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Peru’s War of Independence #1: The Campaigns of San Martín

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(Image: Generals José de San Martín (left) and Bernardo O'Higgins (right) during the crossing of the Andes. Source: Wikipedia Commons)

To celebrate Fiestas Patrias, we bring you a 4-part historical series on the most important battles of the Peruvian war of Independence.

Why is the Peruvian flag red and white?

One story goes that the famous general Jose de San Martín saw a flock of flamingos upon his arrival to Peru after the liberation of Chile and was inspired by their colors.  According to others, the red symbolizes the blood of the heroes who died for the country.  As we journey through the most important moments of Peru’s brutal wars of independence this week to celebrate Fiestas Patrias, perhaps the latter hypothesis will seem the more likely.

San Martín is often toted as the face of the Peruvian independence.

After consolidating the independence of Argentina as part of South America’s southern independence movement (virtually autonomous from Simón Bolivar’s movement in Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador), his campaigns from 1814 to 1821 through Chile and Peru eventually led to the declaration of Independence for today’s Inca nation.

It is these campaigns we remember today.

Despite the rivalry between the countries, much of the fighting in the campaign leading to Peru’s independence declaration actually happened in what is now modern-day Chile.  The liberation of Chile was an important precursor to San Martín’s campaign into Peru because it gave the independence forces a base to launch seaborne attacks on Peru’s coast.

A naval attack resulted in the capture of the important port of Pisco and the Spanish loyalist forces withdrew into Peru’s interior.  This cleared the way for San Martin to enter Lima with relatively little fighting compared to the battles in Chile.

However, it is not true to say that the Peruvian war of independence began in Chile.

Many point to the indigenous rebellion of Tupac Amaru II in Cusco in 1780-1781 as an important precursor to the independence.  Another important rebellion in Cusco occurred in 1814-1815, just before San Martín launched his most decisive campaigns into Chile.  These rebellions were crushed by a Peruvian upper-class administration that was deeply loyal to the Spanish crown.

This strong Spanish loyalism of Lima’s upper class is the reason that Peru was one of the last South American countries to be truly liberated.

Thus, it was the combination of recruits from Peru’s lower and middle classes that ultimately made up the majority of Peruvians fighting for independence, under the leadership of the elite foreign leaders such as San Martín.

It was a diverse army: the professional soldiers came from newly independent Argentina or Chile and England (who funded and backed San Martin’s campaign against the Spanish), while local militias were gathered that included large numbers of indigenous peoples and slaves of African origin.  Although it was rare for women to participate in combat, they performed important roles such as social actors, spies, and gatherers of intelligence for the movement.

The marginalized lower classes were promised freedom and a better life for their children by revolutionary forces.

Peru’s wars of independence were bloody affairs in which women, indigenous peoples, and slaves fought among the ranks for the promise of a freer and juster society.  Though many of these promises were later betrayed and social inequality continues even to this day, the people who struggled for these ideals should not be discarded as meaningless; rather, they should be elevated as heroes so that their ancestors remember what is worth fighting for.

Tomorrow, we follow San Martín as he marches on Lima, City of Kings, Capital of the Spanish empire in the New World…but not for much longer.

Next Episode: The Proclamation of Independence

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Mike Dreckschmidt

Mike grew up and eventually attended university in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He graduated in Integrative Leadership Studies with an emphasis in Urban and Regional Planning and has been a part of planning projects in three different countries. Mike’s passion is reading; he devours both literature and nonfiction. His favorite author is Peru’s own Julio Ramón Ribeyro.

Discussion4 Comments

  1. I enjoyed your first installment and look forward to what remains. We have been living in Ayacucho for 17 years and always enjoy learning about this country’s vast history.

  2. Mike Dreckschmidt
    Mike Dreckschmidt

    Glad you enjoyed! We appreciate the feedback and it’s great to know there is appreciation for Peru’s history in our audience.

  3. Hi Mike, my name is Magali and I am a Peruvian living as an expat in the USA, I want to thank you for the time and effort that you are taking in investigating about our history and letting other expats know about it, I’m glad you are part of the Living in Peru Team. 😀

  4. Mike Dreckschmidt
    Mike Dreckschmidt

    Thank you so much for your kind words, Magali. It feels wonderful to know that our time and research is appreciated.