The Jesuit Order in Colonial Brazil


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The Jesuit Order in Colonial Brazil

Brown University Library

In 1549, Portuguese King João III sent the first Jesuit mission to Brazil, under the leadership of Father Manuel da Nóbrega, during the first governor-generalship in Bahia of Governor Tomé de Souza. In this initial effort to colonize and develop Brazil, the Society of Jesus, a Catholic order that traveled the world in their mission of education and evangelization, proved enormously useful to the crown.

Their strategy to pacify and subjugate the indigenous population included the forced recruitment of indigenous labor and the instruction and conversion of native people in Jesuit-controlled Indian villages, called aldeias. As a way of facilitating communication beween different native peoples and the Portuguese, the Jesuits established a standard form of Tupi, the main language of the indigenous groups living in the initial areas conquered by Europeans. Finally, the Jesuits inaugurated missions throughout the interior of the vast territory, thus providing nascent infrastructure to the Amazon Basin region.

“Steyger-Praetjen Tusscjem Jan Batavier en Maetroos” (1624). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library’s Archive of Early American Images.


The image to the right shows a Jesuit standing before a group of clerics and soldiers in Salvador de Bahia.

  • What role did the Jesuits play in the development of Colonial Brazil?
  • How was religion used as a tool for Brazilian colonization?



Accumulating Wealth and Tensions With the Crown

In the two hundred years following their arrival in Brazil, the Jesuits monopolized indigenous labor and organized hugely productive agricultural endeavors, including cattle ranches and sugar and cotton plantations. Due to a special privileged status as a religious order granted by the Pope, the Jesuits enjoyed complete autonomy from the Crown, and therefore circumvented royal controls on their earnings. Increasingly, such privileges provoked animosity among local landowners and government officials, who perceived the Jesuits as monopolizing labor and resources. Relations between the Jesuits and royal authorities soured throughout the 1750s, culminating in the religious order’s expulsion from the Portuguese Empire.

In 1750, King José I appointed Sebastião José de Carvalho e Mello, the future “Marquis de Pombal,” as the Secretary of State. Once in office, Pombal instituted a number of reforms aimed at consolidating Brazil and making the colony more lucrative for the Portuguese Crown. Pombal’s reforms included comprehensive measures aimed at limiting the Jesuits’ scope of autonomy and financial dominance in the northern interior states of Pará and Maranhão. His government organized state-sponsored trading companies with guaranteed monopolies in the African slave trade, such that Jesuit control of Indian labor no longer prevented secular commercial endeavors. The Crown ended Indians’ state of legal “dependency” on ecclesiastic authority, thus releasing indigenous peoples from mandated Jesuit tutelage.

Pombal’s strategy for internal consolidation depended upon the “Europeanization” of indigenous peoples through mandated miscegenation policies. The Jesuits fiercely opposed this position, which threatened to deplete their exclusive labor source and transgressed their theological position of the indigenous soul as “pure”.


“Priest Celebrates the Eucharist” (1707). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.

  • The people shown in the drawing above all appear light skinned and fair-haired.  Interestingly, some are supposed to be Native Americans. What characteristics are supposed to distinguish the two groups?

“Celeberrus P. Antonius Vieyra Soc. Jesu Lusit. Vijssipon” (1742). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.

This image shows Antonio Vieira, a Jesuit priest, preaching to two kneeling Native Americans.

  • What does this illustrate about the relationship between Native Americans and the Jesuits?  In what ways did the groups’ lives and needs interact?
  • How did Pombal’s encouragement of state industry alter natives’ lives?

The Order’s Expulsion

After the release of Indians from a state of “dependency” upon the Jesuit missions in 1755, the Crown suppressed the temporal power of the Jesuits throughout Brazil in 1758. Finally on September 3, 1759, the Portuguese government formally expelled the Jesuits from the entire empire, and prohibited communication between members of the order and subjects of Portugal. On August 16, 1773, Pope Clement XIV issued an order mandating the suppression of all Jesuit institutions that had survived the 1759 expulsion order, including an extensive network of schools, colleges, and hospitals. This decree concluded the Jesuits’ active and often controversial role in colonial Brazil.


  • Maxwell, Kenneth R. “Pombal and the Nationalization of the Luso-Brazilian Economy.” The Hispanic American Historical Review 48:4, 1968.
  • Alden, Dauril. The Making of an Enterprise: The Society of Jesus in Portugal, Its Empire, and Beyond 1540-1750. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Further Reading

  • The Fire of Tongues: Antonio Vieira and the Missionary Church in Brazil and Portugal, by Thomas Cohen, is a study of the Jesuit António Vieira, who argued that Portugal was destined to lead the Church in converting the non-Christian peoples of the world.