Reducciones (Congregaciones) in Colonial Spanish America

Reducciones (Congregaciones) in Colonial Spanish America
Reducciones (Congregaciones) in Colonial Spanish America

In response to steep demographic declines and a shared desire to exercise greater control over dwindling Indian populations, from the 1550s, Spanish colonial administrators and ecclesiastical authorities devised and implemented the institution of the reducción, or congregación (similar settlements, usually founded by religious orders, were called aldeas in Portuguese America).

In essence a reducción/congregación was an Indian village or settlement, either newly established or expanded from an existing population center, into which Indians from specified outlying districts were compelled to move. The inhabitants of such settlements were typically called congregados.

Taking various forms in different parts of Spain’s American empire, reducciones originated from a number of related impulses: to forestall rebellion by ensuring that no substantial Indian populations remained outside the sphere of Spanish surveillance and control, to facilitate conversion to Christianity, to furnish a readily available labor force, and to empty Indian-occupied lands for private ownership.

Typically laid out in the grid pattern characteristic of the Spanish colonial town, over time most reducciones failed to adhere to Spaniards’ idealized conceptions of hierarchically ordered urban space.

Instead Indian dwellings and barrios (neighborhoods), in reducciones as elsewhere, tended to emerge disordered, with the “central square” in many postconquest Indian settlements often becoming little more than an empty lot adjacent to the church, and with social status bearing little relation to the location of individuals’ dwelling places.

This was generally less true in congregaciones founded as religious missions by “regular” (missionary) orders, most prominently the Dominicans, the Franciscans, and later, the Jesuits. Most commonly established in peripheral regions such as New Spain’s northern frontier, Yucatán, the Peruvian hinterlands, Paraguay, and the Brazilian sertão (backlands), such missionary congregaciones (aldeas) typically comprised an outer wall, affording protection against external attacks, and an inner compound.

Within the compound, the largest and most imposing structure was invariably the church, surrounded by workshops, granaries, stables, and similar structures, with dwelling places ringing the periphery.

Bent on civilizing and Christianizing the Indians, the friars in such settlements typically endeavored to instruct their charges in a variety of crafts and industries, such as agriculture, stock raising, beekeeping, hide tanning, viticulture, and others.

The many variations on these general themes, however, along with the tremendous diversity of Spanish and Portuguese resettlement schemes, and the even greater diversity of Indian communities and lifestyles in different parts of the Spanish and Portuguese empires, meant there was no ideal type to which all reducciones conformed.

Yet the same set of overarching impulses that led to their formation—especially the desire more effectively to control Indian labor, which in turn entailed Indians’ conversion to Christianity—and the concomitant desire of Indian individuals and communities to exercise as much autonomy as possible without directly challenging colonial rule tended to generate broadly similar sets of outcomes in the diverse regions of the Americas where reducciones were imposed.