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Subverting Colonial Authority: Challenges to Spanish Rule in Eighteenth-Century Southern Andes.

Subverting Colonial Authority: Challenges to Spanish Rule in Eighteenth-Century Southern Andes. By Sergio Serulnikov (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. viii plus 287 pp. $23.95).

The great Andean rebellions of the 1780s mobilized hundreds of thousands of Indians, constituting the greatest challenge to colonial rule until independence in the early 1800s. These revolts have received renewed attention over the past few years, with numerous books published on the rebellions of Tupac Amaru (around Cuzco, Peru) and Tupac Katari (in the highlands surrounding La Paz, Bolivia). Serulnikov tackles the least known of these rebellions, the Tomas Katari rebellion that encompassed in what is now south-central Bolivia, around the mining town of Potosi. The book makes an important contribution to our understanding of the 1780s revolts as well as to the dynamics of late colonial rule in the Spanish American countryside. In the process, the author shows how different the Potosi rebellion was from the others and places this rebellion on the map as a significant event that must be considered separately from the Tupac Katari revolt, with which it is often confused.

Rather than focusing on the period just prior to the rebellions, the author quite rightfully picks up the story in the 1740s, when a short-lived spate of Andean peasant rebellions prefigured the later, much more massive ones. The author argues that the 1740s rebellions were the result of the contradiction between the brutal necessities of local colonial domination and the role of the courts as social mediators who ameliorated to a certain extent exploitative conditions. Central to this dynamic was the Indian tribute system that provided monies to the colonial state and labor to the Potosi mines, as well as the role of the kurakas (ethnic lords) as intermediaries between the colonial state and the indigenous communities.

Florencio Lupa was one of these ethnic lords whom the community members murdered in 1780, during the Tomas Katari revolt. Serulnikov follows Lupa's career and shows how the kuraka increasingly failed to satisfy the communities' interests and instead conspired with local Spanish officials (mainly corregidores) to line his own pockets. The communities fought against the increasing corruption by insisting to high Spanish authorities that local officials were not turning over all the money tribute and asserted that they would provide more than the corrupt officials. The Indian commoners used the divisions within the Spanish colonial elites by pitting one sector against another; colonial officials at the highest levels were interested in getting more income for the state whereas the corregidores, in alliance with the kurakas, wanted to pocket as much as possible for themselves. Community Indians also exploited the rift between the Catholic Church and the Bourbon state to enforce the lower church fees the Crown had decreed.

Serulnikov does a masterful job of disentangling the complex alliances and counter-alliances in the countryside and the administrative capitals of La Plata (today Sucre) and Buenos Aires, showing how different elites used "counterin-surgency discourse" to discredit the other side's motives and actions. The conflict slowly but surely turned more violent until the Indian communities used force to impose the colonial authorities' decrees against its local representatives. The communities claimed to work within the legal framework, though at some point the subalterns' violence became subversive to the colonial system. The author paints an accurate picture of the power struggles within the communities; by no means were all Indians within an ethnic group on the same side. One of the best parts of the book is interethnic conflict that the stresses of this process brought about in the northern Potosi countryside, pitting different factions within communities against each other and showing the divide between commoners and hereditary ethnic lords. Unlike the other Andean rebellions of the 1780s, the Tomas Katari revolt mainly resulted in attacks here and there, not massive warfare. In the end, internal contradictions within the movement and a lack of unity within the ranks of the Indians spelled the end of the rebellion and quick repression by Spanish forces in 1781.

In his Conclusion, Serulnikov compares the three rebellions of Tupac Amaru, Tupac Katari, and Tomas Katari. He shows how the northern Potosi rebellion was fundamentally different from the others, being neither a millennial revolt such as Tupac Amaru, nor one that pitted Indians against Spaniards and whites in general, like the Tupac Katari rebellion. Rather, it maintained a legalistic tone and was not just a tax revolt, as others have claimed.

This book finally gives us important insights into one of the major colonial Andean rebellions and has implications for understanding the effects of the Bourbon reforms in late colonial Spanish America, as well as the nature of peasant revolt. However, there are some problems. The major one is that the book is very poorly copyedited, with many typos and stylistic infelicities. In the last chapters, there are at least one or two on every page. Also, the author assumes in the Conclusion that the reader has extensive knowledge of the other two Andean rebellions. For these reasons I do not recommend the book for undergraduates, but specialists will find this book a very useful, indeed essential, addition to the literature.

Erick D. Langer

Georgetown University
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Author:Langer, Erick D.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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