Alexandre de Rhodes

Alexandre de Rhodes
Personal details
Born 15 March 1593
Avignon, Papal States
Died 5 November 1660 (aged 67)
Isfahan, Persia
Nationality  Papal States
Denomination Roman Catholicism

Alexandre de Rhodes (15 March 1593[1] – 5 November 1660) was an Avignonese Jesuit missionary and lexicographer who had a lasting impact on Christianity in Vietnam. He wrote the Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum, the first trilingual Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin dictionary, published in Rome, in 1651.[2][3]


Map of "Annam" drafted by Alexandre de Rhodes (1651) showing "Cocincina" (left) and "Tunkin" (right).

Alexandre de Rhodes was born in Avinhon, Papal States (now in France). According to some sources, he was a descendant of Jewish origin. His paternal side was from Aragón, Spain.[4] He entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus in Rome on 24 April 1612 to dedicate his life to missionary work.

In 1624, he was sent to the East Asia, arriving in the Nguyễn-controlled domain of Đàng Trong (Cochinchina) on a boat with fellow Jesuit Girolamo Maiorica. De Rhodes studied Vietnamese under Francisco de Pina[5] before returning to Portuguese Macau.

Following the successful visit of fellow Jesuits Giuliano Baldinotti and Julio Koga to Đàng Ngoài (Tonkin) in 1626, the superior André Palmeiro sent Alexandre de Rhodes and Pero Marques, Sr. to evangelize in this domain of North Vietnam.[6] The two missionaries landed in Thanh Hoá on March 19, 1627 (the Feast of Saint Joseph) and arrived the capital Thăng Long (nowadays Hanoi) on July 2 (the Feast of Visitation). De Rhodes worked there until 1630, when he was forced to leave. During these three years he was in and around the court at Hanoi during the rule of lord Trịnh Tráng. It was during that time that he composed the Ngắm Mùa Chay, a popular Catholic devotion to this day, meditating upon the Passion of Christ in the Vietnamese language.[7] He was expelled from Vietnam in 1630 as Trịnh Tráng became concerned about him being a spy for the Nguyen. Rhodes in his reports said he converted more than 6,000 Vietnamese. Daily conversation in Vietnam "resembles the singing of birds", wrote Alexandre de Rhodes.

From Đàng Ngoài Rhodes went to Macau, where he spent ten years. He then returned to Vietnam, this time to Đàng Trong, mainly around Huế. He spent six years in this part until he aroused the displeasure of lord Nguyễn Phúc Lan and was condemned to death.

Latin-Vietnamese catechism, written by Alexandre de Rhodes.
A page from Alexandre de Rhodes' 1651 dictionary, Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum.

As his sentence was reduced to exile, Rhodes returned to Rome by 1649 and pleaded for increased funding for Catholic missions to Vietnam, telling somewhat exaggerated stories about the natural riches to be found in Vietnam. This plea by Alexandre de Rhodes helped to found the Paris Foreign Missions Society in 1659. As neither the Portuguese nor the Pope showed interest in the project, Alexandre de Rhodes, with Pope Alexander VII's agreement, found secular volunteers in Paris in the persons of François Pallu and Pierre Lambert de la Motte, the first members of the Paris Foreign Missions Society, who were sent to the Far-East as Apostolic vicars.[8][9][10]

Alexandre de Rhodes himself was sent to Persia instead of back to Vietnam. Rhodes died in Isfahan, Persia in 1660 and was buried in the New Julfa Armenian Cemetery.

In 1943, the French colony of Indochina issued a 30c postage stamp honoring him. In 2001 Vietnamese artist Nguyen Dinh Dang created a painting in homage to Alexandre de Rhodes and Nguyen Van Vinh.[11]


While in Vietnam, de Rhodes developed an early Vietnamese alphabet based on work by earlier Portuguese missionaries such as Gaspar do Amaral, António Barbosa and Francisco de Pina. De Rhodes compiled a catechism, Phép giảng tám ngày, and a trilingual dictionary and grammar, Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum. Both published in Rome in 1651, de Rhodes's works reflect his favor of this new Latin-script alphabet instead of Nôm script.[12] Later refined as chữ Quốc ngữ, it eventually became the de facto written form of Vietnamese language in the 20th century. Meanwhile, Maiorica's catechism and devotional texts reflect the favor of chữ Nôm, which was the dominant script of Vietnamese Christian literature until the 20th century.[13]

De Rhodes also wrote several books about Vietnam and his travels there, including:

  • Relazione de’ felici successi della santa fede predicata dai Padri della Compagnia di Giesu nel regno di Tunchino (Rome, 1650)
  • Tunchinesis historiae libri duo, quorum altero status temporalis hujus regni, altero mirabiles evangelicae predicationis progressus referuntur: Coepta per Patres Societatis Iesu, ab anno 1627, ad annum 1646 (Lyon, 1652)
    • Histoire du Royaume de Tunquin, et des grands progrès que la prédication de L’Évangile y a faits en la conversion des infidèles Depuis l’année 1627, jusques à l’année 1646 (Lyon, 1651), translated by Henri Albi
  • Divers voyages et missions du P. Alexandre de Rhodes en la Chine et autres royaumes de l'Orient (Paris, 1653), translated into English as Rhodes of Viet Nam: The Travels and Missions of Father Alexandre de Rhodes in China and Other Kingdoms of the Orient (1666)
  • La glorieuse mort d'André, Catéchiste (The Glorious Death of Andrew, Catechist) (pub. 1653)