David T. Garrett reviews The Tupac Amaru Rebellion

From late 1780 to 1782, indigenous uprisings convulsed Andean society from Cusco to Potosí, presenting the most significant challenge to Spanish rule in America between the conquest and independence. During the past half-century, the “Great Rebellion” of the Túpac Amarus in southern Peru and the Kataris in Bolivia has morphed from footnote to central narrative in Andean history, generating a substantial scholarship; it is now treated as a major anticolonial revolt in the Atlantic world’s age of revolution.

Sergio Serulnikov’s recent Revolution in the Andes: The Age of Túpac Amaru (Durham, 2013) offers a strong synthetic summary of this violent assault on the colonial order, but no English language narrative of Josef Gabriel Túpac Amaru’s attempts to establish a colonial, neo-Inca order in Cusco has appeared since Lillian Fisher’s dated The Last Inca Revolt (Norman, 1966). Drawing primarily from correspondence and official colonial records during and just after the rebellion, Walker’s book meets that need with a careful, engaging account of the leaders, military campaigns, and chaotic violence that captures the excitement and dread of the time.

Focusing on the Túpac Amaru family, this book is a top-down story of the uprising and its organization. From Josef Gabriel’s unsuccessful efforts to win recognition of his Inca ancestry and his claims to a vacant mayorazgo to the carefully planned revolt and unsuccessful siege of Cusco, the capture and savage execution of him and his wife, Micaela Bastidas, in the city’s plaza through the continuation of the rebellion by their nephew, The Túpac Amaru Rebellion makes excellent use of primary documents to represent the principal actors’ views and provide a detailed account of the conflict. Since the events and trajectory of the rebellion are well known, the book’s contribution to the scholarly literature does not involve novel findings so much as its strong representation of Bastidas’ central role in the planning and execution of the rebellion and its discussion of the Church’s stance and actions in the crisis. Similarly welcome is the attention to Diego Christobal Túpac Amaru’s continuation of the rebellion around Titicaca from 1781 into 1782, and to its spiraling violence. A solid chapter discusses the Katarista campaigns and sieges that moved northward from Potosí to Titicaca in 1781, but, particularly with its emphasis on the Túpac Amarus, this account, too, encounters the central challenge of “Great Rebellion” studies—how to explain the simultaneity, similarity, but lack of clear integration between the neighboring revolts.

A strong narrative account written with the non-specialist in mind, the book raises the issue of how necessary to a broad and accessible history of this crucial moment in Andean history are the leading questions and theoretical frameworks—of political and moral economy, subaltern agency, indigenous identity and social hierarchy, and cultural geography— that have dominated the specialized study of these rebellions for the past two decades. Walker’s general portrayal of colonial society resembles that by colonial officials, compressing the ethnic complexity of the viceregal Andes into a Spanish/Indian dichotomy that minimizes the intra-Andean aspects of the rebellion. The increasingly common editorial decision to forego a bibliography and offer thin historiographical notes limits the usefulness for those wanting an introduction to that scholarship.

With its focus on leadership, broad characterizations of the structural and legal injustices of the colonial order, a generally sympathetic stance to rebels and critical view of loyalists, and its focus on the Peruvian half of the rebellions, this book follows in the protonationalist and anticolonial reading that emerged in the mid-twentieth century to dominate the popular history. To this foundation Walker adds rich new detail from extensive research, while bringing attention to neglected and important episodes and characters. The Túpac Amaru Rebellion is a comprehensive, useful account that serves as an excellent introduction to the Túpac Amaru rebellion and a substantial contribution to the study of Túpac Amaru’s central role in Peru’s national history and historiography.


* Published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History 46.1 (Summer 2015): 141-2.

David T. Garrett is Professor at Reed College. He has written extensively on Andean society in colonial Cusco. His book Shadows of Empire. The Indian Nobility of Cusco, 1750-1825 (Cambridge, 2005) has been translated into Spanish as Sombras del Imperio. La nobleza indígena del Cusco, 1750-1825 (Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2009).

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