Imagining Guaranis and Jesuits

Yesterday's History, Today's Perspective

By Guillermo Wilde

Ruins of San Miguel Arcangel. Recognized as world heritage by UNESCO. Photo by Artur H.F. Barcelos.

Beginning in 1610, Jesuits founded a series of towns for indigenous peoples in the southern region of America. These towns, known as “missions” or “reductions,” achieved enormous territorial, demographic and political importance. In the first decades of the 18th century, Paraguay’s thirty missions became home to 140,000 indigenous residents.  They spoke the Guarani language for the most part, and it became the basic means for conversion to the Christian faith. 

Each reduction had two Jesuits, a priest and his companion, in charge of spiritual and “temporal” administration, helped by an indigenous elite who performed administrative and ecclesiastical jobs. These people could read and write in Guarani, Spanish and Latin. The priests strictly supervised all daily tasks, making sure that the natives fulfilled their obligations of attending mass and working in the farms, fields and ranches, which provided the basic goods for all the towns: corn, yucca, cotton, yerba mate and meat. Other activities also took place in mission workshops, where most of the sculpture and ornaments for churches were created.  Music too entered the lives of indigenous people in the missions; they both copied musical scores and manufactured several types of musical instruments. In one of the mission churches, Santísima Trinidad, a well-preserved frieze depicts angel musicians playing harp, violin, trumpet, claves and even maracas. We can only imagine the unique sounds that combined the music brought from Europe with the resonant elements of the earth. 

In spite of their apparent success, the reductions were afflicted time and time again by epidemics and devastating conflicts that decimated the population. Outbreaks of smallpox, measles and fevers constantly plagued the communities, causing many deaths. During all of the 17th century, slave-hunting adventurers from São Paulo conducted raids to capture native peoples from the missions, causing the early destruction of many of these towns. 

Religious expression was the chosen means to overcome the traumatic effects of these crises, and Jesuit teachings emphasized Christian forms of native devotions such as the cult of the Archangel Michael and the Virgin Mary. The Jesuits varied in their attitudes toward unorthodox indigenous religious expressions, sometimes rejecting such modes of worship and at other times assimilating them. Sometimes they promoted the incorporation of local visual and aural elements into the dominant Christian practice, ranging from church decorations to the celebrations of the liturgical calendar. Although the history of this experiment ended abruptly with the expulsion of the Jesuits from all Spanish and Portuguese territories in 1767, the native peoples maintained their system of government in the missions and continued their devotional practices, at least until the civil wars that engulfed the region from 1810 on.  

Angel with maraca, a musical instrument. Photo courtesy of Guillermo Wilde.

Throughout the last three hundred years, historical literature and fiction have found a frequent theme in the missions. The Jesuits spread news about this distant corner of the American colonies through the European continent and provided valuable information about the natives with whom they had had contact.  Reacting to this information, the European public soon developed highly polarized opinions. While apologetic stances defended the missions as a noble experiment of civilizing the indigenous people who resided in the forest, the anti-Jesuit position perceived the religious order as exploiters of the natives who sought to create a kingdom independent from the Spanish and Portuguese crowns. The first stance was represented in the numerous letters and chronicles written by the Jesuits themselves and by a non-Jesuit book expressing great admiration for the Jesuit experience: Il cristianesimo felice (Happy Christianity, 1743) by Italian author Ludovico Muratori. Indeed, Jesuits exiled to Italy continued the defense of the missions long after the order had been expelled from the Americas. José Manuel Peramás, one of these Jesuits, wrote a striking text, La República de Platón y los guaraníes (Plato’s Republic and the Guaranis), in which he compared the virtues of the mission organization with the tenets of government established by the classic teacher of ancient times. Even anti-Jesuit authors such as Montesquieu and Voltaire would not begrudge praise for the Jesuit rule in the South American forests as a perfect expression of good government.

The ample 18th-century literature also included many anti-Jesuit voices that began to impose in Bourbon Europe a decided opposition to the power that the Jesuits had acquired in the previous centuries. The Marquis of Pombal in the case of Portugal and Count Pedro Rodríguez de Campomanes in the case of Spain were among the order’s most vociferous opponents.  Both insisted that ambitious Jesuits were dangerously creating a state within a state, a flagrant threat to the Iberian crowns. Their opinions were heavily influenced by a renegade former Jesuit, Bernardo Ibáñez de Echavarri, author of El Reino Jesuítico (The Jesuit Kingdom, 1762), a book almost simultaneously published in Spanish and Portuguese. The author argues that the Jesuits had created an independent political organization among the Guaranis that had the Iberian crowns as its target. In the same period, a rumor was spread that in Jesuit Paraguay, a king called Nicholas I had been anointed with his image on coins especially minted to circulate throughout the region. Although the Jesuits systematically denied the allegations, a well-known cacique, Nicolás Ñeenguirú from Concepción mission, who had a decisive role in the so-called guerra guaranítica (Guarani War), was suspected of being Nicholas I. The cause of the war was the border treaty of 1750, in which the Spanish and Portuguese crowns agreed that part of the mission territory would now fall under Portuguese rule. The Guaranis rose up in arms to protest this decision and prevent the treaty from being implemented. Armed confrontations between the Guarani militia and the Portuguese-Spanish troops continued during 1754 and 1756, ending with the defeat of the Guarani after many deaths. This war spurred the enmity of the Iberian crowns against the Jesuits, who were accused of instigating the natives to resist the decisions of the monarchies.

Disputes about the nature of the governance of the missions continued during the 19th century. Various proponents of the romantic movements vindicated the Jesuits as creating a utopian society that Europeans ought to pursue as a model. For example, among German backers of the Jesuits was Eberhard Gothein, who published Der Christlichsoziale Staat der Jesuiten in Paraguay in 1887, comparing the Jesuit Guarani experience with the imagined utopia of Italian theologian Tommaso Campanella in his Civitas Solis. Years later, the reductions inspired the socialist ideas of Cunningham Graham, one of the founders of the Scottish Labour Party, who wrote the short book, A Vanished Arcadia, devoted entirely to the vindication of the Jesuits’ labor in Paraguay. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, however, Leopoldo Lugones published El Imperio Jesuítico, a well-known book in clear opposition to the Jesuits and subsidized by the Argentine government.Some years before, Paraguayan intellectual  Blas Garay wrote El comunismo de las Misiones de la Compañía de Jesús en Paraguay (Communism in the Jesuit Missions of Paraguay, 1897). The text grew out of a foreword that the author had written to the reissue of Historia de las misiones (The History of the Missions) by Jesuit Nicolás del Techo (written in 1687). With a harsh tone, Garay refers to the legacy of the missions as very negative in the history of the country. Years later, Maria Fassbinder, a German author, published Der Jesuitenstaat in Paraguay (The Jesuit State in Paraguay, 1926) and Fritz Hochwaelder, an Austrian author, wrote Das Heilige Experiment (The Holy Experiment, 1941), both of which supported the Jesuit endeavors. In the context of World War II, the Swiss author Clovis Lugon published La république communiste-chrétienne des Guaranis (1609-1768). In the 1980s, the debate opened up again with the film The Mission, which presented a benevolent portrait of the Jesuits and their evangelical work among the Guarani. 

The cited examples illustrate the renewed interest in the missions over the course of the last century in which favorable apologies inevitably confront anti-Jesuit stances. Generally, the literature tends to conceive the missions as a “state,” “republic” or “empire,” from a political viewpoint, and as a “paradise,” or “utopia”  from a religious or philosophical viewpoint. French philosopher Michel Foucault referred to the Guarani missions as a “heterotopia,” a place or space of otherness that does not fit in with a hegemonic concept and functions in accordance with its own logic. 

If indeed the debates have been eloquent, the opposition of the opinions has tended to create an excessively simplified view of the internal situation of the missions over the course of time. The result has been to present missionary governance either as a beneficial and civilizing regime or an oppressive enslaving system. This narrow set of views has also impeded any analysis of indigenous participation and responses in the formation of the missions. The indigenous population was considered as homogenous and passive in that process.  The European debate about the missions appears, in this sense, very far from reality. Likewise, the insistence of the notion of a state in reference to the missions has tended to isolate them from the regional context in which they operated. In effect, the missions participated in a network of circulation of people and consumer goods in the River Plate region. Various Jesuit establishments traded products like yerba mate and leather hides throughout the entire region and had considerable influence in the policies of the colonial authorities. In turn, the Guarani natives participated in regional militia and helped the authorities in Buenos Aires and Asunción in different economic activities and in defense of the territory. 

The missions constituted an “imagined community” that over the course of 150 years incorporated very diverse populations that had to adapt to a single pattern of spatial and temporal organization. That meant that the people had to adjust to new technologies, ranging from those directly linked to the construction of buildings and food storage to that of writing or map-making, that did not previously exist in indigenous contexts. The introduction of a routine life in which attendance at church alternated with farm work clearly was a radical break from the traditional indigenous forms of organization of time and space. The process of transformation of the indigenous way of life was slow and prolonged, and the attitudes of the indigenous people toward the colonizers varied. Initially, many political leaders and shamans energetically resisted evangelization. Later, they devised strategies to negotiate their entrance into the missions and participated directly in the governance of the communities through institutions such as cabildos (administrative councils) and militias. In the political and economic circumstances that affected the region of Paraguay and the Plate River, the missions gradually transformed themselves into a space of refuge for much of the indigenous population and thus served as a vehicle to  reconstitute social and political ties and recreate native forms of religious identity. Although the mission residents could no longer practice their own religions as they used to, they adopted a type of Christianity sui generis, and they participated directly in the constant negotiations and readaptations that characterize the entire period. 

Guillermo Wilde teaches at the Universidad Nacional de San Martín and is a senior researcher at CONICET in Argentina. He is the author of Saberes de la Conversión: Jesuitas, indígenas e imperios coloniales en las fronteras de la cristianidad and Religión y Poder en las Misiones de Guaraníes (Latin American Studies Association Book Award, 2010).