Jesuit Reductions: Wikis


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The Jesuit reduction of São Miguel das Missões, in Brazil
The well-preserved church at Concepción (Santa Cruz), in Bolivia, in decorated adobe.

The Jesuit Reductions were mission settlements created in the 17th and 18th centuries by the Catholic order of the Jesuits in South America, in areas inhabited by the Tupi-Guarani peoples, which generally corresponds to modern day Paraguay. Later reductions were extended into areas now part of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Uruguay. The Jesuit reductions were a distinctive version of the general strategy used in the 17th and 18th centuries of gathering native populations where possible into reductions (reducciones de indios), in order to Christianize and govern the indigenous populations of the Americas more efficiently.

In these regions the Jesuit reductions were different from the reductions in other regions, because the Indians were expected to adopt Christianity but not European culture.[1] Under the Jesuit leadership of the Indians through native caciques, the reductions achieved a high degree of autonomy within the Spanish and Portuguese colonial empires. With the use of Indian labour, the reductions became economically successful. When their existence was threatened by the incursions of Bandeirante slave traders, Indian militia were created that fought effectively against the colonists.[1] The resistance by the Jesuit reductions to slave raids, as well as their high degree of autonomy and economic success, have been cited as contributing factors to the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Americas in 1767.[2] The Jesuit reductions present a controversial chapter of the evangelisational history of the Americas, and are variously described as jungle utopias or as theocratic regimes of terror.[1] Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos gives a much more detailed account of the missions in Bolivia, and aspects of all the group.



A Jesuit in 18th century Brazil

In the 16th century, priests of different religious orders set out to evangelize the Americas, bringing Christianity to indigenous communities. The colonial govenments and missionaries agreed on the strategy of gathering the often nomadic indigenous populations in larger communities called reductions in order to more effectively govern, tax, and Christianize them. Reductions generally were also construed as an instrument to make the Indians adopt European lifestyles and values, which was not the case in the Jesuit reductions, where the Jesuits allowed the Indians to retain many of their pre-colonial cultural practices.[1] In Mexico the policy was called congregación, and also took the form of the hospitals of Vasco de Quiroga, and the Franciscan Missions of California, and in Portuguese Brazil they were known as aldeias. Legally, under colonial rule, Indians were classified as minors, in effect children, to be protected and guided to salvation by European missionaries.[1]

The Jesuits, only formally founded in 1540,[3] were relatively late arrivals in the New World, from about 1570, especially compared to the Dominicans and Franciscans, and therefore had to look to the frontiers of colonization for mission areas.[4] The Jesuit reductions originated in the early seventeenth century when the Bishop Lizarraga asked for missionaries for Paraguay. In 1609, acting under instructions from Phillip III, the Spanish governor of Asunción made a deal with the Jesuit Provinical of Paraguy.[5] The Jesuits agreed to set up hamlets at strategic points along the Paraná river, that were populated with Indians and maintained a separation from Spanish towns.[6] The Jesuits were to "enjoy a tax holiday for ten years" which extended longer.[7] This mission strategy continued for 150 years until the Jesuits were expelled in 1767. Fundamentally the purpose, as far as the government was concerned, was to safeguard the frontier with the reductions where Indians were introduced to European culture.[8][9] In 1609 three Jesuits began the first mission in San Ignacio Guazú. In the next 25 years, 15 missions were founded in the province of Guairá—but since some of these were within the Portuguese area they were subjected to frequent destructive raids by Bandeirantes of São Paulo to enslave the Indians. In 1631, most of the reductions moved west into Uruguay, which was under Spanish jurisdiction, in some cases to be re-opened from the 1680s onwards.[10]

Guarani cavalry, mid-18th century

The missions also secured the Spanish Crown's permission, and some arms, to raise militias of Indians to defend the reductions against raids. The bandeirantes followed the reductions into Spanish territory and in 1641 the Indian militia stopped them at Mbororé.[1] The militias could number as many as 4,000 troops, and their cavalry was especially effective, wearing European-style uniforms and carrying bows and arrows as well as muskets. In the Treaty of Madrid (1750) the Spanish ceded to the Portuguese territories including the Misiones Orientales, reductions now in Brazil, threatening to expose the Indians again to the far more oppressive Portuguese system. The Jesuits complied, trying to relocate the population across the Uraguay river as the treaty allowed, but the Guarani militia under the mission-born Sepé Tiaraju resisted in the Guarani War, and defeated Spanish troops, obliging them in 1754 to sign an armistice in Guarani - a victory that helped to ensure the eventual defeat of the reductions. The war was ended when a larger force of 3,000 combined Spanish and Portuguese troops crushed the revolt in 1756, with Guarani losses in battles and massacres afterwards of over 1,500.[11]

The mission at San José de Chiquitos in Bolivia, which remains a town.

The reductions came to be considered a threat by the secular authorities, and caught up in the growing attack on the Jesuits in Europe for unrelated reasons. The economic success of the reductions, which was considerable, although not as great as it has often been described, combined with the Jesuits' independence, became a cause of fear. The reductions became considered by some philosophes as ideal communities of noble savages, and were praised as such by Montesquieu in his L'Esprit des Lois (1748), and even by Rousseau, no friend of the church. Their intriguing story has continued to be the subject of some romanticising, as in the film The Mission (1986), whose story relates to the events of the 1750s, shown on a miniature scale. It is generally accepted by modern historians that the reasons for the contemporary opposition to them were political and economic.[12] When the Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish realm in 1767, the reductions slowly died out, becoming victims of slave raids or being absorbed into European society. Some of the Reductions have continued to be inhabited as towns while most have been abandoned and remain only as ruins. Córdoba, Argentina, the largest city associated with the reductions, was untypical as a Spanish settlement predated the Jesuits, and functioned as a centre for the Jesuit presence with a novitiate centre, and a college that is now the local university. The Córdoba mission was taken over by the Franciscans in 1767. Many have been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites, including six of the Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos in Bolivia, and others in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. There are also two creole languages, Língua Geral and Nheengatu, originating in the reductions and based on Guaraní, Tupi and Portuguese.

Mission life

Title page of a book on the Guarani language by two Jesuits, printed at a reduction in 1724.

At the height of the reductions there were around 40 different communities that were home to as many as 150,000 Indians, most of whom were Guaraní, Tupi and Chiquitos. Reductions were laid out according to a standardised plan: the main buildings, like the church, college and churchyard were concentrated around a wide square, with houses facing the other three sides. Each village also provided a house for widows, a hospital, and several warehouses. In the centre of the square, there was a cross and a statue of the mission's patron saint. The reductions were ruled by indigenous chiefs who served as the reduction's governor, but were controlled by the Jesuits. There was a minimum of two Jesuits in a reduction, with more for larger ones. The social organization of the reductions has often been described as extremely efficient; most were self-supporting and even produced surpluses of goods, which they traded to outside communities, which laid the foundation of the belief that Jesuits were guarding immense riches acquired through Indian labour. The main traded produce was the hides of their cattle and yerba maté, leaves drunk somewhat like tea. Initially these were collected from the wild, but later cultivated. A number of trades and skills were taught to some Indians, including even printing, to produce mostly religious texts in indigenous languages, some illustrated by engravings by indigenous artists.[13] In reality the communities were economically successful but hardly constituted any important source of income for the Jesuit order.[1] The degree to which the Jesuits controlled the indigenous population for which they had responsibility and the degree to which they allowed indigenous culture to function is a matter of debate, and the social organization of the reductions have been variously described as jungle utopias or as theocratic regimes of terror.[1]

Church from the reduction of San Ignacio Mini

The main buildings, especially the churches, were often substantial Baroque constructions, made by trained indigenous craftsmen, that often remain impressive after over two centuries of abandonment, though the elaborate carved wood interiors have vanished in these cases. The first buildings were usually made in wood, which was sometimes covered with stucco decoration imitating stone Baroque architecture.[14] Later, if resources allowed, actual stone buildings would follow, sometimes very large. The Bolivian missions have the best surviving wood and adobe churches. Father Martin Schmid (1694-1772), a Swiss Jesuit who was a leading figure in the reductions, was both an architect and a composer, and is usually given much of the responsibility for both the later architecture and the remarkable musical life of the reductions.[citation needed]

Jesuit Reductions by country

Location of the most important reductions in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, with present political divisions.








  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Lippy, Charles H, Robert Choquette and Stafford Poole (1992). Christianity comes to the Americas: 1492 - 1776. New York: Paragon House. pp. 98–100. ISBN 1-55778-234-2. 
  2. ^ Ganson (2003)
  3. ^ Ganson, p. 31
  4. ^ Bakewell, 258
  5. ^ Gott, p. 29
  6. ^ Gott, p. 29
  7. ^ Gott, p. 29
  8. ^ Gott, p. 29
  9. ^ Ganson, p. 35
  10. ^ Bakewell, 259-260; Ganson, 182
  11. ^ de Ventos, 48
  12. ^ [1]
  13. ^ Bakewell, 259
  14. ^ Feature with good photos of wood and stucco


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