Yguasu and Guaira


Yguasu Falls (y- water, guasu- big) of Brazil, the longest waterfall in the world, measuring 1.7 miles across (caveat: Victoria is officially longer because it is unbroken, while Yguasu is not). When I visited the falls recently I was struck by the hugeness of the place. My photographs and video clips seemed so pointless; it’s truly an “experience” type of place. As I walked along the paths that overlook the falls I was reminded of a Jesuit’s description of the place when his company encountered it in the early seventeenth century. From a mile or so out from the falls, the Jesuit described what he thought was a forest fire, a huge plume of smoke rose high above the horizon, but as he got closer he realized what it was. Their descriptions indicate they were truly at awe.

The region surrounding the falls has an interesting history. Most websites credit Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca with the “discovery” of the Yguasu Falls; I believe a section of the falls on the Argentine side bears his name. Most sites jump from “discovery” to the nation-state and the “first population of the region” by Brazilians. “Discovery” is a stupid word to describe these events since Cabeza de Vaca was led by friendly natives to the place. More to the point, the region of Guaira, as it was called during the colonial period, was colonized and populated by Spaniards beginning in the latter half of the 16th century due to its large concentration of natives. Really, Guaira and most of the settlements lay fifty to one-hundred leagues to the north of the falls.

Histories of colonial Paraguay suggest that Guaira was colonized because elite Spaniards in Asuncion didn’t want to share their social and cultural power with their mestizo sons. This ‘push effect’ came on the heels of a rebellion in Asuncion supported by angry and anxious mestizos (the conquistadors’ sons) who apparently protested the fact that they were not granted Indians in encomienda. While many details of this historical thread need to be worked out this follows in line with other “push campaigns” throughout the Americas, a trend that some historians call conquest by relay.

Jesuits established reductions to the east of the R. Parana along R. Paranapanema, the R. Ivai between 1610 and 1630. By the 1630s unfriendly Indian raids and especially raids by Portuguese slavers drove the Jesuits to abandon the region and move to the region in-between the R. Parana and the R. Uruguay. For both the Spaniards and the Jesuits the region was in constant flux. The first major Spanish city, Villa Rica del Espiritu Santo, was established near the mouth of the R. Piquiry in 1570 but over the course of the next one-hundred years it moved six times finally ending up in the geographic middle of modern-day Paraguay.

In my previous post, I discussed the historicity of yerba-mate and as you might imagine yerba was an important commodity produced in Guaira. Because many parts of the region were so wet wild yerbales grew in abundance. Spaniards would send encomienda Indians to harvest these yerba from these wild groves as least once per year. Lots of the exports coming out of Guaira (including tallow, honey, hemp, and of course yerba) were sold in developing markets in Asuncion, Buenos Aires, and Santa Fe.

Unfortunately not much is known about social life in Guaira because most of the documentation from its cities and towns were “lost in the move.” But from the beginning it was a frontier that could not be tamed, a sentiment one feels when peering into the majesty and beauty of the falls.

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About Shawn

ABD Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of New Mexico. I study Early Latin America and am currently working on a dissertation on racial relations, the many iterations of encomienda, and frontier societies in the Rio de la Plata during the 16th and 17th centuries.
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