Review of The Tupac Amaru Rebellion, by Erick D. Langer


Much has been written about the Túpac Amaru rebellion, which shook the Andes from 1780–1783. It was the largest indigenous-led anti-colonial rebellion in the Spanish Empire had ever seen and involved tens of thousands of combatants, affecting millions throughout the region. Charles Walker contributes to this scholarship by providing the most up-to-date and detailed narrative rendering of the rebellion and its aftermath.

The outline of the rebellion is well known. A descendant of the Incas who had ruled the Andes before the Spanish and a muledriver by trade, José Gabriel Condorcanqui executed an exploitative royal official in 1780 and then launched a rebellion against the Spanish colonial system in the region around Cuzco, naming himself its head and taking the name of Túpac Amaru II, in honor of his Inca ancestor who had been executed by the Spanish in the sixteenth century. Túpac Amaru wanted the descendants of the Europeans —often called Creoles— to join the movement and also tried to preserve the Catholic Church. Although he initially had the support of many Creoles and some priests, the colonial authorities, including the bishop of Cuzco, quickly mobilized against him. Despite some early victories, Spanish troops sent from Lima captured the indigenous leader and his family and executed them in the public square in Cuzco. However, Túpac Amaru’s cousin, Diego Cristóbal, took over the leadership of the rebellion and continued to conduct warfare against the Spanish until his voluntary surrender in 1783. In the meantime, two other rebellions emerged farther south, that of Túpac Katari, around the La Paz (now Bolivia) region and that of Tomás Katari and his brothers, who led a rebellion around the Potosí area, also in what is now Bolivia. All of the rebellions were suppressed by 1783 and its leaders executed.

These rebellions have been the subject of much debate, especially for some Peruvian and Bolivian scholars, who have seen them as precursors of the independence struggles that exploded about a generation later. Charles Walker avoids these debates and instead, contributes to an understanding of the rebellion in three ways. He extends the scope of the rebellions beyond the traditional 1780–1783 timeline, and focuses much more on the role of women, in particular the crucial position that the wife of Túpac Amaru, Micaela Bastidas, occupied in organizing the revolt and keeping the rebels supplied. Lastly, he emphasizes much more the equivocal role of the Catholic Church and adds some interesting ideas why, on balance, the Catholic Church was instrumental in suffocating the rebellion.

Of these three objectives, Walker accomplishes most with the last. The first topic, extending the timeline, the author covered more in depth with his first book, Smoldering Ashes. The issue of female leadership, while important to mention, does not break any new conceptual ground. Walker’s conception of the role of the priests in the small towns who actively undermined Túpac Amaru’s claim that the Catholic Church was on his side—he did have some Creole priests who supported the rebellion—is convincing and novel. Walker shows that the opposition of the Bishop of Cuzco, Juan Manuel Moscoso, was perhaps the most important reason for the failure of the rebellion. Túpac Amaru never got rid of the priests in the area he controlled because the rebel leader could not conceive of an order in which the Catholic Church did not play crucial role in Andean society. Many priests in turn served as a fifth column to sway indigenous villagers to abandon the rebellion.

The book is very well written, with clear prose supporting the exciting narrative throughout. This is the most thorough and accurate narration of events during the rebellion and will be the definitive volume on Túpac Amaru for some time to come. The book is especially good with the political and military narrative, showing how the rebellion developed, the ideas underlying the actions of the rebel leaders and their followers, as well as that of the colonial officials who repressed the revolt and who constantly bickered amongst themselves. Walker shows a masterful knowledge of the vast literature and primary sources on the rebellion, the product of having worked on this topic for many decades.

The close narrative unfortunately does not permit the author to step back enough and examine at length the larger issues of the rebellion. For example, the causes of the rebellions and the way in which indigenous communities viewed their own roles and the colonial state could have been extended. Instead, Walker dives right into the topic, with the execution of Corregidor Arriaga by Túpac Amaru that unleashed the uprising. The issue of how the three rebellions—that of Túpac Amaru, Túpac Katari, and Tomás Katari—fit together is not adequately explored. While the fate of Túpac Amaru’s family is investigated in great depth, the more important question of how relations between colonial authorities and indigenous communities changed in the aftermath of the rebellion dealt with to the same extent.

It is always easy to complain about what an author did not do. In this case, it appears that Walker made a deliberate decision to focus on a blow-by-blow description, taking into account the most recent information that has come to light and through his own exhaustive research. The result is a highly readable book that gets the reader up close and personal to the complex, cruel, and tragic events that marked this major indigenous rebellion. That in itself is a great achievement and makes a great contribution to the field. The book can be fruitfully read by scholars as well as undergraduates to understand the complexity of one of the most important events of Spanish American colonial history.


* Originally published in: Journal of Social History 49.2 (Winter 2015): 472-4. La imagen de la cabecera proviene de este enlace.

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