Congratulations, Dr Brett Baker!

by Prof. Robert Cribb, School of Culture, History & Language, ANU College of Asia and The Pacific.

In March this year, the ANU approved the award of a PhD to Brett Baker for his thesis, ‘Indigenous-driven mission: reconstructing religion change in sixteenth-century Maluku’.

The thesis is a bold attempt to reverse the conventional view that indigenous people in what is now eastern Indonesia adopted Christianity for essentially material, instrumentalist reasons (access to protection from the Portuguese, possibly also bribes in the form of rice, gold or other supplies). Whereas the conventional view has implied that indigenous people were largely insincere in their conversion, Brett’s thesis presents a strikingly different picture. Using religious writings of the time, he shows that the initiative for conversion more often than not came from local people, and that it followed a close examination of the theological principles of Christianity. Priests were waylaid and plied with questions about Christian doctrine. When their answers were judged satisfactory, the priests were commanded to follow conversion rituals and to perform masses.

Brett’s thesis also questions the myth that communities converted as a whole, generally following the lead of their rulers. Instead he paints a picture of considered individual conversion, undertaken by people who knew that adopting a new religion would have consequences for their social positions. Converts often held tenaciously to their new beliefs, despite threats from supporters of the old religions or from Muslims, whose influence was expanding at the time time and evidently in much the same way.
Reaching these conclusions required Brett to master sixteenth-century Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and Latin, not to mention the Dutch of the scholars who first wrote about this period.

It is a fascinating thesis and a major contribution to our knowledge of the conversion process on the western rim of the Pacific.

[Ed: Brett completed an MA in Southeast Asian studies from University of Wisconsin-Madison (in history and Indonesian language/literature) before commencing his PhD at ANU. He is now working as editorial assistant to The Journal of Pacific History (JPH). He hopes to publish a monograph based on his thesis and will also make his thesis available online through the ANU in the near future. He is, as rumoured, learning Samoan and aims to be conversing in it by the end of the year.]

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