The Guarani Indians and Missions of Paraguay

The first contact anyone ever made with the Guarani Indians of Paraguay was in 1537 by Gonzalo de Mendoza. Mendoza founded Asuncion, now the capital of Paraguay. He also started the policy of intermarriage with Indian women and the policy of enslavement of the native tribes. It wasn’t until the first Jesuits, Fathers Barcena and Angulo, came in 1585 that the Indians had protection from slavery. More Jesuits followed soon afterwards. The Jesuits developed a college at Asuncion. In 1608 the king of Spain, King Philip III, issued a command to the Jesuits for the colonization of the Guarani Indians.

When the Jesuits first came in contact with the approximately 40,000 Guarani in the region of South America now known as Paraguay, they found that they were cannibals who, at times, even ate their own dead. Father Luis de Bolanos, a Franciscan friar, translated the catechism into the language of the Guarani so it would be possible to preach to them. Although in 1588-1589 St. Francis Solanus preached to wild tribes in Paraguay and not to the Guarani, he left the field clear for the Jesuits, who could civilize, colonize and Christianize the Indians and also defend them from the cruel slave traders.

Slave traders in Sao Paulo (a town in modern-day southern Brazil) quickly and easily overpowered the Church and drove out the priests. Since the Spanish government strictly prohibited the wild tribes and civilized Indians from having firearms, all they had to fight back with were their bows and arrows. Approximately 2,000,000 Indians, some of them being Guarani Indians, were killed or taken into captivity by the slave traders.

Something had to be done about this horrible slave trading, so, backed by royal authority, Fathers Cataldino and Marcerata created the first mission, Loreto, in 1610. Guarani Indians hurried to Loreto in huge numbers and listened so happily that twelve more missions soon sprang up, with 40,000 Indians altogether. Father Gonzalez, along with two companions saw the success for Fathers Cataldino and Marcerata and started two or three of their own missions. These missions ran well until wild tribes came along, murdered the priests, and burned the missions.

As the missions grew, slave traders watched them and saw how many Indians they could have as slaves. In 1629, an army of Paulistas with horses, guns, and bloodhounds, and wild Indians with bows and poisoned arrows unexpectedly appeared out of the forest, surrounded the mission of San Antonio and killed everyone who resisted. Since the Guarani did not have guns to fight back with, all who were not killed were taken away, to be sold as slaves, and the mission was burned. Another mission (Concepcion) was attacked, but this time it was different. Father Salazar defended his flock this time. He ate snakes and rats until reinforcements were gathered and fought off the enemy, thus making it the most fortunate mission. All but two of the prosperous missions were attacked, usually on Sundays since all the members of the mission were in the church for mass. The missions were plundered and the valuable things in the churches were taken. According to a rule, the priests weren’t killed, but often they died anyway while fighting for the Guarani.

Finally, in 1638, Father Montoya and Father Diaz TaƱo sailed to Europe and got a letter from Pope Urban VIII forbidding the enslavement of the mission Indians. They also got permission from King Philip IV to be supplied with firearms to defend themselves and the missions, and to get training from veteran soldiers who had become Jesuits. Then, the next time a mission was attacked, in 1941, a whole bunch of armed Christian Guarani led by their chief defeated the invaders in two battles. These victories ended the invasions for ten years.

After ten years had passed, though, Portugal was encouraging another Paulista attempt, this time to wipe out all twenty-nine missions. Even before the government troops reached the frontiers, the priests led the Guarani against the Paulistas and defeated them. The Guarani built up an army of 7,000 men to protect the missions, and with this well-equipped army, many victories were won.

The missions were finally at peace. The smaller missions had two priests and the larger ones had more. Each mission had somewhere between 2,000 to 7,000 Guarani. Music played a big part in the missions since the Guarani loved it so much. A normal day consisted of a chorus of children’s hymns at sunrise proceeded by Mass and breakfast. After breakfast, the Guarani went to work until midday, when they assembled for the Angelus and had dinner and a siesta. Work then continued until evening, at which time they had supper, the rosary, and then slept. On rainy days, the Guarani worked inside. Throughout the year, monotony was prevented by lots of festivals with fireworks, concerts and dances. As was stated, when the Jesuits first found the Guarani, they were cannibals and very uncivilized, but the Jesuits were able to not only civilize the Guarani, but also colonize and Christianize them. The Guarani became hard workers and had almost every kind of skill and industry useful and necessary to life. The Guarani learned how to print books and manuscripts as fine as the ones made in Europe. The excess products made by the work the Guarani did were sold at markets in places such as Buenos Aires. Schools were even developed in the missions – children were trained early in their lives. They were taught not only the main language, Guarani, which is still predominant in Paraguay today, but also Spanish.

The missions continued successfully until 1732, when an epidemic of smallpox came into the missions. Before the epidemic, there were 30 missions and 141,252 Christian Guarani Indians, but by the end of the epidemic, 30,000 of the Indians had died. Thirty-three years later, another epidemic of smallpox killed off 12,000 more Guarani.

In 1767, the Jesuits were expelled from Paraguay. The missions went downward from there – the missions were turned over to priests of other orders, mainly Franciscans. Before the Jesuits were expelled, there were 33 missions, 78 Jesuits, and 144,000 Christian Guarani. The Guarani did not love the Franciscans and didn’t have as much confidence in them now that the Jesuits were gone, and the new priests soon lost courage. The population in missions declined rapidly, and by 1801, less than 45,000 Guarani remained. The missions were neglected. Sadly, now all that’s left of them is ruins; the magnificence is all gone.


Mooney, James. “Guarani Indians.” (Online). Available March 22, 2000.