For much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Guaraní Indians of what is now northeastern Argentina, southeastern Paraguay and northwestern Rio Grande do Sul were only nominally within the domain of the Spanish and Portuguese empires, and instead were ruled – or protected – by the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. The first redução – a self-governing Indian settlement based around a Jesuit mission – was established in 1610 and, within a hundred years, thirty such places were in existence. With a total population of 150,000, these mini-cities became centres of some importance, with erva maté and cattle the mainstay of economic activity, though spinning, weaving and metallurgical cottage industries were also pursued. As the seventeenth century progressed, Spain and Portugal grew increasingly concerned over the Jesuits’ power, and Rome feared that the religious order was becoming too independent of papal authority. Finally, in 1756, Spanish and Portuguese forces attacked the missions, the Jesuits were expelled and many Indians killed. The missions themselves were dissolved, either razed to the ground or abandoned to nature, surviving only as ruins. Of the thirty former Guaraní mission towns, sixteen were in present-day Argentina, seven in Paraguay and seven were situated in what is now Brazil.
The one mission site in Brazil that was not completely levelled is SÃO MIGUEL, not to be compared in extent and significance to San Ignacio Miní in neighbouring Argentina, but still of considerable visual interest, particularly for its dramatic location on a treeless fertile plain. Despite vandalism and centuries of neglect, São Miguel’s ruins offer ample evidence of the sophistication of Guaraní Baroque architecture, and of redução life generally. Founded in 1632, to the west of the Rio Uruguai, São Miguel moved only a few years later to escape paulista slavers, and then a few years after that it was destroyed by a violent windstorm. After being rebuilt, its population increased rapidly and in 1687 it was relocated across the river to its present site.