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The 1780 Rebellion of Tupac Amaru Ii and Micaela Bastidas in Colonial Peru

In 1780, the Spanish Viceroyalty of Perú was shaken by a massive rebellion, led by Túpac Amaru II – a man claiming to be the direct descendent of the last Sapa Inka, Túpac Amaru, who had led the final resistance of the Inca empire until his capture and execution by the Spanish in 1572. Tens of thousands of men and women flocked to Túpac Amaru’s army, under the leadership of him and his wife, Micaela Bastidas. For two and a half years, war raged across the Andes in the greatest challenge Spanish colonial rule had faced thus far. Ultimately, the rebellion went down to defeat, although it left behind it a heroic tradition of struggle. In the following article, Pascal Cueto analyses the sources of the uprising, the class forces that were involved, and the weaknesses that ultimately led to its downfall.

The conquest of America by the Spaniards formed an important part of capitalism’s ascent, and it wrought profound changes on both sides of the Atlantic. The Spaniards had arrived in search of gold and precious metals, part of capitalism’s phase of primitive accumulation. Ironically, this influx of gold benefitted Spanish industry little, and tended instead to benefit other nations like England and the Netherlands where manufacturing was developing.

On the other side of the ocean, a new commercial capitalist class had also arisen in Lima. And like its Spanish contemporaries, the colonial bourgeoisie invested little of the capital that it had accumulated in developing production. Instead, it merely increased imports of textiles and other goods from Europe. But failure to invest capital locally meant that other means had to be found to expand the internal market. It had to find some other means of increasing the extraction of the precious metals that it exchanged for European manufactured goods. These means were found in the expansion of forced labour.

To this end, the system known as the mita inherited from the Inca proved most useful to the Spanish colonial authorities. Under the Inca empire, this system of labour tribute imposed on the ayllu (the agrarian commune) was used for the purpose of public works that would to some degree benefit the whole population. But under the Spanish Crown, the mita was repurposed as a form of bonded labour purely for the enrichment of the ruling class, with no benefit to the ayllus which provided it. The Viceroyalty of Perú used it to put one in seven indigenous people to work in the private sector: in the textile workshops, the farms, and in the mines extracting gold and silver. Once a person was sent down the mines to perform the mita, it was almost a death sentence.

These barbaric policies of working the people to death combined with disease to decimate the population. The population of the territory of the former Inca empire dropped precipitously by 80 percent as a direct result of colonisation. The mita alone was insufficient. The merchant capitalists of Lima needed other means to increase the surplus extracted from the indigenous people.

In the second half of the 18th century, the Spanish Bourbon monarchs set about a series of reforms. Spain was rapidly being overtaken by powerful manufacturing nations in Europe, and its treasury was being depleted by European wars. As such, a series of measures, known as the Bourbon reforms, were introduced in an attempt to increase the Spanish and American colonial markets in an effort to stimulate trade and the growth of manufacturing, as well as to strengthen the power of the Monarchy. In the American colonies, as part of these reforms, policies were implemented to increase the surplus extracted from the indigenous people through economic coercion.

At the time, some 60 percent of the population was composed of indigenous peasant farmers who worked in autonomous settlements inherited from the ayllu – the primitive community of the land that had preceded the Spanish conquest.

The new policies enforced the payment of a tax in cash by the peasants, forcing them to sell a part of their produce. On top of this, the indigenous peasants were forced to buy goods that they neither wanted nor could afford under a system known as repartimiento de mercancías (distribution of goods). While the system had pre-dated the Bourbon reforms, it was now ramped up and codified in law. These commodities had to be bought from the corregidor (colonial official), the highest judicial and military authority of the province, who now also concentrated in his hands a monopoly to forcibly sell goods. The goods, once paid for, were often never even delivered to the peasants. This was merely a new way of pillaging the indigenous peasant, whilst forcibly breaking the self-sufficiency of the old ayllu in order to expand the internal market.

And indeed, the new reforms caused exports and imports to quadruple between 1740 and 1780 compared to the average 1714-1739 figure, whilst the greater internal market allowed the commercial bourgeoisie of Lima and the colonial officials to sell their manufactured goods and agricultural produce from other regions of the Viceroyalty on the home market.

The degree of the severity of the impact of these policies was uneven, and varied depending upon the local material conditions. The productivity of the fields in the south of the Andes was lower than that in other, better-irrigated provinces. More work was therefore needed for a peasant family to produce enough food even for subsistence, let alone to sell for a surplus. The indigenous peasants of these provinces therefore had less time to spare, and little labour power to sell, in a region where farms and textile workshops were, at any rate, scarce. When the indigenous people were unable to pay tribute or hand over goods, they were condemned by the judges to forced labour in the mines, textile workshops or coca fields. A report by the priest of Cayma, year 1778, details the brutal measures applied to whole villages:

“When the corregidor, his lieutenant and collectors come to a town to collect, the first thing they do is to hold all the people in the jail, and one by one they call them to collect payment, those who bring some money are released and the poor who are insolvent are kept prisoner, and sold to a hacienda [estate] to work until they pay the said repartimiento.”[1]

In the poorer and less productive areas to the south of the Andes, these reforms became mechanisms for the plundering of the provinces to the benefit of the mercantile bourgeoisie of Lima and the Spanish Crown.

From the indigenous peasants, discontent soon spread to other layers of society, such as the criollos, mestizos and kurakas (the caste of community administrators in the old Inca society), all of whom were also expected to pay tribute. This burden was further compounded by a hike in the alcabala sales tax.

Having once formed a caste of chiefs and tax collectors in the old ayllus of Inca society, the kurakas were now effectively converted into intermediaries by the colonial authorities, between themselves and the indigenous masses. As a kind of indigenous elite, the kurakas enjoyed a lifestyle comparable with that of the rural bourgeoisie – and they enriched themselves further on the back of the system of forced distribution of goods. In the town of Hanansaya for instance, the local kuraka was denounced by the people in the following terms:

“[…] this man was of such a horrible disposition, that with blind abandonment of his soul, he sought to strip us of our goods and livestock, in the most reprehensible manner, and always with some pretext at hand. He also seized many lands and estancias [farms], as well as the best chacras [smallholdings] belonging to the natives, making them work on them, without any payment for their effort […].” [2]

But by 1770, the last of the Bourbon reforms relating to the distribution of goods came to threaten the wealth of the kurakas themselves. Under these reforms, in certain cases where a peasant proved to be insolvent, the corregidor could collect payment by selling the property of the kuraka himself. In the poorest provinces of the Viceroyalty, this measure pushed the kurakas over to the side of the discontented indigenous peasants, tipping the balance of forces. The number of rebellions began ticking upward. From 1770 to 1779, the number of spontaneous rebellions recorded stood at 66 – more than four times the number in the first half of the century.

Initially, they tried to resist the forced distribution of goods within the system itself. But it soon became clear to them that this path was closed off. They soon began directly defying the authority of the colonial officials. The kurakas, from having been the beneficiaries of the forced distribution of goods and the lieutenants of the colonial officials, now shifted to become leaders of these rebellions. With this petty bourgeois layer of kurakas now at the head of the indigenous peasants, there was a qualitative shift in the rebellions. Firstly, they brought organisation to the rebels. Secondly, on account of their prominent position in the provinces, the kurakas were able to draw the Spaniards, mestizos and criollos in the movement, alongside the indigenous peasants.

Túpac Amaru II

José Gabriel Condorcanqui – better known by the name that he adopted later, Túpac Amaru II – was a kuraka from the province of Cusco. Cusco was one of the regions that had been most deeply impoverished by the new policies, on account of the low productivity of its farmlands. In the kurakas’ school in Cusco, Túpac Amaru II had become familiar with the works of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, who had depicted the fallen Inca empire in embellished terms as a lost utopia.

The impoverishment of the province, affecting first and foremost the poor, indigenous peasants, but even reducing the petty bourgeois kurakas to a precarious position, created the material basis for the alliance between these two social classes. But the works of De la Vega provided an ideological basis for this unity, and something of a common goal: a dream for the return of the Inca empire.

On 4 November 1780, José Gabriel Condorcanqui, under the assumed name of Túpac Amaru II, raised a rebellion against the local corregidor, who he had publicly executed, before putting the call out for others to join a rising.

In taking the name Túpac Amaru II, he claimed a noble lineage, linking him back to the last Sapa Inca of the same name, who two centuries earlier had led the last resistance of the Inca empire against the Spanish, until his capture and execution by the latter in 1572. As he moved across the countryside, drawing new followers, Túpac Amaru II came to symbolise the prophesied return of the Inca empire in the collective consciousness of his followers.

And yet initially, Túpac Amaru and his wife Micaela Bastidas tried to limit the conflict with the colonial government and the Spanish crown, framing it as merely a clash with the corregidores themselves. They did so to avoid it becoming a purely indigenous movement, and maintain the mestizos and criollos in the cross-class alliance that formed the basis of the rebellion. Its political programme could be summarised as: the elimination of the mita and taxes, and freedom from European exploiters.

Recent research has shed more light on the role of the leaders involved in organising the uprising, and particularly the very prominent role of Micaela Bastidas. Indeed, prior to the rebellion she had been the backbone of Túpac Amaru’s business as a merchant and mule driver. She collected debts, hired field hands and muleskinners, planned the long journeys of Túpac Amaru to northern Argentina, represented him in his frequent absences, and had overseen the family’s finances. This prepared her well for the management of the logistics of the rebel campaign, and she played an important part in the strategic decisions. Túpac Amaru meanwhile led the military forces of the rebels in battle and in expeditions to recruit more troops in different areas around their headquarters. In his absence, Micaela organised the scouting and defence of the rebel base.

In several battles, the forces of the rebellion were able to defeat the Spanish forces. One important such victory was in the battle of Sangarará, a town in the province of Cusco, where in November 1780 the rebels defeated the Spanish under the command of Tiburcio Landa. About 6,000 rebels, armed with spears and slingers, surrounded and routed the 900 men of the Spanish militia that had taken position in a church, which they had fortified. The rebel forces suffered about 45 casualties, whilst 600 Spaniards fell in the course of the battle.

After this victory, news of the rebels spread at lightning speed among the indigenous people, and new recruits flooded to their camp as the town of Sangarará came under their control and the rebels came into possession of firearms. Wherever the rebels conquered a town or city, they sought out the corregidor, and when they got their hands on him, he was executed. But in most cases, the corregidor would flee before the arrival of the rebel army. Landowners, despised by the locals, would also be imprisoned, whilst the textile mills – prisons of the indigenous workers – were razed to the ground.

Death of Tupac Amaru IIThe insurrection’s final defeat came in 1783, with the brutal execution of all the rebel leaders / Image: public domain

Simultaneously, in the Viceroyalty of Alto Perú in present-day Bolivia, an indigenous rebellion led by a worker named Túpac Katari and his wife Bartolina Sisa, also defied the colonial order, laying siege to the capital La Paz, disrupting the mita and the exploitation of the important silver mine of Potosí.

But the tide turned against the rebels when Juan Manuel y Peralta – the bishop of Cuzco – excommunicated Túpac Amaru and Micaela Bastidas for destroying the church in Sangarará that the Spanish troops had occupied. Parish priests remaining in the rebel territories were ordered to proselytise against the uprising. This brought out a fatal weakness in the rising’s leadership. The leaders were very pious, and Túpac Amaru and Micaela were never able to wage a political fight against the church. This had important consequences. They had fatally allowed the churches to continue operating in the territory that they had taken, which were used to spread anti-rebel propaganda, preventing the rebels from recruiting troops, and informing the colonial authorities about their movements. The morale of the rebels could not recover from excommunication, and their leadership became increasingly indecisive about strategic decisions, giving the initiative to their enemies.

Against the advice of Micaela Bastidas, Túpac Amaru had failed to seize the advantage and march directly on Cuzco. Instead, he marched across the countryside before turning to besiege the city, expecting to recruit massive indigenous forces along the way. But this failed to materialise on account of the effective propaganda of the church. Meanwhile, the kurakas of the nearby towns were mobilised into the colonial forces, stopping the flow of indigenous peasants into the ranks of the rebels.

When taking up positions surrounding the capital of the province in January 1781, Túpac Amaru’s cousin Diego Cristobal Túpac Amaru and his troops were defeated in battle when Spanish troops were joined by reinforcements led by another kuraka, Mateo Pumacahua. Túpac Amaru had expected the presence of his army to spark a rebellion inside the city among the Indian population, allowing him to take it quickly. And taking it quickly would have been a necessity, as the rebels lacked the supplies and logistics needed for a prolonged siege against the reinforced Spanish militia.

Eventually the rebels were compelled to retreat. The Spanish forces, however, did not pursue them. The rebels were therefore able to rally with Micaela and their camp.

In early 1781, however, the colonial forces honed in on Túpac Amaru and the rebels. As the colonial forces closed in on their camp, they were met by a fierce defence. On 7 April, the Spanish army launched an attack on the rebel camp, which had been encamped in one place for too long, awaiting the return of Túpac Amaru’s fighters that were then engaging Pumacahua’s forces on another front. Micaela and three of Túpac Amaru’s sons were captured. The rebel leader himself was forced to retreat before the Spanish forces.

Eventually, however, he was betrayed by some of his own followers and handed over to the colonial forces. He was held prisoner and tortured, until his execution on 18 May 1781 by dismemberment using horses. Before his death, however, he was forced to watch the brutal execution of his entire family, including Micaela Bastidas, whose tongue was torn from her mouth and whose body was brutally beaten in front of him. Only his youngest son was spared.

His body, together with that of the other nine leaders of the rebellion executed on that day, was dismembered by the colonial authorities and the pieces were exhibited publicly in the main cities where the rebellion had taken place. As usual, when the ruling class are victorious in the class war, they are completely unsparing in the brutality of their revenge, which is aimed at setting a clear example for the oppressed masses about what happens if they dare to challenge their rule.

After the execution of Túpac Amaru II and Micaela Bastidas, Diego Cristobal Túpac Amaru took the leadership of the rebellion. The conflict became increasingly polarised, and the cross-ethnic alliance of classes that had been formed began falling apart. Now the uprising took on an increasingly ethnic character, as the indigenous army began regarding all non-Indians as their enemies, waging an ever more ferocious guerrilla struggle.

Marching south, the rebels joined up with the forces of Túpac Katari. But on 15 November 1781, Túpac Katari himself was captured and executed together with other leaders of the rebellion. Again, his body was dismembered and exhibited publicly. It is said that the colonial judge who condemned Túpac Katari, Francisco Tadeo Díez de Medina, declared: “It would not be convenient for the king nor for the state, to leave a seed or breed of this or of all Túpak Amaru and Túpak Katari, because of the great noise and impression that this accursed name has made on the natives… Because otherwise, a perpetual ferment would remain…”

The insurrection’s final defeat came in 1783, with the brutal execution of all the rebel leaders, among them Diego Cristobal Túpac Amaru.

An unresolved question

The rebellion led by Túpac Amaru and Micaela Bastidas shook the rule of the Spanish Crown and the Lima bourgeoisie. In purely geographical terms, the Túpac Amaru Rebellion encompassed a larger area even than the contemporaneous struggle then raging in North America: the American Revolutionary War. The colonial authorities were ill-prepared to deal with such a massive uprising that engulfed such a vast territory. They were unable to count on a standing army in Lima or Cuzco, and initially at least were forced to rely upon militias that were only experienced in crushing local revolts.

Such a generalised uprising profoundly impacted all of the colonies of the Americas and became a symbol for oppressed peoples across the continent, even to this day. The rebellion of 1780 was the first to pose the question of the position of the indigenous peasantry, and made the first attempt to solve it.

The problem was that the movement was looking backward rather than forward. Had Túpac Amaru and the indigenous peasants triumphed in their struggle and implemented their political programme, which was to return to the Inca empire, the fundamental problems of the indigenous people would have remained unresolved. Such a state could not have revived the social relations that formed the basis of Inca society. Instead, it would have rested upon the new social relations created by the intrusion of Spain into the continent.

As the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui explained in the 1920s, an independent Indigenous state, “would not result in the present moment in the dictatorship of the Indian proletariat nor in a classless Indian State, as some have tried to argue, but in the creation of a bourgeois Indian State with all the internal and external contradictions characteristic of bourgeois States. Only the revolutionary class movement of the exploited indigenous masses can enable them to give real meaning to the liberation of their race from exploitation, by favouring the possibilities of their political self-determination. The indigenous problem, in most cases, is identified with the problem of land. The ignorance, backwardness and misery of the indigenous people are nothing but the consequence of their servitude.” [3]

We see in the present day how it is not enough to create a ‘plurinational state’, as has been done in the constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia – and now in Chile as well. In Ecuador, the indigenous peasants have been forced to rise up against the treacherous government of Lenin Moreno, and then against the government of Lasso. In Bolivia, we witnessed the coup against Evo Morales by the reactionary capitalist oligarchy, whose power and privileges had been left intact by the president.

As long as property relations are left unchanged and the big capitalists (national and imperialist) control the land and industries, the national question of the indigenous peoples will not be solved. Mariátegui pointed out: “Those of us who approach and define the Indian problem from a Socialist point of view must start out by declaring the complete obsolescence of the humanitarian and philanthropic points of view… We shall try to establish the basically economic character of the problem. First, we protest against the instinctive attempt of the criollo or mestizo to reduce it to an exclusively administrative, pedagogical, ethnic, or moral problem in order to avoid at all cost recognizing its economic aspect… We are not satisfied to assert the Indian’s right to education, culture, progress, love, and heaven. We begin by categorically asserting his right to land.”[4]

Unlike in the 18th century, now we have the development of a powerful working class in all countries of Latin America. This is the class that, in an alliance with the peasant masses and all the oppressed sections of society, can lead the revolution to victory, expropriating the capitalist oligarchy and the multinationals, setting the basis for the genuine liberation of the oppressed indigenous peoples.

To quote Mariátegui one final time: “In this America of small revolutions, the same word, revolution, frequently lends itself to misunderstanding. We have to reclaim it rigorously and intransigently. We have to restore its strict and exact meaning. The Latin American Revolution will be nothing more and nothing less than a stage, a stage of the world revolution. It will simply and clearly be the socialist revolution. Add all the adjectives you want to this word according to the particular case: ‘anti-imperialist’, ‘agrarian’, ‘national-revolutionary’. Socialism supposes, precedes, and includes all of them.” [5]


[1] J Golte, Repartos y rebeliones Tupac Amaru y las contradicciones de la economía colonial, Segunda edicion, Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2016, pg 133

“Cuando viene el corregidor, su teniente y cobradores a un pueblo a cobrar, la primer diligencia que hacen, es mandar prender toda la gente en la carzel, y de uno en uno los van llamando para cobrarles, a los que trahen alguna plata les dans soltura y a los pobres que están insolventes los dejan presos, y los venden a una hacienda a trabajar hasta que paguen el dicho repartimiento […].”

[2] J Golte, Repartos y rebeliones Tupac Amaru y las contradicciones de la economía colonial, Segunda edicion, Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2016, pg 168-169

“[…] dicho hombre fue de una condición tan horrible, que prosidiendo con ciego abandono de su alma, nos despojaba de nuestros bienes, y ganados, en las ocasiones que podía ejecutarlo con algún pretesto, o camino reprobable. Y gualmente se apoderaba de muchas tierras, y estancias, y las mejores chacras pertenecientes a los naturales, hasiendo las trabajar con ellos mismos, sin contribución alguna de sus fatigas, […]”

[3] J C Mariátegui, ‘El problema de las razas en América Latina’, Ideologia Y Politica, Venezuelan Ministry of Communication and Information, 2006, pg 40, our translation

“…no conduciría en el momento actual a la dictadura del proletariado indio ni mucho menos a la formación de un estado indio sin clase, como alguien ha pretendido afirmar, sino, a la constitución de un Estado indio burgués con todas las contradicciones internas y externas de los estados burgueses.

Sólo el movimiento revolucionario clasista de las masas indígenas explotadas podrá permitirles dar un sentido real a la liberación de su raza de la explotación, favoreciendo las posibilidades de su auto-determinación política.

El problema indígena, en la mayoría de los casos, se identifica con el problema de la tierra. La ignorancia, el atraso y la miseria de los indígenas, no son más que la consecuencia de su servidumbre.”

[4] J C Mariátegui, ‘The Problem of Land’, Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality, University of Texas Press, 1971, pg 31

[5] J C Mariátegui, ‘Anniversary and Balance’, Amauta, no. 17, September, 1928, pg 2

Source : Marxism