peacefully, without lay interference. But the missions ultimately failed because the Jesuits tried to make the indigenous inhabitants farmers and artisans living according to a European lifestyle in an environment that could not sustain it. Agricultural communities proved almost impossible to establish in the waterless expanse of the peninsula. Forced to live in the missions and confronted with frequent crop failures that led to malnutrition, the native population almost totally disappeared.
The Franciscans who established the missions in upper California after 1767 made similar cultural blunders, and the situation was exacerbated here because the missions were required to support a Spanish military presence in the region. Disease, malnutrition and cultural despair occasioned by forced residence in the missions and the disappearance of traditional life styles, all combined to produce a demographic catastrophe that severely reduced the populations of California and reduced to destitution groups that had prospered before the Spanish arrival.
While the horrors of mission life were undeniable for indigenous populations in lower and upper California and in the Brazilian Amazon, it is unclear to what extent the experience of these regions was typical. In northern Mexico, for instance, the adoption of Spanish agriculture and livestock herding improved the nutritional intake of native peoples and contributed to their demographic survival rather than to their demise. Moreover, in almost all areas other than those previously mentioned, Spanish culture did not overwhelm the indigenous populations and those changes that did occur were commonly the result of rational decisions made by the indigenous communities themselves. It seems, for example, that the Guarani were attracted to the Jesuit reductions in Paraguay because they could serve as a refuge where the indigenous groups could resist the forced loss of their culture. Acknowledging that the Spanish were never going to leave, they concluded that the mission environment would enable them to learn the Spanish ways they needed to survive without losing those elements of their traditional culture that they prized. Mocobi groups in the Chaco made similar judgements in the 1770s. In makingthe decision to request missionaries, the Mocobi clans understood that their life would change. But for them mission culture was a means of gaining knowledge that they could use to survive against other competing groups.
It can be concluded then that for most groups in eighteenth-century Spanish America, participation in mission life was essentially voluntary. Missions attracted people because of the advantages they offered and these people remained because of a rational decision that life in the mission was better than life away from it. But changes in traditional lifestyles had to occur. In
Was this article helpful?