In February 1781, creole citizens of Oruro, a city on the Altiplano of modern Bolivia, recruited indigenous peoples from surrounding provinces to invade the city and join with them to defeat the European corregidor and his allies. The native peoples obliged. Indigenous goals and creole desires did not coincide perfectly, however, and the alliance quickly faltered. In the ensuing battles, Oruro was virtually destroyed and many Europeans, creoles, and natives died.
Oscar Cornblit uses these dramatic events to produce what he terms a “narrative-style” history; that is, a history without “any general conclusions.” He prefers instead “to let history speak for itself” (p. viii). The study covers the period 1740 to 1782, dates based on fluctuations in silver production in the Oruro mines. The choice of years suggests Cornblit’s hypothesis that the crisis of 1781 was triggered by “a pronounced reduction in the production of silver” (p. 1). The testimonies of participants (provided in appendixes), however, do not corroborate this. Economic problems no doubt exacerbated other differences between creoles and Europeans, but that does not answer the fundamental question of why indigenous people were willing to invade Oruro at the behest of creoles.
Cornblit offers tantalizing clues about the alliance. He describes creole leader Jacinto Rodríguez as speaking “between mouthfuls of coca and chicha” (p. 148). Quoting from a diary kept by a European witness, Cornblit reports, “Rodríguez appeared in public dressed in indigenous robes, embroidered in gold, ‘consenting perhaps to be Túpac Amaru’s viceroy’ ” (p. 157). Such use of indigenous markers was surely calculated for Rodríguez’ audience; yet Cornblit makes no attempt to analyze this evidence of the mixing of cultural camps.
The book has numerous problems with editing, typos, and translation, Pardo is awkwardly translated as “half-breed” (p. 66). In the most important section, the appendixes of testimony, Cornblit or the translator has chosen the word chieftain to classify a large number of indigenous witnesses (p. 176). Apparently, all native leaders have been grouped under this one problematic sobriquet. As Cornblit points out, caciques became the target of attacks led by indigenous alcaldes (p. 162); both of these leaders would presumably fit the “chieftain” category, but their authority came from widely different sources.
This Argentine scholar draws chiefly on evidence from the Archivo General de la Nación de Argentina, citing no documents from Oruro and few from the Archivo Nacional de Bolivia. Finally, it is unfortunate that Cornblit was unable to consult the eight-hundred-page doctoral dissertation on the Oruro uprising by Bolivian historian Fernando Cajías de la Vega (University of Seville, 1987) or to make more extensive use of the massive documentation that the latter culled from the Archivo General de Indias, Problems of editing, translation, and argumentation aside, however, Cornblit and Cambridge University Press have, for the first time, made narrative and primary sources on the Oruro rebellion available to an English-language readership.