The Jesuit Order was founded in 1540 and came to Spanish America during the term of Thomas de Souza as governor between 1549 and 1553. At that time the Franciscan and Dominican monks were already established in the New World, but these orders were not destined to have the significant impact that the Company of Jesus or the Jesuit Order was to have on the indigenous peoples of Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Paraguay, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Guatemala and Haiti. Through their successes with the Indians taken into their care and the resulting conflicts, the Jesuits were finally expelled from South America in 1767.
The Jesuits were inspired to establish their own social order by St. Thomas More who published his Utopia in 1516. The fundamental idea of Utopia was to “restore society to its Christian bases, adopting as supreme guide the norms of natural rights.” The Jesuits saw themselves as fulfilling Thomas More’s prophesy, and to carry out this work they chose the impenetrable jungles of the New World as their home and workshop. Here they felt that they could do their work undisturbed, armed with a self government grant from the king which protected them from other Spaniards.
Land was granted to the Jesuit priests as well as to other religious orders. What mattered, really, was not so much the land itself, but rather the number of Indians, or souls, that lived upon it. Agriculture was important in 1650, and the Jesuits eventually counted themselves among the wealthiest landowners.
Mariano Picon-Salas wrote that the Jesuits formed a link between the baroque age and the prerevolutionary period, indicating their pre-eminence among several religious communities active in the Spanish holdings in the New World at that time. By the Seventeenth Century the Jesuit Order was the foremost cultural organization and one of the strongest economic and political forces in the entire colonial wor1d.
The Jesuits were international in character and brought clergymen into South America from many foreign nations. Father Kino organized Hungarians, Poles and Germans into Jesuit missions in Paraguay. These foreign priests brought new currents of thought to the Spanish Company of Jesus.
The Jesuits were students of the geography and natural history of the areas in which they worked. Father Jose Gumilla’s The Enlightened Orinoco, published in 1791, was “an excellent monograph on the Guianas that describes climatic phenomena flora, fauna and the ethnography of the interior.”
By the eighteenth century the intellectual standards, economic power and social influence of the Jesuits was unmatched. Their economic power derived from enormous plantaions in the central valley of Chile, ranches in the River Plate region and large city and rural estates in Peru and Mexico. There were Jesuit owned workshops in Paraguay, Peru and Ecuador, and mining interests in the Chaco area of New Granada, now Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Panama.
These vast holdings comprised the material aspect of what German Arciniegas calls the “largest Utopian experiment ever attempted.” The Jesuits established this “utopian empire” under adverse conditions. The first step was to pacify the local Indians. Father Gonzalez de Santa Cruz and Rodriguez y del Castillo were martyred in 1628 and were beatified by Pius XI. After the Indians were pacified the missions were often attacked by groups who were searching for Indians to use as slaves.
All Indians on the reductions received pots and pans, needles, clothing and other necessities. The quantity of these goods increased as the collective wealth of the community grew.
The government of the reduction was carried out by elected representatives. Again, this limited democracy did not stir admiration, but rather jealousy of the privileged Creoles. The Creole haciendas tended to be poorly managed, relying on slave labor. The reductions were perceived as political and economic threat and eventually were outlawed and the Jesuits were forced to leave New Granada.
Once the Jesuits gathered the Indians into the relative security and isolation of the reductions, the process of conversion and reinforcement of Christian Doctrine took place. Sometimes the Jesuits resorted to trickery and appealed to the Indians’ idolatry to reinforce Christianity. In Paraguay, the priests exploited the Indian’s idolatry by standing inside of a wooden statue and shouting orders to them.
The Jesuits also used the theater, already developed by Franciscan and Dominican monks. At that time the theater was an integral part of European religious festivals. It was used to attract and amuse the Indians. Dances of Indian and African origins were blended into the mysteries of the new religion. The purely African communities instantly accepted the school of the Jesuit theater and learned from it.
Another device which the Jesuit Fathers used to make religion more believable to the Guaranis was to use yerba-mate, a tea brewed from the leaves of the yerba tree. The Guarani believed that the yerba had magical powers since the yerba is actually a stimulant. Since the Jesuits could not persuade the Guaranis that yerba-mate did not have magical powers, they fabricated the story that St. Thomas had conveyed supernatural powers to the yerba and brewed it as a tea for his converts. The Jesuits eventually exported the yerba cultivated by the Guarani.
The Jesuits used their wealth, amassed from the workings of the reductions, by investing it in land, tools and draft animals. They were free with technical and scientific advice and allowed the Indians a voice in decision making. Jesuits used their wealth to direct and control seminaries and missions of great importance to the economic life of the colonies. They provided intellectual centers in small, provincial towns, providing banking facilities and forums for the resolution of local political problems.
In Paraguay the Jesuit press printed books in the Guarani language. These were printed from wooden fonts carved by the Indians, themselves. Although Guarani was the spoken language, prayers and hymns were written down in Latin.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Jesuits began to defend their Indian charges and their rights against the authority of Spain. This authority was present in the new elite and the landlords and the Jesuits were forced out of one city after another. Finally, after a last stand at Ilano, the Jesuits were forced out of New Granad altogether when Pope Clement XIV dissolved the order in 1773.
Once in exile the Jesuits turned to writing. They wrote truthfully and objectively since writing was all that was left to them. The Catholic monarchy which had been effectively administered by the Jesuits then began to disintegrate. By the early eighteenth century the Jesuits’ Paraguayan community was the most peaceful and prosperous unit of government in Latin America.
From the point of view of the royal government, this was most beneficial. The Crown had allowed the missionaries to convert and pacify the Indians. After this was accomplished, royal officers and members of the secular ecclesiastical hier archy replaced them. This was economical for imperial territory was expanded with a minimum of risk. The Crown government was ready to assume control after Indian hostility was past and before the missionaries could assume positions of power. The equilibrium between diminishing Indian strife and expanding missionary organization was carefully watched by royal and ecclesiastical authorities. The time designated between pacification and conversion and the time when the secular clergy would take charge was ten years. The period, however, was usually more than a decade and on the frontier lasted until the end of colonial times.
The removal of the Jesuit influence brought on a series of local uprisings. The revolt at Asuncion grew into the Antequera revolution. Antequera wanted local control of local institutions in Buenos Aires and Peru. The execution of Antequera became the rallying point for both the upper classes and commoners and their new South American political conciousness which began an attitude of belligerence toward the Spanish monarchy. Without the Jesuits, dissatisfaction over military recruitment, ever-increasing taxes and the Indians’ hatred for their Spanish magistrates came to the surface. In 1749 Juan francisco Leon led a revolt of small cocao planters in Venezuela and in 1752 rebellions at LaRioja and Catamarca in North Argentina protested arbitrary military conscription of peasants. These were followed by large scale uprisings between 1749 and 1782.
Francis Xavier Clavijero and other exiled Jesuits saw miscegenation as the only answer to the problem of the races. Other members of the order, however, disagreed strongly. Clavijero wrote in his Storia Anitca del Mexico. “There is no doubt at all that the policy of the Spaniards would have been wiser if, instead of fetching wives from Europe and slaves from Africa...they had insisted on making a single people out of themselves and the Mexican Indians.” Clavijero attempted to remove erroneous concepts of the Europeans regarding the Indians and bestow a universal character upon them. For example, he compared the Mexican word Teotl” to the “Theos” of the Greeks. He then used “Teotl” to express a Christian-like monotheism, reflecting a widespread eighteenth century interest in creating a universal cu1ture.
Herbert Wendt believed that the Jesuits actually wanted to prevent the mingling of blood of the whites and the Indians. Their motivation was not racial, but rather they wanted to prevent “the uprooting and debasement that were taking place in Latin America.”
Before the expulsion of the Jesuits, many of them were beginning to take a “benevolent attitude toward the ideas of separation and independence from Spain, which began to be bruited about in the eighteenth century. The interests of the order began to coincide “with those of the regional burgeois that considered its rise in the economic scale as handicapped by Spanish monopolistic practices and by the excessive, French style centralization that the Bourbon dynasty was imposing.”
John Gunther states that the Catholic Church grew rich and decadent in America. In fact, Paraguay became practically a Jesuit colony. “Nowhere did the clergy, secular or regular, bestow upon the people anything like proper recompense for their inordinate position, though an effort was made in education.”
In agreement with Gunther is Mariano Picon-Salas who wrote that even long before the expulsion the generally bad relations between Spain and the order were at their worst in Paraguay “where they held a virtual fiefdom.”
In 1754 the Paraguayan Fathers led their Indians in a revolt against a Spanish-Portuguese boundary treaty, and in Peru, Jesuits were accused of terrorizing Indians and depriving them of land, wages, women, children and personal freedom. The Bourbons also cited widespread smuggling, graft, cheating of Indians and a general tendency to ignore orders from Spain. This weakening of the bonds between the Old World and the new invited intervention by rival powers and this, too, became a factor in the expulsion of the Jesuits.
The expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767 was part of a whole pattern of administrative reform both foreign and domestic under the Bourbons. As an official explanation, the monarchy cited the need to “bring local Jesuit power to an end and assert royal power in their stead.” This explanation was related to the Bourbon attack upon the Jesuit society in Europe and the result of Enlightenment ideas, religious nationalism and resistance to papal authority.