Guarani War

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Guarani War

The Guarani War (1753–1756) was a series of armed engagements between a joint Spanish-Portuguese force and a group of Guarani Indians who actively resisted Spanish cession of their lands to the Portuguese. In 1750 a treaty was signed in Madrid that transferred the Portuguese settlement of Colonia to Spain in exchange for a several-hundred-mile wedge of Spanish territory east of the Uruguay River. Within this territory, however, were several Guarani missions under the control of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The Indians of these missions adamantly rejected the idea of their lands being given to the Portuguese, their age-old enemies. Despite the orders of the Spanish governor, and of their Jesuit administrators, the Indians of the seven missions refused to evacuate their communities and instead organized a spirited military defense under a Guarani corregidor named Sepé Tiarayú.

Sepé met in February 1753 with Spanish and Portuguese commissioners but declined to make any concessions. The sixty-eight men under his command never constituted much of a threat, but the joint European force decided to withdraw anyway to avoid bloodshed. This act in fact made matters worse, for when news of the incident reached Madrid and Lisbon, it was made to look like cowardice in the face of Jesuit machinations. The Europeans thereafter began to fight in earnest and rarely offered quarter. For their part, the Guarani had prepared well for war, fashioning every piece of scrap metal into arrowheads and increasing the size of their rustic army to over a thousand.

In February 1754 the Indians besieged Santo Amaro, a small Portuguese fort they finally captured after a month's combat. In July an allied army of 3,000 men advanced from two directions to capture San Borja in order to cut off the flow of supplies from missions west of the Uruguay. Four months later several Guarani caciques surrendered after bloody resistance.

Switching tactics, Sepé forged an alliance with savage Charrúa Indians, a move that until that point had been unthinkable. Toward the end of 1755 a new European army began a merciless campaign. The Spanish and Portuguese faced a force of 1,600 Indians, armed mostly with bows and, according to one account, several rudimentary cannons fashioned from bamboo.

Sepé was killed at this time in a minor skirmish and his place taken by Nicolás Ñeenguirú, a minor correquidor who failed to inspire the same kind of loyalty as his predecessor. On 10 February 1756 a major battle took place at Caaybaté, in the hill country south of the Yacuí River. The Indians found themselves surrounded, and although Nicolás attempted to negotiate terms, the Indians ended up fighting hand-to-hand. The slaughter lasted more than an hour, with the trenches dug by the Guarani now serving as their burial pits.

Caaybaté broke the main Indian resistance, though guerrilla activities continued for a number of months afterwards. Some Indians fled into the jungles and swamps where they lived in isolation for decades. Ironically, in the 1760s, these same territories for which so many Indians had died were restored to the Spanish crown. The power and prestige of the Jesuits in that part of South America, however, was dramatically diminished.

See alsoPortuguese Empire; Spanish Empire.


Magnus Mörner, The Expulsion of the Jesuits from Latin America (1965).

Philip Caraman, The Lost Paradise: The Jesuit Republic in South America (1990), pp. 235-255.

Additional Bibliography

Ganson, Barbara Anne. The Guaraní Under Spanish Rule in the Río De La Plata. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.

Golin, Tau, and José Custódio de Sá e Faria. A Guerra Guaranítica: Como os exércitos de Portugal e Espanha destruíram os Sete Povos dos jesuítas e índios guaranis no Rio Grande do Sul. Passo Fundo, RS, Brasil: EDIUPF, Universidade de Passo Fundo, 1998.

                                  Thomas L. Whigham