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A Forgotten Realm: Jesuit Rule in South America

John Lomax recounts how, for nearly two centuries, a priestly protectorate ruled over the native tribes of Central South America. In an age of slavery and merciless exploitation, the Jesuit fathers established a government based on justice, peace and harmony. Their subjects began the working day, and marched homewards again, to the sound of music, preceded by the Mayor and his officers wearing gold-trimmed uniforms and plumed hats.

Almost exactly three hundred and fifty years ago King Philip the Third of Spain issued letters patent to the Society of Jesus for the conversion and government of the Indians in the Paraguayan province of Guayra. Thus, beside a tributary of the Parana River, in a spot but little known even today, the foundations were laid of a clerical protectorate that lasted for nearly two centuries.

This strange episode of history deserves to be better remembered, for it represents an early and practical venture in the field of colonial management; a first attempt—so to speak—at peacemaking in the immemorial encounter between the backward and more advanced peoples. The many pitfalls that beset the path of conciliation in this sphere is not only a discordant theme of the past: it remains as a prickly issue of international affairs today.

Our own country which still rules communities at every stage between tribalism and the modern state is especially involved. We are proud of our record and like to think of it as “trusteeship,” but there is no denying that world opinion tends more and more to condemn our method as “Colonialism.” Likewise the Jesuits found it a thankless task.

They rescued tribes from a bare existence of ceaseless feuds; sheltered them from slavery; showed them the way of order and progress; but in the process they made enemies, and in the end they saw their work destroyed by the prejudice of misguided reformers.

Incidentally, the story of the Missions has a topical interest, for—after a century and a half of oblivion—the lands that the Jesuits once ruled are beginning to revive: and, once again, the Catholic Church is taking the lead. The bishoprics are being filled; priests and nuns are going back in an inconspicuous but ample missionary movement. Thereby the Vatican has found a new field for some of several thousand clergy expelled by the Communist regime in China.

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