Review of The Tupac Amaru Rebellion, by Gonzalo Romero Sommer


The history of Tupac Amaru and his revolt against Spanish colonial order has been the subject of a good number of accounts. Historians focused on the colonial period and the demise of Spanish rule have often portrayed the so-called Great Rebellion as either a fruitless revolution or a pivotal departure moment for the subsequent process of independence. The literature on Tupac Amaru and the wider period of upheaval in colonial southern Peru is so vast it seems that there would be nothing truly novel to stress. Charles Walker has challenged this historiographical stagnation by providing new insights about the logistics, motives, and long-term consequences of the revolt for Indians, Spaniards, and everyone in between while offering, at the same time, a remarkably flawless narrative.

Walker announces up front three major contributions of his study. First, although the rebellion lasted for a year and a half, he expands the chronological framework of the aftermath. In doing so, he asserts that many events following the execution of the rebel seemed much more threatening to Spanish rule than the rebellion itself. Second, Walker pays particular attention to the role of Micaela Bastidas, Tupac Amaru’s long-overlooked wife, throughout the course of the rebel-lion. Third, the author also recasts the role of the Catholic Church, highlighting the multilayered influence of Catholicism in framing lives and social relations beyond spirituality.{

Besides these three major points, Walker also makes the case for understanding how geography was pivotal in shaping the outcome of warfare, often in favor of the rebels and to the detriment of Spaniards. Another important analysis centers on the question of violence and how fierceness reached disproportionate and seemingly indiscriminate levels as the rebellion went on. Ultimately, the book concludes that Tupac Amaru’s rebellion had unforeseeable and previously unexamined conse-quences for Peruvian history, as it both hastened and delayed the civil wars that led to independence.

Tupac Amaru’s individual role as the region’s kuraka, an intermediary who served as link between Spanish colonial authorities and Indian populations,empow-ered him with considerable flexibility, allowing him mobility between different social groups. It is precisely such flexibility that became threatened by the Bourbon Reforms, enforced in southern Peru by the Spanish envoy José Antonio de Areche. Attempting to reinvigorate the centralizing muscle of the colonial state, the Bourbon Reforms sought to decrease the autonomy of kurakas, creoles, and the church.

The majority of the population deeply resented new tributary obligations, an outrage illustrated in Tupac Amaru’s defense of the legitimacy of his revolt. In the words of the rebel, people found it “increasingly difficult to meet the growing demands of the state without jeopardizing their own legitimacy in local society.” Still, as we see throughout the book, as the revolt unfolded, Tupac Amaru’s motives became progressively more altruistic as he complained about centuries of economic exploitation through the mita system and legal obliteration through Spanish enforcement of colonial rule. In spite of his political shift, and somewhat paradoxi-cally, Tupac Amaru’s grievances and demands remained held in the name of the king, the Crown, and the ideal of buen gobierno.

In presenting how the rebellion began, Walker thoroughly describes Tupac Amaru’s campaign and highlights the human and political complexity of the rebel forces. By managing to create a multiethnic army, the rebel led a broad “anticolonial coalition.” Spaniards alone were considered the primary rivals; consequently, Indians, creoles, and even other Europeans were drafted into the ranks of the rebel army. The role of European citizens deserves closer examination, as many of them alleged coercion when tried by Spanish authorities.

Micaela Bastidas had vast experience in logistical support since the days when she helped her husband with his duties as kuraka, which she continued to do during the struggle against Spanish rule. Bastidas became more than a secondary player: she was in charge of feeding and paying soldiers, receiving and sending reports, and even advising Tupac Amaru what his next military and political moves should be. Care-fully crafting a reexamination of gender and patriarchy in the Andean world, Walker makes sure that women are seen in a different light. The story of Tomasa Conde-maita, another important woman rebel leader, recasts the rebellion as something more than a wholly male affair.

More nuances are added by reexamining the role played by the Catholic Church. High-ranking figures, such as Bishop Moscoso, openly confronted the rebels. Although his later actions suggest that Moscoso became sympathetic to Tupac Amaru after the rebel’s death, he and local clergy discursively mobilized Catholicism against the rebel and his forces. The excommunication of Tupac Amaru turned out to be a major setback for someone who self-identified as a devout Catholic, and neg-atively affected the rebellion because Indians had initially supported the idea of con-testing Spanish rule without fully subverting a Catholic-framed order. Still, Walker shows how complex the problem of Catholicism as a saving ideology really was, as parishes became targets for rebel Indians throughout the uprising. Nevertheless, rebel ranks continued to swell, and the excommunication apparently failed to be as polit-ically and militarily decisive as it was intended to be.

Moscoso’s efforts in persuading and coercing priests to stay in their parishes as a military strategy against Tupac Amaru, as well as the role of those members of the clergy who openly supported the rebellion, have been largely ignored by historians. The motives of both sides remain unclear. When supporters were tried, allegations cast support as an outcome of fear, an act of imprisonment, or a matter of ignorance. Given that such allegations were produced under stressful and life-threatening cir-cumstances, trials in which priests aimed to save their lives, it seems impossible to determine how reliable the claims are.

Warfare itself deserves, of course, considerable attention. Walker’s central point stresses that the ultimate outcome of the rebellion was impossible to predetermine. Early in the revolution, “rebel hordes” clearly had the upper hand and, even after the unsuccessful siege of Cuzco, always remained a formidable force. After Tupac Amaru’s execution, masterfully depicted by Walker, rebels under the leadership of Diego Cristóbal Amaru still retained the advantage. The rebels relied on environ-mental and topographic conditions for their military successes, and the Spanish army, inexperienced at fighting in such circumstances, suffered considerable damage: horses became useless and supply lines stretched to the breaking point. Out of thousands of troops dispatched from Lima to repress the rebels, only a handful survived. For the rulers, unable to defend the status quo and the rule of law, rebel sieges led to major evacuations. The rulers’ inability effectively to repress the rebellion made ceasefires a viable military and political alternative for moderate factions of state representatives.

The latter expansion of the rebellion, which reached far beyond southern Peru, is equally illustrative. South of Lake Titicaca, Tupac Katari and his forces were also rebelling, besieging the city of La Paz twice. “Independent” rebels arose in other parts of the viceroyalty. Thinking counterfactually, had Tupac Amaru survived, it seems unlikely that he would have been able to unify all of these centrifugal forces. In fact, he could hardly control rebels under his direct command. As Walker eloquently describes it, the farther away he was from his troops, the more violent they became.

Violence, an important theme throughout the book, is addressed as both a gruesome act and a form of political representation. As the rebellion endured, frus-tration drove the Spanish to regard all Indians as barbarians. At the same time, the Indians, when not heeding the orders of Tupac Amaru, considered all light-skinned people as devils. Once the rebellion moved further south, violence escalated, partly due to the lack of “mediators” in this region and a more relentless experience of “crushing colonialism.”

In the end, hatred was translated into law, once killing or deporting every member of the Tupac Amaru clan had achieved peace. Areche represented the Span-ish hardliners who considered the rebellion a failure of both creoles and the Catholic Church to assimilate the Indians. He sought to destroy Andean culture at large, out-lawing Quechua, forbidding traditional dress, and enforcing religious orthodoxy, along with reformulating the coloniality that had emerged as a result of Toledan Reforms in the sixteenth century. Areche’s goals proved ultimately unachievable. By widening the gap between Spaniards, Indians, and multiple castas in between, cul-tural obliteration threatened the system that had held the viceroyalty together for centuries and had sanctioned the morality of colonial rule. On the other hand, brutal repression enforced by the Spanish convinced potential rebels that rebellion was not a viable option for renegotiating a colonial pact.

In relation to this last point, in perhaps what stands as the greatest achievement of the book, Walker proves that the Tupac Amaru rebellion and its long aftermath both hastened and delayed political independence for the regions that became republican Peru. As such, this accessible yet sophiscated work will be useful for the specialist and the nonspecialist alike.


Gonzalo Emilio Romero Sommer

Stony Brook University

* Published in Latin American Politics and Society 57.3 (2015): 180-3.


Review of The Tupac Amaru Rebellion, by Gonzalo Romero Sommer — 1 Comment

  1. There were a monarchy orden. Perú wast not a colony. How different this rewiew from John Elliot. Perú was a kingdom the same than the others in spain.

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