Paraguay at the time of the missions

For more than a century and a half, the Jesuit order dominated the spiritual, economic and political life of colonial Paraguay. Jean-Paul Duviols' work lifts the veil on intellectual precepts, institutional organization and the causes of their decline.

In the contemporary imagination, the Jesuit missions of Paraguay remain associated with Roland Joff's film, The Mission, Cannes Palme d'Or in 1986. In addition to the original soundtrack composed by Ennio Morricone, moviegoers will particularly remember this masterful opening sequence set against the backdrop of the Iguazu Falls, listed two years earlier as a UNESCO world heritage site. Only the most discerning spectators will undoubtedly remember the historical backdrop of the film. It is about the so-called war guaranitic which brings into conflict, in the middle of XVIIIe century, a Spanish-Portuguese alliance against the Jesuit missionaries. The causes of this conflict are so briefly explained that it is difficult to understand its motives. Some also put forward the hypothesis that the filmmaker's work would rather echo its context of production: the theology of liberation agitated then, under the leadership of a community of ecclesiastics acquired in Marxist theories, the countryside and urban peripheries of Latin America. Whatever the subject, the strength of the cinematic medium lies in the visual staging of a story that tells a hstory before making Hhistory, and leaves us with a vague but persistent retinal impression.

Beyond this award-winning film, which the Jesuit missions remind us of? What do we know about them? Not only are their remains not popular with international tourists, but they have been relatively little studied by foreign researchers. Thus, even though there exists in France an academic community of Paraguayans we think of the anthropologist Capucine Boidin, the historian Luc Capdevila, the geographer Sylvain Souchaud or even the political scientist Rene Frgosi, the historiographical production proves poor in our language over the period concerned. Furthermore, like Maxime Haubert's book published in 1967, the work is dated. Hence the merit of Jean-Paul Duviols, professor of literature and Latin American civilization at the Sorbonne, to look into this jesuit adventure.

Printed on thick paper, decorated with a cardboard binding and a satin fabric bookmark, this beautiful book contains no less than a hundred iconographic documents. Very richly illustrated with old maps, engravings, frontispieces, paintings, watercolors, drawings and other photographs, the work is divided into two parts. The first on which this review focuses constitutes an analytical synthesis of the subject. The second composes an anthology of historical texts: in addition to period chronicles, the reader will read the reflections of Voltaire, Chateaubriand and Foucault, among others.

The evangelization of wild

Attack on the ancient Jesuit mission of Mayn, Francisco Requena, 1782, The Catholic University of America, Washington D.C..

It is established that the Jesuits, arriving in the Plata basin in the middle of the XVIe century, showed greater flexibility than their Franciscan predecessors when it came to subjecting the natives to the reign of faith. Reputed to be more accommodating than exploitation campaigns carried out in encomiendas from New Spain or Peru, their evangelization enterprise began in the 1580s was nonetheless founded on ideological precepts that were just as elitist and contemptuous. In the eyes of the missionaries, the Tupi-Guarani are fierce beings, close to an animal nature and who manifest their obscenity (through nudity), their cruelty (by indulging in ritual anthropophagy) or their immorality (in polygamy).

Furthermore, unlike their similar descendants of the prestigious Aztecs or the illustrious Incas, the Indians of Paraguay cannot be described as idolatrous pagans, to the extent that they have not built any monumental place of worship and that they intercede with their divinities without the intermediary of any ecclesiastical authority. As the author summarizes, incapable of controlling their impulses, barely emerging from their animal form, these Indians were judged to be participants in the first beginnings of humanity and their intellectual capacities could therefore in no way be compared to those of Europeans. (p. 52).

A testimony to Guarani art. San Cosme y Damin, Paraguay, December 2012. Photo credit: Damien Larrouqu

Legally, the Jesuits considered the Indians as immature and irresponsible as children. Imbued with condescension towards them, they literally give themselves over to assignment civilizing force to grant them a benevolent education, to initiate them in their language to the teachings of Christ, and to humanize them through manual labor (agriculture, crafts, music), while retaining the paternalistic right to subject the recalcitrant and the lazy to punishment (the whip in particular). In order to facilitate the inculcation of religious precepts, the Jesuit missionaries were convinced that they had to first and foremost understand the beliefs of the Indians, which first and foremost required learning to communicate in their language, then to disguise them through an assumed syncretism, which meant associating for example Tupa, the god of Thunder of the Guarani panthon, God the Father. In the encomiendas conversely, learning Castilian was obligatory (at least orally) and the survival of pagan conceptions was hardly tolerated: literacy and catechization went hand in hand, the first conditioning the second, and vice versa.

Christianization by force adopted by the Franciscan and Dominican orders, the Jesuits of Paraguay preferred conversion by persuasion. Without a doubt, this modality gentle evangelization allowed them to extend their political and economic domination over the Guarani people.

The organization of the jesuitic empire

Collecting honey (nd), Florian Baucke (1719-1779), Museum of Fine Arts of Buenos Aires.

In a territory untouched by any colonization, located on the borders of present-day Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, the Jesuits established thirty indigenous cities, called discountswhere some 150,000 people lived at their peak at the beginning of the XVIIIe century. Inspired by Plato's ideal Republic, they were keen to reconnect with the anti-slavery utopia initiated by Bartolom de las Casas in Guatemala in the 1530s. The basis of the economic system was based on collective property. Excelling in agriculture such as livestock breeding (horses, cattle), the reductions lived in self-sufficiency and exploited goods appreciated by the colonists, such as tobacco or mat grass. In the absence of money, work was not paid. On the other hand, daily labor did not exceed six or seven hours compared to twelve to fourteen hours in Europe at the same time. The rest of the time, the Indians devoted themselves to study, music, prayer or leisure. In addition, the reductions ensured, thanks to their dispensaries, early social security for all its members. Named Loreto, the first was founded in 1610 on the banks of the Paran.

The ruins of Jesus of Tavarangue. Itapa Department, Paraguay, December 2012. Photo credit: D.L.

Legally, the Company of Jesus enjoyed a unique and enviable status. First of all, it had a form of extraterritoriality tolerated by the Iberian crown, which allowed it to administer justice in its cities, where the Inquisition had no influence. Within the reductions, the governmentality of bodies and practices would therefore exist in complete independence. In this case, the abolition of the death penalty did not exclude corporal punishment. Michel Foucault described the missions in these terms:

In Paraguay, the Jesuits had founded a marvelous colony, in which all life was regulated; the regime of the most perfect communism reigned, since the land belonged to everyone () The houses were arranged in regular rows along two streets which intersected at right angles () The Jesuits regulated from evening to morning and from morning to evening, meticulously, throughout the lives of the settlers.

according to him, the evangelizers even found a factious method in favor of demographic rearmament

midnight, he added, the bell was ringing, it was the bell that was called from marital awakeningbecause the Jesuits essentially wanted the colonists to reproduce; and they cheerfully pulled the bell every evening so that the population could proliferate.

At the institutional level, the Jesuits came under papal authority. They thus had tax privileges, which annoyed the settlers of Asuncin, Cordoba or Buenos Aires all the more as the territory of the reductions was forbidden to them from entering without a pass-conduct. This discriminatory policy was justified to protect the Indians against the raids carried out by the Portuguese slave hunters, the famous bandeirantes. To better resist their intrusions, the missionaries ended up arming the Indians from the 1630s, forming a real Guarani militia at the end of the century. Envenomed by geopolitical tensions between Madrid and Lisbon, the conflict for control of this confederate territory around its thirty reductions became inevitable.

The collapse of kingdom of God on Earth

In area, the Jesuit province was equivalent to the size of the Iberian Peninsula. Its fall was as sudden as its foundation was long. As the author writes, This kingdom of God on earth which seemed so effectively and therefore so permanently implanted would nevertheless suddenly collapse and disappear in a few weeks (p. 99). First there was this famous guarinitic war (1753-1756) who opposed the armed rebellion of the Jesuits to the colonial troops, following diplomatic negotiations that were very unfavorable to the missionaries. Weakened by their defeat, the Jesuits remain accused of fomenting revolts against the royal authority and of representing a state within a state, under the orders of the sovereign pontiff. Consequently, Charles III of Spain followed the resolution already taken by the Marquis of Pombal five years earlier and ordered in 1767 the expulsion of the Company of Jesus from the Americas.

After the dismissal of the evangelizers, the reductions quickly worsened. Their administrative takeover by colonial stewards was short-lived. And for good reason, the royal officials saw it above all as an opportunity for plunder and exploitation offered by a servile workforce and, ultimately, little duque. Because one of the sins of pride of the missionaries is to have never granted more than a basic education to their protégés. Not a single Guarani in six generations had access to higher education of a scholastic or legal nature (they were not taught Spanish, so what about Latin), so much so that none could claim to rise to the ranks of institutional responsibility and all remained under the political, intellectual and spiritual tutelage of their good teachers. After their departure, many Indians preferred to regain their tribal freedom and live under the yoke of the settlers. In 1830, there were only 15,000 inhabitants left in the last villages.

On the roads of the Caazap department. Paraguay, December 2012. Photo credit: D.L.

Today, only the vestiges of these glorious reductions remain, a handful of which have been classified as UNESCO world heritage sites. May this very beautiful work give the reader the curiosity to know more about the very rich history of Paraguay, a country which remains under the academic radar. He invites us, moreover, to question the cultural heritage that the Jesuit missions could have bequeathed to a country which is still one of the most Catholic in all of Latin America. The decline of faith like the religious shift in favor of evangelism have not yet operated there: almost 90% of the population still declare themselves Catholic, compared to 65% in the rest of Latin America.