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.
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.