The Jesuit Republic of South America

By O'Mara, Richard | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

The Jesuit Republic of South America

O'Mara, Richard, The Virginia Quarterly Review

My wife, Susana, discovered an old journal in her home town of Santa Fe, in central Argentina, an account relating to one of the more edifying experiences in human history. She found it in a provincial museum. It was the memoir of an 18th-century Jesuit missionary named Florian Paucke. He came from Silesia, in southern Austria, and he served for 18 years in a mission called San Javier, which today is a small town about 100 miles north of Santa Fe. Paucke wrote of the nomadic people he worked among, of the customs through which their communal life was expressed, how, after a long struggle, the light of humane reason emerged in their minds.

Paucke also drew primitive though artful illustrations to complement his memoir, of the clothes his people wore, the food they ate; how they hunted, how they played, how they killed. He wrote of his perilous voyage to the New World in the year 1748, the events of his difficult sojourn in the Chaco Valley, and the sudden end to the system that had facilitated the birth of this light among the people of the forest. This was the astonishing Utopian experiment of the Jesuits, who scattered their mission towns like islands of sanity through the heartland of a wild continent. To this day some historians refer to this as the Jesuit Republic of South America, a kind of paradise lost, whose monuments, which only hint of their former grandeur, you can find today if you are moved to seek them out. This strange evangelical crusade infatuated great minds during its century-and-a-half of existence, and ever since. Voltaire called it "a triumph of humanity capable of expiating the crimes of the conquistadors." Utopian philosophers of the 18th century saw in it a template of the perfectly-arranged society. A founder of the British Labor Party, R. B. Cunninghame-Graham, who had spent his youth in Argentina and actually spoke to the grandchildren of people who had lived under the protection of the Jesuit fathers, wrote a history titled "Vanished Arcadia."

In more contemporary times German Arciniegas, the Peruvian social historian, declared the Jesuits had recreated the socialist society of the Incas. The English writer Philip Caraman, while acknowledging the paternalistic nature of the Jesuits' treatment of the South American Indians, said they had rescued entire indigenous cultures from extinction, particularly that of the Guarani. These people, the Jesuits' first converts, constitute the largest part of the population of Paraguay today, and their language is the most widely spoken. French historian Roger Lacombe even argued that had the Jesuit enterprise not been interrupted, South America would be 100 years more advanced than it is today.

It began in the first decade of the 1600's, about 60 years after the Jesuits arrived in South America, to Brazil. Previous missionary work among the indigenous peoples had been carried out by Franciscans and Benedictines. The Jesuits' first missions were established along the Parana and the Paranapanema rivers, in Paraguay and Brazil respectively. By the time the project ended, with the abrupt expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767, there were more than 30 thriving mission towns, sheltering more than 100,000 Indian people. This is not a lot when measured against contemporary populations, but at the time one mission in western Brazil had 8,000 residents, a third of the population of Buenos Aires. The Jesuit missions also constituted a cultural vanguard: the first printing press in South America began operating in a mission town.

The Jesuit Order in Rome denominated this empire of theirs the Province of Paracuaria; it occupied vast territories throughout all of the contemporary states of Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina (where most of the missions lay), much of western Brazil and eastern Bolivia. To this day no one knows why Charles III of Spain expelled the Jesuits from Spanish America. He died without telling. But there is much speculation about how the Catholic kings of Europe turned their faces against the Order of Ignatius and ejected its members from Portugal, France, Spain.

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