Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Bolivia’s Jesuit Missions

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 6th January, 2011

One of the most extraordinary aspects of the Spanish colonisation of South America was the decision by 18th century Jesuits to set up a series of Missions in what are now Paraguay and Bolivia. Deliberately sited in remote areas with scattered indigenous populations, who were gathered together, these ‘reductions’ were settlements built around a church and a square and rigidly straight lines of dwellings. The front rows of these lines of single-story houses were inhabited by the witch-doctors and other ‘Indian’ community leaders, who were effectively co-opted into the religious system (with borrowings from their own traditions and love of music), but in a community in which no non-religious Europeans were allowed to live. This saved the indigenous concerned from slavery for a generation or two, but eventually the Spanish authorities clamped down and expelled the Jesuits (as did the Portuguese in Brazil). In Paraguay, the Missions deteriorated into atmospheric ruins, but in Bolivia, largely thanks to a Swiss architect and a German musicologist in the 20th century, seven missions were saved and restored and six are now UNESCO World Heritage sites. I travelled the 400-or-so kilometres out of Santa Cruz to visit two of them this week: Concepcion and San Javier, each very special in its own way. Concepcion is the livelier little town these days and hosts a Baroque music festival every two years. But San Javier is in many ways the more atmospheric. Looking down on the empty wooden church from its choir gallery I could almost cast myself back 250 years.

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