In this study of the Tupac Amaru rebellion, the first to appear in English since 1966, Charles Walker offers a lucid and engaging account of the Andean peasant insurrections which, as they swept through the southern Andes in the early 1780s, confronted Spanish rule with its longest and most violent challenge before the wars of independence. He focuses primarily on the movement started by the charismatic Indian noble who took the name ‘Tupac Amaru’ to signal his claims to Inca kingship, and, backed by family members, used his social prestige and connections to mobilise peasant insurrection in the old Inca heartlands. This is, however, part of a bigger story, in which Walker traces the interactions between the rebellion of Quechua-speaking rebels around Cuzco and the several distinctive uprisings among peasant communities in Upper Peru (Bolivia), some of which pre-dated Tupac Amaru’s rebellion and had a dynamic of their own. In so doing, he aims at creating a comprehensive, comparative picture of these intersecting rebellions, asking why they started and spread, who became involved, what the rebels wanted and believed, how they behaved, and what they achieved.
Walker approaches these questions through a narrative reconstruction with several interlocking themes. One is the character and behaviour of Tupac Amaru himself, seen from several angles: his social background and education, his motives and intentions, his social connections, and his actions and abilities as political and military leader. Another key theme is the transformation of peasant discontents into collective revolt, turning local uprisings into a regional rebellion that directed armed force against Spanish institutions and officials, and spread ideas subversive of Spanish rule. Walker does much to clarify the currents that fed the rebellion, in both his account of the way in which rebellion spread and his analysis of the ideas that circulated with it. We know that the educated, culturally sophisticated Tupac Amaru embraced the revival of Inca history among Cuzco’s Indian nobles and creoles; he also seems to have encouraged his followers to see him as an Inca king, the harbinger of a new age in which Spanish domination was overturned by a pachukuti, a cataclysmic event foretold in Andean mythology. However, Walker makes it clear that Tupac Amaru was not a messianic zealot, carving a corpse-strewn path to paradise. In keeping with his social background, he took a pragmatic approach, seeking alliance with Cuzco’s creoles and clergy against the intrusions of Bourbon regalism, while also speaking to peasant hopes for relief from the state’s economic impositions. This did not necessarily require the overthrow of Spanish government, and Tupac Amaru protested his loyalty to the Spanish monarchy to the end; nonetheless, ideas of Inca restoration gave the rebellion an unusual potential, and it remains uncertain how far Tupac Amaru might have gone had he succeeded. As for the messianic message that circulated among the rebels – a blend of Christian beliefs with Andean ideas of kingship and cyclical time – its influence on rebel behaviour is hard to pin down. Localised political and economic grievances were probably stronger motives for rebellion than any general ambition to overthrow Spanish government or transform society, and local loyalties played an important part in communities’ decisions about whether to join Tupac Amaru or to fight with the Spanish authorities. However, Walker makes a good case for seeing visions of an ‘Inca utopia’ as a stimulus to solidarity among the Quechua-speaking rebels who rallied to Tupac Amaru, and an inspiration to hope for a new future, freed from the economic and social oppression imposed by Spanish suzerainty.
If it is clear why the Indian peasantry rose against Spanish privilege and power, the sheer scale of the rebellion and the intensity of violence require further explanation. Traditionally, community actions against abusive officials and community leaders targeted violence selectively, but, though Tupac Amaru tried to shield creoles and clergy by scapegoating Peninsular Spaniards, the uprisings of 1780-3 took on an unprecedented scale and ferocity, with a death count in many tens of thousands. To explain such bloodshed, Walker points to the atrocities and reprisals arising from armed conflict, and to the tendency of both sides to dehumanise their opponents, but he also distinguishes a geography of violence, related to social and cultural variations. Violence was most intense in the Aymara cultural areas of Upper Peru, where Indian peasants and their leaders had less social contact with the Hispanic world than those in the Quechua culture area around Cuzco, and were accordingly less likely to show restraint towards creoles and Spaniards. Violence was also escalated by Spanish commanders who, when seeking to eliminate elusive rebels, attacked the communities suspected of supporting them. Race prejudices played a part, too: both sides used a language of vilification that loosened the bonds of social restraint and allowed them to justify the slaughter of ‘savage’ and ‘bestial’ enemies.
On the question of why the rebellion was defeated, Walker rightly stresses its military aspects. He shows that, although at times large rebel forces came close to overwhelming their opponents, their political and cultural divisions inhibited the formation of organised alliances needed to confront Spanish counter-insurgency. So, too, did lack of military experience, indiscipline, and the tendency of Indian forces to dissolve when faced with defeat. Walker argues that Indian rebels had the upper hand in mountainous terrain, where they used guerrilla tactics, but he overstates this advantage. The armed forces organised by government and supported by Indian allies had superior leadership, weapons and resources, and, despite smaller numbers, always had a military edge.
The historical significance of the rebellion remains a subject for debate. At the time, Spain’s enemies overseas received news of Tupac Amaru as a signal that Spanish ‘tyranny’ was beginning to crumble, following the path towards freedom opened by the United States. We can now see, however, that Tupac Amaru’s rebellion created a revolutionary situation without becoming a revolution. For, as Walker shows, Andean peasants lacked the political repertoires required to make the alliances and sustain the armed struggles needed to overthrow the state, while substantial sectors of the population, creoles, mestizos and many Indians, either preferred rule by the Spanish monarchy or saw it as inevitable.
This book deserves strong recommendation. Drawing on recent historiography and on the large body of letters, declarations, witness testimonies, trial interrogations and official reports found in archives and document collections, Walker provides a fluent and absorbing history of Tupac Amaru’s rebellion, a new starting point for students and specialists. His use of primary sources is particularly valuable, as quotations from contemporaries give pace and colour to his account of people and events, and sharply illuminate the attitudes and experience of those involved. The book is also more than just a synthesis: Walker adds new perspectives on the rebellion, notably by paying close attention to Tupac Amaru’s behaviour as a leader, the part played by his wife Micaela Bastidas in organising the rebellion, and the roles of his close relatives in sustaining rebellion before and after the couple’s deaths. He makes a persuasive case, too, for seeing the Catholic Church, Spain’s ‘shadow government’, as the rebels’ true nemesis, thanks largely to the actions of the bishop of Cuzco, who damaged the rebel enterprise by excommunicating its leaders. And, finally, Walker adds a vital extra dimension to the history of Tupac Amaru’s rebellion by showing how it interacted with the uprisings in Upper Peru, spreading a challenge which had lasting repercussions for both Spanish rule and the independent states that succeeded it.
La reseña apareció originalmente en Journal of Latin American Studies 49 (2017): 690-692. Londres.