Upon assuming office in 1784, Viceroy Nicolás del Campo, Marqués de Loreto, observed that ruin threatened the Guaraní missions in the viceroyalty of Río de la Plata. Scholars concur that after the Jesuit expulsion in 1768, the missions fell into disrepair and lost their important role in regional affairs.1 This change marked a significant shift. Until the late eighteenth century, the Guaraní missions attracted the largest indigenous population of all of Spain's Catholic missions and served an important economic and political role in the Río de la Plata region. During the last third of the century, the Guaraní missions declined as a result of Crown reforms that spurred transatlantic trade and reshaped the missions. Expenses far surpassed revenues, buildings and infrastructure deteriorated, distributions of material goods to the Indians decreased, and fewer Guaraní inhabited the missions. Most accounts from the period describe the missions and their inhabitants in a state of penury, but their observations overlook the missions' new role as a major cattle hide [End Page 517] producer and vehicle for law enforcement far from the mission towns and outside of mission territory in the Banda Oriental. In spite of Loreto's observations, the missions had produced hundreds of thousands of cattle hides (cuero) for export and generated hundreds of thousands of pesos in revenues for about a decade under his predecessors. In fact, mission cuero production accounted for approximately 15 percent of all cuero exports leaving the Río de la Plata region between 1776 and 1786.2 Such figures raise questions about what happened to the sales revenues and how the Guaraní missions became a major player in the Río de la Plata export trade during a period of decline.
In answer to the first question, the Guaraní and their missions received some financial benefit, but expenses consumed the majority of the income. The answer to the second question, the topic of this essay, is found in royal officials' efforts to address "disorder" in the Banda Oriental, a problem that had plagued the viceroyalty continually from its inception in 1776. For more than a decade, royal officials supported mission cuero production as one of the primary mechanisms for attacking the disorder in the Banda Oriental. As a result, the Guaraní missions assumed a new and important role in both the economic and political affairs of the Río de la Plata region, even while in decline.
The Banda Oriental (Figure 1) is the territory on the east bank of the Uruguay River, depicted as R. Uruguai on the map. The contested region described in this essay centers around the River Negro and River Yí (not labeled). River Yí is the name given to the largest southern branch of the River Negro. The Crown owned much of the land (marked as tierras realengas) and cattle in the region. Although Guaraní mission estancias reached the contested Banda Oriental region, most of the thirty Guaraní mission towns (designated on the map by) were located farther north along the Uruguay and Paraná Rivers. Between 1777 and 1801, the Portuguese-Spanish border in the Banda Oriental largely mirrored the linea divisoria of 1750, with major exceptions of Spanish territory reaching further southeast and including the land and seven Guaraní missions located between the Ibicuí (Ybicui) and Uruguay Rivers. [End Page 518]
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Cattle and Opportunism: Fomenting the Disorder
The Crown's response to the disorder in the Banda Oriental turned the missions into a major cuero-producing entity. Conditions on the frontiers between the Montevideo littoral, the Guaraní missions, unsettled Indian lands, and Portuguese territory greatly concerned royal officials, Montevideo ranchers, and inhabitants of the region alike.3 Viceroys repeatedly reported on the Banda Oriental disorder and their attempts...