Artigas, José Gervasio (1764–1850)

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Artigas, José Gervasio (1764–1850)

José Artigas was one of the Río de la Plata's first caudillos and became a prominent figure in the Wars of Independence. He was the principal advocate of federalism and autonomy for the provinces that would become Uruguay and Argentina. During the 1810s he joined forces with the revolutionary government in Buenos Aires in the fight for independence in the region and in the Banda Oriental, or the territory that would become Uruguay. Artigas's charisma, knowledge of the countryside, military savvy, and relationships with people from across the social hierarchy helped him acquire a multiethnic group of loyal supporters. Clashes with the Buenos Aires government and the Portuguese occupation of the Banda Oriental eventually led him and his followers into exile in Paraguay. Throughout the 1800s Artigas's reputation fluctuated, but from the late 1800s to the present day there is no doubting his position in the national pantheon as a founding father of Uruguay.

Born June 19, 1764, Artigas studied at the convent of San Francisco in Montevideo and then worked in the countryside. In 1797 he began serving with the Cuerpo de Blandengues, an armed cavalry force charged with policing and maintaining order in rural areas. During the first decade of the 1800s, Artigas moved up in rank in the Cuerpo. His service led him to crisscross the Banda Oriental and allowed him to experience social realities in different parts of the territory. Artigas and his forces established positive relationships with both wealthy landowners (estancieros) and rural populations that often worked on the estancieros' estates (estancias). They also fought briefly against the English during the second invasion of the region in 1807.

In May 1810 a junta, or local council, declared self-rule in Buenos Aires, marking one of the key moments in the outbreak of independence, known as the May revolution. When Artigas learned of the events across the river, he abandoned his position as captain in the Cuerpo, and thus his ties to Spanish authorities, and joined revolutionary forces in Buenos Aires. In 1811 the junta charged him with organizing the insurgence against royal forces in the Banda Oriental. Midway through the year he began the campaign against the royalists, and rural inhabitants quickly united with Artigas. In contrast, Montevideo remained a Spanish stronghold. Patriots won a series of battles en route toward Montevideo, and toward the end of May they requested that Viceroy Francisco Javier Elío surrender the city. He refused, and the patriots carried out the first siege of the city. Portuguese forces came to the aid of royalists in Montevideo, which, coupled with the defeat of patriots in Upper Peru, resulted in a deal between the Buenos Aires junta and the viceroy: Insurgents would end the siege, and both patriot and Portuguese forces would quit the Banda Oriental. In what was then called the redota, and is now referred to as the "exodus," Artigas led his men north, crossing the Río Uruguay and setting up camp in Ayuí.

In early 1812 the Buenos Aires government decided to back Artigas and his men in hopes of driving out the Portuguese troops, still in the Banda Oriental. Through negotiations the military conflict was avoided, and Portuguese forces left the territory. The fight for independence from Spain was then renewed, resulting in the second siege of Montevideo. In 1813 Artigas sent a delegation to Buenos Aires to propose a set of tenets known as the instrucciones del año XIII, calling for independence from the Spanish crown, a federalist system of government with checks and balances for the Argentine provinces, and provincial autonomy from the overbearing influence of Buenos Aires. Representatives in Buenos Aires refused to allow the delegation to participate in the provincial assembly, which led to a rift between the Buenos Aires government and Artigas, declared a traitor to the patriot cause in 1814. Troops from Buenos Aires took control of Montevideo, and skirmishes ensued between them and forces from the Banda Oriental until 1815, when Artigas's idea of provincial autonomy was tentatively accepted and control of the city was given to Orientales (inhabitants of the Banda Oriental). But tensions rose again in 1816. The Buenos Aires government reached out to the Portuguese to control the source of "unruly" federalism, presented as a threat to neighboring Brazil. By the end of the year Portuguese troops had occupied the Banda Oriental and would remain until the mid 1820s.

For the next three years Artigas and his supporters fought unsuccessfully against the Portuguese and for support from Buenos Aires. Toward the end of 1820 he went into exile in Paraguay, where he lived quietly the last thirty years of his life, maintained by José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia and Carlos Antonio López. Little else is known of the time he spent there, though it is clear that the second part of his life contrasted dramatically with the travels and military missions of the first part.

Artigas's remains were repatriated in 1855, marking the beginning of his rise to the status of national hero. Among certain social circles during the first half of the nineteenth century, a "Black Legend" of Artigas had held sway. Many elite liberals from Argentina and Uruguay considered him a sower of anarchy and a bloodthirsty, self-aggrandizing caudillo. This image underwent dramatic changes during the second half of the century, thanks largely to writings by Juan Zorrilla de San Martín and Carlo María Ramírez's book Artigas. By 1900 Artigas had been apotheosized. Artists portrayed him in various representations, and gradually the icon of Artigas emerged, first as an old man, and finally as youthful soldier, on stamps and national currency. In his historical paintings Juan Manuel de Blanes depicted a young and hearty Artigas, which became the most widely disseminated image of the leader. The novels of Eduardo Acevedo Díaz also contributed to the construction of a new national hero. In 1923 this status became official, with the inauguration of a statue of Artigas on horseback in Montevideo's Plaza Independencia. In the early twenty-first century his remains rest in a mausoleum beneath the statue, making it the most revered and guarded national monument in Uruguay.

See alsoBanda Oriental; Acevedo Díaz, Eduardo Inés; Blanes, Juan Manuel; Caudillismo, Caudillo; Elío, Francisco Javier; Francia, José Gaspar Rodríguez de; López, Carlos Antonio; United Provinces of the Río de la Plata; Uruguay: Before 1900; Wars of Independence: South America.


Ramírez, Carlos María. Artigas. Clásicos Uruguayos, no. 1. Montevideo: Ministerio de Educación y Cultura, 1985.

Reyes Abadie, Washington. Artigas y el federalismo en el Río de la Plata, 1810–1820. Montevideo: Ediciones de la Banda Oriental, 1974.

Ribeiro, Ana. El Caudillo y el Dictador, 3rd edition. Montevideo: Planeta, 2005.

Street, John. Artigas and the Emancipation of Uruguay. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1959.

Zorrilla de San Martín, Juan. La epopeya de Artigas. Clásicos Uruguayos, nos. 37-41. Montevideo: Ministerio de Instrucción Pública y Previsión Social, 1963.

                                   William G. Acree Jr.

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Artigas, José Gervasio (1764–1850)

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