South America: Chapter XXVII

(by William Henry Koebel)

The Republics of the River Plate


The history of no other Republic immediately following on the period of the Wars of Liberation is quite so complicated as that of Argentina.
The circumstances in the River Plate Provinces differed somewhat from those of any other part of Spanish South America.

From the outset Argentina loomed more largely in the eye of Europe than did any other of the sister States.
No sooner were the ports thrown open by the newly constituted Republics than the foreigners flocked to Argentine soil in numbers which were quite unknown elsewhere.

The chief reasons, of course, for this influx were the temperate climate, the now acknowledged riches of the land, and the comparative ease with which access to the country was obtained.


Owing to this latter circumstance, Argentina possessed a great advantage over Chile, notwithstanding the peculiarly fine climate of the latter Republic; for the journey over the Andes was strenuous and costly in the extreme, while the voyage from Europe to the western Republic through the Straits of Magellan occupied exactly double the time required to reach Buenos Aires.

These strangers, of course, introduced many progressive ideas and new habits and luxuries into the land. In non-political matters a cosmopolitan result was soon evident.


At the same time, these foreigners failed to exercise any but a most indirect influence on the internal policy of the nation.

This was undoubtedly perfectly correct, but in the face of the curious political situation which prevailed at this period we have the remarkable spectacle of rapid and definite progress in commercial, industrial, and private life, while at the same time the official methods of the public authorities were degenerating with a rapidity that soon brought the circumstances of government almost to a point of actual savagery.


In the first instance, men of weight and intellect, such as Rivadavia, Pueyrredon, and their numerous colleagues, had strained every nerve to place this new nation of theirs on a par with those of Europe in matters of intelligence and scientific progress.

They had opened colleges, Universities, hospitals, scientific institutions, libraries, and, indeed, had endeavoured to provide the community with every instrument which could further its general progress.

Every species of science was encouraged, even to the introduction of the then novel process of vaccination.

It was all in vain; the move turned out to be premature. The Spanish policy of the suppression of education and intelligence was now destined to show its baneful results.
A wave of ignorance and anarchy swept over the devoted leaders of the revolution, and overwhelmed them completely, and for the time being even their work.


For half a century rival chieftains rose up one after the other to contend for power.
Many of them employed every conceivable means, whether human or inhuman, to retain it when once they had succeeded in grasping the coveted Dictator's throne.

So numerous were these men, and so extensive is the catalogue of their callous doings, that it is impossible to refer to them in any other but the briefest fashion here.

So extensive, moreover, was the new Republic of Argentina - or, rather, at that time the collection of frequently antagonistic provinces which then occupied the area now filled by the modern Republic - that a single ruler seldom succeeded in maintaining his authority from frontier to frontier.


In general, the main strife may be said to have been waged between the provinces of the littoral and those of the Far West.
Of all the men who fought on either side, the greatest leader was, of course, Juan Manuel Rosas.

This astonishing being, as a matter of fact, was by no means one of the first of these tyrannical Dictators.
He was, on the contrary, the last, so far as Argentina is concerned, but his deeds continued to savour of an early period to the end.

Although at the time of his advent to power Rosas was merely one of a type, and found himself surrounded by a number of rival leaders, none proved himself a match for his extraordinary astuteness and influence over his neighbours.


The Dictator stood out head and shoulders above any other Argentine despot of his kind.

Certainly far more has been written concerning Rosas than concerning any other South American ruler of his period - that is to say, so far as Spanish literature is concerned - for, although his rule attracted a very great deal of attention in England and elsewhere in Europe for as long as it lasted, the topic appears to have been allowed to slumber since his banishment and death.

To revert, however, to the first period of the actual independence of Argentina. This was marked by almost continual warfare on the shores of the River Plate.


Brazil, taking advantage of the confusion in the territories of her neighbours, had sent her armies to the south, and had occupied Uruguay, thus extending her frontiers to the long-coveted shores of the River Plate.

This aggression was followed by war between Buenos Aires and Brazil, while a large section of the Uruguayans, headed by Artigas, whose name is famed as the great patriot of the Banda Oriental, by which name the Republic of Uruguay is still familiarly known, fought desperately against the Portuguese troops.

Notwithstanding the very real perils which the situation held for the Spanish-speaking folk in these districts, it was not long before serious jealousies broke out between the leaders.
In the end an open breach occurred between the Argentine army and a section of the Uruguayans.

Artigas flung his devoted bands of soldiery alternately against the Brazilians and against the soldiers from Buenos Aires, and the more peaceful inhabitants of Uruguay watched with dismay the advent of a period of chaos.


During this period, as has been said, the Argentine statesman, Rivadavia, was working whole-heartedly towards the intellectual betterment of his country, and in this he was assisted by Alvear and others.

But the warlike stress of the period cut short the majority of these endeavours.
The Brazilians, anxious to conclude the war, had brought down their entire fleet to the River Plate, and they were blockading the entrance to the river and the port of Buenos Aires.


At the sight of the hostile vessels the local differences were for the time being laid aside, and, war vessels being an urgent necessity, public subscriptions were eagerly forthcoming for the purchase of these.

The small Argentine fleet, when completed, was placed under the orders of that gallant Irishman, Admiral Brown, and the naval leader lost no time in forcing his attacks home upon the hostile fleet.

Owing to the fury of these, the efficiency of the blockade was destroyed, although the Brazilian vessels continued in the neighbourhood for some while.


General Alvear was now appointed commander of the land force operating against Brazil, and in conjunction with the Uruguayan General, Lavalleja, he assumed the aggressive, defeated the Imperial army, and was in turn about to invade the Brazilian province of Rio Grande, when he found himself obliged to abandon the project owing to the want of horses from which his army suffered.

In 1827 Rivadavia's Government fell, and after a while Manuel Dorrego, a gifted soldier and politician, found himself at the head of the State.
Peace was now signed with Brazil, but on terms which the great majority of the Argentines resented bitterly, and the unrest in the Republic rapidly came to a head.

Dorrego was opposed by General Lavalle, one of the most famous personalities of the period. Both parties resorted to arms.


Dorrego's force was defeated and its leader captured.
On this Lavalle, a brilliant and liberal-minded man, committed the gravest error of his career - one, moreover, the nature of which was entirely foreign to his character - for, after capturing Dorrego, he executed his prisoner.

Reasons of State were the cause of this political crime, since no personal animosity was involved.

This act was fiercely resented by Dorrego's party in general.
It brought upon Lavalle more particularly the enmity of Juan Manuel Rosas, the man of blood and iron, whose fierce star had now begun its definite ascent.


An active warfare took place between the two, and although it was interrupted now and again by truces, these were of short duration, and the struggle continued almost without intermission until the death of Lavalle in 1840, when fleeing after his ultimate defeat at the hands of the opposing party.

This, however, is to anticipate somewhat, since it was as early as 1829 that Rosas first took charge of the Argentine Government.
While this famous leader was in the act of gradually consolidating his power, the country had become divided into two main parties - the Federals and the Unitarians.


Statue of General Manuel Belgrano
Statue of General Manuel Belgrano

Rosas stood as the chief of the Federal party, while Lavalle and his colleagues represented the Unitarians.
After a while it became evident that, so far as the capital was concerned, the influence of Rosas was supreme, and it was not long before Buenos Aires began to feel the weight of that grim personage's hand.

Very soon a reign of terror commenced.
The alarmed citizens discovered that all personal security was now at an end, and that the laws of the Constitution were replaced by the enactments and degrees made at the will of Rosas.

All this time the latter was strengthening his position, and when the dreaded leader succeeded in establishing himself firmly in the Dictator's chair, the severity of his rule increased still more.


He laid down laws, not only concerning public affairs, but also affecting the intimate private life of the citizens.
Red being the Dictator's favourite colour, it followed in his mind that the nation must mould itself upon his tastes completely.

Thus every citizen of Buenos Aires, in order to show his loyalty to the autocratic Governor, was obliged to wear a rosette or band of red.

This wearing of the red naturally became the custom.
It was the result of no special decree, but the unwritten law was not to be denied.

Indeed, did any rash inhabitant of Buenos Aires refrain from obeying it, the result of his independence was that he betrayed himself an open enemy of the Dictator, and he met with the inevitable punishment for this, which was in any case imprisonment, and possibly death.

The blood-like hue, moreover, was encouraged not only in dress, but in general decorations, and even in the walls of houses, and every other object in which it could be employed.


The executions during the twenty and odd years which Rosas held office amounted to many thousands.

The melancholy total, indeed, would assuredly have been still further increased had not the majority of the more intellectual and of the more important colonial families fled across the frontiers and taken refuge either in Chile or in Uruguay.

The character of Rosas was strangely complex.
It must not be supposed that he was nothing beyond a mere brigand and tyrant, who busied himself with executions and plunder, to the exclusion of all other occupations.

He was, indeed, in many respects a man experienced in the ways of the broader world, and was able, after his particular fashion, to hold his own with European diplomats and others of the kind.


The great naturalist, Darwin, for instance, when on his visit to the Argentine Provinces, was brought into contact with Rosas, and admits that he was very struck with the personality of the leader, who in conversation was "enthusiastic, sensible, and very grave.

His gravity," he continues, "is carried to a high pitch."
General Rosas, as a matter of fact, appears to have possessed the happy knack of impressing favourably almost everyone whom he met, and the explanation of his policy, when recorded from his own lips, was wont to ring very differently from that given by his opponents.

It is probable enough that in many respects his views were truly patriotic.
His methods, on the other hand, were callous to an altogether inhuman point. It is, in any case, quite certain that the value he placed on life was altogether infinitesimal.


As time went on the power of Rosas steadily increased, and the rival chieftains one by one withdrew from the contest or met with their death in one of the wars of the age.

Garibaldi himself had broken a lance in the cause of the Unitarians. Rivera and other progressive leaders had fought against him in vain.

There were others of the type of Quiroga, who, brought up in the same school as Rosas, although of lesser birth - for the family of the Dictator was patrician - joined him for a while in a species of tentative alliance, and then broke away - usually to their cost.


This Quiroga was one of the most noted chieftains of the interior of the distraught Republic.
He had swept the western provinces with fire and sword, executing, burning, and plundering wherever he went.

Had he not fallen foul of Rosas, he might have continued his grim career unchecked for years. As it was, he came in contact with a master-mind, and, as was inevitable, perished.

There are many Argentines even to-day who claim that, for all the tyranny of the Dictator, the country was none the worse for his rule, and that the régime which he introduced, however bloodthirsty and horrible, was at all events one of discipline such as the distracted collection of provinces had never known since the days of the Spanish rule.


There is no doubt whatever concerning the existence of this discipline.
So severe was the phase, and so vague was the slender amount of liberty left to the private citizens, that many of these latter lived at periods immured within their houses, lest by sallying forth into the street they should unwittingly offend the powers and pay the penalty.

The relations of Rosas with the foreign Powers soon grew strained.
He fell foul of the French and British nations, and as a result the allied fleets arrived off the mouth of the River Plate and blockaded Buenos Aires.

The outcome of this, however, was purely negative. Although the Republic suffered inconvenience from the cessation of trade, the community was self-supporting, while it was impossible, of course, for the European forces to attempt to carry on land operations.

Thus, after a prolonged stay in the waters of the River Plate, the blockade was raised, and the French and British fleets sailed away, having to all intents and purposes failed to achieve their object.


The extraordinary force of Rosas's character is best instanced by the length of his rule. This, as has been said, continued for over twenty years, until the year 1852.

That a Dictator should have continued to hold the reins of power for this length of time in the face of the opposition and hatred which, although smothered, were rampant on every side of him was undoubtedly a most amazing feat.

His political end, when it came, was a rapid one.
After having humbled every aspirant who strove to challenge his power, he was confronted by General Urquiza, who had for years dominated the province of Entre Rios.


The numbers of the actively discontented had now reached truly formidable dimensions.
Brazil and Uruguay both came to the assistance of those Argentines who were disposed to attempt rebellion afresh, after years of enforced and trembling peace.

A large army composed of Argentines, Brazilians, and Uruguayans, under the joint command of the Brazilian Marquis de Caxias and General Urquiza, crossed the Paraná River, invaded the province of Buenos Aires, defeated Rosas's troops, and advanced on the capital.


On February 3, 1852, the fateful Battle of Caseros was fought, rather less than ten miles from the town of Buenos Aires. The terrified civilian inhabitants of the town awaited the result in profound suspense.

All the while the fight was raging a succession of messengers came galloping through the streets bearing contradictory fragments of news.
After some hours the citizens were no longer left in doubt.

The stragglers of Rosas's beaten army came pouring into the town, and it became known that the Dictator, completely defeated, had fled.
General Rosas and his daughter were received on a British warship, and sailed for Southampton, in which town the famous leader remained until the day of his death.


Urquiza was received by the inhabitants of Buenos Aires with delirious joy as the deliverer of the Republic.
By means of the proclamations which he showered upon the populace he endeavoured to make it clear that he would continue in that capacity.

It was not long, however, before his actions aroused the suspicions of the townsfolk.
In fact, after a while it became fairly evident that Urquiza, having once found himself in the full enjoyment of power, was by no means indisposed to follow the example so grimly set by Rosas - although this possibly in a minor degree.

It is true that the new chief of the Republic passed some progressive measures, including one which opened the waters of the River Plate (closed during the rule of Rosas) to foreign commerce; but the general tendency of his government was popularly held to be of the reactionary order.


Revolutions against his authority broke out, and in July of 1853, some eighteen months after the Battle of Caseros, General Urquiza was conveyed from Buenos Aires in a United States man-of-war to his head-quarters in his own province of Entre Rios, where he remained, leading a semi-private life in the enjoyment of his vast estates.

With the retirement of Urquiza we come practically to the modern conditions of the great Republic of Argentina, for General Bartolomé Mitre now came into power, and with the advent of the famous Argentine President the Republic began to assume something of its present importance.


It was, however, not until thirty years later that the final differences between Buenos Aires and the other provinces were completely adjusted.

The effect of this settlement was remarkable and immediate, for simultaneously with the removal of the jealousies which had hitherto reigned between the great province of Buenos Aires and its neighbours the last impediment in the path of progress vanished, and the Republic advanced with an almost startling rapidity to the importance of its present position in the world's affairs.


During all this while the small Republic of Uruguay, which had cut itself adrift from Argentina in the course of the War of Independence, had continued on a somewhat chequered and stormy career.

After innumerable struggles, the dauntless little State succeeded in freeing itself from the aggressions of its powerful neighbours to the north and south.
This did not suffice to put an end to internal unrest, and the rival parties - the Colorados and the Blancos - made a battle-ground of the Republic for generation after generation.


Notwithstanding this, the intellectual progress of the Uruguayans has continued throughout, and the development of the national industries on a fitting scale is now proceeding.



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