Dr. M. Arockiasamy Xavier, SJ
Chief Editor

"History is a science no less and no more" stated J. B. Bury, the Irish historian, in 1902. Systematic attempts were made since the time of Nicholas de Condorcet and H.T. Buckle to make history as a science. Having understood the scientific nature of the subject and its importance they attempted so. Of course one cannot attain the exact objectivity and absolute veracity in historical researches as in other empirical sciences. Science depends on observation and experimentation to prove the validity of its premises. History pursues it by indirect observation viz. through eye witnesses or through others who have heard of it or by other methods. A scientist verifies his / her conclusions through repeated experimentation. A historian comes somewhat closer to it through corroboration of several sources so that he/ she can check the veracity of one reference with another. Historians Barthold Georg Niebuhr and Leopold Von Ranke developed such historical methods which analyse the source materials with microscopic criticism. Any professional historian is expected to follow such scientific approach in his / her historical pursuits. For the very root word Istoria means collection of information obtained as a result of scientific enquiry.

For scientific enquiry in history one needs primary sources without which a historical research cannot take place. Primary sources are of varied categories. Traditionally archival sources do play a vital role. Inscriptions, manuscripts, dispatches, travelogues, memoirs, diaries, records, palm leaves, archaeological artefacts, architecture, coins, sculptures, seals, stamps, paintings, photographs, etc., are considered to be valuable primary source materials. Till recent times scholars mostly relied on the government archival sources as the only authentic sources. Again, the plethora of private original records and documents in privates archives and libraries have added value to the research. Researchers now duly acknowledge the value of private (primary) sources. This phenomenon is mainly due to the recent developments in the historiographical fields!

Among the private documents the Jesuit sources serve as a veritable mine of information for the construction of the history of late medieval and modern society in India particularly in Tamil Nadu. Their writings embody copious information about the socio, cultural and political situation of the country. Historians today affirm that the Jesuit sources are one of the reliable sources to write history as they were recorded objectively. "Though the Jesuits' objective was mainly professed by religions, society as a whole attracted their attention, consequently a flood of light is thrown on political, social and economic condition of South India", says R. Sathiyanatha Aiyar, a renowned historian. From the inception of the Order the Jesuits were and are known for their annual letters. One of the secretaries of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Order, Fr. Polanco drew up a set of “rules which are to be observed in the manner of writing by those of the Society who are scattered outside Rome." Among them three aspects deserve attention, namely, what to write, how to write and with what diligence to write and dispatch to Rome. One of the Superior Generals of the Jesuits Fr. Mutio Vitelleschi who was in the office from 1615 to 1645, wrote to one of his Jesuits in England, “You must make a selection out of all the news available, and then communicate to us what you have ascertained to be more authentic and of great consequence".

The missionaries in India sent to Europe accurate data and information regarding the fauna, flora, ethnography, religions, customs, traditions and the history of the land where they had laboured. St. Francis Xavier (1506- 1552), the first Jesuit missionary of the East proved himself as the fore-runner of excellent letter writers from India. He set an eloquent model for his successors in India for writing numerous and compendious letters of high quality and depth to their head quarters in Rome. The letters of Frs. Balthasar da Costa, Em. Martin and Noël de le Bourzes are revealing examples to this. The Jesuits also played the role of historians while recording events. The annual letters of Fr. Balthasar da Costa from Trichinopoly gives evidence to this effect. “..Without claiming to pass judgement on the nature or the cause of these happenings, I confine myself to my role of a historian, and simply relate things which I have seen with my own eyes," says Da Costa in one of his annual letters in 1643. As asserted by Documenta Indica Vol. I, these missionaries were to relate whatever was worthy of being known and speak about such thing as the climate, diet, customs, and character of the native peoples of India. The Jesuit letter writers had naturally to describe the background in which their missionary work was developing and circumstances mission faced. While engaged in briefing mission work they supplied valuable materials which today serve us sources to trace the history of the above period. Thus the Jesuit letters act as 'contemporary sources' standing in chronological proximity to the events they deal with. They contain in many instances, the reports of eyewitnesses of the events described, and even some of them being participants in them, and are hence 'primary sources.' However one should corroborate these sources with other similar sources for obtaining greater objectivity.

The celebrated historian Vincent A. Smith rightly stated that "the Jesuits, are highly educated men trained in accurate observation and scholarly writings. The Jesuits are noted for their veracity." John Lockman, the protestant editor of the Travels of the Jesuits says, “I believe it will be granted, that no men are better qualified to describe nations and countries than the Jesuits." The first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, himself a historian par excellence, reflects in the same vein in his volume Glimpses of World History , “I cannot however resist giving you some more quotations from the accounts of the Portuguese missionaries. Their opinions are of far greater value than those of countries." These sources are mostly in Portuguese, French, Latin, English and Tamil. One can always refer to such sources in Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu in Rome, French Jesuit Archives, Vanves in Paris, Jesuit Archives of Madurai Province at Shembaganur, Kodaikanal, Xavier Centre of Historical Research, Goa and in other places. A few researches are now being carried out in Tamil Nadu availing these sources. Surely these valuable Jesuit sources will help historians to construct a comprehensive, modern and contemporary socio-political history of South India.