Could the colonization of the Americas have proceeded more humanely? Definitely yes, it could as it could in all other colonies of the world, if it had proceeded with intelligence.
Bartholomew de Las Casas had at one time secured from the Crown the permission to protect Indians from the rapacity of the Creoles, by sedentarizing them (“reducing” them) in autonomous villages called “concessions”. A revolt of the surrounding oppressed Indian population led to the destruction by them of these reductions (fig. 13.2), indicating that the concessions were beset with irremediable flaws.
Figure 13.2. J.L Gottfried: “Historia Antipodum”, Neue Welt und Amerikanische Historien. Copper plate, 1630. Reedited 1966: H. Andrea and E. de Cerqueira Falcao: Americae Praeterita Eventa. 1966 Sao Paulo.
Bartholomew de la Casas secured from the Crown a land concession for pueblo building (Reduction). It was apparently located in the Darien Isthmus. An upraise of Indians against their oppressors did not spare the reduction. The aggressors are depicted wearing a loin-cloth and focused on the destruction of Christian symbols and representatives thereof.
A second attempt at colonization according to Christian principles was initiated by the Jesuits on the 4th of April 1604, and succeeded.
The Jesuit province of Paraguay covered Paraguay and parts of Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia and Brazil. The Emperor Philip II admitted to a colonization according to the Jesuit principles because he had no one else willing to do it. The convention drawn between the Crown and the newly created Company of Jesus was that the missions would depend directly on the royal authority, would be financially assisted by this authority and would enjoy the privileges foreseen by the Crown for converted Indians: the “encomienda”, i.e. the personal service wherewith the Creoles enslaved the indigenous populations, was prohibited and Spaniards were forbidden to enter the region entrusted to the Company of Jesus. In return, the Jesuits promised the “reduction” of the indigenous population, i.e. its sedentarization, its conversion, and an annual tribute paid directly to the Crown.
This convention effectively subtracted the missions from the rule of the local administrators, from the missionary zeal of other religious orders as the Franciscans and Dominicans, and from the rapacity of the Creoles. These lent however no importance to the convention, because the Jesuit attempt was, in their eyes, bound to flounder, for at least two reasons. The colonial dogma was that Indians were inept in everything, and the region allotted for missionary endeavors was utterly inhospitable. Never before explored by white men, the land intended for settlement of the natives was forbidding: torrential rains, inundations, snakes and ferocious animals, insects and diseases, rotting moist heat, unpractical swift rivers and the perpetually present subtropical forest.
Three groups of Jesuit missionaries left Asuncion (now the capital city of Paraguay) in 1609, of which one met with failure because of hostile Indians, but a first Reduction was founded 200 kilometers south of the city, on 29 December 1609, rapidly followed by two others in the North. The tribes that accepted contact were the Guarani.
The Guarani were seemingly as much a hopeless case as had been all other primitive tribes to which the colonizing powers had been confronted in North and South America as well as in Oceania. Father Cardiel, who directed the Reduction of Yapeyu around 1740, conceded, “Their skull is so hard that riffle bullets flatten on them”. The reports of the missionaries abundantly refer to the illogic, naiveté and little taste for power and decision taking of their flock. They lived naked from day to day, with no concept of heritage, of individual property of the land, of real estate, of collective property, of daily work or care for the future. Living in congregations of about 200 people, fights, quarrels and murder frequently occurred among them and with other groups. Polygamy was the custom for the dominant men of the group, who had as many as 20 concubines. These nubile women were themselves forced to an absolute fidelity, which made adultery and sodomy banal events (fig. 13.3).
Figure 13.3. J.L. Gottfried. “Historia Antipodum”, Neue Welt und Amerikanische Historien. Copper plate, 1630. Reedited 1966. Balboa was more humane than the other conquistadors and had married an Indian. Nevertheless, he was a Christian and, around 1514, threw 40 Indian sodomites to the dogs.
Last but not least, the Guarani, although fond of meat, were not gifted for stock rising. According to father Cardiel,” the natives raised some chickens around the house. If one gave them a horse, they left it die from hunger. Cows were left with milk not drawn, and sometimes they ate the calf. This is why these big animals were raised in common”.
Treasures of patience, diplomacy, humanness and intelligence backed by a daunting knowledge of all aspects of human activities ranging from bread making, house building, medicine, carpentry, pharmacy and stock raising down to military expertise, these diverse and various skills no doubt traced to the system of recruitment of the Jesuits, overcame all the problems. Within 150 years, 30 Reductions all linked together by practicable roads, each directed by two Jesuits organizing the productive work of between 5,000 and 10,000 natives, thrived autonomously in dignity and peace. Caciques and nobility had retained their social prestige and the command of military affairs, and fully collaborated with the Jesuits. The justice rendered by the Jesuits in the Reductions was humane: no sentence longer than a ten year long imprisonment was ever rendered. Tolerance to customs was the rule: if the ancient customs of the elders were tolerated, the education of the children received the greatest attention and civilized, Christian behavior slowly permeated the Reductions. All the administrative acts of the Reductions as well as all communication within the Reductions and all education, i.e. writing, reading, counting and teaching of artisan’s skills, were done in Guarani. The natural skills of the Guarani for music and manual work (making of violins and other musical instruments, playing music, weaving, bread making, etc.) were fully exploited and the Jesuits taught them all these skills in Guarani, while the agricultural activities for which they showed no inclination were collectivized. After 150 years of missionary action, the Guarani was monogamist, Christian, peaceful, self-sustaining and the tribute they paid yearly to the Spanish crown was substantial.
However, these opulent Reductions prospered in a context that was unacceptable for the Creoles for a great many reasons. The reductions spoke Guarani, i.e. a not understood foreign language, were led by religious leaders belonging to a cosmopolitan Order far more sophisticated than the members of more plebeian religious communities, had their own army, paid tribute directly to the Crown, were not subject to the encomienda, and the quality of the goods they produced was superior to the similar goods produced by the Creoles. All these unexpected successes, at all levels, and the competition they represented for the colons, putting in a glaring light the ineptness, greed and stupidity of the civilian, military and religious local rulers, ended up with the expulsion of the Jesuits from Portugal in 1759, France in 1762, Spain in 1767.
At the moment of the dismantling of the Reductions, the Jesuit State covered 100,000 square kilometers. About 200,000 Guarani directed by 100 Jesuits living in 30 Reductions occupied this immense space. The civil administrator of the Reduction of San Ignacio Mini, designated by the Spanish authorities to confiscate the goods of that Reduction, could not believe the inventory: 30,400 cows, 1,409 horses, 3,571 mules, 7,356 sheep, and so on. In the light of this inventory, the decision of Carlos III of Spain to dismantle the Reductions appeared governed by sheer stupidity. He reduced to nil the attempt of Philip II, and his empire soon followed the fate of the annihilated Reductions. At least, and contrary to the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French Crowns, the Catholic Kings tried. The refusal of other Crowns to proceed to the occupation of the land with humanness appears just as stupid. Only the Belgian king Leopold II trusted the colonization of the Congo to religious orders, with remarkable results.
The Jesuits rescued the Guarani world from annihilation. They are the sole conquerors of the New World not to have stolen their history from an indigenous people: they constructed it. They attempted the same in China, and almost also succeeded.