The first Jesuit missions in Argentina were established in 1609, three decades after the order founded by San Ignacio de Loyola first arrived in the region. Though the Jesuits tried to evangelize other parts of the country over the next 150 years, it was in the subtropical Upper Paraná where they had their greatest success. Known in Spanish as reducciones, these missions were largely self-sufficient settlements of Guaraní Indians who lived and worked under the tutelage of a small number of Jesuit priests. Missions were initially established in three separate zones: the Guayrá, corresponding mainly to the modern Brazilian state of Paraná; the Tapé, corresponding to the southern Brazilian state of Río Grande do Sul, present-day Misiones Province and part of Corrientes Province; and the Itatín, lying between the Upper Paraná and the sierras to the north of the modern Paraguayan city of Concepción.

Enlightened slave drivers

If the Jesuits were essentially engaged in “civilizing” the natives, they did at least have a particularly enlightened approach to their task – a marked contrast to the harsh methods of procuring native labour practised elsewhere in Latin America. Work was organized on a cooperative basis, with those who could not work provided for by the rest of the community. Education and culture also played an important part in mission life, with Guaraní taught to read and write not only in Spanish but also in Latin and Guaraní, and music and artisanship actively encouraged; however, coercion and violence were not unknown, and epidemics periodically ravaged these communities.

The early growth of the missions was impressive, but in 1660 bandeirantes, slave traders from São Paulo, attacked, destroying many of the missions, and carrying off their inhabitants, leading the Jesuits to seek more sheltered areas to the west, away from the Guayrá region in particular. The mission population soon recouped – and then surpassed – its former numbers, and also developed a strong standing army, making it one of the most powerful military forces in the region. Their most important crop proved to be yerba mate, which had previously been gathered from the wild but was now grown on plantations for export; other products sold by the missions included cattle and their hides, sugar, cotton, tobacco, textiles, ceramics and timber. They also exported musical instruments, notably harps and organs from the Reducción de Trinidad in Paraguay.

Decline and fall

By the end of the seventeenth century, the reducciones were among the most populous and successful areas of Argentina. By the 1730s, the larger missions such as Loreto had over six thousand inhabitants – second only to Buenos Aires. Nonetheless, the mission enterprise was beginning to show cracks: a rising number of epidemics depleted the population, and the Jesuits were becoming the subject of political resentment. Settlers in Paraguay and Corrientes were increasingly bitter at the Jesuit hold over the “supply” of Guaraní labour and domination of the market for yerba mate and tobacco. Simultaneously, the previous climate of Crown tolerance towards the missions’ almost complete autonomy also began to change, with the Jesuits’ power and loyalty questioned. Local enemies of the missions took advantage of this, claiming that the Jesuits were hiding valuable silver mines and that foreign Jesuit priests were agents of Spain’s enemies. In 1750, an exchange treaty between Spain and Portugal was proposed, according to which Spain would give up its most easterly mission. The Jesuits and Guaraní put up considerable military resistance and the treaty was abandoned. The victory proved a double-edged sword, however; the resistance against the Crown only reinforced their image as dangerous rebels and, following earlier expulsions in France, Portugal and Brazil, the Jesuits were expelled from Argentina in 1767. Their magnificent buildings fell into disuse – lumps of stone were used for other constructions and the jungle did the rest – resulting in the ruins that can be visited today.

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