Conquest of the Desert

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Conquest of the Desert

The so-called Conquest of the Desert (Conquista del desierto) was carried out in 1879 in Argentina under the military command of Julio Argentino Roca (1843–1914), who was minister of war at the time. He organized a military offensive to put an end to the problem posed by the native peoples who were preventing him seizing full control of the territories to the south of the Colorado River (Río Colorado). The objective of the military campaign was, in Roca's words, to expel, subjugate, or wipe out the Indians. In doing this he hoped to complete the task of not only occupying those territories but also placing them under the control of the national government, a task begun in earlier times by ranchers, merchants, and Indian chiefs.

The occupation of this territory was seen as important for a number of reasons. These included the need to limit indigenous control of economic exchanges in the region, limit the role of their chiefs as political intermediaries, and secure the borders of the Patagonian territories.

To carry out the military campaign, the National Congress passed a law that provided the necessary resources. In 1878 troops had already attacked tribal chief Manuel Namuncurá's forces in their tents, Juan José Catriel's troops surrendered as prisoners, and tribal chief known as Pincén was ambushed and captured with his best men. In 1879 troops under the command of General Roca, which also included some indigenous soldiers, occupied Choele-Choel. Other divisions took and held La Pampa and the confluence of the Lima and Neuquén rivers. The advance of all these divisions was uncontainable, and in a short time they were able to occupy the region and decimate the indigenous communities. They took over 225,000 square miles of land that could be used for livestock and agriculture, and built villages and colonies along the banks of the Colorado, Negro, Neuquén, and Santa Cruz rivers. They also extended and improved communications in the inland provinces of the country, and gradually expanded the military telegraph network, which was then turned over to the civil authorities. Indigenous settlements were created to house some survivors, and others were dispersed throughout rural villages; women and children were assigned to wealthy families in Buenos Aires under the notion that work would help them adapt to "civilization."

See alsoArgentina: The Nineteenth Century; Namuncurá, Manuel; Roca, Julio Argentino.


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                                      Mirta Zaida Lobato