When the Habsburg monarchy gave way to the Bourbon kings in Spain at the beginning of the 18th century, shivers of protest seemed to reverberate deep in the Peruvian hinterland. There were a number of serious native rebellions against colonial rule during the next hundred years. One of the most important, though least known, was that led by Juan Santos Atahualpa, a “mestizo” from Cuzco. Juan Santos had travelled to Spain, Africa and, some say, to England as a young man in the service of a wealthy Jesuit priest. Returning to Peru in 1740 he was imbued with revolutionary fervour and moved into the high jungle region between Tarma and the Ucayali River where he roused the forest Indians to rebellion. Throwing out the whites, he established a millenarian cult and, with an Indian army recruited from several tribes, successfully repelled all attacks by the authorities. Although never extending his powers beyond Tarma, he lived a free man until his death in 1756.

Protests Against the “Repartimiento” System and Administrative Reforms

Twenty years later there were further violent native protests throughout the country against the enforcement of the “repartimiento.” Under this new system the peasants were obliged to buy most of their essential goods from the “corregidor,” who, as monopoly supplier, sold poor quality produce at grossly inflated prices.

In 1780, another “mestizo,José Gabriel Condorcanqui, led a rebellion, calling himself Tupac Amaru II. Whipping up the already inflamed peasant opinion around Cuzco into a revolutionary frenzy, he imprisoned a local “corregidor” before going on to massacre a troop of nearly six hundred Royalist soldiers. Within a year Tupac Amaru II had been captured and executed on 18 May 1781, but his rebellion had demonstrated both a definite weakness in colonial control and a high degree of popular unrest.

Over the next decade several administrative reforms were to alter the situation, at least superficially: the “repartimiento” and the “corregimento” systems were abolished. In 1784, King Charles III appointed a French nobleman – Teodoro de Croix – as the new viceroy to Peru and divided the country into seven “intendencias” containing 52 provinces. This created tighter direct royal control, but also unwittingly provided the pattern for the Republican State of federated “departmentos.”

Liberalism and the Philosophy of the Enlightenment

The end of the 18th century saw profound changes throughout the world. The North American colonies had gained their independence from Britain; France had been rocked by a people’s revolution; and liberal ideas were spreading everywhere. Inflammatory newspapers and periodicals began to appear on the streets of Lima, and discontent was expressed at all levels of society. A strong sense of Peruvian nationalism emerged in the pages of the Mercurio Peruano (first printed in the 1790s), a concept that was vital to the coming changes. Even the architecture of Lima had changed in the mid-eighteenth century, as if to welcome the new era. Wide avenues suddenly appeared, public parks were opened, and palatial salons became the focus for the discourse of gentlemen. The philosophy of the enlightenment was slowly but surely pervading attitudes even in remote Peru.

When, in 1808, Napoleon took control of Spain, the authorities and elites in all the Spanish colonies found themselves in a new and unprecedented position. Was their loyalty to Spain or to its rightful king? And just who was the rightful king now?

28 July 1821

Initially, there were a few unsuccessful, locally based protests in response both to this ambiguous situation and to the age-old agrarian problem, but it was only with the intervention of outside forces that independence was to become a serious issue in Peru. The American War of Independence, the French Revolution, and Napoleon’s invasion of Spain all pointed towards the opportunity of throwing off the shackles of colonialism, and by the time Ferdinand returned to the Spanish throne in 1814, Royalist troops were struggling to maintain order throughout South America. Venezuela and Argentina had already declared their independence, and in 1817 José de San Martín liberated Chile by force. It was only a matter of time before one of the great liberators – San Martín in the south or Simón Bolívar in the north – reached Peru.

San Martín was the first to do so. Having already liberated Argentina and Chile, he contracted an English naval officer, Lord Cochrane, to attack Lima. By September 1819 the first rebel invaders had landed at Paracas. Ica, Huánuco and then the north of Peru soon opted for independence, and the Royalists, cut off in Lima, retreated into the mountains. Entering the capital without a struggle, San Martín proclaimed Peruvian independence on 28 July 1821.


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