Peru Table of Contents

Despite the Túpac Amaru revolts, independence was slow to develop in the Viceroyalty of Peru. For one thing, Peru was a conservative, royalist stronghold where the potentially restless creole elites maintained a relatively privileged, if dependent, position in the old colonial system. At the same time, the "anti-white" manifestations of the Túpac Amaru revolt demonstrated that the indigenous masses could not easily be mobilized without posing a threat to the creole caste itself. Thus, when independence finally did come in 1824, it was largely a foreign imposition rather than a truly popular, indigenous, and nationalist movement. As historian David P. Werlich has aptly put it, "Peru's role in the drama of Latin American independence was largely that of an interested spectator until the final act."

What the spectator witnessed prior to 1820 was a civil war in the Americas that pitted dissident creole elites in favor of independence against royalists loyal to the crown and the old colonial order. The movement had erupted in reaction to Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Spain in 1808, which deposed Ferdinand VII and placed a usurper, Joseph Bonaparte, on the Spanish throne. In America this raised the question of the very political legitimacy of the colonial government. When juntas arose in favor of the captive Ferdinand in various South American capitals (except in Peru) the following year, even though of relatively short duration, they touched off a process toward eventual separation that ebbed and flowed throughout the continent over the next fifteen years. This process developed its greatest momentum at the periphery of Spanish power in South America--in what became Venezuela and Colombia in the north and the Río de la Plata region, particularly Argentina, in the south.

Not until both movements converged in Peru during the latter phases of the revolt, specifically the 4,500-man expeditionary force led by General José de San Martín that landed in Pisco in September 1820, was Spanish control of Peru seriously threatened. San Martín, the son of a Spanish army officer stationed in Argentina, had originally served in the Spanish army but returned to his native Argentina to join the rebellion. Once Argentine independence was achieved in 1814, San Martín conceived of the idea of liberating Peru by way of Chile. As commander of the 5,500-man Army of the Andes, half of which was composed of former black slaves, San Martín, in a spectacular military operation, crossed the Andes and liberated Chile in 1817. Three years later, his somewhat smaller army left Valparaíso for Peru in a fleet commanded by a former British admiral, Thomas Alexander Cochrane (Lord Dundonald).

Although some isolated stirrings for independence had manifested themselves earlier in Peru, San Martín's invasion persuaded the conservative creole intendant of Trujillo, José Bernardo de Tagle y Portocarrero, that Peru's liberation was at hand and that he should proclaim independence. It was symptomatic of the conservative nature of the viceroyalty that the internal forces now declaring for independence were led by a leading creole aristocrat, the fourth marquis of Torre Tagle, whose monarchist sympathies for any future political order coincided with those of the Argentine liberator.

The defeat of the last bastion of royal power on the continent, however, proved a slow and arduous task. Although a number of other coastal cities quickly embraced the liberating army, San Martín was able to take Lima in July 1821 only when the viceroy decided to withdraw his considerable force to the Sierra, where he believed he could better make a stand. Shortly thereafter, on July 28, 1821, San Martín proclaimed Peru independent and then was named protector by an assembly of notables. However, a number of problems, not the least of which was a growing Peruvian resentment over the heavy-handed rule of the foreigner they dubbed "King José," stalled the campaign to defeat the royalists. As a result, San Martín decided to seek aid from Simón Bolívar Palacios, who had liberated much of northern South America from Spanish power.

The two liberators met in a historic meeting in Guayaquil in mid-1822 to arrange the terms of a joint effort to complete the liberation of Peru. Bolívar refused to agree to a shared partnership in the Peruvian campaign, however, so a frustrated San Martín chose to resign his command and leave Peru for Chile and eventual exile in France. With significant help from San Martín's forces, Bolívar then proceeded to invade Peru, where he won the Battle of Junín in August 1824. But it remained for his trusted lieutenant, thirty-one-year-old General Antonio José de Sucre Alcalá, to complete the task of Peruvian independence by defeating royalist forces at the hacienda of Ayacucho near Huamanga (a city later renamed Ayacucho) on December 9, 1824. This battle in the remote southern highlands effectively ended the long era of Spanish colonial rule in South America.


Peru's transition from more than three centuries of colonial rule to nominal independence in 1824 under President Bolívar (1824-26) proved torturous and politically destablizing. Independence did little to alter the fundamental structures of inequality and underdevelopment based on colonialism and Andean neofeudalism. Essentially, independence represented the transfer of power from the Spanish mainlanders (peninsulares) to sectors of the elite creole class, whose aim was to preserve and enhance their privileged socioeconomic status. However, the new creole elite was unable to create a stable, new constitutional order to replace the crown monolith of church and state. Nor was it willing to restructure the social order in a way conducive to building a viable democratic, republican government. Ultimately, the problem was one of replacing the legitimacy of the old order with an entirely new one, something that many postcolonial regimes have had difficulty accomplishing.

Into the political vacuum left by the collapse of Spanish rule surged a particularly virulent form of Andean caudillismo. Caudillo strongmen, often officers from the liberation armies, managed to seize power through force of arms and the elaboration of extensive and intricate clientelistic alliances. Personalistic, arbitrary rule replaced the rule of law, while a prolonged and often byzantine struggle for power was waged at all levels of society. The upshot was internal political fragmentation and chronic political instability during the first two decades of the postindependence era. By one count, the country experienced at least twenty-four regime changes, averaging one per year between 1821 and 1845, and the constitution was rewritten six times.

This is not to say that larger political issues did not inform these conflicts. A revisionist study by historian Paul E. Gootenberg shows in great detail how the politics of trade (free or protectionist) and regionalism were central to the internecine caudillo struggles of the period. In this interpretation, nationalist elites--backing one caudillo or another--managed to outmaneuver and defeat liberal groups to maintain a largely protectionist, neomercantilistic, postcolonial regime until the advent of the guano boom at mid-century. This view stands in opposition to the dominant interpretation of the period, according to which unrestricted liberalism and free trade led to Peru's "dependency" on the international economy and the West.

However bewildering, the chaotic era of the caudillo can be divided into several distinct periods. In the first, Bolívar tried, unsuccessfully, to impose a centralist and utopian liberal government from Lima. When events in Colombia caused him to relinquish power and return to Bogotá in 1826, his departure left an immediate vacuum that numerous Peruvian strongmen would try to fill. One of the most successful in terms of tenure was the conservative General Agustín Gamarra (1829-34) from Cusco, who managed to crush numerous rebellions and maintain power for five years. Then full-scale civil wars carried first General Luis de Orbegoso (1834-35) and then General Felipe Salaverry (1835-36) into the presidential palace for short terms. The power struggles reached such a chaotic state by the mid-1830s that General Andrés de Santa Cruz y Calahumana marched into Peru from Bolivia to impose the Peru-Bolivia Confederation of 1836-39. This alliance upset the regional balance of power and caused Chile to raise an army to defeat Santa Cruz and restore the status quo ante, which, in effect, meant a resumption of factional conflict lasting well into the 1840s.

The descent into chronic political instability, coming immediately after the destructive wars for independence (1820- 24), accelerated Peru's general postindependence economic decline. During the 1820s, silver mining, the country's traditional engine of growth, collapsed, while massive capital flight resulted in large external deficits. By the early 1830s, the silver-mining industry began to recover, briefly climbing back to colonial levels of output in the early 1840s. Economic recovery was further enhanced in the 1840s as southern Peru began to export large quantities of wool, nitrates, and, increasingly, guano.

On the other hand, the large-scale importation of British textiles after independence virtually destroyed the production of native artisans and obrajes, which were unable to compete with their more technologically advanced and cost-efficient overseas competitors. For the most part, however, the economy continued in the immediate decades after independence to be characterized by a low level of marketable surplus from largely self-sufficient haciendas and native communities.

The expansion of exports during the 1840s did help, finally, to stabilize the Peruvian state, particularly under the statesmanlike, if autocratic, leadership of General Marshal Ramón Castilla (1845-51, 1855-62). Castilla's rise to power, coming as it did at the onset of the guano boom, marked the beginning of an age of unparalleled economic growth and increasing political stability that effectively ended the country's postindependence decline. Indeed, to many observers, Peru during the so-called guano age (1845-70) seemed uniquely positioned to emerge as the preeminent country in all of South America.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress