NÓBREGA, Padre Manuel da (1517-1570)
Manuel da Nóbrega, born in the Alto Douro region of Portugal on 18th October, 1517, led the first Jesuit mission to the continent of America and became the first Jesuit provincial in Brazil.
Nóbrega descended from a family of some standing, the son of the high court judge Baltasar de Nóbrega, and nephew of the Lord High Chancellor. In his youth he studied Latin, Law and Theology at the Universities of Coimbra and Salamanca, where he graduated in canon law in 1541.
A few years later, on 24th November, 1544, Manuel da Nóbrega entered the Society of Jesus, founded by Ignacio de Loyola, and approved by papal bull only four years beforehand. As a Jesuit, Nóbrega travelled the country in pastoral service, becoming well known as an orator and preacher, despite his stammer.
Five years after becoming a Jesuit, his duties took him far away from Portugal, as he was appointed Superior of the Jesuit mission in Brazil. He embarked, never to return, with the fleet of the first governor of Brazil, Tomé de Sousa, setting sail from the port of Lisbon on 1st February, 1549. Less than two years later, on 29th March, the fleet cast anchor in the Baía de Todos os Santos (All Saints? Bay, Salvador), and Manuel da Nóbrega and his five companions disembarked, the first representatives of the Society of Jesus in the New World.
During their first years in Brazil, Nóbrega and the Jesuits collaborated actively with the governor Tomé de Sousa in the construction of the city of Salvador da Bahia, seat of the governor-generalship. Nóbrega not only devoted himself to reforming the customs of the colonists and the founding of a Jesuit college in Bahia, but also to an activity which would mark his stay in Brazil: the evangelisation and catechisation of the Indians, attempting to eradicate practices such as ritual cannibalism, polygamy and witchcraft.
In 1551 he spent a short time in Olinda, principal city of the captaincy of Pernambuco. This captaincy, under the command of captain-major Duarte Coelho, had been the most successful and widely populated of the captaincies set up from 1532 onwards. In Pernambuco Nóbrega pursued his pastoral mission and the reform of customs, which had commenced since he arrived in the colony. He returned to Bahia at the beginning of 1552 and, a few months later, he received at the college the newly-arrived Dom Pêro Fernandes Sardinha, who had been appointed first bishop of Bahia. In his letters, Father Manuel da Nóbrega had repeatedly requested the Portuguese authorities to appoint a bishop to Brazil, but the personality of the prelate and the diverging opinions on the evangelisation of the Indians soon caused disagreement between the diocese and the Society of Jesus, which rapidly spread to the governor-generalship, preventing the spread of missionary activity.
Due to these obstacles, after a few months in Bahia, Nóbrega sailed to São Vicente and the captaincies in the south, where he continued to devote himself to preaching and to organising the Society?s activities in the region, especially with regard to the conversion of the indigenous population.
It was in an attempt to extend missionary work beyond the narrow coastal strip controlled by the Portuguese that Nóbrega travelled to the Piratininga plateau, on the edge of the sertão (backlands). There, on the banks of the river Tieté, he gathered the inhabitants of three settlements in the area, and on 29th August, 1553, he founded the village of Piratininga, which would later develop into the city of São Paulo.
In the middle of 1553, the Jesuit mission in Brazil, which depended hierarchically on the Portuguese province of the Society, was given the status of province. Ignacio de Loyola appointed Father Manuel da Nóbrega to run the new province, the first to be created outside Europe. After spending three more years in the south, and taking up his new post, the father provincial left São Vicente and sailed for Bahia in May,1556, where, after visiting the captaincies of Espírito Santo and Porto Seguro, he docked at the end of the month of July.
Back in Bahia the provincial once more dedicated himself to missionary work and the conversion of the Indians in the region. This task increased in impetus and scale with the arrival of the new governor-general, Mem de Sá. The governor soon revealed his willingness to collaborate actively with Nóbrega, and was committed to fighting hostile Indians and to stopping cannibalism, supporting the Jesuits? policy to found villages, where the natives could be raised in a Christian doctrine and lifestyle. The military campaigns to pacify the hostile traibes in the region of Bahia showed that despite attempts to introduce the Christian faith through love and teaching, the Jesuits and the general were not opposed to using ?fear and subjection? if necessary. In 1560, Manuel da Nóbrega?s itinerant duties again took him south, accompanying Mem de Sá?s expedition to weaken the presence of the French in the bay of Guanabara. The fleet achieved its objective in February of that year, destroying the enemy fortress on the island of Sergipe, despite resistance from the French and their allies from the Tamoio Indian tribe.
As a result of this victory, the fleet continued on to São Vicente, where Nóbrega settled again, handing over the office of provincial to Father Luís de Grã. He served as priest in São Vicente and São Paulo de Piratininga and, in 1563, accompanied by his colleague Father Anchieta, he led an attack against the Tamoios of Iperoig, in an attempt to persuade them to stop attacking Portuguese interests.
Over the following years he collaborated with Estácio de Sá, commodore of the fleet sent by the Crown to establish long-term peace in Guanabara Bay, advising and recruiting soldiers in the captaincy of São Vicente.
Finally, in 1567, thanks to the success of this mission and the consequent founding of the city of São Sebastião of Rio de Janeiro, Father Manuel da Nóbrega was appointed Jesuit superior of the captaincies of the south; from then on he devoted himself to the success of the new city he had arrived in, in July, 1567, as first rector of the new Jesuit college. He continued this mission until the date of his death, on 18th October, 1570.
Throughout his life, Father Manuel da Nóbrega produced a vast correspondence, which reveals his thought and is an important source of knowledge of Brazil in that period. He was also the author of several Works on missionary work and evangelisation, the most important of which is the Diálogo sobre a Conversão do Gentio, thought to date from 1557.
LEITE, Serafim, Suma histórica da Companhia de Jesus no Brasil, Lisboa, Junta de Investigações do Ultramar, 1965.
Autor: José Ferreira
Translated by: Kathleen Calado