Bolivia's Jesuit missions
History Today,  July, 1997  by Richard Chamberlin
 

Until quite recently, the tropical lowlands that stretch to Brazil, in Bolivia's eastern region, were neglected to an extent remarkable even for what is commonly described as the poorest country in South America. Government and tourist interests alike were directed towards the Andes and the great cities and ruins that cling so improbably to the high places: Sucre, the official and cultural capital with its superbly preserved colonial architecture; Potosi, probably the world's richest city during the Spanish period, gorged on the silver mined from the Cerro Rico; La Paz, bursting at the seams so that a `suburb' a million strong now clings to its outskirts, and pre-dating these urban centres the pre-Inca ruins of Tiahuanaco and Samaipata.

Descend the mountains and travel eastward and the picture changes. A road map of Bolivia published as late as 1972, shows a quite detailed road pattern for the Andes; but eastward -- nothing. Roads starting out from the city of Santa Cruz peter out or circle back. On a visit in 1964, Harold Osborne of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, noting the total absence of roads and disappearance of canals and causeways, commented:

The native peoples themselves are reduced to a few sorry communities on the fringes of the white settlements or to tribes who have resisted acculturisation and reverted to barbarism.

Their handicrafts have gone, the old Jesuit Missions disrupted, the whole Beni languishes in inanition.

The causes of the changes that have gradually transformed this region are various: the discovery of oil, foreign aid, population pressure in the highlands and the insatiable appetite of the tourist industry to explore new horizons have all contributed. In the 1980s six of Bolivia's ten reducciones, as the Jesuit Missions are known, were registered with UNESCO on the list of Cultural Patrimony of Mankind. It was not simply the physical remains of the mission towns, but their mestizo culture that was created by, and in part survived, the Jesuit period that attracted this organisation. Nevertheless, on a recent visit to two of the most important and best-preserved of these, San Javier and Concepcion, I was astonished to find not just ruins, but thriving townships still centred on the great churches that brought them into being.

Jesuits have had a decidedly mixed press. David Puttnam's romantic film of 1986, The Mission, brought to wide popular notice this extraordinary culture largely unknown outside South America. While the courage of individual priests and their skill at combining culture with religion is freely admitted, the Order has also bequeathed to the English language an adjective jesuitical, defined by the OED as `equivocation or mental reservation of the truth'. The success of their missions aroused the suspicion and jealousy of secular authorities around the world and in 1773 the entire Order was suppressed by Pope Clement XIV. But in some ways, it cannot be doubted that the Jesuit experiment in South America represents a utopian ideal.

San Javier, founded in 1691, was the first reduccion in Bolivia. Like the first monks in Europe the Jesuits established their communities in remote places, each usually under the control of two priests, one specialising in secular work, the other, religious. The local Indians were drawn in and converted, their native talents developed so that they became superb craftsmen in a variety of media, including music.

In his book Mission Culture of the Upper Amazon David Block emphatically refutes the traditional picture of the Mission Indian as being a childlike creature totally manipulated by the Jesuits:

Far from being passive wards of the priests the native people

actively participated in all phases of Mission life, sagaciously

sifting and shaping European traditions to local realities. It is

the post-Jesuit period that best illustrates the strength of

mission culture.

The Jesuits were expelled from South America in 1767, the result of secular envy, and the missions languished.. Corrupt and predatory local clergy took the place of altruistic Jesuits: secular life eventually swamped the religious and the populations of the missions plummeted in the nineteenth century. Some, like San Javier and Concepcion, began to slowly revive in the 1940s; others remain in the scant hundreds to this day.

Today, Santa Cruz del la Sierra is the point of departure for a visit to the Missions. A generation ago it was a small, rumbustious cattle town. Today, the universal stimulus of oil has caused me population to swell to some 700,000. The roads leading out of the city are now metalled. In the Jesuit period, Pailon was the gateway to the Missions, a kind of frontier station on the river. Here it is necessary to wait for a train -- for the only crossing of the Rio Grande is by the railway bridge which has had a rough roadway created by laying timber slabs between the track. Today Pailon is simply an area of squalid little shanties that have sprung up to sell food and drink to the queues of traffic that build up waiting to make the crossing.

The road on the other side of the bridge runs through lush green vegetation. Each of the small thatched cottages sits in its own isolated area, with a mud oven like a beehive, a pond and a few animals. There is little outward sense of community, with one dramatic exception that two centuries later curiously echoes the Jesuit experience of the eighteenth century. Suddenly the smallholdings give way to immense fields with occasional glimpses of distant farmhouses. These are the fields of the German-speaking Mennonite Community, a religious sect which, while withdrawing from the twentieth century, is nevertheless prepared to use bulldozers to open up the wilderness. In the local market towns members are instantly recognisable by their stature and uniform of dungarees and hat worn by the men and the long simple dress of the women.

As the road begins to climb, the fields and meadows give way to scrub. Occasionally an iguana or road runner makes an appearance reminding us that we are in the tropics, but little other wildlife is visible. Nearly five hours and about 180 km after leaving Santa Cruz we reach San Javier. Situated on a hill, with its red earth and neat thatched cottages its outward appearance bears a strange resemblance to a Devon village.

San Javier's population at the time of the expulsion was a little over 3,000. It fell to 946 in 1830, but has now regained its former number. Although usually described as a village, its founders had the Latin talent for creating towns and it is laid out along the lines of most Spanish-American cities from the largest to the smallest. At the centre is the great plaza, a pleasant square around which are ranged small houses and shops and a species of co-operative established by the cattle ranchers; an attractive range of one-storey buildings around a central courtyard with a restaurant and tiny bandstand.

The dominant feature of the square, as in all mission settlements, is the great church built to a standard pattern. At first startled glance it seems to be a Maori building, so profuse is its wooden carving. But on closer inspection it is evident that here, translated into local wood and local pigments, is the same impetus that created the great Baroque Church of the Gesu in Rome, the same lavish use of gold, the same desire to cover with decoration as much as possible of a plain surface. The church is a long low building, the roof coming down steeply to create a verandah on the sides and a deep porch in the front. There is a cloister to one side, with an open wooden belltower. The church interior is a simple rectangle with two lines of immense columns, each carved out of a single tree, marching down to the high altar. The woodwork is picked out in two colours, a reddish brown made from the local earth, and black from soot. Above the altar are carvings -- crude by Jesuit standards, but lively -- telling the story of the Jesuits. Locked during the day, at night the church comes alive when the electric chandeliers blaze with light and the nave is packed for the evening service.

The church of San Javier has been well maintained and needed only limited restoration. Its sister church at Concepcion, the episcopal seat, has been rebuilt largely with German aid money and is even more lavish. The town is only about 60km from San Javier but here distance is best measured by time rather than kilometres. A rough road has been bulldozed through the scrub but no attempt has been made to surface it. Huge pits slow the pace of travel to a crawl.

 


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