Evangelization of Guyana : from Jesuit Missions to Spiritan Fathers (1650 – 1945)

In Guyana, as in the other colonies of the Americas, the evangelization of communities of Indigenous and formerly enslaved African people followed the development of colonial settlements from the mid-17th century to the mid-20th century, although it took on different forms over the course of time.

The activities of the Jesuits, principally targeting Indigenous populations, differed from modern Christianization efforts pursued during the ‘second colonization’ of the second half of the 19th century, mostly among the Businenge populations settled along the Maroni river.  In the first case, the Jesuits’ approach suggest a desire to attract and appeal to Indigenous populations in an epoch dominated by ideas that emerged from the Counter-Reformation; by contrast, the Spiritan missionaries deployed practices of control (psychological, symbolic, and political) in keeping with a colonial society in which Indigenous peoples were increasingly marginalized and discriminated against, having lost the limited degree of respect they were accorded in the Old Regime.  
The Capuchin friars had been part of the first French settlement in the island of Cayenne in 1633, and they later joined Poncet de Brétigny’s disastrous attempt at colonization in 1643 . However, their interactions with Indigenous peoples were limited by the precarious, ephemeral nature of these first settlements and remained below the level of activity displayed by the Jesuits who followed them. The latter had been present in Martinique and Saint-Vincent since the 1630s and developed their own plans for the ‘Terra Firma’ where fathers Denis Méland and Pierre Pelleprat gained a foothold in 1651, at the mouth of river Ouarabiche, in the Orinoco delta. In Guyana proper, the Jesuits prevailed over their competitors in 1666, when the Company of the West Indies, at the origin of the expedition led by Lefebvre de la Barre, the de facto founder of the colony, granted them the exclusive right to tend to ‘all spiritual matters of the said island of Cayenne and of the Terra Firma coast.’  Until their expulsion from Guyana in 1763, they remained by far the most numerous and powerful missionary order, supported by the economic prosperity of their plantations, such as the Loyola sugar plantation at Rémire.   
Throughout the second half of the 17th century, the Jesuits in Cayenne conducted itinerant missions in villages along the coastline. Notably, in 1675 Philippe Prévost traveled to communities up to the Maroni river, while from 1684 to 1691 Jean de la Mousse took several trips to areas between Cayenne and the river Sinnamary inhabited by Indigeonous populations.  Both bemoaned local people’s propensity of going back to their old ways as soon as the visiting missionary left their communities.  The Jesuits concluded that such tendencies could be countered only by establishing permanent missions where local populations could be gathered  under the missionaries’ authority, on the model of the ‘reductions’ established in Paraguay or the missions of New France. Starting in 1709, Father Pierre Aimé Lombard sought to assemble around him the Indigenous people he was attempting to convert; subsequently, in 1711, he established a mission at the mouth of the river Kourou, which expanded as fellow missionaries kept arriving.  Another mission intended for Indigenous peoples of the coast was created later the banks of the Sinnamary river, even as the Jesuits of Cayenne began to explore conversion possibilities among the populations living along the Oyapock river, at the border with Brazil, where they set up the missions of Saint-Paul and of Sainte-Foy.  
Around 1740 the mission of Kouru, which was eventually run as a for-profit plantation, assembled about four hundred fifty Indigenous people, with another hundred in Sinnamary – quite impressive numbers, considering the Indigenous population’s considerable demographic decline.  The Jesuits, who had learned the kali’na language during their long stays in local villages, distributed European manufactured goods and sometimes offered medical assistance to communities who suffered grievously from successive waves of epidemics; they used the influence thus acquired to persuade local inhabitants to converge under their protection.  Yet, we still know little about the way these Jesuit missions functioned in Guyana, or about the impact they may have had on Indigenous populations. The historical context and the forms of colonial occupation here differed from those which, for example, led the Guarani of Paraguay to seek protection from Spanish colonists in Jesuit reductions; it is hard to imagine that Guyana’s Indigenous peoples would have agreed to remain in these places regardless of constraints since that would have been in contradiction with their values and lifestyle. 
The grouping of families around the missions was, therefore, most likely much more informal and fluid than the Jesuits describe in their writings.  The Jesuits’ capacity to exercise moral and psychological influence over these populations was real, but the capacity of Indigenous people to oppose the missionaries’ teachings through resistance or indifference once they ceased to be of interest was no less powerful; we can therefore infer that the Jesuits were compelled to negotiate, compromise, or given in on a daily basis, much more so than they cared to admit. For their part, Indigenous peoples felt pressured by the Jesuits, but this was, in the end, simply one aspect of the multiple ways colonial domination was already weighing on them. In   return, they could hope to benefit from the proximity of the Jesuit to ensure steady supplies of European goods through the missions’ distribution systems, but also to appropriate, in the interest of developing their own strategies, the spiritual power missionaries seemed to possess. While the Jesuits did not achieve conversion success in Guyana - not in the sense they understood it - the message they offered was not entirely rejected; it was, on the contrary, partially assimilated, and profoundly re-interpreted; traces of this process are visible even today in expressions of local shaman spirituality. 
The departure of the Jesuits after 1763 put an end to sustained efforts at converting Indigenous populations for many decades.  Initially, the Congregation of the Holy Spirit who replaced the Jesuits exercised rather modest missionary activities, and only among the Indigenous communities on the border with Brazil.  However, by the mid-19th century, the Spiritan fathers returned to missionary activities in the form of voyages of explorations, conducted primarily in the interior of the continent among the Businenge population.  On the coast, the Spiritan fathers serving at Creole parishes worked hard to convert the residents of the kali-na villages around them until they left Guyana at the end of the 19th century
The Spiritans reclaimed their place in the Guyanese countryside in 1926, when they began to develop more sustained evangelization activities, sometimes concomitantly with educational responsibilities, in the lands of the Inini and in the kali-na communities on the coast.  At Mana, in Iracoubo, the Spiritan fathers welcomed  the first generations of boys to enroll in schools (in the same way, the Franciscan Sisters of Mary or  Saint Joseph of Cluny looked after local girls).  Encouraged by the administration, these practices reinforced evangelization efforts aimed at young people. They foreshadowed the generalization of boarding school systems (‘Indian homes’) set up in the 1950s and managed by the Church at the request of the Prefecture (central administration). 


Published in june 2023

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