Seventeenth Century: the school

historical context/Seventeenth Century: the school

We invite the boys to read and write and we also teach them the Christian doctrine (…), due to the fact that they admire us ever so much for our knowing how to read and write and they also have a great desire to learn and wish to be Christians as we are. The only thing that stops us from converting them is the difficulty that it is to remove from them their bad habits, that is the reason for our fatigue.
— Padre Manuel da Nóbrega, 1549

A New world, an Empire to build. This was the challenge that the Portuguese had to face after taking possession of great part of the lands located east, which were supposed to be occupied, according to the Treaty of Tordesillas. Given the authorisation to start occupying the new territories, Lisbon adopted a regime already in place in other colonies, such as on Madeira Island. The system was called Captaincies of Brazil, in which the king grants part of the territory to someone from the low hierarchy of the nobility. Thus, the responsibility for the occupation and the costs no longer belonged to the state but to a private entity. So, from 1532 onwards, the Portuguese America was shared among various grantee captains. Some got to settle in their lands, others did not even bother investing.


As this experience revealed itself limited as a strategy to occupy the lands in the Portuguese colony in the New World, the Crown decided to implement the so-called General Government. Without extinguishing the Captaincies (the successful ones remained under the management of their grantee captain and the unsuccessful ones were transformed into Régia Captaincies), the general governor was meant to guarantee that taxes would be collected and, above all, administrate the colony so as to guarantee the colonisation process. That is the reason why the first Jesuits disembarked along with the first general governor Tomé de Souza in 1548. They were responsible for the civilisation process. They were meant to spread the gospel called the real faith. They aimed at converting the greatest number of gentiles to the Catholic Christianity through education. In that sense, the interests of the Jesuits were aligned with those of the Portuguese. Their teachings sought to control the minds and to turn the black people of the land into tame beings so as to turn them into good Christians.

The Jesuits – also called Ignatians after founder of the Society of Jesus Ignatius of Loyola – were authorised by Pope Paul III to act as a religious entity in 1540. They called themselves soldiers of Christ and, inspired by the Medieval Crusades, they intended to use the military discipline and strategy to implement the Christian faith into the newfound people of America.

The Jesuit presence in America made necessary the systematisation of the education guidelines of the Society of Jesus, since its practices were somewhat incongruent. This process took place in 1599 with the promulgation of the Ratio Studiorum. It had the individual as a white canvas and maintained that the learning should take place by means of memorisation. Theatre was widely used as teaching strategy, with texts that depicted the lives of saints and biblical episodes. Besides, the dogma was taught through dialogs with questions and answers.

In Brazil, the Jesuits made adaptations: they used the “general languages”, which were a hybrid of indigenous and Latin languages that were spoken mainly by the settlers and the natives by means of facilitating the trade (the nheengatu, spoken to this day in some regions of the Amazon, is a reminiscent of the general language). On the coast, these languages were more homogenous and stemmed mostly from Tupi. Besides, songs whose content were deemed profane, had their lyrics adapted to the gospel content. The bad behaviour or the non-learning was punished accordingly in public at the pillory. The religious men never applied the penalties themselves; instead, they commissioned the work to other settlers.

The Confraternity of the Boys composed the gospel-teaching proposal of Father Manoel da Nóbrega, member of the committee that accompanied Tomé de Souza in 1548 and constituted the genesis of the educational institutions of Brazil. By means of literacy, they intended to convert indigenous children and those of indigenous women and Portuguese men. They opted for catechising the children for they were deemed tamer than the adults. Also, a shift in mentality had kick-started in Europe, according to which the children were now seen as pure following the example of Jesus boy. Besides, the little ones ended up becoming a vehicle for the dissemination of values of the settlers for they repressed their parents, contributing to the extinction of the four habits condemned by the church: anthropophagy, polygamy, shamanism and nudity.

The extermination of the native population, the boundaries of the Indians submission (who were born nomads and as they grew up abandoned what they had been taught) and the Portuguese consolidation of the Portuguese colonisation, however, was followed by the substitution of the houses by the Schools made for the white people, which formed the Colonial Elite, serving the power and the authority. The catechism and the conversion started to be seen as a problem by the Portuguese authorities. The interests of the Society of Jesus became known as opposite to the interests of the Portuguese Empire, especially in the eighteenth century. This is the reason why 1st Marquis of Pombal expelled Jesuits of the Portuguese America in 1759.

Even though it is set ahead in time, in the year 1750, the movie “ A missão – The mission” (England, 1986. Directed by Roland Joffé) is an interesting reconstitution to understand the consequences of the clash of the colonisation projects of the Jesuits and of the Portuguese and Spanish Empire.

Even though it is set ahead in time, in the year 1750, the movie “ A missão – The mission” (England, 1986. Directed by Roland Joffé) is an interesting reconstitution to understand the consequences of the clash of the colonisation projects of the Jesuits and of the Portuguese and Spanish Empire.


The second chapter of the comic “The Childhood of Brazil by José Aguiar is set in this context. The contact between churchmen and Indians has the Fraternity House as its convergence point. The contact with the unknown, with the difference has its dramatic aspect in this narrative. The colonisation brought in the faith, the law and the king. It also brought in disease and death, both bodily as well as of the civilisation that preceded the European invasion.


Claudia Regina Baukat Silveira Moreira is graduated and has a masters in History at Universidade Federal do Paraná. Nowadays, she is professor at Universidade Positivo and is doing her PhD in Educational Policies in the Post-Graduation Program in Education at Universidade Federal do Paraná.