Review of The Tupac Amaru Rebellion by Sergio Serulnikov


The Tupac Amaru movement, strictly understood as the rebellion led by Jose ́Condorcanqui, who went by the Inca royal name Tupac Amaru, and his relatives in southern Peru between Cuzco and Lake Titicaca from 1780 to 1783, was one of the best-kept secrets in Latin American history. The largest uprising of native peoples against European rule since the conquest era, it is an obligatory reference in any survey of Spanish colonialism, Peruvian history, and peasant or indigenous unrest. It has been also the object of intense historiographical scrutiny since at least the 1970s onward, following the impulses of consecutive waves of socioeconomic history, history of mentalities, structural anthropology, collective action theories, and the like. Tupac Amaru has become in due time a transnational political and cultural icon as well. His name figured prominently in late twentieth-century Latin American guerrilla groups, folk songs, and even the American rap scene. Even those who know nothing about the Andean past know something about the self-proclaimed new Inca.

And yet what we had in the way of integrated reconstructions of the process as a whole was relatively meager compared, for instance, to for the Mexican peasant uprisings of the 1810s and 1910s or the Haitian slave revolution. Unlike for its counterparts in the La Paz, Oruro, and Charcas regions (present-day Bolivia), the last extensive accounts of the insurgency in southern Peru based on in-depth archival research date back to the 1950s and 1960s, before those new historiographical currents had fully developed. For up-to-date analysis, readers had to resort to more specialized studies on, say, economic causes, political precedents, leadership structures, social makeup, programs and projects, iconography, symbolic representations, or comparisons between the Amaru and Katari phases of the insurrection. But large-scale revolutionary occurrences like this one cannot be fully grasped by the sum of thematically focused inquiries; they are not entirely amenable to history as forensic practice. They long also for holistic, contextual, sequential, and comprehensive treatment. Revolutions are first and foremost political processes. Time is everything. Not only because societies are transformed by them but also and mainly because things change in the course of them. What a revolution is, or ends up being, cannot be inferred from the conditions that brought it about: that’s the limit of structural or systemic approaches. Revolutions need thick reconstructions of complex and multifaceted sequences of events and meaning attributions. Revolutions like narrative. The book by Charles F. Walker goes a long way toward filling this historiographical gap. Whereas recent synthetic studies relied on secondhand sources, the author sets out to build a whole new account of the event from the bottom up. The book draws, of course, on existing literature but also on a large body of archival evidence and document collections. The net result is a coherent and thorough exploration of the causes, dynamics, and outcome of the insurgency. It sheds new light on many important topics and provides overarching interpretive frames. Two main historical arguments underlie the text. One is that the insurrection was at its base an indigenous affair. While some creoles were involved in the uprising and a few held leadership positions, their participation was quantitatively scarce and rather idiosyncratic. Several had previous personal or economic ties with Tupac Amaru and others were prisoners of war forced or persuaded, or some combination of both, to get involved. Tupac Amaru, with a handful of exceptions, never trusted them, and he was right to do so: they switched sides before, during, or shortly after the battle for Cuzco, the rebel forces’ main military endeavor. As a social group, creoles were overwhelmingly against indigenous insurgents and what they stood for.

So was the Catholic Church. Numerous pages have been filled discussing the purported rebel leanings of the bishop of Cuzco, Juan Manuel Moscoso y Peralta, and the rural priesthood due to their long-standing disputes with provincial governors and other royal officials. Walker shows that whatever the grievances of the clergy (and local elites generally) against Bourbon policies, they quickly understood that Tupac Amaru was not the answer to their problems; rather, he created more and much graver threats to their social, economic, and political standing. Their opposition was all the more dam- aging to the rebel cause, as its leaders and most of the rank and file identified themselves as good Christians. A defining feature of the episode, and one of its more intriguing story lines, was the increasing contradiction between the proclaimed goals of the insurrection laid out in Tupac Amaru’s public pronouncements and the intractable realities of class and racial antagonisms. In other words, it is not that the new In a and his peers were not devout Catholics or did not strive to build a multiethnic coalition—the book offers ample evidence for this. It is just that his plans did not work out. In the end, the traces of the virulent conflicts between the imperial administration and Cuzco society, including the church, are not to be found so much in the social composition of the rebel forces as in the protracted trials that ensued. As Walker convincingly argues, the accusations against purported non-Indian rebel supporters by visitador generales Jose ́ Antonio de Areche and Benito Mata Linares reflected their ‘‘paranoid interpretation of the rebellion, based on their profound misgivings about creoles and priests’’ (p. 265). Despite the highest colonial authorities’ rhetoric, ‘‘these groups had remained loyal to the Crown with minor exceptions’’ (p. 265).

Although Tupac Amaru never quite ceased portraying the incident as an uprising of all Peruvians (both Indians and creoles) against bad government, eventually reality caught up with representations, as usually happens. The second overall argument of the book is that violence became more and more radicalized and extreme as the rebellion evolved over time and space. After Tupac Amaru’s capture and execution, and perhaps even before that, enemies were slaughtered and neutrality was no longer an option. Simply put, both sides just stopped taking prisoners. Rebels would pierce eyes, drink blood out of skulls, and kill all people wearing Spanish dress or speaking Spanish. Women and children were not spared. It was not only that violence begets violence but also that the perceived ideological core of the struggle shifted. As the central stage of the conflagration moved from Cuzco to Lake Titicaca following Tupac Amaru’s defeat, the Collao highland communities and the new rebel leadership understood that this was an all-out war against non-Indians. They behaved accordingly. In the end, the adjustment in military tactics (from direct confrontation to guerrilla-style attacks), the massiveness of indigenous support, and the geographical features of the Titicaca basin—where ‘‘altitudes became higher, the air thinner, the valleys narrower, and the hills steeper and morebarren’’ (p. 15)—made the rebellion impossible to uproot by military means alone. Some of the more original sections of the book are devoted to the intricate peace conversations between the Spanish authorities and the rebel leaders, the implementation of the cease-fire accords, and the subsequent persecution and execution of all of Tupac Amaru’s relatives and associates. Gone with the Amarus, Walker tells us in the closing chapter, was a colonial project born in the sixteenth century and predicated on the model of the two republics. Along the way, the book illuminates many other facets of the phenomenon, from the crucial role of Micaela Bastidas (Tupac Amaru’s wife) in organizing the Andean armies and the manifold causes of failure of the siege of Cuzco to propaganda battles between insurgents and royalists and the fierce political disputes among the highest Spanish government officials.

In history, as in other nonacademic markets, supply tends to create demand. But there are exceptions, I suppose. This book at least comes to attend to a very overdue and tangible need: a thoughtful, well-researched, and analytically sophisticated narrative of the most important indigenous insurrection in Andean history. In one of the back-cover blurbs, readers are told that ‘‘this excellent book will instantly become the standard account’’ of the event. A bold statement indeed, one with which I do agree.


The review was published in The Hispanic American Historical Review 95.2 (May 2015): 355-7.

Sergio Serulnikov is Associate Professor at the Humanities Department in the University of San Andres (Argentina). His book Revolucion en los Andes. La era de Tupac Amaru (2010) is now available in English as Revolution in the Andes. The Age of Tupac Amaru (2013). His ongoing research project examines the new political urban culture that emerged in the late colonial period in Charcas, as well as the reemergence of ancient communal rights to curb the increasing presence of the Bourbon Reforms in that area.

More information on Professor Serulnikov’s work and projects on his website.


Review of The Tupac Amaru Rebellion by Sergio Serulnikov — 1 Comment

  1. Siguen siendo incoherentes. Si no habia España porqué llama Spanish colonialism.Recién España surge en el siglo XIX, mucho después de Tupac Amaru. No es lo mismo España que Monarquía Católica. La llamada conquista no es en favor de España ni de los españoles, sino en favor del rey Carlos I que ni siquiera era español ni hablaba castellano. La rebelion de Tupac Amaru no fue contra el dominio real, ni tampoco cuestionó la pertenencia del reino peruano a la monarquia. El Perú era un virreinato y no una colonia, tan igual como Aragon, Cataluña, Napoles, Sicilia, Navarra, Portugal. Hay que leer la reseña de John Elliott sobre este mismo libro, que cuestiona severamiente a los historiadores que llama colonia al Perú.
    Gracias por la oportunidad y espero que sea publicada.

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