Fishing for Souls: Jesuits and Paravas on the Pearlfishing Coast (16th century)
The mission among the Parava pearlfishing community in South India - the first Jesuit mission established by the first Jesuit missionary and saint Francis Xavier - became a topos in pious, apologetic Catholic literature and artistic production from the late 16th century onwards, and even spilled into 19th c. entertainment culture all the way to a famous Orientalizing phantasy opera by George Bizet, Les pêcheurs de perles (1863). This talk will focus on the first century of encounters between the Jesuits and the coastal people in the Gulf of Mannar during which the Parava community of (pearl)fishermen forged its Catholic identity and established its elite status on the regional political chessboard. Neither under the direct rule of the Portuguese Estado da Índia, nor subject to excessive tax demands of the local rulers of southern Tamilnadu, such as nayakas, pāḷaiyakkārars and Muslim merchant guilds, the Catholic Paravas profited during the interim political vacuum before the arrival of the Dutch and British to make themselves into a “bounded community,” held together by Catholic rituals and beliefs. As the most successful Jesuit mission, it also became a laboratory of theological, pastoral, linguistic and anthropological tools that would be used elsewhere in “global” Jesuit missions in the early modern period.