Demographic Change and Ethnic Survival Among the Sedentary Populations on the Jesuit Mission Frontiers of Spanish South America, 1609–1803: The Formation and Persistence of Mission Communities in a Comparative Context, written by Robert H. Jackson

in Journal of Jesuit Studies

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Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2015. Pp. xvi + 290. Pb, $128.

This book provides a demographic history of the populations of the Paraguayan and Chiquitos Jesuit missions in the colonial Río de la Plata, with an emphasis on epidemic diseases in the eighteenth century, along with a comparison of the demographic patterns and administrative programs of these missions with those of northern New Spain, especially Alta California and Texas, regions on which Jackson has published extensively. This book provides valuable insights into the mission populations’ experiences and a wealth of demographic data, boasting nearly ninety pages of appendices.

Much of the demographic history of colonial Latin America has focused on the effects of virgin-soil epidemics on native populations. This book builds on scholarship demonstrating that the differences between virgin-soil and non-virgin soil epidemics are fewer than previously assumed. Mortality at individual missions during the three most deadly smallpox epidemic outbreaks of the eighteenth century reached levels close to those usually attributed to virgin-soil epidemics: upwards of sixty percent of the population of the Yapeyú mission died during the smallpox epidemic of 1770–1772.

Jackson explores the implications of a high mortality and high birth-rate population, such as those of the Chiquitos and Paraguayan missions. The irony of these patterns is that because disease never became endemic (continuously circulating among the population, and thus creating a higher immunity rate), when disease did strike (usually every fifteen to twenty years, or every generation), people died in greater numbers. After each disease-event, birth-rates would increase, thus raising the number of potential hosts. Jackson identifies three major factors that explain why the mission populations were able to rebound after epidemics: 1) stable social organization, 2) nearly equal gender structure, and 3) high birth rates: 2.2 percent per year on average in non-epidemic years—and in the wake of epidemics, the marriage and birth-rates were even higher.

A major strength of the book is that it triangulates a variety of sources to explain the missions’ demographic crises. This is done to great effect in Chapter Four, which analyzes the demographic trends of seven missions. For example, by examining archeological evidence, a contemporary diagram of the mission, cartas anuas, internal correspondence, and census records, Jackson explains demographic patterns that were unique to the Los Santos Mártires del Japón mission when compared to neighboring communities. Jackson postulates that because the mission’s final location (it was relocated three times) was close to several bodies of water, mosquito-borne diseases like malaria or yellow fever contributed to high mortality rates. When compared to the mission of Los Santos Mártires and the nearby Santa María la Mayor, Los Santos Mártires del Japón experienced a much higher crude death-rate in non-epidemic years.

Building on several of his recent publications on New Spain’s northern frontiers, Jackson provides a comparative analysis that leads to a less than convincing conclusion. In the period before the Jesuit expulsion, the Paraguayan and Chiquitos mission populations were sustainable without convert influx despite devastating epidemics. By contrast, the majority of the missions of northern New Spain, in Alta California for example, required a constant flow of new residents to maintain a viable population. While in the Paraguayan and Chiquitos missions there was usually an equal distribution of males and females, in Alta California there were often serious gender imbalances, which stymied population growth. What explains these different demographic patterns, the book argues, is that the natives of the Paraguayan and Chiquitos missions experienced a “kinder and gentler form of Spanish colonial policy,” which entailed priests sharing governance with clan chieftains, the sedentary nature of these populations, and the missions’ strong economies, due especially to productive farming and healthy pastoral ecologies (125).

Comparing the two frontier zones of the Río de la Plata and northern New Spain is a worthy pursuit, but a comparison of demographic trends would be more effective if there were more census data from the Paraguayan missions in the earliest years of colonization, as there are for many of the missions of northern New Spain. The comparative analysis is so easily marred by a teleology that shapes all subsequent conclusions. Comparing mature missions (Paraguay and Chiquitos) to fledgling ones (northern New Spain) seems untenable when the goal is to determine why the former succeeded and the latter failed. At the missions’ crucial historical junctures agency (not structure) could be the most important explanatory factor. For example, in the case of the Jesuit missions in Paraguay, a crucial moment came in the years 1628–32 with the Paulista bandeirante invasion of Guairá. Guaraní groups’ decisions to relocate with their Jesuit priests and to arm themselves complement demographic and economic patterns to explain the longevity of the missions in Paraguay.

Jackson frequently refers to the Guaraní as sedentary agriculturalists, but they were in fact a semi-sedentary people who relocated frequently in response to declines in horticultural productivity, depletion of game reserves, or internal factional disputes, which could include the emergence of a charismatic new leader or the death of a headman. Recognizing their semi-sedentary background helps explain why Guaraní would be willing to relocate and congregate in missions in the first place. And while the mission populations became sedentary, many relocated several times in the wake of enemy Indian attacks or bandeirantes raids in response to geo-political factors, or simply to seek better locations for farming and pasturage. The Guaraní’s semi-sedentary background surely contributed to this willingness to relocate. Internal records from my own research on the Franciscan missions near Asunción reveal that many of these relocations were initiated and planned by the Guaraní, not the priests. To be clear, the book does not argue that the Paraguayan and Chiquitos populations thrived because of brilliant Jesuit social engineering, but it does not go far enough to explain why social stability and indigenous leadership thrived in the missions, insights that are found in the recent works of Guillermo Wilde (Religión y poder en las misiones de guaraníes [Buenos Aires: Editorial sb, 2009]) and Julia Sarreal (The Guaraní and Their Missions: A Socioeconomic History [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014]). Most important, arguing that the mission populations experienced a “kinder and gentler” colonialism ignores the cultural and social transformations that mission inhabitants experienced, especially the eradication of polygyny, and the internal conflicts that rocked the missions throughout their histories.

In sum, the methods employed are not adequate for solving the central comparative questions the book addresses. Despite this, it is a tour de force of demographic history and helps revise the “Indians are coming to an end” myth. It will be of interest to Río de la Plata specialists, historical demographers, and historians of New Spain’s northern frontiers.

DOI 10.1163/22141332-00301005-05

If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

Demographic Change and Ethnic Survival Among the Sedentary Populations on the Jesuit Mission Frontiers of Spanish South America, 1609–1803: The Formation and Persistence of Mission Communities in a Comparative Context, written by Robert H. Jackson

in Journal of Jesuit Studies

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