Concepcion mission (1699), Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck
Concepcion mission (1699), Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

A Brief History of the Jesuit Missions of Chiquitos

Written by Geoffrey A P Groesbeck


It is a simple fact that no comprehensive history of the Jesuit missions of Chiquitos1 exists in English.2 There are numerous accounts in Spanish, most of which rely primarily upon two secondary sources dating from the nineteenth century: D’Orbigny’s recollections of his travels in the region between 1831 and 18333, and René-Moreno’s numerous writings, compiled in 1888 as Catálogo del Archivo de Mojos y Chiquitos.4 Mid- to late-twentieth century assessments by Molina, Parejas, and others were gathered together to form the massive Las Misiones Jesuíticas de Chiquitos5, often considered by dint of its scope as the most exhaustive treatment. These works deserve credit for shedding light on this often misunderstood and much mythologised era. However, increased accessibility of primary resources, subsequent scholarship, and especially the insistence of later historians such as García, Menacho, Tomichá, and Tonelli (the first two Jesuits themselves) upon using primary sources whenever possible6, have greatly expanded our knowledge and understanding of these missions during the Jesuit era.7

There is heightened interest in the former Jesuit missions of Chiquitos for several reasons. Chief amongst these are the unique musical and architectural legacies of the region’s communities, forged by several decades of cultural synthesis between Jesuit and indigenous peoples living side-by-side in the missionary-founded communities known as reducciones8. Two of these artistic heritages are well recognised today, one in the popular biennial musical festival “Misiones de Chiquitos”9, the other in the inscription of six of these settlements as World Heritage Sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1990.10

The Jesuit missions of Chiquitos also hold promising research in more nascent fields of scholarly activity, including acculturation and adaptation studies, Jesuit history along with the Jesuits’ modus operandi, missiology, and multicultural studies. Finally, sporadic efforts of the Bolivian government and several cultural organisations spearheaded by the Santa Cruz de la Sierra11-based Asociación Pro Arte y Cultura (APAC) also have heightened interest in and awareness of the region and its unique patrimony.

Challenges to Historical Research

However, two problems immediately present themselves to anyone interested in accessing information on this period or utilising it as a foundation for research. In spite of the genuine singularity and undoubted richness of the cultural patrimony of the Chiquitania, not only is there a paucity of reliable information (much more so in in English), what does exist in any language often is not anchored in primary sources and is riddled with errors. These mistakes are largely the product of later writers who cited earlier works without verifying their accuracy, and injudiciously extrapolated conclusions from them. The warning is clear: Scholars seeking to glean accurate information or buttress their own theories must tread carefully when citing previous research on the Jesuit missions of Chiquitos.

Examples abound. One, thanks primarily to the carrying-forward of erroneous assumptions made by earlier researchers who either could not or did not care to verify their sources, the generalperception of the Chiquitos mission settlements today, even within the scholarly community, is that there were anywhere from six to ten communities in all. Two, there is a parallel belief that they remain as intact continuations – rather than restored representations – of their collective Jesuit past. Neither assumption is correct.

In fact, there were no less than thirteen settlements, twelve of which were reducciones formally established throughout the Chiquitania between 1691 and 1767. Of these, six (San Xavier, San Rafael de Velasco, San José de Chiquitos, Concepción, San Miguel de Velasco, and Santa Ana de Velasco)12 have been designated World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. This accounts for why several modern sources’ accounts cite only six reducciones. A seventh, San Ignacio de Velasco, although not a World Heritage Site (its mission complex is a reconstruction, not a restoration, and therefore did not satisfy UNESCO’s inclusion criteria) is nonetheless the largest settlement in the Chiquitania and therefore reasonably well known. Including it makes the tally seven. The two most remote reducciones, Santiago de Chiquitos and Santo Corazón, are occasionally included,although more often overlooked. A few historians also include the abandoned San Juan Bautista, bringing the total to ten if all of the above settlements are included. Yet there are three others (San Ignacio de Boococas, San Ignacio de Zamucos, and Nuestra Señora del Buen Consejo) that are rarely mentioned. Nonetheless, they were reducciones or nearly so in their own right, and played important roles in the shaping of the history ofthe Chiquitania and beyond.

The most egregious error is one promoted by the Bolivian government and some tourism agencies, that these towns today are lineal descendants in every way to their missionary antecedents. Yet the vast majority of people living in them today are not descendants of the indigenous peoples who lived on the reducciones. They are, for the most part, descendants of former farmers, merchants and soldiers who migrated to the Chiquitos missions after secularisation began. The local ethnic groups either returned to the forest after the Jesuits’ expulsion in 1767 or were driven from their homes by arriving settlers from the city and environs of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. By 1851, the final vestiges of the reducción system had vanished throughout the Chiquitania13, and with them the missions’ former inhabitants. Most of the native ethnic groups apart from those who married into settler families reside today, greatly marginalised, in semi-autonomous hamlets known as comunidades.14

One can take this misunderstanding further when considering the cultural legacy of the Chiquitos missions. The mistaken assumption of unbroken continuity is nowhere more evident than in the efforts made to portray their churches (templos) as nothing less than the same buildings erected centuries ago. In fact, all of the churches in these towns have been heavily restored, and only parts of six original structures remain. Magnificent as they undoubtedly are, only one – that of Santa Ana de Velasco – can be termed original in any meaningful sense.

Furthermore, much of the art and furnishings of the templos are of a much later period.15 The buildings were handed over to the secular clergy of the Diocese of Santa Cruz de la Sierra in 1767, and in 1931 to Franciscan missionaries. Both groups made additions and subtractions, leaving little of the original Jesuit buildings and appurtenances. Under the restoration efforts led by the late Hans Roth between 1972-99, which were herculean and meticulous, further changes were made. While Roth’s work strove valiantly to establish aesthetic and architectural fidelity to the Jesuit originals, the result in many cases is interpretative: We are left with not a true Jesuit mission church, but an educated guess.16

Other examples can be cited. Regarding the well-documented correspondence between the Jesuits themselves, almost no research has been dedicated to the interaction between the Jesuits in the Chiquitos missions and their counterparts in Moxos and Guarayos.

This article seeks to bridge this information gap and dispel some of the more prevalent misunderstandings by providing an accurate historical overview of the Jesuit missions of Chiquitos, drawn from primary sources (primarily the writings of the Jesuits and their contemporaries during this period). It begins in the century before Jesuit expansion into the Chiquitania, covers the 75-year period (1691-1767) between the founding of the first mission and the enforcement of the Extrañamiento – the royal decree expelling the Jesuits from the Chiquitania and all Spanish possessions in the New World, issued by the Spanish king Carlos III.

The First Jesuits in Bolivia

The first Jesuit missionaries arrived in what is now Bolivia (then known as Upper Peru) in 1572, having moved eastward from the Viceroyalty of Peru, where they had been established as a province since 1568. They were preceded by other orders, including the Augustinians, Dominicans, Franciscans, and Mercedarians. The Jesuits had petitioned the Spanish Crown for permission to enter its holdings in the New World for three decades before it was granted in 1566 by Phillip II (the Portuguese king John III had given them leave to enter Brazil in 1549). For the first century or so, the Jesuits invariably accompanied the Spanish military and were residents of its scattered garrisons. They were not authorised to establish frontier settlements without approval of the civil authorities.

These early missionaries were almost exclusively from Spain. They attended to the spiritual needs of the colonists and proselytised indigenous peoples in the arid altiplano, around Lake Titicaca and in the cities of La Paz, Potosí, and La Plata (now Sucre). They also established chapter houses, churches, and schools, the earliest one in La Paz in 1572.

The Doctrina of Juli

The Jesuits’ most important foundation was the doctrina17 of Juli18, established by the Dominicans in 1558 on the shores of Lake Titicaca. The settlement’s administrative and organisational structure under the Jesuits became the model for the Guaraní reducciones in Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil, and later, those of Moxos and Chiquitos in Bolivia.

The Jesuits were given spiritual control (and for the most part, temporal) over Juli in 1577, much against the wishes of the Dominicans but under express order of the viceroy, Francisco de Toledo. Juli as a town was not a new settlement. It had been established Aymara village long before the Spanish arrived. As a doctrina, however, Juli had been only recently evangelised. Upon assuming control, the Jesuits did not attempt to modify the theological content of their predecessors, only the way it was manifested in a social context on a daily basis. The results were impressive: Within a few years, Juli boasted some 15,000 inhabitants and four churches.

The success of the reducciones of the Chiquitania some 150 years later had everything to do with the Jesuits’ insistence, rigourously maintained since the initial establishment at Juli, that these communities must be run not only as centres of spiritual welfare, but social welfare as well. Additionally, the doctrina of Juli provided the testing-ground for what later would become three key elements of Jesuit success in their missions: communal self-reliance and self-sufficiency; cooperation with – rather than coercion of – native inhabitants; and as complete autonomy as possible from colonial authorities.

Arrival in Santa Cruz de la Sierra

On 15 May 1585, the first three Jesuits, Fr Diego de Samaniego (the provincial superior), Fr Diego de Martínez, and Br Juan Sánchez, reached the remote eastern outpost of Santa Cruz de la Sierra (at that time located near present-day San José de Chiquitos)19, where they were welcomed by the governor, Lorenzo Suárez de Figueroa. The following year, Martínez began sporadic evangelisation of the nearby Itatine tribe, marking the first true Jesuit incursion into Chiquitos. Over the next several decades, other tribes, most of them linguistically part of the Tupi Guaraní or Chiquitano groups, gradually would be converted; only the Chiriguano remained consistently hostile to evangelisation.

The first chapter house in tiny Santa Cruz de la Sierra was set up in 1592. Although the Jesuits always retained at least two or three (and on occasion as many as ten) of their order in the department of Santa Cruz, most of their evangelising efforts were carried out from their base in La Plata (present-day Sucre) to the southwest. Santa Cruz de la Sierra at the time was no more than a poor frontier settlement of some two hundred souls, and suffered repeated setbacks from disease, drought, and lack of resources.

The Jesuits staffed two other small towns in the region, both long since abandoned but at the time strategically important: San Lorenzo de la Barranca and San Francisco de Alfaro. The former briefly served as the official seat of Jesuit activity in the Chiquitania in 1699 before reverting to Santa Cruz de la Sierra. San Francisco de Alfaro, founded in 1604 a short distance from the frontier town of Cotoca, saw most of its inhabitants relocate there within a decade, and had vanished completely by 1617.20

Successes on the Doorstep of the Chiquitania and Beyond

At the same time that they were making incursions into the Chiquitania, the Jesuits penetrated into Bolivia’s northern reaches, especially in Mojos (now Moxos), most of which is now a part of neighbouring Beni Department (with the exception of Guarayos Province, which remains in Santa Cruz Department).21 The first incursions took place in 1596, although it was not until 1682 that the Jesuits were definitively established with the founding of the reducción of Nuestra Señora de Loreto. Their subsequent growth in Moxos was rapid, and within a few decades, the Jesuits had established 17 reducciones in the area.22

It would be a mistake to claim that the Jesuits met with success everywhere (their efforts were not as fruitful in India and Japan), but they made many converts throughout much of South America (and at least 100,000 in Paraguay alone according to almost all contemporary sources). Argentina, Brazil, and especially Paraguay soon had several reducciones established along the lines of Juli, and incursions into Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador also flourished. However, the carefully honed Jesuit approach, with its desire for an autonomous theocratic existence, did not sit well with colonial authorities and aroused jealously amongst other religious orders. But geography played a large part in ensuring the success of many of the Jesuit missions in South America: With few exceptions, Jesuit reducciones were so physically distant from any measure of colonial control that the presence of a civil authority interfering with their work often was non-existent.

The Jesuits Enter the Chiquitania

By the late seventeenth century, the Jesuits had been in Santa Cruz de la Sierra for a century, although local evangelising efforts were few and far between. When missionaries did arrive, they usually came not from Lima but rather from the much closer Archdiocese of La Plata. None were to be had from the sparsely populated and abysmally poor Diocese of Santa Cruz de la Sierra itself, erected in 160523 with Bishop Antonio Calderón de León, former a bishop in Panamá and later Puerto Rico, at its head; its first seminary was not erected until much later.

After 1690, however, things changed rapidly. In that year, a Jesuit college was established in Tarija (now a city in southern Bolivia, but then the northernmost outpost of the Jesuits’ sphere of influence in Paraguay) by Fr José de Arce, newly arrived from the missions of Paraguay. He was chosen by his Jesuit superiors in Europe to act as a catalyst for the order’s expansion throughout the Archdiocese of La Plata and beyond, a mission he achieved with great success, although at the cost of his life. Whilst Tarija, as with Santa Cruz, originally was a part of the Jesuit province of Peru, it was largely independent from distant Lima, and in 1607 control was transferred to the newly created Archdiocese of La Plata.

However, Tarija’s proximity to trade routes to Paraguay meant it was influenced more by happenings in Asunción than in La Plata. During much of this time, the Jesuits had been busy in Paraguay establishing a virtual theocracy over large parts of the region. The first Jesuit reducción in Paraguay – San Ignacio Guazú – was founded in 1610. In the same year, the nearby Argentine reducciones of San Ignacio Mini and Nuestra Señora de Loreto were founded. Twenty more followed quickly, with another nine in Brazil as well.

Also in 1690, the Tarija-based Arce was placed in charge of the evangelisation of the hostile Chiriguano, who occupied much of the vast Gran Chaco, an enormous area encompassing broad swathes of modern Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina. A less spiritual mandate attached as well: to find a route and establish reducciones between isolated Santa Cruz de la Sierra and the Guaraní missions of Paraguay, possibly through Chiriguano-held territories. Jesuit religious authorities in Lima initially claimed the responsibility as theirs, but busy with their efforts in Moxos and elsewhere, could only protest ineffectually against Arce’s leadership. The matter dragged on for 16 years until 1706, when the Jesuit provincial general ruled in favour of the Tarija mission, definitively ending the debate.

A Fortuitous Mistake

Arce, although based in Tarija and nominally answerable to authorities in La Plata, was the right man for the job. Interested as he was in establishing both a route and missions along the way that would link Santa Cruz to Paraguay, he never intended to enter the Chiquitania, rather the territory to the southeast, which geographically afforded more direct access to Paraguay. However, he and his companion, Fr Diego Centeno24, setting out from Tarija, became lost near what is now the town of Charagua, and were befriended by a group of Chané. Nearly dead of thirst before their rescue, the priests remained with their benefactors for three days and vowed to repay their kindness.

At the time, the Chané’s leader (cacique) Tambacura, was imprisoned in Santa Cruz de la Sierra and had been condemned to death. His sister, a member of the group who met Arce and Centeno, pleaded his cause with the Jesuits, who agreed to travel first to that city before resuming their trek to Paraguay. Once arrived, the two Jesuits argued successfully to have Tambacura’s sentence overturned and secured his freedom. The timing was fortuitous again: Governor Agustín Arce (no relation to Fr José de Arce) had just asked the authorities in Peru for Jesuit missionaries to evangelise the nearby Chiquitano, a friendly tribe who already had sent several delegations to Santa Cruz de la Cruz to petition him directly.

Whilst there, Arce witnessed the forced march of some 300 Chiquitano, destined for the silver mines of Potosí. They had been captured and sold into slavery by Portuguese slave traders – the notoriously cruel and much-feared bandeirantes. The sight convinced Arce that his lot lay with the Chiquitano, not the Chiriguano. This conviction was to become the most important event in the history of the Chiquitania.

Leaving Santa Cruz de la Sierra in late 1690, Arce and Centeno set out again for Tarija25, where Arce had no trouble convincing the new Jesuit Provincial Lauro Núñez of his change of heart. Núñez approved the venture and authorised six Jesuits to convert both the Chiquitano and the Chiriguano throughout an area roughly the size of Alaska. The original mandate to find aroute between Santa Cruz de la Sierra and Asunción remained in place. In 1691 Arce and Centeno set out once more for Santa Cruz de la Sierra, accompanied this time by Brother Antonio de Rivas.26

San Xavier: The First Jesuit Reducción in Chiquitos

Governor Arce died soon after the decision was made to evangelise the Chiquitania, and there was little support for continuing the policy. The townspeople of Santa Cruz de la Sierra were convinced that the Chiquitano were too bellicose, and in the end gave the Jesuits only two young guides to accompany them.

Nonetheless, on the feast of St. Sylvester, 31 December 1691, Arce and Rivas at last founded the first Chiquitos reducción, San Francisco Xavier de los Piñocas (now San Javier, or occasionally San Xavier) for the Piñocas, a sub-group of the Chiquitano. This was the only reducción co-founded by a religious brother, as opposed to a priest. Although it was rebuilt on three occasions before settling into its present form in 1708, its first site was – and its current location is again – located approximately 215 kms (133 miles) northeast of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. What many accounts omit is that the two Jesuits were nearly dead of starvation and almost certainly lost when they were befriended by the Piñocas. They could not have travelled much further in any case and so the settlement arose where it did.

The Passing of Arce

Arce remained in San Xavier, in charge of evangelising the Chiquitano and Chiruguano as the padre superior de las misiones until 170327, when he returned to the Guaraní reducciones. In 1715 he again was charged with the long-postponed task of opening aroute between Chiquitos and Paraguay.28

Arce and another Jesuit, Fr Bartholomew Blende, struck out from Asunción, hoping to follow the course of the Paraguay River and eventually reach the reducción of San Rafael. They succeeded, but opted to forge a new trail on their return to Asunción when their luck ran out. In September, Blende was killed by hostile Payaguá somewhere in the desolate Gran Chaco in Paraguay. In December of the same year, almost exactly 24 years to the day he co-founded the first Chiquitos reducción of San Xavier, Arce too meet his end at the hands of the Payaguá. Their bodies were never recovered, and it was not until 1718 that four surviving Guaraní guides arrived in San Rafael to recount what had happened.

Additional Chiquitos Reducciones

Over the next seven decades, twelve more settlements followed, with Santo Corazón de Jesús de Chiquitos (now simply Santo Corazón) generally accepted as the last, erected in 1760, seven years before the Jesuit Extrañamiento.

There likely always will be a measure of uncertainty regarding the true number of permanent Jesuit reducciones established. For example, the short-lived settlement of Nuestra Señora del Buen Consejo, founded near present-day Puerto Suárezjust three months before the Jesuits’ expulsion, is rarely included in lists of Chiquitos reducciones as its existence was ephemeral.29

Other problematic missions include Concepción, San Ignacio de Boococas, San Ignacio de Zamucos, and especially San Juan Bautista, for reasons explained below. A listing of these and other Jesuit reducciones established inthe Chiquitania, their founders, and their initial and definitive founding dates follows, given by date of initial settlement.

Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitania

Settlement/Original Name Founder(s) Founded (Refounded)

San Xavier* José de Arce, Antonio de Rivas 1691 (1696, 1698. 1708)

San Francisco Xavier de los Piñocas

San Rafael de Velasco* Juan Bautista Zea, Francisco Hervás 1696 (1701, 1750)

San José de Chiquitos* Felipe Suárez, Dionisio Avila 1698

San José de los Borós

San Juan Bautista Juan Bautista Zea, 1699 (1705)

San Juan Bautista de los Borós Juan Patricio Fernández, Pedro Cerena

Taperas de San JuanJuan Bautista Sandra 1717 (1772, 1780)

Concepción* Francisco Caballero, Francisco Hervás 1699 (1707, 1722)

La Inmaculada Concepción

San Ignacio de Boococas30 José Ignacio de la Mata 1707

San Miguel de Velasco* Felipe Suárez, Francisco Hervás 1721

San Miguel Arcángel

San Ignacio de Zamucos31 Juan Bautista Zea, Agustín Castañares 1719 (1723)

San Ignacio de Velasco Miguel Areijer, Diego Contreras 1748

San Ignacio de Loyola de Velasco

Santiago de Chiquitos Gaspar Troncoso, Gaspar Campos 1754 (1764)

Santiago Apóstol

Santa Ana de Velasco* Julián Nogler 1755

Santo Corazón Antonio Gaspar, José Chueca 1760 (1788)

Santo Corazón de Jesús de Chiquitos

[Nuestra Señora del Buen Consejo] José Sánchez Labrador 1767]

* Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1990.

The First Stage: 1691-1723

Most historians group the establishment of the Jesuit missions of Chiquitos into two distinct periods, with an interval between and each period characterised by rapid growth. The first, starting in 1691 and ending in 1723, corresponded with the settlement of the initial eight missions; the second, beginning in 1748 and ending with the expulsion of the Jesuit Order from Latin America in 1767, encompassed the last five settlements, including one that technically was not a true mission.

Regarding the first seven reducciones, San Xavier has been touched upon above. San Rafael de Velasco32, San José de Chiquitos, and San Miguel de Velasco are straightforward enough to require no additional treatment beyond what is readily available elsewhere.33 The remaining three – San Juan Bautista, Concepción (along with San Ignacio de Boococas), and San Ignacio de Zamucos – need further mention to clarify their status.

The first of these three, San Juan Bautista, originally founded in 1699, has the most tangled history and no longer exists; it was abandoned in 1712, perhaps due to a plague, and reincarnated a few leagues to the south as Taperas de San Juan in 1717. This later version of the first reducción likewise was relocated, first in 1772 and again in 1780. The following year a disastrous fire consumed most of the mission, leaving only a ruined stone tower and the charred remains of the main complex (complejo).34 Its homeless inhabitants were relocated by the civil authorities to a new nearby location, which confusingly took the name of the original, long-vanished San Juan Bautista. This settlement lasted until 1811, when a second fire destroyed it. By the time the French explorer D’Orbingy arrived in 1831, this mission was in ruins too. Yet a third town, San Juan de Taperas, situated not far from the abandoned second reducción, sprung up between 1811 and 1830 – there are no records attesting to its founding – or possibly even before the demise of the earlier mission, as census records show that these towns likely existed contemporaneously. The second version of San Juan de Bautista (i.e., Taperas de San Juan) had a population of 1,433 in 1807 (the last census before the fire of 1811), whilst the newer San Juan de Taperas already had 879 inhabitants in 183035. Accordingly, San Juan de Taperas is not reckoned as a reincarnation of San Juan de Bautista.

Concepción presents an interesting case of scholarly confusion. Originally founded in 169936 (not in 1708, 1709, or 1722, as a many sources claim), the initial settlement lasted only a few years. A rare target of local hostility to the Jesuits’ presence in the Chiquitania, this first settlement was subjected to frequent attacks from marauding tribes and hastily dismantled. A second attempt in 1707 was successful, and in the following year Concepción incorporated the inhabitants of San Ignacio de Boococas, a small nearby reducción founded in 1707 by Fr José Ignacio de la Mata.37 Concepción was formally re-established in 1709, and translated in 1722 to its current location.

San Ignacio de Zamucos was founded in a particularly remote area of the Chiquitania approaching the current border with Paraguay. It was first established in 1719 (lasting only a matter of months), more definitively in 1723, and dismantled in 1745, due to internecine fighting between two rival sub-groups living within the settlement. Three years later, the majority of its inhabitants moved north and the reducción of San Ignacio de Velasco came into existence; the remainder went west to San Juan de Bautista.38 Today nothing at all remains of San Ignacio de Zamucos.

The Second Stage: 1748-1767

Between the founding of San Ignacio de Zamucos in 1723 and that of its eventual successor San Ignacio de Velasco in 1748, no new missions were established in the Chiquitania. With the settling of San Ignacio de Velasco, however, the second phase of Jesuit expansion began. The four reducciones and one staging ground established in the final nineteen years of the order’s presence in the region were more strategically placed, having as an important objective their placement along the route to the missions of Paraguay.

Of these five settlements, only the third and fifth require additional remarks beyond what are supplied by conventional sources.39 Santa Ana is notable less from an historical, and more from a cultural aspect in that it has the only templo that retains most of its original Jesuit-era accoutrements, in this case much of the church itself and several furnishings. In fact, Santa Ana is from a preservationist standpoint the most authentic Jesuit reducción, although sporadic restoration work continues on the church. Notwithstanding that it was erected a few years after the departure of the Jesuits, it is a classic example of the Mestizo-Baroque architectural style popularised by the Jesuits.

The final attempt at setting up a reducción by the Jesuits in the Chiquitania was Nuestra Señora del Buen Consejo, founded in May of 1767. It survived only three months, owing to the expulsion of the Society of Jesus later that year. Of all thirteen confirmed settlements, we possess the least information on this one. That we have any information is something of a marvel, given that the Jesuits had no time to do anything but record its ephemeral existence before they were expelled.

Eckart Kühne, the greatest scholar of the Chiquitos missions alive today, put it this way:

“It seems to me quite evident that Buen Consejo was not established…, there were only a cross and a provisional chapel, and it was decided (but not yet executed) to build some provisional shelters and open some chacos for the people that would come to prepare the establishment of the village. And above all: there was no Jesuit missionary resident in Buen Consejo yet. And anyway, looking at the character of the culture of the Guaycurú or Mbaya [a sub-group of the Guaycurú] and at the geographic situation, it is not at all probable that this would have been a successful foundation, even if the Jesuits had not been expelled. In San Juan Nepomuceno, another foundation by Sánchez Labrador, with Guaná Indians, the cross was erected in 1762 yet until 1767 the mission was still not established.”40

The Question of Allegiance

Politically, these reducciones owed allegiance to the Spanish Crown41 through the Audiencia of Charcas with its seat at La Plata, itself part of the much larger Viceroyalty of Peru. But the on-the-ground reality, as noted above, was that the reducciones were essentially autonomous settlements, with little or no interaction with civil authorities from near or far.

From a religious standpoint, the Diocese of Santa Cruz de la Sierra theoretically was in control of the Chiquitos missions. Yet that institution, until it became an archdiocese itself in 1975, ultimately was subject to oversight, first from the Archdiocese of La Plata (which, although maintained by secular clergy, was dominated by and had a strong affinity towards the Jesuit Province of Paraguay) and made no attempt to influence or interfere with the Jesuit apparatus.

The Autonomy of the Chiquitos Missions

Thanks to their remoteness, the Chiquitos missions truly were all but completely autonomous and entirely self-sufficient. They exported their surplus goods throughout all of Upper Peru and beyond, earning the envy of Spanish and Portuguese colonists elsewhere in South America, especially the slave traders and large landholders who coveted the fertile Chiquitania territories for their encomiendas (settlements worked by enslaved native Amerindians) and estancias (cattle ranches).

The Chiquitos towns were founded intentionally as Catholic reducciones – autonomous, self-sufficient communities intended to range in size from 1,000 to 4,000 inhabitants. Each community had two priests at its head, assisted by a council of eight native leaders (cabildo) who met on a daily basis to monitor the progress, spiritual and otherwise, of the inhabitants. Usually two priests were assigned to a reducción. One was in charge of care of souls, catechetical instruction, and liturgy. The other was in charge of corporal matters: communal goods, land, workshops, and the like. Both had to make detailed, regular reports and in theory were subject to annual visits by Jesuit leadership in the form of a visitador appointed by the Provincial General in Paraguay.

It is important to note that these settlements were not intended as military or trading posts (although they very occasionally acted as both). As the Jesuit sources make abundantly clear, their primary purpose always was spiritual. Only the natives and the missionaries were legal inhabitants. Colonists were not allowed to live in these settlements, and in fact could not even remain in them for more than a few days’ time. The sole exception to this law seems to have been the architect Antonio Rojas, who possibly constructed two Chiquitos churches.42

The indigenous inhabitants were members of one of the region’s three largest ethno-linguistic groups: the Chiquitano, Guarayo, or Ayoreo. (A few Chiriguano and Guaraní were present in some reducciones as well.) At the time of the Jesuits’ expulsion in 1767, there were at least 24,188 inhabitants43 throughout the eleven settlements then existing in the Chiquitania44, and more than 30,00045 if the Moxos reducciones under Jesuit guidance are included.46 As non-baptised residents were not always included in these tallies, it is possible the actual number throughout the region may have been as high as 37,000.47

Political Considerations and the Expulsion of the Jesuits

The Chiquitos settlements eventually became caught up in a political battle between Spain and Portugal, the latter of whose slave traders in nearby Brazil – the hated mamelucos – wished to expand westward, whilst the Santa Cruz-based encomiendas and estancias coveted the fertile lands to the east. It did not helpthat their thriving economies and well-ordered way of life had earned the reducciones a great deal of jealousy on the part of the civil authorities. And as the settlements were virtually semi-independent states with private militias, both powers were suspicious of the missions’ undefined political status and sought to exploit it.

It came to a sudden and completely unforeseen (from the isolated standpoint of those in the Chiquitos) end on 27 February 1767, when the king of Spain, Carlos III, ordered the expulsion – referred to in Spanish sources as the extrañamiento – of all Jesuits from his realms (those in Brazil had been expelled by the Portuguese in 1759), including the scarcely two dozen missionaries who watched over the enormous Chiquitania territory.48 By September, all but one of them had been removed and many of the inhabitants of the reducciones already had begun to abandon them. Several Jesuits – most of whom were aged – died as a result of hardships endured in the long journey to Lima and then back to Europe as a consequence of the expulsion. The last Jesuit to leave the area was Fr Narciso Patzi, on 10 May 1768, his departure delayed due to a grave illness.49

After the Extrañamiento

After the expulsion, the reducciones steadily spiralled into a state of near-terminal decline. In 1776, the government of the entire region was militarised and the Chiquitania administered from the newly created, far-away Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata (to which the Audencia of Charcas now belonged). In ecclesiastical terms, all the reducciones had been secularised immediately after the Jesuits’ departure by Bishop Herboso y Figueroa50, and the Diocese of Santa Cruz de la Sierra took over spiritual control (although in 1840 Franciscan missionaries were appointed to the Guarayos and Moxos missions). For more than thirteen decades, they lay in a state of economic and social torpor until the arrival of the Swiss architect and former Jesuit, the late Hans Roth, whose nearly three decades of spearheading restoration efforts finally raised them from obscurity.

The post-expulsion period in the Chiquitania is beyond the scope of this paper. Although the departure of the Jesuits is a matter well-documented, and much has been recorded of the period preceding their banishment, considerable research remains to be done on the history of the Jesuit missions of Chiquitos immediately following the Extrañamiento. This is especially so in the case of the chaotic period immediately following Bolivia’s independence.

The swift demise of these settlements raises troubling questions for those exploring both colonial and post-colonial history. How could such unparalleled – and acknowledged – success so quickly turn to decay and obscurity? As key export areas, why was no support offered by the Spanish crown to maintain their economic prosperity after the Jesuits were expelled? Why, after being reconstituted by Pope Pius VII in 181451, did the Jesuits not return to the Chiquitania?

To a large extent, the blame for these matters lay with the avaricious interests and political policies of Spain, to a lesser extent with Portuguese interests, and even the papacy itself, all of whom had conspired to obliterate the Jesuits. These powers achieved their political objectives, but the handiwork and legacy of the Society of Jesus in the Chiquitania and elsewhere endures. Of what has been lost, as the late Hans Roth, the principle restorer of the Chiquitos missions, wrote, “It was not the natives who destroyed the work…but rather the economic and political envy, the ignorance and barbarism of those already civilized and educated.”52

On A Positive Note

Of the original Jesuit Chiquitos settlements, nine still survive. Of these, seven possess a unique, albeit hybrid, cultural and social infrastructure that in many ways has changed little since the days of the Jesuits. All remain active settlements, and some still function as missions, with vibrant religious customs and beliefs.

With a renewed scholarly interest in the area tempered by a careful, rigorous approach to the conservation and study of the Chiquitos missions and their primary sources, much of value of the unique cultural and historical patrimony of these places can be preserved and drawn upon to inform further research in myriad fields of scholarship.

Written by Geoffrey A P Groesbeck


1 The now-dated regional identifier “Chiquitos” corresponds roughly to most of the modern-day area known as the Chiquitania (la [Gran] Chiquitania), located within Bolivia’s Santa Cruz Department. The Jesuits operated in Chiquitos from their arrival in 1585 until their expulsion in 1767. Although Chiquitos itself was a loosely defined political entity under the Spanish Empire, the Chiquitania never received political status as a specific Bolivian geographical designation. The Chiquitania comprises six provinces within Santa Cruz Department: Guayaros; Ñuflo de Chávez; José Miguel Velasco; Ángel Sandoval; German Busch; and Chiquitos. The former Jesuit missions of Chiquitos are found in all but Guarayos province, which was considered a separate mission field (often referred to as Mojos or Moxos) by the Jesuits and their contemporaries.

2 An English-language translation of Alcides Parejas’ Chiquitos: un paseo por su historia (Santa Cruz: APAC Fondo Editorial, 2004) exists, although this work is more a brief overview of the region than a history.

3 First published as Voyage dans l’Amerique Meridionale (le Brasil, la Republique Orientale de l’Uruguay, la Republique Argentine, la Patagonie, la Republique du Chili, la Republique de Bolivia, la Republique du Perou), execute pendant les annees 1826, 1827, 1828, 1829, 1830, 1831, 1832 et 1833. Paris: Chez Pitois-Levrault et Cie., 1835–1847, 9 vols. The 1945 edition published by Editorial Futuro in Buenos Aires is the latest version of this work.

4 Conceived originally as a catalogue of René-Moreno’s historical essays and papers, Catálogo del Archivo de Mojos y Chiquitos (Santiago: Imprenta Gutenberg, 1888) was published at the expense of the Boliviangovernment. Intended as a tribute to its author, it quickly became, along with D’Orbigny’s earlier work, a de rigeur source for historians. Recent scholarship has shown neither work to be free from error. Ofthe two, D’Orbigny’s writings are generally considered more historically reliable and less prone to speculation.

5 Pedro Querejazu, ed., Las Misiones Jesuíticas de Chiquitos (La Paz: Fundación BHN, 1995).

6 Of the primary sources that have been researched, the most useful is the monumental Historia general de la Compañía de Jesús en la Provincia del Perú: Crónica anómina de 1600 que trata del establecimiento y misiones de la Compañía de Jesús en los países de habla española en la América meridional, Vol. II, editedby Francisco Mateos (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1944). Of great importance is the unedited archive of correspondence from the Jesuits of Paraguay from the years 1690-1718. Collectively known as “Cartas a los Provinciales de la Provincia del Paraguay 1690-1718,” these manuscripts are housed in the Jesuit Archives of Argentina in Buenos Aires, which also contain the invaluable annual letters of the Paraguay Province of the Company of Jesus covering the years 1689-1762. Fr Julián Knogler’s “Inhalt einer Beschreibung der Missionen deren Chiquiten,” Archivum Historicum Societatis Jesu, 39/78 (Rome: Company of Jesus, 1970) is indispensable, as is his account “Relato sobre el país y la nación de los Chiquitos en las Indias Occidentales o América del Sud y en la misiones en su territorio”, for which see Werner Hoffman, Las misiones jesuíticas entre los chiquitanos (Buenos Aires: Fundación para la Educación, la Ciencia y la Cultura, 1979). There are otherprimary sources as yet unexamined, the majority of which are archived in Cochabamba, Sucre, and Tarija (in Bolivia); Buenos Aires, Córdoba, and Tucumán (in Argentina), and in Asunción, Madrid, and Rome. Surprisingly few primary sources are found in the Archivo de la Catedral de Santa Cruz de la Sierra in that city.

7 See José María García, “Los jesuitas en Santa Cruz de la Sierra hasta los inicios de las reducciones de Moxos y Chiquitos: Posibilidades y limitaciones de la tarea misional”, in Quinto Centenario (Madrid, Vol. 14, pp 73-92); Antonio Menacho, Fundación de las Reducciones Chiquitos (Santa Cruz: Verbo Divina, 1987) and Por Tierras de Chiquitos (San Xavier: Vicario Apostólico de Ñuflo de Chávez, 1991); Roberto Tomichá, La Primera Evangelización en las Reducciones de Chiquitos: Protagonistas y Metodología Misional (Cochabamba: Editorial Verbo Divino, 2002) and La Iglesia en Santa Cruz (Cochabamba: Editorial Verbo Divino, 2005); Oscar Tonelli, Reseña histórica social y económica de la Chiquitania (Santa Cruz: Editorial El Pais, 2004). Mariano Gumucio’s Las Misiones Jesuíticas de Moxos y Chiquitos: Una Utopía Cristiana en el Oriente Boliviano, 3rd ed. (La Paz: Lewylibros, 2003), which covers the Moxos missions as well as those of Chiquitos, merits inclusion in this group, as do the works of Guillermo Furlong, S.J.

8The word reducción is often incorrectly translated as “mission”. It is better considered as a settlement for indigenous peoples established by European colonists, be they religious or secular, with the stated intent to proselytise and introduce specific religious, social, and cultural norms to the inhabitants through shared experiences and hierarchical instruction. In the case of the Jesuit missions of Chiquitos exceptions were made by colonial authorities permitting the founding of reducciones that were predominantly religious in nature.

9 For information on these festivals sponsored by the Santa Cruz de la Sierra-based Asociación Pro Arte y Cultura, see

10 See “United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage: Report of the World Heritage Committee, Fourteenth Session, Banff, Alberta, Canada, 7-12 December 1990” (

11 In this paper, a distinction is maintained between the political department (“Santa Cruz”) and the archdiocese and capital of that department (“Santa Cruz de la Sierra”).

12 By date of founding. Int this article, wherever two or more reducciones are listed, they are given in chronological order unless otherwise noted.

13 See Querejazu, op. cit., p. 387, 390.

14 See Reinaldo Brumberger, OFM, “El Alma Chiquitania: Historia del Pueblo Chiquitano” (Concepción: Vicariato Apostólico de Ñuflo de Chávez, 1991).

15 See Eckart Kühne, Evolución y percepción de las iglesias misionales del Oriente Boliviano (Zürich: Federal Technical University ETH, 2004); also his “Borrador para una Guía de las Iglesias de Chiquitos” (unpub.).

16 See Querejazu, op. cit., pp. 473-8. A number of art historians specialising in mission art (e.g., Gauvin A. Bailey, Sabine MacCormack) have noted that the art of these missions is more polyglot than “Mestizo Baroque” (a term often used to identify Jesuit mission art of the Colonial Era in Latin America), especially after its restorations by Roth and others.

17 There is debate regarding the differences between a doctrina and a reducción (as well as other terms such as encomienda, rancheríao). In this article, reducción is used invariably except in reference to Juli, as this word was employed by the Jesuits in describing the Chiquitos missions. See “Sources for the History of the Indigenous Peoples of North Mexico” by Irene Vasquez (

18 There were three separate doctrinas in the vicinity of the town of Juli, often considered as one unit. See Menacho, Por Tierras de Chiquitos, p. 54-5.

19 See Nino Gandarilla, ed., La Creación del Parque Nacional Histórico “Santa Cruz la Vieja” (Santa Cruz: Fundación Natura Viva, 2004).

20 See Menacho, Por Tierras de Chiquitos, pp. 16-8, 24, 26.

21 For treatments of the Jesuit presence in Moxos, see Gumucio, op. cit., sic passim and Querejazu, op. cit., pp 303-93.

22 Some historians (e.g., Gumucio) give the number of reducciones established in Moxos as 26. These tallies erroneously include the Chiquitos reducciones.

23 Its first parish (at that time still part of the Archdiocese of La Plata), El Sagrado, was erected on 22 June 1571. See Tomichá, La Iglesia en Santa Cruz, p 84.

24 Arce originally set out from Tarija on 20 June 1689 with another Jesuit, Fr Miguel de Valdeolivos. Valdeolivos stopped in the settlement of Salinas and apparently then founded on his own the reducción of San Ignacio de Taraquea, located along the banks of the lower Pilcomayo River, northeast of Tarija. Arce returned to Tarija, met Centeno, and started out again, reaching San Ignacio de Taraquea on 7 September. The two Jesuits proceeded towards Chiriguano territory alone, with Valdeolivos remaining in Salinas. See Javier Bautista, S.J., “Los Jesuitas: los llamaron, los expulsaron,” Cuarto Intermedio, No. 20 (August 1991).

25 Arce and Centeno founded a reducción, La Presentación del Guapay, no later than 2 February 1690 (when they concelebrated Mass there on the Feast of the Presentation of Mary, then known as Candlemas Day), near what is now the town of Cabezas, approximately 20 kilometres south of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Whilst technically not located in Chiquitos, this was the first semi-permanent Jesuit reducción in the Bolivian Oriente. See Bautista, op. cit.

26 Arce and Rivas stopped at the reducciones of San Ignacio de Tariquea and La Presentación on their return journey to Santa Cruz de la Sierra. At La Presentación, Centeno rejoined Arce and Rivas, leaving another Jesuit, Fr Juan Bautista Zea (who later founded or co-found three reducciones in the Chiquitania proper), in charge of the reducción. Both San Ignacio de Tariquea and La Presentación were short-lived, and were abandoned in 1727 when their inhabitants rebelled against the Jesuits. See Menacho, op. cit., p 67; also Gumucio, op. cit., p 120.

27 See Guillermo Furlong, S.J., “De la Asunción a los Chiquitos por el Río Paraguay: Tentativa frustrada en 1703. ‘Breve relación’ inédita del P. José Francisco de Arce,” Archivum Historicum Societatis Jesu, VIII (Rome: Company of Jesus, 1938), pp 54-79.

28 See Querejazu, op. cit., p 309.

29 A rare exception is Tonelli’s Reseña histórica social y económica de la Chiquitania, the only modern work apart from Querejazu’s Las Misiones Jesuíticas de Chiquitos to make mention of this ephemeral would-be reducción. For an in-depth study of this staging ground, see Tonelli, “Nuestra Señora del Buen Consejo fue la Última Reducción fundada en las Misiones de Chiquitos”, Revista Extra, Año 12, No. 387 y 388 (Santa Cruz: 31 August and 07 September 1997).

30 San Ignacio de Boococas was incorporated into the reducción of Concepción in 1707.

31 San Ignacio de Zamucos was abandoned in 1745 and its inhabitants relocated to San Ignacio de Velasco in 1748.

32 See Jaime Cabello, ed., Provincia Velasco (Santa Cruz: Centro para la Participación y el Desarrollo Humano Sostenible, 2005) for a brief historical treatment of the four Velasco missions of San Rafael, San Ignacio, San Miguel, and Santa Ana.

33 While not entirely free from error, Querejazu has much useful information on all of these reducciones (including additional material on those of Velasco).

34 See Querejazu, op. cit., p 349.

35 See Jackson, op. cit., p 234.

36 See Gumucio, op. cit., p 119 (but also see p 36); Querejazu, op. cit., p 333.

37 Although several primary sources attest to the existence of San Ignacio de Boococas, only Querejazu and Tonelli make mention of it. See Querejazu, op. cit., p 274, and Tonelli, op. cit., p 71. It was one of only two Jesuit missions in Chiquitos founded by only one missionary.

38 See Tomichá, La Primera Evangelización en las Reducciones de Chiquitos: Protagonistas y Metodología Misional, p 549.

39 See Querejazu (especially pp 272-4, 333-5, and 347-52).

40 Author’s private correspondence. See also Leandro Sequeiros, Jesuits on the Borders (Madrid: Bubok Editions, 2010).

41 The Crown willingly granted the Jesuits a high degree of autonomy as the missions provided consistent royal income. The 1727 prohibition against colonists living in the reducciones (originally promulgated in 1713 but quickly withdrawn) is but one example of this policy. See Tonelli, op. cit., p 80.

42 See Kühne, Evolución y percepción de las iglesias misionales del Oriente Boliviano, Appendix 1.

43 See Querezaju, ed., op. cit., pp 290-95. Tonelli claims a figure of 23,988 (according to the “Catálogo de Población de las Misiones de Chiquitos del Año 1767,” a primary source manuscript in the Bolivian National Archive in Sucre). The discrepancy of exactly 200 may be due to a typographical error.

44 See Robert H. Jackson, “Demographic Patterns on the Chiquitos Missions of Eastern Bolivia, 1691-1767” in Bolivian Studies Journal, Vol. 12 (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois, 2005).

45 See Gumucio, op. cit., p 90.

46 Other sources claim – without citing a source – that there were as many as 18,535 indigenous inhabitants for the Moxos missions at the time of the expulsion. See Querejazu, op. cit., p 336. If this figure is correct, the combined population of the missions under Jesuit guidance in Chiquitos and Moxos in 1767 would have been at least 42,500, and possibly as high as 57,500 if unbaptised inhabitants (see following footnote) were included.

47 This figure was given as the estimated population of the Chiquitos missions at the moment of the Extrañamiento, based upon a comment by Fr Julián Knogler (the founder of the reducción of Santa Ana deVelasco) in a manuscript entitled “Relato sobre el país y la nación de los Chiquitos en las Indias Occidentales o América del Sud y en la misiones en su territorio”, that there were at that time some 22,000 baptised inhabitants and another 15,000 “near the point of conversion”. For this, see Werner Hoffman, Las misiones jesuíticas entre los chiquitanos (Buenos Aires: Fundación para la Educación, la Ciencia y laCultura, 1979), p 172.

48 See Gumucio, op. cit., p 162-3, for a copy of the proclamation.

49 See Tomichá, La Primera Evangelización en las Reducciones de Chiquitos: Protagonistas y Metodología Misional, p 89.

50 Tonelli, op. cit., p. 92, sic passim

51 See Thomas W. Worcester, S.J., “A Remnant and Rebirth: Pope Pius VII Brings the Jesuits Back” in Conversations on Jesuit Higher Education, Vol. 45, Article 4 (2014) at

52 See

About Marco Ramerini

I wrote some writings on the history of geographical exploration and colonialism, particularly on the spice islands, the Moluccas. I have designed and written some internet sites including the site dedicated to the history of geographical exploration and colonialism. Then the site dedicated to my region: Tuscany. As well as many other travel sites in different languages. Traveler, writer of online tourist guides. I research and write about history. Finally I am passionate about astronomy and photography.