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Colección: INTERAMER
Número: 59
Año: 1999
Autor: José Luis Romero
Título: Latin America: Its Cities and Ideas

Reform and Revolution

Creole society was the fruit of an internal social process within the colonial world. It was, above all, the result of a marked divergence in the demographic growth of white groups and non-white castes. Whereas non-whites mixed and mingled and multiplied themselves, native-born Spaniards and Portuguese came and went and their white Creole offspring became an increasingly smaller group of the population. Creole society was also the product of mestizaje and acculturation, as the gap that originally separated the conqueror from the conquered, whites from other racial groups, became narrower and narrower despite the efforts, often more formal than effective, that the whites made to contain the process. But the expansion of Creole society and, more importantly, its rapid integration were the result of a set of circumstances that the reformist groups from the peninsula introduced and out of which a new elite emerged: the enlightened Creole bourgeoisie.

Then, the ministers of Carlos III of Spain and José I of Portugal—Aranda, Floridablanca, Pombal—began to press for reform in the mother countries. By the mid-eighteenth century, the pressure that the mercantilist world was exerting on the peninsula was so great that the more enlightened groups headed a movement to reshape economic, social and cultural life in the two kingdoms. It was the age of “reform,” a time when structures were readjusted but not radically changed. The adjustments were based on reasoned decisions and on foreign experience, and were calculated to uproot the old biases and entrenched systems that were stifling opportunities for development and expansion.

These reforms had some impact on the political system, but it only served to heighten royal authoritarianism. There was to be no opposition to the king’s decisions, since they were regarded as the embodiment of reason itself. The traditional pressure groups—aristocracy and clergy—were made to yield to a royalist policy that basically sought to curb their power. A monarchy surrounded by intellectuals and advised by them was the ideal of the new enlightened groups.

The reformist policy was, obviously, a child of the Enlightenment, the philosophy that would have reason rather than custom rule the world. It was an “aristocratic” philosophy that distinguished between select minorities and the vulgar masses, which included not only the ignorant lower classes but also those who, “although of noble birth, had never managed to escape the fog of ignorance,” as an author who epitomized the new thinking once wrote. Government was to be in the hands of those select minorities that were informed and enlightened by reason. Since their main concern was that all spheres of society should have people like them, education became their fundamental objective.

Educational reform was to be more than just teaching the masses to read and write. More importantly, education was supposed to select the very best and instill in them the new ideas that by then had begun to be codified, not only in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, but also in the works of many authors who chose to systematize and spread those ideas rather than undertaking new scientific or speculative inquiries. Colleges, institutes of higher learning, libraries, and scientific journals were preferred over the many elementary schools that taught reading and writing to people who would never advance beyond that level of instruction. The purpose of education was to be to increase the ranks of the select minorities, educated in the new physical and natural sciences, sensitive to the pressing needs of an unjust and static society, and utterly committed to the new truth that Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos spelled out in his Informe sobre el libre ejercicio de las artes (Report on the free practice of the arts):

The grandeur of a nation would no longer depend, as it once did, on the splendor of its victories, on the militaristic spirit of its sons, on the size of its territory or the merits of its glory, its honesty or its wisdom. . . . All that is different now, with the new system that is reigning in Europe. Commerce and industry and the wealth they engender are and probably will long be the only pillars upon which the power of a State will rest.

Thus educational reforms took precedence over all other reforms in society and the economy, both of which had to be freed of outdated attitudes and prejudices. The equality of men was a rational principle and an indictment of the traditional system of privilege. The poor were victims of the system and it was imperative to help them. But most important of all, no one was to be idle, either among the poor who were unable to find work or among the rich who considered work dishonorable. Nothing was more backward than the prejudice that condemned all forms of manual labor as inferior and vile. And since the world was marching towards the dominance of commerce and industry, it was only fitting that mechanical trades and manual labor should be given freedom to develop and operate on their own.

The reformist mentality brought about a new conception of colonial policy. If until then the colonies had been seen merely as a source of wealth for the mother countries, it now had to be admitted that colonial societies were entitled to work for their own benefit, which would in turn benefit the mother country. This was the reasoning of the progressive native-born Spaniards and Portuguese; this was what they preached in their books and practiced with their policies. It was inevitable that they should have disciples in the colonies.

But as soon as it began to be applied, the reformist policy divided opinions both in Brazil and in the Hispanic world. As happened in the mother countries, these innovative ideas were chipping away at a very closed system whose beneficiaries saw their privileges threatened. The expulsion of the Jesuits—in 1759 in Brazil and in 1767 in the Hispanic world—revealed the reach and scope of the new way of thinking. And from then on it became obvious that the native-born Spaniards and Portuguese of the Indies were split between those who enthusiastically embraced the change and those who rejected it outright. It was in that schism that the budding Creole bourgeoisie would find their niche. In the beginning its presence was minimal. But it would soon define itself as a group or a class whose members associated their immediate expectations with the reformist ideology of the mother country. If the progressive native-born Spaniards and Portuguese of the Indies accepted or took advantage of the conditions created by the reformist policy, it was the new Creole bourgeoisie that embraced the reformist philosophy of the Enlightenment. With every day that passed, it was that philosophy that set the Creole bourgeoisie apart and gave its members cohesiveness and continuity, even though some of its groups would eventually discover that, given the right circumstances, that reformist philosophy could become, at any point, a revolutionary ideology.

But in the meantime, the peninsula continued to promote the reformist movement, which was spread throughout the colonies thanks to the work of enlightened officials like Vértiz, Bucarelli, Mayorga, Revillagigedo, Gálvez, Caballero y Góngora, Lavradio. The establishment of free trade was decisive in boosting economic life, especially in the cities. Suddenly there was more wealth and more work. There were more hospitals and better prisons. There were theaters, printing presses, and newspapers. Brazil had a number of academies: two in Rio, the Academy of the Select founded in 1752 and the Scientific Academy of Rio de Janeiro established in 1770; one in Villa Rica, the Arcadia Academy, which opened in 1760 and eventually housed the mining school. But the Arcadia Academy was involved in the Tiradentes plot, and the Scientific Academy in Rio de Janeiro, which had had so much influence on scientific and economic development, was abruptly dissolved in 1792 by an anti-reformist viceroy, the Count of Rezende. The Universidad de Charcas was undergoing its own renaissance, while Buenos Aires’ recently established Real Convictorio Carolina and Academia Náutica were both receptive to the new ideas. In Mexico City, a Mining School founded, as well as the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts and the Botanical Gardens. The work of the Spaniard José Celestino Mutis and of the criollo Francisco José de Caldas transformed Bogota into an important scientific center. But even before the arrival of Mutis, Bogota had a public library that Francisco Antonio Moreno y Escandón had founded, and later had an astronomical observatory as well. The young people who came to these centers of modern thought had a thirst for knowledge and a vibrant desire to transform the colonial world.

Through unexpected channels, however, the reform was gradually transforming itself into revolution. The gentlemen who wore powdered wigs preferred to speak with carefully chosen words about the possible benefits of education, but some of their ideas were embraced by those who wanted to take action against the established system. A wave of anti-colonial insurrections, varying in scope, began to spread throughout the Spanish empire in 1780. While the Indian insurrection that Túpac Amaru would lead later that year was still brewing in the countryside, urban riots broke out, during the first months of the year, in Arequipa, Cuzco, La Paz, Charcas, Cochabamba, and in some cities and towns in Peru. England was perhaps behind this movement, but its native roots became visible in the events that took place thirty years later. The riot in Arequipa involved “all of the people of the city and those who lived outside its walls and in the suburbs, over 1,000 mestizos, zambos, blacks and Indians, men and women alike.” The rebellion in Cuzco was led by a mestizo Creole by the name of Lorenzo Farfán de los Godos whose followers included Indians and the city’s master silversmiths. In La Paz, the movement took a new twist when slogans appeared on the walls reading “Down with the King of Spain,” a cry never before heard. These movements almost always protested something tangible: new taxes and, in Arequipa’s case, an attempt to put mestizos on the same footing with Indians and to make them pay an annual tax. It was Creole society in all its diversity that was on the move, if only at its lower levels. It appears that many of its members were entertaining separatist thoughts; some were even toying with the idea of becoming part of the British Empire. Toward the end of 1780, two movements developed in Santiago: the conspiracy of Don Juan, which was a plan to make Chile a British protectorate, and the French conspiracy, which sought independence inspired by the example of the British colonies in North America. Neither conspiracy actually came into action.

But in November 1780, the rebellion of Túpac Amaru erupted in Alto Peru. It was a predominantly Indian and rural movement, but it held many of the ideas advocated by the enlightened elite. This rebellion produced a profound commotion. It was, for many, a revelation of an unsuspected power that until then had remained hidden within the new American society. And the emotions aroused by that revelation were diverse and often contradictory. Groups that for centuries had been under submission believed that the time for action had finally arrived, or at least a time for hope. And those in power were shaken as they saw the worst fears of the early conquerors come true. This dramatic episode revealed to the criollos the ambivalence of their own position, which, from then on, they examined and re-examined in all its implications and possibilities. The movement itself, however, was brutally put down, and the fears of those in power were assuaged, but there still remained their concern for the fate of the new society, which was reaching yet another stage in its development.

Amid the upheaval of the Indian, rural insurrection, some urban movements erupted in Cochabamba and Charcas, but the most significant ones were those in Oruro and Tupiza. In February 1781, while the fate of Tupac Amaru’s movement was still undecided, a rebellion broke out in Oruro. It laid bare the confusion of tension and violence among the various social groups. Spaniards, Creoles, mestizos, and Indians were locked in a complex interplay of forces. Faced with the threat of an Indian uprising, the Spaniards decided to close ranks and in so doing revealed their mistrust of the Creoles, with whom they had long been vying for political supremacy over the city. Their thinking revealed itself in an act of far-reaching importance: they expelled two wealthy, newly-elected Creole mine owners from the city government. As the insurrection of the mestizos within the city was growing, native-born Spaniards and Creoles were facing off because the former feared an alliance between Creoles and castes. That was precisely what happened. Having taken control of the city with the help of neighboring Indians and after a violent struggle, the townspeople made a Creole miner, Jacinto Rodríguez, the highest ranking judge. But in the days that followed, alliances shifted. Mestizos and Indians went too far in their persecution of the gentry, and Creoles backed off: they denounced their temporary allies and entered into a new alliance with the native-born Spaniards. Together, the two fiercely suppressed the common people who had risen up and the Indians who had supported them.

This ambivalence on the part of the wealthy Creoles was symptomatic of a social situation: they toyed with the idea of disassociating themselves from the native-born Spaniards and Portuguese, perhaps in order to gain independence. Yet they thought twice before taking the serious step of rallying that motley society to their side, as they were unsure of its loyalties. Thirty years later that process would become somewhat better defined.

The movement that erupted in March 1780 in Nueva Granada was similar in some respects. The measures of an anti-reformist inspector, Gutiérrez de Piñeres, triggered a revolt among the centers most affected by his measures. Distinguished Creoles like the Marquis de San Jorge, led the protest, which violently started in Socorro and then spread quickly. The comuneros won the support of large numbers of Indians and, with that enlarged military force, defeated the troops sent from Bogota. In the end, agreement was reached and a surrender was signed at Zipaquirá whereby the new taxes were to be abolished, measures to protect the Indians were to be instituted, the Spanish officials were ousted and the authorities created by the insurrectionists recognized, all of which was a tacit acknowledgement of the Creoles’ rights. And although the terms of the surrender were never honored, the revolutionary process had laid bare the attitude of the Creole groups.

Some of the later movements were more obviously oriented towards independence. In Brazil, Joaquín José da Silva Xavier, known as “Tiradentes,” headed a revolutionary movement in Vila Rica in 1789. His supporters included the most distinguished personalities in the intellectual circle that had formed in that mining emporium. Vila Rica’s decadence by that time was disturbing to some of the common people, some property owners, and, above all, that enlightened minority who dreamed of a liberal republic. Kept in check by the Viscount of Barbacena, the conspiracy aborted in the end; but the play of social and political forces and the ideologies they upheld revealed that the common people were allying themselves with the upper Creole classes: the leaders of the movement were the literary advocates of “nativism,” which became a kind of battle cry. The conspiracy of the alfaiates of Bahia, in 1798, similarly joined the mulatto population with the upper-classes of the city in their desire to create a “Republic of Bahia.” Similar traits were visible, in 1797, in the aborted conspiracy of Gual y España, in which Venezuelans influenced by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the preachings of the French and the English had tried to put an end to Spanish rule. Blacks, mulattos, and Indians supported the efforts of Creoles and enlightened Spaniards who wanted to abolish slavery and open Venezuela’s ports to international commerce.

By then, however, Europe was already in the throes of its own crisis. In 1808, the Portuguese court responded to the Napoleonic threat by establishing itself in Rio de Janeiro. Native-born Portuguese and Brazilian Creoles fought for supremacy on all sides of the Regency. The crisis hit Spain, too. When it did, all enlightened groups in the American cities mobilized, convinced that independence was at hand. The most enlightened of all was the group that initiated the rebellion in Charcas, the city that was more of a piece with the new ideas. There on May 25, 1809, a small difference between the Chief and the judges of the Audiencia became a revolutionary movement. Bernardo Monteagudo and many other scholars and university students gave ideological direction to the Creole movement. It was a grassroots and a minority movement at the same time, since it drew a parallel between the ill-defined aspirations of the lower classes and the reformist ideology which events had transformed into a revolutionary one. The men of Charcas, particularly José Antonio Medina, took the revolutionary message to La Paz in the form of a Proclamation from the city of La Plata to the brave people of La Paz, which was attributed to Monteagudo. And Creoles were all the members of the Junta Tuitiva, which was definitely in favor of independence. Everything that in 1780 had seemed premature began to take hold by 1810. When the revolutionary forces that Buenos Aires sent to Alto Peru triumphed over the Spaniards at Suipacha, Juan José Castelli, a member of the Buenos Aires Junta, gathered the Indians at the ruins of Tiahuanaco to preach to them the gospel of liberty, equality and fraternity.

By that time, movements headed by urban Creole aristocracies had triumphed in Buenos Aires, Asunción and Santiago. Groups committed to the reforms inspired by the Enlightenment shaped their vision of the political future of the colonies into a revolutionary ideology that carried that reformist thinking to its ultimate consequences. Those groups rapidly replaced the views of the Spanish Enlightenment—moderate and constrained to monarchic ideals—with those of the French Enlightenment, which had abandoned reformism back in 1789. Jovellanos had been replaced by Rousseau, and although Napoleon signaled his intention to bring the revolutionary process to a halt, Creole groups restored Jacobean principles in order to accomplish a revolution that, more or less ostensibly, wanted to lead to independence. The movements in Caracas, Cartagena, and Bogota were similar. They were inspired by the passionate teachings of Francisco de Miranda and Antonio Nariño, translator of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and The Citizen. Symbolically, the movement in Bogota began with a personal dispute between a chapetón and a Creole. In the wake of that dispute, the lower classes closed ranks behind the wealthy businessmen and enlightened ideologues who spoke words that had little meaning for them. But the words connoted something else: an identity of purpose, however fleeting, which for the lower classes at least could mean one step more along the road to the integration to which they aspired.

These movements were essentially urban movements and they developed almost exclusively in the capitals. They made visible the division between native-born Spaniards and Portuguese on one side and Creoles on the other, as well as the fissures that would soon begin to show within the ranks of the Creoles themselves. Different degrees of wealth and integration produced, in each city, different social strata. But the most important fissures appeared between groups from different cities because of their competing interests and their rivalry as they struggled to attain political for power. Cordoba and Montevideo clashed with Buenos Aires and resisted the movement that the porteño bourgeoisie had initiated. In Mexico, a movement started by the Creole upper classes of Querétaro and San Miguel, with ramifications in other cities within the interior, succeeded in mobilizing the common people, especially farmers, who vented the violent anti-Spanish sentiments they shared with the provincial aristocracies. But they clashed with the upper classes from the capital, where native-born Spaniards and Creoles remained united because of their fear of the new ideological trends and of the popular movements, especially among Indians. The insurrection was suppressed with the defeat of Hidalgo and Morelos, but broke out again in a number of cities under new leaders. Things changed only when the Riego revolution broke out in Spain and the liberal constitution of 1812 was restored. Native-born Spaniards in Mexico City instituted a political process calculated to perpetuate absolutism in Mexico, but that decision only hastened the distancing between native-born Spaniards and Creoles: the individual elected as the instrument of change, Iturbide, reached an agreement with the rebels and began another separatist movement that within a few years would lay out the problem there in terms similar to those of the rest of Latin America.

Thus, in the cities, two politics successively emerged out of a process of social interpenetration and differentiation as well as of reception and adaptation of ideologies. As Creole society began to take shape, new minority groups, whites and to some extent mestizos, adopted as their own political stance he reformist notions of the enlightened native-born Spaniards and Portuguese. But they moved from reformism to revolutionary politics as soon as conditions were ripe to radicalize the process. The pace of the efforts to transform ideology into reality changed, but the ideology remained the same.