Unlike the situation in the viceroyalty of New Spain, where revolts and uprisings were common but generally small-scale and localized, several of the Andean rebellions assumed the character of major regional conflicts, most notably the Great Rebellion led by the second Tupac Amaru from 1780 to 1782 (the first Tupac Amaru had been captured and executed two centuries earlier, in 1572).
Taken together, these Andean rebellions reveal the deep fissures of race and class that marked 18th-century colonial Peruvian society; the enduring persistence of preconquest indigenous forms of religiosity, culture, social organization, and political and communal practices; and the intensification of the structural violence and systemic injustices of Spanish colonialism under Bourbon rule.
The first major rebellion in 18th-century Peru was led by the Jesuit-educated mestizo Juan Santos Atahualpa, who claimed direct descent from the Inca emperor Atahualpa, captured and executed by the Spaniards in 1533. For more than 10 years, from 1742 to 1752, Juan Santos Atahualpa led a small army of Indians and mestizos in a protracted guerrilla war against the Spanish authorities.
Based in the eastern montaña, between the Central Highlands to the west and the vast Amazonian jungles to the east, the army of Juan Santos Atahualpa was never defeated in open battle and the leader himself never captured; in 1752 he and his troops launched an audacious foray into the heart of Spanish-dominated territory before retreating back into the eastern jungles. The movement itself, like others of this period, was inspired by a messianic ideology that foretold the end of Spanish domination and the return of Inca rule.
A major point of contention among scholars has been the extent to which this movement represented a genuinely highland Indian revolt or whether it is better understood as a frontier movement with only tenuous links to the core highland zones of Spanish domination and control.
The preponderance of evidence indicates the movement’s frontier character while also underscoring substantial, if diffuse, highland Indian sympathy in the heartland of the Spanish domain.
It is true that highland Indians did not rise up en masse in support of the movement. Yet substantial evidence also shows the movement’s ranks populated by significant numbers of highland Indians and that Spanish authorities perceived the movement as a grave threat to their rule.
A series of other, more localized revolts and uprisings marked the decades between the 1750s and the early 1780s. By one count, the 1750s saw 13 such revolts; the 1760s, 16; and the 1770s, 31. The year 1780 saw 22, and 1781, 14, including the launching of the Great Rebellion by Tupac Amaru II in November 1781.
The causes of this upsurge in insurrectionary activity have been attributed to a host of interrelated causes, all having to do with the structural oppression and exploitation of Spanish colonial rule—more specifically, the practice of forced mita labor in the Andes; onerous and rising tax rates; the forced sale of goods under the institution of repartimiento; and the quickening pace of reform under the Bourbons, whose economic policies from the mid-1700s intensified the demands for Indian labor.
The Great Rebellion, which rocked the entire southern highlands in 1781–82, represented the most serious threat to Spanish domination in the Americas during the colonial period. The subject of an expansive scholarly literature, the insurrection launched by Tupac Amaru II sought to expel the reviled Spaniards and in their stead install a divinely inspired neo-Inca state.
The depths of the millenarian impulse propelling the movement and the breadth of the popular support the movement garnered constitute powerful evidence for the profundity of the cultural crisis among indigenous and mestizo Andean highland peoples in the late colonial period.
The Great Rebellion began on November 4, 1780, with a raid on the Indian town of Tinta in southern Cuzco Province, where rebels captured and executed a local official infamous for his abuses of the repartimiento system. Moving south, the rebels quickly gained control of much of the southern highlands, from Lake Titicaca to Potosí and beyond, suggesting a high degree of advanced preparation and planning.
In January 1781 the rebels laid siege to the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco. The siege faltered with the speedy arrival of Spanish reinforcements, and soon after Tupac Amaru II and numerous lieutenants were captured and, in May 1781, executed.
The executions failed to staunch highland rebel activity, however, as remnants of Tupac Amaru’s army joined forces with a similar movement led by one Tupac Katari, laying siege to La Paz (Bolivia) from March to October 1781.
Tupac Katari also was captured, and in January 1782 the Spaniards negotiated a peace agreement with surviving rebel leaders. Sporadic outbreaks continued through the early 1780s across the southern and central highlands.
It is estimated that altogether some 100,000 people died in the Great Rebellion of 1780–82. In response to these crises, the colonial authorities exacted swift retribution while also attempting to address some of the root causes of the violence, reforming the judicial system and selectively easing tax burdens. Yet social memories in the Andes are long, and the deep social divisions exposed by these massive upsurges of violence endured.
In subsequent decades, the Creole, mestizo, and Indian elites of Peru, Bolivia, and adjacent highland Andean regions emerged as among the most conservative in all of Latin America, the specter of violence from below representing an ever-present danger to their privileges and interests. The deep social and cultural divisions exposed in the age of Andean insurrections remain, for some observers, readily apparent to the present day.