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Peasant Rebellions in Latin American History: A Historiographical Analysis

Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

Map of Latin America.

Map of Latin America.

A Period Characterized by Rebellion

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, open forms of resistance and rebellion characterized the actions of numerous subaltern groups in Latin America. Rebellion, in its many forms, served as a means to not only defend the interests of peasants, workers, and slaves, but also resulted in radical changes to the social, economic, and political structures of the states they resided in.

Through an analysis of uprisings in Guyana, Mexico, and Nicaragua, this article provides an examination of three historical interpretations in order to better understand the motives that drove subaltern groups to rebel in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In doing so, this paper concerns itself with the question: how do scholars and historians interpret the decision of subaltern elements to revolt against established social and political norms? More specifically, what factors led to peasant and slave revolts in the context of Latin American history?


Slave Rebellion in Demerara (Guyana)

In 1994, historian Emilia Viotti da Costa’s work, Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood: The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823, addressed this issue of causation in her analysis of the 1823 Demerara slave rebellion in Guyana. According to da Costa’s findings, the rebellion, which encompassed nearly “ten to twelve thousand slaves,” resulted from a desire of subalterns to protect established privileges and rights within their society (da Costa, xiii). Although prior histories stressed that the “cause of rebellion was unmitigated oppression” from the landowners and elites of Demerara, da Costa counters this notion and argues that the crisis resulted from “growing confrontation between masters and slaves” that developed slowly across the early part of the 1800s (da Costa, xii).

In the decades leading up to the rebellion, da Costa argues that the relationship between slaves and masters in Demerara revolved around a mutually-reinforced social structure, in which “notions of propriety…rules, rituals, and sanctions…regulated the relations between masters and slaves” (da Costa, xvii). According to da Costa, “slaves perceived slavery as a system of reciprocal obligations” in which masters were expected to provide clothing, meals, and basic amenities in exchange for their slave’s labor and work on plantations (da Costa, 73). Whenever these terms were “violated and the implicit ‘contract’ [was] broken,” however, da Costa argues that slaves “felt entitled to protest” (da Costa, 73). This is important to consider, as da Costa’s work illustrates that slavery was not only a system of oppression, but also reflected a social-contract, of sorts, between subalterns and elites.

In her explanation of the chaos that engulfed Demerara in the early 1820s, da Costa suggests that the rise of abolitionists in England as well as the spread of missionary work in the colony disrupted the delicate relationship that existed between masters and slaves; a disruption that led inexorably to confrontation between both groups by 1823. By incorporating abolitionist thought into their evangelical work, da Costa suggests that missionaries (such as John Wray and John Smith) unknowingly cultivated a desire for emancipation amongst the slaves as Biblical references of hope, freedom, sin, and morality greatly challenged the power that planters and elites held (traditionally) over their slaves (da Costa, xviii). In response, da Costa argues that slaves interpreted the messages presented by missionaries as proof that their masters were deliberately keeping them in bondage against the wishes of both God and the mother country in England. As she states:

“…chapel created a space where slaves from different plantations could legitimately assemble to celebrate their humanity and their equality as God’s children. Slaves [in turn] appropriated the missionaries’ language and symbols, and turned their lessons of love and redemption into promises of freedom. Incensed by rumors of emancipation and convinced they had allies in England, the slaves seized the opportunity to take history into their own hands” (da Costa, xvii-xviii).

As da Costa suggests, missionary work cultivated a sense of rebelliousness in the slaves because it made them aware of the growing injustices they faced at the hands of landlords and elites in Demerara. Thus, as da Costa states: “the conflict between managers and slaves was not simply about work or material needs. It was a conflict over different notions of propriety: of right and wrong, proper and improper, fair and unfair” (da Costa, 74).

Viewed in this light, da Costa’s work echoes the arguments first made by historian, James C. Scott, and his theory on the “moral economy,” which suggests that intra-societal relationships (such as the relationship between subalterns and elites) are based on reciprocated notions of justice and morality. As seen in Demerara, the colony’s growing dependence on slavery, combined with its denial of basic rights to slaves (such as justice, the denial of church, and protection from arbitrary punishment) equated to a violation of the slaves’ “moral economy” in that they viewed the actions of planters as both immoral and unjustified. This, in turn, prompted slaves to rebel in order to correct the system of injustices that they faced (da Costa, 73).

Moreover, da Costa’s work also sheds light on the fact that revolts were often the result of long-term issues, and were rarely spontaneous events. As seen with the Demerara rebellion, conflict developed over a period of several decades before it culminated into active rebellion in 1823. Her work demonstrates that largescale action against the planting class required a profound awareness from the slaves of their exploitation and oppression; an awareness that took several years to reach fruition.


Peasant Resistance in Mexico

Historian Alan Knight and his work, The Mexican Revolution: Porfirians, Liberals and Peasants also provides tremendous insight into the causes of subaltern revolts. In his analysis of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Knight’s work provides an intricate and detailed interpretation of not only the event’s causes, but also the motivations that underpinned agrarian revolts across the Mexican countryside against both Porfirio Diaz and landholding elites. Knight echoes the arguments presented by both da Costa and Scott who explained subaltern rebellions as a response to violations of their “moral economy.” However, while da Costa argued that slaves in Demerara rebelled in response to violations of traditional rights and privileges, Knight argues (in the case of Mexican society) that land played a central role in the provocation of peasant resistance and prompted many agrarian-based groups to protest and rebel as a means to protect their basic needs and economic interests.

By the early 1900s (under the Diaz regime), Knight argues that elites controlled the vast majority of land across the Mexican countryside (Knight, 96). As land became commodified with the rise of capitalist enterprise and the expansion of haciendas into villages, Knight argues that peasants increasingly felt out of place as the new market economy held no place for traditional, peasant-based agriculture to thrive and grow. According to Knight, these fluctuations resulted in “traumatic changes in status [for peasants]” as well as the loss of “autonomy they had formerly enjoyed, and the basic security afforded by possession of the means of production” (Knight, 166). Moreover, he argues that the changeover from “independent peasant to dependent peon status, resulted in both “poverty and powerlessness” for the Mexican peasantry (Knight, 166).

In this interpretation, peasants viewed the erosion of communal property, as well as the largescale privatization of land as a direct attack on their traditional way of life, and as a direct violation to their moral economy. As Knight states, “obeying imperatives whose validity the peasant did not recognise [sic] (the capitalist market; raison d’état), threatened destitution or drastic changes in status and income, thereby violating the ‘moral economy’ on which peasant society depended” (Knight, 158).

In response to the changes that surrounded them, Knight argues that peasants responded in various forms of rebellion and aggression towards those who challenged their interests and who inhibited their pursuit of land-equality. Knight explains these variations in aggression by arguing that the feelings exhibited by peasants were largely “subjective” and “conditioned by particular circumstances” (Knight, 166). As a result, Knight’s argument showcases how differences in peasant norms and customs (on the localized level) helped lead to sporadic revolts and protests across the countryside and, in turn, gave the Mexican Revolution its distinct character as a divided movement lacking in both a political vanguard and “coherent ideology” (Knight, 2). As Knight states, “in its provincial origins, the Revolution displayed kaleidoscopic variations; often it seemed less a Revolution than a multitude of revolts, some endowed with national aspirations, many purely provincial, but all reflecting local conditions and concerns” (Knight, 2).

In defining subaltern resistance as a reaction to land-privatization in Mexico, Knight’s argument is important to consider (in the context of causation for subaltern uprisings) as it serves as a direct counter to Marxist historians who often focus on the issue of ‘class exploitation’ as a means for understanding the issue of peasant rebellions. As Knight clearly demonstrates, modernization (in regard to the Mexican economy) was more of a problem than issues of class in the radicalization process of peasants. Although class exploitation certainly occurred and aided in the development of revolts, Knight argues that peasants were more troubled by the “traumatic changes in status” that privatization left in their wake (Knight, 166).

Knight’s work also provides a deeper understanding of peasant attitudes and behaviors, as well as the role that mannerisms and customs played in the promotion of agrarian revolts. As he states, peasants often revolted against authorities and elites due to their “backward-looking, nostalgic, and ‘traditional’” mannerisms, which resulted from their desire to reestablish a sense of the past (Knight, 161). Even when changes in their society “resulted…in better material rewards,” he posits that economic gains often could not “compensate for the psychological penalties” created from the disruption of their past lives (Knight, 166). As a result, peasants chose resistance as a means of returning society back to its former status quo.

Class-Consciousness and Resistance in Nicaragua

In a similar manner to Knight, historian Jeffrey Gould and his work, To Lead As Equals: Rural Protest and Political Consciousness in Chinandega, Nicaragua, 1912-1979, also argues that land served as a source of contention between subalterns and elites with his analysis of Nicaragua during the twentieth century. In contrast to Knight, however, Gould’s study illustrates the long-term evolution of peasant and worker resistance, and highlights the importance of “politicians, businessmen, soldiers, and hacendados” in forming a sense of class-consciousness amongst subaltern elements, and, in later years, rebelliousness (Gould, 6).

Similar to Knight’s description of Mexico in the early 1900s, Nicaragua underwent multiple changes to its economy in the twentieth century as the Nicaraguan government sought to both modernize and commodify the region’s landholdings. According to Gould, these changes promoted largescale inequality in regard to the possession of private property, as elites and businesses (both foreign and local) came to control a large percentage of the nation’s available land (Gould, 28).

Following this transition from an agrarian-based economy to a wage-labor society, Gould argues that the growth of capitalism and privatization resulted in a tremendous disruption to the paternalistic relationship exhibited between elites and subalterns in prior years (Gould, 133-134). This relationship, which dominated Nicaraguan society for many decades, eroded in the wake of capitalist enterprises as landlords and elites quickly abandoned their traditional obligations to the peasantry in order to profit from modernization and mechanization. As Gould states, “the transformation of Chinandegan productive relations arose when the patron denied the campesinos’ access to hacienda land and jobs, thus snapping the material underpinnings of patron-client reciprocity” (Gould, 134). Access to the land, in particular, “had been the cornerstone of oligarchic legitimacy” for many decades in Nicaraguan society (Gould, 139). However, with the rise of mechanized farm-machinery (such as tractors) that resulted in greater productivity and less need for laborers, Gould argues that campesinos soon found themselves both landless and unemployed as machinery performed “the work of ten laborers and twenty oxen;” thus, eliminating the need for a regular workforce (Gould, 134). Gould’s description of modernization maintains strong similarities to Knight’s account of peasants that resided in Mexico. In both cases, modernization and dispossession resulted in the creation of “surplus labor, while also eliminating peasant competition in the market” (Knight, 155). Although this provided economic benefits for elites, it also greatly impoverished the peasants of both societies in a profound manner.

As campesinos increasingly realized that a return to a patron-client relationship of the past was unlikely (given the progression of modernization and its effects on the Nicaraguan economy), Gould argues that peasants slowly developed a collective consciousness and “came to view themselves as members of one social group in conflict against another" (Gould, 8). Campesinos justified this split with the landholders and elites through a conjuring of images from the past, which stressed that “moral economic order” dominated society under the old patron-client system of prior years (Gould, 139). As Gould states, peasants “recognized the image of pre-1950 social harmony” as a “recent past that seemed substantially more abundant and fertile than the present” (Gould, 139). This gradual awareness and consciousness of their social condition, in turn, led to sporadic revolts and demonstrations in the years that followed, and helped pave the way for the Sandinista revolution of the late 1970s.

As with da Costa and Knight, Gould’s argument echoes the interpretation of James C. Scott by arguing that disruptions to the patron-client system equated to a direct violation of the peasantry’s moral economy. This, he argues, led peasants to rebel against injustices that they perceived to be against their social and economic needs, which also reflects the arguments presented by da Costa in regard to the deteriorating master-slave relationship that permeated Demerara society in 1823. More importantly, however, Gould’s study showcases that the campesino’s comparison between the past and present “revealed a systematic violation by the elite of the social pact, rooted in the idealized paternalistic past” (Gould, 141). According to Gould, such a vivid discrepancy prompted the campesinos to view themselves as “the only social group capable of restoring harmony and legality to society” (Gould, 141). It was precisely this understanding and consciousness that led many Chinandegans to rebel and “become revolutionaries” in the years and decades that followed -- culminating in the Sandinista revolution of 1979 (Gould, 135).

Why Study This Period?

In closing, an understanding of the factors that contribute to subaltern resistance is important to consider for scholars as it helps to illustrate the multifaceted nature of revolts across both Latin American and world history. More often than not, historical events are shaped by a multitude of factors that operate simultaneously alongside one another. Viewing the causes of subaltern revolts as a singular and unidimensional concept, therefore, both limits and restricts historical interpretations. Thus, by incorporating and acknowledging that different forms of causation existed, scholars and historians, alike, are better equipped to obtain a fuller and more comprehensive understanding of the past.

Taken together, each of these works shed tremendous light on Scott’s theory of the “moral economy” and its relation to subaltern revolts. Viewed in their broader historical context, it is clear that oppression, alone, often played little role in prompting subalterns to revolt across Latin America. Instead, social changes that derived from disruptions to the hegemonic relationship between subalterns and elites were often more important to peasants and slaves than repressive acts, alone. The reason for this lies in the innate sense of tradition that often permeated subaltern thought. Their desire to maintain the status quo (in response to social change), as well as their desire to preserve beneficial relationships with elites, prompted subalterns in Latin America to rebel and revolt as a means to defend their interests. Through rebellion, however, these groups unknowingly set the stage for even greater social, economic, and political unrest to occur in their societies; rendering a return to the mutually-reinforced relationships of the past (between elites and subalterns) an impossibility, as subaltern revolts helped to redefine their social role and position within Latin America (in relation to elites).

Thus, an understanding of the factors that prompted subalterns to rebel in Latin America is important to consider, as it provides tremendous insight into the issues that have caused peasant and slave revolts, worldwide. The findings (and theories) devised by Scott, Da Costa, Knight, and Gould, therefore, provide an effective tool to evaluate subaltern thinking in areas such as the Ukraine, Russia (and the former Soviet Union), as well as resistance patterns that occurred with slaves in the American South during the Antebellum era.

Works Cited

Bushnell, David, James Lockhart, and Roger A. Kittleson. "History of Latin America." Encyclopædia Britannica. December 28, 2017. Accessed May 17, 2018.

Da Costa, Emilia Viotti. Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood: The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Gould, Jeffrey L. To Lead As Equals: Rural Protest and Political Concsiousness in Chinandega, Nicaragua, 1912-1979. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Knight, Alan. The Mexican Revolution: Porfirians, Liberals and Peasants Vol. I. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.

"The History of El Dorado: British Guiana Since 1600." History Today. Accessed May 17, 2018.

"Your Guide to the History & Meaning of the Mexican Flag." TripSavvy. Accessed May 17, 2018.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Larry Slawson