Magazine article History Today

Bolivia's Jesuit Missions

Magazine article History Today

Bolivia's Jesuit Missions

Article excerpt

* Until quite recently, the tropical lowlands that stretch to Brazil, in Bolivia's eastern region, were neglected to an extent remarkable even for what is commonly described as the poorest country in South America. Government and tourist interests alike were directed towards the Andes and the great cities and ruins that cling so improbably to the high places: Sucre, the official and cultural capital with its superbly preserved colonial architecture; Potosi, probably the world's richest city during the Spanish period, gorged on the silver mined from the Cerro Rico; La Paz, bursting at the seams so that a `suburb' a million strong now clings to its outskirts, and pre-dating these urban centres the pre-Inca ruins of Tiahuanaco and Samaipata.

Descend the mountains and travel eastward and the picture changes. A road map of Bolivia published as late as 1972, shows a quite detailed road pattern for the Andes; but eastward -- nothing. Roads starting out from the city of Santa Cruz peter out or circle back. On a visit in 1964, Harold Osborne of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, noting the total absence of roads and disappearance of canals and causeways, commented:

The native peoples themselves are reduced to a few sorry

communities on the fringes of the white settlements or to tribes

who have resisted acculturisation and reverted to barbarism.

Their handicrafts have gone, the old Jesuit Missions disrupted,

the whole Beni languishes in inanition.

The causes of the changes that have gradually transformed this region are various: the discovery of oil, foreign aid, population pressure in the highlands and the insatiable appetite of the tourist industry to explore new horizons have all contributed. In the 1980s six of Bolivia's ten reducciones, as the Jesuit Missions are known, were registered with UNESCO on the list of Cultural Patrimony of Mankind. It was not simply the physical remains of the mission towns, but their mestizo culture that was created by, and in part survived, the Jesuit period that attracted this organisation. Nevertheless, on a recent visit to two of the most important and best-preserved of these, San Javier and Concepcion, I was astonished to find not just ruins, but thriving townships still centred on the great churches that brought them into being.

Jesuits have had a decidedly mixed press. David Puttnam's romantic film of 1986, The Mission, brought to wide popular notice this extraordinary culture largely unknown outside South America. While the courage of individual priests and their skill at combining culture with religion is freely admitted, the Order has also bequeathed to the English language an adjective jesuitical, defined by the OED as `equivocation or mental reservation of the truth'. The success of their missions aroused the suspicion and jealousy of secular authorities around the world and in 1773 the entire Order was suppressed by Pope Clement XIV. But in some ways, it cannot be doubted that the Jesuit experiment in South America represents a utopian ideal.

San Javier, founded in 1691, was the first reduccion in Bolivia. Like the first monks in Europe the Jesuits established their communities in remote places, each usually under the control of two priests, one specialising in secular work, the other, religious. The local Indians were drawn in and converted, their native talents developed so that they became superb craftsmen in a variety of media, including music.

In his book Mission Culture of the Upper Amazon David Block emphatically refutes the traditional picture of the Mission Indian as being a childlike creature totally manipulated by the Jesuits:

Far from being passive wards of the priests the native people

actively participated in all phases of Mission life, sagaciously

sifting and shaping European traditions to local realities. It is

the post-Jesuit period that best illustrates the strength of

mission culture. …

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