Milner Cajahuaringa

Tupac Amaru II, the late-eighteenth-century leader of the Peruvian rebellion against the Spanish crown

Between 1780 and 1782, when the rebellion of the British colonists in North America was reaching its climax, a still more savage drama was being played out in South America. The Andes were in revolt, and Spain, like Britain, was faced with the prospect of losing one of its most prized overseas possessions. Since the overthrow of the Inca empire in the 1530s and the discovery of the silver mountain of Potosí in the high Andes in 1545, the viceroyalty of Peru had generated a substantial part of the wealth that enabled Spain to create and maintain its “empire of the Indies” and its position as a leading European power. Now suddenly in 1780 Spain saw its control of Peru placed in jeopardy by a minor Indian nobleman, José Gabriel Condorcanqui, who laid claim to the royal blood of the Incas as a direct descendant of the last Inca ruler, Tupac Amaru, captured and executed by the Spaniards in 1572.

The rebellion of Tupac Amaru II, as Condorcanqui came to style himself, was the largest and most dangerous rebellion faced by the Spanish crown in its American empire before the great upheavals of the early nineteenth century that culminated in its loss. Although there had been innumerable disturbances and uprisings over the course of some two and a half centuries of Spanish imperial rule, these had for the most part been fairly small-scale and localized, and were suppressed with relative ease. This was partly because of the coercive power at the disposal of the imperial authorities once they chose to deploy it, but much of the relative tranquility of the new multi-ethnic societies that emerged in the wake of conquest can be attributed to the system of government that evolved as Spain’s Habsburg rulers imposed elaborate judicial and administrative structures on the conquered territories.

Under this system, Spaniards and creoles (their American-born descendants), the indigenous peoples (all subsumed under the name of “Indians”), and a growing population of mestizos, of mixed Indian and European ancestry, with the further addition of African blood as increasing numbers of slaves were imported, were all nominally welded into one organic whole, whether in the viceroyalty of New Spain (Mexico) or in that of Peru. Each was conceived as a Christian commonwealth ruled by a distant but allegedly beneficent monarch and watched over by a ubiquitous church. Within this hierarchically organized society each section of the community theoretically possessed its own allotted space. A native elite of caciques, or kurakas as they were known in Peru, served as intermediaries between the royal authorities and the indigenous population; and every individual or community had the right of appeal up the bureaucratic chain to the king himself. This system left room for maneuver both to the rulers and the ruled.

How, then, did it come about that the system failed at the end of the 1770s, and that Spain, ruled by the Bourbons since the turn of the century, found itself confronted by a mass uprising that threatened the loss of vast areas of Peru? This is a question that has exercised generations of historians, and the literature on the rebellion of Tupac Amaru II is enormous. Some of these historians have focused on the charismatic figure of José Gabriel himself, and on the grievances that led him to raise the standard of rebellion. Others, particularly in recent years, have sought to relate him and his cause to the unique characteristics of Andean society and to the changes it was undergoing in the eighteenth century, in part resulting from the administrative and economic reforms introduced by the new Bourbon dynasty.

There is certainly no lack of documents on which historians can draw. The judicial inquiries and court cases that followed the capture of the leaders and the collapse of the revolt generated a vast amount of documentation, much of it preserved in the Archive of the Indies in Seville; and between 1980 and 1982 seven volumes of documents on the rebellion were published in Peru to celebrate the second centenary of the uprising. Yet in spite of this mass of material, many puzzles remain, and it is with these puzzles that Charles F. Walker has grappled in the first extended survey of the causes and the course of the Tupac Amaru rebellion to appear in English since 1966.1

Walker, a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, is the author of two previous books on late colonial Peru: one, the more recent, was devoted to the middle years of the eighteenth century, and the other ran from the Tupac Amaru rebellion to the somewhat precarious establishment of an independent Peruvian republic in the nineteenth century.2 Although the first two chapters of the latter, Smoldering Ashes, are devoted to the rebellion and its background, most of it deals with the subsequent period as the embers of the conflagration died down, to be swallowed up in a still-greater conflagration as the viceroyalty found itself embroiled in the revolutionary Spanish-American wars of independence. With the Tupac Amaru rebellion as a potential point of transition between late-colonial and republican Peru, it must have seemed logical to link the two books with a close study of the violent events that brought death and tragedy to tens of thousands of inhabitants of the Andes in the 1780s.


The result is a lucid and accessible survey, in which Walker skillfully blends narrative with explanation to construct a harrowing story of violence and atrocities on an enormous scale. The narrative is well paced and efficiently written, although there are occasional stylistic infelicities, as when he writes that Tupac Amaru’s supporters “sought to right an out-of-sync system,” or tells us that the Spanish visitor general, José Antonio de Areche, “vented” the words that he goes on to quote. Some of his set pieces, in particular those describing the hideous deaths inflicted on Tupac Amaru and his wife, family, and followers, are painfully vivid, and he makes judicious use of his sources, pointing out, for instance, the need for careful reading of witness statements at judicial inquiries, as when an illiterate Indian repeats almost verbatim the words spoken by the judge on the previous day.

He is good, too, at evoking the setting—the impossible geography of the Andes, with their towering mountain ranges, craggy passes, and precipitous tracks; the extremes of cold and wetness; the abrupt changes of altitude, rising to 12,000 feet or more above sea level, that made travelers from the coastal regions breathless and sick, and whose effects had to be counteracted by constant chewing on coca leaves, the remedy used by the peoples of the Andes themselves.

All this is well described, and will give Anglophone readers a perceptive and reliable account of the terrible events that occurred far away from what they naturally regard as the principal center of action at that time, the British North American colonies, a mere 322,000 square miles in size, as compared with an Andean surface area of just over a million.3 Walker’s narrative, however, does not substantially alter the general picture that has emerged from work published in recent decades, although his careful reading of the documents has allowed him to add fresh details and insights, in particular about the active participation in the revolt of Micaela Bastidas, Tupac Amaru’s wife, and about the extent to which the rebellion did or did not enjoy the support of the church and the parish priests.

Essentially Walker’s book can be regarded as a valuable synthesis of the current state of knowledge about the uprising and its origins. In spite of all the efforts of historians and anthropologists, it may not be possible to get much further, especially as Andean memories and belief systems, a rich source alongside written documents, have already been mined to good effect.4 Otherwise there is little beyond the records generated by the imperial regime and its adherents to allow entry into the inner lives of the eighteenth-century peoples of the Andes.

Those peoples were very far from constituting a composite identity. Many were peasants, but many others were town-dwellers, and many, too, including in all probability Tupac Amaru himself, had European blood in their veins. There were numerous divisions and fissures in Andean society, and not the least of these were ethnic and linguistic divisions, most notably between the Quechua-speaking peoples of the Cuzco region in southern Peru and the Aymara speakers of the Lake Titicaca region and Upper Peru (today’s Bolivia). The Aymaras had been incorporated by force into the Inca empire, and persisting tensions between them and the Quechuas were critical to the character and development of the Andean rebellion.

As Walker makes clear, the story of the rebellion has tended to be told from the standpoint of the former Inca capital Cuzco, a city and region that have been extensively studied. The problem for him, as for all historians of the uprising—or, more correctly, uprisings—is how to combine an account of the events in the Cuzco region with those unfolding on what he calls “the other side” of Lake Titicaca. The differences, however, are crucial to the understanding of the story.

The rise and fall of Tupac Amaru take up only the first, though the major, part of the book. We then move to the other side of Lake Titicaca to follow the Aymara uprising, which intermittently joined forces with that of Tupac Amaru and his followers. This sectional division, although no doubt necessary for the construction of a coherent narrative, tends to suggest a chronological and geographical sequence, with rebellion moving southward from Cuzco to the region of La Paz, some 325 miles away. In fact the chronology was if anything the other way around. Tomás Katari, an Aymara, and, like Tupac Amarua, a kuraka, made his first open moves in defense of the oppressed Indian communities of Upper Peru in 1777, a year rumored to promise the cataclysmic overthrow of an unjust world order. Tupac Amaru may by this time have been plotting, but he only launched his rebellion in November 1780, three months after Katari had launched a rebellion of his own.


Tomás Katari fell into the hands of the Spanish authorities, who executed him in January 1781, but the rebellion continued under the direction first of his brothers and then, after they too had been captured and executed, of a poor Indian with little or no Spanish, the charismatic Julián Apaza. The new leader assumed the name of Tupac Katari in honor both of the Kataris and of Tupac Amaru himself, who had suffered an agonizing death, dragged apart by four horses, in Cuzco’s principal plaza on May 18, 1781. The katarista movement had a momentum of its own, and the growing estrangement between the kataristas and the tupamaristas, now led by Tupac Amaru’s cousin, Diego Cristóbal, would help to seal the fate of both.


The two movements, which Walker briefly compares, differed in important respects—for instance, the “glorified image” of the Inca past was far more important to the tupamaristas—but both aspired to relieve the Andean communities of the oppressive burdens that made a misery of their lives. Many of those burdens, including the mita, or forced labor service on rural haciendas, in textile workshops, and, most notoriously, in the silver and mercury mines, had existed in some form or other since the later sixteenth century, and were a long-standing source of grievance.

For various reasons, however, the burdens became even more oppressive in the years leading up to 1780. This was partly the consequence of a growing pressure on local resources, resulting from the gradual recovery of population levels after the cataclysmic losses of the post-conquest period—losses brought about by the upheavals of conquest and by the exposure of previously isolated populations to an array of European diseases. Conditions were aggravated, however, by new fiscal measures introduced by the Spanish Bourbons in an attempt to maximize revenues and “rationalize” the administration and the economy, as well as by an endemic corruption that affected every branch of the viceregal state.

In addition to the payment of tribute, Indian peasants were forced to buy often unwanted commodities, including locally produced textiles, at extortionate prices under a system known as the reparto de mercancías. Extortions were made all the worse by pressure from kurakas and other local officials who were themselves under pressure from the viceregal authorities for higher returns, while at the same time expecting their own share of the spoils. Inevitably there were many local variations in the degree of pressure and of resentment, but both Tomás Katari and Tupac Amaru could be sure of a wide response over a vast region when they proclaimed their intention to abolish the mita, the reparto, and sales taxes and customs houses.

In company with other historians Walker describes the consequent uprisings as “anti-colonial,” but in my view the blanket word “colonial,” which trips so lightly off modern tongues, tends to conceal as much as it reveals. In many parts of Peru the distinctions between colonists and colonized had become blurred over time, and the Katari and Tupac Amaru rebellions were highly complex movements engulfing societies that were themselves variegated and complex in composition and structure, and are too easily dismissed as straightforwardly “colonial.”

Peru itself was a kingdom among the composite of kingdoms and lesser territories that made up Spain’s monarchy and empire. In 1776, four years before the rebellions, what had hitherto been a single viceroyalty with its capital in Lima was broken up, with the Bolivian altiplano removed from Lima’s jurisdiction and incorporated into a new viceroyalty, La Plata, with its capital in Buenos Aires. The separation of Cuzco, the ancient capital of the Incas, from Potosí and the Lake Titicaca basin led to major economic and social disruptions that weakened the Peruvian viceroyalty, as silver and trade were diverted away from Cuzco, Lima, and the Pacific coast to Buenos Aires and the Spanish Atlantic.

Tupac Amaru and Tomás Katari now belonged to different jurisdictions. In 1777 Tupac Amaru went to Lima, partly to fight for legal recognition of his entitlement to a marquisate as the legitimate descendant of Tupac Amaru I, but also to plead on behalf of his people. Katari, for his part, traveled a year later to Buenos Aires with the same purpose in mind. Both returned home bitterly disappointed by their lack of success. As kurakas, and simultaneously as landholders, merchants, and muleteers, both were fully incorporated members, if modest ones, of the viceregal society to whose rulers they looked for redress.

Modesty, however, was not a quality that can be claimed for Tupac Amaru. The son of a local kuraka, he lived on the fringes of the mixed indigenous, creole, and mestizo elite of Cuzco, which proudly maintained Inca traditions and wore Inca dress. Like many members of that Inca nobility he was educated in the Jesuit college to which kurakas were accustomed to send their sons, and by the time he returned from his year in Lima he was both well informed and well read. His claims to be the heir of the first Tupac Amaru, however, jarred the Cuzco elite, and they stood aside when he announced his leadership of a revolt whose primary aim was to stamp out injustice throughout Peru.

Although later hailed as the precursor of Peruvian independence, Tupac Amaru’s was not a separatist movement. On the contrary, although he began his revolt with the judicial execution of a highly unpopular district governor—an execution vividly described in the opening pages of Walker’s book—he followed convention in looking to the king of Spain, Charles III, to punish and dismiss corrupt and evil officials, and he always claimed to be acting on the king’s behalf.

From the start he was keen to hold together creoles, mestizos, and pure-blood Indians, in the full awareness that unity was essential to his movement’s success. As a merchant and muleteer, constantly traveling the Andes, he had an extensive network of contacts; and, as a Spanish and Quechua speaker, he was ideally placed to cross social and ethnic, as well as geographical, boundaries. He could draw, too, on the strength of his family and kinship connections, and on the intelligence and impressive organizational skills of his wife, Micaela Bastidas, a fervently devout woman and a full partner in his leadership of the revolt, who, as Walker tells us in some of the most novel pages of his book, would encourage and cajole his Indian followers, plan military operations, and keep lines of communication open with parish priests.

As the self-proclaimed heir of the last Inca ruler, and steeped in the history of his people, as told in the famous Royal Commentaries of the early-seventeenth-century mestizo chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega, his message was one that resonated powerfully across Andean society, blending as it did Andean notions of the well-ordered cosmos with messianic and utopian overtones that appear to have drawn on both European and Andean sources. His royal blood, too, gave him immense prestige in Indian communities, and many believed the claims of his followers that he was immortal and able to resurrect the dead. His message, however, was one that seems to have had an effect on different sectors of Andean society in different ways.

Walker has had no more success than earlier historians in determining his exact intentions, and the apparent confusion of so many of his statements suggests that he may well have tailored them to the specific audiences he wished to reach. His claims to be acting under direct orders from the king of Spain sat uneasily with his royal claims as an Inca, but it is possible that he thought of a dual kingship and saw no incompatibility in his stance. He told the people of Cuzco to “desert the Spaniards and free the slaves,” which Walker thinks refers to the African slaves largely concentrated in the coastal regions, but which I suspect is a more generalized reference to all the oppressed, irrespective of the exact form of bondage under which they labored.

Yet while preaching an uprising of the oppressed against their masters, he was desperate to keep people of Spanish descent, as well as the mestizos, as allies. Nor was he in any sense an enemy of the religion imposed by the conquerors on Peru. Many parish priests were hated by many Indian communities for their extortionate and grasping ways, but he firmly rejected appeals to abolish the priesthood and even insisted that the tithes required by the church would continue to be paid in the more just society that would soon be established. His excommunication and that of his followers by the bishop of Cuzco came as a sudden and potentially devastating reversal, but he claimed that as an Indian he could not be excommunicated, and that anyhow he was a model Christian, regularly attending mass.

Not surprisingly, he failed to hold together the different ethnic and social groups that he hoped to unite, but there was disunity also among those who opposed him. There was no standing army in the viceroyalty, it took time to assemble local militias, and his insurgency, although it failed to capture Cuzco, spread fast over large areas of territory. As Walker shows, Tupac Amaru, whose troops were for the most part armed only with lances, knives, slings, and rocks thrown down from the heights, waged an effective guerrilla campaign.

Every act of violence, however, was met with more violence. In spite of its leader’s appeals for restraint, the most horrific atrocities were committed by all sides, and, not surprisingly, property owners and members of the elite, especially creoles or those of mixed race, took fright. As the insurrection moved south to more purely Indian areas, and Tupac Amaru’s restraining hand was removed once he had been captured and killed, the violence grew still more intense. Indians accused Spaniards of being heretics and bad Christians, and turned their fury on those with “white” skins.

This was particularly true of Tupac Katari’s followers in the Aymara-speaking region, who twice subjected the city of La Paz to prolonged sieges, and carried the revolt into Chile and what is now northern Argentina. Insurrections that had been launched with the aim of creating a just social order took on the character of a caste war, in the sense that ethnicity as well as hierarchy and social status increasingly came to define the “enemy.” Meanwhile, on the opposing side the same process was at work in reverse among the forces of the viceroyalty.

Repression when it came was savage and prolonged. Captured rebels were given farcical trials and, after gruesome deaths, their body parts were liberally distributed through the towns and communities of the Andes. Breaking with traditional policies designed to preserve a space for the “republic of the Indians,” Visitor General Areche sought to carry out a policy of what Walker calls “cultural genocide,” prohibiting the representation of Inca dramas and the wearing of Inca dress, destroying the portraits of Inca ancestors, banning the reading of Garcilaso de la Vega’s allegedly inflammatory Royal Commentaries, and forcing the use of Spanish on Quechua speakers. The full implementation of these draconian measures, which were opposed by other officials and failed to gain any meaningful support from Madrid, was in any case well beyond the very limited administrative and military resources at the disposal of the viceregal state.

The brutality of the repression, however, could not be expunged from the collective memory of the Andean peoples, for all the attempts of the viceregal authorities to cast a blanket of silence over the rebellion. An embittered indigenous population was driven in on itself, while creoles and mestizos, similarly traumatized by the events of 1780–1782, hesitated in the period of the wars of independence to imitate the example of other parts of Spanish America and break their ties with Spain. Independence did not look a very attractive proposition when the prospect of a return to anarchy and a new reign of terror stared them in the face.

The rebellions of Tupac Amaru II and of Tomás Katari, then, would cast a long shadow over nineteenth- and twentieth-century Bolivia and Peru. While elites tried to keep their Indian populations on the margins of political and social life and if anything strengthened their hold over the peasantry in the post-independence period, the indigenous communities nurtured their memories of the eighteenth-century rebellions and kept alive their dreams. The indigenista movements of the twentieth century, which aspired to realize those dreams, would in due course result, in 2006, in the installation of Evo Morales in the presidential palace in La Paz as the first leader from the indigenous population to be democratically elected president of Bolivia. In Peru, ironically, it was the military regime of General Velasco Alvarado of 1968–1975 that elevated Tupac Amaru II into a national symbol as the precursor of its agrarian reform program and as the heroic defender of indigenous rights, while in 1980 adherents of Peru’s Shining Path unleashed the terror that they hoped would bring utopia to the Andes. Tupac Amaru’s rebellion may not have the high historical profile of the contemporaneous American and French Revolutions, but it lit a fuse that continues to burn.