Evangelization, Visual Technologies, and Indigenous Responses: The South American Missionary Society in the Paraguayan Chaco

Article excerpt

At the end of the 1880s the British South American Misionary Society (hereafter SAMS) established its first missionary station in the Paraguayan Chaco, on the shore opposite the city of Villa Concepcion, on the Chaco bank of the Paraguay River. (1) After a somewhat difficult beginning, these missionaries started moving west, entering the territory inhabited by the Enxet, (2) an indigenous people usually referred to as the Lengua or Lengua-Maskoy, (3) who inhabit an area bounded to the east by the Paraguay River, to the south and north by the Rio Montelindo and Riacho San Carlos, and stretching 200 kilometers to the west. The Anglican Church, the successor to SAMS, is still active in the Paraguayan Chaco, and its area of influence there is known as the Anglican Zone. Nowadays the Enxet are employed in small and large ranch communities, although hunting, gathering, and fishing are still important for their subsistence and they obtain some cash from the sale of skins and wild honey. Before 1980 the only area specifically reserved for the Indians was the 14.4 square miles (3,739 hectares) of the SAMS mission station of Makthlawaiya, although in recent years the Anglican Church of Paraguay has been instrumental in purchasing land for Indian settlement. (4)

The Anglican missionaries, as was customary in missionary societies at the end of the nineteenth century, carefully documented their activities in the Chaco by means of letters, reports, drawings, maps, photographs, and other graphic forms, many of them published in the society's monthly magazine. (5) The images published by SAMS--except for some lithographs and lantern slides made of works of pictorial art--came from photographic images and were also used for lectures and services held by this society in the British Isles. Most of these photographs represented the natural environment of the Chaco, the indigenous peoples who inhabited it, and the development of the missionary stations. As is commonly noted, the photographs included in the missionary literature were meant to elicit support, both financial and broadly political. Propaganda, though, was not the only purpose missionaries had in using visual images. Together with the subscriptions to the South American Missionary Magazine, the society offered for sale photographic albums and postcards portraying the Indians and the life and development of the mission. (6) Moreover, during the magic-lantern lectures held by SAMS, a contribution to the missionary cause was requested. In addition, since the first years of the society's activity in Paraguay, visual images and devices, mainly the magic lantern, occupied a key place both in propagating the Gospel and as a particularly effective vehicle for the spread of Western ideology and culture.

Scholars have commonly emphasized the role of visual media, especially photographs, in missionary proselytization and mission society publicity. (7) Similarly, my analysis of the use of visual technologies by the Anglican missionaries who served in the Paraguayan Chaco at the end of the nineteenth century aims at demonstrating how SAMS missionaries made use of visual technologies for evangelization purposes, particularly emphasizing the responses of the Enxet to the images that the missionaries put before their eyes. It is hoped that this approach can help clarify the relationships established between missionaries and indigenous peoples within the process of evangelization in the Paraguayan Chaco.

Evangelization and Visual Resources

In September 1888 missionary superintendent Adolfo Henriksen and his two assistants, B. O. Bartlett and J. C. Robins, began the construction of the first SAMS missionary station in Paraguay. The place chosen for building this station was a little inlet called Riacho Fernandez, (8) thirty miles north of Villa Concepcion on the Chaco bank of the Paraguay River. During the first years, among other obstacles, they found it difficult to attract the Enxet to the mission. …