The Sword of the Word

Paraguay Table of Contents

During the next 200 years, the Roman Catholic Church--especially the ascetic, single-minded members of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits)--had much more influence on the colony's social and economic life than the feckless governors who succeeded Irala. Three Jesuits--an Irishman, a Catalan, and a Portuguese--arrived in 1588 from Brazil. They promptly moved from Asunción to proselytize among the Indians along the upper Río Paraná. Because they already believed in an impersonal, supreme being, the Guaraní proved to be good pupils of the Jesuits.

In 1610 Philip III (1598-1621) proclaimed that only the "sword of the word" should be used to subdue the Paraguayan Indians, thus making them happy subjects. The church granted extensive powers to Jesuit Father Diego de Torres to implement a new plan, with royal blessings, that foresaw an end to the encomienda system. This plan angered the settlers, whose lifestyle depended on a continuing supply of Indian labor and concubines. The settlers' resistance helped convince the Jesuits to move their base of operations farther afield to the province of Guayrá in the distant northeast. After unsuccessful attempts to "civilize" the recalcitrant Guaycurú, the Jesuits eventually put all their efforts into working with the Guaraní. Organizing the Guaraní in reducciones (reductions or townships), the hard-working fathers began a system that would last more than a century. In one of history's greatest experiments in communal living, the Jesuits had soon organized about 100,000 Guaraní in about 20 reducciones, and they dreamed of a Jesuit empire that would stretch from the Paraguay-Paraná confluence to the coast and back to the Paraná headwaters.

The new Jesuit reducciones were unfortunately within striking distance of the mamelucos, the slave-raiding, mixed-race descendants of Portuguese and Dutch adventurers. The mamelucos were based in Sâo Paulo, Brazil, which had become a haven for freebooters and pirates by the early 1600s because it was beyond the control of the Portuguese colonial governor. The mamelucos survived mostly by capturing Indians and selling them as slaves to Brazilian planters. Having depleted the Indian population near Sâo Paulo, they ventured farther afield until they discovered the richly populated reducciones. The Spanish authorities chose not to defend the settlements.

Spain and Portugal were united from 1580 to 1640. Although their colonial subjects were at war, the governor of Rio de la Plata Province had little incentive to send scarce troops and supplies against an enemy who was nominally of the same nationality. In addition, the Jesuits were not popular in Asunción, where the settlers had the governor's ear. The Jesuits and their thousands of neophytes thus had little means to protect themselves from the depredations of the "Paulistas," as the mamelucos also were called (because they came from Sâo Paulo). In one such raid in 1629, about 3,000 Paulistas destroyed the reducciones in their path by burning churches, killing old people and infants (who were worthless as slaves), and carrying off to the coast entire human populations, as well as cattle. Their first raids on the reducciones netted them at least 15,000 captives.

Faced with the awesome challenge of a virtual holocaust that was frightening away their neophytes and encouraging them to revert to paganism, the Jesuits took drastic measures. Under the leadership of Father Antonio Ruíz de Montoya, as many as 30,000 Indians (2,500 families) retreated by canoe and traveled hundreds of kilometers south to another large concentration of Jesuit reducciones near the lower Paraná. About 12,000 people survived. But the retreat failed to deter the Paulistas, who continued to raid and carry off slaves until even the reducciones far to the south faced extinction. The Paulista threat ended only after 1639, when the viceroy in Peru agreed to allow Indians to bear arms. Welltrained and highly motivated Indian units, serving under Jesuit officers, bloodied the raiders and drove them off.

Victory over the Paulistas set the stage for the golden age of the Jesuits in Paraguay. The Guaraní were unaccustomed to the discipline and the sedentary life prevalent in the reducciones, but adapted to it readily because it offered them higher living standards, protection from settlers, and physical security. By 1700 the Jesuits could again count 100,000 neophytes in about 30 reducciones. The reducciones exported goods, including cotton and linen cloth, hides, tobacco, lumber, and above all, yerba maté, a plant used to produce a bitter tea that is popular in Paraguay and Argentina. The Jesuits also raised food crops and taught arts and crafts. In addition, they were able to render considerable service to the crown by supplying Indian armies for use against attacks by the Portuguese, English, and French. At the time of the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Spanish Empire in 1767, the reducciones were enormously wealthy and comprised more than 21,000 families. Their vast herds included approximately 725,000 head of cattle, 47,000 oxen, 99,000 horses, 230,000 sheep, 14,000 mules, and 8,000 donkeys.

Because of their success, the 14,000 Jesuits who had volunteered over the years to serve in Paraguay gained many enemies. They were a continual goad to the settlers, who viewed them with envy and resentment and spread rumors of hidden gold mines and the threat to the crown from an independent Jesuit republic. To the crown, the reducciones seemed like an increasingly ripe plum, ready for picking.

The reducciones fell prey to changing times. During the 1720s and 1730s, Paraguayan settlers rebelled against Jesuit privileges and the government that protected them. Although this revolt failed, it was one of the earliest and most serious risings against Spanish authority in the New World and caused the crown to question its continued support for the Jesuits. The Jesuit-inspired War of the Seven Reductions (1750-61), which was fought to prevent the transfer to Portugal of seven missions south of the Río Uruguay, increased sentiment in Madrid for suppressing this "empire within an empire."

In a move to gain the reducciones' wealth to help finance a planned reform of Spanish administration in the New World, the Spanish king, Charles III (1759-88), expelled the Jesuits in 1767. Within a few decades of the expulsion, most of what the Jesuits had accomplished was lost. The missions lost their valuables, became mismanaged, and were abandoned by the Guaraní. The Jesuits vanished almost without a trace. Today, a few weed-choked ruins are all that remain of this 160-year period in Paraguayan history.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress