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The Guarani under Spanish Rule in the Rio de la Plata (review)

From: The Catholic Historical Review
Volume 90, Number 1, January 2004
pp. 159-161 | 10.1353/cat.2004.0042

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The Catholic Historical Review 90.1 (2004) 159-161

The Guaraní under Spanish Rule in the Río de la Plata. By Barbara Ganson. (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. 2003. Pp. xiii, 290. $65.00.)

Barbara Ganson is the first historian to understand the mission Guaraní of Paraguay. Emphasizing Guaraní agency, she dispels myths of childlike innocents and noble savages.

The principal focus of the work is the period 1750-1800, including the final Jesuit years, the Guaraní War, Charles III's expulsion of the Society in 1767, and the survival and gradual decline of the reductions. First, however, Ganson summarizes pre-Spanish Guaraní culture, pre-Jesuit Spanish-Guaraní relations, and the ethnohistory of the seventeenth-century mission Guaraní. She finds Guaraní culture tenacious and its capacity for survival strong, contradicting the widely held belief in absolute Guaraní submission to Jesuit evangelization.

For mission foundations, Ganson recognizes Guaraní as well as Jesuit initiatives. After decades of fierce resistance, Guaranís sought material benefits from Jesuits and welcomed them as negotiators with the Spanish and Portuguese. As an ethnohistorian, Ganson is more concerned with Guaraní than Jesuit developments, but her treatment of Jesuits is sure, respectful, but not uncritical. She finds syncretic beliefs and practices among mission Guaranís, as Jesuits only partly displaced Guaraní shamans. Neophytes found European ways to transform their own culture and yet retained significant cultural autonomy.

Ganson analyzes daily life in missions, including social hierarchies, economic activities, town planning, the work of women and men, education, local politics, schooling, and even dancing. Guaranís adopted useful European practices and rejected those of little utility. In gender relationships, Ganson suspects that "under the Jesuits the status of women rose dramatically" (p. 74). Mission women were more secure but their activities more circumscribed than before, although given the limitations of the sources, the evidence is not conclusive, the author observes.

The Guaraní brought Catholicism into an indigenous belief system, a melding obvious during the War of the Seven Reductions. Jesuit histories of this revolt and of the mission Guaraní are professional, but they typically conclude with the Society's expulsion in 1767, pushing readers to unwarranted conclusions.

The Guaraní War began the demise of the missions. Jesuits unsuccessfully protested the Treaty of Madrid of 1750, which transferred seven of the most populous and prosperous missions from Spanish to Portuguese control. When Jesuits obeyed the crown, Guaranís of the seven towns dissented. They feared Portuguese control with good reason and resented the loss of their lands. Despite Jesuit entreaties, they refused to budge. Armed revolt was their reply. During the conflict, such indigenous religious practices as the "ancient bone cult" (p. 95) appeared, although now infused with Catholic significance. As rebel Guaranís defied Jesuit directives, they also punished Guaraní collaborationists. They petitioned the king, and Ganson makes good use of Guaraní-language documents.

Though Guaraní leaders argued that their rebellion merely protested an unjust order, not the authority of the Spanish crown, to which they remained loyal, Spanish officials incorrectly saw Jesuit puppeteers pulling the strings. In fact, however, many Guaraní called Jesuits betrayers and mobilized their considerable military strength. The Spanish and Portuguese governments sent a larger army to subdue the rebels, whose force was but half that of their imperial enemies. At Caaíbaté in 1756, European troops annihilated the Guaranís. After the nullification of the Treaty of Madrid, 17,000 mission Guaraní returned home. But the war was disastrous for the decidedly undocile mission Guaraní and increased Bourbon suspicion of the Society of Jesus. One result was the post-expulsion disintegration of the most successful missions of Spanish America. Ganson finds Guaraní leaders not especially saddened by the Jesuits' expulsion, and increasing numbers of neophytes fled the missions to work for Spanish employers, one of several "strategies of accommodation and nonconfrontational resistance" (p. 136).

The imperial government's post-1767 reorganization of the reductions hastened their decline, although mission Guaraní successfully sought accommodation with Spanish authorities. They themselves dealt directly with the government. They ignored orders to speak and write Spanish, practiced work slowdowns, and increased criminal activities. In 1801, the seven rebellious missions of the 1750's were lost to the Portuguese...