The historiography of colonial Paraguay takes a significant step forward. Adalberto López has written a vivid account, with novel detail and reasonable interpretation, of a lengthy confrontation between colonial authorities and local settlers which goes under the name of “the revolt of the comuneros.” The result is a work of scholarship, based on archives and a good bibliography. The reader ought not to be deterred by the curious misspelling of the word “comunero” on the dustjacket, the spine and the title page of the book; this is the publisher’s responsibility, not the author’s.
Professor López first explains Paraguay’s tendency towards autonomy within the Spanish empire; its identity was forged by a sense of grievance, partly over the taxation of its exports, partly over the burden of militia service on the Chaco frontier. He then describes the powerful presence of the Jesuits in Paraguay, their superior resources, their Indian militia, and their control of labor. He thus sees the background of the comunero revolt in terms of regional autonomy and of competition for resources between settlers and Jesuits. In 1721 Governor José de Antequera identified with settler interests, and his cavalry defeated the forces of the viceroy and the Jesuit Indian army. This was a victory of settlers over Jesuits, of whites over Indians, of rebel junta over outside authority. Gradually, however, the forces of imperial order closed in, once again backed by the Jesuit Indian militia, while the growing social extremism of the comuneros characteristically drove many property owners out of the revolt to make common cause with legitimate authority.
The book does justice to social and economic factors, but would have been improved by a more careful definition of terms. The word “comunero” has been used by observers and historians to describe rebels against Charles V in Spain, dissident settlers in Paraguay, and mestizo protesters in New Granada. What, if any, were the common factors? When the Jesuits in Asunción demanded by what authority they were ordered out, the rebels replied that they spoke in the name of the “común.” But who precisely were the comuneros? The author locates their ultimate power base among the poor people of the province. “Slowly, the rebellion which began as a movement against an unpopular governor was turning into a war of the poor against the rich, of the countryside against the city” (p. 144). But these poor whites, or poor mestizos, remain shadowy figures, difficult perhaps to document.
In other respects, however, Professor López dissipates the obscurity of Paraguayan history. No doubt the revolt of the comuneros was an extreme case, but it illustrates the careful balance of forces and interests upon which Spanish colonial rule rested. And in explaining the one this book helps us to understand the other.