P2P History: the Jesuit Missions among the Guarani

On the unique communal economy that was featured in the famous movie, ‘The Mission’:

* Article: The internal economic organization of the Jesuit missions among the Guarani. Crocitti, John J. International Social Science Review, Mar 22, 2002

Excerpted from John Crocitti:

“Jesuit mission activity among the Guarani of Paraguay ranks as one of the most interesting affairs in the annals of colonial Latin America. Conceived as a means to proselytize among the Guarani while protecting them from Sao Paulo slavers and the corrupting influences of Spanish settlers, these missions, or reductions, came to play an important part in the economic history of colonial Paraguay. In terms of trade, the missions produced a variety of commercially significant products. The missions’ yerba mate found markets throughout the Viceroyalty of Peru while other products, such as hides, represented important export items. In terms of labor, the missions competed directly against Spanish and criollo (Spaniards born in the New World) settlers for the fight to exploit Guarani labor. By offering the Indians a refuge from encomienda service, the missions effectively limited the labor pool available for the Paraguayan elite. This circumstance produced constant tension between missions and settlers and, at times, sparked violent confrontations such as those that occurred during the Comunero Revolt of 1720-1735.

The missions’ internal organization also presents a fascinating economic history. The communal aspects of the mission economy represent appetizing fare for idealists in search of utopian models. At the same time, the oppressive nature of Jesuit authority over the Guarani serves as a blunt reminder that the missions were part of the same Conquest mentality that employed the encomienda, repartimiento, and slavery as methods to organize labor in the New World. Thus, it is not surprising that some writers have praised the missions as a “Christian-communist republic” while others have pejoratively labeled them as a “rigid, severe and meticulous regimentation” of Guarani life.

The object of this study is to reexamine the economic organization of the Guarani missions. The major sources for this study will be Jesuit accounts from the eighteenth century, the majority of which were written in the quarter century before the order’s expulsion from the Spanish domain. The accounts offer two advantages. First, the Jesuit writers lived in the mission villages and actively took part in their daily administration. As participants in mission affairs, these Jesuits had first hand knowledge about economic organization in the missions. Second, by concentrating on the eighteenth century, these accounts reflected the maturation of the mission economy since 1607 as well as Guarani adaptations to mission life over the same period.

Agricultural production to satisfy internal consumption requirements comprised the principal economic activity in the thirty-two Guarani missions. (4) These products included cultivated food crops and cattle in addition to cotton and wool for clothing. Almost all Guarani planted corn, potatoes, beans and manioc. Manioc was especially useful because the Guarani dried and ground it into flour or fainha de pao. From this flour, they later made sun-baked bread cakes and various stews. (5) Corn also was a versatile crop, serving not only as a food, but also as the prime ingredient of chicha, a type of beer. Although the drink wasintoxicating, at least one writer found it invigorating and nourishing. (6) The most capable and industrious of the Guarani also planted crops such as melons, sweet calabashes, sugar cane, wheat and barley. The latter three crops represented lower priorities since the mission economy did not sustain large-scale production of molasses, sugar or bread.

Organization of food crop cultivation proceeded along two lines: individual plots and communal fields. In the individual scheme, each adult male in the village enjoyed usufruct privileges to a designated plot intended for the cultivation of staple crops. The individual Guarani retained use of this land for a six-month term running from June to December. In addition to the land, the village loaned to the individual two oxen to assist in cultivation. Because of frequent shortages of oxen, individuals rotated use of the animals. Those who did not have oxen cleared land, burned underbrush, and fenced in their fields until a team became available. In addition to land and draft animals, the individual received a carefully measured quantity of seed that had to be repaid to the communal granary after the harvest.

The assignment of individual fields adhered to a loose hierarchy based on partisan groupings led by caciques (chiefs). Each village included Guarani factions or cliques ranked according to their seniority within the village. Some villages contained as many as twenty or thirty caciques along with their cliques.

Each clique consisted of thirty to forty families. The amount of land assigned to each clique depended on the group’s seniority, its number of members, and the prestige of its cacique. Optimally, each clique would receive enough land to satisfy its individual members’ needs, thus, obviating the need to seek land from another cacique’s jurisdiction.

Overseers played an important role in mission agriculture. Jesuit curas (priests) felt that without close supervision, the Guarani would consume whatever seed had been distributed, fields would be left untilled, and crops would remain unharvested. Jesuits attributed this problem to the Guarani’s supposedly natural laziness and lack of foresight. In order to insure that the Guarani properly tended their crops, curas and overseers rigidly inspected the cultivated fields. Curiously, curas considered caciques to be as deficient as other Guarani and, therefore, did not rely on them as overseers. (10) Instead, each village’s corregidor (political and judicial official), secretario (clerk), and other cabildantes (local council members) plus a select group of other capable citizens accompanied the caciques’ associations out to the fields. The secretario updated accounts in his list containing names, land assignments and quotas while the others inspected their fellow Guarani’s labor. These overseers reported idleness and improper behavior, such as eating draft animals, to the cura who would the order castigation of the guilty parties. Punishment generally consisted of whippings or severe beatings and was administered by Guarani under the direction of the cura.

Communal production of staple crops complemented that of individuals. Each village reserved communal fields known as Tupambae, or literally “God’s possession.” Except for certain exemptions, all children between the ages of six and sixteen worked these fields. During the six-month growing and harvesting season, adult males also donated two or three days each week to this labor. (12) The output from these lands went into communal storehouses and granaries, or percheles, that served the needs of widows, orphans, the village coti-guazu or convent, women whose husbands were away on mission projects, and river rafters engaged in trading voyages to Santa Fe and Buenos Aires. The percheles also supported the caciques, corregidores, and other civil and military officers. In addition, these communal stores provided relief to individual families in times of shortage. It was toward this latter goal that individual Guarani were required to deposit a portion of their private corn production into the communal granaries. This deposit represented a private account from which the individual drew in times of shortage. Only after an individual had depleted his private account could he then draw corn supplies from the percheles.

Cattle production in the missions took place as a community endeavor. Unlike the Spanish and criollo settlers who merely butchered the pampas’ wild herds, the Guarani missions tended their cattle in pastures, or estancias, that were located as much as fifty leagues from the village. (14) Guarani who were assigned to work at the estancias also received arms in order to guard the herd from marauding bands of rustlers. Although charged with this important responsibility, the Guarani cowboys rarely enjoyed the curas’ confidence. Curas generally attributed the Guarani with a ravenous appetite for meat and felt that if left unsupervised, they would deplete the herd with their daily feasts. (15) In order to avoid this problem, curas sometimes hired Spaniards as foremen, or mayordomos, for the estancias. However, this tactic achieved only limited results, leading curas to inventory personally the estancias once or twice each year.

Distribution of meat generally occurred three times each week although an abundance or scarcity of other foodstuffs would alter this basic schedule. On the days of distribution, the Guarani drove twenty to forty head of cattle to the corrals near the cura’s house. This figure also varied according to the size of the village. Under direction of the chief butcher, or Zoorerequadra, a crew of meat cutters slaughtered the cattle and divided the meat into a number of parcels equal to the number of families in the village. Then, usually after the afternoon Rosary and in the street outside the cura’s house, the Zoorerequadra doled out the parcels to the women of the village. This final distribution proceeded in a specific order according to the cura’s list of names and cacique cliques.

Cloth production primarily followed a communal pattern although most individuals did plant some cotton for their own use or for exchange. Each village maintained large flocks of sheep that were cropped for wool in addition to cultivating large communal cotton felids. Children under sixteen years of age normally worked in the communal cotton fields, but during the growing season, adults joined them two days each week. On those days designated for adults to labor in the communal cotton fields, a portion of the adult w. omen remained in their homes to spin the communal supplies of cotton. In addition, the residents of the coti-guazu spun the community’s cotton on a daily basis. Individuals who harvested their own cotton either spun it themselves and, then, had their yam woven at the community’s workshops free of charge or gave their raw cotton to the community in return for finished textiles.

Spinning and weaving the communal textiles followed a pattern designed to insure an accurate account of each worker’s production. Upon instruction form the cura, mayordomos distributed weighed portions of wool or cotton to alcaldes who administered the spinning operations. The alcaldes were among the older and more respected citizens of the village. The alcaldes then divided the raw material into half-pound units and assigned each unit to one of the village women for spinning. After several days, the women returned their balls of yam to the alcaldes for weighing. Balls of yam not equal to a designated weight–a half-pound minus a certain amount due to cleaning the wool or cotton–were returned to the particular woman involved along with the mandate that she recover the missing yam. Acceptable balls received a marker bearing the name of the woman who spun it. The alcaldes then delivered the thread to the communal storehouse where the mayordomo weighed the batches in order to check each alcalde’s performance.

Villages generally employed twenty or more male weavers who labored in the community’s workshops. Weavers received four arrobas of yarn out of which to produce each piece of cloth. During this operation, the weaver might encounter a ball of yarn that contained a stone or piece of clay in the center. Fearing punishment if his finished product weighed less than four arrobas, the weaver promptly informed the mayordomo of the deception. The marker that had earlier been inserted into the yarn now indicted the culpable woman. The mayordomo reported this indiscretion to the cura who then ordered the alcaldes to punish the guilty party.

Weavers performed the most arduous craft in the villages. Therefore, unlike the village’s other artisans who performed their trades without compensation, weavers received a share of their communal output. The weaver’s share usually amounted to five or six varas each month. (21) The remainder of the cloth went into the communal storehouse. Periodically, twice yearly for youths and yearly for adults, villagers received shares of these textiles for clothing purposes.

Communal agricultural production was not entirely destined for internal consumption. After meeting the clothing needs of their citizens, villages shipped surplus cloth to their agents in Buenos Aires and Santa Fe. (23) The mission also exported enormous quantities of cowhides. During the early part of the eighteenth century, the super-abundance of wild cattle, or cimarronas, on the pampas enabled this trade. By mid-century, domesticated herds had replaced the depleted cimarronas as a source of hides. At the time of the Jesuit’s expulsion, the smallest missions contained approximately 12,000 head of cattle and the number of cattle in the entire mission territory totaled 719,761. (24) The quantity of hides exported by the missions reflected the abundance of cattle. One shipment to Spain during the late seventeenth century consisted of 300,000 hides. (25) The number of cimmarronas rounded up by Padre Sepp’s mission during the 1690s indicated the magnitude of cowhide exports. During a two-month interval, Sepp’s mission collected 50,000 head of cattle. His mission butchered fifteen to twenty head daily in order to supply meat. Therefore, the mission reserved 5,475-7,300 head for meat consumption each year, leaving 42,700-44,525 head for immediate slaughter and cowhide extraction.

The most important export from the Guarani missions was yerba mate. Yerba mate never found a significant market in Europe. Instead, the famous “yerba del Paraguay” became a New World favorite with important markets as far away as Chile, Potosi, and Lima. Consumers especially valued the higher quality yerba mate, known as caamini, that the Guarani missions produced. (27) In 1747, an arroba of caamini fetched four to six pesos in Santa Fe and Buenos Aires, eight to ten pesos in Chile, and up to twenty pesos in Lima. An arroba of inferior quality yerba mate, know as yerba de palos, generally did not enter the Lima market, but sold for only two pesos or less in Santa Fe and Buenos Aires and four to six pesos in Chile.

The Guarani missions employed two methods for obtaining yerba mate. Villages near the Parana and Uruguay Rivers collected wild yerba mate from selected forests located sixty to seventy leagues upstream and another six to eight leagues from the rivers’ banks. Expeditions to these distant forests lasted two or three months and consisted of fifty or more Guarani. Upon return to the village, each person delivered his sacks of yerba mate to the communal storehouse. After setting aside one arroba of yerba mate to pay the individual’s royal tribute, the community rewarded him in proportion to the remaining amount. These expeditions were toilsome, unhealthy, and time consuming. As an alternative, the Guarani experimented with yerba mate groves planted near their villages. These experiments achieved varied degrees of success. The seven villages of the Banda Oriental del Uruguay achieved the best results and abandoned the expeditions into the forests. Other villages proved less fortunate and continued to rely on the collection of wild yerba mate.

The missions’ processing method distinguished caamini from the yerba de palos produced by Spanish and criollo settlers. In contrast to lower grade yerba mate, caamini was cleaner and free of small sticks. To produce caamini, the missions followed a multi-stepped process. The Guarani started by cutting only the most tender and delicate branches of yerba mate. They then passed the cuttings through a flame to achieve a medium toast. The critical smoking stage followed the medium toasting, requiring the Guarani to place the cuttings in wattles elevated over a fire and tend the process diligently in order to assure the proper amount of smoke. The proportion of smoke used in this stage determined the quality of the yerba mate. After smoking, they ground the yerba mate inside of pits, but, unlike other producers, the Guarani lined these pits with cowhides in order to prevent contamination with dirt. The yerba mate then underwent sifting intended to extract dirt and sticks. This final cleaning further distinguished caamini from inferior grades of yerba mate.

Each year the missions shipped yerba mate, along with quantities of cotton cloth, leaf tobacco and sugar, to Santa Fe and Buenos Aires. Guarani rafters and Jesuit factors, or padres procuradores, performed vital functions in the export and exchange of these items. The Guarani rafters conducted shipments to and from the padres procuradores on riverboats known as balsas or itapas. Balsas varied from forty-eight to eighty feet in length and six to eight feet in width. Guarani constructed balsas by lashing two dug-out tree trunks together and then laying down a floor of bamboo cane. The balsas also supported a straw cabin that was lined with cowhide and capable of accommodating up to four people. As many as two-dozen men paddled the larger balsas up and down the Parana and Uruguay Rivers.

The Guarani rafters conducted the river traffic unaccompanied by Jesuit curas. Not trusting the Guarani with this task, the Jesuit missionaries set up an elaborate procedure in order to insure proper delivery and exchange of goods. Upon arrival in Santa Fe or Buenos Aires, the Guarani delivered two letters to the padre procurador. One letter, written in the Guarani language by the Indio Secretario del Barco (Ship’s Indian Clerk), listed the shipment’s contents. The second letter, written in Spanish by the cura, detailed the current needs of the village. Among those items commonly requested were iron, swords, shotguns, gunpowder, balls, knives, jingle bells, beads, and silk for the cabildantes, heads of the militia and dancers who performed during festivals. After housing the Guarani rafters, the padre procurador sold their cargo to local merchants. From the proceeds of those sales, the padre procurador paid the village’s annual tribute to the Crown. Often, during times of epidemic among the Guarani, a village’s cargo was not sufficient to meet the tribute payment. In such a case, the padre procurador made the tribute payment out of the surpluses from other villages and listed the debt in his account book. With any remaining revenue, he acquired those items requested by the village cura. Carefully avoiding the rafters’ observation, the padre procurador placed the village’s purchases inside locked chests and placed the keys inside letters marked for the village cura. Theoretically, the Guarani rafters had no knowledge about their cargo except for the bulk items, such as iron, that did not fit into the chests.

After the rafters’ return trip, the village cura placed the imported goods into the community storehouse and distributed them as he saw fit. Because merchandise shortages were common in Santa Fe and Buenos Aires, the padres procuradores often substituted plentiful goods for those specified in the curas’ original requisitions. In such cases, the curas traded the overstocked items with other mission villages in return for the needed imports. The terms governing this inter-village trade adhered to price lists that the padres procuradores sent to the missions along with the imported items. Regardless of supply and demand, curas used these prices as a base onto which they added a freight charge of four reales per arroba.

These price lists performed an important regulatory function in the mission region by controlling the barter value of scarce European imports. Without this control, the barter value of certain imports would have spiraled to levels detrimental to the economic life of the missions. Iron and steel products were particularly susceptible to inflationary pressures. Because ferric materials had to be imported from Spain, these products commanded a higher value than silver from Potosi. (34) The Guarani especially prized metal fishhooks and even pins that could be fashioned into hooks. Antonio Sepp, a Jesuit missionary, left Buenos Aires in May 1691, traveling up the Uruguay River that, at the time, passed through ten Jesuit missions in addition to an unspecified number of non-mission Guarani villages. In one non-mission Guarani village, Sepp exchanged fishhooks, pins, and bread for enough beef to feed the three hundred oarsmen of his river flotilla. (35) A seller’s market also existed for knives, bridles with iron bits, and horseshoes. The Guarani would exchange one, three and six fine saddle horses for these items, respectively. (36) These market conditions led Sepp to comment that “here a whistle is worth more than the best and prettiest horse, because of the superabundance of horses and the scarcity of whistles.”

The inter-village trade demonstrated another important facet of the mission economy. Because coinage and bullion did not circulate in the mission region, markets functioned by means of barter. In this respect, yerba mate partially fulfilled the role of an exchange medium. With yerba de palos priced at two pesos per arroba and cows at six pesos each, criollo settlers in Paraguay could purchase a cow with three arrobas of yerba mate. (38) More importantly for the missions, yerba mate offered the primary means of paying the royal tribute and purchasing imports. However, an Audiencia (a court with some legislative and executive powers) decision of 1664 limited the missions’ exports of yerba mate to 12,000 arrobas annually. The Audiencia’s restriction meant that, if the missions’ imports were extraordinarily high or their income from other products abnormally low, they would not be able to balance accounts simply by boosting yerba mate exports. Therefore, the missions’ economic health demanded maintenance of caamini’s integrity as an exchange medium by regulating its supply and quality. “

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