. ” That double standard was to guide Europeans almost to the end of their supremacy in Asia, as they denied their colonial subjects the same legal privileges they reserved for themselves. But the Portuguese, religiously zealous and bluntly greedy, applied it with a crudeness and cruelty equaled only by the barbarity of the Spanish conquistadores in America.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *