When the Spanish first arrived in what is now eastern Bolivia, the vast, forest-covered plains between the Río Grande and the Río Paraguay were densely populated by up to fifty different indigenous groups. To the Spaniards this was a strategically vital region, providing a link between the silver of the Andes, their settlements in Paraguay and the Río de la Plata. However, a century of constant military expeditions failed to subdue the indigenous population – known collectively as the Chiquitanos.
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In exasperation, at the end of the seventeenth century the colonial authorities in Santa Cruz turned to the Jesuits to pacify the region and secure the empire’s frontier. By this time the Jesuits had more than a century of experience in South America, and were quick to implement the missionary strategy that had proved successful elsewhere. Small groups of dedicated priests set out to convert the indigenous peoples and persuade them to settle in missions known as reducciones, places where they could be brought together and “reduced” to European “civilization”, which included being converted to Catholicism. Though many missionaries met gruesome deaths at the hands of those they sought to convert, the different tribal groups of Chiquitania quickly flocked to join the new settlements, which offered them many advantages. After a century of war, many had anyway been seeking a peaceful accommodation with the colonial regime, and under the aegis of the Jesuits they were protected from the rapacious slave raids of the Spaniards in Santa Cruz and the Portuguese in Brazil, as well as from their own tribal enemies.
“Civilizing” the Chiquitanos
Ten missions flourished under the Jesuit regime: European livestock and crops were successfully introduced; the Chiquitanos had limited autonomy under their own councils or cabildos, and were taught in their own languages (one of these, Chiquitano, was eventually adopted as the main language in all the missions); indigenous craftsmen were trained in European techniques and built magnificent churches; European musical instruments were introduced and quickly mastered by the Chiquitanos, establishing a musical tradition that survives to this day. The missions were not quite the autonomous socialist utopia Jesuit sympathizers have since tried to make out – many indigenous people were brought in by force, and the political and ideological control exercised by the fathers was pretty much absolute – but in general the missions provided a far more benign regime than anything else on offer under Spanish rule.
In the end, though, for all their self-sufficiency and autonomy, the Jesuit missions were utterly dependent on the Spanish colonial authorities. When in 1767 political developments in far-off Europe led the Spanish king to order the Jesuits out of the Americas, the fathers meekly concurred, and the Chiquitanos were quickly subjected to forced labour and the seizure of their best lands by the settlers of Santa Cruz. Within a few decades the missions were a shadow of their former selves, and this decline has continued pretty much ever since, leaving only the beautiful mission churches, now restored to their full glory with European aid money, to testify to the missions’ former prosperity.