Genocide and Millennialism in Upper Peru: The Great Rebellion of 1780-1782

By Nicholas A. Robins | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9

The Semiotics of Rebellion

SEMIOTICS AND “PRIMITIVE REBELS”

Historians of social movements have long grappled with the difficulties of writing the so-called “history of the inarticulate.” A paucity, and often absence, of written sources has frequently condemned the masses to historical obscurity. One consequence of this is that the poor are often viewed, in the words of Eric Hobsbawm, as a “pre-political” people who lack a “specific language in which to express their aspirations about the world.” 1 While leadership may have decided the outcomes of battles and other historical events, it has always been the common people who have won them. Research on the Great Rebellion has traditionally suffered from these constraints, although unnecessarily so. Indeed, a close look at the sources reveals that the uprising is an excellent example of an “inarticulate” and “prepolitical” people who spoke clearly, cogently, and symbolically through their actions.

As we have seen, the historiography of this rebellion has traditionally relied upon the formal statements and actions of major rebel leaders to grasp the goals, ideology, and hopes of the rebels. Not only were these statements often issued to mollify or “buy time” from their enemies, but what these same leaders said to their supporters, often in Quechua or Aymara, is, with few exceptions, unrecorded. More importantly, as we have seen, the most recognized leaders, such as Túpac Amaru or Tomás Catari, were in many respects leaders in name only and exercised little actual control over those who operated in their name in the vast area of the insurgency. 2 Consequently, even when the actions of the most promi-

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