This book is an analysis of the demise of the Spanish government in Peru, a topic that has long interested historians. The central question that has fascinated generations of writers is why Peru was so slow to achieve independence. Heraclio Bonilla and Karen Spalding, nearly a decade ago, and John Fisher, recently, have clarified aspects of this problem. Now, through solid archival research and documentation, Timothy E. Anna cuts through the veneers of rhetoric that obscure the events of independence and presents a new and balanced perspective of this critical period of Peruvian history.
Anna argues that the vacillation that Peruvian elites demonstrated toward the question of separation from Spain can best be explained through an analysis of the society and economy of the late colonial period. The major characteristic of the Peruvian economy was its poverty. Although silver production had increased, the viceroyalty did have a severe negative balance of trade, and the stagnant economy offered few productive careers for the elites of Peru, most of whom resided in Lima. The author shows that a large percentage of these individuals were directly dependent on the civil and ecclesiastical bureaucracies for career positions and, therefore, to a degree, for social prestige. Consequently, Peruvian support for, or opposition to, independence was self-serving, for it was tied to the availability of appointments to lucrative posts. Anna demonstrates how frustrated self-interest under the royal government alienated men such as Riva Agüero and the Marqués de Torre Tagle, the first two presidents of the republic, and pushed them into the rebel camp. Anna also states that “countless other Peruvian supporters of Independence arrived at their convictions by roughly the same path as these two men” (p. 156).
One of the strengths of this book is the detailed discussion of Viceroy Abascal’s heroic efforts to maintain royal government in the face of enormous obstacles. The poverty of the Peruvian economy made financing the fight against the rebels and maintenance of the loyalty of the Peruvians an almost impossible task, yet somehow Abascal succeeded. He also had to contend with the basic incompatibility of the liberal reforms decreed by the constitutional government in Spain and the day-to-day necessities of maintaining control in Peru. Anna’s meticulous discussion of Abascal’s policies leaves the reader with an excellent understanding of this period, from the royalist as well as the rebel point of view.
Anna’s book is an innovative, thoroughly documented, and well-written study. It is a major contribution to the historiography of Peruvian independence.