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The Seventeenth Century: Yerba mate and the Bandeiras


By the late 1500s, a brewed stimulant known to Guaraní speakers as ka’a or ka’a miri, made from the leaves of a native holly tree, ilex paraguariensis, had become a significant new commodity. The Spanish named the drink yerba mate, using Guaraní labour to extract the commodity from the forest.

From Paraguay the Spanish exported it to Chile and the silver mines of Potosí in the Andes, where it was sold to Indigenous mine workers. This is how Guaraní workers became linked into a commodity chain stretching from the Atlantic rainforest via the mines of Peru to the banks of Genoa.


Guaraní resistance and negotiation strategies slowed down the expansion of the yerba mate commodity frontier in the Spanish sphere of the forest. Over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, these conflicts contributed to the failure of yerba mate to achieve the same renown on the world stage as other caffeinated stimulants such as tea and coffee. The map below shows how autonomous Guaraní actions in the province of Guayra affected the Spanish extraction of yerba mate in the early seventeenth century

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In the seventeenth century the southern Atlantic rainforest became the theatre for a cataclysmic confrontation between Jesuit missionaries, Portuguese slave raiders and autonomous Indigenous forces. Guaraní and Jê speaking peoples found themselves caught between Spanish colonists and missionaries from Paraguay and Portuguese bandeiras from São Paulo.  Between 1520 and 1680 Portuguese colonists abducted over one hundred thousand Guaraní and other Indigenous people in the region. Both autonomous Indigenous forces and the Guaraní armies of the Jesuit missions imposed a limit on the bandeiras, most famously at the battle of Mbororé in 1641, where mission troops routed a Paulista-Tupi army.

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The majority of the Guaraní abductees were forced to cultivate wheat and other food products on the São Paulo plateau, with these crops then supplying markets of soldiers, administrators and slaves in the other Brazilian colonies. This Indigenous labour thus played an important role in supplying Portugal’s South Atlantic armies as the kingdom regained its independence from Spain and fought off the attempted Dutch conquest of its Brazilian and African colonies.

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