Carlos Sodré Lanna

From the Discovery until our days, the great work carried out by the missionaries to Christianize and civilize Brazilian aborigines

Jesuit Mission

Were it not for the villages, the catechesis of the Indians would be nothing more than a chimera. With their own government and authority, they were the effective and original method of indigenous conversion in Brazil, perhaps the first seed of the celebrated Jesuit reductions.

Dispersed, the natives would never have abandoned their vices and nomadic customs, nor would they cease to wage war against each other and to practice cannibalism.

Mem de Sá

The public authorities supported the activity of the early missionaries. With the arrival of Mem de Sa, the third Governor-General of Brazil, in 1558, came a new impetus to work for conversion of the Indians in the missions and in particularl the villages. There was coordinated action between the government and Jesuit missionaries under the guidance of Fathers José de Anchieta and Manuel da Nóbrega. Later came other religious orders and congregations such as the Franciscans, Benedictines, Carmelites, etc. Saint Joseph of Anchieta became known as the Apostle of Brazil.

Early villages

The first villages were founded in Bahia in 1558, and Mem de Sa was present at their installation. In these settlements, the Indians learned religion and were persuaded to abandon anthropophagy and drunkenness. They also took care of their own food, clothing, health, etc., and gradually assumed civilized habits. The missionaries sought to set up the villages in the very places where the natives were found.

Under the influence of the Jesuits, these villages enjoyed quasi-municipal privileges, with special legislation regulating the assets of the aborigines, their separation from the Portuguese, trade and the labor regime among them, and an administrative hierarchy based on the juridical structure of Portuguese municipal institutions. In this first attempt at founding villages, the work of the missionaries consisted of doing long missions with the native tribes, which slowly became Christianized.

There was a civil servant, a bailiff appointed by the Governor General, who made himself highly respected by the Indians. In the beginning, the most common offenses were anthropophagy and fights arising from drunkenness, as well as adulteries, robberies, absenteeism from work and from religious worship. When the offense was committed and proved, the bailiff applied the corresponding penalty. The missionaries sought to defend the Indians against any abuses by the civil authority.

In the villages, there was always a church, a school, a hospital, and houses for the natives. Some settlements sheltered as many as five thousand inhabitants, a number that required an entire administrative order and land for plantations. The aborigines subjected themselves to a humane work schedule with set hours in order not to fall into the temptation of laziness. They received wages, clothes and food according to their activities.

Catechizing the natives

Initially, the apostolate was characterized by being almost individual, directed at each Indian. For the conversion of the natives, no doctrinal preaching was necessary, as happened in India and Japan at that time. As they were very intuitive, all the aborigines had to be taught was the moral law, which they would remember. They would imbibe Catholic doctrine over time. Except for the natural psychological obstacles of their wild customs, Brazilian Indians offered no resistance to accept the Catholic Religion. Many even asked to be instructed in it. Over the course of five centuries, the missionaries profoundly studied the character and psychology of the Indians. Aiming above all at the salvation of souls, the missionaries also wanted the Indians to be well fed in order to enjoy good health: precisely the opposite of the position assumed by the sorcerers or pajés, who promised material benefits and allowed the Indians to live in idleness.

Indolent and hardly willing to move about, the aborigines sometimes went through difficulties because they would not even look for food…

They perceived things readily, but without depth. Such characteristics demanded that the missionaries have kindness and firmness, patience and a constant presence. Many Indians turned out to be good warriors against foreign invaders and other rebellious savages.

When dealing with the natives, the policy always had to be one of tough love. By nature, the Indians were not inclined to meekness. Cruelty and bloodthirsty customs were deeply rooted in their minds. This was demonstrated by the martyrdom of two Jesuit brothers, Pero Correia and João de Souza, who were killed by thecarijós in 1555.

The role of Indian boys or curumins

After that initial individual apostolate, the missionaries began to catechize the natives. The means they employed was teaching. In 1549, Father Manuel da Nóbrega wrote that they had begun visiting the natives’ homes in the villages, inviting children to learn to read and write. They went willingly.

Penetrating the native population, the missionaries sought to capture the sympathy of the most influential among them, while orphaned boys brought from Lisbon who attended school attracted Indian boys called curumins. They previously arranged with tribal leaders how they should behave during the visits and the goal of those visits, that is, to preach to them the law of God. After a village was stabilized, the missionaries would settle there.

Thus, through the children, the missionaries reached out to their idle and lazy parents. The boys soon became teachers and apostles. The Portuguese boys from elementary schools joined the curumins and entered pagan villages preaching, teaching, and attracting souls to God. Both they and the missionaries ran through villages singing with a cross in front of them, and the wondering natives always welcomed them.

The children of the aborigines learned to read and write Portuguese, to sing and to serve at Mass. Musical education was always intense and played a great role in the ministry with the natives.

The Indians always took an interest in everything. They would run to church when the bell rang inviting them to attend Mass. They were attracted to sacred music and joyfully followed religious processions. They paid close attention to sermons, translated by interpreters.

The Indians always appreciated the missionaries

Throughout the catechesis, the natives always appreciated the missionaries. Entering villages, the religious caressed the children, were very solicitous towards the adults and helped the sick, showing affection and loyalty to all.

They were regarded as kind men who endeavored to express themselves in Indian language. They reproached any white man who sought to hurt them. And they never asked for gifts, as did sorcerers.

As for costumes, they were gradually adopted. The missionaries distributed dresses to women and trousers to men. At the same time, they fostered a rudimentary weaving industry. It was necessary to create the habit of routinely wearing clothing. The most effective way to accomplish this goal was to demand that they be clothed in the church. They should reserve an indispensable part of their earnings to acquire the “clothes to see God”, under pain of not being admitted to religious ceremonies. Thus, the custom of wearing clothing entered into the natives’ habits through the attendance of acts of worship.

The great difficulty encountered by the missionaries – which continues to this day – was the action of the tribes’ shamans or sorcerers. They always hated the missionaries, seeing them as rivals in the practice of prophecy and medicine. A shaman would rarely convert to the religion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

This mode of catechizing our natives has been so successful since the Discovery that it essentially remains applied to this day by missionaries faithful to the glorious tradition of the work developed by Anchieta, the Apostle of Brazil. Unfortunately, however, a current of neo-tribal missionaries has been formed which advocates keeping the Indians in their primitive cultural state. In the next article, we will analyze this new missiology and the damage it has been wreaking on the poor aborigines and on the Brazilian nation.


Padre Serafim Leite, História da Companhia de Jesus no Brasil, Editora Portugalia, Lisboa, 1943.

Rocha Pombo, História do Brasil, W. M. Jackson, Inc. Editors, Rio de Janeiro, 1942.

Francisco Adolfo de Varnhagen, História Geral do Brasil, Edições Melhoramentos, São Paulo, 1959.

Padre Alcionilio Bruzzi Alves da Silva, A Civilização Indígena do Uaupés. Libreria Ateneo Salesiano, Roma, 1977.