The Guaraní and Their Missions: A Socioeconomic History

The Guaraní and Their Missions: A Socioeconomic History

The Guaraní and Their Missions: A Socioeconomic History

The Guaraní and Their Missions: A Socioeconomic History


The thirty Guarané missions of the Réo de la Plata were the largest and most prosperous of all the Catholic missions established throughout the frontier regions of the Americas to convert, acculturate, and incorporate indigenous peoples and their lands into the Spanish and Portuguese empires. But between 1768 and 1800, the mission population fell by almost half and the economy became insolvent. This unique socioeconomic history provides a coherent and comprehensive explanation for the missions' operation and decline, providing readers with an understanding of the material changes experienced by the Guarané in their day-to-day lives.

Although the mission economy funded operations, sustained the population, and influenced daily routines, scholars have not focused on this important aspect of Guarané history, primarily producing studies of religious and cultural change. This book employs mission account books, letters, and other archival materials to trace the Guarané mission work regime and to examine how the Guarané shaped the mission economy. These materials enable the author to poke holes in longheld beliefs about Jesuit mission management and offer original arguments regarding the Bourbon reforms that ultimately made the missions unsustainable.


During the colonial period, hundreds of thousands of Indians from frontier regions of Latin America joined Catholic missions. They left small, dispersed, and mobile communities to live in large, settled mission towns with Catholic priests. Many turned to missions as a way to protect themselves and their communities from pressures associated with Spanish imperialism. in contrast, the Spanish Crown envisioned missions as a tool for incorporating these peoples and their lands into its empire. Under such a mandate, the Crown contracted Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans, and Mercedarians to bring together dispersed groups of indigenous peoples to live together in single mission towns, where missionaries taught them Catholicism and instructed them in settled agriculture and European cultural practices. By 1767, over 265,000 Native Americans resided in more than two hundred Jesuit missions throughout the Americas (see Map 1).

Of all the missions in the Americas, the Guaraní missions of the Río de la Plata region of South America are widely believed to have been the most successful in terms of the number of indigenous inhabitants, economic prosperity, and historical importance. the Jesuit historical dictionary claims the Guaraní missions to have been the order’s most famous achievement in Spanish America. From their founding in 1609, the Guaraní missions grew to over 140,000 inhabitants at their peak in 1732—an average of over 4,500 Indians per mission. the two Jesuits assigned to each mission could not force hundreds or thousands of Indians either to join or to stay. Rather, the Guaraní chose to join and remain in the missions in the face of Spanish and Portuguese colonialism.

By the eighteenth century, the majority of mission Guaraní had been residing in the missions for generations, and as a result, mission culture— biological, technological, organizational, and theological systems that incorporated aspects of both native and Jesuit-inspired customs and . . .

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