While once the cultures of the world were centralized in their respective origins, with the introduction of new technology and determination of increased influence, Western culture found new beginnings across the globe. In the 16th century, Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci took forth to introduce Christianity to China. In the 18th century, Olaudah Equiano, former slave turned abolitionist, was stripped from his Igbo culture in Africa to be sold to European slave owners. Although Ricci had purposefully set forth to spread his religion and Equiano was taken against his will, the intercultural influence that both figures successfully achieved have in many ways largely shaped our world today. Through the publication of their first hand accounts and stories, Ricci and Equiano have successfully reinvented many cultural norms that are still present today.
In order to detail the motivations and impact of Matteo Ricci as an intercultural figure, it is first necessary to understand his uprisings. Ricci was born in Italy and went to a Jesuit school. In his teenage years, Ricci studied law in Rome and then later left school to become a Jesuit. Ricci’s strong passion for science and religion led him to leave his life in Rome behind to travel to Portugal and prepare for his later overseas expeditions. He then went to India where he had constant health issues and went back to Goa. In 1582, Matteo Ricci left his European lifestyle to find new beginnings in China with hopes to convert the Chinese people to Christianity. On the other hand, Olaudah Equiano’s road to becoming an intercultural figure was not as voluntary at first. Equiano was born in 1745 in what is known today as Nigeria. At only 11 years old, Equiano and his sister were kidnapped from their home and sold by slave traders. Equiano was then forced into a European slave ship and sent across the ocean to Barbados and later to Virginia. In 1757, he was purchased by a naval captain who took him to England where he served the captain at sea. At the same time, Equiano was able to spend his time away from work by living with the captain’s family in London, where he received a European education and had learned how to read and write. Six years later, he was sold once again and taken back to North America where he worked for a merchant and had determined to make enough money to buy his own freedom. In 1766, Equiano had made enough money to become free and returned to England, thus beginning his new life that would establish himself as a prominent figure in history. Despite their unrelated uprisings and motivations, both Ricci and Equiano have impacted different societies and used their voices to contribute to their own agendas.
In their processes to shift cultural norms, Ricci and Equiano both documented their accounts that have clearly laid out solid understandings of each of their efforts. In Matteo Ricci and the Catholic Mission to China: A Short History with Documents, author Ronnie Po-chia Hsia includes several letters written by Ricci during his time spent in China. The seventh document in this book is the letter that Ricci wrote describing his observations of Chinese culture and religion. Although Ricci had a strict agenda to reinvent religion in China, he still expressed admiration and care for its society when he wrote, “It is admirable that they [the Chinese people] can calculate very clearly and precisely the eclipses, in a manner different from ours, and how this people, who have never had any commerce with Europe, have achieved in arithmetic and in all the liberal and mechanical arts by themselves as much as we have.” Ricci believed that China had all the aspects of a great nation, and that all they were missing was Christianity. He stressed this in the same letter, writing, “If to their natural ingenuity God is to add the divine understanding of our holy Catholic faith, it would seem to me that Plato could imagine no better republic than what exists in reality in China.” As this letter was written directly by Ricci in 1584, there are some biases that must be mentioned. First, Ricci knew that he and the Jesuits could not completely change the way of life in China and that their success depended on making sure that Christianity could co-exist with China’s already established rituals. Therefore, Ricci admiring all other aspects of China and learning about their culture could have been a strategy to further convince the Chinese people of the simplicity of conversion. Additionally, Ricci was introduced to Jesuit life at an early age and therefore sees his religion as the only one fit to occupy a nation. Thus, his narrative does not take into account why many Chinese people did not find it necessary or meaningful to convert. Nevertheless, Ricci’s first hand accounts provided a sense of credibility in his endeavours. While his plans to convert the Emperor and Chinese elites to convert the whole nation were not achieved, some Christianity remains in China despite Communist crackdown. Furthermore, Ricci left other influence in China apart from what was intended such as how the Chinese people loved and adapted the maps that Ricci had and enjoyed seeing how large the discovered world was. Similar to Ricci’s personal documentation of his experiences in China, Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, details his experiences as a slave and his determinations to becoming free. Equiano’s success story to freedom played an impactful role in the abolition of slavery, which defined him as an intercultural figure. As Lowell Milken Center accurately phrased it, “As one of the earliest writers of an autobiographical slave narrative, the mere fact that people recognized his authorship was revolutionary.” Equiano, like Ricci in China, used his writings to convey his emotions at the time of his enslavement as means of documentation. When discussing his travels following the kidnapping of him and his sister, he wrote, “I now wished for the last friend, Death, to relieve me, but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatable and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands and laid me across, I think, the windlass and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely.” With vivid imagery, Equiano’s writings were able to convey the horrors of slavery to further an emergence for abolition. Equiano’s story allowed people to see what life was like under racial slavery, as noted when he describes his entrance onto a slave ship, writing, “When I looked round the shop too and saw...a multitude of blac people of every description chained together...I no longer doubted my fate and...I fell motionless on the deck and fainted.” Despite the undeniable influence of Equiano’s stories and abolitionist contributions, there is bias presented in his work. Since Equiano was only 11 years old when he was introduced to slavery, and since his accounts were not written right away, they may lack important aspects. Nevertheless, both Equiano’s and Ricci’s accounts have influenced culture to varied extents.
Although both Ricci and Equiano have made lasting contributions as intercultural figures, their impact has reached different extents. Ricci’s main goal of converting China to Christianity failed while Equiano’s contributions to the abolitionist movement was successful. Ricci made great strides to assimilate with Chinese culture to integrate his Jesuit beliefs, yet, his foreign message could only spread so far and convince so many people. On the other hand, Equiano’s publication of his autobiography was influential in the passage of the Slave Trade Act (1807), prohibiting Africian slave trade in the British Empire.