An Invaluable, Eyewitness Account of the Jesuit Reductions of South America

AMERICAS. Ruiz de Montoya, Antonio, S.J. (1585-1652)

Conquista espiritual hecha por los religiosos de la CompaƱia de Jesus, en las Provincias del Paraguay, Parana, Urugay, y Tape.

Madrid: Imprenta del Reyno, 1639


Quarto: 18.7 x 13.2 cm. [4], 103, [1] leaves. Collation: [dagger]4, A-N8.


Bound in 19th-century calf, repairs to spine. A very good copy, upper margin cropped affecting headline, small stain to upper, outer corner of text. Provenance: Thomas George Baring, First Earl of Northbrook (1826–1904; bookplate) – Antonio Cánovas del Castillo (1828-1897; historian and Prime Minister of Spain; bookplate) – Juan Manuel Sánchez Fernández (b. 1874; bookplate).

EXTREMELY RARE. An indispensible –and unique- firsthand account of twenty-five years in the Jesuit reductions of South America by a Peruvian-born Jesuit who participated in the founding of many of those reductions, mastered the language of those whom he evangelized, and -as ambassador to the Spanish court- worked tirelessly for indigenous rights and an end to the slave trade in South America.

Unlike the great majority of South American missionaries, Montoya was born in Lima, Peru, the illegitimate son of a Spaniard and Ana de Vargas, a native of Lima. He joined the Jesuits in 1606, at the age of twenty-one, and accompanied Diego de Torres Bollo to Córdoba in present-day Argentina. His ambition was to work with the Guaraní and to this end undertook the study of their language, which (to the amazement of his contemporaries) he mastered, going on to write numerous books in the language, including a grammar and 800-page dictionary.

When Montoya reached his destination in the missions of Guairá, he set to work in developing the "reductions", a "republic" civilly subject to the Spanish king, but enjoying a large measure of autonomy designed to protect the Indians against the encomiendasystem (in which the Indians were subject to virtual slavery under the Spanish colonists) as well as against the slave-raiding bandeirantesfrom São Paulo in Brazil.

In 1622, after ten years as a missioner, Montoya became superior of the Guairá missions, a position he held until 1636, when he was made superior of all of the Guairá reductions. While superior, he founded or participated in the founding of nine reductions.

Over the course of his narrative, Montoya describes the challenges that the Jesuits and the Guaraní faced and the suffering that they endured during the founding of the reductions. We hear tales of uprisings against the missionaries, threats made by shamans, the slaughter or enslavement of thousands of Guaraní, the abandonment or destruction of villages and whole reductions, cannibalism, and the martyrdom of Jesuits and Indian converts. Throughout, there are miracles and visions, prophetic dreams, unexpected conversions, and tales of adventure, such as Montoya's account of the Jesuits' clandestine mission, under cover of darkness, to remove the bones of four dead shamans from the "church" in which they were worshipped by the Indians.

The mission was fraught with innumerable dangers, the gravest of which came from the slave-raiding bandeirantesfrom Brazil and their Tupí allies, who enslaved or slaughtered thousands of Christian Guaraní in the late 1620s and 1630s, wiping out entire reductions in the process. Montoya, his fellow Jesuits, and many of the Indians faced these horrors with great bravery, repeatedly hazarding death or enslavement. In 1631, as he recounts in chapters 38 and 39 of the "Conquista", Montoya persuaded thousands of Indians to abandon their homes and flee the region in more than 700 canoes and rafts. They were forced to battle their way through Spanish colonials who hoped to trap them, and were forced to make an arduous trek of 75 miles through dense forest in order to avoid the deadly Guairá Falls. It was a harrowing escape, beset with extreme hardships and dangers, but one that saved the lives of thousands.

In 1637, Montoya was sent as a special procurator to the court of Spain, where for years he would advocate for the Native American tribes. Among his petitions, he asked King Philip IV to confirm papal decrees against enslaving Indians; make the capture of Indians a case for the Inquisition; free all captive Indians, men and women, and send them to Buenos Aires, where the Jesuits were to undertake to return them to their homes, even if they had to sell their chalices and vestments to pay for it; and permit the Indians of the reductions to use firearms to defend themselves against the bandeirantes. Remarkably, this extraordinary request was granted and enforced.

Ethnography and Natural History of Paraguay:

In addition to its value as a record of the reductions, the "Spiritual Conquest" is an invaluable source for firsthand knowledge of indigenous life in the province. Montoya's account of his own years as missionary and provincial is preceded by chapters on the Jesuits' arrival in Paraguay, the flora and fauna of the province of Guairá, and an initial chapter on a subject that will occupy much of his book: the cruel treatment and virtual enslavement of the native population.

Among the animals and plants described are the anaconda ("We once saw an Indian, quite strong and husky, devoured by this snake") and the jaguar (which can stay under water for the length of six Hail Mary's, and avoids human urine "like death."). It is in the chapter on the "Paraguayan Herb" (Yerba Mate) that we first hear in detail of the slave-like servitude of the Indians and the atrocious cruelty of their overseers.

We are told about the structure of Native society, marriage and burial customs, religious beliefs and practices, myths, superstitions, horticulture, the Indians' concept of the afterlife and the fate of the soul, warfare, rituals surrounding a woman's coming of age, etc. Montoya describes in detail their temples, richly decorated with brilliant feathers, intricately woven baskets with offerings of fruit, and fragrant with burning incense.

While Montoya clearly discerns nobility in the Indians' nature and character, many of their customs and much of their belief system is, in our author's eyes, the result of either ignorance or, worse, the devil's deceptions. When the Indians capture an enemy in war, they fatten him up on food only to kill him, make a stew of him, and eat him ("Women give a bit of this gruel to their nursing children.") And although they do not venerate idols, they do venerate the bones of famous shamans, and believe that the soul accompanies the body beneath the ground in death. Their "magicians" are a scourge, performing divination by birdsong, practicing magic (made effective by the devil), and treating the sick with fraudulent remedies. The Indians do perform a sort of baptism, have some inkling of "God's unity", and are aware of the Flood, but they are far from Christian. This chapter sets the stage for all that is come after: the Jesuits' mission to win the benighted pagans over to Christ, and to save their souls.

The Fruits of Conquest:

Antonio Ruiz de Montoya labored in Paraguay for 25 years, during which time, he tells us, he encountered so few Spaniards and conversed almost exclusively in the Indians' native tongue, that by the time he left for Spain he had "become almost a foreigner to the language of the court." When he arrived in Paraguay in 1612 the reductions, the first of which, Loretto, was established in 1610, were in their infancy and the future of the enterprise uncertain. By the time he wrote the "Spiritual Conquest", they numbered 25. During his years in Spain advocating for the reductions and the Indian inhabitants, Montoya longed to return to "his people" as he called the Guaraní. In the end, he made it only as far as Lima. Hearing of Montoya's death in 1652, a contingent of 40 Guaraní made the long trek to Lima to claim his body, and carried it in solemn procession back to Loretto, where he was buried. (Portions of the preceding description have been freely adapted from C.J. McNaspy, S.J.,"Ruiz de Montoya, The Spiritual Conquest")

Borba de Moraes, p.587; Palau 282092; Sabin 74029; Backer-Sommervogel,; VII, col. 320, no. 2