Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
The Letters of Jacob Baegert, 1749-1762: Jesuit Missionary in Baja California. Translated by Elsbeth Schulz-Bischof; Edited by Doyce B. Nunis, Jr. Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1982. Illustrations. 237 pages. $36.00.
Reviewed by Homer Aschmann, Professor of Geography, University of California, Riverside, author of The Central Desert of Baja California: Demography and Ecology (1959).
Of all the books dealing with the Jesuit mission to Baja California that of Johann Jakob Baegert, Observations in Lower California, (Translated by M.M. Brandenburg and Carl L. Baumann, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1952. The original is Nachrichten von de Amerikanischen Halbinsel Californien, Mannheim, 1771.) is accurately recognized as presenting the bleakest and least idealized or sanitized picture of mission life. The discovery, translation and publication of nine letters to his brother, also a Jesuit, and one to his mother, demonstrate that Baegert also sanitized what he published. His Jesuit mission, San Luis Gonzaga among the Guaicura, was run as harshly and with as little respect for native traditions and values as were the later Franciscan and Dominican ones.
These family letters, apparently all but two written in Latin, had been translated into German and transcribed, possibly by Baegert himself after the Jesuit expulsion, or by one of his three clergyman brothers and had been preserved at the Municipal Library in Strasbourg. Working with a microfilm copy Professors Nunis and Schulz-Bischof have done well with a singularly difficult manuscript. Four languages, Latin, German, Spanish and French must have confused the original transcriber because some passages continue to refuse to make sense, even after laborious effort. Annotations have been supplied to identify persons, things and events alluded to in the text. Baegert must have had access to the originals or to the transcriptions after 1769 because many anecdotes, written a decade or more earlier, appear verbatim in the Observations.
The first five letters recount Baegert’s observations en route to Mexico City from Schettstadt in Alsace via the Brenner Pass, Genoa, by sea to Santa María near Cádiz and to Vera Cruz and overland to Mexico. Baegert seemed interested in everything and was sure his brother would be. Clothing, architecture, church furnishings, national variations in Catholic rites, food and the general landscape are described to make this an excellent eighteenth century travelogue. I found professional value in his reference to deforestation in Northern Italy and the extreme scarcity and costliness of lumber for construction. The sad letter to his mother consists only of assurances that her sufferings on earth would receive recompense in heaven.
Once he reaches his mission in Baja California his negative comments on the character of the Indians expose Baegert’s psychological makeup to an almost embarrassing degree. It may have been typical of contemporary missionaries though they did not express it so openly in official letters and publications. Rage at departure from the Church’s prescriptions for sexual behavior is constant, but eating habits that depart from European norms provoke comparable outbursts. Disciplined behavior in all areas of life was sought from the Indians. It was not obtained so they were regarded as stupid and incapable of learning. Baegert shows a complete incapacity to appreciate the validity of a foreign culture. It is different so it is wrong. On the other hand he maintained a lively relation with his own culture, even in extreme isolation. He developed a substantial library by requesting specific books, to be paid for from his annual stipend. His geopolitical awareness of the incipient struggle for the West Coast of North America between Spain, Britain and Russia and the part missionization played in advancing the Spanish cause, is fully modern.
Baegert’s sincerity in choosing a life of extreme discomfort, both physical and intellectual, to save the souls of a modest number of Indians is unquestionable. He was obliged to give them the sacraments, but he believed that all adults sinned and were unrepentant and would go to Hell. His solace was the infants he baptized and who died before falling into the sins of adolescents and adults.
This is an important book. Any reader will find it fascinating and informative. As one quite familiar with both published and manuscript literature on Baja California I kept finding references to the dark side of mission history that have been concealed in other mission literature: the execution of nine Indians at one mission for killing livestock; free use of beatings and chainings for theft and improper sexual behavior; the regular and frequent imprisoning and cashiering for sexual delinquencies of soldiers who protected the mission. A litle hard demography can be extracted. At least 90 of the 154 infants Baegert baptized had died within ten years. The mission population was stable at 350. This gives the high birth rate of 50 per thousand; the child mortality rate was well over 600 per thousand. There was no reserve with which to survive the epidemics that were to come.