The Internal Economic Organization of the Jesuit Missions among the Guarani

By Crocitti, John J. | International Social Science Review, Spring-Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

The Internal Economic Organization of the Jesuit Missions among the Guarani


Crocitti, John J., International Social Science Review


Jesuit mission activity among the Guarani of Paraguay ranks as one of the most interesting affairs in the annals of colonial Latin America. Conceived as a means to proselytize among the Guarani while protecting them from Sao Paulo slavers and the corrupting influences of Spanish settlers, these missions, or reductions, came to play an important part in the economic history of colonial Paraguay. In terms of trade, the missions produced a variety of commercially significant products. The missions' yerba mate found markets throughout the Viceroyalty of Peru while other products, such as hides, represented important export items. In terms of labor, the missions competed directly against Spanish and criollo (Spaniards born in the New World) settlers for the fight to exploit Guarani labor. By offering the Indians a refuge from encomienda service, the missions effectively limited the labor pool available for the Paraguayan elite. This circumstance produced constant tension between missions and settlers and, at times, sparked violent confrontations such as those that occurred during the Comunero Revolt of 1720-1735. (1)

The missions' internal organization also presents a fascinating economic history. The communal aspects of the mission economy represent appetizing fare for idealists in search of utopian models. At the same time, the oppressive nature of Jesuit authority over the Guarani serves as a blunt reminder that the missions were part of the same Conquest mentality that employed the encomienda, repartimiento, and slavery as methods to organize labor in the New World. Thus, it is not surprising that some writers have praised the missions as a "Christian-communist republic" while others have pejoratively labeled them as a "rigid, severe and meticulous regimentation" of Guarani life. (2)

The object of this study is to reexamine the economic organization of the Guarani missions. The major sources for this study will be Jesuit accounts from the eighteenth century, the majority of which were written in the quarter century before the order's expulsion from the Spanish domain. The accounts offer two advantages. First, the Jesuit writers lived in the mission villages and actively took part in their daily administration. As participants in mission affairs, these Jesuits had first hand knowledge about economic organization in the missions. Second, by concentrating on the eighteenth century, these accounts reflected the maturation of the mission economy since 1607 as well as Guarani adaptations to mission life over the same period. (3)

Agricultural production to satisfy internal consumption requirements comprised the principal economic activity in the thirty-two Guarani missions. (4) These products included cultivated food crops and cattle in addition to cotton and wool for clothing. Almost all Guarani planted corn, potatoes, beans and manioc. Manioc was especially useful because the Guarani dried and ground it into flour or fainha de pao. From this flour, they later made sun-baked bread cakes and various stews. (5) Corn also was a versatile crop, serving not only as a food, but also as the prime ingredient of chicha, a type of beer. Although the drink was intoxicating, at least one writer found it invigorating and nourishing. (6) The most capable and industrious of the Guarani also planted crops such as melons, sweet calabashes, sugar cane, wheat and barley. The latter three crops represented lower priorities since the mission economy did not sustain large-scale production of molasses, sugar or bread. (7)

Organization of food crop cultivation proceeded along two lines: individual plots and communal fields. In the individual scheme, each adult male in the village enjoyed usufruct privileges to a designated plot intended for the cultivation of staple crops. The individual Guarani retained use of this land for a six-month term running from June to December. …

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