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

Competing Allegiances, Life in the Reducciones, The End of an Era: the Expulsion of the Jesuits, After the Expulsion. Jesuit Missions in Bolivia

Evanescence and Permanence: Toward an Accurate Understanding of the Legacy of the Jesuit Missions of Chiquitos. Written by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

– Part 10: The Second Period: 1748-1767, Santa Ana de Velasco, The Last Attempt: Nuestra Señora del Buen Consejo

Competing Allegiances

Politically, the Chiquitos reducciones owed nominal allegiance to the Spanish crownF1F through the Audiencia of Charcas, with its seat at La Plata, itself part of the much larger Viceroyalty of Peru until 1776, although Lima’s influence already had waned considerably as far back as when Fr. Arce arrived in the scene in 1690. By that time, the Jesuits in Paraguay, through their outpost in Tarija, exercised far more control over the region.

From an ecclesiastical standpoint, the Diocese of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, a suffragan see under the Archdiocese of Charcas from its inception in 1605 (until 1975), had at least nominal control of the Chiquitos missions, although this was never enforced until after the Extrañamiento in 1767, when it met initially with intense resistance.2 The Archdiocese of Charcas, although maintained by secular clergy, was dominated by and had a strong affinity towards the Jesuit Province of Paraguay, and so made no attempt to interfere with the Jesuit apparatus until the diocese of Santa Cruz de la Sierra became involved.

In reality, thanks to their remoteness, the Chiquitos missions were 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 own encomiendas (settlements worked by enslaved native Amerindians) and estancias (cattle ranches).

Life in the Reducciones

San Xavier mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck.

San Xavier mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck.

The Chiquitos missions were founded as reducciones3 – autonomous, self-sufficient communities ranging in size from roughly 1,000 to 4,000 inhabitants, with two priests at their head. They were organised in strict adherence to previously established guidelines perfected at the doctrina of Juli more than a century before, and administratively were quite similar to each other in structure and operation.

Without exception, leadership was in the hands of the Jesuits, assisted by a council of eight native leaders (known as a cabildo, with a cacique, or chief, at its head) who met on a daily basis to monitor the progress of the town and its inhabitants. Usually two priests were assigned to a reducción. One was in charge of the “care of souls”, and catechetical instruction and the 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 bear in mind that these settlements were not intended as military or trading posts (although they had occasionally acted as both), and as a result had relatively few dealings with colonial administrators except when mandated by the Crown. As Jesuit documents of the era make abundantly clear, the primary purpose of these reducciones was spiritual. Only the natives and the Jesuit missionaries were legal inhabitants. Colonists were not allowed to live in the settlements, and could not even remain in them for more than a few days’ time. (The sole, enigmatic exception was the architect Antonio Rojas, who possibly constructed and certainly assisted in the embellishment of two Chiquitos churches.F4F)

The indigenous inhabitants for the most part 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 inhabitantsF5F throughout the ten settlements then existing in the Chiquitania,F6F and more than 30,000F7F if the Moxos reducciones then under Jesuit guidance are included.8F As non-baptised residents were not always listed in these tallies, it is possible the actual number may have been as high as 37,000.F9

The End of an Era: the Expulsion of the Jesuits

San Xavier mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck..

San Xavier mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck..

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

It came to a sudden and unforeseen (from the isolated standpoint of those in Chiquitos) end on 27 February 1767, when the Spanish King Carlos III ordered the expulsion – usually 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 missionaries10 who watched over the enormous Chiquitania.F11F

By the end of that year, under the leadership of Colonel Diego Antonio Martínez de la Torre, all but four Jesuits had been forcibly removed from the missions, and indigenous inhabitants of the reducciones already had begun to abandon them. Several Jesuits – many aged – died as a result of the hardships endured in the long journey to Lima and back to Europe as a consequence of the expulsion. The last Jesuits to leave Chiquitos proper were removed from Concepción on 2 April 1768.12 The last Jesuit to leave the continent was Fr. Segismundo Asperger of the remote mission of Los Apóstoles in Paraguay, his departure delayed due to a grave illness until May of the following year.13F

After the Expulsion

Altar Mayor, Concepción mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck.

Altar Mayor, Concepción mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck.

After the expulsion, the reducciones steadily spiralled into a state of near-terminal decline. In 1776, the colonial government of Chiquitos with its headquarters in San Rafael de Velasco was militarised and the Chiquitania administered from the newly created Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata (to which the Audiencia of Charcas now belonged) in Buenos Aires.

In ecclesiastical terms, the reducciones were secularised immediately after the Jesuits’ departure by Bishop Francisco Ramón Herboso y Figueroa,F14F and the Diocese of Santa Cruz de la Sierra supposedly took over spiritual control.

In fact, the ex-missions were neglected to the extreme, something upon which all of the early post-expulsion sources agree.15 In 1840, Franciscan missionaries from central Europe were appointed to the Guarayos and Moxos missions, and those of Chiquitos eventually passed to them as well in 1931. To this day, the parishes of several Chiquitos ex-missions remain in Franciscan hands. Notwithstanding, 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.16

The post-expulsion period in the Chiquitania is beyond the scope of this article and is treated at length in an accompanying piece, “The Long Silence: The Jesuit Missions of Chiquitos after the Extrañamiento”. Although the departure of the Jesuits is a matter well documented, and much has been recorded regarding their banishment, considerable research remains to be done on the history of the Jesuit missions of Chiquitos following the Extrañamiento. This is especially so in the case of the chaotic period immediately following the expulsion and for several years after Bolivia’s independence in 1825.

San Miguel de Velasco mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck..

San Miguel de Velasco mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck..

The swift demise of these settlements raises perplexing questions for those exploring both colonial and post-colonial history. Amongst these queries, four in particular surface again and again: 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 banished? What explains the unmitigated neglect and hostility foisted upon these missions by Church authorities in Santa Cruz de la Sierra? And why, after their reconstitution by Pope Pius VII in 1814, did the Jesuits not return immediately to the Chiquitania, a region where their memory was held in the highest esteem?

To a large extent, the blame for these matters lay with the avaricious interests and political policies of Spain, Portugal, and even those of the papacy. All conspired to obliterate the Jesuits. In so doing, the handiwork and legacy of these missionaries in the Chiquitania and elsewhere nearly perished as well. 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.”F17

The Positive Note

Querubin, San Ignacio de Velasco mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

Querubin, San Ignacio de Velasco mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

Of the original twelve Jesuit Chiquitos settlements, nine still survive. Of these, seven possess a unique, albeit hybrid, cultural and social infrastructure that in some ways has changed little since the days of the Jesuits, although certainly not to the extent claimed by tourism authorities and tour operators. This is in spite of the original inhabitants – the Chiquitano and other native groups – long since having left the villages. All of these nine ex-missions remain active settlements, with vibrant religious customs and beliefs. Some still function as missions (albeit staffed for the most part by Franciscans and with no Jesuits at all), with an emphasis now on social service rather than explicit evangelisation.

Although the Bolivian national government has not embraced the preservation of the ex-reducciones, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site ones are perennial candidates for inclusion on an internal watch list, the departmental government of Santa Cruz and the various municipal governments of these towns have and continue to promote them as responsibly and sustainably as they can.

With renewed scholarly interest in the area tempered by a careful, rigourous approach to the conservation and study of the Chiquitos missions and reliance upon their many primary sources, much of value of the unique cultural and historical patrimony of these singular places still can be preserved and drawn upon for the benefit of future generations. With a correct understanding of what actually occurred and what authentic elements remain behind, freed from decades of misperception and poor scholarship, the true story of these unique cultural and spiritual patrimonies can be told, and the importance of their legacy understood.

Geoffrey Groesbeck has written and lectured extensively on Bolivia’s remote and beautiful Chiquitania and especially its Jesuit mission past. Currently he directs a wide array of international engagements in concert with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he also serves as executive director of the acclaimed Projecto Zaca and La Vaquita international development initiatives.

A recognised expert and frequently cited author on the history and social development of the Jesuit missions of Chiquitos, his writings, photography, and Web site ( on the region have won considerable international acclaim. His works have been translated into 12 languages.



1 The Spanish Crown willingly granted the Jesuits a high degree of autonomy as the missions provided additional income. The often-cited 1727 royal prohibition against colonists living in the reducciones (originally promulgated in 1713 but quickly withdrawn) is but one example of this policy. See Tonelli, Reseña histórica social y económica de la Chiquitania, p. 80.

2 Querejazu, op. cit., p. 296; Gumucio, op. cit., pp. 77, 95.

3 See especially Querejazu, op. cit., pp. 275-89, for further detail regarding daily life in these reducciones.

4 Kühne, Evolución y percepción de las iglesias misionales del Oriente Boliviano, Appendix 1. See also Kühne, “Historia Breve de los Pueblos de Chiquitos y de sus Edificios Patrimoniales”, p.

5 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.

6 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).

7 Gumucio, op. cit., p. 90.

8 Other sources claim – without citing a source (although Kühne’s 1994 monograph “Martin Schmid: Missionar-Musiker-Architekt” is likely – 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; Gumucio, op. cit., p. 59. 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.

9 This figure was given as the estimated population of the Chiquitos missions at the moment of the Extrañamiento, based upon a comment by Fr. Julian Knogler (founder of the reducción of Santa Ana de Velasco), 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”. See Werner Hoffman, Las misiones jesuíticas entre los chiquitanos (Buenos Aires: Fundación para la Educación, la Ciencia y la Cultura, 1979), p. 172.

10 Records vary, but the most reliable accounts indicate that there were 27 Jesuits stationed throughout Chiquitos in mid-1767, a view supported by Tomichá, who lists each one (see La Primera Evangelización en las Reducciones de Chiquitos: Protagonistas y Metodología Misional, pp. 154-5, 159). But see Pablo Pastells, S.J., Historia de la Compañía de Jesús en la Provincia del Paraguay (Madrid: Librería General de Victoriano Suárez, 1912), Vol. VIII, p. 901, who claims 24, a view supported by Menacho as well.

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

12 Gabriel René-Moreno, Catálogo del Archivo de Moxos y Chiquitos, 2nd ed., (La Paz: Editorial Juventud, 1974), p. 226-8.

13 Gumucio, op. cit., p. 88.

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

15 D’Orbigny’s four-volume 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), exécuté pendant les années 1826, 1827, 1828, 1829, 1830, 1831, 1832 et 1833 (Buenos Aires: Editorial Futuro, 1945) bears poignant testimony to this sad state of affairs. More recently, and within the Catholic Church itself, Reinaldo Brumberger, OFM, “El Alma Chiquitania: Historia del Pueblo Chiquitano” (Concepción: Vicariato Apostólico de Ñuflo de Chávez, 1991) offers excoriating commentary on post-expulsion dereliction of administration by the Diocese of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

16 Eckart Kühne, “Entre la Tradición Regional y el Estilo Moderno: Dos Obras de Hans Roth en Bolivia” (2006), p. 5, passim.

17 See

About Marco Ramerini

I have published 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.