The Guarani under Spanish Rule in the Rio de la Plata

The Guarani under Spanish Rule in the Rio de la Plata

Jerry W. Cooney

The Guarani under Spanish Rule in the Rio de la Plata. By Barbara Ganson (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003. xii plus 290 pp. $65.00).

Inspired by Counter Reformation zeal, the establishment of the Guarani Missions in the early 1600s was one of the most noteworthy efforts of the Jesuits in the New World. Eventually, the region under this order’s command stretched from present southern Paraguay across the Parana and Uruguay rivers into what is now the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul. During the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the Jesuits in the Rio de la Plata enjoyed the favor of Spanish monarchs as their missions provided a stable frontier and bulwark against Portuguese expansion from the east.

The order’s determination to insulate these establishments from the hispanic society of the colonial Plata signified that for the first 150 years of the Guarani missions, Indians interacted with only a small number of Jesuits. These missionaries instructed the Guarani in the Christian religion, and introduced them to European pastoral, agricultural, and artisan skills. As this study reveals, however, the inhabitants of the missions were not just passive recipients. Rather, Indians were active participants in the creation of a flourishing and unique Guarani mission culture. The language of the missions was Guarani and the Jesuits fostered a degree of literacy in the native tongue. Elements of pre-Columbian culture survived, among which were even some ancient religious practices (although in a surreptitious manner). The arming of Guarani men to counter slave raiders from Portuguese Brazil and at times to enforce Spanish policy in the Upper Plata, appealed to their warrior tradition.

Neither the Jesuits, nor the Guarani, could halt time, and the unique conditions that enabled Indians to survive as an island in the midst of colonial hispanic culture disappeared by the mid-eighteenth century. Under the impact of the Borbon reorganization of the state, indeed of society, the methods of the seventeenth century that Indians and other subaltern classes of the Empire employed to further their ends proved less viable. “Enlightened bureaucrats” of the empire knew what was best for the Indians, and the latter would just have to accept new policies.

The Treaty of Madrid in 1750, by which Spain and Portugal agreed upon boundaries in the New World, was a disaster for the Guarani. The pact called for seven eastern missions to be ceded to Portugal. Ever since the paulista slave raids of the mid-1600s, the Guarani considered the Portuguese to be their deadly enemies. Now, while proclaiming their loyalty to Spanish monarch, the Guarani themselves, independently of Jesuit advice and leadership, took the lead in resistance to the treaty. Their protests to local officials as well as to Madrid were to no avail. Some fled the missions; others finally decided that armed resistance was necessary. In the latter case, the hastily raised Indian forces were no match for regular troops in the Guarani War. Opponents of the Jesuits in Europe blamed the order for the resistance, but it was really the Indians, concerned about their future under Portuguese rule, who resisted. Surely, as this work illustrates, no greater proof of Indian capacity for independent action to ensure their survival can be found than this tragic conflict.

No longer did the Jesuits enjoy royal favor. Royal officials considered them a foe of the centralizing efforts of the Borbon monarchy, and the structure of their missions to be an anomaly of the past. In 1767 Charles III decreed the expulsion of Jesuits from the empire, and after that expulsion the Crown appointed royal administrators over the Guarani missions. The result was an economic decline for that region whose complex ramifications are well handled in this study. Again, by means long customary in hispanic tradition, Indians complained about harmful policies and corrupt administrators, and pleaded for economic redemption. For all the good intentions of some officials, little was accomplished to relieve the Indians of their distress. In the face of economic disaster, they utilized their last resort and many fled the missions.

Intensive archival study, including the utilization of letters and other communications in Guarani, makes the plight of Indians and their flight from the missions in the last forty years of the colonial era a strong part of this work. Many brought skills with them that were utilized from the northern reaches of Paraguay to the delta of the Parana. Refugees from the missions labored as gatherers of yerba, loggers, herders of cattle, supplied firewood for the viceregal capital, and crewed the many boats of the riverborne commerce of this region. Not only did young men flee the missions, but their women also. The latter found employment as domestics, seamstresses, and cooks in the towns of the litoral. To abandon the missions was illegal, but the flight continued and the Guarani found a welcome reception for their labor and skills. Certainly that escape from the missions was a survival method for individuals, as the lower classes of this region were reinforced by the exodus, but at the same time that dispersal signified the gradual disappearance of the Guarani mission Indians as a collective body.

The Guarani missions lasted approximately 200 years, succumbing finally in the turmoil of the independence period. During that long period, the Indians experienced different challenges to their existence. The limitations of space in a monograph preclude intensive treatment upon all the topics that might pertain to Guarani survival. After all, only so much can be contained in a single work. Some readers may be disappointed that more emphasis was not given to a particular theme in which they might have a specific interest. For instance, one wishes that more attention had been paid to the development of a mutual dependency between Jesuits and Guarani in face of Brazilian slave raiders during the 1600s. That is a minor quibble, however. This is an excellent piece of ethno-history, well researched, and a significant contribution to recent studies on Indian survival in colonial Spanish America.

Jerry W. Cooney

Emeritus, University of Louisville

COPYRIGHT 2004 Journal of Social History

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