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Europeans in the La Plata and Caá Basin

As we have seen in the preceding chapters, the consumption of yerba mate in the region of the Prata Basin was abundant, a fact that is attested by the various indigenous legends that report the beginning of consumption of the plant by the Tupis and the Guaranis. There is a possibility that, even before the arrival of Europeans, the consumption of the herb has become popular among other ethnic groups native and co-inhabitants of this same geographic space, such as groups of the Jê linguistic trunk, which are represented by the Kaingangues, for example, who to this day they inhabit what is now the territory of the state of Paraná.


But now, as the present topic is entitled, we will describe how the European contact with yerba mate was established, how they interpreted this recurring habit of the daily life of the natives of the southern region of the newly "discovered" South America.


At the time of the great navigations, since the end of the 15th century, with the great deeds such as that of the Italian commander Christopher Columbus, who arrived in Central America in 1492, crossing the Atlantic for the first time in history, or the deeds of the Portuguese Vasco da Gama , who first arrived in India by boat in 1498, the Iberian crowns, represented by the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal, fought for cultural and economic expansion across the seas, which, by some, is considered the first steps of globalization. With the arrival of Pedro Álvares Cabral's fleet of twelve vessels in what is now Bahia, in April 1500, the discovery and knowledge of a large portion of land in the south of America was established, which later, from 1531 , began to be colonized by the Portuguese. This newly found land was already divided between Spain and Portugal, by an agreement signed in 1492, the Treaty of Tordesillas, which actually divided the lands to be colonized by these nations around the entire planet, including locations in Asia. and in Oceania.


Therefore, South America was divided between the Spanish and Portuguese crowns, and the southern limit of this border was approximately where the Bay of Paranaguá is located, on the coast of Paraná, that is, the entire southern region of Brazil. , with the exception of this piece, was part of the new territory of the Spanish Empire. The first Spanish expedition organized in this territory was led by Aleixo Garcia, carried out in 1521, in which the current region of Paraguay was discovered, crossing the Paraná River, as well as some parts of Bolivia. Aleixo died in 1525, in an ambush carried out by the Payaguá Indians, on the banks of the Paraguay River, and his deeds were not officially recorded by the Spanish crown, which sent, now in 1535, under the leadership of Pedro de Mendoza, an expedition with the intention to create colonizing centers in the Rio de la Plata region. It is during this expedition, in the year 1536, that in reports sent to King Carlos I of Spain, the Spaniards write about a plant, which in the form of tea, was consumed abundantly by the Guarani natives of the region - it was the first written record about the mate herb.  


From this point on, in the topics that will be presented below, we will see how yerba mate was treated by European colonists, after this first official record. As the interests and relationships that Europeans established in the territory were diverse, we will see how each group played a key role in the legacy of caá yerba mate over time.

Indígena Xetá sapeca erva-mate em registro da década de 1950. Acervo do Museu Paranaense.
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Xetá indigenous prepare yerba mate for consumption. Photos by Vladmir Kozák  in the 1950s. Source: Museu Paranaense

Yerba Mate –  Spanish consumption and trade in the provinces of La Plata


Established in what is now Paraguay, the Spaniards who founded the city of Asunción in 1537, in that official expedition led by Mendoza, lived (not necessarily peacefully) with the Guaranis, from where they absorbed the consumption of yerba mate as a cultural practice. And it is from the consumption of this herb that the Spaniards will consolidate the first economic cycle in the region, based on the exploitation of the slave labor of the indigenous people, the Spaniards will establish a network of herb supply, coming from native herbs already known by the natives and conquered by force by the Castilians. This yerba mate, coming mainly from the forests of the Maracayu region¹, was even used by the Spaniards as a bargaining chip in these more distant provinces. Domingo Martínez Irala, governor of Rio de la Plata and Paraguay, based in Asunción, observing the economic and social potential (through the Spanish territorial union in the region) that the exchanges promoted from yerba mate would make possible the definitive Spanish conquest of the region , decrees, before his death in 1556, a law that promoted the colonization and domination of native peoples through the organization of three types of settlements to be carried out by the Spaniards, dealing with establishments, their functions and relationship with the natives' domain.


The relationship that the Spaniards established with the natives and the newly conquered territory, as well as the dynamics imposed on the production and trade of yerba mate, which in this period was already consolidated as a social, economic and cultural element of relevance in the formation of America. of the Plata Basin, would suffer a relevant impact from the next decades, when the first Jesuit priests came to the region, especially after the installation of reductions or catechizing missions from 1610.


Devil's Weed – The Role of the Society of Jesus in the Herb Tradition


Founded in 1534 in Paris, and officially recognized by the Vatican from the papal bull of 1540, the Society of Jesus, whose members are known as Jesuits, is a religious organization that arises in a context of religious ruptures in Europe, and represents a new possibility to maintain the influence of the Church of Rome. The Society of Jesus, in opposition to the growing trend of European thought that was funneled into the idea of the possibility of individual accumulation as a way to salvation, arising from the Protestant reforms promoted at the end of the 15th century by Martin Luther and consolidated by John Calvin above all from from 1534 with Reformed Theology, the Jesuits ideologically defended the construction of a society based on work and collective construction through faith as a new social ideal that would bring people closer to spiritual redemption².


The Jesuits were involved in important moments of the Iberian expansion around the planet, at the time of the great navigations and the establishment of commercial outposts that were also great centers of cultural exchange. Jesuit missionaries accompanied the Portuguese incursion into Calicut in India, which made the order, in this situation led by Saint Francis Xavier, reach Japan and China, dissipating the ideals of the Catholic religion and converting new faithful, which made Society of Christ achieved high popularity and political recognition by European monarchies as well as clerical in the Vatican.


The first Jesuits who arrived in the then Provinces of Paraguay and Guairá, were Fathers Manuel Ortega and Thomas Fields, in 1593, and were initially lodged in Asunción, to later get to know Villa Rica del Espiritu Santo and analyze and better understand the dynamics of exploration. of indigenous labor in its most varied functions, especially in the collection and processing of Yerba Mate in native herbs, which was used as an important exchange currency and source of wealth for Spanish traders.


In 1610, an order sent by the Spanish king Filipe III to the then governor of Paraguay, Hernando Arias de Saavedra, determines that the Jesuits should install their catechizing missions from the other side of the Paraná River, and that they install themselves as far as the territory was from Spanish domain. Therefore, from that date onwards, the Jesuits created the first missions in Guairá, the missions of Nossa Senhora de Loreto and Santo Inácio Mini, where they welcomed, among natives of the region, several Guarani indigenous fugitives from the impositions of the  orders . From that date, until 1632, the missionaries of the Society of Jesus would found ten more missions in what is now the territory of the state of Paraná.


Initially, the Jesuit priests, observing the misery and exploitation to which the Indians were subjected, determined the prohibition of the consumption of Yerba Mate by them, as they considered that it was “Caá that motivated the sacrifice of the Indians, reduced to slaves of the Castilians and employed in the tasks of collecting herbs, processing and transporting the product, from places so distant, sometimes, that it took a year to return to the starting point, under the weight of the punishing load”³, for this reason they named it the "Devil's Grass".


The consumption of “Erva do Diabo” among the Guarani, although prohibited within the missions, continued to occur, as this was a habit that was part of the identity of these indigenous people and their connection with the nature that surrounded them since ancient times. , therefore, the ban imposed by the priests did not take effect, which made them, as well as the indigenous leaders who led the missions, decide to develop the techniques of production, harvesting and processing of the herb, which required many studies and observations. .


Between the years of 1628 and 1632, the Jesuit missions as well as the Spanish cities of Guairá were devastated by the flags of the Paulistas, who, led by Manuel Preto and Antônio Raposo, aimed to assert the sovereignty of the Portuguese crown in that territory and at the same time kidnap indigenous people. with the intention of selling them in São Paulo as slaves. Besieged for a few months by the Bandeirantes, the approximately 12,000 indigenous people, led by Father Antônio Ruiz de Montoya, fled in 700 boats descending the Paranapanema River until reaching the Paraná River, later arriving in the current Argentine territory of the Missiones and also in Rio Grande do Sul. South. This escape became known as the Great Guairenho Exodus. It is estimated that of the 12,000 indigenous people who accompanied Montoya on the flight, only 4,000 survived to their final destination.


Establishing themselves in these new territories, the Missions once again began to play a decisive role in the course of the history of yerba mate. It is estimated that in the year 1660, in a mission installed in Argentina, the Jesuits managed to develop, definitively, the first planting of Yerba Mate, a fact that significantly marked the political and economic organization of the La Plata Basin region in that period. It is also attributed to the Jesuits the great qualitative and technical development in the harvesting and processing of the herb, producing a much bolder and less rustic product, if compared to the product that was commercialized by the Paraguayans from their herbs.


The fame of the quality of the missionary herb soon spread through the Platinum consumer market, especially in the jurisdictions of Buenos Aires, Tucumán and Corrientes, in Argentina and Santiago, in Chile, and the Jesuit yerba mate became the most consumed in these regions, which did not please the merchants of Paraguay, who began to lose a lot of profit due to the competition of the missionaries, which, over time, generated a series of wear and tear between the Spaniards of Paraguay and the Jesuit priests, who in 1767, added to other factors, it culminated in the expulsion of the order from the entire territory of the Spanish crown.


The legacy left by the Jesuits for the history of yerba mate is indelible, both in the development of harvesting techniques, sapeco and cancheamento, which improved the quality of the yerba and required technical development in other producing poles, the main legacy is in the capacity to develop the cultivation of the herb from man's own work and in the way that they meant and helped to perpetuate the yerba mate as a cultural and social icon of the southern region of South America.

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Caingangues, Bandeirantes and Tropeiros – The knowledge of Mate in Portuguese America

As we could see earlier, in pre-Columbian America, an immense variety of intercultural contacts took place between the native peoples of the continent through paths traveled, commercial exchanges, languages spoken and practices carried out. One of the most striking cultural elements of the Guarani people was the consumption of Caá, which they carried on their journeys through the backlands of what is now Brazil. In these walks, perhaps, the Guaranis established contact with the Caingangues, to whom they presented the culture of yerba mate, teaching the type of plant and the way to prepare it. The Caingangues, inhabitants of the first and second plateaus of Paraná, acquired the habit and started to call Caá Congoim.


During the 17th century, with the raids of the Bandeiras from São Paulo in the interior of Guairá, today Paraná, several exchanges were established between these Portuguese and some Caingangues natives of the territory, a plant was presented to the Bandeirantes of São Paulo, consumed in the form of tea, which the Paulistas, adapting the pronunciation, named it Congonha, a name that the  mate herb  became known in Portuguese America. It is believed that the Bandeirantes took, in a way, the knowledge of the  mate herb  in the interior of the state of São Paulo and, perhaps, to the capital of São Paulo.


Throughout the 18th century, the path of the troops promoted a Brazilian territorial unit, marked by practices, commerce and culture, and in the midst of this context was the  mate herb. Trade and exchanges promoted by tropeirismo gave new life to abandoned Portuguese settlements, such as the case of Curitiba, when a large part of its population migrates to Minas Gerais in search of gold, establishing the exchange of products such as jerked beef or leather. , for the resupply of troops with  mate herb  from the herbs of Curitiba. Traveling from Viamão, in Rio Grande do Sul, to Sorocaba, in São Paulo, the drovers consolidated a territorial union across the passing states, and the consumption of  yerba mate, or Congonha, definitely developed on the Portuguese side of South America.  


¹ Maracayu was located around 150 km northeast of the city of Asunción, from where herbs were exploited by the Paraguayan Spaniards until at least 1676, when the Bandeirantes expelled them from this region, moving the herb extraction area to Tebicuary, as noted by Adalberto López. In: The Economics of Yerba Mate in Seventeenth-Century South America. Agricultural History, Vol.18 (Oct. 1974).

² Villoslada, RG (1991): Saint Ignatius of Loyola. São Paulo: Loyola Editions.

³ According to the account presented to us by Teresa Urban, in her “Livro do Matte”, 1986, p.16.

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The process of colonization of the southern region of Brazil by settlers of European origin accentuated the process of deforestation of the forest, but the shaded yerba mate helped to keep some remnants standing. Source: WEISS, 2017.

To reference this page, please cite:  CEDERVA The history of yerba mate: Europeans in the Plata basin and caá. Curitiba, 2020. Available at: 
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