Walker, Charles F., Smoldering Ashes: Cuzco and the Creation of Republican Peru, 1780-1840

Walker, Charles F. (1999), Smoldering Ashes: Cuzco and the Creation of Republican Peru, 1780-1840, Duke University Press (Durham and London). xiii+330 pp.

Both conservative and progressive historians have portrayed the transition from colony to republic in Peru as a process in which Indians played a minor role. Based on the author’s doctoral thesis, Smoldering Ashes is a welcome and timely correction. Walker guides the reader through the 50 years that separate the deaths of Tupac Amaru II (1871) and Agustin Gamarra (1841), skillfully constructing a social and political history of Cuzco in which Indians take centre stage. Though arranged chronologically, the book is also organised thematically: each chapter addresses and contributes to a number of historiographical debates, including the Tupac Amaru rebellion, the participation of Indians in the Wars of Independence, and caudillismo. The book conforms to the currently fashionable cultural approach to history: political culture in Cuzco is recreated through the analysis of a Habermasian ‘public sphere’; the analysis of festivities complements more conventional sources, such as court trials or tax registers. To his credit, Walker frames these ‘soft’ analyses in the ‘hard’ evidence of economic data and national power struggles. Though essentially a regional study, Walker underlines the interconnectedness of local, regional and national processes. Overall, theoretical exegeses are kept to a minimum and inform rather than get in the way of the consistently rich analysis, based on ample and mostly new documentary sources.

The existence of alternative visions, perhaps ‘imaginings’, of the Peruvian nation-state forms the backbone of this study. Drawing on the work of Alberto Flores Galindo, Walker revisits the Tupac Amaru rebellion and the associated debates on the nature and purpose of the rebellion. Though not, as some historians have argued, a forerunner of independence, Walker argues, the rebellion did constitute a protonational movement with a specific vision of post-colonial state anchored in the Andes and the Indian population. As suggested by the main title, the Bourbon colonial state was not able to fully ‘pacify’ the region after the defeat of the rebels. Indian uprisings were frequent in this period. Though most were small scale, others, such as the Pumacahua rebellion, reached massive proportions. At the same time, Indians resorted to non-violent forms of resistance. Drawing on an exhaustive analysis of court cases, Walker shows how Indians took advantage of the ambiguous nature of the legal system, a site of incorporation and contestation, to effectively resist the colonial state. The relative autonomy of the indigenous population from the state continued into the republican period. The limited participation of Indians in the Wars of Independence or in the subsequent caudillo wars was not, as some contemporaries argued, evidence that they were apolitical or, worse, cowards. Rather, Indians recognised that they had little to gain, and much to lose, from participation in these conflicts. Instead, Indians were particularly adept at defining the terms and extent of their participation in the postcolonial state. Though nominally excluded from formal participation in defining of the nascent Peruvian state, Indians were nevertheless active participants in the political battles between conservatives and liberals. As Walker points out, ‘peasant and caudillo politics were not separate fields, but intimately linked’ (p. 6). Indeed, the success of the conservative Gamarra faction over the liberal faction in Cuzco owed much to Gamarra’s successful incorporation of the mostly invented traditions of the Incas into his political platform. Walker draws on early republican Cuzco newspapers to delineate the complex social and political coalitions and ideological debates that shaped caudillo politics. Caudillos, Walker concludes, ‘were not an aberration or an unfortunate reflection of the failure of republican political formation. Instead, caudillo politics constituted a unique type of state formation’ (p. 226). Contrary to orthodoxy, Walker shows that the economic decline and political instability that followed independence, which discouraged non-Indians from venturing too far into the countryside, allowed Indians to maintain some control over land. At the same time, drawing on certain special rights, Indians actively resisted land encroachment and other attacks on their livelihoods. However, ultimately, Walker concludes, there was little Indians could do about their increasing exclusion from national politics. To some extent, perhaps ironically, resistance helped reinforce the notion of Peru as a racially divided nation.

This book is a valuable addition to the growing literature on early republican Peru. It offers a reinterpretation of early republican caudillismo that combines local-level with national-level analyses. In addition, by historicising the role of Cuzco’s indigenous population in the transition from the colony to the republic, this book makes a major contribution to attempts to correct interpretations that place Indians at the periphery of Peruvian political history. This is an important book that deserves a wide readership.

Originally published in Bulletin of Latin American Research 19:2 (2000), pp. 255-256.