The Guaraní and Their Missions: A Socioeconomic History

By Van Valen, Gary | The Catholic Historical Review, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

The Guaraní and Their Missions: A Socioeconomic History


Van Valen, Gary, The Catholic Historical Review


The Guaraní and Their Missions: A Socioeconomic History. By Julia J. S. Sarreal. (Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2014. Pp. xviii, 335. $65.00. ISBN 9780-8047-8597-6.)

Although the colonial frontiers of South America have received relatively little attention from historians, the Guarani missions of the Jesuit Province of Paraguay are an exception. They have fascinated the general public from the eighteenth century's Candide to the twentieth century's The Mission and have inspired inquiry among scores of South American, North American, and European scholars. In a crowded historiographical field, Julia Sarreal has managed to add something new to our knowledge with The Guaraní and Their Missions: A Socioeconomic History.

Sarreal's introduction includes a valuable survey of this historiography. The book's nine chapters cover the history of Guarani-Spanish interactions from the contact period through the first years of the nineteenth century. The first two chapters describe the founding and sociopolitical life of the missions. A chapter on the Jesuit mission economy is followed by another (based almost entirely on secondary sources) describing the Guarani War and the Jesuit expulsion. The most important new contributions of the book are found in chapters 5 through 9, dealing with various aspects of the decline of mission society after the Jesuit expulsion. Here Sarreal makes use of new primary sources including a wealth of accounting records generated by the post-Jesuit administration.

Sarreal describes her approach to Guarani mission history as realistic, and there is a definite material emphasis to her work. She states that Jesuit success in founding missions depended above all on their ability to provide food and other material comforts, especially beef and yerba mate. The realistic and material emphasis is even more apparent in the post-Jesuit chapters. In businesslike language, the author explains how the missions went bankrupt because of the loss of Jesuit unity of management, the loss of a de facto subsidy provided by the Jesuit trade network, and a great increase in overhead expenses due to the separation of temporal and spiritual administration that required twice the administrative personnel. …

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