In 1755, the world simmered at the brink of war. Shots had been fired between French soldiers and British colonists in the Ohio River Valley, and Europeans began to anticipate a violent end to their anxious peace. The formal declaration of war would trigger a network of alliances and embroil world superpowers in a contest of unprecedented scale. Armies, navies, mercenaries, and militias stood ready to sweep across the globe, and the world waited.
Into this atmosphere of uncertainty, a French planter in Martinique boldly moved. Antoine La Valette had borrowed heavily from creditors and investors on both sides of the Atlantic. He now outfitted five ships to carry cargo under the Dutch flag from the free port of Saint Eustatius to his agents in Amsterdam. If all went well, the revenues would clear his debts with enough left over to purchase additional properties and slaves.
Antoine La Valette would not be so lucky, however, for war intervened, robbing him of his anticipated profits. In what may have been the first official action of the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), privateers under the British flag intercepted and seized La Valette’s cargo, leaving him bereft. By 1760, La Valette had already defaulted on over 1.5 million livres of debt, and his creditors – themselves now in risk of bankruptcy – sued.
La Valette’s creditors may have had good reason to expect reimbursement, for La Valette was no ordinary planter. He was Père Antoine La Valette, the Jesuit procurer charged with the oversight and administration of all Jesuit missions, properties, and businesses throughout the French Caribbean. Certainly, he could liquidate sufficient resources to repay his debts, or lacking that, his Superior in France could mobilize the necessary funds.
But La Valette temporized, either unwilling or unable to make such public concessions. In undertaking speculative ventures, he had acted without his Superior’s knowledge and had willfully broken the rules of his Order. Moreover, the Jesuits had already been backed into a precarious position. La Valette may have recognized that the dangers at hand extended far beyond the pale of his own dealings in the Caribbean.
The Portuguese Prime Minister, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo (later the Marquis of Pombal), had long been jockeying for power with the Jesuit priests who dominated the royal court in Lisbon. In 1757, he gained the upper hand. King José agreed to expel the Jesuits from his household, and in the following year, Carvalho’s continued intrigue at the Portuguese court compelled Pope Clement XIV to commission a formal inquest.
At the heart of the controversy was whether Jesuit missionaries in Paraguay – famous for their successes among the Guaraní but controversial for their disruption of the slave trade – had overstepped their evangelical mission by exploiting indigenous labor, running extra-legal mines for precious metals, and most importantly, engaging in illicit trade. Carvalho wrote a series of pamphlets raising these accusations, going so far as to publish them falsely under the name of a Jesuit publisher, thus crafting his accusations to appear as a Jesuit confession.
Carvalho succeeded. When his king was ambushed on the night of September 3, 1758, while traveling in an unmarked carriage, Carvalho managed to implicate his most powerful political adversaries in the affair, namely the Portuguese high nobility and the Jesuit Order. In January 1759, King José decreed that the Jesuits be confined to their colleges, and in September of that year, he promulgated their expulsion. Carvalho celebrated his achievement in another series of pamphlets, which were in turn reported in the underground Paris newspaper, Nouvelles ecclésiastiques.
The King of Portugal had expelled the Jesuits, and his chief adviser found in Paris a ready audience for his invective. But the French Jesuits’ fate was not yet sealed. They still retained their reputation, and in the days to come, they would fight both to distance themselves from La Valette’s illicit business and to do everything within their power to mollify his creditors.
The actions of Carvalho and La Valette inaugurated a period of Jesuit suppression that would last until 1814. This year marks the 200th anniversary of that Jesuit restoration. The Burns Library maintains an extensive collection of materials documenting this critical moment in history. This post inaugurates a series of posts on the Jesuit Suppression. See also Satire and Suppression and Memories of Malagrida.
To learn more about the Jesuitica Collection at the Burns Library, browse the digitized book and manuscript holdings in the BC Libraries Digital Collections or read about exhibits on the Jesuitica Collection on the websites listed below. If you have further questions or would like to do research in this collection, please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Matthew Delvaux, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Ph.D. Student in the Department of History.
A Selection of Burns Library Exhibits Featuring Materials from the Jesuitica Collection
- Recusant Books, Summer 2013
- The Tragic Couple: Encounters between Jews and Jesuits, Summer 2012
- Binding Friendship: Ricci, China and Jesuit Cultural Learnings, Fall – Spring 2011
- Francis Xavier and the Jesuit Missions in the Far East, Fall 2006
- Ratio Studiorum: Jesuit Education 1540 – 1773, Fall 1999