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  • The Guarani under Spanish Rule in the Rio de la Plata
  • Magnus Mörner
The Guarani under Spanish Rule in the Rio de la Plata. By Barbara Ganson . Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003. Photographs. Illustrations. Maps. Figures. Appendixes. Notes. Glossary. Bibliography. Index. xii, 290 pp. Cloth, 65.00.

Few subjects in Latin American history have given rise to such an enormous but heterogenous historiography, in at least a dozen languages, as the 30 Jesuit Guarani missions in the River Plate. Barbara Ganson's recent book is clearly outstanding in its coverage of archival and bibliographic sources. She intends to provide an example of the "adjustments that indigenous peoples made and how they coped with Spanish colonial rule," and she wants to present a "revisionist interpretation of the Jesuit mission in Paraguay." She focuses on the controversial 1750-1850 period, beginning with the Guarani rebellion of the 1750 s and the Jesuit expulsion of 1767-68.

I think her book is very satisfactory for the general reader, but specialists will notice more problems. In order to put the Indians in focus, she presents the Jesuits in less than two pages, giving us no idea about the institutional framework within which the decisions about the missions and their inhabitants were taking place. For example, she mentions that many of the Jesuits were foreigners, but not what an exceptional privilege that was. Also, the permissions for the Guarani to use firearms (unlike all other Indians) and the exceptionally low tribute they were assessed in 1649 cannot be understood without more knowledge of the colonial state and Jesuit administration. Her interpretation of the relation between the Jesuits and the Guarani is naturally influenced by ethnohistorian Bartomeu Meliá, who emphasizes the continuation of the missionary/shaman struggle under the surface throughout the Jesuit period. Obviously, life in the missions exposed the Indians to a radical change. The author shows us how they had to adapt to a strict timetable for mass, agricultural work, meals, and other needs (p. 62 ). I think this would have deserved even more emphasis. In fact, the Indians were subjected to a European concept of time, unusually rigid for a preindustrial society. In Concepción I know that the parish priest would toll the bell on some 11 occasions during the day.

At times, Ganson mentions important facts without tying them together in a dynamic, causal framework. For example, she talks about starvation of the Guaranis during their fight against Paraguayan rebels in the 1720 s and 1730 s (p. 62 ). In another connection, she talks about the huge cattle estancias of the missions south of the Uruguay River, some eight hundred thousand head of cattle at the time of the [End Page 535] Jesuit expulsion. There is a connection between these facts that she does not mention. Until the early 1730 s, the Jesuits had had access to the so-called vaquería del mar in present-day Rio Grande do Sul, which boasted an apparently inexhaustible supply of wild cattle. But at that time the Jesuits found themselves in competition with supply expeditions from Santa Fe, Buenos Aires, and Brazil. The vaquería was quickly exhausted. The Jesuits then resolved to supply their needs through well-kept estancias south of the Yapeyú mission and beyond the seven missions established south of the Uruguay River. But this, in turn, led to an increased military threat. The Portuguese would see the "seven missions" as the main obstacle to their advance, while a Spanish-Guarani army in 1737 conspicuously failed to capture the Portuguese fortress, Colonia do Sacramento, on the River Plate. Thus, the idea of exchanging the two territories was born: that is, the fateful 1750 border treaty.

The description of the 1753-56 rebellion is more detailed. The author rightly points out that the Jesuit leadership more or less reluctantly insisted that the Indians of the "seven missions" move to the other side of the Uruguay River in accordance with the treaty. Her point—that the Indian refusal to do so meant a break not only with the Spanish and Portuguese authorities but also with "the Jesuits"—is well taken. That is, if she only refers to their...


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pp. 535-536
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Archived 2004
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