Jesuit Missions (Reducciones)

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Jesuit Missions (Reducciones)

The Jesuits founded about fifty missions in the upper Río de la Plata between 1610 and 1764. Their purpose was to "reduce [the Indians] to civilized life," meaning to transform to European political, economic, and social patterns and Christian belief and ritual, the Native Americans of the region. In Jesuit Paraguay, an area larger than the modern nation, missionaries worked in the Gran Chaco among Abipones, Tobas, Mocobís, Mbayás, Guanás, Lules, Isistines, Toquistines, Vilelas, Omoampas, and Pasaines, but the famed "Jesuit Republic" refers to the near-legendary thirty (actually thirty-two) Guarani missions located in present-day Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. These missions housed a maximum of 140,000 Guaranis in 1732 but generally sheltered about 100,000. The lasting fame of the mission province, called by whites an earthly paradise, rests on its symbolic value. Such Jesuit authors as Pierre Charlevoix praised the mission complex, while opponents of the Jesuits, such as Voltaire, condemned it. Such twentieth-century socialists as R. B. Cunninghame Graham, who saw in the missions a "vanished arcadia," also found in them a historical model for their own political causes.

Although Jesuits arrived in Paraguay in 1588, the first missions were established in 1610. In the area of the later "mission state" between the Alto Paraná and Uruguay rivers, in Guairá along the Paranapanemá River—now Paraná, Brazil—and in Itaty, well north of Asunción, Jesuits went among the Guaranis to teach them Christianity and European ways, but the Guaranis who joined these missions were not aboriginal, having encountered European culture three-quarters of a century before the Jesuits arrived. Indians accepted mission life for the material benefits that they received from the Jesuits, especially iron artifacts and domesticated animals, for the promise of physical security, and for the protection of Guarani women from exploitative sexual relations with Spaniards. The Guaranis rejected Roman Catholic beliefs for a generation or two, although they participated in Catholic rituals at once.

Paulista slave raiders from Brazil and mounted Guaycuruans from the Chaco pushed the northern missions in Guairá and Itaty to the rich agricultural and pasture lands south of the Paraná. On the most dramatic journey, Father Antonio Ruíz de Montoya in 1631 led thousands of Guaranis from Guairá 400 miles south to the center of the mission country. There Jesuits and Guaranis organized militias that halted the Portuguese advance in the 1640s and thereafter protected the missions from external threats until 1767.

Fathers Marcello Lorençana, Roque González De Santa Cruz, and other Jesuits in southern Paraguay and northeastern Argentina undertook the spectacular program of mission expansion that aroused worldwide admiration and envy of the Jesuit order. Paternalistically organized by Jesuits, Paraguayan missions followed physical and social models established by Franciscans in sixteenth-century Mexico. Founders located the church, cemetery, workshops, Guarani quarters, and priests' houses close to the town square. Then they built a sound economy. Mission prosperity resulted from efficient management, continuity of economic rhythms, and the rich lands of the missions. Guaranis cultivated traditional crops, including manioc, sweet potatoes, and maize, and also grew such European imports as wheat and oranges. Vast herds of cattle, horses, and sheep contributed to the prosperity of the missions. The sale of high-quality Yerba Maté, carefully cultivated on Jesuit plantations, earned the profits to pay for the import of such needed European goods as iron tools and weapons; Jesuit yerba maté competed with that of Creole merchants, who marketed an inferior product.

Often labeled "primitive communism," the mission economy and governance were actually based on individual plots for Guarani families, inalienable under Spanish law, and common lands, called tupambae, for crops and cattle. These holdings resembled early modern European practices rather than collective farms of the twentieth century. Jesuits only slightly altered the aboriginal sexual division of labor but were responsible for introducing marked status distinctions among men, especially for Guarani officials who assisted priests, including militia commanders and holders of posts on cabildos. Traditional chiefs, called caciques by Spaniards, continued to articulate Guarani opinions and often clashed with priests and their Indian appointees. Jesuits controlled surpluses in mission storehouses, and Guarani voices periodically asked for greater involvement in how to use them, because profits from Guarani missions provided capital grants for new missions. In the 1700s, sedentary Chaco peoples of the Argentine northwest, such as the Lules (1711) and Villelas (1735), accepted Jesuit offers to establish missions for them. After 1743, nomadic Chaco Guaycuruans also began settling in missions staffed by Jesuits. Subventions for these foundations came from the abundance of Guarani missions.

Exempt from manual labor in Jesuit missions were the caciques, Indian corregidores (magistrates), members of the cabildo (the mission's town council), skilled artisans, and captains in the militia companies. Tribute to the Crown was one peso annually paid by all nonexempt men from age eighteen to fifty, a low rate of taxation that partly reflected Jesuit influence at court and royal thanks for Guarani military services to the empire.

Missions were generally staffed by two priests; they reported to a superior who administered the Guarani missions from his headquarters at Candelaria, a large mission town on the Río Paraná. The superior answered to the provincial in Córdoba, who obeyed the Jesuit general in Rome. Although periodic reports of Jesuit arrogance circulated in Spain and America, officials of the Jesuit mission province of Paraguay were loyal to the crown. Like other interest groups in early Spanish America, however, the Society of Jesus often delayed implementing injurious royal decrees and sought to reverse them through political influence in Madrid, Lima, and Asunción. The monarchy wanted missionaries to be Spanish subjects, but manpower needs and Jesuit lobbying forced the crown periodically to relax the rules. The society recruited missionaries in Italy, Germany, and occasionally Britain. Most Jesuits in Paraguay were able men, fluent in several languages and often masters of such specialties as agriculture, artisan trades, commerce, music, and war.

The missions always had enemies. The Jesuits were politically active. They cooperated with and co-opted royal officials, and conflicts arose. The unsuccessful anti-Jesuit efforts of, and unfortunate ends to, the careers of Bishop Bernardino de Cárdenas in the 1640s and Governor José de Antequera y Castro in the 1720s show how influential the agents of the missions were.

From the beginning, the Jesuit monopoly on Guarani labor clashed with the interests of settlers. Paraguayan employers' attitudes toward Guarani workers were formed by the early Franciscan foundations, which integrated the Native American work force into the fabric of the civil province. The Society of Jesus, in contrast, jealously protected its Guarani neophytes against exploitation by private employers, and Jesuits allowed mission Guaranis few opportunities to choose their own ways of work and leisure.

Colonists of Paraguay and Corrientes thus envied the Jesuits' control of native labor and feared the missions' military potential, occasionally used against rebellious settlers. Other adversaries included members of more nationalistic religious orders in Spain, who resented the ultramontane Society of Jesus for its loyalty to the pope. Modernizing bureaucrats of Bourbon Spain after 1700 resented the society's corporate privileges. Royal officials in the 1760s tired of Jesuit privileges, made notorious by Guarani military resistance to the Treaty of Madrid of 1750, which would have transferred seven missions on the Uruguay River to Portuguese control. Some administrators also envied the society's wealth. In early 1767, Charles III ordered the Jesuits expelled from his dominions, and officials in the Río de la Plata executed the order in 1767 and 1768.

After the expulsion, imperial bureaucrats and land-hungry colonists conspired to acquire mission lands, and the Guarani missions slowly declined. Indians with marketable skills took advantage of more relaxed controls to leave the missions and join Hispanic communities of the upper Río de la Plata. They never returned to the wild, as some accounts allege. Although a few missions in the Chaco disappeared after the Jesuits' departure, others were founded. Questions about how great was the contribution of the Jesuit missions to the empire and how much they benefited the Indians are still topics of debate, now invigorated by recent interest in Native American views of the institutions that controlled them.

See alsoCatholic Church: The Colonial Period; Missionaries of Charity.


Martin Dobrizhoffer, An Account of the Abipones: An Equestrian People of Paraguay, 3 vols., translated by Sara Coleridge (1822; repr. in 1 vol. 1970).

Robert B. Cunninghame Graham, A Vanished Arcadia (1901).

Magnus Mörner, The Political and Economic Activities of the Jesuits in the La Plata Region: The Hapsburg Era (1953).

Guillermo Furlong [Cárdiff], Misiones y sus pueblos Guaranies (1962).

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

Philip Caraman, The Lost Paradise: The Jesuit Republic in South America (1976).

Branislava Susnik, Los aborígenes del Paraguay, 7 vols. (1978–1987).

Additional Bibliography

Bailey, Gauvin A. Art on the Jesuit Missions in Asia and Latin America, 1542–1773. Buffalo, NY: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

Gálvez, Lucía. Guaraníes y jesuitas de la tierra sin mal al paraíso. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1995.

Flores, Moacyr. Reduções jesuíticas dos guaranis. Porto Alegre: EDIPUCRS, 1997.

Hernández Palomo, José Jesús, and Rodrigo Moreno Jeria. La Misión y los jesuitas en la América española, 1566–1767: Cambios y permanencies. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Departamento de Publicaciones, 2005.

Negro Tua, Sandra and Manuel M. Marzal. Un reino en la frontera: Las misiones jesuitas en la América colonial. Lima: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú: Ediciones Abya-Yala, 1999.

Olsen, Margaret M. Slavery and Salvation in Colonial Cartagena de Indias. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004.

Querejazu, Pedro and Plácido Molina Barbery. Las misiones jesuíticas de Chiquitos. La Paz: Fundación BHN, Línea Editorial: La Papelera, 1995.

                                   James Schofield Saeger