The Jesuit Missions - Their History

The first Jesuit missionaries arrived in what is now Bolivia (then known as Upper Peru) in 1572, having moved eastward from the Viceroyalty of Peru, where they had been established since 1568. They were preceded by other orders, amongst them the Augustinians, Dominicans, Franciscans, and Mercedarians. The Jesuits had petitioned the Spanish Crown for permission to enter its holdings in the New World for three decades before it finally was granted in 1566 by Phillip II, whilst the Portuguese King John III had given them leave to enter Brazil in 1549. For the first hundred years or so, the Jesuits invariably accompanied the Spanish military and were residents of its scattered garrisons. They were not authorised to establish frontier settlements without approval of the civil authorities, which, needless to say (given the authorities' suspicions of the Jesuits' motives) never happened.

These early missionaries were almost exclusively native Spaniards. For the most part, they attended to the spiritual needs of the colonists in the arid altiplano around Lake Titicaca and in the cities of La Paz, Potosí, and La Plata (present-day Sucre), where they established chapter houses, churches, and schools, the earliest being that of La Paz, built in 1572 (although not opened until a decade later). On 15 May 1585, three Jesuits reached the remote far eastern outpost of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, at that time located near present-day San José de Chiquitos. (For the mind-bendingly complicated story of how Santa Cruz de la Sierra came to be where it is today, see the section on Santa Cruz la Vieja National Park.)

To get an idea of just how oppressive things were for the locals (this was almost a century before the first reducción was established anywhere near the Oriente) at that time Santa Cruz had a whopping 170 Spanish colonists...and 11,000 - that's eleven thousand - indentured indigenous souls at their beck and call. The following year, the Jesuit Fr. Diego Martínez began sporadic evangelisation of the nearby Itatine tribe. Other tribes, most of them ethno-lingustically part of the Chiquitano (also known early on as Gorgotoqui) or Paiconeca groups, soon were converted, with only the Chiriguano and Zamuco (a sub-group of the Mojo or Ayoreo) showing consistent hostility.

The first chapter house in Santa Cruz was set up in 1592. In 1605 the settlement was elevated in religious terms to the ecclesiastical status of a bishopric (what we would call a diocese now). For many years, the Jesuits continued their peripatetic work in the region alongside the other missionary orders. Nowadays you won't find many Jesuits in the Chiquitania (although there are a few): the Franciscans have been the main influence since 1931. They were present in neighbouring Chuquisaca Department and throughout the Chaco from as far back as 1540 - and continue to staff the Apostolic Vicariate of Ñuflo de Chávez (headquartered in Concepción) and the Diocese of San Ignacio de Velasco (as well as other area parishes, including that of Ascensión de Guarayos). An apostolic vicariate is similar to a diocese, but for various reasons - scarcity of clergy or other resources, huges distances, and so on - it is administered directly by the Holy See through an apostolic vicar (whose responsibilities and powers are very similar to those of a bishop or archbishop).

Nearly a century passed before the Jesuits were given the go-ahead to expand into the Chiquitania (originally including the area now known as the Gran Chaco as well). They were already a force to be reckoned with throughout Upper Peru and elsewhere in the Viceroyalty of Peru. They had established no less than 29 settlements in Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay alone (which had a total population of more than 100,000 native inhabitants in 1742). In Bolivia, they had been successful elsewhere as well, with 30 villages established in the west and far northern reaches of the territory by 1705. Another 16 towns had been established between 1682 and 1715 to the northwest of Santa Cruz, amongst the Moxos and Guarayos regions. It is mute testimony to the indomitable courage and faith of the Jesuits - and the peoples they sought to convert - that of all the missions established in these areas, only those of the Chiquitos have survived. They flourish to this day. The others have long been reduced to ruins.

Not built in a day: main altar and reredos of Concepción Cathedral

The were two raisons d'être for the missions. One, clearly, was a spiritual impulse, to catechisise and peacefully convert the various indigenous peoples to Christianity. The second was politically motivated, from two different camps. Since the mid-1600s, Portuguese slavers from Brazil, known as bandeirantes or mamelucos, had been encroaching ever deeper into Spanish territory. In fact, shortly after San Xavier, the first mission, was founded, they made an appearance there but were defeated. Spain needed to shield its rich territories to the west and south - and their inhabitants, Spanish and Amerindian alike. The notion of a string of strategically placed missions throughout the Chiquitania proved to be a very easy idea to sell to the colonial authorities. For the Jesuits, these missions also represented a link to the older and better established missions of Paraguay, via either the Río Paraguay or its tributary the Río Pilcomayo.

Although the Jesuits were active on the fringes of the region more than a century before, they did not establish any settlements in the Chiquitania until 31 December 1691, when Fr. José de Arce and Br. Antonio de Rivas founded the first reducción (settlement) of San Francisco Xavier de los Piñocas (now San Xavier) for the Piñocas, a sub-group of the Chiquitano.

Arce - based in Tarija (whose Jesuit community owed allegiance to Asunción, although nominally answerable to authorities in La Plata) – was interested in establishing missions that would link Santa Cruz and points west to Paraguay. In fact, it was his primary mandate. Ironically, he never intended to enter the Chiquitania per se, but rather the territory to its southeast, which was home to the hostile Chiriguano and geographically closer to Paraguay. However, en route to that region in 1690, he and his Jesuit companions, Frs. Miguel de Valdeolivios and Diego Centeno, were befriended by a group of Chané (a sub-group of the Terena) near Santa Cruz. Nearly dead of thirst, the three priests remained with their benefactors for three days and vowed to repay their kindness.

At that time, the tribe’s leader, the cacique Tambacura, was imprisoned in Santa Cruz and had been condemned to death. After his sister made the case for sparing his life to the Jesuits, the group traveled to Santa Cruz, argued successfully to have Tambacura’s sentence overturned, and secured his freedom. The timing was ironic: governor Agustín Arce (no relation to the Jesuit Fr. Arce) previously had asked the authorities in Peru for Jesuit missionaries (there being none in the area) for the nearby Chiquitano, whose representatives had journeyed several times to Santa Cruz to petition him directly.

While in Santa Cruz, Fr. Arce and his companions witnessed the forced march of some 300 Chiquitano who had been captured by Portuguese slave traders and sold into slavery. They were destined for the faraway mines of Potosí – and almost certain death. This terrible sight convinced Arce that his lot lay with the Chiquitano, not the Chiriguano.

Returning immediately to Tarija, Arce had no trouble convincing the new Jesuit provincial, Fr. Lauro Núñez, of his change of heart. Núñez approved the venture and authorised a grand total of six Jesuits to convert both the Chiriguano and the Chiquitano tribes, covering an area roughly the size of Alaska. The original mandate to find a route between Santa Cruz and Asunción remained in place as well. In 1691 Arce and Centeno set out again for Santa Cruz, accompanied this time by Br. Antonio de Rivas.

The route they sought finally was opened by Arce and his companion Fr. Bartolomé Blende, but not until 1715. However, en route to Santa Cruz from Asunción the following year, they were killed - Blende in September and Arce three months later - by hostile Payaguá, just outside of Bolivia near what is modern-day Pataguá, on the eastern bank of the Río Paraguay. Upon receiving notice of the same, the Viceroy of Peru promptly ordered the route closed. Contact netween the two missions areas for the next several decades was circuituous at best, by way of Asunción to Tarija to La Plata and thence finally to Santa Cruz.

Eleven more reducciones followed the founding of San Xavier in 1691 (including the short-lived San Ignacio de Boococas and San Ignacio de Zamucos), with Santo Corazón de Jesús de Chiquitos (now simply Santo Corazón) the last, in 1760. (The shortest-lived foundation (although not a true mission), Nuestra Señora del Buen Consejo, founded just three months before the expulsion in 1767 near present-day Puerto Suárez, is not included in any list of reducciones, as its existence was ephemeral and never was officially established.) Ironically, in this same attempt the long-anticipated route between the Chiquitos missions and those of the Guaraní had been re-opened by Father José Sánchez Labrador in the previous year.

These settlements occured over two distinct periods: the first five between 1691-1722, and the remaining five between 1748-60. All followed three essential principles:

  • To be located in a place where a large (between 1,500 -5,000) community could be located, near potable water and fields, and with some measure of security.
  • To be located relatively near another reducción in order to communicate freely and easily.
  • To be located not far from the areas where the native inhabitants lived.

They were prone to everything from attacks by hostile peoples to fires, floods, plagues, famines, droughts, even slave traders. Several had to be re-founded and/or relocated. That they even survived is a miracle. A list of these settlements and their founding follows.

Jesuit Mission Settlements (Reducciones) in the Chiquitania

Settlement
(Original Name)
Founders
Founded (F), Relocated (L), Merged (M), Rebuilt (R) or Split (S)
San Xavier*
(San Francisco Xavier de los Piñocas)

Fr. José de Arce
and Br. Antonio de Rivas

1691 (F)
1696 (L)
1698 (L)
1705-6 (L)
San Rafael de Velasco* Frs. Juan Bautista Zea
and Francisco Herbás

1695 (F)
1696 (M with Santa Rosa de los Taucas)
1701 (L)
1705 (L)
1721 (R)

San José de Chiquitos*
(San José de los Borós)

Frs. Felipe Suárez
and Dionisio Avila

1697 (F)
1706 (L)

San Juan Bautista
(San Juan Bautista de los Borós)

Frs. Juan Bautista Zea
and Juan Patricio Fernández;
Frs Juan Bautista Xandra
and Pedro Juan Carena?

1699 (F)
1705 (L)
(abandoned 1712)
1717 (R/L)
1772 (R)
1781 (L)
1788 (S into San Juan “Nuevo” and Taperas de San Juan)
1798-1800 (M of San Juan “Nuevo” and majority of Taperas de San Juan to San Juan Bautista again; later renamed San Juan de Chiquitos)
(abandoned by 1831: Taperas de San Juan)
c. 1940 (F: Taperas)

Concepción*
(La Inmaculada Concepción)
Frs. Francisco Lucas Caballero
and Francisco Herbás
1699 (F)
(abandoned 1704)
1709 (R)
1712 (M with San Ignacio de Boococas)
1722 (L)
San Ignacio de Boococas (see above entry) Fr. José Ignacio de la Mata

1709 (F)
1712 (M with Concepción)

San Ignacio de Zamucos
Frs. Juan Bautista Zea
and Agustín Castañares

1719 (F)
1723 (R)
(temporarily abandoned 1726-7)
(abandoned 1745 > San Ignacio de Velasco)

San Miguel de Velasco*
(San Miguel Arcángel)
Frs. Felipe Suárez
and Francisco Herbás
1721 (F) < San Rafael de Velasco
San Ignacio de Velasco
(San Ignacio de Loyola de Velasco)
Frs. Miguel Streicher
and Diego Contreras
1748 (F) < San Ignacio de Zamucos
Santiago de Chiquitos
(Santiago Apóstol)

Frs. Gaspar Troncoso
and Gaspar Campos

1754 (F)
1762 (L)
1764 (L)

Santa Ana de Velasco* Fr. Julián Nogler
1755 (F) < San Rafael de Velasco
Santo Corazón
(Santo Corazón de Jesús de Chiquitos)
Frs. Antonio Gaspar
and José Chueca

1760 (F) < San Juan Bautista and San Miguel de Velasco
c. 1780 (L)

* Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

These settlements were founded as reducciones - autonomous, self-sufficient indigenous communities, ranging in size from roughly 1,000 to 4,000 inhabitants (grouped by ethno-lingusitic factions known as parcialidades), with two Jesuit priests at their head and assisted by a council of eight to twelve native leaders (known as a cabildo) who met on a daily basis to monitor the progress of the town and its inhabitants. Usually two priests were assigned to each reducción. One was in charge of the "care of souls", catechetical instruction, and the liturgy. The other was in charge of corporal matters: communal goods, land, workshops, and the like. Incidentally, reducciones were not unique to the Chiquitos missions: originating in Paraguay, they also were established in the Jesuit Guarayos and Moxos missions further west. They were so well run that the Franciscans - who later assumed care of most of the Jesuit missions - left their organisational structure almost intact.

Colonists were not allowed to live in the settlements, and in fact could not even remain in them for more than a few days' time. Only the natives and the Jesuits were legally inhabitants. The natives were members of the region's many tribal families, the Chiquitano, Chiriguano, Guarayo, and Paiconeca, with a few Ayoreo and Guaraní, along with an infinitude of smaller sub-families such as the Zamuco (a sub-group of the Mojo or Ayoreo). The four (rarely more) different major indigenous groups were segregated within each mission, arranged by parcialidades (factions).The Chiquitano were the most numerous (and remain so today), and their language (originally known as Gorgotoqui) became the lingua franca of these settlements. This was a remarkable move, as Chiquitano is a notoriously difficult language, having both a masculine and feminine version which are quite unlike each other. To pull this off, the Jesuits taught Chiquitano to the children, who then became their monolingual parents' translators.

At the time of the Jesuits' expulsion in 1767, their final annual census gave the indigenous population as 23,988 throughout the ten settlements of the Chiquitania. The actual number was probably closer to 35,000, in consideration of the thousands of peripatetic natives who were not accounted for in these census reports. The most thorough study on the Chiquitos missions' population is Robert Jackson's outstanding work, "Demographic Patterns on the Chiquitos Missions".

 

Ultra baroque: main altar and reredos of Church of San Miguel de Velasco

The reducciones' focal point was, of course, the church, which was not only as a place of worship, but also the primary cultural, economic, and educational centre of each settlement. It is important to note that these churches were built by the combined efforts of the European missionaries and the native population, not exclusively by one group. This cross-pollination had a profound effect on both sides, but more so on the natives, who gradually synthesised or adopted many of the Jesuits' cultural influences, especially a propensity for praising God through the arts. Each settlement had it own craftsmen skilled in the various arts; this was encouraged by the missionaries as an expression of labour and love for God. The artistic abilities of the indigenous peoples was truly phenomenal. All manner of carvings, fabrics, furniture, musical instruments, metal ware, and other goods poured out of these remote towns to supplement their agricultural and cattle-raising pursuits.

There was no end to the abilities of the inhabitants to assimilate the cultural impulses of the Europeans. Music was an especially important aspect of their lives. Soon these small villages were the cultural equals of large, urban centres like La Paz and Potosí, and progressed to performing entire baroque operas backed by full orchestras, complete with hand-made instruments and sophisticated musical scores...literally in the middle of nowhere. In particular, they had an astonishing ability with even the most complex music. An excellent synopsis of the artistic abilities of the inhabitants of the reducciones is Dr. Gauvin Bailey's article "Missions in a Musical Key".

Politically, these settlements owed nominal allegiance to the Spanish Crown, through the Audiencia of Charcas (until 1776, and after that directly to the new Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata), itself a part of the much larger Viceroyalty of Peru. From a religious standpoint, the (now arch)diocese of Santa Cruz de la Sierra was nominally in control (although the missionaries themselves came by way of Tarija from the predominantly Jesuit-controlled Archdiocese of La Plata, and Asunción, the capital of the Jesuit Province of Paraguay). In reality, thanks to their remoteness, the Chiquitos missions were completely autonomous and entirely self-sufficient. In fact, they exported their surplus goods throughout Upper Peru and beyond, earning the envy of colonists, especially the large landholders who coveted the fertile lands for their encomiendas (settlements worked by enslaved native Americans).

The missions eventually and inevitably were caught in a political battle between Spain and Portugal, the latter of whose slave traders in nearby Brazil had their own nefarious purposes for expanding westward. It didn't help that a thriving economy and well-ordered way of life had earned the reducciones a great deal of jealousy. Virtually semi-independent states (complete with their own armies), both powers were suspicious of the towns' loosely defined political status and sought to exploit it.

The Jesuits' main man, St. Ignatius of Loyola, flanked by saints: San Ignacio de Velasco Cathedral

It all came to a sudden end on 27 February 1767, when the Spanish King Carlos III ordered the Extrañamiento (or expulsion) of the Jesuits from his realms (those in Portuguese Brazil had been expelled in 1759), including the scarcely two dozen missionaries who watched over the enormous Chiquitos territories (many of whom soon died as a result of the hardships endured after the expulsion). Victoriano Martínez de Tineo, the president of the Audencia of La Plata, received the order on 19 June and asked to have until 4 September to carry it out, which was done under the auspices of Diego Antonio Martínez de la Torre (and in Moxos by Antonio Aymerich y Villajuana). The last four Jesuits left the Chiquitania on 2 April 1768, and the final 27 in Moxos on 17 April. The two groups were united in Santa Cruz and sent back to Europe from there by way of Cochabamba, Oruro, Tacna, Arica, Callao, and Lima. Nearly half died along the way.

Thus endedf a unique era in history and the disappearance of a singular daily life, but ones whose legacies still live on. (If you read Spanish, the best account of the expulsion is a gem of a book written by a modern-day Jesuit, Por Tierras de Chiquitos, by Fr. Antonio Menacho, S.J.). The bishop of Santa Cruz at the time, Francisco Ramón Herboso y Figueroa, foolishly decided to visit Concepción a few months later to assess the success of the eviction order and was greeted in the plaza principal by a hail of arrows from the Chiquitano for his efforts. Similar welcomes were offered the clergy in San Ignacio de Velasco and Santa Ana de Velasco.

The astonishing growth of the missions ended abruptly with the expulsion decree, and they slowly spiralled into a state of near-terminal decline. In 1776, the government of the entire region was militarised and the Chiquitania, with its capital at San Rafael de Velasco, administered from the newly created, far-away Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata (to which the Audencia of Charcas by then belonged). In political terms, all the reducciónes were fully secularised by 1831, a few years after Bolivia had declared independence in 1825. The Diocese of Santa Cruz de la Sierra had assumed spiritual control some 65 years earlier, of course, and the settlements were in many ways no longer missions but towns.

In 1825, the Chiquitania experienced a final moment of historical note when the Bolivian general (soon to become its second president), Mariscal Antonio José de Sucre, threatened to pacify the region by force if it tried to join itself politically to the ephemeral Republic of the Mato Grosso (a breakaway region of far western Brazil), something the last Spanish colonial administrator, Colonel Sebastian Ramos, wished to bring about. The anticipated reprisal never came, and Ramos had the last laugh. In a situation that could happen only in Bolivia, after a brief exile in Brazil, Ramos petitioned successfully to return to Bolivia, set up shop in Santo Corazón, and later was made a territorial judge and something like an ambassador without portfolio by the same government that nearly killed him.

By the time the French explorer D' Orbigny visited the Chiquitania in 1831, although the towns were still very similar culturally to what they had been in the Jesuits' heyday, their economic, political, and social decline was screamingly evident: San Juan Bautista had been abandoned and the far eastern settlements of Santiago and Santo Corazón had fewer inhabitants than they had a half-century before. Many of the native peoples fled the towns under the opressive administration of the Bolivian government, some returning to the forest from which they originally came. Eleven years later, the census revealed a population for the ten remaining Chiquitos missions of 18,391, perhaps half the number they had three-quarters of a century earlier.

By 1855, the last vestiges of the reducción system (by then firmly in the government's hands) were abolished and the spiritual administration of most of the settlements was turned over to Franciscan missionaries. The few local peoples who remained were left to fend for themselves in the face of a wave of immigration from the city of Santa Cruz. By 1876, the cruceños had overwhelmed the region, and by 1900, had complete control over the three main Chiquitania settlements of San Xavier, Concepción, and San Ignacio de Velasco. The natives essentially were forced into a form of slavery (known as empadronamiento, a type of servitude to a few powerful cruceño landowners), and the few who weren't went back to the forest and joined or established comunidades indígenas, several of which still exist.

Unfortunately, the decline and dissolution of the reducciones also spelled the decline of all the indigenous peoples of the region. Thanks to the Catholic Church and a few decent NGOs, the original inhabitants are, in the 21st century, possibly marginally better off than they were for the previous two (although this is debatable); even so, the majority have been reduced to a state of extreme poverty and social exclusion, illiteracy, and unemployment. A near-complete lack of economic and political means have kept them on the sidelines, a situation that is only gradually improving. But at least it is improving. Awareness is high, and there is growing support for a more inclusionary policy for indigenous peoples, especially where education and basic medical care are concerned.

The exact number of native inhabitants of the Chiquitania is unknown, and there are widely varying estimates for the ethnic population across the department of Santa Cruz. The table below reflects recent data gathered by Ethnologue.com, Apoyo Para el Campesino-Indígena del Oriente Boliviano (APCOB) and other organisations that interact with indigenous groups in the region.

Ethnic Name
Population (Est.)
Provinces
Linguistic Family*
Chiquitano
47,100
Ñuflo de Chávez
Velasco
Germán Busch Chiquitos
Chiquitano
Guarayo
7,250
Guarayos
Tupí [Guaraní]
Ayoreo
856
Germán Busch Chiquitos
Zamucoan
Sirionó 600 Guarayos
Ñuflo de Chávez
Tupí [Guaraní]
Guarasug 'we (Pauserna)
50
Ñuflo de Chávez
Tupí [Guaraní]

There were several other linguistic families, mostly small in number and now extinct, throughout the Chiquitania, including Arawak (of the Maipuran sub-family), Chapakura, Otuquis and many more. The peoples who spoke these dialects were for the most part found on the far northern and southern fringes of the region and do not figure prominently in its history.

As the late Hans Roth, the principal architect and restorer of these missions, wrote: "It was not the natives who destroyed the work...but rather the economic and political envy, the ignorance and barbarism of those already civilized and educated."

Although the expulsion of the Jesuits is a well-documented matter, and much has been recorded of the period preceding their banishment, considerable research remains to be done on their inhabitants. This is especially true for the chaotic period immediately following Bolivia's independence. Few works treat this period (and none in English), and those that do tend to focus on the cultural regression of the natives. For a brief synopsis of post-expulsion history, the reader is referred to Querejazu's massive tome, Las Misiones Jesuíticas de Chiquitos. Tonelli's Reseña Histórica Social y Económica de la Chiquitania (published in 2004 by Editorial El País) is more detailed, and the best treatment available for the layman.

If you want more detail on the history behind the Jesuits' expansion into and expulsion from the Chiquitania and what happened afterwards, you can download the first two sections of my three-part book on the history of the Jesuit missions of Chiquitos (the third installment will be published later this year) here.

Evanescence and Permanence: Toward an Accurate Understanding of the Legacy of the Jesuit Missions of Chiquitos (revised December 2012)

The Long Silence: The Jesuit Colonial Missions of Chiquitos after the Extrañamiento