Review of The Tupac Amaru Rebellion, by Eric Van Young


As the Spanish colonial regime approached its end in the Americas, two great political uphea-vals shadowed the thinking of many among the independence- or autonomy-minded Creole elite there, as well as among royalist groups—the Tupac Amaru rebellion in the Andean region (1780–1783) and the Hatian Revolution (1791–1804). Although very different movements in their origins, social composition, political discourse, and outcomes, both these uprisings were characterized by extreme collective and military violence, and both raised the specter of a caste war that might erupt (and in some cases did) within the independence movements.

These elements of racial conflict turned out to be virtually impossible to control, as beginning in 1808 or so leaders in the Spanish New World realms struck at the bonds that had long con-nected the colonies to Spain. Engulfing almost all of Peru and Bolivia, the Tupac Amaru rebel-lion may have produced a death toll of 100,000 or so and was characterized by high levels of inter-ethnic violence. It left in its wake a loose, pliable, but vivid ‘political imaginary’ that has survived into our own days, bifurcated into a celebratory, officialist discourse and a template for popular, left-wing resistance movements. Charles Walker, one of our most accomplished historians of the Andean region, has given us in this book a deeply researched, perceptive, interpretively judicious account of this great upheaval from its origins to the trials and executions of its last adherents. The book is written in a clear, unadorned, almost stark style making it highly accessible for lay and specialist readers alike, and is blessed with excellent maps and illustrations (a separate bibliography would have been appreciated).

While the historiography of the Tupac Amaru episode is large, and much of it quite good, Walker’s treatment has three special virtues. First, his extended chronology allows him to trace the southward movement of the conflagration to the Lake Titicaca area under leaders such as Tupac Katari (Julián Apaza). This makes the scale and duration of the uprising clearer than many authors have done, uniting the northern and southern ‘wings’ of the rebellion so that while we have much attention devoted to its initiation by José Gabriel Condorcanqui (Tupac Amaru) in November 1780, with the murder of the Spanish official Antonio de Arriaga, the story does not trail off with Tupac Amaru’s famously gruesome execution at the hands of the colonial authorities in May 1781. Second, Walker explores the key leadership role of Micaela Bastidas, Tupac Amaru’s wife, in advising her husband, assuming control of logistical operations for the rebel forces, and actually issuing military commands. This he does through a sensitive reading of the couple’s intimate correspondence, something few other historians have done. Third, not only does the role of the Catholic Church in the sup-pression of the uprising, especially in the person of Bishop Moscoso of Cuzco, receive a good deal of attention, but also the part of religious belief itself, which allowed each side in the increasingly bitter conflict to cast the other as fallen Christians, as heretics who deserved to die. On the other hand, Walker demonstrates that there was considerable anti-clerical sentiment among the mass of Indian rebels, while Tupac Amaru and his circle were pious in quite traditional ways.

The ‘backbone’ of the book, as Walker tells us, is the issue of violence on both sides, par-ticularly of a symbolic nature, which escalated quickly after the end of 1780 to reach almost mythic proportions. This was instantiated not only in the horrific punishments meted out to rebel leaders—the drawings and quarterings before the eyes of family members, for example—but also in the stories of indigenous rebels eating the hearts of their enemies, drink-ing blood out of the skulls of Spaniards, and so forth. Here Walker is very judicious with the evidence, avoiding speculative interpretations where evidence is weak or absent. One interest-ing observation Walker offers in this vein is that the further the action of the rebellion from the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco, the less cosmopolitan the tone of the rebellion and the more out-rageously violent. Violence in another register emerged in the efforts of Spanish colonial offi-cialdom to extirpate the Andean culture after the rebellion subsided, although some of the more draconian policies were never applied. As Walker points out, however, in the end it proved easier to defeat a rebellion than a state of mind, and the neo-Inca currents and Andean millenarian ideas of radical upheaval, such as Pachacuti, upon which Tupac Amaru built his movement, still survive today, albeit in attenuated forms.

If this otherwise masterful study falls short in any respect, it is with regard to Walker’s expli-cit ambition to give us an ‘immersive history’ of the rebellion—to portray the experience of common people in the midst of this bloody conflagration. The book is ‘immersive’ in the sense that it leaves very few aspects of the Andean life of the period unremarked, and gives the reader a good sense of the military fortunes of the movement as well as its ideological underpinnings and its material origins. Yet here even an accomplished historian like Walker runs into the problem of sources—that there is just not much surviving documentation on what ordinary Indian rebels or hangers-on were experiencing. Thus, while Walker’s sugges-tion that Tupac Amaru basically lost control of an increasingly radical uprising that he had aspired to lead as a multi-ethnic, multi-class movement is convincing, we get a good deal on the leadership cadres—the Condorcanqui and Apaza families, for example—but not much on common people.
The review was published in Colonial Latin American Review 24.4 (2016): 582-3.

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