Manuel da Nóbrega


Manuel da Nóbrega (October 18, 1517, Sãofins do Douro, Portugal – October 18, 1570, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) was a Portuguese Jesuit priest, missionary, head of the first Jesuit mission to the Americas and the first provincial of the Society of Jesus in colonial Brazil. Along with José de Anchieta, he was very influential in the early history of Brazil and participated in the founding of several cities (Salvador, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro) as well as many Jesuit colleges and seminaries.

His letters are valuable historical documents of the early colonial phase of Brazilian history and Jesuit activity there in the 16th century.

Early Years (1517-1549)

He was born on October 18, 1517, in Sanfins do Douro (his father was the highest judicial official (desembargador) Baltazar da Nobrega, and his uncle was the supreme chancellor (chancellor-more) of the kingdom.

For four years Manuel da Nobrega studied the humanities at the University of Salamanca before transferring to the University of Coimbra, where he obtained a bachelor”s degree in canon law and philosophy in 1541. He received his bachelor”s degree from Dr. Martin de Azpilcueta (en:Martín de Azpilcueta), his fifth-year teacher and uncle of Father João de Azpilcueta Navarro, future Jesuit priest and Nobregui”s associate in the conversion of the Brazilian Indians to Christianity. The teacher would later characterize his former student as follows: “The most learned Father Manuel da Nobrega, whom not so long ago we conferred university degrees, known for his learning, his virtue and his background.

Encouraged by his teacher, Nobrega applied for a teaching position at the university, passed a written exam, but while reading his own work in the classroom he developed a stutter. The speech defect prevented him from taking a teaching position; he later tried again, but for the same reason he failed a second time to obtain a chair.

In 1544, at the age of 27, he joined the Novitiate of the Society of Jesus and, after ordination, preached in Portugal (in the Minho and Beira regions) and Spain (Galicia).

Years in Brazil (1549-1570)

After King Don Juan III of Portugal proposed to the Society of Jesus to begin missionary work in Brazil, Nobrega set out in 1549 with the naval fleet of the first Governor General of Brazil, Tome di Sosa (whose friend and counselor he later became). The work of the Jesuit order in the colony involved the conversion of the indigenous Indians, the establishment of churches and seminaries, and the education of the colonists, who initially consisted mainly of exiled criminals as well as those sent into exile for political and religious reasons.

Nobrega arrived in the Capitania of Bahia on March 29, 1549, accompanied by five comrades of the order (Fathers Leonardo Nunes, João de Aspilcueta Navarro, Antonio Pires and brothers Vicente Rodrigues and Diogo Jacomy). After the governor-general proclaimed the foundation of the colony”s capital, São Salvador da Bahia de Todos oos Santos (port. “Holy Savior of All Saints” Bay”), the first Mass was celebrated. When he returned to his comrades, Nobrega said, “This land is our work.

Nobrega and his men engaged in catechizing and baptizing the natives. In spite of their efforts to realize the mission”s goals, however, the Jesuits encountered many difficulties, on the Portuguese side caused by the colonists” mistreatment of the Indians and their attempts to establish a system of colonial slavery. The desperate attempts by the head of the Jesuit mission to protect the Indians soon followed led to serious confrontations with the inhabitants and authorities of the new colony, including the first governor-general as well as his successor, Duarte da Costa. However, Nobregui”s influence was so great that in 1558 he succeeded in convincing the third governor-general, Mena di Sa, to issue “laws for the protection of the Indians” preventing their enslavement.

To gain credibility in his opposition to the colonists, Nobrega asked the king to establish a diocese in Brazil, which was done on February 25, 1551. The first bishop of Brazil, Don Peru Fernandes Sardinha, took office on June 22, 1552. By that time Nobrega had already founded the Jesuit College of Bahia. He was then appointed the first provincial of the Society of Jesus in the New World and held that post until 1559. The bishop, however, died at the hands of the Cannibal Indians after a shipwreck that struck him, causing Nobrega to largely reconsider his earlier views of the Indians.

The indigenous people of Brazil were no stranger to the spread of Christianity, the main obstacle being the deep-rooted custom of cannibalism among the native tribes. The task of eradicating it was one of the priorities of the Jesuit mission. One of the first clashes with the pagans occurred on this ground: when Nobrega and his men tried to stop preparations for the cannibal feast, the Indians rose up against the Christians. The intervention of the Governor-General”s forces saved the missionaries from an aboriginal revolt.

Sensing the difficulty of converting adult Indians, Nobrega felt that the order”s efforts should be directed toward educating children who were more receptive, and so the Jesuits began to establish elementary schools with instruction in Portuguese and Latin, literacy and the Catholic faith. As the Jesuits discovered, singing was an effective way to attract students” attention. Nobrega was the first to introduce music instruction into the Brazilian educational system. To help the cause of evangelizing Native American children, he decided to bring seven orphaned teenagers from Portugal to Brazil to learn the Tupi language to perfection and, becoming bilingual, to act as interpreters. These children subsequently made frequent journeys on foot with the Jesuits to distant places and enjoyed the protection and favor of the Indians. Some of them then joined the order.

While building chapels and schools, the missionaries emphasized the large number of native converts. According to one Nobregi report, five hundred pagans were baptized within the first five months of the Jesuits” arrival, and many more were catechumens.

The problems that existed in the Portuguese colony in Brazil, as in the Spanish part of the Americas, were that slavery and cohabitation with Indian women were common among the settlers. Nobrega was concerned that the Portuguese were not setting a good example. Powerless to stop the spread of slavery, he chose instead the tactic of physically separating Indians and Portuguese in order to limit the former”s contact with a colonial environment plagued by vices and abuses. However, the head of the Jesuit mission was nevertheless inspired by the fact that, despite the mistreatment by Europeans, a large number of Indians had embraced Christianity.

Preferring to act independently and often not relying on real help from the metropolis, Nobrega also set out to reduce the Jesuits” dependence on the support of the Portuguese crown.

Traveling constantly along the entire coast, from São Vicente to Pernambuco, Nobrega also encouraged Portuguese expansion into the interior lying on the other side of the Serra do Mar. In 1552 he once again accompanied Tome di Sosa to the capitania of São Vicentí (the territory of the modern state of São Paulo). There he was joined by another group of Jesuits who arrived with José di Anchieta, then still a young novitiate who had come to Brazil with the third governor-general, Meno de Sa. Nobrega set the task of the new mission as establishing a settlement (aldeiamento) on the mountain plateau of Piratinga to facilitate the catechization and education of the Indians. On January 25, 1554, Nobrega and Anchieta celebrated the first mass in the new modest Jesuit college of São Paulo dos Campos de Piratinga, founded on the day of St. Paul”s conversion. The small settlement formed around this Jesuit school would later become one of the largest metropolitan areas in the Western Hemisphere, São Paulo.

Despite all Nobregui”s peacemaking efforts, the exploitation and mass extermination of the Indian population by the Portuguese colonists continued. The Tamoyo and Tupiniquin tribes, who lived along the coast in what are now several Brazilian states (from Espirito Santo to Parana), were the most affected by colonization. They rebelled and formed a militant alliance of tribes, which became known as the Confederación Tamoyo, and began to attack the settlements of the colonists. São Paulo was attacked several times, but the Portuguese managed to hold out. Faced with a dire situation, Nobrega tried to negotiate a peace treaty with the confederation. Subjected to coercion and threats to be killed and eaten by Indians, Nobrega and Anchieta stayed for a long time in Iperoiga (present-day Ubatuba, the northern coast of São Paulo) to negotiate with tribal chiefs, until finally Nobrega was able to secure a truce, the first peace treaty negotiated in the New World. Anshieta”s knowledge of the Tupi language, spoken by most Indians, proved extremely useful for the negotiations, as Nobrega himself was not proficient in this language.

The arrival of French forces in Guanabara Bay (Rio de Janeiro) in 1555 and the establishment of the colony of Antarctic France again shook the balance of power, as the Indians saw an opportunity to defeat the Portuguese by uniting with the French. In the face of this situation, Nobrege had only to support and bless the Portuguese military expeditions; the first was undertaken by the governor-general Men di Sa in 1560, the second by his nephew Estacio di Sa in 1565. The French colonists were defeated and expelled, and their Indian allies were forced to submit.

Father Manuel da Nobrega (who participated in the war as adviser to the governor-general) accompanied the expedition of Estacio de Sa, during which the city of São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro, modern-day Rio de Janeiro, was founded (March 1, 1565). After the expulsion of the French invaders, Nobrega founded a new Jesuit college in Rio de Janeiro and became its rector. In 1570 he was again appointed provincial of the Society of Jesus in Brazil, but he died without taking office on October 18, 1570, exactly on the day he turned 53. Seven years later the Jesuit provincial over Brazil was assumed by José di Anchieta, an outstanding disciple and friend of Nobregui.


The writings of Father Manuel da Nobregui are among the first works of Brazilian literature. They reflect the early history of the Brazilian people, described from a missionary”s point of view. Nobrega details the customs and ways of the Tupinambas Indian tribal society and the struggle between the natives and the colonizers.

The letter to Father Miguel de Torres, known as “A Note on the Affairs of Brazil,” reflects a critical moment in the history of Portuguese colonization of the country. Having little hope of successfully overcoming the difficulties caused by constant warfare with the native population, Nobrega nevertheless sets forth his own vision of measures to salvage the cause of colonization and Christianization. Having given up hope in the voluntary conversion of the Indians, he calls for bringing them into subjection by violent means.

He also did not rule out the possibility of a Jesuit mission moving from Brazil to Paraguay (to convert Guaraní Indians) should the Portuguese colony continue to decline.

“Dialogue on the Conversion of the Gentiles.”

“The Dialogo de conversão de los paginas (Dialogue on the Conversion of the Gentiles) was the first prose text written in Brazil. Although Nobrega is not considered to have had a great literary talent, it is nevertheless estimated that his Dialogo de Conversão de Paginas is the major prose work to have appeared in sixteenth-century Brazil.

Manuel da Nobrega describes the natives from the perspective of two Portuguese monks, the preacher Gonçalo Alvariz and the blacksmith Mateus Nugeira (real historical figures). The author recreates a dialogue between these characters, through which a number of traits peculiar to the Indian population are revealed.

Gonzalo Alvarish, preaching to the natives, uses the pronoun “these” in the introductory lines of the dialogue to refer to them and speaks of their “bestiality. He thus deprives the Aborigines of their human status and at the same time questions their ability to understand and accept Christianity. Mateusz Nugeira, his interlocutor, agrees and supports this characterization, stating that the inhabitants of this land are worse than all others, in the sense that they do not perceive the essence of Christianity. This description reflects Nobrega”s frustration with the Indian population. Both characters go on to discuss the role of Christians among the indigenous population. Alvarish questions the goal pursued by the Christians, while Nugeira clearly states that this goal is beneficence and love of God and neighbor. This assertion by Nugeira returns indigenous people in Brazil to the status of human beings and places them among the neighbors to be loved by Christians, including Portuguese settlers.

Nobregi”s attitude toward the problem of pagan conversion is contradictory. On the one hand, he is not sure whether they will be able to fully grasp the essence of Christianity, especially in view of the language barrier. On the other hand, as a Christian and Jesuit, he is aware that he must take the position of a benevolent teacher, patient and understanding.



  1. Нобрега, Мануэл да
  2. Manuel da Nóbrega
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