- José Artigas and the Federal League in Uruguay's War of Independence (1810-1820)by William H. Katra
I n this engaging work, independenthistorian William Katra recounts a tale deserving of closer attention by political and historical geographers: that of José Artigas, a general and leader of the short-lived Liga Federal, a nascent early-19th-century proto-state that included parts of what became Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and Uruguay. During the past decade of bicentennials, scholars throughout Latin America have written on contemporary subjects, including Artigas – notably, a shorter 2017 by exiled Uruguayan historian and lawyer Enrique Méndez Vives – but rarely by an outsider less encumbered by ties to just one of the four eventual modern states, and rarer still in English.
Katra's book is infused with a geographic sensibility and analysis. The chapters tend to jump around in time, but they are anchored in space. While ostensibly about Artigas the man, it is really about the territory of the Liga. Katra reproduces the territory – its land, its people, and its potential -- through the eyes of Artigas the military leader, but more incisively as a community builder. In Katra's account, Artigas's visions, choices, and creative experiments with governance flow from two sources: the economic limitations and injustices of a poorly interconnected hinterland, and Artigas's personal bias toward the rural, indigenous, and local. Katra sketches the landscapes by bringing to life the ragtag but dignified assortment of villagers, landless poor, and Guaraní, their channels to stability – literally, their rivers – blocked by external political impediments at three scales: the landowners and merchants [End Page 310]of Buenos Aires and Montevideo; the invading, enslaving Portuguese/Brazilians; and the British, who balk at Artigas's attempts to restrict their control of river trade. Through Artigas's letters and his uncompromising breaks from alliances, Katra builds a portrait of a man forever suspicious of the urban power elites.
For Uruguayans, this provokes the question: when did they achieve independence? In 1811, or in 1828? Was the Liga Federal, in some sense, a proto-Uruguay? Artigas's break with Montevideo in 1814 is key. Is Uruguay's self-identity tied more to its capital city, or to its rural hinterland? To its European links, or to its uniquely American qualities (including its indigenous peoples, and its fitful early steps toward land tenure justice)? These questions still resonate today, throughout Latin America, and the world: the global and the local, the rural and the urban, the universal and the distinctive.
Katra focuses on two components of Artigas's governance that are celebrated today in a general sense among Uruguayan school-children (and cited by Eduardo Galeano in his classic book Open Veins of Latin America), but rarely treated in their detailed variation within the space and time of the Liga: land tenure reform, and the inclusion of the Guaraní and other, less settled indigenous people. Katra examined land tenure documents (mainly legal disputes), Artigas's and others' letters, local voting tallies, and a close reading of governance decrees (many of them later suppressed by Argentina and Uruguay's centralized governments). He compares Artigas's efforts to forge local governance and empower indigenous communities in the three Argentinian provinces along the Paraná River, and, in Entre Rios, to grant parcels to former black slaves (this reminded me of John Brown's equally doomed settlement in New Elba, New York). Katra probably exaggerates by contending (p. 22) that "with his pro-indigenous politics, [Artigas] stood alone. His speculation that Artigas's suicidal refusal to compromise with the Portuguese or the Porteños in 1819 was due mainly to his "political, moral, affective – and now spiritual – ties with the Charrúas and the Guaranís" (p. 143) is unprovable, but the reader is left with no doubt about the mutual loyalty between Artigas and his indigenous compatriots, even if it tore apart the delicate local governments and forced Artigas from his leadership role...