Communities in Debate: Native Responses to Mission Secularization in the Portuguese Amazon

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 9:00 AM
Erie Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Heather Flynn Roller, Colgate University
In 1757 and 1758, sixty-one missions in the Portuguese Amazon were secularized.  They received the names of venerable old towns in Portugal, saw the imposition of new symbols of royal authority, and experienced the replacement of their missionaries with civil administrators (to oversee temporal affairs) and lay clergymen (to direct spiritual affairs).  This paper examines how secularization played out on the village level in Brazil’s largest mission field.  What happened during the weeks and months following the 1757 announcement that missionaries would be replaced or would at least have to relinquish their temporal powers?  How did native residents respond – in both word and action – when the new officials and priests arrived to assume their posts?  Most of the secondary literature on the Amazonian secularization process echoes colonial officials in asserting that Indians fled or even threatened to revolt on the eve of the missions’ transformation.  Village-level sources, however, paint a different picture.  They show that Indian residents debated the meaning of the changes, weighed their options, and often waited to see what secularization would entail (i.e., by withdrawing temporarily from the village in order to observe the new system of administration).  This paper argues that the transition to civil administration occurred smoothly in most of the former missions, because residents found that they were able to maintain their old community lands and other corporate assets, as well as their typically dispersed patterns of settlement.  Divestment of assets, privatization of village enterprises, and more tumultuous changes in the former missions would only occur in the early nineteenth century.
Previous Presentation | Next Presentation >>