Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Treasured Chests of History

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Treasured Chests of History

Article excerpt

IT IS FITTING, as we mark the 450th anniversary of the founding of the Society of Jesus, to celebrate a little known but inspired manifestation of that order, namely the barguenos associated with the missions of southeastern Bolivia. Barguenos (also sometimes called papeleros) were portable desks with drop fronts and a grid work of drawers inside. Most were used by the priests themselves, but some may have been sold to colonists for additional income. Regardless, they were an integral part of the commerce and good organization for which the Jesuits were famous. In that way they are curiously emblematic of the practical, "corporate" spirit which sustained Ignatius of Loyala's farflung compania.

Until their expulsion from South America in 1767, the Jesuits maintained a network of fifteen missions in the Mojos and Chiquitos regions, hundreds of kilometers north and east of Santa Cruz. These hinterlands, named for the Indians of the area, were so remote that few Europeans, not even the Spanish soldiers, dared explore them. Nonetheless, at the peak of the Jesuit missionary effort, as many as 23 dedicted priests celebrated mass and taught the catechism there, while also supervising an efficient system of cattle ranches, cocoa and sugar cane plantations and artisan workshops. There was even an administrative hub, the port of Paila near Santa Cruz, with a college for novitiates, warehouses, and stockyards. Through this small window to the outside world, they exported their products and maintained contact with the Jesuit headquarters in Cordoba, Argentina.

The reducciones (the term comes from the verb, reducir, meaning to concentrate) represented the official policy of the Spanish Crown to bring the Indians into townships where they could be instructed in a Christian way of life. The Jesuits, on the front line of this effort, believed that missions in remote areas, physically separated from European settlements, offered the best defense against corrupting influences, not to mention marauding slavers. They sought to create self-sufficent communities which provided the Indians basic religious and academic education, as well as training in an array of practical skills, including stone cutting, carpentry, blacksmithing, printing, painting and calligraphy. The missions were laid out with great care, equipped with sanitation facilities that were quite advanced for their day, and defended by native militia who were carefully trained by the priests. Europeans were only allowed to visit for very brief periods of time, and even then, they were restricted to the guest houses. According to the Chilean historian Gabriel Rene-Moreno, who carefully examined the archives for Chiquitos and Mojos, in 1767 there were 18,535 neophyte Indians in a region of approximately 540 square miles. Furthermore, the Jesuits had managed to build up their herds to 54,345 head of cattle and 26,371 horses.

Records, accounts, inventories: that is what the barguenos were all about. Throughout Iberoamerica, these practical pieces of furniture served military officers, civilian administrators and clerics alike--people on the move and in need of a portable office. According to Manuel Toussaint, a Mexican authority on Hispanic art and architecture, these chests derived their name from Bargas, a province of Toledo, Spain where they were first made. The Portuguese favored barguenos made of imported hardwoods, such as jacaranda, with thin strips of inlaid ivory. The Spanish, on the other hand, preferred the more flamboyant, baroque style, with ornate carving, polychromy, gold leaf and lacquer work. But for the priests of far-off Mojos and Chiquitos, confronted by a very different reality, a new hybrid style would emerge. It would celebrate the flora and fauna of the region, even life in the mission, in a visual language drawn from Europe.

The first wave of Jesuit missionaries in South America were Spanish. Since they were competing with Dominicans, Augustinians, and other orders which had staked their claims earlier, they often had to settle for turf far from populated centers. …

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