7 years to receive a letter

I was reading a book on the life of the italian Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci in China (1582–1610). During that period, he taught the chinese about the Art of Memory used in Europe and contributed some of the images from his memory palace for a book about the teachings of christianity in chinese.

A curious fact is the time that was necessary for a letter from China to arrive in Europe by means of the Portuguese and Spanish trade routes—seven years. Given that my e-mails can arrive practically instantly, I was baffled at the thought of waiting that long to get a response.

The Jesuits in China knew enough of the sea’s dangers to send each of their letters to Europe in two copies—one via Mexico on the Spanish galleons out of Manila, and one via Goa on the Portuguese carracks leaving Macao. Ricci’s superior Valignano may have been startled that one of his letters to Rome took seventeen years in transit from Macao, but Ricci accepted six to seven years as the norm for receiving an answer to a given letter.

That is obvious in hindsight, as the letters traveled half of the world via Portuguese and Spanish sea routes, spending a lot of time in ports waiting for the right time to leave; remember that ships depended on the winds, thus the seasons and several other factors, for traveling. My understanding is that being a successful ship pilot involved much more luck than skill, or maybe enough skill to not be killed by stupidity plus sufficient luck to not encounter storms on his path.

In any case, the following quote shows how painful it could be to be unable to know what is happening with your relatives at the time.

As he wrote from Shaozhou to a friend in 1594, this long time span meant not only that situations prompting the original letter changed drastically, “but also that people have moved from life on earth to another sphere: and often when I call to mind the number of lengthy letters that I have written about this place to those who were already dead, I lose the strength and the spirit to write any more.”

In few cases was this more poingnant for Ricci than in that of his own father, the wealthy Maceratan pharmacist Giovanni Battista Ricci. As Matteo wrote to his father in 1593, since he had heard nothing of his parents since one letter they had sent just after his departure from Lisbon five years before, “if it is not too much trouble it would cheer me up to know how the family are and if you are all alive.” Three years later Matteo heard from a close friend in Italy that his father had died, and he memorialized the event with a series of solemn Masses. Alerted at last in 1605 to the news that his father was not dead after all, Matteo wrote the only really warm family letter of his life (at least the only one that has come down to us), summarizing the main achievements of his career in China and ending, “I know not if this letter of mine will find you on earth or in heaven: in any event I wanted to write to you.” By the time the letter reached Macerata, however, Giovanni Battista was dead; and so was Matteo by the time the news—this time accurate—could have reached him.

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