Indigenous People and Peruvian Independence: A Polemical Historiography

This post is a part of the “Race and Revolution” Series.

By Silvia Escanilla Huerta 

The role of indigenous people in the process of independence in Peru has always been controversial in the historiography. On one hand, Liberal historiography has traditionally stressed the leadership of the creole Limeño elite not only as precursors of the movement for independence but also as the main political figures of the time. Moreover, some historians asserted that through a process of miscegenation, the population had achieved a mestizo (a person of combined Indigenous and European descent) identity, which was the heart and soul of the Peruvian nation that fought for independence. Conversely, a nationalist historiography has assumed indigenous people harbored patriotic feelings and fought to become independent from Spain at least since the Tupac Amaru rebellion in 1780. Dependency theory influenced this historiographical trend in its portrayal of the war of independence as a racial/class war that placed the white and rich against the indigenous and poor. Finally, a revisionist historiography has presented indigenous people as semi-passive social actors, who participated in the war only because they were forced to, and not because they believed in royalism or anti-royalism.[1]

Interestingly, the cutting-edge historiography on Andean rebellions in the late eighteenth century has not challenged the conflicting visions of indigenous people’s roles in independence, because it has argued that the cycle of indigenous political activism came to an end with the violent repression of the Tupac Amaru rebellion. Most scholars have stated that later episodes of violence and/or political struggle were ephemeral, had local causes, and were disconnected one from the other.[2]

Over the last thirty years historians have focused on topics such as the growth of a public sphere, the constitutionalism of Cádiz, and the efforts made by one viceroy, José Fernando de Abascal, in suppressing the insurgent movements that flourished in what today are Ecuador, Argentina, and Chile. This last historiographical current has fostered a widely popular depiction of the viceroyalty of Peru as the center of counterinsurgency in Spanish America during the decade of 1810.[3] In turn, this idea has reinforced a periodization that proposes the beginning of the war of independence in late 1820 with the invasion led by general José de San Martín from Chile.

Although the importance of San Martín’s invasion in late 1820 is undeniable, the historiography of the independence has often obscured or downplayed the revolutionary efforts played by a significant part of the population after the repression of the Tupac Amaru rebellion and until the arrival of the Ejercito Libertador. Throughout Upper Peru and the south of the viceroyalty, many indigenous communities supported the revolutionary movements of the cities of Chuquisaca, La Paz, Cochabamba, and Cuzco, just to name a few. These communities were placed into in a long cycle of political conflict related to the crisis of the cacique system and the imposition of foreigners to collect tribute.[4] Throughout the colonial period indigenous communities and the crown held a pact in which the first ones would pay the tribute and fulfill their mita obligations in exchange for access to land and its resources.[5] By the eighteenth century, this pact was seriously eroded due to the crisis of caciques’ leadership within the communities and the changes introduced by the Bourbon Reforms.[6] The cycle of indigenous rebellions that culminated in the Tupac Amaru rebellion reflected this crisis and the erosion of the pact.

Despite the defeat, political unrest continued and eventually took a new shape: guerrilla warfare. Starting in 1809, communities organized their own military forces, small groups of people armed with sticks, stones, and slingshots (fire arms were scarce) who would spy and siege regular armies. These militias utilized guerrilla tactics and in many cases coordinated their efforts with those of the Rioplatense armies or the royalist one. Militias would also be aligned with creole movements in the cities, but in most cases, their political goals and military activity were autonomous.[7] This marked a major turning point in the way indigenous communities engaged in politics. The guerrillas in Upper Peru represented an attempt by towns and indigenous communities to organize a system of armed resistance to any and all authorities that were not their own. Not only did the guerrilla constitute an expression of political autonomy but it also became the most effective way to defend and secure local and regional interests. By the time the army from Chile arrived in Peru, guerrilla warfare had already fostered the redefinition and consolidation of local sovereignties whilst eroding the regional legitimacy of the Spanish crown. The presence of another army reinforced a process indigenous people had started and would continue to lead until the final defeat in late 1824.

Silvia Escanilla Huerta is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has published an annotated bibliography of the independence in Backlist and articles written in Spanish that can be found here. Her dissertation focuses on the political and military process that led to the Independence in Peru between 1783 and 1828. You can reach her at  

Title imageMartín Tovar y Tovar, Batalla de Ayacucho, 1961.

Further Readings:

Méndez, Cecilia, The Plebeian Republic. The Huanta Rebellion and the Making of the Peruvian State 1820-1850, Durham, Duke University Press, 2005.

Walker, Charles, Smoldering Ashes. Cuzco and the Creation of Republican Peru, 1780-1840, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 1999.

Sobrevilla Perea, Natalia, “De vasallos a ciudadanos: Las milicias coloniales y su transformación en un ejército nacional en las guerras de independencia en el Perú”, Carmen Mc Evoy ed., En el nudo del imperio. Independencia y democracia en el Perú, Lima, IEP, 2012.


[1] Two good historiographical essays on the Independence: Carlos Contreras, “La independencia del Perú. Balance de la historiografía contemporánea” in Debates sobre las independencias iberoamericanas, Eds. Manuel Chust and José Serrano (Madrid, AHILA-Iberoamericana-Vervuert, Estudios de Historia Latinoamericana 3, 2007); Luis Miguel Glave and Carlos Contreras, eds., La independencia del Perú, ¿Concedida, conseguida, concebida?, (Lima, IEP, 2015).

[2] A classic example of this view is Scarlett O´Phelan Godoy, Rebellions and Revolts in Eighteenth Century Peru and Upper Peru. (Böhlau Verlag, Kölnand Wien: Latein-amerikanische Forschungen, 1985). The exception is Charles Walker, Smoldering Ashes: Cuzco and the Creation of Republican Peru, 1780-1840, (Durham and London, Duke University Press, 1999).

[3] Brian Hamnett, La política contrarrevolucionaria del virrey Abascal: Perú 1806-1816. (Lima, IEP, Documento de Trabajo nro. 12, 1999); Scarlett O’Phelan Godoy and Georges Lomné eds., Abascal y la contra-independencia de América del Sur. (Lima, IFEA-PUCP, 2013).

[4] Caciques were local chiefs and political intermediaries between the Crown and the Indians. María Luisa Soux, “Insurgencia y alianza: estrategias de la participación indígena en el proceso de independencia de Charcas. 1809-1812”, Studia Histórica. Historia Contemporánea, 27 (2009), p. 58.

[5] The mita was a colonial system of forced Indian labor in silver mines. See Tristan Platt, Estado Boliviano y ayllu andino. Tierras y tributos en el norte de Potosí, (Lima, IEP, 1998). Similarly, Sinclair Thomson, Cuando solo reinasen los indios. La política aymara en la era de la insurgencia. (México, Muela del diablo/Aruwiyiri, 2008); Nuria Sala I Vila, Y se armó el tole tole. Tributo indígena y movimientos sociales en el virreinato del Perú, 1784-1814, (Ayacucho, IER José María Arguedas, 1996); Scarlett O’Phelan Godoy, Kurakas sin sucesiones. Del cacique al alcalde de indios (Perú y Bolivia 1750-1835), (Cuzco, Centro Bartolomé de las Casas, 1997); Christine Hünefeldt, Lucha por la tierra y protesta indígena. Las comunidades indígenas del Perú entre colonia y república, 1800-1830. (Bonner Amerikanische Studien, 1982); María Luisa Soux, El complejo proceso hacia la independencia de Charcas. Guerra, ciudadanía, poder local y participación política en Oruro, 1808-1826. (Lima, IEB/ASDI/IFEA/Plural, 2011).

[6] The enrichment of caciques, their accumulation of land, and the legalization of the reparto or forced sale of goods contributed to this crisis. See Scarlett O’Phelan Godoy, Kurakas and Charles Walker, The Tupac Amaru Rebellion, (Harvard University Press, 2014).

[7] Multiple examples of their activities in the correspondence held between Antonio Alvarez de Arenales and several guerrilla captains in 1814. See Archivo General de la Nación Argentina, Sala VII, Legajo 2566, Doc. 551-556. Also, Yamila Vega, “Guerras de independencia, acciones colectivas y movilización de los sectores subalternos. Las guerrillas insurgentes de la gobernación de Cochabamba (1813-1816)”, Surandino Monográfico, Vol. 4 nro. 2, 2015; María Luisa Soux, “Rebelión, guerrilla y tributo: los indios en Charcas durante el proceso de independencia” Anuario de Estudios Americanos 68, 2, July-December, 2011.

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