Mainas missions

The Mainas (or Maynas) missions were a series of missions the Jesuits established in the Western Amazon region of South America from 1638 until 1767, when the Jesuits were expelled.[1][2] Following the Jesuit expulsion, mission activity continued under Franciscan auspices.[3]

Roughly 60 missions were founded in total.[4] Scholar Anne Christine Taylor notes that, '[o]f all the western Amazonian mission establishments, that of the Jesuits of Mainas was by far the most important'.[5] She estimates that, at its zenith, the mission field had a population of approximately 200,000.[6] However, throughout their existence, the Jesuit mission settlements—known as reductions—were marked by epidemic disease (often smallpox) that exacted a tremendous death toll on the indigenous peoples installed in them.[6]

'Maynas' or 'Mainas' refers to the Maina people, indigenous to the area around the Marañón River.[7] The area in which the missions were conducted is now largely coextensive with Maynas Province, Peru, which borders Ecuador. The Jivaro, Kokama, Cambeba, Secoya, and Yame were among the other indigenous peoples the missionaries sought to convert.[8]


The Mainas missions were one element of the broader Spanish colonial project in the Americas. Taylor characterizes the object of the missions as 'pav[ing] the way for the spread of colonial institutions through cultural means'—using religious and other ideological tools to induce indigenous people to conform to colonial priorities.[9]

The missions were not completely allied to the colonial state, however. The Jesuits sought to convert indigenous forms of government into reductions, whereas the colonial governors aimed to subject them to the encomienda or repartimiento systems of labour extraction. At times, then, there was conflict between the religious orders and the state with regard to control over the indigenous population. Thus, the two organizations were allied in complex ways in the Western Amazon from the 17th to 19th centuries.[9]

Our knowledge of the Mainas missions derives largely from missionaries' own accounts of their activities. Thus, as Newson notes, a complete account is 'difficult to establish in detail'.[10]


The immediate impetus for missionary work in the region was a 1635 (or 1637,[11] or 1640[12]) rebellion by the Maina people against Spanish colonialists.[2][13][a] The Maina rebelled against the encomienda system, a system analogous to slavery which 'gave individual Spaniards the right to demand labor and tribute from the Indians assigned to them … and also turned them into de facto administrators, responsible for the control and the welfare of these Indians'.[14]

Reeve describes the system, as practised in the early 17th century in Mainas, as 'exceedingly harsh': the vast majority of indigenous peoples co-opted into Mainas encomiendas died, and the colonial government used military force to put down those who had not been brought into the system.[15]

The colonial strategy changed around 1636–38, however. According to Clements Markham, Pedro Vaca de Vega (known as Don Pedro Vaca and styled Governador de los Maynas[16]), the colonial governor of Mainas province, had 'despaired of subjugating the Indians by force' and hoped that the Jesuits 'might succeed in tranquillizing them by persuasion'.[17][12] Accordingly, he hoped to bring Jesuit missionaries to the area. Reeve concurs, suggesting that the governor's change of heart was due to the recent history of violence in the area.[15]

17th century

A map ( c.  1717) of the Marañón by Samuel Fritz, who was superior of the Mainas missions in the early 18th century.

Two missionaries, then at Quito, initially responded to Vaca's request for mission-founders: Father Lucas de la Cueva (known as Father Cueva) and Father Cujia.[17] Fathers Cueva and Cujia arrived at Borja on 6 February 1638,[18] not long after the city was founded in 1619.[13]

Mission activity began in the area around Borja, in the valley of the Huallaga River (a tributary of the Marañón).[19] The Jesuits sought to 'induc[e]' indigenous peoples to settle in reductions, as opposed to their traditional modes of habitation and forms of government.[20] This would have been a difficult assignment in the best of circumstances, coming as it did shortly after a violent rebellion. More so, because although the Jesuits would ultimately found 'dozens' of missions in the region, there were not many missionaries to go around.[20] Nonetheless, by 1660, the Jesuits had 'catechized' around 10,000 people.[4] Newson estimates that this was about 10–15 percent of the indigenous population in the region at the time.[19]

The missions were backed by colonial forces. The Jesuits travelled with soldiers, and the colonial governor would periodically send his forces on entradas—a missionary's initial attempt to establish contact with those he sought to convert, using 'food and gifts' as inducement.[21]

Reeve notes that the missionaries were largely dependent on 'indigenous guides and interpreters' in seeking out new fields for expansion: guides would bring the Jesuits to territories their people knew well, or with which their people were allied. She observes, then, that '[t]o a remarkable degree, the process of proselytization and mission formation followed indigenous alliance networks across the region'.[4]

18th century

The Comandancia General de Maynas  [es] (in mustard yellow), a district of the Viceroyalty of Peru, as it appeared c.  1802. Missions were dispersed throughout this area.

Samuel Fritz served as superior of the Mainas missions from 1704–12.[22] Fritz sought to expand the missions further outwards, which provoked trouble with Portuguese slave traders.[citation needed]

After the Jesuits were expelled in 1767, Maynas came under the control of Franciscans.[3]

19th century

There was evidently a mission infrastructure in Mainas as late as the 1850s. William Lewis Herndon, exploring the Amazon for the United States Navy, described missions in the Mainas region that traded various goods with Brazil. He further noted:

I know of no legal establishment in the Missions—the law proceeding out of the mouths of the governors. Indians are punished by flogging or confinement in the stocks; whites are sometimes imprisoned; but if their offence is of a grave nature, they are sent to be tried and judged by the courts of the capital.[23][24]

Herndon also observed that the indigenous inhabitants of the Mainas missions, unique among the 'Indians of Peru', had been exempted from the payment of a head tax, because 'these people had the forest to subdue, and were only able to wring a hard-earned support from the cultivation of the land'. He remarked that white settlers objected to this, and thought that 'some law compelling them to work' would be preferable.[25][b]


Disease and slavery were common in the Mainas missions.

Over the 129 years of Jesuit missionary activity in the Mainas region, numerous epidemics of smallpox and other diseases exacted a severe toll on indigenous peoples.[12][26]

Slave raids, whereby Portuguese colonialists, known as bandeirantes, would capture and enslave indigenous people, were frequent throughout the period.[27] Fritz's tenure in the Mainas missions, in particular, was marked by a number of Portuguese slave raids.[28]

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