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Negotiated Christianity

Between the 17th and 18th centuries, Jesuit missions in the Spanish Amazon had to deal with indigenous versions of Catholicism

A 16th century European print, representing the devil enslaving indigenous people of the New World: echoes of the strategy of catechization adopted by the Jesuits

John Carter Brown library A 16th century European print, representing the devil enslaving indigenous people of the New World: echoes of the strategy of catechization adopted by the JesuitsJohn Carter Brown library

Evangelization of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon by Europeans involved more than a passive absorption of western thought. The Christian notions had to be translated into Amerindian languages and so acquired meanings that the missionaries were unable to control – especially because many of the religious duties were actually performed by the natives themselves, given the scarcity of priests. Conversion was not really a unilateral imposition, but rather an “intercultural dialogue,” in which indigenous peoples adapted Christianity to their own belief systems. The breadth of this intellectual exchange has been the subject of study since 2013 by historian Francismar Alex Lopes de Carvalho in a post-doc fellowship at the USP School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences (FFLCH-USP). His study encompasses the Maynas and Mojos Missions, established by Jesuits in the service of Spain in what is now known as Ecuador and Bolivia. The material analyzed by the researcher, to a large extent unpublished, was found in archives and libraries in Spain, Italy, Portugal and the United States.

The first stage of Carvalho’s work has been completed and in 2015 resulted in an  article in the journal Varia Historia, published by the Federal University of Minas Gerais. A second article has been accepted for publication in the journal Anuario de Estudios Americanos by the School of Hispano-American Studies of Seville (Spain). The researcher says that the Mojos Missions were established in 1682 and prospered as a result of the production of cocoa, tallow, wax, sugar and textiles. They brought together 24,914 Indians baptized in 1713.  The Maynas Missions established in 1638 did not fare as well, however.  Devastated by successive epidemics, they were unable to survive without financial support from colonial administration. They produced grains, cocoa and sarsaparrilla, but always in small quantities. Only 7,966 souls remained by 1719.

Carvalho became interested in the intercultural dialogue between Europeans and indigenous peoples when preparing his dissertation entitled Lealdades negociadas: povos indígenas e a expansão dos impérios ibéricos nas regiões centrais da América do Sul (segunda metade do século XVIII) (Negotiated loyalties: indigenous peoples and the expansion of the Iberian empires in the central regions of South America (second half of the 18th century) defended in 2012 at the Department of History of FFLCH and published as a book by Alameda Press in 2014. In this study, he notes that the Portuguese and Spanish conquest of the Amazon was based on a policy of cooptation of tribal leaders through which the caciques bargained for material advantages in exchange for their support of the colonizers.

Once Carvalho’s dissertation was completed, he began to study how the indigenous people of the region appropriated Catholicism – and found that the negotiations between Europeans and natives also extended into the ideological realm. The natives assimilated Christian concepts, but endowed them with meanings that were foreign to the original notions, leading to the emergence of a hybrid Christianity.

This “spiritual bargaining” began with the “arrival of missionaries” – a practice that probably dates back to Father Manoel da Nóbrega in 16th century São Paulo: surrounded by soldiers, the Jesuits would “invite” the Indians to migrate to their settlements; if they did not want to go, “they would be subject to a ‘just war’ promoted by the troops,” Carvalho explains. The goal of these arrivals was to force the natives to accept “faith through fear,” as political scientist José Eisenberg writes in his book As missões jesuíticas e o pensamento político moderno (The Jesuit missions and modern political thought) (UFMG, 2000).

The same procedures were used in the Amazon region, but because the borders there were still fluid, the Portuguese and Spanish needed to compete for the loyalty of the Indians. Convincing them, however, had to go beyond mere violence. Pedro Puntoni, a professor at the FFLCH-USP and dissertation adviser to Carvalho, noted that “the context of the border is critical” in explaining negotiations with tribal leaders and it resulted in the concession of economic benefits and a certain administrative autonomy to the ethnic groups.

Since there were so few of them, the missionaries passed onto the Indians various tasks such as that of catechist, sacristan, musician and overseer of doctrine. Delegation of these tasks, nearly all spiritual in nature seriously limited the Jesuits’ power to impose their ideas. “In the Maynas Missions,” explains Carvalho, “the missionaries had to deal with alternative interpretations of Christian doctrine as devised by the Indians, a fact the priests could not entirely avoid because they depended upon the concepts available in the local languages and the help from natives to carry out the conversions.”

Cover page of a glossary of the Tucanoan Indian language written by a Jesuit and 18th century view of a town in the Maynas Mission

New York Public Library Cover page of a glossary of the Tucanoan Indian language written by a JesuitNew York Public Library

To the missionaries, this resistance to European thought on the part of the natives manifested itself as the work of the devil. That is why there is a profusion of this figure in reports by the Jesuits. But as the author writes in his article published in Varia Historia, such mentions did not constitute a rejection of the indigenous beliefs, but rather, “an attempt to establish analogous points through which intercultural dialogue and negotiation of the sacred universe could flow.”

Why did the figure of the devil become the focus of the intercultural dialogue? According to Carvalho, it all began because a number of the priests shared the conviction that, after the Christianization of Europe, “the devil and its infernal horde had moved on to the Americas.” The New World was under the “tyranny of Satan” – thus the obsession in identifying traces of the demon in exotic beliefs.

“It is in this scenario of ‘demonization’ of indigenous deities that the priests accomplished a metamorphosis of the spiritual entities that were damaging the Christian figure of the devil,” Carvalho says. The Christian concept experienced important changes during this metamorphosis, however. The Indians either incorporated the Christian demon as just one more god in their pantheon, or they simply began to refer to certain known evil spirits as the ‘devil’.

The Jesuits could not always avoid changes in the meaning of the term “devil” because of the linguistic strategy they had adopted. To extol the Christian ideals, says Carvalho, “the Jesuits preferred to keep the Spanish words for positive fundamental terms for the church, such as God, the sacraments, etc., while allowing native words to describe negative things.” Such subtlety entailed unexpected consequences because the missionaries were not able to control the meanings attributed to the former indigenous entities, nor could they prevent the natives from using these negative terms to denote the Spanish themselves.

Translation of the European concepts into tribal thought faced other limitations as well. While the natives were happy to accept the idea of the devil, the same cannot be said regarding the notion of hell. “The concept appeared absurd to the indigenous people,” the researcher explains. “How could they believe in the existence of hell, a placed where their ancestors, who had not known Christianity, would suffer eternally together with the most prestigious warriors and shamans?”

The Jesuits’ troubles did not stop there: attempts to eliminate the role of the shamans as intermediaries to the spiritual world also failed. “The missionaries were not able to completely destroy common belief in the power of the shamans because they themselves were accepted in the communities as shamans who were more powerful, generous and effective,” Carvalho notes. “The missionary was seen as someone who possessed the unusual ability to manipulate spiritual forces. Therefore, he was a provider of blessings as well as plagues and curses.”

18th century view of a town in the Maynas Mission

Oliveira Lima Library 18th century view of a town in the Maynas MissionOliveira Lima Library

In other words: the indigenous peoples respected priests, partly because priests had assumed duties such as the distribution of goods and served as intermediaries with the supernatural world, which fell into the realm of the shamans. According to Carvalho, the Jesuits were not able, however, to weigh in against some native patterns of thought that were ensuring their acceptance. Thus, they attempted to relegate indigenous sorcerers to ostracism, except in those cases where, because they did not object to gospel teachings, they could be embraced as helpers.

Not always, however, were the missionaries successful in negotiating their insertion into the communities, and it was not rare to see cases of uprisings and martyrdom of priests. In the thesis entitled A expressão da vontade: relações interétnicas e rebelião indígena nas missões de Maynas (1685-1698), (The expression of will: inter-ethnic relationships and indigenous rebellion in the Maynas Missions (1685-16998) defended at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP) in 2009, doctoral candidate Roberta Fernandes dos Santos demonstrated the difficulties encountered by Father Enrique Richter in establishing a mission along the banks of the Ucayali River. “It appears,” suggests Carvalho with regard to this incident, “that the priest had violated the terms of the initial negotiations that had granted him acceptance on the part of the Indians, because he failed to supply the items he had promised, would be absent for extended periods and imposed a discipline that was not tolerated.” The rebellion culminated in the 1695 murder of the Jesuit.

But it is precisely in these situations of conflict that the “demonization” of indigenous belief showed its positive side. In the article “Contato, guerra e negociação: redução e cristianização de Maynas e Jeberos pelos jesuitos na Amazônia no século XVII” (Contact, war and negotiation: reduction and Christianization of Mayas and Jeberos by the Jesuits in 17th century Amazon,) published in the Revista de História Unisinos in 2007, Fernando Torres-Londoño, a professor in the Department of History at PUC-SP, notes that the presence of the devil ended up absolving the indigenous of any “responsibility when conflicts arose.”

According to the Jesuit perspective, explains Carvalho, a channel of reconciliation would be opened with the rebels since the rebellions could be blamed on Satan. “Strictly speaking,” the researcher concludes “attributing responsibility for martyrdom and the destruction of the missions to the devil made the Indians as human as the Europeans.”

Indigenous rule: Iberian municipal institutions and indigenous identities in Maynas and Mojos missions (second half of the 18th century) (nº 2012/06580-6); Grant Mechanism Scholarships in Brazil – Post-doctorate; Principal Investigator Pedro Luís Puntoni (FFLCH-USP); Grant Recipient Francismar Alex Lopes de Carvalho (FFLCH-USP); Investment R$160,172.31.

Scientific articles
CARVALHO, F. A. L. de. Imagens do demônio nas missões jesuíticas da Amazônia espanhola. Varia Historia. V. 31, No. 57, p. 1-45. Sept.-Dec. 2015.
CARVALHO, F. A. L. de. Estrategias de conversión y modos indígenas de apropiación del cristianismo en las misiones jesuíticas de Maynas, 1638-1767. Anuario de Estudios Americanos. In press.

Carvalho, F. A. L. de. Lealdades negociadas: povos indígenas e a expansão dos impérios ibéricos nas regiões centrais da América do Sul (segunda metade do século XVIII). São Paulo: Alameda, 2014. 596 p.