This was an essay I wrote for a history course at Victoria University in 2007 comparing the film “The Mission” with actual events. See also photos of Iguassu Falls on my page here.
The Mission and historic Jesuit missions in Paraguay in the 1750s
The 1986 film The Mission tells a story set in the Jesuit missions of Paraguay (now the borderlands around Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil) in the mid-eighteenth century. The Jesuits established their first mission in the area in 1609. By the early 1700s about 30 missions existed, with a population at its highpoint in 1732 of 140,000. The indigenous people of the missions – the Guarani – had large cattle and other livestock holdings, cotton and yerba plantations, produced textiles, and engaged in trade with Spanish towns. They formed the largest militia in the region and were used on numerous occasions by the governors of Buenos Aires and Paraguay to fight other Indians, the Portuguese and quell local settler rebellions. The film The Mission shows very little of this history, despite beginning with the caption: ‘The historical events represented in this story are true, and occurred around the borderlands of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil in the year 1750’. But clearly not all the events could have taken place in 1750 and their representation is not entirely true. As this essay argues, the film conflates about 130 years of mission history to present a story of ‘good’ missionaries, ‘bad’ Spanish and especially Portuguese, and child-like Indians in need of protection and guidance from the missionaries.
Fig 1: Jeremy Irons in the film
In 1750, Spain and Portugal signed a treaty usually known as the Treaty of Madrid that redefined the borders of their colonies in South America. Spain would receive the Portuguese port of Colonia do Sacromento – located on the opposite bank of the river to Buenos Aires it diverted much trade from Spanish Argentina. In exchange, Portugal would receive an area of 400,000 square kilometres to the east of the Uruguay river, which contained seven Jesuit missions, and the landholdings of some other missions on the west side of the river. The border had never been clearly defined and in the previous century Portuguese settlers had raided the area. Spain offered compensation of 4,000 pesos for each village (which averaged about 1 peso per person) but no compensation for the missions in the west losing their land in the east. Protests from the Jesuits and Guarani leaders in the form of letters to various Spanish and Jesuit officials were unsuccessful and Spanish and Portuguese troops were sent in to enforce the treaty. The result was known as the Guarani war (1754–56) in which the Guarani were defeated.
The Portuguese never handed over Colonia do Sacromento, and a new Spanish king, Carlos III, abrogated the treaty in 1761. The land east of the river returned to Spain and Colonia was also taken by force in 1762. However, subsequent events in Europe – this time alliances during the Napoleonic wars – once more led to the area east of the Uruguay river being given to Portugal in 1801 and it is now part of Brazil. By this time, however, the mission system was breaking down. The Jesuits had been expelled from Portuguese territory in 1759 and from Spanish in 1767/8.
The film setting is the Guarani war (1754–56) and follows the founding of a new mission in the jungle ‘above the falls’ – the Iguassu Falls feature prominently. The seven historic missions affected by the Treaty of Madrid (1750) were east of the Uruguay river, and south or ‘below’ these falls (see figure 1 for a map of the area). Schofield Saeger believes the waterfall setting of the movie suggests older missions, founded between 1610 and 1630 on the Río Paranapanemá above the Guairá Falls. Paulista slave raids forced Guaranis and Jesuits to flee these missions in 1631. I think the waterfall setting is used more for its dramatic scenery. At the start of the film a Jesuit priest is tied to a cross and ‘martyred’ by being sent over the falls – a scene which was used in film publicity (this form of killing was never known to have happened historically). Father Gabriel (the character played by Jeremy Irons) paddles a canoe single-handedly against the current to the bottom of the falls and then climbs the cliffs to the top. Later in the film, Spanish or Portuguese soldiers climb the same cliffs. To have reached ‘above the falls’ from another direction or to have located the action ‘below the falls’ would not have given the opportunity for such cinematic effects, so perhaps this historical inaccuracy can be excused.
It is not just the waterfall setting, however, that suggests the events actually depict more than 100 years of history. Father Gabriel establishes a new mission among half-naked forest Indians. Most of the 30 Jesuit missions among the Guarani had been established by the early 1700s. The film has numerous references to the missions protecting the Indians from slavery. For the first 30 years of the missions (c.1610–1642) they were subject to frequent raids from the Paulistas and thousands were taken back to Brazil as slaves for sugar plantations or domestic service. The missions moved to avoid further raids, but unsuccessfully. Eventually the Jesuits received permission to arm and train the Guarani who defeated some 400 Portuguese and 2,700 Tupi (allied Indians) at a battle called Mboboré in 1641. A number of details suggest that the battle at the end of the movie is more like the battle of Mboboré, which was fought on land as well as in boats on rivers. The film battle includes half-naked Indians on both sides, whereas in the February 1756 battle of Caaibaté (the final battle of the Guarani war) there were 1,600 Spanish and 1,200 Portuguese troops against 1,680 Guarani. Despite more Spanish than Portuguese troops, the film also gives the impression that the Portuguese are the main enemy.
Fig. 2 – battle scene
The film Jesuits are tolerant of nakedness, whereas the historic Jesuits were not – establishing cotton-growing so the Indians could be clothed. The Indians in the film are generally only clothed when shown in church, or at the San Miguel Mission (described in the film as the oldest in the area). In fact, the Guarani militia had European-style uniforms, although it is not clear whether these were worn when fighting or were mainly for ceremonial purposes – however they regarded clothing as an important status symbol. For example, they were suspicious of the Jesuit official (Father Altamirano) sent to help enforce the treaty, suspecting him of being Portuguese, because he wore layman’s clothing instead of a priest’s. In the film he is variously dressed as a cardinal, a layman and a Jesuit.
Historically no Jesuits died in the Guarani war and most recent historians agree that none fought with the Guarani, although some stayed at San Miguel mission to ‘serve the natives’ spiritual needs’. Propaganda that they encouraged and took part in the fighting was spread at the time to discredit the Jesuits and is still repeated in some general histories and travel guides. The Governor of Buenos Aires, the Marques de Cevallos, conducted an inquiry in 1758 and found no direct Jesuit participation and recommended their knowledge of the country be used to settle the boundary peacefully. The four Jesuits at the film San Carlos mission (established by Father Gabriel) are all killed in the fighting – three fighting with the Guarani, and one (Gabriel) leading his congregation in a peaceful procession. This reinforces the film’s theme of good Jesuit/ bad Spanish / Portuguese.
Another theme of the film is that the Indians need protecting – and the Jesuits were their only protection:
the missions are the only sanctuary left for the Gaurani [sic]. Without the shelter we provide under Spanish law the Indians have no protection against slavery. They come to us of their own free will. (Lines spoken by Father Gabriel)
The status of Indians had been settled in the 1500s and legally they were not allowed to be enslaved, except for ‘hostile’ Indians. However, the law did not stop local settlers enslaving them, especially the Portuguese for their sugar plantations. But the film may also be using the term ‘slavery’ loosely to suggest the Spanish encomienda system, whereby adult indigenous males had to work for up to two months a year for the settlers or on public works. The Jesuits set up their missions far enough from towns to exempt the mission Indians from the encomienda, instead paying a tribute directly to the crown, which was a major source of Spanish settler resentment. Nevertheless, life in the missions was highly regulated. By the eighteenth century it was not uncommon for Indians to leave them (illegally) and, if not forcibly returned, work for wages in towns in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. In the film ex-slave trader turned Jesuit, Mendoza (played by Robert de Niro), lifts the shirt of a mission Indian to show whip scars on his back to Altamirano, explaining that he is a runaway slave. This scene suggests the Jesuits did not use corporal punishment, whereas flogging and jails were common in the missions. Although this was not unusual for the times, the film gives a misleading view of the Jesuits. Also, the Jesuit missionaries were not opposed to slavery per se and some of the missions had negro slaves.
None of the Indians in the film are named and few of the adults have any individual character. They are more like ‘types’ and although the same could be said of the Jesuit priests, at least they have names and communicate. The Guarani speak only an ‘indigenous’ language (as noted in the subtitles) that, on the very few occasions when it is translated, is translated by the Jesuits. The film Indians were played by a Colombian indigenous people and did not actually speak Guarani but another language, despite Guarani being one of the two official languages in Paraguay today and more widely spoken there than Spanish.
Music and singing play an important part in the film. Music is depicted as the way Father Gabriel first ‘wins the Guarani over’: by playing an oboe he has carefully carried climbing up the cliffs beside the falls. At the end of the film a Guarani girl takes a broken violin from the sacked mission as the only thing worth having. Historically, music was important and some missions made musical instruments, but initially it was iron implements useful for clearing forest and farming, and the security the missions offered, that attracted the Guarani. The idea that music could found a mission probably comes from a book by Philip Caraman who was consulted by the film’s director and writer. Caraman claims:
The Fathers noticed that when they sang melodies from their canoes, the Guarani crept to the river banks and surreptitiously watched them pass. This determined their approach. On all their travels they took musical instruments with them (p213).
But despite using Caraman as a source for some things, the film does not follow him in a number of others – such as his rejection of any active Jesuit participation in the fighting, and his unfavourable view of Altamirano, whereas the film’s representation is more sympathetic.
Guarani women are depicted as carers of children and little else, when in fact their roles included horticulture, weaving and making clothes, food preparation, and making pottery for household use. The film also depicts the sexes mingling when at most times of the day men and women were kept apart. There were no women, children or Jesuits at the battle of Caaibaté, whereas the film has all present at the fighting, including one inexplicable scene of women putting their babies in a pile in the open, apparently at the direction of troops. Guarani children are depicted as singing, playing, laughing and ‘carefree’ until the war near the end. When the Jesuits are debating with the Spanish and Portuguese in the film there is an exchange about infanticide:
Portuguese or Spanish man – “They kill their own young.”Father Gabriel – “That is true. May I answer that? Every man and woman is allowed one child. If a third is born, it is immediately killed. But this is not some animal rite. It’s a necessity for survival. They can only run with one child apiece. And what do they run from? They run from us. That is, they run from slavery.”
As the Guarani were mainly sedentary agriculturalists there was generally little reason to practice infanticide – certainly not by the 1750s. There was a high infant mortality rate in the missions resulting from diseases and possibly malnutrition, rather than infanticide. The populations were sometimes substantially reduced by epidemics – the decade of the 1730s was particularly deadly. Measles killed more than 18,000 Guarani in 1735 and smallpox another 30,000 in 1738 and 1739. The comment about slavery causing infanticide reinforces the film’s theme of good Jesuit /bad settlers.
The film presents the 1750s events through a 1980s lens of liberation theology. The following text appears at the end of the film:
The Indians of South America are still engaged in a struggle to defend their land and their culture. Many of the priests who, inspired by faith and love, continue to support the rights of the Indians for justice, do so with their lives.
One reviewer noted that the film ‘turns this episode [the Guarani war] into an allegory for the mid-’80s struggles of Latin America’. The director Roland Joffé in an interview acknowledged the film ‘is intimately concerned with the struggle for liberation in liberation theology’ today. Liberation theology combines religious doctrine with political activism in support of the poor and has been particularly strong in Latin America. It has also had its own ‘martyrs’, for example Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador, killed in 1980 while celebrating Mass. By having the Jesuit priests dying with the oppressed Guarani, the film erroneously presents them as proto-liberation theologists.
The film’s representation of events is more like ‘traditional’ mission histories, which focussed on the Jesuits and often showed a bias in favour of, or against, the Spanish. Some were written by Jesuits. Since the 1980s some historians have used various sources to try to give more of an indigenous perspective – which has been called ‘new mission history’. The film appeared before much of this ‘new’ history, helping explain its pro-Jesuit perspective, but not excusing its condensing of over 100 years of history supposedly into one year, or the active role of the Jesuits in the fighting. The result is a biased and misleading view of the Jesuits, Guarani people, and the 1750s events.
Figure 3 – Map of the Jesuit missions
Source: C J McNapsy, “The archaeology of the Paraguay Reductions (1609-1767)” World Archaeology 18(3) (1987 February)
Unofficial film script: http://www.script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/m/mission-script-transcript-jeremy-irons.html Accessed 3 Sept 2007
An entertainment site, with links to Wikipedia: http://www.answers.com/topic/the-mission-film?cat=entertainment
Accessed 3 Sept 2007
Books and Journals
Caraman, Philip. The Lost Paradise: an account of the Jesuits in Paraguay 1607-1768, (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1975).
Deeds, Susan. “Pushing the Borders of Latin American Mission History – Review article”, Latin American Research Review, Vol. 39 (2), (2004), pp. 211-220
Dempsey, Michael. “Light Shining in Darkness: Roland Joffe on The Mission”, Film Quarterly 40(4), (1987 Summer), pp. 2-11
Ganson, Barbara. “The Evuevi of Paraguay: Adaptive strategies and responses to colonialism” The Americas, Vol. 45(4) (1989), pp. 461-488
Ganson, Barbara. “‘Like Children under Wise Parental Sway’: Passive portrayals of the Guarani Indians in European literature and The Mission”, Colonial Latin American Historical Review Vol. 3 (1994 Fall), pp. 399-422
Ganson, Barbara. The Guarani Under Spanish Rule in the Rio de la Plata. (Stanford University Press, 2003).
Jackson, Robert San Lorenzo Martir: A Jesuit Mission in the Service of Spanish Policy, from website. [Author is co-editor of book below and in 1995 taught at Texas Southern University.]
Langer, Erick & Jackson, Robert (eds.), The New Latin American Mission History, (University of Nebraska Press, 1995)
McNapsy, C J. “The archaeology of the Paraguay Reductions (1609-1767)” World Archaeology 18(3) (1987 February), pp. 398-410
Mörner, Magnus. Book review of B Ganson ‘The Guarani under Spanish Rule in the Rio de la Plata’ The Hispanic American Historical Review, 84(3) (2004 August), pp. 535-6
Owens, David J. A historical geography of the Indian missions in the Jesuit province of Paraguay 1609-1768, PhD degree University of Kansas, (1977). Facsimile by University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor Michigan, 1980.
Schofield Saeger, James. “The Mission and Historical Missions: Film and the Writing of History”, The Americas, 51(3) (1995), pp. 393-415
 The treaty is sometimes called the Treaty of Limits.
 David J Owens, A historical geography of the Indian missions in the Jesuit province of Paraguay 1609-1768, PhD degree University of Kansas, (1977). Facsimile by University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor Michigan, 1980, p456
 Barbara Ganson, The Guarani Under Spanish Rule in the Rio de la Plata. (Stanford University Press, 2003) p4
 ibid, p155-6
 The decree occurred in 1767, but was not enforced in Paraguay until 1768.
 James Schofield Saeger, “The Mission and Historical Missions: Film and the Writing of History”, The Americas, 51(3) (1995), p395.
 The term means those from the Brazilian (Portuguese) town of Sao Paulo.
 Barbara Ganson, “‘Like Children under Wise Parental Sway’: Passive portrayals of the Guarani Indians in European literature and The Mission”, Colonial Latin American Historical Review Vol. 3 (1994), p 409
 Ganson, The Guarani Under Spanish Rule, 2003, p46
 Philip Caraman, The Lost Paradise: an account of the Jesuits in Paraguay 1607-1768, (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1975). p248
 Ganson, The Guarani Under Spanish Rule 2003, p45 & 182; and Caraman Lost Paradise, p100.
 Ganson, ‘Like Children under Wise Parental Sway’, 1994, p408.
 For example, Ganson 1994, p418; Magnus Morner, Book review of B Ganson ‘The Guarani under Spanish Rule in the Rio de la Plata’ The Hispanic American Historical Review, 84(3) (2004 August), p536; Schofield Saeger, ‘The Mission and Historical Missions’, 1995, p408.
 Ibid, p418.
 Caraman, Lost Paradise, p252; Schofield Saeger, ‘The Mission and Historical Missions’, 1995, p408
 Barbara Ganson, “The Evuevi of Paraguay: Adaptive strategies and responses to colonialism” The Americas, Vol. 45(4) (1989), p478. Schofield Saeger, ‘The Mission and Historical Missions’, 1995, p401.
 Ganson, The Guarani, 2003 (p185) uses the 1992 Paraguay census – 90% of the population speak Guarani (compared to 55% who speak Spanish) but less than 3% of the population is considered ‘Indian’.
 Caraman, The Lost Paradise, 1975.
 Ganson, The Guarani, 2003 p62-3
 Schofield Saeger, ‘The Mission and Historical Missions’, 1995, p402
 Paul Brenner, All Movie Guide, on website: Answers.com
 Michael Dempsey, “Light Shining in Darkness: Roland Joffé on The Mission”, Film Quarterly, 40(4), (1987 Summer), p3 [The two images used in the essay are from this article].
 For example, Susan Deeds, “Pushing the Borders of Latin American Mission History – Review article”, Latin American Research Review, Vol. 39 (2), (2004); and Erick Langer, & Robert Jackson, (eds.), The New Latin American Mission History, (University of Nebraska Press, 1995).