Indigenous Rebellions

Peru Table of Contents

An upsurge in native discontent and rebellion had actually begun to occur in the eighteenth century. To survive their brutal subjugation, the indigenous peoples had early on adopted a variety of strategies but were never as passive as portrayed in the scholarly literature until recently. To endure, the native Americans did indeed have to adapt to Spanish domination. As often as not, however, they found ways of asserting their own interests.

After the conquest, the crown had assumed from the Incas patrimony over all native land, which it granted in usufruct to indigenous community families, in exchange for tribute payments and mita labor services. This system became the basis for a long-lasting alliance between the colonial state and the native communities, bolstered over the years by the elaboration of a large body of protective legislation. Crown officials, such as the corregidores de indios, were charged with the responsibility of protecting natives from abuse at the hands of the colonists, particularly the alienation of their land to private landholders. Nevertheless, the colonists and their native allies, the curacas, often in collusion with the corregidores and local priests, found ways of circumventing crown laws and gaining control of native American lands and labor. To counter such exploitation and to conserve their historical rights to the land, many native American leaders shrewdly resorted to the legal system. Litigation did not always suffice, of course, and Andean history is full of desperate native peasant rebellions.

The pace of these uprisings increased dramatically in the eighteenth century, with five in the 1740s, eleven in the 1750s, twenty in the 1760s, and twenty in the 1770s. Their underlying causes were largely economic. Land was becoming increasingly scarce in the communities because of illegal purchases by unscrupulous colonists at a time when the indigenous population was once again growing after the long, postconquest demographic decline. At the same time, the native peasantry felt the brunt of higher taxes levied by the crown, part of the general reform program initiated by Madrid in the second half of the eighteenth century. These increased tax burdens came at a time when the highland elite--corregidores, priests, curacas, and Hispanicized native landholders--was itself increasing the level of surplus extracted from the native American peasant economy. According to historian Nils P. Jacobsen, this apparent tightening of the colonial "screw" during the eighteenth century led to the "over-exploitation" of the native peasantry and the ensuing decades of indigenous rebellions.

The culmination of this protest came in 1780 when José Gabriel Condorcanqui, a wealthy curaca and mestizo descendant of Inca ancestors who sympathized with the oppressed native peasantry, seized and executed a notoriously abusive corregidor near Cusco. Condorcanqui raised a ragtag army of tens of thousands of natives, castas, and even a few dissident creoles, assuming the name Túpac Amaru II after the last Inca, to whom he was related. Drawing on a rising tide of Andean millenarianism and nativism, Túpac Amaru II raised the specter of some kind of return to a mythic Incaic past among the indigenous masses at a time of increased economic hardship.

Captured by royalist forces in 1781, Condorcanqui was brought to trial and, like his namesake, cruelly executed, along with several relatives, in the main plaza in Cusco, as a warning to others. The rebellion continued, however, and even expanded into the Altiplano around Lake Titicaca under the leadership of his brother, Diego Cristóbal Túpac Amaru. It was finally suppressed in 1782, and in the following years the authorities undertook to carry out some of the reforms that the two native leaders had advocated.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress