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The Jesuit Republic of South America

ISSUE:  Spring 1999

My wife, Susana, discovered an old journal in her home town of Santa Fe, in central Argentina, an account relating to one of the more edifying experiences in human history. She found it in a provincial museum. It was the memoir of an 18th-century Jesuit missionary named Florian Paucke. He came from Silesia, in southern Austria, and he served for 18 years in a mission called San Javier, which today is a small town about 100 miles north of Santa Fe. Paucke wrote of the nomadic people he worked among, of the customs through which their communal life was expressed, how, after a long struggle, the light of humane reason emerged in their minds.

Paucke also drew primitive though artful illustrations to complement his memoir, of the clothes his people wore, the food they ate; how they hunted, how they played, how they killed. He wrote of his perilous voyage to the New World in the year 1748, the events of his difficult sojourn in the Chaco Valley, and the sudden end to the system that had facilitated the birth of this light among the people of the forest. This was the astonishing Utopian experiment of the Jesuits, who scattered their mission towns like islands of sanity through the heartland of a wild continent. To this day some historians refer to this as the Jesuit Republic of South America, a kind of paradise lost, whose monuments, which only hint of their former grandeur, you can find today if you are moved to seek them out.

This strange evangelical crusade infatuated great minds during its century-and-a-half of existence, and ever since. Voltaire called it “a triumph of humanity capable of expiating the crimes of the conquistadors.” Utopian philosophers of the 18th century saw in it a template of the perfectly-arranged society. A founder of the British Labor Party, R. B. Cunninghame-Graham, who had spent his youth in Argentina and actually spoke to the grandchildren of people who had lived under the protection of the Jesuit fathers, wrote a history titled “Vanished Arcadia.”

In more contemporary times German Arciniegas, the Peruvian social historian, declared the Jesuits had recreated the socialist society of the Incas. The English writer Philip Caraman, while acknowledging the paternalistic nature of the Jesuits’ treatment of the South American Indians, said they had rescued entire indigenous cultures from extinction, particularly that of the Guarani. These people, the Jesuits’ first converts, constitute the largest part of the population of Paraguay today, and their language is the most widely spoken. French historian Roger Lacombe even argued that had the Jesuit enterprise not been interrupted, South America would be 100 years more advanced than it is today.

It began in the first decade of the 1600’s, about 60 years after the Jesuits arrived in South America, to Brazil. Previous missionary work among the indigenous peoples had been carried out by Franciscans and Benedictines. The Jesuits’ first missions were established along the Parana and the Paranapanema rivers, in Paraguay and Brazil respectively. By the time the project ended, with the abrupt expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767, there were more than 30 thriving mission towns, sheltering more than 100,000 Indian people. This is not a lot when measured against contemporary populations, but at the time one mission in western Brazil had 8,000 residents, a third of the population of Buenos Aires. The Jesuit missions also constituted a cultural vanguard: the first printing press in South America began operating in a mission town.

The Jesuit Order in Rome denominated this empire of theirs the Province of Paracuaria; it occupied vast territories throughout all of the contemporary states of Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina (where most of the missions lay), much of western Brazil and eastern Bolivia.

To this day no one knows why Charles III of Spain expelled the Jesuits from Spanish America. He died without telling. But there is much speculation about how the Catholic kings of Europe turned their faces against the Order of Ignatius and ejected its members from Portugal, France, Spain. Then, in 1773, under pressure from these rulers, Pope Clement XIV, suppressed the order entirely, “for all eternity.” It was, of course, reconstituted.

Envy and fear fueled this monarchical enmity, fed by rumors spread by enemies of the Jesuits, not a few of them within competing religious orders. The Jesuits, it was said, had secret silver mines on the mission lands; they were stealing the king’s treasure; they planned to declare their “state” independent of the Spanish crown.

None of this was true: there were neither mines, nor treasure, nor a hint of a serious sentiment for rebellion. When King Charles’ troops arrived at the missions to arrest the Jesuits, they went quietly. They didn’t have to, for they controlled a military force greater than that at the disposal of the governor of Buenos Aires, Francisco Bucareli, the man charged with carrying out the expulsion. These were the Indian militias, fanatically loyal to the “padres.” They had been formed, with royal sanction, to defend the missions from Brazilian slavers. They became a bulwark against incursions into Spanish territory and were frequently deployed to defend Buenos Aires against the French, Dutch, and English.

The Jesuits’ departure in 1767 was a catastrophe for the Indians under their care. They felt betrayed. Hadn’t they been loyal subjects? Paid their yearly tithes to the crown? Hadn’t they even fought the king’s enemies?

Many fled to the forest, threw off their Christianity with their homespun clothing. Others fell victim to the exploitation of Spanish settlers.(The real animus directed toward the Jesuits by these people grew from their envy over the economic success of the mission towns within the overall economy of Spanish America at the time, and the fact that Indians in the mission towns were well-fed, well-clothed— and free. This could not be said about the majority of native peoples living within the Creole society.) After the expulsion, however, some of the Indians did manage to integrate into the settler economy, using the trades taught them by the priests.

The mission towns were called “Reductions,” a name contrived to describe the process of luring the wild people from their nomadic life, concentrating them in settlements where they were weaned from such distressing practices as infanticide, polygamy, occasional cannibalism. They were taught agriculture, useful skills like tanning or carpentry, the arts—painting, sculpture, and music, for which they seemed to have an aptitude. The primary purposes of the enterprise were to convert the Indians and to pacify them, aims that satisfied the missionary impulse of the Jesuits and the secular imperative of the colonial authorities.

The Reductions were self sufficient and closed to Spanish settlers. Intercourse between the two cultures had proved disastrous to the indigenous. European vice and disease, not to mention slavery, had annihilated entire peoples in the Americas. Each reduction sheltered between one to five thousand Indians, though they occasionally grew larger. The residents elected a mayor and council, who governed with the guidance of two Jesuits: one did the administrative work; the other—usually younger—ministered to the Indians’ spiritual needs. No money circulated in the towns; the produce of the mission fields was divided according to need, though each Indian family owned its own house and fields; private property was the most radical concept conveyed to the Indians. There were hospitals in the Reductions, schools, prisons, and of course churches, some magnificently decorated by Indian artisans in a land of luxuriant “tropical baroque.” Unlike missionaries of other religious orders, the Jesuits learned the Indian languages. According to Martin Dobrizhoffer, a colleague of Paucke and author of “An Account of the Abipones,” the Jesuits proselytized and taught in 14 Indian tongues. Many Indians who lived in the Reductions never accepted Christianity but were allowed to remain.

Having succeeded with the Guarani, concentrated in Paraguay and Brazil, the Jesuits turned their attention early in the 18th century to the wild nations of the Chaco, the territory west of the Parana River, which flows 2,800 miles out of Brazil and Paraguay and through Argentina down to the sea. These were equestrian peoples, Abipones, Tobas, Mocobies, formidable fighters, untamed hunter/ gatherers who lived to make war on the Spaniards, whom they hated for many of the reasons indigenous peoples all over the New World came to hate the Europeans. To go among these people unarmed, to proseltize, was heroic. Martyrs were made this way, about 30 during the life of the missionary enterprise. In 1752, after three years training in the Jesuit College of Cordoba, in Argentina, Florian Paucke was sent to the Reduction at San Javier, to work among the Mocobies.


It was June, the edge of winter, when Paucke reached San Javier. Once there he experienced an immense happiness, the like of which he had never felt before. He hoped he “would remain among these poor beings for the rest of my life.” The priest from the Silesian town of Winzig was 33, and he fully intended to. But it was not to be.

Paucke confesses in his journal that his efforts to learn the Mocobies’ tongue brought tears to his eyes and “profound sadness that this language would not stay with me.” Eventually he gave up the lexicon compiled by his superior, Francisco Burges, founder of San Javier, and went instead among the Indians and simply asked the names of things. The Indians responded positively to this, and would correct his pronunciation, and “by the second year I was able to teach the children the Christian doctrine and by the third I was able to mount the pulpit.”

The Jesuits taught the Indian children to read and write their own language; they taught them music. Paucke organized a choir; he took it down to Santa Fe on several occasions to give concerts and once made the 400 mile trip to Buenos Aires. They were a big hit.

Much has been written about the unexpected aptitude of the South American Indians for European music of the baroque. Their choirs and instrumentalists were compared to those in the courts of Europe. Some believed it was an inherent talent, a window onto their souls. Others thought it simply reflected the inordinate skills of the missionaries, especially those from northern Europe, like Dobrizhoffer and Paucke. A third line of thinking held that the indigenous people were natural copyists; the Guarani especially had this quality. It was said that if you gave a Guarani tailor an old suit and asked him to make one like it, he would reproduce it exactly, with all the threadbare parts and stains included.

Paucke came to admire the Mocobies. His enthusiasm for his work never dimmed after that first ecstatic commitment on arrival in the Reduction in 1752 and his promise to remain all his life—a promise he reaffirmed to one of the caciques in the Reduction, one Aletin, who became Paucke’s loyal friend, and a major presence in his life. It was a promise he was not permitted to keep and when the separation came, the pain and anger manifest among the Reduction Indians proved how emotionally dependent they had become on the “padres.”

Many of the practices of the Mocobi were not admirable, such as their inclination for large, interminable drinking bouts. Paucke records one that occurred at San Javier, in which members of another Indian nation participated: they would be Abipones or Tobas, probably. “They drank all night and their screams could be heard in our lodgings. . . . They had small drums and diverse instruments with which they made a frightful din all night long.”

In the morning things got worse and Paucke expected a mutiny. “All the women and children came running to our house and patio.” The drunken Indians were fighting with lances. Paucke went out and saw one lying on the ground with his intestines exposed. He baptized the man, but he recovered. This capacity to survive horrendous wounds impressed Paucke greatly. In fact their general physical appearance he found pleasing. “The stature of many Indian nations is tall and agreeable,” he wrote. “They are strong of bone, and robust. . . . They are of a happy disposition but serene; they run fast and don’t tire quickly; always prepared to take up arms.”

This high level of energy and strength and stamina, notwithstanding, the Mocobies and many other South American Indians were laid low by regular physical work. They died by the thousands when enslaved and forced to it. And it was this specific weakness that encouraged the importation of African slaves to the New World. That and a papal bull by Paul III in 1537 declaring that the Indian peoples were capable of understanding the Catholic religion and therefore could not legally be enslaved. It was also this aversion to work that encouraged Europeans to think of the South American Indians as children of Eden, free of Adam’s curse.

In fact, where food was all around, on the hoof, in the air and waters, there was no need for concentrated labor. It was a new idea to them and not all took to it; many, finding it too onerous, simply rode off. But in the Reduction everyone was trained to regular work, and the instrument that facilitated the acceptance of it was—what else? Music. Each morning most of the men, women and children marched out to the fields to the accompaniment of drums and singing; they sang while at work, and had hymns and chants to accompany them home.

Paucke didn’t have to be told why he never saw a deformed or blind member of the Mocobies, neither among the Reduction Indians nor those in the wild. All children born with physical defects were killed. Children were killed if they cried too much, if the father suspected the child was not his, if he decided the family was too large, or if the infant inhibited travel.

The Jesuits had some success against rampant alcoholism by introducing the Indians to the the salubrious and mildly stimulating Yerba Mate, the tea of Paraguay. The cultivation of yerba also proved to be the engine of the Reductions’ economy, and another source of envy among the Spanish settlers, who proved inferior to the Indians as cultivators of it.

Yerba proved an effective substitute for alcohol. Only time and constant remonstrance discouraged infanticide. Paucke tells of a Mocobi woman he encountered with an infant. She confessed she intended to kill it. The Jesuit asked for it. “If you want the child, take it,” she said. Paucke found a mother for it in the Reduction and baptized it. Fourteen years later the father arrived at Paucke’s door. The child was called. “The boy lowered his eyes and did not want to look at his father,” the missionary wrote. “But the father contemplated him very seriously for a long while: Abenotiaca ini— Yes, that is him.” Paucke gave the man a piece of tobacco and he went away. “There are a number of people in my town like this,” he wrote. “They are all good and well-raised.”

On July 16, 1767, troops were mobilized throughout Spanish America. The expulsion order had arrived. They came to the Jesuit College in Santa Fe early in the morning, Paucke writes. They banged on the door and demanded the rector appear. The troops poured into the building, about 150 years old at that time, and still there today functioning as a Jesuit boys school. They rousted every priest from his chamber, searched it, then searched their belongings before putting them in carts and escorting them all down to Buenos Aires. From Paraguay down to Patagonia, from every remote corner of the conceptual state, the ideal state, of Paracuaria, the blackrobes were taken from their colleges and missions, brought to ports, jammed onto ships and sent away. Even Jesuits born in the New World were expelled.

Word arrived to San Javier while the padres were having lunch. One of Paucke’s music pupils rushed in with the news: “It startled me so that the knife fell from my hand.” One Sgt. Major Don Francisco de Andino arrived with four soldiers and a letter from his commander in Santa Fe. His eyes were filled with tears.

Within minutes the Reduction was in a turmoil. The Mocobies, at all levels and ages were crying and many began making plans to abandon the mission. Old Cithaalin, the maximum cacique and one of the first to leave the wild, was virtually submerged in his own tears. He gathered 400 of his followers and rode off. “Do not take what I say wrong, my Father,” he said. “But my pain is so deep that I cannot stay here.” In San Pedro, another reduction to the north, founded by Paucke, the entire population fled into the forest. Some of the Indians even begged him to come. “We can escape to our secret places,” one said, and almost lured away one of Paucke’s colleagues, the 25-year-old Englishman, Peter Pole. When Paucke told them all that he was bound to obey, they threatened to ride on Santa Fe and raze it. Paucke knew they were capable of this, and he dissuaded them. Finally they agreed to let him go, but insisted on accompanying him. Before he could stop them, 40 armed and painted Indians were mounted up. They joined the troop of nervous soldiers and went with him all the way to Buenos Aires, and then left him there. He was returned to Europe in 1767, then in 1770 he settled in a town in Bohemia called Neuhaus, where he died in 1780.

When Paucke’s life as a missionary ended, his life as an ethnographer and anthropologist began with the process of reconstructing and recalling the events of his two decades in the Argentine Chaco. He had kept no journal; if he had it would have been taken from him during the repeated searches he endured by Spanish troops determined to find the mythical silver of the Jesuits. His history, and the 143 vivid illustrations that accompany it—primitive drawings made by a man with no training—were a Herculean exercise in recollection. One thinks of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, memorizing entire novels in the Gulag, then spilling them onto paper in his later freedom. But Paucke’s was not a work of imagination, where details could be changed or reinvented. This was a rendering of fact and the circumstances he had lived through in a world far away where a rational order of life was declining into incoherence, a proto-state dissolving into utter chaos.

Paucke returned to Europe at a time when the appetite for information about the New World was great. Notions of Utopianisin were rampant, and people wanted to learn about exotic places and native peoples. A sense of wonder existed about them later fortified by the romance of the Noble Savage that so captured the imagination of European intellectuals. Dobrizhoffer’s account of the Abipones was published in 1783 or 1784, in Latin and German, and became a classic. Even though Paucke had been encouraged and given a small pension by the Austrian Empress Maria Teresa, his work failed to appear. Why? R.W. Staudt, one of those involved in the eventual publication of the 1,144-page text, believed he was unable to finish it before he died; though chronologically complete, it needed editing.

The manuscript lay unexamined for 50 years in a Cistercian monastery in Zwettl before the first fragment of it was published. Later a longer section came out under the title Da und Heir, (“There and Here”) In the 1930’s an Argentine Jesuit historian, R.P. Guillermo Furlong rediscovered the book, and drew on it for his histories of the colonial period of his country, giving full credit to Paucke. He also published some of Paucke’s drawings. The title of the memoir he referred to reflected the disillusioned state of mind of its author at the time: Hacia Alla y Para Aca, or “We Went There Full of Hope and Happiness and We Returned Saddened and Embittered.” The full text of this account, including all the drawings and illustrations, finally came out in 1944, in Spanish, under the auspices of the Argentine-German Cultural Institution and the National University of Tucuman. A thousand copies were printed. The translator was Edmundo Wernicke. This was the book my wife found and began to translate in June 1997.


A year later, in June 1998, Susana and I drove out of Santa Fe one morning onto Provincial Route 1 north. At the time the Parana River was afflicting the region with the most catastrophic flood of this century, a gift from El Nino. The road north to San Javier had been cut for days, and we had been awaiting our chance. The river had undermined the pilings of one bridge 30 miles north of the city, and had submerged the road further up. But finally a Bailey bridge was thrown up at Arroyo Leyes, and a great, protective wall of mud, topped with sand bags, constructed along the road much of the way up. We drove through Helvecia, and Colonia Frances, place names that recalled the creation here in the late 19th century of European agriculture communities. The Swiss settled at Helvecia, the French and English further up. Jews, seeking Zion and fleeing the periodic persecutions in Europe, founded Moses Ville, which thrives to this day. We made it to San Javier in about three hours.

It is an unremarkable town on the San Javier River, a tributary to the Parana. The town is aware it began its existence as mission to the Mocobies and an idealized wood sculpture of one of these people is mounted just off the main highway. But its greater pride is invested in the late Carlos Monzon, the great world middleweight boxing champion, who was born here.

We drove to the central plaza, full of flourishing palm trees, bad sculpture, a cannon, and flagpole. We knew what we were looking for. We had discussed our trip with an historian in Santa Fe named Mario Andino, who perhaps was a relative of the sergeant who delivered news of the expulsion. He is writing a book on the “Ultimo Malon,” the last Indian attack by the Mocobies on San Javier. This occurred in 1904 and according to another historian, Bernardo E. Aleman, it was the final engagement in a 300-year war between the indigenous peoples of the Chaco and the European. The uprising was triggered, in part, by the arrival of the foreigners, who began taking Indian lands.

The Church of San Francisco was built in 1876; it is a blaze of white in the sun; it has a red, tin roof, and weeds grow from the top of its facade by an iron weather cock. It is the fourth church to rise on that spot, beginning with the one built by the Mocobies for Father Burges, the foundations of which lay beneath the street. The church, Andino said, holds the only artifact left from mission days, a wood statue of St. Francis Xavier carved by an Indian artisan. Father Silvestre showed us the statue, but then drew our attention to another rendering of the patron saint he seemed to prefer, “brought from Spain.” He seemed to know little about the history of the Reduction, of how the Franciscans were sent in following the expulsion of the Jesuits to try to hold things together. They failed, not necessarily for want of trying. But they did not understand the Indian tongues and were greeted as usurpers by those Indians who had remained hoping the Jesuits would return. Father Silvestre directed us to a man named Nestor Lancia, who ran a House of Culture a block away, and the little museum behind the church.

Lancia is a lean, dark man with a vertical face, partly covered by a short beard and mustache. He has deep black eyes and a congenial ingratiating way about him. He said his grandmother had taught him to speak the Mocobies’ language when he was young, then discouraged him from it when he started school. “I might have gotten into trouble,” he said. He said awareness was growing among Mocobies of their history; a school in Recreo near Santa Fe taught children in bi-lingual classes. But one could not help but feel that little would come of this.

Lancia opened the museum for us and showed us his meager collection. Copies of some of Paucke’s drawings were there, an Indian cross of undetermined age, and a history line drawn on the wall showing the major events in the life of the Reduction of San Javier, from its founding in 1743 by Father Burges, the two dates when it was moved, mainly to distance the Indians farther from white settlements. Florian Paucke’s name was there, Father Burges, the Englishman, Peter Pole, and others. Lancia showed us an old photograph of a mud brick building which was torn down in 1969; he said it was the chapel of the original Reduction Church. This was disputed by an amateur local historian, who did concede that the bricks in the building had probably been cast on the Reduction by its artisans. Lancia took us out onto a patio laid in large square bricks, and pointed to the site where he said the chapel had stood.

Outside, by the town’s small beach, submerged by the swollen river, Lancia drew a map in the sand, showing how the topography of the river had changed over the centuries and where a watercourse had once penetrated into the town. This matched the elaborate and detailed illustration of the Reduction made by Paucke in the 1700’s.

We then went to the plaza where on the plinth anchoring the flag staff were carved the names of the Jesuits who had served here before there was a secular town: Burges, Hieronymo Nunez, Floriano Paucke. The sun poured down through the trees: It was a quiet moment in a quiet place.

Lancia pointed across the plaza. “They came up that street and attacked with bolas, lances and arrows,” he said. He had suddenly switched topics, or so we thought, and was recalling the Ultimo Malon. “The gringos [the standard expression for foreigners in Argentina] had automatic arms.” And of course they won. Nearly a score of the attackers were killed, many more wounded. The Mocobies were then dispersed to other towns.

It had been an act of desperation, which grew from the bitter taste of never-ending defeat, of a people being pushed further into poverty by each wave of immigration. Novelist Alcides Greca wrote about the uprising in “Wind From the North,” in which he described the condition of the Mocobies in 1904: “Not one of these pariahs is the owner of the soil where each night he lays his head. Every day a new owner arrives who pushes him farther and farther away. . . Upon the last Indians a wind of death blows. Even their dogs seem unhappy.”

Nestor Lancia is an inheritor of this history, a man trying to make his way in a world not so hostile to him as it might have been at one time, but hardly yielding. He tries to encourage tourism to San Javier. He runs the Cultural Center (for which he receives a salary), makes and sells small but precise clay sculptures of the riverine animals. He has his own idea of the true purpose of the uprising 94 years ago. It recalls the same longing that Cunninghame-Graham encountered among the Guarani more than a century ago near the destroyed Guarani missions to the north, that yearning for the coherent life the Jesuits had brought them from afar.

“It is my thought,” said Lancia, looking across to the white church, “that what the Indians wanted to do was to restore the authority of the priests.”


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