Uruguay Table of Contents

Artigas's Revolution, 1811-20

In February 1811, when Elío prepared to take the offensive against Buenos Aires, the interior of the Banda Oriental, led by José Gervasio Artigas, captain of the Blandengues Corps, rose in opposition to Elío, and Artigas offered his services to Buenos Aires. Artigas, then forty-six years old, was the scion of a family that had settled in Montevideo in 1726. Influenced by federalism, Artigas had been dissatisfied with the administration of the former colonial government in Buenos Aires, particularly with its discrimination against Montevideo in commercial affairs. Artigas's army won its most important victory against the Spaniards in the Battle of Las Piedras on May 18, 1811. He then besieged Montevideo from May to October 1811. Elío saved Montevideo only by inviting in the Portuguese forces from Brazil, which poured into Uruguay and dominated most of the country by July 1811. That October Elío concluded a peace treaty with Buenos Aires that provided for the lifting of the siege of Montevideo and the withdrawal of all the troops of Artigas, Portugal, and Spain from Uruguay. Artigas, his 3,000 troops, and 13,000 civilians evacuated Salto, on the Río Uruguay, and crossed the river to the Argentine town of Ayuí, where they camped for several months. This trek is considered the first step in the formation of the Uruguayan nation. The Portuguese and Spanish troops did not withdraw until 1812.

At the beginning of 1813, after Artigas had returned to the Banda Oriental, having emerged as a champion of federalism against the unitary centralism of Buenos Aires, the new government in Buenos Aires convened a constituent assembly. The Banda Oriental's delegates to elect assembly representatives gathered and, under instructions issued by Artigas, proposed a series of political directives. Later known as the "Instructions of the Year Thirteen," these directives included the declaration of the colonies' independence and the formation of a confederation of the provinces (the United Provinces of the Río de a Plata) from the former Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata (dissolved in 1810 when independence was declared). This formula, inspired by the Constitution of the United States, would have guaranteed political and economic autonomy for each area, particularly that of the Banda Oriental with respect to Buenos Aires. However, the assembly refused to seat the delegates from the Banda Oriental, and Buenos Aires pursued a system based on unitary centralism. Consequently, Artigas broke with Buenos Aires and again besieged Montevideo.

Artigas lifted his siege of Montevideo at the beginning of 1814, but warfare continued among the Uruguayans, Spaniards, and Argentines. In June 1814, Montevideo surrendered to the troops of Buenos Aires. Artigas controlled the countryside, however, and his army retook the city in early 1815. Once the troops from Buenos Aires had withdrawn, the Banda Oriental appointed its first autonomous government. Artigas established the administrative center in the northwest of the country, where in 1815 he organized the Federal League under his protection. It consisted of six provinces--including four present-day Argentine provinces--demarcated by the Río Paraná, Río Uruguay, and Río de la Plata--with Montevideo as the overseas port. The basis for political union was customs unification and free internal trade. To regulate external trade, the protectionist Customs Regulations Act (1815) was adopted. That same year, Artigas also attempted to implement agrarian reform in the Banda Oriental by distributing land confiscated from his enemies to supporters of the revolution, including Indians and mestizos (people of mixed Indian and European ancestry).

In 1816 a force of 10,000 Portuguese troops invaded the Banda Oriental from Brazil and took Montevideo in January 1817. After nearly four more years of struggle, a defeated Artigas fled into exile in Paraguay in September 1820 and remained there until his death in 1850. After routing Artigas, Portuguese Brazil annexed the Banda Oriental as its southernmost Cisplatine Province.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress