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1648: Francis Ferdinand de Capillas, protomartyr of China

January 15th, 2017 Headsman

January 15 is the feast date, and the 1648 execution date, of the Catholic protomartyr of China — St. Francis Ferdinand de Capillas.

The pride of a tiny Castilian hamlet, de Capillas was a Dominican who got his start saving souls proselytizing in the Philippines, where Spain did a robust trade.

In 1642, he joined other Dominican friars on a mission out of Fu’an in the south of China. Spain and Portugal had made steady inroads* for Christianity in the peninsular locale of Macau over the preceding decades but de Capillas’s was a mission to make converts in the mainland. There, things could, and did, get trickier.

Their mission coincided with the collapse of the guardedly friendly Ming dynasty. Seen from the long-run perspective — you know, the one in which we’re all dead — this dynastic transition would widen the field for missionary work under new regimes that would be largely amenable to Christian preaching until the 18th century. But in the short term, it was de Capillas who was dead, because the remnants of the defeated Ming and their dead-end emperor fell back into their area as the rump Southern Ming dynasty — and the province became a war zone.

Christians were not alone among the populations caught perilously between the rival sovereigns, where wrong-footing one’s allegiance was liable to be worth your life. In the mid-1640s, Christians and Ming got on favorable terms: not so much an alliance as an affiliation.

These contacts cultivated between Christians and court came a-cropper in the war. After the Qing conquered Fu’an, a counterattack by the Southern Ming besieged the city in late 1647. The Qing were going to win the larger struggle, but at that moment, they were going to lose Fuan — and by Eugenio Menegon’s telling in Ancestors, Virgins, and Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China,

military leader of the Qing camp captured a loyalist soldier, he extorted the names of the Fuan citizens who were collaborating with [the Ming commander] Liu. Among the best known were [Chinese convert Christians] Miao Shixiang, Guo Bangyong, and Chen Wanzhong. Other Christians also sided with Liu. This leak provoked retaliation against relatives and friends of the loyalists still inside the besieged town. Among the victims was the Dominican Capillas. He was taken from prison, accused of being one of the leaders of the Christians and connected to the [Ming] loyalists, and executed in mid-January 1648.

This association did not go well for any of those involved; Liu did not survive the year, forced to commit suicide under a later Qing invasion, circumstances that also saw Miao Shixiang and Guo Bangyong themselves put to summary death.

* Kaijian Tang estimates 40,000 Christians in Macau by 1644. (Setting Off from Macau: Essays on Jesuit History During the Ming and Qing Dynasties)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,History,Milestones,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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3 thoughts on “1648: Francis Ferdinand de Capillas, protomartyr of China”

  1. Curt Kastens says:

    Johan,
    Would it be possible for you to elaborate on the story about the Qing/Manchu emperors withdrawing their support for the Catholic Church because of a quarrel about the Chinese word for God?

    1. I have not my sources ready. The dispute consisted between the Chinese traditional word for God supported by some Catholic monastic orders and a new word for God coined by missionaries and supported by other Catholic orders. Of course the Qing Emperor supported the traditional word. However, the Pope in faraway Rome decided the new word was to be the only one. It revealed the narrow minded mentality of the papacy with barely concealed imperialist overtones.The Imperial Court which had been fascinated by western Christians and their inventions took it as an insult and outlawed the Catholic religion. This resulted in more killings. Far too late the Pope after the First World War overturned his predecessors’ decision. But right after the dispute there was a minor civil war between the monks resulting in outlawing some, even in Europe. PS. I am a historian and a High Church Lutheran. Christianity in China fascinates me. J.

  2. The history of the Roman Catholic Church in China is long and bloody but somehow they survived and are doing well at the moment. Oddly enough the Catholics in Japan have dwindled to an insignificant number..Apparently the Japanese were more thorough in killing Catholics…The Catholics in China might even have become the state church but for an unfortunate quarrel about the Chinese word for God which led the Qing/Manchu Emperors withdraw their support… Words can kill too..

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