Several Epistles-One Profile D. Fr. Alexandre de Gouveia-Bishop of Peking

Beatriz Basto da Silva*

"Almost 180 years ago, on the 6th July 1808, the

Bishop of the diocese of Peking, D. Fr. Alexandre de

Gouveia, passed away. Among his meagre possessions,

não se achou prata de cubículo nem mesmo para fazer as

despesas de funeral(1).

Who was that Man? What do we know about him?

What exactly was the course of his short existence?"

I have always been attracted by the composition of the global personality - if I may put it that way-of the characters History brings to us! With greater or lesser profusion of details, we get to know their biographies as recorded in the public acts and enterprises they were involved in - in short, their c. v. and the different levels of excellence with which they accomplished it.

It is, nonetheless, very usual that the common aspects of their daily lives are forgotten, mostly for lack of record, which necessarily impoverishes the human dimension of those who have, after all, also lived and felt like we live and feel.

Today's youth, either Portuguese or not, have some difficulty in moderating their will. There seems to be a collective attraction for easy, illusory things as targets to attain happiness.

Economy, Statistics, the material side of civilization are emphasized in History courses in schools, and the hard inner course followed by Man tends to be forgotten, along with such spiritual compensations as have been the aim of the same hard escalade. The student tends to become impatient before the narrative of a heroic deed; he is much more willing to see it in more or less erudite forms of literature, in historical novels, fiction, and cartoons, where the danger of encountering empty, prosaic reality-often our own reality-is absent.

Letter of bishop to his sister.

Inversely, however, the old Greek masters teach us how to see the human face of their heroes and semi-gods, which, far from minimizing them, rather increases our admiration before their deeds. With due distance, I owe to such classical inspiration as I am not writing about a hero, but about someone who was human enough to have suffered and great enough to have stood out from the rest of the common crowd.

Almost 180 years ago, on the 6th July 1808, the Bishop of the diocese of Peking, D. Fr. Alexandre de Gouveia, passed away. Among his meagre possessions, não se achou prata do cubículo nem mesmo para fazer as despesas de funeral.

- Who was that Man? What do we know about him? What exactly was the course of his short existence?

We know that he was born in Évora on the 2nd August 1751 and was a pupil of the Bishop of Beja to whom he attributes his education and much affection(2); we also know that he was elected for the bishopric of Peking on the 22nd July 1782, confirmed on the 16th December 1782 and anointed on the 7th February 1783 in the Convent of Nossa Senhora das Portas do Céu, Telheiros, in the outskirts of Lisbon, by D. Francisco de Assunção, O. S. A. (3), assisted by two former Bishops of Macau, Bartolomeu Manuel Mendes dos Reis and Alexandre da Silva Pedrosa Guimaraḽs(4).

He was a member of the Third Regular Order of St. Francis and was called for this most important mission in the East owing to his extraordinary mathematical abilities.

In fact, on the 22nd December 1781, the 'Leal Senado de Macau' (5), informed her Majesty of Portugal, Queen D. Maria I, of the wish expressed by the Emperor of China, for two Portuguese mathematicians and a painter to be sent to his court. That was the reason why D. Fr. Alexandre de Gouveia was chosen to be Bishop in the Imperial City.

As his election, confirmation, anointment and, later, royal appointment (10th February 1783) followed one another irreversibly within a short period of less than one full year, we can imagine he had almost no time at all to prepare his mind for such great changes. It was certainly the power of his missionary call that helped him leave both the quiet plains of the Alentejo (6) and the comfort of friends and family behind and set him upon a whole new course which did not fail to appeal to him, despite the clear anticipation of self-denial and sacrifice.

I myself cannot but understand it, for I have known the experience of leaving, the pain of parting, even when the hope of meeting again may seem to mitigate it.

But, one could say, superior minds always end up acquiring a certain hardness to protect themselves !

That is, in fact, the image we conjure up when we are told, or read about, brave deeds in which History abounds. But such ideas arise out of our own superficial knowledge of those lives which seem to be supported by iron structures.

D. Fr. Alexandre de Gouveia was the perfect knight of God and the Queen, entirely devoted to the Mission he was entrusted with. But he did not do it without a hard exercise of will. And there are proofs of his affectionate nature, of the natural human attachments he was forced to renounce when he had to leave.

The instructions he brought regarding his actions in Goa, Macau and Peking having been published (7), I now propose to bring to light the result of my attentive reading of a number of private letters written by the honourable prelate, among which are those he sent to the sister he had left behind in Portugal and whom he was not to see again. Those are not, by the way, especially well-known papers (8).

My intention is neither of 'trespassing' upon private grounds, nor of elaborating, in a more or less 'soap-opera' like style, on existing information; I would like to try and reconstitute the human face which completes the character of the prelate, the diplomat and the politician.

And especially because, now more than ever, it is important for us to remember such characters as D. Fr. Alexandre de Gouveia, who, renouncing the privileges of their birth and state, sought nothing for themselves, but were, quite on the contrary, able to face hardship with determination, to listen to others, and to favour continuity-either by reconsideration or by reformulating permanence.

Let us, then, now accompany him on his 18th century voyage from Lisbon to Peking via Brazil, Mozambique, Goa, and Macau, through his above-mentioned epistles.

In a plain prose style, the Bishop of Peking writes on his first impressions about Baía, where he arrived after 45 days at sea. Sailing from Lisbon on the 6th April, they were faced with some danger due to the pilot's neglectfulness, but the class of vessel, a war frigate at Her Majesty's service and the company of a missionary and the painter also going to Peking, makes him comment on how happily everything went. In fact, no thunderstorms, no tempests were recorded, nothing but the common sea-sickness, things on the ship's rolling and even that only during the first fifteen days, for after that, it was just like being driven in a carriage! Table service was enough to occupy their long hours on board, although D. Fr. Alexandre de Gouveia also refers to angling as an enjoyable pastime.

Although used to social intercourse, he somehow prefers to keep his private freedom, and he chooses the peaceful convent of the 'Padres Barbadinhos' as his lodging place, refusing the offers made by other religious orders such as the Franciscans, the Carmelites, the 'barefooted Carmelites', and the Benedictines.

Somewhat recovered, he starts to repay his visits for he does not want to be uncivil in that place where people are carried around in little chairs, instead of by carriages, as it is done in Portugal.

He describes all his activities in full details to his sister, displaying a deep sense of humour, and she is certainly curious about it all. And in the closing lines of his first letter, he shows already that he craves for news from home! The voice of the heart which had no place in public life:

'Mandai-me notícias vossas e dos parentes muito por extenso' (9).

Trying not to worry his family, he mentions the fact of having been taken ill in Baía only in his second letter, saying how he had got better after a blood-letting, a very popular method at the time, and finding himself now completely recovered and in good health, in Goa, on the 10th December 1783.

In this letter, he naturally narrates the six-month long voyage from Brazil to India, windless but otherwise perfectly comfortable. He mentions the food, saying he had enjoyed it very much: galinhas e carnes frescas, laranjas e o mais necessário à vida (10).

It was usual, when there was a carrier, to send a second copy of all correspondence for greater safety. It could be done months later, it made no difference, but it should always be done, given the risks run by mail-ships. It is precisely in a second copy of the afore-mentioned letter, that the Bishop refers having suffered a new colic seizure during the voyage to India. He was cured by drinking the fresh milk of a goat they had on board the ship. He further reports on a three day tempest, saying that the ship had proved strong enough to resist the assault and that there had been no danger, not even after the 'Cape of Good Hope', que é o maior passo que tem a carreira das Indias. (11). He also adds that to invoke divine help, for there were no favourable winds, he started making a novena to patriarch St. Francis. The scenes, almost as vivid as those described by Fernão Lopes (12), deserve to be transcribed:... no seu dia cantei a Missa, e um dos Capelães pregou o sermão: houve música e tudo o que era necessário para uma função. S. Francisco nos pagou isto porque desde o seu dia tivemos o melhor vento e o navio corria muito... (13).

Curiously, in India, some circumstances which are quite familiar to us here in the East started to arise: the need for longer periods of rest due to the heat and also, for the same reason, the need for frequent bathing, a preventive measure against disease. Among the most common diseases, there is news of a malaria fever which had affected one of his own legs.

But all of it is now over and, to make sure that his sister is not going to be worried, he then proceeds to write about futile subjects, or better, about what is most common but nevertheless necessary to day-to-day life; shopping, as for instance, light clothes, porque a terra é muito quente (14) as the clothes he had brought with him from the Kingdom would not suit; another set of silver cutlery which custou vinte moedas e uma salva, um jarro, um aparelho de chá, tudo isto por economia, porque aqui é barato... (15).

His sister cannot but have smiled when she read his closing statement, almost as if 'whispered in her ear': ... eu já vou aprendendo à minha custa a ser poupado e a governar casa... (16).

I would like to emphasize the acute mind of this shepherd of souls who, in spite of his inexperience, for he had just arrived, was quick enough to realize that to the eastern side of the Byzantium meridian one must double one's external signs of pomp and circumstance, true 'calling-cards' which are often meaningless, as perhaps most of us have already had the occasion to learn!

Well, our Bishop, whom, as we have seen, was a person of simple manners, did not want to claim the prestige of his position for himself, but for the Church he represented. If the people he was going to meet were so sensitive to outward appearances, then he had to really take care of that side of things as well.

Such occupations, however, did not render him careless regarding the business he had to take care of in Goa by incumbency of Her Majesty and which was connected with the reform of the Macau government. And nothing either could make him forget his sister, his nephews Joaquim and José, his favourite o meu José (17), with whom he exchanged letters in Latin - a young boy whose education he was most particular about:

Tratai-o com muito asseio, com muito temor de Deus, e fazei-o estudar, porque será gente... (18). But there is still room in his letters for sending his regards to all the rest of the family, from the children to godfather, to an ever mentioned Aunt Maria, priests, friends, and to all of those who might ask about him!

A kind heart, this holy man possessed. Those who have read only the royal Instructions he received and carried out cannot imagine the interest and love which, in spite of his solemn position, he was able to dedicate to his family, always making sure that they had everything they needed.

The 4th letter is finally dated from Macau, 8th October 1784. It describes the departure from Goa on the 22nd April, the 73 days of happily uneventful voyage (arrival on the 5th July), the warm reception he was welcomed with, the affable kindness and favours of the population.

He does not want to be tedious in his letters to his sister and only very briefly does he refer some details about the royal mission he was entrusted with. But we know through historical sources that he was committed with several different tasks and enterprises, among which a special reference should be made to the founding of a Seminary at the 'Colégio de S. José', in Macau, the encouragement and support to be given to missionary irradiation in China, and the heavy burden of trying to rehabilitate, in the Peking court, the deplorable situation of Macau, re-establishing its former dignity.

At diplomatic level and under the then present circumstances, all of those matters were extremely delicate (19).

Under the cultural perspective which traditionally fell under the responsibility of missionaries, the Bishop of the Pekinese See was also asked for information on usos, costumes, poder, cultura, comércio, artes, e coisas pertencentes aos produtos e História Natural da China as well as on plantas, pedras minerais e o mais que possa servir... (20). The Bishop acquitted himself of these tasks with the natural simplicity which is a sign of superiority. He was also entrusted, from 1805 to 1808, with the position of President of the Court of Mathematics in the capital of the Chinese Empire, where he went on serving the Church for more than 20 years.

I should now refer, lest he may be thought of as possibly negligent due to the number of parallel affairs he had to attend, to the letter he wrote to the Bishop of Calandro (21) where he writes about the spiritual, human and material support given to the young Church of Corea (besides preparing the ground for the 1st Friendship Treaty. between Portugal and that country) and also of the joy with which he had received the most consoling words from Pope Pio VI; and other letters about the state of Christianity in China, so often a victim of persecution, or letters in which he asked for books he needed, or even letters in which he insistently recommended that his successor should be aprendendo algumas palavras chinas ao modo Pekinese (22) while he waited in Macau, for his departure to the North.

Wise and practical-minded, efficient and energetic, this mathematical-minded man is, back to our family letters, a dedicated, nostalgic brother, a protective, caring uncle and friend.

In the letter he sends from Macau, he announces his departure to Peking on the 20th October 1784, once that the Emperor has asked him, through the Vice-Roy of Canton, not to delay his coming. Queira Deus que lhe continue esta boa vontade (23), he writes, between supposition and hope.

He is, therefore, leaving. Accompanying him are two other religious men, the afore-mentioned painter, a cook, a waiter, a valet, and four Chinese servants, que tudo é precise for his decente trato (24). In Peking, he shall employ more people for his carriage service. An experienced priest and two other servants acting as interpreters will also accompany him on the trip.

He is high-spirited and considers the East to be very healthy, abounding in everything, in other words, Sis'has got nothing to worry about regarding his well-being. That settled, he then writes Agora vamos a Évora (25) and goes on to his fraternal recommendations, emphasizing those which refer to the education of his nephew José, whom, as we know already, is the object of his particular affection. He dreams of a notable future for that boy, whom he offers a patrimony, to obtain a degree in Rhetoric or in Philosophy, and in that case, he should go to Coimbra, or as a clergyman, a priest, but that only in the case of his showing a genuine vocation, for in that domain, both José as well as Joaquim, who is also supposed to further his studies, would follow o estado que cada um quiser tomar segundo a sua consciência (26). Such position of respect for individual freedom is a sign of notable advance in relation to the conceptions of the time, but then that is not surprising of Fr. Alexandre de Gouveia, given what we already know about his personality.

Other pedagogical references he makes in his 2nd letter from Peking, on the 8th October 1787 (arrived on the 18th January) are written side by side with kind admonitions saying that she must not be worried and should not entertain cismas antigas na cabeça(27), for the mission which dictates his absence is in God's service and by His will and he could not be made happier than by carrying it out, although his wish be, may God grant it, to go back home to the kingdom one day!

In the meantime, always referring to his good health (nem uma dor de cabeça tenho tido nesta cidade, bendito Deus... (28)), he tells about how he settled in the imperial lands. One can picture the enthusiasm and the attention with which his sister, in Évora - the museum-city - read his vivid description of such exotic places! The description of the sumptuous See and of four other Churches existing in that court, of the Episcopal Palace and the Imperial Palace, in itself larger than the whole city of Beja, of the goods, he uses and wants, even the clothes, so different from those worn by any of the Bishops the good lady knows; so when she hastens to send him, as a pampering token of affection, a pair of knitted stockings, because it is something light and useful, he answers, that the article is not really of much use, because a gente grave sempre anda de botas de cetim preto e por baixo um calção que chega até os artelhos e que serve de meias (29). He only wears stockings when he goes to the See in his Bishop's vestments, and that only in black or purple. Since it is the custom of the place, he always keeps 5 or 6 pairs of those boots clean and tidy, in case he is urgently called to the Imperial residence or any other places. The servants also wear light boots, made of cotton cloth. As for clothes, and apart from his episcopal vestments, he cannot wear those he brought with him.

However, and probably to conform to the local customs and to his own position in the place, he needs to have 7 or 8 sets of clothes, for each occasion demands a particular dress. The winter clothes are muito custosos, porque forrados de peles finas (30). The only one he has cost him more than two hundred thousand 'reis' (31) and it is only useful for meeting the Emperor and the Prince; quem não tem estes vestidos não pode ter ofícios públicos nem entrar no Palácio Imperial (32).

As for the head, which must always have some kind of hat on, even inside the Church, chapéus de veludo, peles ou seda, conforme o tempo, (33) are worn. And the description, extending itself for the delight of its distant reader, ends with the following words: não há outro remédio senão fazer estas despesas! (34).

In fact - he goes on, justifying himself - he could do well without such uncomfortable displays of pomp, but he must yield to it out of respect for the Emperor, who must be kept contente e amigo da Religião Cristã (35) the preaching of which is, for the Bishop, principal ofício e obrigação (36).

During his long bishopric, he was certainly not spared of worries. However, he does not emphasize them, hoping to be able to count upon divine mercy to overcome them.

And there remains no doubt that God granted him the compensation he had so often worked for: conseguir um dia no Céu uma eternidade bem-aven-turada (37). His life was dedicated to work, visiting, preaching, giving confirmation, handling questions related to the diocese under his care, and to the extraordinary missions to which he devoted himself with much zeal and enthusiasm, namely among the Corean Christians, his spiritual children.

He did not go back home to the kingdom.

On the 6th July 1808, almost 180 years ago, he who took the Truth where there was sin. Light and Faith where there was darkness and doubt, giving up life, received Life. Entre os seus magros haveres, não se achou prata de cubículo nem mesmo para fazer as despesas de funeral... (38).

Translated by Isabel Pedro dos Santos


(1)Teixeira Pe Manuel -"Macau e a sua Diocese",1940. Vol. I, p. 76. (T: no silver could be found in his cell, not even to pay the costs of his funeral).

(2)Extract of letter dated 28th november 1787 from Peking Cfr. note 6.

(3)(T: of the order of St. Augustine).

(4)Teixeira, Fr. Manuel - "Macau no século XVIII" National Printing Press Macau, 1984, p. 620 and segs.

(5)Rev. "Archives of Macau" Official Publication, Macau June 1929, VolI N° 1, p.12

(6)(T: a Southen region of Portugal where places like Évora and Beja, mentioned in the articles, are situated).

(7)Instrução para o Bispo de Pequim e Outros Documentos para a História de Macau. Pref. by M. Múrias. A. G. C., Lisbon 1943; Cfr. Revista Arquivos de Macau, Official Publication Macau, January to June 1930, Vol. IIIn°, p. 99 and segs.

(8)Cartas de D. Fr. Alexandre de Gouveia, Bispo de Pekim, escriptas a sua Irmão... copied by J. H. da Cunha Rivara, in Évora, 1840. In 'Biblioteca Pública do Arquivo Distrital de Évora,' CXVI, n.37.

(9)(T: Do send me detailed news of yourself and our relatives).

(10)(T: chicken and fresh meat, oranges, and the rest of what is necessary to life).

(11)(T: which is the greatest passage in the India sea-route).

(12)(T: an early 15th century Portuguese chronicle).

(13)(T:... on this day I sang Mass, and one of the chaplains delivered the sermon: there was music and all the necessaries for St. Francis did pay us back, for from that day on we had the best of winds and the ship sailed most swiftly...).

(14)(T: for the place is very hot).

(15)(T: cost him twenty coins, and also a tray, a jar, a tea-set, all made of silver, all of which are necessary in China and rather more expensive there, etc, all of it for economy's sake, for it is all quite cheap here...).

(16)(T:... I am starting to learn at my own cost how to save money as an housekeeper...).

(17)(T: my José).

(18)(T: Treat him with much cleanlinesss, much fear of God, and make him study hard, for he will be someone...).

(19)Colomban, Eudore de, Resumo da História de Macau, Macau, 1927, pp.95-99.

(20)(T: The uses and requirements, the power, the culture, the commerce, the arts, and the general things belonging to the products and the Natural History of China (...) plants, mineral stones and what ever else might eventually be useful...).

(21)Teixeira, Pe. Manuel, Macau e a sua Diocese, ibid p. 41 et seq.

(22)(T: starting to learn some Chinese words in the Pekinese manner).

(23)(T: I hope God will continue to show his good will).

(24)(T: all of it is necessary (for his) decent treatment).

(25)(T: Let us now go to Évora).

(26)(T: what their conscience tells them to do).

(27)(T: old apprehensions in her mind).

(28)(T: not even a head-ache have I suffered in this place, the Lord be praised).

(29)Important people would always wear black chamois boots and underneath a pair of trousers that served as stockings reaching upto the ankles.

(30)(T: quite expensive, because they are all lined up with fine furs).

(31)(T: Portuguese old monetary unit).

(32)(T: those who do not have such clothes can neither hold public offices, nor be admitted into the Imperial Palace).

(33)(T: velvet, fur or silk hats, according to the weather conditions...).

(34)(T: and there is no way I can avoid such expenses!).

(35)(T: happy and on friendly terms with the Christian Religion).

(36)(T: his main task and duty).

(37)(T: to be given a blessed eternity in Heaven, one day).

(38) See Note 1 above.

*Lic. in History (University of Coimbra), researcher of the History of Macau and the Portuguese presence in the East.

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