Chile the Beautiful: Jesuit naturalists and the creation of a nation's historic narrative

Crossing the Andes in the mid-17th century, Alonso de Ovalle, S.J., described the magnificence of the Cordillera as “those mountains sitting on clouds.” He marveled at the “rainbow stretching across the sky” like a crown. In addition to bringing Christianity to Chile, the early Jesuit missionaries created Chile’s historic narrative, which celebrated the natural beauty and fecundity of that country and provided the historic roots of the country’s national identity.

The early Jesuit writers were Chile’s first historians. This legacy begins with Ovalle, born in Santiago de Chile on July 27, 1603, into a distinguished Creole family that controlled a grand encomienda just north of Santiago. They sent their son Alonso to the secondary school conducted by the Jesuits, and on Dec. 8, 1618, he entered the order. Eventually he became treasurer of the Jesuit vice province in Chile, and in this role he traveled to Madrid and Rome. Upon his arrival he was surprised to learn that even among the educated of Europe, little was known of his beloved Chile. This revelation inspired him to write Histórica Relación del Reyno de Chile, published in Rome in 1646.


With poetic flare Ovalle described Chile’s inhabitants, its valleys, the Cordillera, the sea, the springs of water, its trees, fruits and animals. Ovalle created a literary portrait of Chile replete with abundant resources enveloped in a dramatic and beautiful natural setting. He believed that the mountains, forests and shorelines of Chile provided more than material comfort; they also nurtured, protected and defined the Chilean essence. In his literary masterpiece, Alone, which is the name of a Chilean tree, Ovalle defined the Chilean national consciousness. He imagined the Chilean as “a man of peace living in an era of violence, a man whose spirit remains unstained by the dissolute times in which he lives.” He wrote, “The Chilean, although surrounded by vanity, maintains his sublime feelings rooted in his belief in the miracles and the natural wonders of his land.”

In 1625, while Ovalle was writing in Rome, Diego de Rosales, S.J., who was born in Madrid, traveled to Chile to work with the Arauca tribes. He lived the rest of his life as an untiring missionary converting the Araucan, living among them, learning their language and culture and working indefatigably for peace in the Araucan war with Spain that continued throughout his lifetime.

In 1670, near the end of his career, Rosales began to write the history of Chile, titled, Historia General del Reino de Chile: Flandes Indiano. Although not in print until almost two centuries after his death, the work contains ideas that Rosales certainly shared with his contemporaries and the seeds of national identity he helped sow into Chile’s collective consciousness. In this book he joins his predecessor Ovalle in celebrating the beauty, majesty and singularity of Chile’s natural resources. Describing the success of the Indians in their struggle against the Spanish soldiers, he explains that they did not need castles, fortifications or walls. “The richness of the land,” Rosales explained, “made them strong [and] instilled in them strength and valor; for the fertility of the land left them wanting for nothing and enjoying a great abundance.” In addition to praising the “abundant fertility of the land,” he exulted in the “sky which [was] clear and cloudless” during the day and at night, “resplendent with stars more beautiful, joyful, brilliant, and clear than in any other hemisphere of the world.”

A hundred years after Rosales recorded his observations, Juan Ignacio Molina, S.J., contributed another work that celebrated the natural wonders of Chile. Born in Guaraculén on June 24, 1740, into an old Criollo family, Molina at age 15 entered the Society of Jesus, where he studied humanities and developed a great interest in Latin poetry. He spent his free hours studying the flora and fauna around the Jesuit country house at nearby Caren, northwest of Santiago, and while in the novitiate he wrote a poem that celebrated the magnificence of Chile’s rivers. In 1767 the Jesuits were expelled from South America and Molina left his homeland never to return. But the love of the natural beauty of his native country had been imprinted on his mind. When he arrived in Europe, he learned to his dismay that many reputable scholars had dismissed the entire new world as a place where a poor natural environment had produced inferior plants, animal life and human beings. From his new home in Bologna, Italy, Molina addressed these misconceptions in Historia Natural y Civil de Chile, which became the principal source from which Europeans drew zoological and botanical information about that country. Writing in the style of his Enlightenment Age contemporaries, and following the system established by Carl Linnaeus, the Swiss naturalist, he eschewed the poetic for the simply factual, so his prose does not match the lyrical style of Ovalle. Nevertheless, his pride in the beauty of the natural resources of his homeland permeates the work. He told Europeans that his country was the garden of South America, “where…perfection and abundance can be enjoyed in climates similar to their own.” He proclaimed Chile to be “one of the best countries in all of America. The beauty of the sky and the gentle climate,” he wrote, “have made it one of the richest and most fertile places on earth.”

For over two centuries, from earliest colonial days to the revolutionary era of the early 19th century, Jesuit writers created a Chilean national identity rooted in its natural wonders. During the wars of independence, Creole leaders understood that success was contingent on the creation of a feasible sense of nation. And while throughout Latin America revolutionary leaders struggled with the concept of nationalism, Chile, thanks to the Jesuit narrative, had already become one of the few places that could be considered an “emotionally plausible” entity.

National anthems often express the spirit that binds a people together and gives them common identity and purpose. The French celebrate in their national hymn the revolutionary roots of their nation by honoring the volunteers from Marseilles; the English celebrate their monarchy; Germans proclaim freedom for the fatherland; and citizens of the United States celebrate a flag that waves over a free people. In their national anthem Chileans celebrate nature. Rejecting an earlier anthem born in the time of the independence movement, which was a militant call to arms, Chileans rewrote their anthem in 1842 to celebrate their country’s natural beauty. “Pure, Chile, is your blue sky,” it proclaims:

Pure breezes flow across you as well.

And your flower-embroidered field

Is a happy copy of Eden.

Majestic is the (white) snow-capped mountain

That was given as a bastion by the Lord

That was given as a bastion by the Lord,

And the sea that quietly washes your shores

Promises you future splendor.

Contemporary Issues

In recent years Chile’s natural endowment, the thread in the fabric of its national identity, has been threatened. In 1973, when the Pinochet regime turned to the economists at the Universidad Católica for advice on how to undo Chile’s financial catastrophe, their counsel was a monetary policy that stressed the need to adopt free market policies in which private initiative should lead the process of development according to principles of economic profit.

Chile emerged from military rule as a leading example of successful, market-oriented, economic restructuring among the developing nations of South America. Its economic model emphasized exports based on extractive activities in agriculture, fishing and lumber, as well as in minerals (principally copper). Since the implementation of monetarist policy, the Chilean economy has made indisputable strides in poverty reduction. But a rising concentration of wealth and the erosion of economic security for many have continued to provide fuel for criticism of the model. In addition to the critics of Chile's economic model, the natural environment  itself—which the early Jesuits celebrated—stands as a witness to the consequences of following an economic model rooted in the unregulated extraction of natural resources. The impact of rapid, unregulated development has contributed to the depletion of fisheries, destruction of natural forests, soil erosion and desertification, as well as pollution of water sources. Mining of nonrenewable natural resources polluted both the air and water of nearby towns and coastal areas. By the same token, poor air quality and inadequate treatment of sewage remain among the principal environmental problems of Chile’s capital city, Santiago, and other major urban areas.

Chile’s contemporary political leaders have been seduced by the materialist myth of progress that measures achievement in simple monetary terms. They have been convinced that increased gross national income is the panacea for national growth. But as the Russian personalist philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev noted: When economic data becomes the only measure of progress, there is no progress, and the present is not an improvement on the past.

Episcopal leaders of the Catholic Church in Chile, evoking the Scriptures, Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” and the historic narrative of their Jesuit predecessors, have questioned recent Chilean leaders’ definition of progress. The focus of Chile’s contemporary naturalists is on Patagonia, where a massive hydroelectric project threatens the destruction of natural wonders seen nowhere else in the world. The plan known as the HydroAysen Project will harness the energy of two major rivers by means of a series of dams that will flood over 14,000 acres of one of the most biodiverse regions of the world. In addition to destroying the unique flora and fauna of the area, the resultant flooding will also dislocate six indigenous communities.

Luis Infanti de la Mora, the bishop and apostolic vicar of Aysén, in a 90-page pastoral letter, not only quoted Pope Benedict XVI but also echoed the words of Jesuit naturalists from an earlier era when he began his letter by proclaiming that, “In every corner of the immense Patagonia one discovers signs of God our creator, the vast beauty, the mystery that surrounds us, the colors, the silence, the waters, the forests, the winds, and the animals, the snow drifts, and the rainbows, and all of which provides a solemn and profound praise [to God].” He describes Patagonia as “all at once an expression of prayer, contemplation, and exuberant life.”

In his pastoral letter, Bishop Mora reminded Chileans of the special natural gifts that are integral to the story of their country’s past. Without this perspective, Chilean leaders will continue to be seduced by the myth of materialist progress, which ignores values ingrained in the nation’s history. These values, first celebrated by the Jesuit naturalists of Chile, remain essential to charting a course to genuine progress.

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Julio Vidaurrazaga
5 years 9 months ago
As a CHILEAN citizen in a foreing land I thank you for the excelent article , well documented and very objectif. On the other hand I would have liked a mention to Miguel de Lacunza sj autho of the theological bestseller "La venida del Mesias en gloria y majesrtad" the Magna carta of milenarism and SAINT ALBERTO HURTADO SJ the grat figure of the Chiean Society of Jesus and the Church in the XX century. They also show the influence of the Soceity of Jesus in Chilean culture


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