The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1996, Volume 42, Number 2
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Mission Culture on the Upper Amazon: Native Tradition, Jesuit Enterprise, & Secular Policy in Moxos, 1660-1880.

By David Block. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994. Notes. Maps Line drawings. Bibliography. Index. xiii, 240 pages.

Reviewed by Roger L. Cunniff, Professor of History at San Diego State University, teacher of environmental and Latin American history.

David Block’s meticulous research on two centuries of Jesuit mission activity in the upper Amazon basin brings important new information about that remote rim of the European project in America, but perhaps more important are the insights he provides into the mechanisms, motivations and limitations of the Jesuit mission system in a broader perspective, and that particular category of the European influence on the non-European world.

Christian mission activity has since the early generations of the conquest of America been a salient component of the European project to transform and assimilate the indigenes of America, and its history long has held a position as a key element in European versions of that transformation. Especially on the frontiers of European settlement, the mission played a central role, in actuality and symbolically. Agreement on the missions as vital civilizing agencies, and a focus on the isolated European missionaries as heroic agents and martyrs to that function, traditionally has unified the otherwise diverse scholarship on the mission frontiers of Ibero-America from Amazonas to the California. More recently, mission scholars have been more sympathetic to the indigenes and more critical of the missionaries. Still fragmented and desultory, this tendency has nevertheless begun to take form as the “New Mission History,” which attempts to reexamine the story of the missions from the perspective of the indigenes, and to focus on the negative effects on them of the European “civilizing mission.” (See the seminal essays on this subject in Langer and Jackson, The New Latin American Mission History.) The book under review affords an important example of this new mission scholarship, illustrating both its potential and the problems it must overcome.

Block’s work treats one of the most marginal European settlements in America, the Jesuit mission at Moxos in the upper Madeira system at the border of Bolivia and Brazil, far removed from the Spanish core in the Andean highlands and the Portuguese settlements on the distant Atlantic shore. There, from 1683 to 1882, a handful of Jesuits labored to integrate the indigenous population into the white religion, polity and economy. The missions–as in North America, relevant only to a frontier situation–came to an end when the rubber boom of the late nineteenth century brought European settlers in sufficient numbers to overwhelm the indigenous culture. By then, however, that culture had been altered forever, and although the indigenes remained, they had been rendered marginal to the European society that had developed in the core regions.

This work reflects impressive use of scattered material in more than a dozen archives and libraries in Peru, Bolivia, Spain and Italy, and a profound understanding of the general literature on the Jesuit order and the mission system. From these materials Block has fashioned what will surely remain the definitive work on the structure, demography, administration, economy and politics of the mission system in the upper Amazon, one that should take its place on the short shelf of any student of mission history, alongside the works of such scholars as Bolton and Jackson for the Californias, Cushner for Chile and Argentina, and Morner for the lower Parana. Despite its many virtues and its sympathy for the indigenes of Moxo however, like most mission history it remains a story of the valiant and resourceful Europeans fighting to further their civilization against tremendous odds–still a chapter in European history from the European perspective. The “New Mission History” will be truly new only when it succeeds in telling the story of this clash of cultures from the perspective of the indigenes, using their sources and their motivations. The difficulties and rewards of such history are being brought to light by scholars like David Sweet, Robert Jackson, and Eric Langer. To this company, with thanks for this work and with expectations for greater attention to the indigenous perspective in future works, we must add the name of David Block. Students of the missions in California–another rim of the European world–can profit greatly from reading his book.