The Jesuit Missions in Bolivia

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The Jesuit Missions in Bolivia were not the first to be established in Latin America. The story of how these amazing settlements came about dates back to the early 1500’s. The contributions made to Bolivia’s cultural history can still be seen today, in towns like San Javier, San Ignacio, and others. These are not ruins, but villages full of life.

Initial Attempts

The first Jesuit missionaries arrived in what is now Bolivia (then known as Upper Peru) in 1572, having moved eastward from the Viceroyalty of Peru, where they had been established as a province since 1568. They were preceded in Bolivia by other orders, including the Augustinians, Dominicans, Franciscans, and Mercedarians. The Jesuits had petitioned the Spanish Crown for permission to enter its holdings in the New World for three decades before it was granted in 1566 by Phillip II, while the Portuguese king John III had given them leave to enter Brazil in 1549. For the first hundred years or so, the Jesuits invariably accompanied the Spanish military and were residents of its scattered garrisons; they were not authorised to establish frontier settlements without approval of the civil authorities.

Jesuit Missions in Bolivia

Photo ©2003-forever Dr. Daniel Beams.

These early missionaries were almost exclusively from Spain. For the most part, they attended to the spiritual needs of the colonists and local indigenous peoples in the arid altiplano, around Lake Titicaca and in the cities of La Paz, Potosí, and La Plata (present-day Sucre). They also established chapter houses, churches, and schools, the earliest being that of La Paz, built in 1572.

On 15 May 1587, the first three Jesuits - Fr. Diego Martínez (the provincial superior), Fr. Diego de Samaniego, and Br. Juan Sánchez - reached the remote eastern outpost of Santa Cruz de la Sierra (at that time located near present-day San José de Chiquitos), where they were welcomed by the governor, Lorenzo Suárez de Figueroa, and the entire town. The following year, Fr. Martínez began sporadic evangelisation of the nearby Itatine tribe. Over the years, other tribes, most of them ethnically part of the Chiquitano group, gradually were converted; only the Chiriguano remained hostile to evangelisation.

The first chapter house in Santa Cruz was set up in 1592. Although the Jesuits always retained at least two or three (and on occasion as many as ten) of their order in Santa Cruz, most of their evangelising efforts actually were carried out from La Plata. Santa Cruz at the time was no more than a backwater frontier settlement of some two hundred souls, and suffered repeated setbacks from disease, drought, and lack of resources. The Jesuits also staffed two other small towns in the region - both long since abandoned but at the time strategically important - San Lorenzo de la Barranca and San Francisco de Alfaro. The former was for a time the official seat of Jesuit activity in the Chiquitania, before it was translated back to Santa Cruz.

Outside the Chiquitania

Meanwhile, the Jesuits also had penetrated into Bolivia’s northern reaches, especially the Moxos (now part of Beni Department) and Guarayos (now part of Santa Cruz Department) regions. The first incursions there took place in 1596, although it was not until 1682 - a few years prior to their settling the Chiquitania - that the Jesuits were definitively established in the Moxos with the founding of the reducción of Nuestra Señora de Loreto. Their subsequent growth there was rapid, however, and within a few decades, the Jesuits had established 24 missions (reducciones) in the area.

The success of these reducciones (and later those in the Chiquitania) had everything to do with the Jesuits’ insistence that these communities be run not only as centres of spiritual welfare, but social welfare as well. Additionally, great emphasis was placed upon three key elements: communal self-reliance and self-sufficiency; cooperation with - rather than coercion of - native inhabitants; and as complete autonomy as possible from the colonial authorities.

The Jesuits in the Doctrina of Juli

The Jesuits first employed this unique method neither in the Moxos nor in the Chiquitania, but in the town of Juli, located on the shores of Lake Titicaca in the extreme west of Bolivia, over which they were given spiritual control (and for the most part, temporal as well) in 1577. Juli was not a newly founded reducción: it was an established Aymara village long before the Spanish arrived. In fact, it was not a reducción at all, but rather a doctrina (a settlement that differed in various respects from a reducción but was in others similar; they were more often found in Mexico and Central America.) Juli had been evangelized by the Dominicans. The Jesuits did not attempt in any way to modify the theological content of their predecessors, only the way it was manifested in a social context on a daily basis. The results were nothing short of spectacular: Within a few years, Juli boasted some 15,000 inhabitants and four churches.

While it would be a mistake to claim that this was the Jesuits’ preferred approach everywhere (their proselytising was very different in India, Japan, and elsewhere), it certainly was successful throughout most of South America. Their experience in Juli proved invaluable, and served as a vague blueprint for their successive activity elsewhere on the continent. Argentina, Brazil, and especially Paraguay soon had several Jesuit reducciones established along the same lines, and similar Jesuit incursions in Chile and Ecuador also benefited from this cooperative arrangement, albeit in modified form. However, the approach did not sit well with civil authorities and aroused jealously amongst other religious orders as well. But apart from a few exceptions like Juli, the Jesuit reducciones were so physically distant from active colonial control that it hardly mattered initially.

The Jesuit Mission Culture

The Jesuit approach also held something else that would have enormous repercussions on the culture of Latin America as a whole: the development of an artistic synthesis between the missionaries and the native inhabitants. The Jesuits both brought new means of cultural expression to the missions and adapted to the existing cultures of the native peoples. Although not entirely free of the superior attitude of most Europeans of their time, for the most part the Jesuits made great efforts to adapt to native cultures and rarely denigrated them.

The result again was a strikingly positive one. Along with their native counterparts, the Jesuits created fascinating microcosms: mission societies that were at once European and non-European, knit together with a unifying spiritual theme, especially evident in its artistic and musical expression. Consequently, the world views and means of cultural expression of the peoples the Jesuits encountered were of course profoundly altered, but they did not disappear (the usual fate of most native Amerindian cultures after initial contact with European colonizers). Instead, they conformed and adapted, and in fact reached their cultural apogee in the Jesuit mission era. Nowhere was this more evident than in the famous Chiquitos missions in the heart of the Chiquitania.

The Jesuits trained their naturally proficient “charges” to become phenomenal craftsmen in several fields. Those of the Chiquitos missions are best known for their musical skills. Even classically European musical instruments - the cello, the harp, the violin - were created anew in the depths of the Bolivian forests and plains by the inhabitants of the reducciones, without any innate knowledge of what they were making. There is strong evidence they composed numerous complex musical pieces, and of course also performed them. The tribes of the Chiquitos were talented in several other fields as well, especially in weaving, working precious metals, and carving wood. The Jesuits willingly availed themselves of these indigenous peoples’ amazing ability to adapt to and incorporate foreign motifs into their artistic output, resulting in what were perhaps the most singular churches ever constructed.

In the case of the Chiquitos missions (as well as some amongst the Moxos and Guarayos), this led to each autonomous settlement having not just a striking church, but also an orchestra, several artisans’ shops, and often schools of music and painting. Imagine this in a town of about a thousand inhabitants, hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement of any size, and one begins to get a vague idea of what the Jesuits and indigenous peoples managed to create together.

The Jesuits in the Chiquitania at Last

By the late seventeenth century, the Jesuits had been in Santa Cruz for a century, although local missionary efforts were few and far between. When missionaries did arrive, they usually came from the Archdiocese of La Plata, as none were to be had within the sparsely populated Diocese of Santa Cruz de la Sierra itself (erected in 1605).

But after 1690, things changed rapidly. In that year, a Jesuit college was established in Tarija, the northernmost outpost of the Jesuits’ sphere of influence in Paraguay. Although Tarija originally had been part of the Jesuit province of Peru, it was largely independent from distant Lima and in 1607 control was transferred to the newly created Archdiocese of La Plata.

However, Tarija’s proximity to Paraguay meant it was influenced more by happenings in Asunción than anywhere else. For much of this time in Paraguay, the Jesuits had been busy establishing a virtual theocracy over large parts of the region. The first Jesuit reducción in Paraguay - San Ignacio Guazú - was founded in 1610. In the same year, the nearby Argentine reducciónes of San Ignacio Mini and Nuestra Señora de Loreto both were founded. Twenty more followed quickly, with another nine in Brazil as well.

Also in 1690, the Tarija-based Fr. José de Arce was put in charge of Jesuit evangelisation of the hostile Chiriguano tribes, who occupied much of the vast and desolate Gran Chaco, an enormous area encompassing broad swaths of modern-day Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina. A less spiritual mandate attached as well: to find a route and establish reducciones between long-suffering Santa Cruz and the Paraguay missions. Jesuit religious authorities in Lima initially claimed the responsibility as theirs, but busy with their efforts in the Moxos and elsewhere, made no effort to stop Arce. In 1706 the Jesuit provincial general ruled in favour of the Tarija mission, definitively ending the debate.

A Fortuitous Mistake

Arce - although based in Tarija and nominally answerable to authorities in La Plata - certainly was very interested in establishing missions that would link Santa Cruz and points west to Paraguay. After all, it was his primary mandate. Ironically, he never intended to enter the Chiquitania per se, but rather the territory to the southeast, which was geographically closer to Paraguay. However, en route, he and his companions, Frs. Miguel de Valdeolivios and Diego Centeno, were befriended by a group of Chané near Santa Cruz. Nearly dead of thirst, the three priests remained with their benefactors for three days and vowed to repay their kindness.

At that time, the tribe’s leader, the cacique Tambacura, was imprisoned in Santa Cruz and condemned to death. After his sister interceded for him with the Jesuits, the group traveled to Santa Cruz, argued successfully to have Tambacura’s sentence overturned, and secured his freedom. The timing was ironic: Governor Agustín Arce (no relation to the Jesuit Arce) previously had asked the authorities in Peru for Jesuit missionaries (there being none in the area) for the nearby Chiquitano, who had journeyed several times to Santa Cruz to petition him directly.

While in Santa Cruz, Fr. Arce and his companions witnessed the forced march of some 300 Chiquitano who had been captured by Portuguese slave traders and sold into slavery. They were destined for the faraway mines of Potosí - and almost certain death. This terrible sight convinced Arce that his lot lay with the Chiquitano, not the Chiriguano.

Returning immediately to Tarija, Arce had no trouble convincing the new Jesuit Provincial Lauro Núñez of his change of heart. Núñez approved the venture and authorized a grand total of six Jesuits to convert both the Chiriguano and the Chiquitano tribes, covering an area roughly the size of Alaska. The original mandate to find a route between Santa Cruz and Asunción remained in place as well. In 1691 Arce and Centeno set out again for Santa Cruz, accompanied this time by Br. Antonio de Rivas.

In retrospect, by the time the Jesuits officially were granted permission to expand into the Chiquitania by both spiritual and civil leaders, their long experience in the region had made them a religious and temporal force to be reckoned with. They previously had established no less than 29 settlements in Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay alone, with a total population of more than 100,000 native inhabitants. The entire territory was essentially under Jesuit control for several years (and the subject of a popular 1986 film entitled “The Mission”). In Bolivia, they had been successful as well, with 30 villages established in the west and far northern reaches of the territory by 1705. Another 16 towns had been established between 1682 and 1715 to the northwest of Santa Cruz, amongst the Moxos and Guarayos.

The First Jesuit Mission Settlements of the Chiquitania

Unfortunately, Governor Arce died soon after the decision was made to evangelise the Chiquitania, and there was little support for continuing the policy. In fact, the townspeople of Santa Cruz were convinced that the Chiquitano were too bellicose, and in the end gave the Jesuits only two young guides to accompany them.

Nonetheless, on the feast of St. Sylvester - 31 December 1691 - Arce and de Rivas at last founded the first reducción of San Francisco Xavier de los Piñocas (now San Javier or San Xavier) for the Piñocas, a sub-group of the Chiquitano family. It was - and still is - located approximately 215 kms (133 miles) northeast of Santa Cruz. Ten more settlements followed, with Santo Corazón de Jesús de Chiquitos (now simply Santo Corazón) the last, erected in 1760, just seven years before their expulsion. (The short-lived reducción of Nuestra Señora del Buen Consejo, founded just three months before the expulsion in 1767 near present-day Puerto Suárez, is not included in any list of these reducciones, as its existence was ephemeral.) The missions were prone to everything from pestilence to attacks by hostile tribes to fires and floods, and several had to be re-located or even re-founded. That they even survived is something of a miracle itself.

Politically, these settlements owed nominal allegiance to the Spanish Crown, through the Audiencia of Charcas, with its seat at La Plata, itself part of the much larger Viceroyalty of Peru. From a religious standpoint, the diocese of Santa Cruz de la Sierra was in control, itself ultimately subject to oversight from the Archdiocese of La Plata (which, although secular, was dominated by and had a strong affinity towards the Jesuit Province of Paraguay).

In reality, however, thanks to their remoteness, the Chiquitos missions truly were completely autonomous and entirely self-sufficient. In fact, they exported their surplus goods throughout all of Upper Peru and beyond, earning the envy of Spanish and Portuguese colonists elsewhere in South America, especially the slave traders and large landholders who coveted the fertile Chiquitania territories for their own encomiendas (settlements worked by enslaved native Amerindians).

Use of this text has been graciously authorized by its author, Geoffrey A.P. Groesbeck, who has dedicated many years, clearly much love, and an entire website to this unique region of Bolivia. I strongly urge you to view Mr. Groesbeck's website as it is the most complete and continuously updated resource you will find anywhere on Bolivia's Jesuit Missions.

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