The Tupac Amaru Rebellion
Charles F. Walker
History grabbed hold of my imagination more strongly than fantasy ever did. And if it happened in the western hemisphere I was on top of it. I honestly can’t keep all the dynastic nonsense and interminable warring of Europe straight. On this side of the Atlantic, though, the blank slate made things easier.
Plus, we had these great cool lost civilizations. They built pyramids. They built empires. They engaged in ritual human sacrifice. You’re gonna put X-Men up against that?
At least two of those civilizations were lost because the Spanish showed up. In the telling we meet the great explorers including Pizarro and Cortez. In Spanish they are conquistadores–conquerors. And that’s more like it. What did Neil say of Cortez? “What a killer.”
Civilizations don’t just disappear, though, and historical memory is long. So while the Spanish came to dominate America south of the Rio Grande they bought themselves an ongoing battle with the locals. At times resistance became rebellion.
To be a kuraka was to have a formal role in the Spanish colonial system. Condorcanqui’s job was to collect the head tax and maintain order in the towns he was responsible for. In effect, such persons legitimized the power structure. As members of the local community–importantly, non-Europeans–they sent a message to their fellow indigenous people: get on board, this is the game now. I am over simplifying but co-opting locals was always a top colonial priority.
In actual fact, though, things were more complicated. There was an ethnic element–Europeans were superior to creoles, that is, local born folk of European descent, who were more important than half castes who topped indios, the actual indigenous folk known as the Quechua.
And the power structure itself was under pressure. Imperial Spain was beginning to crack; within 50 years the Bolivian tide swept them off the continent.
Professor Walker spends much time on an often overlooked area: administration. The Spanish empire was Empire-light. There weren’t enough troops to control a continent so they relied on the Church and co-opted locals. The Bourbon monarchy was trying to impose a more formal, efficient structure at the time and that created political tensions among the Europeans.
Meanwhile, the indigenous types were not as monolithic as they appeared. The Incas themselves were actually conquerors, but the other Indians revered them. José Gabriel actually claimed descent from the last Inca emperor. And so he began calling himself Túpac Amaru after that lost man-god.
Just why things exploded when they did is one of the great unexplained mysteries of this tale. The tax burden on the native population had been increased. There had been sporadic violence recently. And José Gabriel had lost a protracted legal case that would have established his claims to his Incan lineage. Pick one.
In any case, in early November 1780, after a lovely lunch with the local corregidor, another level of colonial official, the trap was sprung. Antonio de Arriaga was ambushed and captured. Brought before his lunchtime companion he discovered José Gabriel was now Túpac Amaru and that he, a face of mighty Spain, was to be executed for criminally exploiting the people in a way that the King never intended. He was hung in a very public display.
And then things got crazy messy. The rebellion was launched in Tungasuca, Túpac Amaru’s hometown, located in a valley about 50 miles southwest of Cusco. Distance is important because you travel was on horseback or by foot. Add in the Andes and the altitude–most of the action took place above 10,000 feet–and the battle became more difficult. The terrain also provided the advantage to the rebels, especially when they faced ground troops from Lima, located at sea level.
The rebel’s initial success was great, so great in fact that Túpac Amaru took off for the southern end of the province 500 miles away. Within weeks of launching the insurrection he was in the area of Lake Titicaca stirring up the locals and forcing the Royalists to flee to Arequipa. Back north his wife, Micaela Bastidas, ran the rebel army. Walker makes a strong case that her role was not only critical but that it has been under-recognized because of both her birth and sex. Micaela was Quechua.
Túpac Amaru returned north and took the battle to Cusco. Here he miscalculated in a fatal way. He presumed that the locals would rise up and join him. But they didn’t, or at least not in the numbers he expected. Walker is never really clear about this but it’s easy to speculate why. The closer you get to the center of power the more you have reason to go along, if only to get along.
By March 1781 the would-be-restored-Incan-king was captured. By May he had been tried and his execution–a public and brutal display meant to force anyone with similar ideas into submission–completed. When quartering him failed his throat was slit and select body parts removed for display around the country.
But the rebellion pressed on for more than another year in the south almost uniting with a separate rebel group that arose around La Paz in what is now Bolivia. Led by Micaela and Jose Gabriel’s son, that portion of the rebellion ended in a ceasefire negotiated between Diego Cristobal and the Archbishop.
The Church played an unsung role in this episode if only because Jose Gabriel’s piety led him to privilege priests. That created a back channel which along with his excommunication aided his undoing.
There’s much more and if you care to learn about this undertold story of our American past Professor Walker’s book is a fine single volume telling with some trenchant observations.
If you’ve heard enough consider this: despite the best efforts of colonial Spanish authorities to extinguish all evidence of Tupac Amaru his legend lived on. One of Peru’s leftist governments made him the face of agrarian reform. In the 1960s Raul Sendic and Jose Mujica founded an urban guerilla movement in Uruguay. They christened themselves the Tupamaros.