José de Anchieta

José de Anchieta (1534-1597) was an influential Jesuit missionary in Brazil who was especially concerned with the welfare of the Indians under Portuguese control.

José de Anchieta was born on March 19, 1534, in São Cristóvão de la Laguna on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. His well-to-do Spanish family sent him to the Jesuit College at Coimbra University, Portugal, in 1547. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1551. His biographers credit him with being an exceptionally intelligent student whose intellectual prowess compensated for physical infirmity.

In 1553 Anchieta accompanied Duarte da Costa, the second governor general of Brazil, to the New World. In 1549 the Portuguese King had established a central government for the huge but under populated American colony. One of his principal concerns was to introduce to Christianity the various Indian tribes, but this Christianization also served as an effective means of incorporating the diverse indigenous inhabitants within the pale of the Portuguese Empire. The Jesuits, first sent out in 1549, bore the primary responsibility of concentrating the seminomadic Indians into aldeias, or villages, where they could hear the word of God and learn the ways of the Portuguese. The Jesuits also looked after the spiritual welfare of the Portuguese officials and colonists in their new environment. Anchieta, then, was one of 128 Jesuits who arrived in Brazil in the 16th century with the task of transplanting Portuguese Church-centered civilization to that colony. Though few in number, the Jesuits left a lasting imprint on the new land because of their exceptional missionary zeal.

Anchieta began to teach in the south in São Vicente, Portugal's first permanent settlement in Brazil, founded in 1532. He helped to establish several Jesuit schools and in time taught at most of the important ones. His primary concern, however, was with the Indians, and wherever possible he helped to settle them into villages where, in addition to being instructed in Christian and European ways, they were protected from the labor demands of the Portuguese colonists.

Anchieta campaigned vigorously throughout his life to prevent the colonists from enslaving or exploiting the Indians. On more than one occasion he risked his life to prevent or to end warfare between the Indians and the Portuguese, or among the Indians themselves. Frequently he worked at the side of Father Manuel de Nóbrega, who was the Jesuit provincial of Brazil, and during one period was his secretary. Anchieta was instrumental in helping to found two of Brazil's most important cities, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

The master of several Indian languages, Anchieta helped to make the Tupi tongue, the language of the principal Indian group along the coast, the lingua franca of the otherwise heterogeneous Indians. He wrote a grammar of the Tupi language which was later published in Lisbon and widely used by missionaries, compiled a Tupi-Portuguese dictionary, and translated prayers, hymns, and the catechism into the Indian language.

Anchieta's many letters and reports provided later historians with invaluable primary sources for the study of Brazil's development in the 16th century. They span the period 1554-1594 and discuss a wide variety of subjects, such as the civil authorities in Brazil, the bishops and prelates, the French incursions, the Society of Jesus and its activities, education, and the customs of the Indians. Anchieta also wrote poetry, composing his verses with equal ease in Portuguese, Spanish, Latin, and Tupi, as well as theatrical pieces, principally for didactic purposes.

In 1578 the father general of the Jesuit order in Rome appointed Anchieta to the office of provincial of Brazil, a position he held for 8 years. As before, he traveled extensively along the Brazilian coast to visit the principal settlements and missions from Pernambuco in the north to São Vicente in the south. Retiring from the office of provincial in 1585, he went to Espirito Santo to continue his teaching and missionary work. He died in Reritiba (today Anchieta) in the state of Espirito Santo on June 9, 1597.

Further Reading on José de Anchieta

The only biography of Anchieta in English is Helen G. Dominian, The Apostle of Brazil: The Biography of Padre José De Anchieta, S.J., 1534-1597 (1958). A background study is Bailey W. Diffie, Latin American Civilization: Colonial Period (1945).