Brooke Larson. Trials of Nation Making: Liberalism, Race, and Ethnicity in the Andes, 1810-1910. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xv + 299 pp. $84.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-56171-6; $27.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-521-56730-5.
Reviewed by Peter Blanchard (University of Toronto)
Published on H-LatAm (May, 2010)
Commissioned by Dennis R. Hidalgo (Virginia Tech)
The Brutal Side of Nineteenth-Century Liberalism
This is a paperback edition of a book that was first published in 2004, which in turn was a revision and expansion of an essay that appeared in the Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas: South America in 1999. In many ways it is a continuation of Kenneth Andrien’s Andean Worlds: Indigenous History, Culture, and Consciousness under Spanish Rule, 1532-1825 (2001), as it takes the history of the indigenous peoples of the Andes through the “long” nineteenth century. Its geographical focus is the highland regions of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, which are examined in the context of the various changes that affected the inhabitants during the first hundred years after independence, with special emphasis on the application of the liberal ideas of the day. Brooke Larson notes that while the lives of the locals may have been altered significantly by these changes, they were not simply passive objects for they managed to have an impact on what was taking place. Relying largely on secondary sources that are carefully evaluated in a concluding bibliographic chapter, she argues that elite attempts in the four countries to marginalize and even eliminate the indigenous populations as a separate and identifiable group during the century were largely unsuccessful. As a result, she concludes: “the Andes entered the twentieth century without having built a hegemonic ‘language of contention’ to replace the shattered colonial heritage of ‘colonial republics’ or to contain the resurgence of ethnic politics” (p. 13).
The liberal thrust began with the independence wars, although with severe limitations as elites were interested in change but also wanted to maintain many elements of the colonial past. With regard to the indigenous population, the application of liberalism was most apparent in the attempts to end the colonial head tax and to break up the traditional communal holdings in order to transform the inhabitants into yeomen farmers, a frequently repeated goal of the liberator, Simón Bolívar. Financial realities, however, quickly brought this experiment to a halt, as the economies of the new republics were in such shambles that the head tax was often the only sure source of income. Liberalism, thus, took a back seat until the middle of the century when the spread of industrial capitalism provided a boost to the struggling countries’ economies and the financial wherewithal to abolish the head tax once and for all. This economic transformation also resulted in a resurgence of liberalism and attention to the highlands, as the accompanying transportation revolution, in the form of railroads and steamships, helped make profitable the export of raw materials originating in the Andes. In the process, the area and their inhabitants came under renewed and often unprecedented pressures that were frequently presented in terms of the liberal agenda but were more often a direct response to the spread of capitalism. The divestiture of communal properties began anew, transforming communalists into private subsistence farmers, wage earners for the mines and expanding haciendas, migrant workers, and often a combination of all three. Yet despite the liberal attack on their way of life, communal properties managed to survive--to a significant extent in the case of Bolivia--in large part because the Andeanists responded to the challenges by engaging in various forms of resistance. Often the Indians followed patterns of the colonial era, taking their complaints to the authorities both locally and in the capital cities. But they also adapted the new liberal terminology to protect their individual and property rights. In extreme cases, they turned to violence and in the process gainsaid the traditional view of Indians as a meek and unresponsive population. Consequently, the “Indian problem,” seen by many creole elites as the principal “impediment to order, progress, civilization, and modernity,” remained unresolved as the new century began (p. 51).
In the four countries, Larson finds that the approach of elites and governments to the Indian “issue” followed different paths. In the case of Colombia with its comparatively small indigenous population and limited amount of communal land, liberal intellectuals tended to focus more on the country’s much larger black population as the cause of Colombia’s lack of development, with the result that the Indians were seen in less negative terms and as a group who could be assimilated. However, the effects were hardly beneficial. The resulting policy of “whitening” or mestizaje, which was to be accomplished partly through European immigration, was accompanied by the dispossession, impoverishment, and forced migration of the Andean peoples. Their response was rarely violent, but during the War of the Thousand Days (1899-1902), some, notably the Páez people of the Cauca region, took advantage of the turmoil to engage in protests. These had little impact, however, for internal divisions, which developed with the exploitation of the quinine-bearing cinchona trees of the region, prevented any effective resistance, and it was not until well into the twentieth century that indigenous pressure finally began to have an impact on the centers of power.
In neighboring Ecuador, Indians constituted a much larger proportion of the population, liberalism was a much less powerful force, and the authorities adopted a more traditional approach to the Indian issue. Tribute remained a vital financial support for the government while indigenous labor was essential to the nation’s expanding estates. When Ecuador began to modernize after mid-century, the authorities resorted to forced Indian labor to achieve it, a sharp contradiction to the liberal idea of free enterprise. Some Andean communal holdings managed to survive and even prosper despite the exploitation and atomizing conditions of the late nineteenth century, as Larson’s case study of the Otavalo Indians reveals. But their story was in many ways exceptional, as animosities continued to simmer, and further challenges associated with modernization set off violent confrontations in the 1920s that affected both the highlands as well as the lowland regions.
In Peru, the proportion of the population that was indigenous was even greater. Censuses late in the nineteenth century registered that almost two-thirds of the population was still considered “Indian.” Consequently, the head tax remained a vital source of government revenues for decades, and to ensure its survival Indian communities remained firmly established and under the control of Indian leaders. Liberals and their program finally began to make inroads from the 1840s as a result of the influx of revenues from the guano trade that ended the government’s dependence on tribute and created the possibility for modernization. Attention once again focused on the Indian issue, but the latter’s numbers meant that mestizaje was not a viable option, and when the guano boom collapsed in the 1860s, the head tax was reimposed. Protests followed that were bloodily suppressed, a foretaste of what was come. The unrest, however, drew attention to the status of the Indians and attempts were made to end some of the servile relations that still existed in the region, with the goal of preparing Indians to participate in the new modernizing project. It was a policy, however, that was firmly resisted by highland elites, and even liberal leaders were less than committed, unwilling to accept Indians as “political and ‘civil(ized)’ subjects” (p. 164). Suffering at the hands of rapacious landholders and offered little by the state, highlanders exploded again in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A central factor in this was the country’s devastating defeat in the War of the Pacific (1879-83) that weakened many of the longstanding controlling mechanisms. It led to Indian-supported guerrilla movements and sparked rebellions that despite brutal attempts at repression managed to persist, in some cases into the new century. The war and the subsequent unrest also refocused the attention of the Lima elites on the region as they sought to recover from the military disaster. Many blamed the indigenous population for the defeat, deliberately ignoring the latter’s wartime contributions. It was further grist to their racist mill as they reiterated earlier charges of Indians lacking civilization and being unworthy even of assimilation.
In Bolivia, with its similarly large indigenous population, the response was much the same, although here the elites were living in the midst of the targeted population, unlike in Peru where they were largely distant in the capital. Peasant communities continued to possess much of the land, as governments remained dependent on their tribute, but liberal reforms of the landholding system in the 1860s saw significant amounts of those lands being absorbed by expanding latifundia. The resulting hostility led to agitation that culminated in 1871 with the president being forced from office. But the attacks on communalism soon resumed, prompting even more unrest, often in the form of a grassroots movement that challenged the new landholding regime largely through legal means, as well as a combination of both traditional and modern methods. A striking example of this was the alliance between indigenous groups and the Liberal Party that in the Federalist Revolution of 1899 brought an end to Conservative political domination. However, a massacre of white soldiers provided the new Liberal leaders with an excuse to accuse indigenous leader of planning a race war and direct the Federalist army against its former allies. Almost three hundred of the Indians’ leaders were subsequently executed. The demographic reality and events such as these ensured that, as in Peru, the assimilationist groups who appeared in Colombia were nowhere to be found. There were too many Indians and attitudes toward them were far too negative. They were to be retained and kept in their place as an essential labor force in the countryside, where they could maintain their customs while being taught agricultural skills, temperance, and hygiene. They were not considered equals and they certainly were not going to be permitted to play a role in the political life of the nation.
The four regions permit Larson to examine the particularities of each while fitting them into the commonalities of her overarching argument. Specialists may find the discussion somewhat general and at times even superficial; moreover, new works that have appeared in the past six years would no doubt lead to a somewhat modified picture and produce some additional lines to pursue. Nevertheless, this remains a useful overview of and handy source for the events of the period. It contains a detailed examination of the debates regarding the Indian, which again underline the regional differences as well as the continuities of the Andes. In the process, Larson indirectly raises an interesting question about how we should approach the word “liberal.” The response of those calling themselves liberals to what they perceived to be a problem was often accompanied by policies that were notable for their exploitation, selfishness, and repression, as well as the most appallingly racist language. In other words, their responses displayed anything but the generosity that the word implies. “Liberal” has in recent years acquired a rather negative connotation among some circles--one that is hardly justified. However, the responses of liberals to the Andean populations during the nineteenth century seem to deserve the harshest of criticisms and cause one to wonder whether a more accurate word should be employed to describe them and their policies.
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Peter Blanchard. Review of Larson, Brooke, Trials of Nation Making: Liberalism, Race, and Ethnicity in the Andes, 1810-1910.
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