Page 12, 30th April 1982

30th April 1982
Page 12
Page 12, 30th April 1982 — Seeking out the Livingstone of South America Charterhouse 4* Chronicle

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Locations: Asuncion


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Seeking out the Livingstone of South America Charterhouse 4* Chronicle

I WOULD guess that possibly nearly half the boys who were at school with me between the wars thought at some time that they might have a vocation for the priesthood; and although, for most, the idea faded, or was replaced, a good many a high proportion by present standards, I think — did become priests.

At least half of these were missionaries. and I met some of them later in several quite remote parts of the world.

It could be that the attraction of strange places and peoples had something to do with the boyish notions of those others who were attracted to the life only briefly.

A great many years on. vocations and missions are still bracketed together in my mind, and remind me most readily of those religious orders which had greatest influence on my schooldays.

First were the Servites, and that meant missions in Africa.

The Servite Fathers had stations in Swaziland, and the nuns who taught us had all manner of ingenious ways of raising money for their work.

For instance, any child in the school could, if he or she subs cribed a fixed sum regularly for the missions, be assured that it went towards the educational or other help of one particular mission child, who would therefore. in a sense, be his or her baby.

We all entered into it with great enthusiasm, and certainly parents have been pestered in worse causes.

We used to colour little figures on a chart to show how many black babies the school was caring for. Would it be felt nowadays that we poor innocents were in some way being thus taught to be racist and patronising?

I don't think I really did take any such harm — unless something of the sort is indicated by the fact that, years later, I occasionally wondered idly if any of the African leaders I was interviewing could possibly have once been some British convent child's "black baby", mine even. If so, I do hope it wasn't Mr well, never mind.

In fact, when I did eventually get to Swaziland itself, I did not see so much as a single mission station or even missioner. On the contrary, I spent almost all my brief visit either in a pub-like hotel that was so English that it even had a bar called "the snug". or in a gambling casino.

I was staying in the pub. The casino was the centre of the event I had gone to Swaziland to report, the ceremonies connected with its ceasing to be a British protectorate and becoming Independent.

In the adjacent grounds, the scene was reminiscent of one of the posher summer garden parties in England, some charmingly preposterous hats being worn by the ladies and the band of the Glorious Gloucesters playing palm-court pieces.

In the building, one area was being used for some of the official proceedings.

King Sobhuza 11 and members of his family and Government arrived, dressed in truly impressive ceremonial robes, which not only made me feel pleasurably that I was in the middle of a Rider Haggard novel, but also enabled me to say in my broadcast that for the first time in my life I had seen several men carrying knobkerries enter a casino unchallenged.

Just out of sight, grouped round the gaming tables and the roulette wheels, bored and wordly-wise croupiers, enlisted from several different European countries, waited for what they regarded as the real business to begin; for the casino was to be important to the economy by attracting gamblers from South Africa, which is, of course, selective about the kinds of wickedness that may be practiced within its own borders.

1 suppose there might well have been some missioners at the garden party. But I was not astonished that I didn't see any.

During most of my schooldays, it was Jesuit missionaries that I heard about — in the Far East, of course, because of what we were told about St Francis Xavier, Fr Matteo Ricci and others, as well as in Central and South America, with some vague hints of the almost legendary story of the Jesuits in Paraguay and up-to-theminute news of those working in our own day in British Guiana, Some of those who sat listening with me later joined in this work themselves, and when I went to Guyana I again met some of them. But though I did go to Paraguay. the only missioners I visited there were Anglicans.

I was staying in an hotel in Asuncion which Graham Greene or Eric Ambler would have enjoyed describing.

The manager never seemed to do much managing, but used, to sit all day in a deck-chair, just inside the front entrance, making passes at all the women guests, young and old — so far as I could tell, totally without success.

However, when I bought him a drink to cheer him was he who told me about the Anglican mission, "Out in the Chaco," he Said, "with the Indians, in a place full of rattle-snakes and surrounded by alligators."

The mission was founded many years before by a remarkable man named Wilfrid Barbrooke Grubb, a Scotsman, who was called the "Livingstone of South America" because of his mis,ionar) explorations in the Gran Chaco, although I feel the com

parison ends with that, because Livingstone seems to have made few, if any. converts to Christianity, while Grubb made a great many.

I flew to it in an aircraft that went out from Asuncion every week or so, a not very encouraging machine.

I sat on a pile of horse-hides. The door that was supposed to separate me from the pilot was missing. Over the gap was a "No Smoking" notice.

Beyond it, the pilot puffed away steadily, lighting each new cigarette from the butt of the last, which he then, so far as I could see, threw into the engine.

I could see the promised alligators as we lost height before landing in a clearing where a lot of indians — real, jungle-type Indians, wearing beads and feathers — were playing soccer.

They were immensely pleased to have a visitor, and very proud of the mission, especially their church.

On its interior walls were brass plates commemorating the names of missioners of the past. Under each name was the special name which the Indians had always preferred to use in their own language. A mission worker who had been some years preparing a Guarani version of the Bible translated for me. One name meant "He Who Could Not Resist Gravy".

What the Indians wanted from me was detail about my family. How many boys? How many girls? What were their ages?

When I left, they insisted on my taking a present for each of them. We still have, and treasure, some bows and arrows; little mats made from glass beads; a string hammock that will hold a man, but can be compressed to go comfortably into a trouser pocket; a stuffed baby alligator; and a rattle for the baby, a rattlesnake's tail.

That was a good and happy place, and I said goodbye with regret.

But the next day, I was told by my masters to leave Asuncion for somewhere else, Bolivia, I think, where they believed something was happening; so I had no chance to see if I could find something of what might be left of the amazing Jesuit attempt between 1607 and 1767 to set up an ideal Christian state among the Indians of Paraguay.

That extraordinary Scottish writer and traveller, R B Cunninghame Graham, wrote a book about it more than 80 years ago, and apart from occasional articles, I've seen little else about it in English; but it was clearly an experiment that very nearly succeeded: and whenit Jailed, it did so not because of any inherent fault, it seems, but because of nationalist and political pressures and rivalries which destroyed it from outside.

Cunninghame Graham says he sought to examine this Jesuit achievement, caring nothing for the politics involved, but simply to find out "how the Jesuits' rule acted upon the Indians themselv'es, and if it made them happy". You can judge his conclusion from the title he gave his book, A Vanished Arcadia.

The Spanish Liberal. Salvador de Madariaga, who was at great pains to be even-handed in the matter, records that by the middle of the-7th Centuryless

than 200 Jesuits governed about 48 missionary pueblos which they bad founded, as well as eight colleges and one university.

The Indian population they controlled varied from 40,000 to 114,000 which it reached in 1702.

He concludes: "The Jesuits seem to have succeeded in creating and maintaining a prosperous, humane and peaceful community ... the continuity of which makes of it, in a sense, a historical entity of its own."

The whole structure fell apart when the Society of Jesus was expelled from the Spanish dominions. Before that it had been subjected to every sort of calumny.

As late as 1905, some people in Britain believed so firmly that the Paraguay missions had been a cloak behind which to exploit fabulous mines stolen from the Indians that they organised an expedition to find them.

Most of what the Jesuits built had long been in ruins or swallowed by jungle. But I would like to have been able to see what little remains.

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