Pero Rodrigues

Rodrigo F. Bonciani (Universidade Federal da Integração Latino-Americana)

Birth: 1542, Évora

Jesuit, Provincial of Brazil (1594-1603)

Link to BRASILHIS Database:

Was born in Evora, in the year 1542. He joined the Society of Jesus in his hometown at the age of 14. In the same college where he studied, he was professor of Humanities and Moral Theology. He was rector of the colleges of Funchal, in Madeira Island, and Bragança. In 1573, he signed a letter justifying the maintenance of the college of Funchal and its income (Rodrigues, 1938: 81). Preacher, professing four vows, in the same island in 1577. In 1592, he was appointed Visitor of the Society of Jesus in Angola to then become provincial of Brazil (1594-1603). After resigning as provincial, he was Superior of the college of Espírito Santo. He died in the college of Pernambuco, on December 27, 1628, at the age of 86 (Leite, 1938: 498). His trajectory and writings are representative of the construction of a missionary project of the Society of Jesus in an Atlantic perspective, which took place between the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th.

His appointment as Visitor of the Residence of Angola occurred on January 4, 1592, five days later Dom Francisco de Almeida was appointed the first Governor General of Angola. Pero Rodrigues accompanied the governor’s entourage – with 15 urcas, a thousand soldiers and 50 horses – that left Lisbon on February 10 (Leite, 1938: 496). However, straying on the high seas, he went to Bahia where he was part of the SJ Congregation. In Salvador, the Ignatians defended the continuity of the vassalage system of the Jesuits and conquerors over the sobas, African chiefs, contrary to the instructions given by the Crown to the governor that established a direct vassalage to the king of Portugal, Philip II. Pero Rodrigues was appointed provincial of Brazil, in Bahia, on November 23, 1592, before his departure for Angola (Leite, 1938: 496). Before his departure for Angola, Pero Rodrigues was already nominated to be the next provincial of Brazil (Leite, 1938: 496).

In Luanda, the Jesuits and the conquerors rebelled against the governor general and the royal measure, claiming the rights of conquest and a parallel between the vassalage system of the sobas and the Hispanic encomiendas. The Jesuit leader in the revolt was the Superior Baltasar Barreira. Barreira left the scene by way of Brazil, heading for Portugal and the court in Madrid, while Pero Rodrigues went in the opposite direction to begin the visitation of Angola.

Rodrigues leaned towards a pragmatic position, which understood the Jesuits’ presence and participation in slavery and enslavement as a necessity. As Carlos Zeron (2011: 179) summarizes:

The argument of the Visitor, Pero Rodrigues, revolves around two axes: on the one hand, he supports the maintenance in a state of vassality of the ten chiefs who live in the lands of the Jesuits; on the other hand, he defends the continuation of the commercialization of the surplus of slaves held by the Jesuits in the residence of Angola. 

According to Pero Rodrigues, the vassalage of the sobas and their conservation were necessary for the sustenance of the mission and the enslaved were the currency in Africa and in the Atlantic trade, which forced them to trade them in these complementary spaces. Father Rodrigues thus justifies the “economic interdependence of the Angolan and Brazilian missions” (Zeron, 2011: 181-182; Alencastro, 2000: 168-187). Before his departure for the Atlantic missions, Pero Rodrigues was an advocate for the annexation of the Angola mission to the province of Brazil. The measure was never approved by the Jesuits in Rome, because it would mean assuming and institutionalizing the involvement of the Society of Jesus with slavery and the slave trade. 

Even if the intellectual author of these arguments can be considered the Superior Baltasar Barreira, in documents dating back to 1582 and 1583, Pero Rodrigues took the lead on the issue. In his visit to Angola, Rodrigues shifted the focus of tension between the Monarchy and the conquerors and Jesuits to incriminate the ouvidor geral Duarte Nunes Nogueira and to claim that the problems of the conquest were associated with the strong presence of new Christians in the region, suggesting a visitation of the Holy Office, which took place between 1596 and 1597. Thus, he was associated with the anti-Jewish position within the Society of Jesus (Bonciani, 2020b: 2-5; 2017: 43). 

His warlike stance against Ndongo is expressed in the document of his visit, when he forbids any soba to be baptized before the kingdom is fully subject (Brásio, 1953: 477). In addition to justifying the system of vassalage over the sobas, Pero Rodrigues wants to create a form of slave domination mediated by the Africans themselves. Thus, he proposes that the punishment of the enslaved be done by the macoluntos, who were village chiefs, “principales” or “elders”, instead of being done directly by the missionaries (Brásio, 1953: 478). From these documents it is clear that the center of Jesuit action in West-Central Africa was military and commercial, and missionary work occupied a secondary place in the visitor’s concerns.  

In 1594, Pero Rodrigues concluded the visitation of Angola, returned to Brazil and assumed the post of provincial, which he held until 1603. In a letter of 1597, he said that the conservation of the State of Brazil was threatened by “three kinds of enemies”. The first were the “blacks from Guinea” who lived in some mountains, who could “attack and destroy the farms, as their relatives do in the island of São Tomé” (ABNRJ, 1898: 255). And, lastly, the French. Against all these enemies, as a “shield, wall and bulwark”, were the “Indians of peace that are near our villages”. He specified that in Pernambuco, the alliance with the Potiguares was fundamental, and in the South, with the Carijós, Guarani. In his praise of the latter, he goes so far as to say that “they were as white as the Portuguese” (ABNRJ, 1898: 256). He was one of those responsible for the choice of Fernão Cardim as his successor as provincial of Brazil, and wrote the biography of José de Anchieta, provincial between 1577 and 1587.  

In August 1596, the Jesuit priest Jorge Pereira began the examination of witnesses, determined by the Court of the Holy Office, in West-Central Africa. The Jesuits had good relations with the general inquisitors D. Alberto de Austria and his successor, D. Antônio Matos de Noronha. Since his visit, Pero Rodrigues had defined the content of the inquiry, collected testimonies, defining the ouvidor geral Duarte Nunes as his main target. The control of the Jesuits over the Inquisition in West-Central Africa is evident (Bonciani, 2020a: 267-268).

Pero Rodrigues was sent by the General of the Society, Claudio Aquaviva, to resolve the issues involving both the presence of slaves in the missions and the slave trade promoted by the missionaries, the subject of many questionings in Brazil and at the court of Philip II. He reaffirmed, however, the need for this involvement, revealing the autonomy of the missionaries who worked in Brazil and Angola in relation to the high hierarchy of the Society (Zeron, 2011: 179). His superiors in Portugal and Rome eventually recognized the primacy of the colonial experience in defining missionary orientations.


Alencastro, L. F. de (2000). O trato dos viventes : formação do Brasil no Atlântico Sul. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras.

Bonciani, R. F. (2017). ‘Havendo escravos se restaurará tudo’: trajetórias e políticas ibero-atlânticas no fim do século XVI, Portuguese Studies Review, 25, 2, 17-53.

Bonciani, R. F. (2020a). Inquisição, tráfico de escravos e circulação entre a África, Brasil e Índias Ocidentais. En Santos Pérez, J. M., Megiani, A. P., Ruiz-Peinado Alonso, J. L. (eds.). Redes y circulación en Brasil durante la monarquía hispánica (1580-1640).

Bonciani, R. F. (2020b). Heresias e rebelião em Angola, fim do século XVI: o processo inquisitorial contra Duarte Nunes Nogueira, Revista de fontes, 7, 12, 1-27.

Brásio, A. (1953). Monumenta Missionária Africana. Série 1, v. III. Lisboa: Agência Geral do Ultramar.

Leite, S. (1938). História da Companhia de Jesus no Brasil. T. II. Lisboa; Rio de Janeiro: Livraria Portugália; Civilização Brasileira.

Rodrigues, F. (1938). História da Companhia de Jesus na Assistência de Portugal. T. II, v. 1. Porto: Livraria Apostolado da Imprensa.

Rodrigues, P. (1898). Carta do padre Pero Rodrigues, Annaes da Bibliotheca Nacional do Rio de Janeiro, XX, 181-287. 

Zeron, C. A. de M. R. (2011). Linha de fé: A Companhia de Jesus e a escravidão no processo de formação da sociedade colonial (Brasil, séculos XVI e XVII). São Paulo: Edusp.

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