A mission near impossible: Bolivia the land of the Indian and the gente decente

When Britain ruled the world or thought it did envoys were sent out in every direction to explore, trade, subjugate, govern, educate and destroy. A great number also went out to convert anybody and everybody to the Protestant faith. Graveyards the world over are littered with the remains of thousands of missionaries from these islands.  

map of south america colour

Recently I stumbled across a copy of Missionary Pioneering in Bolivia with some Account of work in Argentina by Will Payne and Chas. T. W. Wilson. Will Payne was an Irishman who lived for a time at South Lodge, Aboyne in Aberdeenshire and married Aberdonian Elizabeth Milne in 1890. The young couple underwent training in missionary work and two years later they set sail for Bolivia via Argentina. Charles Wilson was an Australian from Richmond in Victoria and he accompanied Will and Elizabeth to Latin America and shared in their scrapes and adventures there.

the authors

Will and Elizabeth Payne and Charles Wilson

The book is fascinating for its descriptions of people and customs very different from anything the young missionaries had previously known. It is also packed with pictures, not of the best quality, but interesting nonetheless. And I thought I’d share some of them and the stories behind them with you.

Getting to Bolivia involved a gruelling series of journeys across all kinds of terrain not least traversing the longest mountain range on earth the Cordillera of the Andes and contending with climates ranging from freezing cold to tropical heat. There were volcanoes, tigers and alligators to fear but beautiful landscapes, bubbling hot springs and monkeys to enjoy.

Bolivia is massive – some 600,000 square miles – making it bigger than the UK, France, Germany Switzerland and Greece combined so you can imagine how exhausting covering such great distances must have been using the most rudimentary of means. Travel hardships were slight, however, compared with the enmity of ‘the opposition’, Catholic priests.

Aymara Indians The man was their cook and his wife brought water from public fountain.jpg

Latin America was most certainly hostile territory for evangelising Protestants, very hostile. The Roman Catholic Archbishop at Sucre was furious when he discovered the Paynes and Wilson in his town and he attempted to have Payne condemned and executed as a heretic, schismatic and rebel.

More of those troubles later. I don’t actually know when Wilson and the Paynes got together or if they separated as most of the book refers to the Paynes and I couldn’t come up with any information anywhere on Wilson except as a footnote. I’m assuming they went out together and all disembarked their ship at the cosmopolitan port of Buenos Aires in Argentina en route to Bolivia in 1892.

Llamas bringing fuel to benefitting establishment of Andrew Penny. The gentleman was a good friend of missionaries

Their journeys inland were made by train and mule; mules were considered docile animals but the Paynes managed to find some of the more taciturn of them and there were frequent occasions when they were either thrown off or found themselves desperately clinging on for dear life. This was no easy trek along well-made flat roads instead the intrepid pilgrims found themselves contending with narrow tracks carved out of the sides of mountains with immense drops to far-off valleys below. Mules were fairly sure-footed however and perfect for carrying the party’s heavy and bulky boxes of Spanish-language bibles as well as their personal possessions.

mode of conveyance to interior argenina

Bibles were prohibited by Argentine priests but the Paynes and Wilson found buyers among the people although their attempts to give them to priests were angrily resisted with bibles ripped up and thrown away while the priests gave vent to their resentment of these incomers and sometimes had them arrested and their remaining bibles and religious tracts confiscated.   

How we travel to Bolivia.jpg

Everywhere they went the native people were highly curious about the pale strangers and bombarded them with questions: who they were; where they came from; where they were going; if they were married; their ages; information about their families.

Obtaining overnight accommodation for themselves and pasture for their beasts did not create too many problems for the missionaries despite a reluctance on the part of Indians to offer any but where none could be had they slept under coverlets on rugs beneath trees using saddles as pillows. Cooking was done over wood fires and meat roasted on red hot embers. Often when a room could be found it was already occupied by an assortment of creepy crawlies.

Landscape around p 67

In some areas the government built accommodation for travellers, called postas. These postas were set about 15 to 20 miles apart so perfect for itinerant missionaries after an exhausting day on the back of a headstrong mule. Surrounded by a courtyard the posta was entered by an archway. The long, low building contained between six to eight rooms all with Alice in Wonderland doorways 2 feet wide by 4 feet high. Inside each room was a mud table, a candlestick and a bed made of dried mud on which visitors could spread their own rugs and blankets – oh, and the obligatory insects which dropped from ceilings and crawled out from under pillows to suck the blood of the sleeping traveller.

On arrival at a posta the tired mules were led away into a corral and fed on barley paid for by the missionaries who also bought the postas’ usual meal of eggs and soup although hot water for tea was given out free.

Postillions p 61.jpg


On leaving replacement mules were provided at 2 pence per mule for every 3 miles of the journey and the Indian postillion (mule team leader) who ran the whole way and brought back the mules to the posta was paid 1 penny for every 3 miles covered – so with the return earned 1 penny for every 6 miles run. The postillion was never allowed to ride on an animal not that they would have for the Indians were very protective of beasts and would themselves carry a load rather than overburden their llama, donkey or mule. Indians disliked killing their animals, often weeping when this took place. The only time they ate meat was when a llama died naturally.

Along the way the expedition passed countless mills for grinding maize which were dotted along riverbanks – for their water wheels to operate. At Toropalca the Paynes marvelled at the steaming and bubbling hot springs believed to have curative properties and which were used to cook eggs and puddings. The area’s ore miners used hot springs in this way.  

Old Argentine couple and Idolarry in Salta.jpg

On the subject of food Indians were grippy with theirs and reluctant to share any, even for a price, but either through coaxing or when the Paynes gave pieces of bread to Indian children they usually relented. Indians didn’t eat bread except when it was given to them by travellers for their staples were maize and beans.

Much like 100 ways to cook mince Argentine and Bolivian Indians practised lots of ways to cook maize. They also made beer from it called chicha. To start fermentation for the beer  women chewed on maize flour then spat it into a pot. The contents were then boiled and simmered for a couple of days before being poured into jars and stored until ready for use. This masticated beer was preferred to machine-made beer. Chicha was described as mildly intoxicating and at feasts a large glass of chicha was taken along with a cup of raw alcohol – a concoction which was very intoxicating.  

Payne and Wilson mentioned crosses marking the sites of graves as they moved about the country. Alongside some were horns and beside others tins with a slit in them so money could be collected as payment for Catholic priests to say mass for the deceased’s soul. At the foot of a cross was usually a box for burning candles to soothe the agony of a soul writhing in agony in the flames of purgatory.

Indians weaving.jpg

Mile upon mile the missionaries continued through this vast land passing through village after village. They recorded how native Indians lived in little houses perched on the sides of river banks amidst patchworks of tiny fields of maize, barley, potatoes, etc. often stretching up to the summits of mountains; every particle of soil being taken advantage of. Every house had its own weaving frame on which was produced the colourful cloth the people were so fond and made into rugs and ponchos. Many practical items were crafted out of wood such as ploughs, spades, spoons, plates and needles. Indians kept images of saints made from paper, glass or wood in their homes, items condemned by priests. Some representations of Christ and the Virgin showed them as dark skinned which bemused the missionaries – that the Indians could have believed they were black (and as every white missionary knew Christ and the Virgin had been Anglo-Saxon and white.)

Belen Image of Child Jesus and A Bolivian Priest , drunk

Left: Image of child Jesus Right: Drunken priest

Indian women dressed in a cloth wrapped around their bodies with loose sleeves. They were very industrious according to Payne and Wilson and habitually seen carrying a baby (guagua) tied into a rug which was slung over their backs and while driving their llamas and donkeys worked a small spindle to make thread from llama wool.

Indians who own Llamas and engage in the carrying trade

Indian llama owners and carriers

Indian men wore their hair in a plait down their backs. They dressed in light blouses and short trousers made from llama wool. On encountering the missionaries Indian men would remove their hats and salute them with Tatai, tatai (My father, my father.)

Quechua Indians at Festival in Caiza, The Wings are of Silver p62

Silver wings on this occasion – a festival in Caiza

At the town of Caiza the missionaries witnessed a feast to the Virgin – represented by a figure made out of gold and some 12 inches high surrounded by brightly coloured paper flowers. Participating Indians wore wings made from wood covered with vivid shades of cloths. Some participants hung silver plates over their backs with a few donning breast, knee and arm plates – the whole ensemble weighing in the region of 100lbs. Among those in armour were musicians, some playing cane flutes and others on drums made from stretched llama hides. Indians loved music perhaps a shell of an animal from the armadillo family with gut stretched along it or some other instrument strung with eight reeds. At festivals everyone wore bells on their legs and the result was a great cacophony as they moved around which irritated the missionaries. This particular feast lasted around 10 days and was accompanied by lots of drunkenness and debauchery.

Feast Day in Argentine camp.jpg

I’m not sure what dispirited the missionaries most, the raucous feast or having to contend with the thin air 13,000 feet above sea level and constant cold strong winds. 

At the town of Belen things didn’t get much easier. Indian homes there were said to comprise a ‘miserable group of huts’ dominated by a very large church which the native Indians explained came from heaven (an unlikely fact.) The valuable imagery that filled this miraculous church was supplied by villagers not the church authorities; items they had created from silver and gold saved over time. Locals also supplied the church with strong liquor, coca, fireworks etc. as and when required.

Sucre or Chuquisaca as it was known to the Indians was/is the capital of Bolivia. Bolivia was run by a Congress system of government meaning each district had a say in the Congress where it met in La Paz. Among the beautiful buildings in Chuquisaca was a palace and a theatre. Many homes were fronted with patios filled with flowers and some included a water tank or pileta. The impression of prettiness, however, was somewhat undermined by descriptions of an unspeakable stench that gripped the outskirts of the city where its rubbish was dumped.

Mataco Indian p 45.jpg

As well as Indians the missionaries discovered there were two other groups of inhabitants in Bolivia; pure blooded Spaniards decedents of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century who were known as gente decente (decent people) and cholos (a Spanish derogatory name for mixed-blood descendants of the earlier Spaniards and native Indians.

Spaniards avoided manual work and kept Indians and cholos for that. Aside from looking idle while others laboured gente decente men like to be seen in their tall hats and black clothing in striking contrast to the colourful dress of other Bolivians. Single Spanish women spent hours displaying themselves on balconies to attract a husband – a custom they took from Spain.


rest on way bible selling tour through north argentina

Rest from selling bibles in North Argentina

Hard-pressed cholo women wore short pleated petticoats or dresses which stuck out at both sides and had an opening down the front. Beneath and hanging down longer than the dress were underskirts made out of very fine lace. Women produced the lace while men made their dresses. It’s not surprising that in a land where so much gold and silver was mined women liked to wear earrings made out of these precious metals. They were dangly, up to four inches long and sometimes studded with pearls brought from the Pacific coast and popular with Bolivians.





Cholo men wore a tight fitting short coat that formed a V at the back. Their trousers were tight at the bottom and baggy above the knee. Both men and women wore similar round felt hats we associate with Bolivia – bowler hats brought to Latin America by British railway workers.

Toba Indians, Argentina Chaco and Toba Indian huts, Argentina Chaco.jpg

Most businesses were run by cholos who were able to read and write in Spanish as well as Quechua, the Indian language, or at least males were for few chola females had any education beyond a couple of years of being taught to recite prayers by rote.

Needless to say cholo women were very badly treated, exploited as beasts of burden and subjected to violence – often appearing with bruises and missing teeth. Most cholos lived in a single room, sparsely furnished and like market stallholders they squatted instead of using chairs. Cholo tradesmen carried out their work either outside on the streets or in the doorways to their rooms. Tailors perched on little stools on the sidewalk while working on their sewing machines or with an ironing board on their knees and carpenters sat before tiny fires lit at the edge of the street where they melted glue for fixing pieces of furniture.

One thing that struck the authors was how many cholos suffered from anger so intense it confined them to bed which sounds very like depression. Cholos had a certain amount of political rights – they could vote which led to them being humoured by the ruling Spaniards who would pay them for votes and were careful not to antagonise these vital workers too much by the laws they introduced.

As the missionaries were there to convert Bolivians to Protestantism they highlighted and mocked religion they found already practised in the country – dismissing it as superstition, persecution by Roman Catholic priests and Archbishop, processions, festivals and everywhere the tinkling of bells.

Bailarines Holding Festival in Quillacolla

Festivals. They couldn’t get away from festivals attended by people wearing masks. Colour which marked the lives of Bolivians was more intensified during carnival; dazzlingly decorated coaches, each wheel spoke and every embellishment was wrapped in colourful paper and flowers. More coloured paper in the form of confetti and long paper streamers along with sweets, flowers and scent – and the occasional eggshell filled with water – were thrown from carriages by their passengers. The carnival that preceded Lent lasted eight days and ended with The Burial – a mock funeral.

religious procession Quillacolla

In Sucre a special ceremony known as El Roseno took place in which the Catholic Archbishop and canons or canonigos dressed in hooded black robes some 10 yards in length were escorted by ‘lackeys’ attired in green and gold while student priests prostrated themselves on the ground while being beaten on the head. Crackers, rockets and revolvers were fired creating a huge racket in celebration of God coming alive again. As you will no doubt expect by now the ritual was followed by a week of serious and sustained drinking.

Relations between the local Archbishop and the foreign missionaries were always fraught. The missionaries ridiculed Catholic rites and rituals and the Archbishop ordered that no more Protestantes would be allowed to stay in Sucre and ordered the confiscation of bibles.  

The Paynes did succeed, however, in obtaining their own house in Sucre much to the fury of the Archbishop who told Will Payne that anyone teaching any religion other than Roman Catholicism should suffer the penalty of death, meaning he would see him lynched.

water carrier.jpg

The missionaries found men were more open to their teachings than women whose attachment to the Catholic church was greater. It wasn’t easy for anyone to be seen to be sympathetic to the missionaries’ religion for they risked verbal and physical attacks by priests and having their homes destroyed as they claimed the devil lived with Protestants.

Possibly in part because of the dangers life held for them in Bolivia, the Paynes decided to send one the their daughters home to Britain to be educated, which was made possible through the proceeds of sales of wine from the Cinti Valley (still a flourishing wine production area.) 

Girls purchased for about £2 each and remain property of the buyer till they reach 21 years p 86

Desperate people are driven to desperate measures. In Bolivia it was the practice to buy and sell children. The three girls in pictured here were bought for about £2 each. Girls were usually held until they reached the age of 21 years during which time they were put to work for their owners in exchange for food and clothing. Some were well looked after and taught to read and write but others were badly treated and beaten. When a child was sold very young she grew up not knowing her parents. Girls married young, around the ages of 12 or 13 years. All children, girls and boys, were often neglected during feast days when drinking took precedence and the death rate from dirt, neglect and ill treatment for under-twos was high.

Some Indians farmed and worked on land owned by people who lived in towns. The Indians were advanced money so they could buy animals – hens, dogs, hens, pigs, donkeys and mules as well as seed for crops and they stayed on a farm until they could pay off their debts and were free to move on. They were also under obligation to the owner. Indian farmers were allowed to plough and sow as much as they could handle and needed for their own use which usually amounted to around 6 acres. Spades around three feet long were carved from wood and burnt into an oval shape for digging. The land was difficult to cultivate for it was mostly very rough and their ploughs simply a branch to which an iron point was attached but scarcely  able to penetrate the soil’s surface. Ploughing followed the rainy season for every drop of water was needed for irrigation and ingenious little aqueducts were constructed to allow the flow of valuable water from rivers around farmed land through tunnels cut into cliffs. Both sowing and harvesting were done communally, much as they were in this country.

Indian shepherds mixed their sheep with the farm owner’s flock and they were obliged to provide owners with one sheep annually. Herding was mainly done by women and children with women multi-tasking, as they do, spinning wool for cloth and blankets on their little spindles as they tended the flock.  

Come Corazone heart eaters - indians living east of Sucre p112.jpg

Heart-eaters from east of Sucre

Alcohol played its part in farming. It was believed a bullock was incapable of ploughing until its tail was sprinkled with liquor with more poured over the wooden yoke and still more tipped onto the four corners of the field. What remained was finished by the Indian farmer.

Farming Indians lived communally in small farm villages, their houses small and dark were decorated with colourful hangings, brightly dyed blankets, fruit and pots of fermenting chicha. They obviously didn’t trust their neighbours for doors were locked with wooden locks and opened with wee wooden keys about 3 to 6 inches long precisely cut into niches corresponding to the lock and the locks were said to be so sturdy that without the key it was almost impossible to open a door.

stonework of Quechua Indians of the past.jpg

Ancient and massive stone wall built by Quechua Indians

As villages grew they attracted churches and priests. Priests were paid by the government and well looked after by the Indians especially at feasts when they given gifts of wine, maize, sheep, barley, potatoes, etc. because, as we’ve found above, priests refused to say mass until they were brought an offering.

As we’ve seen Indians saved up precious metal, mined locally, to make into offerings for the Catholic church. They rarely spent their earnings and when not turning their pay into offerings they hid it, burying hoards of silver until required which was fine until they died without having shared its whereabouts leaving bereaved relatives to guess where the hidden treasure might be, not always successfully.  

woman Andine Indian

Silver mining was an important industry in Bolivia employing very many. The silver mine at the foot of the Potosi mountain included over 4000 entrances. This mine alone produced enormous silver wealth.

The discovery of silver in Bolivia is said to have been made by a woman, Diega Hualca, while searching for stray goats when she slipped and grabbed at a bush which came away in her hand and with it a mass of metal, pure silver.

Boivia’s Mint was established at Potosi in 1572, giving rise to the expression – to be worth a potosi – meaning worth a fortune. Initially constructed of timber the Mint was built at enormous cost to life for the heavy timbers that went into its construction were man-handled over 400 miles across deep rivers and along narrow mountain paths which overhung ravines that dropped away down sheer drops.  

inca road sheer.jpg

A section of the Inca road the missionaries travelled

The missionaries passed along the famous Inca road paved with large stones in the steepest sections and long rope bridges spanning immense gorges; two of the hills were known as El Infernillo (the little hell) and El Purgatorio. One day they came on a group of Indians carrying a corpse some long distance for interment. The body was tightly bound and balanced on the heads of two or three men with others running alongside till it was their turn to carry the corpse.

Not everything was moved great distances. Potatoes, vegetables, firewood and clothing were mostly produced locally but other items were taken from Santa Cruz such as boots, sugar, coca leaf, coffee and meat and sold at local markets by women who squatted in front of their stalls, often for long hours.

The inventiveness of native medicines interested the authors: burns were treated with a poultice of mashed biscacha (viscacha) a little rabbit-like creature. When that failed, as it invariably did, a poultice made from pig’s dung was tried. Witnessing this our missionaries stepped in and cleaned the burn before treating it with boracic acid which did the trick. They don’t say if they offered alternative treatment for earache to the Indian’s therapy of applying a curl taken from the head of a black person and fried in fat.

Quechua Fruit Seller

Higher and higher they went – to the town of Oruro some 12,500 feet above sea level and terminus of the railway where only two trees grew: a willow and a peach (both were carefully covered at night.) The town’s population was 16,000 when the missionaries were there although it had reputedly been as high as 160,000. This high up the wind was constant.

It is noted in the book that Oruro’s population was liberal-minded, a claim tested when Will Payne was attacked there by cholos. In the same incident another man was surrounded, taken prisoner and threatened to be run through with red-hot irons but thankfully was saved from certain death.  

straw canoes

Straw canoes on Lake Titicaca

I marvel at people who were clearly brave or perhaps misguided enough to venture into areas which were potentially highly dangerous. Isabella Bird’s adventures in Australia and America in the 19th century truly deserve the description awesome. I’m not sure about missionaries; some did good and some didn’t. She, at least, took people as she found them without attempting to alter their beliefs. Payne and Wilson established mission stations throughout northern Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Bolivia. Wherever they went they appeared to attract attention as might be imagined as they were undermining long-established behaviour. Many a time they were forced into a hasty retreat to avoid beatings, imprisonment and death. In 1900 in Cochabamba Will Payne’s house was burnt down by an angry crowd and he and his family narrowly escaped with their lives. Having lost all of their belongings they headed for Argentina, returning briefly to the UK where in 1904 Payne toured spreading his beliefs and entertaining audiences with lectures on his adventures in Latin America. At Peterhead it was a case of Payne in Bolivia one week and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show the next. Payne’s wife Elizabeth Milne died in Argentina in 1916 and Will Payne died there of a heart attack in 1924.

Buffalo Bill Peterhead


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