Jesuits & the Guarani Indians

by Maryanne Schiffman

The Guaraní were the original residents of a region that now comprises Paraguay, Uruguay, northern Argentina and southern Brazil; today in Paraguay alone, 95 percent of Paraguayans are of Guaraní ancestry. In the 16th Century, the Spanish arrived looking for riches and conquest; soon after, Catholic missionaries followed, looking for converts. But when slave traders began to kidnap and kill the Guaraní, terrorizing and massacring mission towns, the Jesuits decided to fight back. By training and arming the Guaraní, this Indigenous-Jesuit alliance became one of the fiercest fighting forces in the Americas. The 1986 movie "The Mission," starring Robert de Niro, is based on this story.

The Guaraní

The Guaraní were the largest indigenous population in South America at the time of the Spanish Conquest, outnumbering even the Incan Empire. However, unlike the Incas, the Guaraní were mostly peaceful, known by Europeans as “the good savages.” The Guaraní lived collectively, with several families to a house, in small towns under the direction of a local leader, or cacique, who in turn took direction from a council of elders. There were no social castes, only privileged status for descendants of caciques. The Guaraní were monotheists whose god was named “Tupá.” This god did not require them to build temples of worship or make sacrifices to him. For the most part their language was only spoken, although some cave hieroglyphics have been found. This language, also called Guaraní, survives today: One of the richest languages in the world, it is still spoken in the region and is one of the official languages of Paraguay.

The Jesuits

Jesuit missionaries arrived in 1558 to convert the Guaraní to Catholicism. Before this, the Guaraní were widely scattered throughout the region, but the Jesuits persuaded converted Guaraní to re-settle in mission towns known as reducciones. By the mid-17th Century, the confederation of Guaraní settlements occupied a territory the size of France with a population of 150,000 inhabitants in more than 30 reducciones; in total the Jesuits succeeded in baptizing more than 200,000 Indians. In these towns, the Guaraní found protection from the abuses of the Spanish colonialists, but they were forced to live a drastically different life from their own tradition. Worse, in the mission towns, the Guaraní were exposed to European illnesses; thousands fell victim to diseases against which they did not have defenses, including measles, influenza, chickenpox and smallpox. However, for the Christian Guaraní who survived, many thrived: the Jesuits encouraged education of all kinds, from textiles to mining to the arts, including music, painting and sculpture. The Jesuits even set up a system of government in which the Guaraní voted for their own representatives and managed their own affairs.

The Slave Trade

When the Spanish conquerors first arrived, the Guaraní had been willing to make alliances with them in order to fight their enemies, the Guaykurúes, of the neighboring Chaco region. But the Guaraní were soon enslaved by the Spanish colonizers, who forced them to work their plantations producing yerba buena, a tea that was in high demand, and as boatmen, porters or servants. Yet even worse for the Guaraní were the slave traders, known as mamelucos, who kidnapped the Indians and sold them to Brazilian sugar plantation owners. After repeated attacks on the missions and the kidnapping of more than two million Guaraní in the region, the Jesuits decided that their missions in Uruguay and southern Brazil were too vulnerable to the slave traders and initiated a mass exodus of more than 50,000 people to the missions in Paraguay. At the same time, the Jesuits asked the Spanish King Felipe IV for permission to arm the Guaraní; the King agreed and the priests, many of whom who were former soldiers of the Conquest and European wars, began to train the Indians. In 1641, when an army of 800 Paulistas, as the slave traders were known, entered mission territory, the Guaraní army inflicted such severe damage that it put an end to the invasions for the next 10 years. The Paulistas would try again in succeeding decades, but the Guaraní and the Jesuits were able to stand their ground and on more than one occasion even defended the Spanish Colony itself. In 1732, the year of the missions’ greatest prosperity, the territory was guarded by a well-trained and equipped army of 7,000 Indians.

Order From Rome

In 1750, when Spain and Portugal signed a treaty clarifying the boundaries of their possessions in South America, one of the stipulations was that the Jesuits, whose power in the colonies had come to rival that of the Spanish Crown, abandon seven of their settlements. Although the order was signed by both the Pope and the head of the Jesuits in Rome, the Guaraní and the Jesuits first asked for an extension and then completely refused to comply. This resulted in a three-year war that ultimately ended with a decree from the Spanish King Carlos III expelling the Jesuits from all of South America forever. The Jesuits complied and upon their exit, the Guaraní were left to their own devices. Some fell under control of Spanish overlords, others escaped to the jungle and many, now accustomed to the new lives they had adopted in the missions, set off on their own to become independent farmers. Thus the socialist-style Jesuit experiment came to an end, but not before leaving many, including the European intellectuals Montesquieu, Bouffon and Voltaire, astounded at what it had accomplished.

About the Author

Based in MedellĂ­n, Colombia, Maryanne Schiffman has a B.A. in economic development from UC Berkeley and an M.A. in Latin American studies from the University of Texas. Writing for more than 20 years, she has contributed to academic journals and online publications, including the Colombian NTN24 news website.

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