Histories of Peruvian Independence

When Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808, it would have been hard to predict that single action’s effect upon Spanish America and Brazil. In a matter of years, the region’s main cities were in turmoil, several of them claiming different types of political autonomy. By the end of the 1810s only the viceregal capitals of New Spain and Peru remained loyal to the Spanish crown. In Peru, the viceroys who ruled in the name of the Bourbon king during those years fought to suppress rebellions emerging in both cities and countryside, transforming the viceroyalty into the royalist center of counterinsurgency in Spanish America. It would take an invasion from without, drafted in Rio de la Plata—modern-day Argentina—and organized in Chile by José de San Martín and others, to set off the chain of events leading to the declaration of independence of Peru in July of 1821. Led by Simón Bolívar, the army of Peru would fight on for another three years, until the final defeat of the royalist army at the end of 1824.

For decades, historians have argued over the degree to which inhabitants of the viceroyalty of Peru really wanted their independence. For some, Peruvians had wanted their independence since the late eighteenth century. In this narrative, the massive rebellion of the Inca noble José Gabriel Condorcanqui (1738-1781), or Tupac Amaru II, was a precursor as well as a proof of that feeling. This narrative was validated during the nationalist military government of Velasco Alvarado with the publication between 1971 and 1975 of the Colección del sesquicentenario de la Independencia—a collection of eighty-six volumes of primary sources published to commemorate Peru’s 150th anniversary of independence, and to present the most accurate and irrefutable proof of that desire of independence. However, at the same time other historians—most famously, Heraclio Bonilla and Karen Spalding—argued that the invasion of a Chilean-Argentinian army proved that Peruvians had wanted to remain a viceroyalty of Spain. According to these historians, the Limeño elite resisted the idea of independence over fears of the Andes’ indigenous population, while the indigenous population did not have any real interest in the conflict and was recruited by force by both patriots and royalists. In the end—went this argument—independence had not been achieved by Peruvians but had been conceded after outside pressure.

In recent years, historians have contested this either-or vision of the independence by arguing in favor of a process in which Independence was conceived by members of the elite and intellectuals, and negotiated by regional elites and indigenous communities. While some of the most important studies of this subject remain in Spanish—for example, Metáfora y realidad de la Independencia, La ciudad sumergida, and La Independencia del Perú—the list presented here offers a sample of the most recent English-language historical production on the subject as well as some classics that are a must-read for anyone interested in this topic. Ultimately, the process that led to Peru’s independence represented an opportunity for many sectors of society to challenge colonial hierarchies. Those challenges persisted throughout the nineteenth century via a long cycle of political instability that colored Peru’s state-making process. Peru’s independence helps us understand not only Peruvian politics in the nineteenth century but also Peru as a nation today.

Places to Start

Charles Walker, Smoldering Ashes: Cuzco and the Creation of Republican Peru, 1780-1840 (1999)

Revising our understanding of Peruvian history between 1780 and 1840, Walker explores how Andean political culture evolved from the violent and utopian beginnings of the Tupac Amaru rebellion to the political pragmatism of the Republic. By analyzing the emergence of public opinion, and the consolidation of the judicial system as a political arena, Walker shows how the will of the indigenous population was fundamental to the transition from Old Regime to Republic in Peru. Indeed, this study presents indigenous Andean people as politically active and engaged in everyday politics, negotiating their space in the national arena both before and after independence.

Sarah C. Chambers, From Subjects to Citizens: Honor, Gender, and Politics in Arequipa, Peru, 1780-1854 (1999)

Chambers presents a vivid depiction of political culture in southern Peru before and after independence. Using a lens of gender and class relations, the author analyzes how elites and popular classes played a significant role in the creation of political liberalism at the expense of gender relations. The construction of men´s public reputation had an oppressive effect in Peruvian women´s lives by defining female virtue as a private issue of morality, effectively excluding them from politics.

David Cahill, From Rebellion to Independence in the Andes: Soundings from Southern Peru, 1750-1830 (2002)

This collection of essays reflects more than twenty years of Cahill´s excellent work in the late colonial era. The topics covered range from political identities, race and ethnic relations, to political violence and rebellion. The essays together show the crucial political role that priests played in local Andean communities, as well as the political dynamism of local indigenous elites. Most provocatively, the essays show how many of these communities enjoyed considerable political autonomy under the Crown—thereby questioning our unexamined ideas of Spanish domination in Peru, and the causes of independence.

Digging In

Sergio Serulnikov, Subverting Colonial Authority: Challenges to Spanish Rule in Eighteenth-Century Southern Andes (2003)

The rebellions of the 1780s mobilized thousands of Indians, constituting the greatest challenge to colonial authority in the history of Spanish America. Serulnikov´s study demonstrates how the Bourbon monarchy’s reforms—which sought to improve the general administration of the viceroyalty, in particular in the fiscal and military realms—had an unexpected and revolutionary effect upon indigenous Andean communities. By examining the rebellion of Tupac Katari and his followers, Serulnikov shows that Andean revolts were rooted in a radical anti-colonial thought and local interethnic cooperation that gave them the strength to assert their rights and subvert the law.

Scarlett O’Phelan Godoy, Rebellions and Revolts in Eighteenth Century Peru and Upper Peru (1985)

Before O’Phelan Godoy undertook this path-breaking study, there had been no systematic attempts at understanding the dramatic rise in the number of indigenous rebellions in eighteenth century Peru. Moreover, little attention had been given to revolts other than the Tupac Amaru rebellion. O´Phelan Godoy not only covers them all, she also identifies three phases of conflict: the first from 1726-1737, against tribute and mita increases; a second between 1751-1756 against the reparto (the forced sale of merchandise to indigenous communities); and a final one between 1777-1781, including the Tupac Amaru rebellion. Her main argument is that vast sectors of the society took part in the rebellions, arguably challenging the legitimacy of Spanish domination throughout the eighteenth century.

Timothy E. Anna, The Fall of the Royal Government in Peru (1979)

Anna’s thorough account explains the extended survival of the Spanish crown in Peru, showing how independence was not an obvious or even a desired choice. It was only the viceroyalty’s economic decline that forced the elite to consider independence as a way to save what was left of their political power. By not delving enough into the reasons why the popular masses might have supported independence, Anna reinforces the “independence conceded” narrative, but this remains the most comprehensive account of the war of independence in Peru available in English to date.

New Moves

Patricia H. Marks, Deconstructing Legitimacy: Viceroys, Merchants, and the Military in Late Colonial Peru (2007)

While many historians of the last decades have focused on indigenous participation in the process of independence, Marks offers a refreshing look at the anxieties and attitudes of the limeño elite. By analyzing the relationship between merchants, bureaucrats, and the military, Marks shows that the Spanish crown was able to endure in Peru because of the similarity of political and economic interests among these groups. However, the division of the elite over economic disputes led to the Viceroy´s loss of legitimacy, which in turn contributed to the loss of the viceroyalty.

Cecilia Méndez, The Plebeian Republic: The Huanta Rebellion and the Making of the Peruvian State, 1820-1850 (2005)

By studying a local royalist revolt in Huanta in the aftermath of independence, Méndez argues that Peruvian peasantry successfully pushed its own political agenda upon regional elites not only during the revolt but also throughout the whole process of independence. Méndez complicates our definition of concepts like patriotism, liberalism, and citizenship by showing that indigenous groups held a political vision that was distinct from that of the colonial regime and the republic that followed it. Indigenous peoples forged and fought for this distinctive Andean political culture, creating a space for themselves in the political arena of nineteenth century Peru.

Voices and Lives

Charles Walker, The Tupac Amaru Rebellion (2014)

There are several books on the figure of Tupac Amaru. Yet the power of Walker´s book lies in his detailed and emotionally charged description of the sufferings endured by Tupac Amaru and his wife Micaela Bastidas before their death. The book brings to life the terrifying power of the most important indigenous rebellion of southern Peru between 1780 and 1783, as well as the promise of indigenous military power that later proved to be central for winning the war of independence.

John Miller, Memoirs of General Miller, in the Service of the Republic of Peru (1829)

William Miller was a young English officer when he followed José de San Martín in his patriotic endeavors throughout Chile and Peru. He fought in the wars of independence, becoming a hero in several of the most important battles in both Chile and Peru. His brother John wrote a rich and colorful description of places, people, and events Miller witnessed, that to this day constitutes one of the most significant English-language accounts of the wars of independence in Latin America.

Silvia Escanilla Huerta is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her dissertation focuses on the political and military process that led to the Independence in Peru between 1780 and 1828.