Speaking Truths or Absurdities: The Religious Dialogues Between Father Gilij and His Indian Contemporaries (18th Century, Venezuela)

Lourdes Giordani

Wellesley College
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Prepared for delivery at the 1995 meeting of the Latin American Studies Association, The Sheraton Washington, September 28-30, 1995.

(c) Lourdes Giordani 1995


Until recently, scholars of Christian missions in colonial Latin America have generally centered their attention on the heroic, disruptive, or beneficial deeds of missionaries (Block 1994; Langer and Jackson 1995). With the notable exception of some anthr opological studies on culture change and related topics such as religious syncretism (e.g., Lewis 1951; Madsen 1969)--in which, nonetheless, native peoples were often portrayed as passive recipients of Western cultural traits and not as active agents in t heir own histories--few studies investigated or questioned the nature of the religious experience of mission Indians (Sweet 1994). Yet a critical understanding of mission history and indigenous Christianity demands an inquiry into the beliefs and practice s of the native populations subjected to missionary tutelage.

What attempts, for instance, did mission Indians make--as reflected in language and behavior--to understand Christianity and the Christian God? What representational dilemmas did this new religion bring to the Indians (e.g., how to represent God given the notion of the Trinity)? How did the multiethnic environment which prevailed in many missions influence the Indians' acceptance/rejection of Christian practices? And if an Indian Christianity did indeed develop in these missions, what shapes did it take a nd how was it received by the Spanish colonials?

Discovering the answers to such questions is often filled with methodological pitfalls since more often than not, the available documentary evidence, in the absence of native testimonies, consists solely of the missionaries' own records (Sweet 1994:88). T hus the researcher must labor to recover and reconstruct the complexities of former social contexts and interpersonal exchanges. As the historian David Sweet (1994:88) points out, this type of inquiry demands that we "strain our ears to listen for such In dian voices as may still come to us faintly through the missionaries' documents." In spite of these difficulties, contemporary research--which focuses on the reactions and strategies of the Indians--seeks to clarify questions like the ones presented above . This trend is no doubt related to advances in ethnohistory including its emphasis on the critical analysis of sources and its interest in ethnographic reconstructions (e.g., Gruzinski 1985, 1988a, 1988b, 1989), the growth of multidisciplinary studies--i nfluenced by literary theory and neo-marxists approaches--which examine the character of colonial cultures and their symbolic and discursive aspects (e.g., Pratt 1992), and the interest of native peoples to write their own histories and challenge former r epresentations of themselves (e.g., THOA 1984, 1986).

Inspired by these current developments, in this brief paper I propose to explore one facet of indigenous Christianity, namely, the process of religious conversion in an 18th century Orinoquian "contact zone" (Pratt 1992:4). Viewing religious conversion as the product of interaction and not as an action performed by one group on another, I will regard conversion as an ongoing conversation between missionaries and neophytes in which both parties inspect--not necessarily accept--the ideas of each other (Vinc ent Díaz in Sweet 1994:92). Thus I will briefly discuss some of the verbal exchanges that ensued between a Jesuit priest and his Indian charges. More specifically, I will consider how both parties confronted and examined each others' beliefs and pr actices in conversation and the impact that this discursive activity had on the thought processes of those who engaged in it.

I hope to show that indigenous Christianity is shaped through conversation and that conversation is central to the missionaries' conversion strategy. By introducing and revealing differences and similarities in conceptual categories and styles of reasonin g, and by making conscious/explicit what otherwise might have been unconscious/implicit, conversation fosters a partial relativizing of ideas and practices.[2] In fact, partial relativism--the view that some (not all) fo reign beliefs and practices may be valid or plausible--may be a characteristic feature of all contact zones since these are areas where in spite of social asymmetries and cultural differences, the mere copresence of diverse individuals and their need to s urvive (a survival which very often depends on some degree of collaboration) forces individuals to mingle and grapple with each other (Pratt 1994:6-7). Moreover, the prevalence of a partial relativistic attitude among members of the population can help ex plain the cultural improvisations and pastiches often observed in these areas (and generally identified with the process of transculturation) among both the colonizers and the colonized.

I will use the chronicle of Filippo Salvatore Gilij, an Italian Jesuit priest, who in 1749 founded and managed a frontier mission in the Middle Orinoco--the Reducción de San Luis Gonzaga or the mission of San Luis de La Encamarada.[3] Gilij's adventures and ethnographic reflections were published as a four volume set between 1780 and 1784, in Rome, under the title Saggio di Storia Americana, o sia Storia Naturale, Civile e Sacra De Regni e delle Provincie Spagn uole de Terra Ferma nell' America Meridionale (Ensayo de Historia Americana). This text was chosen because: (1)Gilij's vivid descriptions and conclusions enable the critical reader to grasp the sociocultural complexity of the region (e.g., its multiethnic character), the contradictions of mission life, and the uncertainties that develop and linger in the minds of those who dwell in contact zones, (2)it is the most relevant extant text for the study of native societies inhabiting the Middle Orin oco in the 18th century, (3)with the exception of a few Orinoquian experts, the text is poorly known and thus it is hoped that this work will stir interest in Gilij's Saggio,4 and (4)the author has first-hand experience of Orinoquia and can therefore examine Gilij's work from the vantage point afforded by her own field experiences.

Conversion, Frontier Missions, and the Middle Orinoco Contact Zone in the 18th Century

Most of the religious orders working in Ibero-America operated frontier missions between the 16th and early 19th century (Sweet 1994:93). In Venezuela, until their expulsion in 1767, Jesuits took control over a vast area which extended from the mouth of t he Cuchivero River to the Upper Orinoco. Gilij's Saggio deals primarily with the Middle Orinoco, the area where he was stationed during the second half of the 18th century. At this time, the conquest phase had not ended in the Orinoco basin and col onization was in its incipient stages (Arvelo-Jiménez and Biord-Castillo 1989:69). Internal linguistic and cultural pluralism, and foreign European incursions into Orinoquia coupled with the constant raids by Carib Indians on missions and other Ind ian villages (perpetuated in order to capture slaves that were sold to Dutch allies), challenged Spanish political hegemony in the region and thwarted socio-political and territorial consolidation (Arvelo-Jiménez and Biord-Castillo 1989; Giordani a nd Villalón 1995). Hence, Catholic frontier missions such as Gilij's--the most prominent and "classic" institutions in colonial Latin America (Sweet 1994:88)--, became vital for the colonial administration in its never ending quest for legitimacy a nd closure in what can only be described as a volatile socio-political scene (see Giordani and Villalón 1995).

Nevertheless, though these missions were designed to convert the natives to the social and religious lifestyle of their Spanish rulers, how much conversion--particularly religious conversion--actually took place is a debatable issue.[5] Although the missionaries might have desired total conversion to Christianity, they sought only partial conversion to Spanish secular ways since they despised many of the behaviors observed among the European colonists and t heir descendants (e.g., their insatiable appetite for gold; see Gilij 1987, II:110). We therefore often read in the colonial records that missionaries were exceedingly zealous--and often challenged secular authorities--in their effort to isolate their Ind ian neophytes from the corrupting influences of a colonial society deemed to have gone astray (Gilij 1987, II:304). The seemingly "tight" colonial society controlled by a top-heavy bureaucracy and military might, was in fact a caldron for new racial types , sexualities, and lifestyles; it was a mix bag of rebellious and loyal Europeans, zambos, African slaves, wild-autonomous and civilized-reduced Indians, prostitutes and mistresses (white, Indian, and African), vagrants and deserters, and a motley of othe r "irregulars" whose lifestyles defied decorous (Catholic) standards of conduct (for the Venezuelan case see Lemmo 1986).

Isolation in missions, however, did not insure conversion to Christianity. As Sweet (1994:95) points out, the missionary record itself, "provides little evidence that adult Indians in the missions ever stopped believing what their previous lives and their parents and respected leaders had taught them, in order to begin believing what the missionaries had taught them instead." What the record, indeed, does reveal is the missionaries' concentration on seemingly pliable Indian children, their numerous compla ints about Indian escapees, and their perpetual references to the recalcitrant, treacherous, and ungrateful behaviors of their Indian charges. Father Gilij, for example, while conceding that both Christian and barbarous Orinoquian Indians had some positiv e traits such as their great patience (Gilij 1987, II:110), devoted most of the third book in volume II of his Saggio to the overall low morality of Orinoquian Indians. Writing in a constrained and decorous manner so as not to hurl his readers and himself into the "mud" as he claims other writers have done ("se lanzan ellos mismos y a sus lectores en el fango", vol. II, p.120), Gilij reveals some of the moral failings of Orinoquian Indians: their ingratitude (Chapter II De la ingra titud), lying character (Chapter VII Del caracter mentiroso de los orinoquenses), drunkeness (Chapter VIII De la embriaguez), and inconsistency (Chapter XIII De la inconstancia de los orinoquenses). Similarly, in the third volume of the Saggio he wrote:

[[questiondown]]Quién hay que no sepa que son por lo común inconstantísimos todos? Aquel que ahora os sirve, que está humilde a vuestro lado, que parece hasta risueño y alegre, no es caso raro que mañana se vay a y os trate no ya como padre, sino como a enemigo (Gilij 1987, III:116).

Yet in spite of Gilij's continual references to the Orinoquians' vices, he indicates that in the long run the Indians are generally swayed by the Gospel when it is clearly explained to them in their native languages; a statement which reveals the importan ce Gilij attached to linguistic competence and conversation. As he states:

Por lo común, después de algunas predicaciones en que

se les exponga claramente en su lengua el Evangelio quedan convencidos de él (Gilij 1987, III:57).

Claiming that Indians do convert in time, is no doubt meant to encourage ("animar") new missionaries (see Gilij 1987, III:85) since Gilij did not only view his text as a factual account of what he saw and experienced in Orinoquia, but also a s a guidebook which could aid unseasoned missionaries. His repeated allusions to the natives' behavioral inconsistencies justified the need for steady missionary presence among the Indians--a stance which by extension, furthered the material and spiritual interests of the Jesuit Order he represented.

But Gilij's words on the topic of "inconsistency" also betray a great doubt that seems to have perturbed his mind perennially: were the Indians who claimed to have accepted Christian beliefs and practices, and converted, true Christians or was their appar ent devotion a sham? After all, Gilij's (1987, II:100) own Saggio indicates that the desire for European material goods lured Indians to the missions ("un hacha, un azadón, una aguja ... que les ofrecen los misioneros los ciegan ... " , and that after escaping back into the bush, former "Christian" Indians not only abandoned the new faith but became its sworn enemies:

En algunas naciones que han estado antiguamente entre cristianos y que han huído después a las selvas, no se conserva amor alguno hacia sus antiguos señores, ni tampoco por la religión. Son incluso apóstatas y enemigo s jurados de su nombre (Gilij 1987, II:313).

Furthermore, Gilij knew that Indian neophytes often performed Christian rituals mechanically without grasping their true purpose or meaning. For instance, he admits to his readers the fact that confession was taught (by him) and performed in a mechanical way by his Indian charges. And his neophytes, misunderstanding the purpose and meaning of confession, initially treated confession as an ordinary conversation; thus, in order to avoid "indecencias" (obscenities) Gilij had to confess men and women s eparately (Gilij 1987, III:80-81).

Given the potential for misunderstandings and deception, how could Gilij resolve his great doubt? How could he confirm the authenticity of an indigenous Christianity? The Saggio suggests that the Father found an answer in conversation, for in being self-revelatory/revealing, conversation allowed him to probe the hearts and minds of his charges. Conversation not only communicates/reveals something about the relations between conversing parties (e.g., if there is a superior-subordinate relation betwe en them), but it also says something about the structuring of thought (e.g., the use of metaphors) and the knowledge that each party has of the other (revealed in the kinds of questions asked) (Goody 1978).

Religious Dialogues in Contact Zones: Gilij and his Indian Contemporaries

Gilij's Saggio, written as a lecture instead of a letter (Salazar 1947:260), presents several re-constructed discussions in which the missionary and his neophytes ponder the truth and absurdity of each other's words and behaviors.[6] I must emphasize that these discussions are Gilij's re-creations and not word for word transcriptions since the Saggio was written in Europe without the benefit of some of the Father's notes--the latter having been confiscated by Spanish authorities before he left Venezuela (Ugalde 1989:7). In addition, in the Saggio one does not only hear the reconstructed voices of single individuals (e.g., the words of a Tamanaco man named Keveicoto), but also the collective voices of various social and ethnic groups existing or emerging in this contact zone, e.g., the orinoquenses, the indios, the Tamanacos, and the piaches (shamans). Though we can expect groups which inhabit a similar environment and interact

with each other to exhibit cultural similarities, some of the resemblances on which these categories are based stem from the process of transculturation and ethnogenesis (emergence of new ethnicities) fostered by the mission environment itself--where diff erent ethnic groups were relocated and drawn together via daily intercourse. Having made these clarifications, let us return to Gilij's dialogues.

The Father assesses truth of the Indians' assertions by relying on two criteria--what his senses naturally grasp (mainly his eyes and ears) and the tenets of the Catholic canon. The Indians, likewise, appeal to their senses (e.g., vision) and native magic o-religious canons when determining the veracity or plausibity of Gilij's teachings. This is readily appreciated in the passage below, in which Gilij presents the collective opinion of Indians who remain in the forest and shun Christianity:

No hay obligación, dicen ellos, dejando nuestros bailes, la pluralidad de mujeres y nuestras inveteradas costumbres, de abrazar una religión extranjera, que proponiendonos premios que no vemos nos hace abandonar neciam ente el presente [énfasis del autor] (Gilij 1987, II:100).

Similarly, Gilij defined as absurd (ridículo) what went against (his) empirical reality and the Catholic canon, and resembled childish behavior or was inappropriate adult behavior (improper by being dis-placed from proper time, place, and social ci rcumstance). The neophytes, who quibble or laugh when something seems absurd to them, also use similar criteria (as shaped by their own magico-religious beliefs), but they also allude to the impracticality of these new beliefs and practices given their pa rticular lifestyles. Therefore, while Gilij tries to persuade his neophytes of the unequivocal truth of his trans-historical belief system, a system which links together different actors, events, and geographical spaces on a grand Catholic (universal) sta ge, the Indians, who generally do not outright (or totally) deny the reality of Gilij's beliefs, often expound the inapplicability or uselessness of his views for them. Other examples will help illustrate the points above. But first, let me say something about Father Gilij's ambiguous attitude towards shamans since the next cases involve these ritual experts.

Gilij clearly admired the wisdom and skills of shamans, yet he felt ambivalent towards them because he thought that they constituted a perpetual threat for the missionary enterprise given their tendency to corrupt others (Gilij 1987, III:57). While remark ing that "Ninguno habla las lenguas mejor que ellos" and "Son elegantes, de espíritu, e ingeniosos en el decir" (Gilij 1987, II:95), he also argued that shamans were deceitful and hated missionaries because of the influence of their t eacher and instigator, that is, the "common enemy" of all mankind--the devil (Gilij 1987, II:99). In spite of this, Gilij (1987, II:95) seems to have enjoyed conversing with them and believed that shamans, if converted, could greatly aid in the conversion of other Indians ("podrían servir de mucho para la conversión de los indios"). Gilij's willingness to talk stems from the fact that he firmly believed that he could influence the Indians through the strategic use of questions and wor ds.

According to Gilij, a haughty shaman (who had obviously heard Gilij lecturing about el infierno [hell]) related that he had seen the mouth of hell and that being too narrow, by itself, it did not permit men entrance (into hell). Thus the shaman did not deny the physical existence of Gilij's hell, he just claimed that it was impossible to enter it due to the size of its entrance. From Gilij's text we deduce that other shamans held and propagated similar views. For instance, a Maipure chief, Car&aacu te;vana, told Gilij that in the same manner in which he [Gilij] sang and chanted while saying mass, shamans jumped over hell and passed to the other side (Gilij 1987, II:95). These shamans, then, were re-writing Gilij's religious script and proclaiming no t the non-existence of hell, but the falsehood of hell as a potential fixed destination for humans (body and soul). In a similar vein, it seems that some non-ritual experts held similar opinions:

"Irás"--decía yo por ejemplo ... --, "irás al infierno, sino dejas este vicio." Y él, ... me contestaba: "Bien, ... esto es, "iré y me calentaré" (Gilij 1987, III:83).

Through his verbal exchanges Gilij introduced a new geographical place, hell, and character, the devil (linked, in turn, to a new social identity--that of the sinner), which no doubt frightened some (Gilij 1987, III:84), although not all, of his Indian ch arges. What some Indians, particularly shamans, did was tame these potential dangers. Therefore, while the Father narrates stories which are meant to disturb/deny Indian beliefs and identities and hence secure conversions, the Indians offer their own dist urbing [to Gilij] counter explanations and narratives that dispense with the eternal verities formalized by the Catholic church. But the discourse of the Indians seems to have been more inclusive and less absolute than Gilij's--whose hegemonic and totaliz ing speech was strategically deployed to deny/exclude indigenous beliefs that challenged Christian dogma [also see Overing (1995?) for a comparison between Western and indigenous discourses of alterity].

At times, the reader glimpses Gilij's uneasiness when the Indians, replying in an articulate manner that even the priest admires, dislodge Gilij from his superior position. For example, when Gilij was a young man of twenty seven, he told a recently electe d Tamanaco chief that he was too young to rule his people. The young man replied, "Tú también eres sobradamente joven para hacer de misionero nuestro" (Gilij 1987, III:54). Or, when Gilij asked Keveicoto--a Tamanaco man--why he called Guamo Indians pau, a word that meant island, the man replied, "Tú los llamas Guamos. [[questiondown]]Son acaso cigarras?" While Gilij tried to make the Indian conscious of his lack of sense in employing an extraneous term for the Guamos, Ke veicoto in effect told Gilij that they both were using the same system of logic.

The introspective and reflective writing style of the Saggio also suggest that Father Gilij carried out many dialogues with himself as he takes great care to rationalize behaviors and explain his postures. It is apparent that the self conversed (an d consulted) with the self in an attempt to preserve its reason and make sense of a foreign and challenging reality which, like the piraña fish of the Orinoco basin, tried to devour the priest's European and "rational" persona. Gilij's claim to objectivity and his laughter while mocking native ways, betray these fears; but the priest clearly protected himself using orthodoxy and ridicule. While espousing objectivity and a dispassionate stance, expressed in the text as "alabar sin pasi&oac ute;n," Gilij often mocked his Indian charges or strained to repress his laughter in their presence ("me costó contener la risa"), e.g, as when in the presence of an Areveriano shaman-chief, he was told that this shaman ascended to heave n every day and saw God feeding jaguars (Gilij 1987, II:94-95). Gilij also found the Indians' conduct in Church utterly absurd and laughable, particularly that of recent arrivals to the mission, people whose behavior took him years to change. Although Gil ij teaches them the basics of "Church protocol," that is, to repeat what they see, the Indians did not even know how to position themselves properly in the sanctuary and some even turned their backs on the altar ("se ponen lo mismo de lado que de espal da al altar, o alguno en cualquier ridícula postura") (Gilij 1987, III:78). Gilij constantly asserts that only with the passing of the years, and the strict tutelage of the missionary, were such ridiculous actions averted. But the reader is nev er fully convinced of the duration and sincerity of any conversion since the Father--aware of the fluid situation he is confronting--continually qualifies all his statements and, as he admits to himself and reveals to his readers: "Dios sabe cuá les de ellos son criatianos internamente" ("God knows which of them are Christians internally" [in their hearts, in truth]) (Gilij 1987, II:100).


The material and ideological forces which sustain the social asymmetries that create contact zones, also dislocate the lives and beliefs of those who dwell in these areas. This dislocation induces (and is induced by) introspection and a particular type of relativism which seems to prevail in contact zones, more specifically given the topic of this paper, in colonial contact zones with frontier missions and native peoples. Confession, as practiced by Gilij, no doubt invited and enhanced introspection (see Gruzinski 1988b).

Exposure and conversion to Christianity, as suggested by Gruzinski (1988a:41), entailed the substitution of the Indians' ancestral legacy for a social and cognitive "net full of holes" (Gruzinski 1988a:41). But as we observed, Gilij's neophytes, particula rly shamans and adults, endeavored to fill the holes, maintain the integrity of their world, and retain a degree of cognitive coherence. Often times, the holes were filled with foreign elements (e.g., hell), which were used because the Indians managed to relativize (to some extent) their own beliefs and practices as well as those of the multiple others they encountered at the mission (e.g., various Indians and non-Indian religious and secular personnel) (also see Gruzinski 1988:41). However, as the shaman s approach to hell illustrates, theirs was a "partial" relativism which left their beliefs at the center of their creations; in contrast, true relativists or postmodernists de-center, in theory, their own cosmologies and conceptual frameworks. This relati vism of contact zones seems paradoxical because rigid categories and identities are often promoted by colonials, especially by those in power who wish to segregate themselves (socially and physically) from the colonized.

Besides introspection and a partial relativism, new social identities/characters emerge in contact zones (e.g., the cimarrón versus the mission Indian and the idolater versus the Christian) (see Gruzinski 1988a,b). Concubinage, for example, emerge when priests like Gilij proscribe polygyny, thereby conferring a new identity on "extra" wives--that of the concubine. Thus, while Christianity in the contact zone shaterred old identities, it fostered the emergence of new ones. It also aided the r e-fashioning of former identities, e.g., that of village leader (Gilij calls this figure capitán).

Finally, contact zones may be seen as discoursive battle fields where the veracity, utility, and absurdity of conflicting and analogous beliefs and practices are continually assessed precisely because of the relativism which pervades in them.

Moreover, these are areas where unconscious beliefs and desires are made conscious through dialogues between individuals occupying asymmetrical positions of power and which vie with each other in order to uphold their own realities.


1. I wish to thank Frederick K. Keogh and Mariselle Meléndez for their comments and suggestions, and María E. Villalón for providing me with references published in Venezuela.

2. In this paper I establish a distinction between the theoretical concept of cultural relativism and "partial" relativism. The former, akin to a Weberian "ideal type," assumes that all cultures are equally valid and must thus be understood in thei r own terms; the latter assumes that people, at the level of actual behavior and practice, support or embrace (or consider equally valid) only some "foreign" cultural elements.

3. Gilij joined the Jesuit Order at the age of 19, in 1740. Having been assigned to the missions of the Nuevo Reino de Granada, in a mission presided over by the renown Father Gumilla, he sailed to America in 1743 where he lived for about 25 years. He stu died theology in the Universidad Javeriana en Santa Fe de Bogotá, where he resided nearly 6 years. In 1748 he travelled to the Orinoco and in 1749 established la Reducción de San Luis Gonzaga, known as La Misión de la Encamarada or Sa n Luis de la Encamarada (González Oropeza 1989; Salazar 1947).

4. Although several prominent scholars were familiar with Gilij's Saggio, e.g., the naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt and the linguist Lorenzo Hervás y Panduro, a century after its publication the work nearly drifted into oblivion save for its redi scovery by Karl von den Steinen and Lucien Adam (Giraldo Jaramillo 1951; Salazar 1947; Ugalde 1989). This situation is understandable if we remember that Gilij's work was written during a period of political turmoil both in Europe and the Americas, and th at, as the political landscape changed when former Spanish American colonies became republics, the work lost relevance (Salazar 1947:255). Even Colombian historians seem to have been unfamiliar with Gilij's Saggio--although Santa Fe is discussed in volume no. 4--until two centuries after its publication, Father José Abel Salazar published a study about the work in Spain in 1947 (Giraldo Jaramillo 1951:695).

Writing in the 1950s, Jaramillo (1951:704) reports that Gilij was not even mentioned in the Encyclopedia Britanica, the Catholic Enciclopedia, or the Italian Enciclopedia. Even today, with the exception of a few Orinoquian experts, Gilij's work is poorly known; a remarkable circumstance since the last decade, particularly during the commemoration of the Columbian Quincentenary, has seen a marked increase in the study of travel literature and European and native texts that describe and interrogate the colo nial encounter in the Americas. This, of course, cannot be divorced from the paucity of ethnohistorical research in Amazonia.

5. Perhaps, as Sweet (1994:95) suggests, traditional concepts such as "conversion" are taken for granted and manage to persist in the historical and ethnographic literature because scholars inadvertently adopt missionary terminology and conceptual framewo rks. This situation may also stem from the fact that devotion to Christianity can easily be presumed when syncretic elements appear in native discourse and practices.

6. For a very brief discussion concerning the features that Gilij's Saggio shares with other travel accounts, as a particular literary genre, see Leon de D'empaire (1989). Leon de D'empaire also addresses Gilij's "middle of the road" posture regard ing the debates about the goodness or iniquity of Indians.


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