Investigating Successes and Failures: the Jesuits of Paraguay

By Santos

A Portuguese captain sailed from the port of Lisbon, Portugal in late April 1500. And like so many other explorers searching for a way to reach the Far East they ran right into, what is today, Brazil. Before the sixteenth century, and especially in Spain and Portugal, there were a lot of anti-Muslim sentiments. That is not to say that it didn't exist in the sixteenth century or later centuries, but the non-stop confliction against Moorish occupation made the two empires feel inclined to set out to new destinations and extinguish Islam before it went further than Africa and Europe. King Manuel I of Portugal received anticipated news from a Portuguese ship's scribe that Christianity could prevail over the Indians because "There Can Easily Be Stamped Upon Them Whatever Belief We Wish to Give Them." This is the first letter from Brazil written May 1, 1500 by Pedro Vaz de Caminha. Through this letter Caminha describes their first initial impressions of the new people and how they appear to be in need of salvation. But why is this important and what does it have to do with the Jesuits of Paraguay?

If we consider this letter's pompous claim to be able to "easily" convert the people of South America, then we can formulate a better understanding of the mentality some colonists had when they came to the Americas. But of these colonists some didn't come over to exploit the indigenous people and make profit on them. The Jesuits came over to save the Indians not only from the profiteers and extortionists, but to protect the many different tribes of Latin America and in the process convert them to Christianity. In the Jesuits' own mini-conquest they had to create some sort of strong society based structure that could be impenetrable to outside influences and stable enough to successfully thrive as its own community amid the constantly competing church and state. The successes and failures of the Jesuits of Paraguay can be investigated if we observe their struggle against enslavers, political strife between the church and state, and the Utopian ideals they portrayed in a new Indian society.

Philip Caraman's The Lost Paradise: an account of the Jesuits in Paraguay provides some of the successes and failures of the Jesuits and their institutions. The Reductions, or in other places aldeias, were places where the Jesuits had the Indians live. The initial idea was to segregate the Indians from all exposure to the colonists. The Mamelucos of South America were one of the groups that dissuaded this idea by gathering and capturing the Indians. The Jesuits would often have to abandon the Christian locations and move the Indians to evade the Mamelucos.

Essentially, the Jesuits were constantly working on two fronts: protecting the Indians and at the same time making Christians of them. But there would often be contradictions. If the Jesuits were teaching Christianity and other colonizing Christian settlers were coming to capture and throw them into slavery, then the Indians often thought the Jesuits were in cahoots with the Mamelucos. In Peter Bakewell's A History of Latin America he begins to describe how Portugal was in mass production of sugar cane and that the need for labor was eminent. From the 1530s to about the 1560s Indian enslavement ran ramped until "the crown came to grips with the question of Indian slavery."

The original proposition was for the Jesuits to teach these wayward natives Christianity and they were in great anticipation of the task. As the first Portuguese had thought fifty years before, in Caminha's letter to the king, the Jesuits' first encounters with the Indian population was thought of as simplistic and receptive immediately; "like sponges ready to soak up Christianity." Here we notice the already developing hierarchy that new comers to the South Americas made on the natives. Addressing this initial assumption, we must consider the differences between common settlers and the Jesuits.

The Jesuits were successful in attaining an almost unbreakable trust with the Indians. Colonists or Mamelucos would deviate from any enlightening Christian values just because trade, money and profiteering was more satisfactory in their eyes than worrying about the decreasing native population. Ideals from Bartolomé De Las Casas and Geronimo Mendieta will not yet be considered until later centuries by the laymen because the Bourbon Reforms had yet to begin.

Now let us consider what the Indians may have thought at their initial encounter with the Portuguese and Jesuits; their opinions might have well been the same too. The Indians were probably more different, containing a mixed feeling toward the strangers - unwelcoming, intimidated and scared. The Jesuits' reception was a more successful one because the Jesuits made more of an agenda familiarizing themselves with the indigenous peoples first and then teaching them the salvation of God. The laymen only had an agenda to advance their own interests among economic wealth rather than moral and societal needs.

A work that parallels the known successes and struggles between the Jesuits and laymen is John Leddy Phelan's The Millennial Kingdom of the Franciscans in the New World. Phelan's focus was on the repartimiento and how the priests in Spain constantly battled the laymen of New Spain to segregate the Indians from this extortion and that of the encomienda. The priests were constantly struggling to keep the Indians away from the laymen because Geronimo Mendieta saw the repartimiento as "anti-Christian and unjust." Mendieta's argument was simple: if the Indians were paid decently for their forced labor it wouldn't be a problem in the first place. Mendieta was suspicious of the repartimiento because its sole purpose had exceeded itself in preventing famine while killing off the indigenous society. The destruction seems incredibly ludicrous for individuals to be so dimwitted and could not see that they were destroying the Indians in their process.

We notice the same struggle between the laymen of Spain and its priests as well as the Jesuits against the Portuguese and Mamelucos. The only difference is the Indians who were taken out of the Reductions in Paraguay didn't even have the luxury of reluctance while working for their oppressors as the Indians in Spain had. They were shipped off as livestock and soon died when they arrived on the sugar plantations.

The Jesuits of Paraguay can be seen as a more successful defending force against the Portuguese and Mamelucos because they had more of a clerical hierarchy. The priests in New Spain battled against Indian enslavement which sanctioned the necessity for aldeias. The idea of segregating the Indians from the Spanish laymen and all other colonists was a very Utopian ideal, however, it still had the impression that the laymen were in control rather than the priests. The Jesuits' Reductions called for an entire equilibrium among the society they created, except for the fact that the Jesuits would be in charge of the Reductions. Everyone worked for the benefit of everyone while learning the Word of God and maintaining Christian status. The Jesuits' long standing success during this time lasted for twenty-three years Christianizing almost the entire region of Paraguay. But at the same time the constant invasion from the Mamelucos deterred the long term success of these Jesuit-ruled, Utopian Reductions.

The theology in the Reductions was essentially intact and that was where the Jesuits prevailed. Outside the Reductions, where all the political strife accumulated, was where they failed. Padre Ruiz de Montoya, for example, was a Jesuit who is seen as having the most success defending the Mameluco invasion and also be seen as one of the most prominent figures in the defeat of the Mamelucos. He was eventually elected as a delegate for the Paraguay Province to speak with King Philip IV. His tasks were to: disperse obligation to the encomienda and make the new Indian converters exempt from taxation for twenty years from their initial induction to the Reductions. However, no matter how much proposal was litigated in Europe it was the matter of upholding it in the New World. People could argue that the Church contributed too much of the Indian downfall because they did not enforce laws in Latin America. Moral conscience and economic wealth did come into realization until the Bourbon Reforms when past and present ideals from the enlightenment made it apparent that the Indians were being exterminated. This causation only led to the importation of more slaves from Africa because the enslavers were just trying to fill the void.

In 1642 the Mamelucos were defeated. In 1750 the Boundary Treaty in Madrid between Spain and Portugal was signed. The Jesuits begin their tedious battle against new enslavers which consist of the Spanish and Portuguese empires and even their own Church; albeit the Church was acting as a mediator between the two empires. Laws by the Church demanded that no slaves be extracted from the Reductions: unless the Indians were hostile and unbecoming of Christians. One precarious example consisted of cannibalistic Indians who supposedly captured colonists, cooked and ate them. In the early time of occupation, the 16th century, this was a more formidable claim, however, in the 17th and 18th centuries most of these types of tribes were never heard of. Thus, this exploitation of the law, or loophole, easily succeeded in destroying the attempts of the Jesuits. The Indians of Paraguay and other regions were actually more pious than lead to believe by the Portuguese and Spanish enslavers.

Another example of the Jesuits failures settled in the dust once the Boundary Treaty was instigated. It is mostly known for the territorial split between Spain and Portugal of slave plantations in what is today Brazil. As represented on the map, regarding the distinguished territories, the land to the east of Caaibate was ceded to Portugal. Caaibate is considered to be the last great stand held by the Jesuits and Guarani Indians. This is where some might argue that the Jesuit missions in Paraguay had ultimately ceased because of the failed support of the Church and Spanish Crown. The Church did not want to stand up for the Reductions, which were now in the possession of the Portuguese, and people may wonder why. Such cases instigated to the Church that it was the Guariani's right to not be extracted from the missions can be found in Nicolas Nenguiru's Letter to the Governor of Buenos Aires. The Guarani letters of 1753, following the Treaty of Madrid, claim that their rights to settle in Paraguay were endorsed by the Spanish Crown. The letters argue that the Guarani had accepted Christianity under the protection of Spain and that the king was the representative of God. They figured it was their divine right for them to live on their land without Portuguese impediment. The Church and Spain thusly, condemned the Guarani and the Jesuits to their own downfall by not backing up their claim.

However, we must recognize that the Guarani Wars of 1753-1756 undeniably laid the foundations of the most successful part of the Jesuits' institutions. Because the Jesuits had successfully converted most of the region of Paraguay, they had molded the Guarani and other Indians into strong, independent Christians who were willing to oppose the opposition and not accept Portuguese encroachment instigated in the Treaty of Madrid. In the case of Nenguiru and his opposition to the governor of Buenos Aires, Kenneth Mills argues that Philip Caraman's speculation of the Guarani leader that he "enjoyed more prestige and respect than Caraman's view allows."

So where do the Utopian ideals fit in? How can what the Jesuits did, even though they ultimately failed, be viewed as successful and a failure? Their institution of segregated communities, clerical hierarchies, assimilation between the masses of extortion, universally understood agriculture, religious principles and furthermore many attributions befitting of a Utopian society. Charles M. Andrews, once a professor at Bryn Mawr College epitomizes the term Utopia as "ideal states which are impossible of realization" because they are inhibited of jealousy or individual passion and have little regard for the confrontations of real society. Thomas More's Utopia indicted the disorders of the "social and economic transformation from an agricultural to an industrial and commercial state through which England was passing." This annunciation of disorder only parallels itself to the later colonialism in Latin American history. Not to say that Utopia was sought by every colonist, but it was most prevalent among the Jesuits of Paraguay. The Jesuits were called to the New World to bring new social order to the new people and transform them into Christians so as to stabilize the new conditions of colonial empires. For example, the Indians were constructed to focus more on farming because it was more profitable on a massive scale within the community (aldeias, or Reduction). Another part of the Portuguese jealousy toward the Reductions was the vast profits they were making that did not attribute to slave labor. This Utopian community flourished with agriculture that epitomized More's desire of an agricultural prosperous society.

Another profitable Utopian ideal out of the Reductions by the Jesuits was the idea to avoid war and all luxuries at all costs because it is not in the best interest of the community. The Jesuits main goal was for the prosperous governance of their Guarani Indians to focus entirely on a successful and stabilized social and economic. They closely resembled one of More's depictions: They [Utopians] have but few laws, and such is their constitution that they need not many. They very much condemn other nations, swell up to so many volumes; for they think it an unreasonable thing to oblige men to obey a body of laws that are both of such bulk, and so dark as not to be read and understood by every one of the subjects.

How ironic that the Peasant War of 1525 was not too much later after More to because society became incredibly radical.

But what might someone suspect of religion in a Utopian society? Thomas More explains religion is based all on the fact that "there is one Supreme Being" that guides the world. The Guarani certainly believed this because they accepted Christianity as equivocal. The Jesuits just made religion for them more of a milestone in their lives to adhere to. But along the lines of religion More's Utopian creator Utopus condemned people with alternative ideas of theology who used violence or reproach. These people were either banished or enslaved. One of the possible failures of the Jesuits was the ironic fact that they had possessed slaves themselves while opposing it at the same time. One might examine this light on the American Civil War between the North and the South if they were to compare the Jesuits of Paraguay and their cause for the abolishment of slavery.

Without losing the entire precedent of the argument it must be admired that the commonwealth of Utopian society can draw numerous parallels with that of the Jesuit Reduction society. We could as much compare More's inability to propose Utopia during England's transformation, to the Jesuits actual institution of Utopian ideals that eventually failed. On one hand you have Thomas More the philosopher who remained stagnant, while on the other hand you have the Jesuits who tried their might to create and save a society that is not abhorred by all the others.

Bianca Premo's Children of the Father King: Youth, Authority, and Legal Minority in Colonial Lima raise some interesting perspective that may be attributed to the Jesuits of Paraguay: she argues that until the 1970s the Enlightenment in Latin America is portrayed by most scholars as "an elite intellectual trend without devoting much attention to its effects on ordinary colonials." Modernism in the history of Latin America runs ramped in post-Colonialist history. With primary sources surrounding such an unknown area of Latin America, the history of California's own missionaries and Indians, for example, is an even bigger plethora of knowledge to investigate and analyse when it can parallel its own institutions to that of the Jesuits of Paraguay. An entire idea of reform is constantly contextualizing itself through the centuries to better establish a: who, what, where, when and why.

As history constantly reforms itself, historians can open the doors to new analysis in light of newer evidence or the debate of former evidence and argument. As long as there are new parallels to make and disintegrate, we can often find the successes and failures of such a seemingly miniscule subject. The successes and failures of the Jesuits of Paraguay are investigatable if we analyse their struggle against enslavers, political strife between the church and state, and the Utopian ideals they portrayed in a new Indian society.

The Jesuits successes against the enslavers were most prevalent in: familiarizing themselves with the natives more so than other colonists, developing a stronger relationship with the Indians despite their speculated inferiority and their strategic opposition against the enslavers themselves. Their failures sometimes aligned themselves with their successes: many of the natives abstained from interacting with the missionaries and sometimes even abandoned conversion all together because of despondency. A colonist's mind also placed the aborigines' minds well below their's because domination is only successful in its task if there is an inferior. Caminha's letter represented this type of mind set very well. And to add insult to injury, the Jesuits' and Indians' fight against the Mamelucos constantly succumbed because of physical inferiority in modern warfare.

The conflict between the crown and the church made the Indians feel more despondent and separated because what they had grown to accept just abandoned them again to slavery. Their victory against the Mamelucos was incredibly short-lived. The Treaty of Madrid showed the Indians the power of the political scale was superior to that of Christianity and the Jesuits could do nothing to deter this realization.

Lastly, the Jesuit's failures have grown to insurmountable heights of knowledge that just grasp Enlightenment ideals while building on Utopian ideals. It is important to factor in these elements while analysing history because there are still numerous discrepancies and information to realize in a post-Modern world.


Mills, Kenneth, ed. and others. Colonial Latin America: A Documentary History. (Scholarly Resources Inc., 2002)
Caraman, Philip. The Lost Paradise: an account of the Jesuits in Paraguay. (Sidgwick and Jackson London, 1975)
Bakewell, Peter. A History of Latin America: c.1450 to the Present Second Edition. (Blackwell Publishing, 1997, 2004)
Phelan, John Leddy. The Millennial Kingdom of the Franciscans in the New World, 2nd Edition. (University of California Press Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1970)
Mills. The Witness Francisco Poma y Altas Caldeas of San Pedro de Acas, Cajatambo, Peru
Mills. Nicolas Nenguiru's Letter to the Governor of Buenos Aires
Dunne, M. Walter. Ideal Empires and Republics: Introduction. (M. Walter Dunne Publisher, Washington & London, 1901)
Premo, Bianca. Children of the Father King: Youth, Authority, and Legal Minority in Colonial Lima. (University of North Carolina Press, 2005)