Sucre - A Bolivian Gem
Sucre has been the heart of Bolivia throughout its history. It served as a capital to the indigenous people, the Spanish conquistadores, and the pro-independence movement before finally assuming its role at the centre of an independent, united Bolivia in 1825, a position it occupies to this day. No other town has played as important a role in Bolivia’s history or been witness to so many of its formative events. On the 25th of May, Sucre will celebrate that occasion of which it is perhaps proudest of all – the day it triggered a revolution that would eventually result in independence for all of South America.
Revolution and independence
To understand the origins of this momentous event requires a close look at happenings in Europe around the same time. The key trigger for revolutionary change in Bolivia and indeed the rest of South America was the collapse of the Spanish government with the invasion of Napoleon in 1808. Napoleon crowned his brother, Joseph, as King of Spain but at the same time a powerful ‘Junta’ or group of officials claimed to rule on in the name of the former king, Fernando VII, and Fernando’s sister Carlota also laid claim to the throne. Conflicting loyalties among the Spanish elite paved the way for a rebellion against Spanish rule in South America.
The seeds of this revolt were sown in Sucre, on May 25th, 1809. On this day, the judges of the Audiencia de Charcas, the seat of Spanish power in the east, rejected the demands of the president of the Audiencia that they recognise the authority of the Junta. They argued that the colonies owed allegiance to the person of the king rather than to Spain; by implication, with Napoleon’s forced abdication of Fernando VII, Spain’s colonies reverted to sovereignty. A detailed account of the events that followed this daring declaration is given in the box to the right.
This first assertion of independence led to a second uprising in La Paz in July of the same year. Although both were brutally crushed by the Spanish authorities of Buenos Aires and Lima, they initiated the liberation of the northwestern South American republics by Simon Bolivar, later known as El Libertador.
Ironically, although Alto Peru had been the first region to announce independence from Spain, it was the last to achieve it. After the liberation of Peru in 1824, Alto Peru, historically tied to the Lima government, was technically free of Spanish rule, but in practice it had been closer to the Spanish government in Buenos Aires and disputes arose about what to do with the territory. Bolivar wished to see Bolivia form part of ‘Greater Columbia’, his confederation of other liberated South American states, but his second in command, General Antonio Jose de Sucre, delivered a declaration of independence on the 6th of August, 1825. This defining moment took place in La Casa de la Libertad, in Sucre.
The City of Four Names
Except that Sucre was not yet called Sucre. Its name was changed from Chuquisaca to Sucre a few days after independence to honour General Sucre’s promotion of the independence movement. As may be expected from a city which has hosted the ruling elite of many different cultures, Sucre has actually undergone several name changes over the centuries. Today it is often warmly referred to as ‘The City of Four Names’ to emphasise this unique status. In fact, some would even argue that it has a fifth name, ‘La Ciudad Blanca’, which refers to its beautiful white colonial architecture.
Sucre’s first name was Charcas. Before the Spanish conquest, Charcas was the indigenous capital of the valley of Choquechaca. It was the centre of political, military and religious power and ruled over several thousand inhabitants. With the arrival of the Spanish, the whole region from southern Peru to the Rio de la Plata in Argentina became known as the Charcas. Subsequently, as the Spanish began exploring this region in search of mineral wealth, the conquistador Pedro de Anzures founded La Plata in 1538 on the site where the town of Charcas had originally stood. This name proved particularly apt as the rich silver mines of Potosi were discovered nearby soon after.
La Plata grew to become the main seat of power in the easternmost Spanish territories in the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1559, King Phillip II created the Audiencia de Charcas, an independent court that was unique in the New World because it had both judicial and executive powers. Funded by the silver from the Potosi, La Plata flourished in the first half of the 17th century and the Audiencia presided over Paraguay, south-eastern Peru, northern Chile and Argentina, and most of Bolivia.
However, as the flow of silver waned, so did La Plata’s influence and in 1776, when its jurisdiction was reduced to Choquechaca only, its name was changed to Chuquisaca. This was to avoid confusion with the new body that had been set up to defend Spain’s interests in the east, also called La Plata. Chuquisaca is believed to be a Spanish interpretation of Choquechaca. It is the name Sucre kept until independence in 1825.
A modern capital
With Bolivian independence came Sucre’s designation as capital city. It remains the constitutional capital to this day, although all real power has long since passed to La Paz. Sucre’s economic importance declined after independence in line with the collapse of the international price of silver. In its place, the economic value of La Paz increased, based on the presence of a new tin-mining elite and growing urban professional classes.
This change in economic power was ultimately reflected in politics and La Paz confirmed its newly acquired superior status in a civil war in 1899. At the end of this, both the Congress and the Presidency moved to La Paz, while Sucre remained the seat of the Supreme Court, the third of the three branches of government.
Today Sucre is a beautiful old colonial town which is trying hard to maintain its heritage whilst simultaneously seeking to continue the forward-thinking tradition that its university is famous for. It is a pleasing mix of the carefully preserved old and the young dynamic new. In addition to colonial, revolutionary and modern day elements, it also retains something of its time as Charcas, capital of a large indigenous community: Sucre is today the administrative and market centre for all the Quechua-speaking indigenous tribes who inhabit the mountains around it.
Thus the heart of Bolivia bears all the marks of the history that shaped it. It is only right that it should celebrate these with passion. If you want to acquire a taste of Bolivia’s turbulent history, Sucre is the place to be on the 25th of May.
Events on the 25th of May 1809
On this day, the president of the Audiencia, Ramon Garcia Pizarro, ordered the detention of the members of the Audiencia, whose hostility towards him had become increasingly apparent during the preceding weeks. However, the detractors were all too aware of his suspicions and most had taken precautions to avoid arrest. The only person he could seize was Jaime Zudanez, a lawyer.
As he was being driven to the town’s prison, Jaime urged the people to come to his defence. His cries seemed to them the revolutionary signal they had been waiting for and two brothers, Joaquin and Juan Manuel, quickly climbed the tower of San Francisco and rang the great bell there to signal the start of a fight for freedom. Shouts of ‘Viva Fernando VII!’ and ‘Muera el mal gobierno!’ were heard in the streets. These shouts disguised the rebels’ ultimate aim, which was of course true independence from Spain.
Facing the threat of a town in uproar, Garcia Pizarro released Jaime, thinking to placate the crowds. But they were already demanding his resignation. Surrounded by his guards in the Presidential Palace on the main square, Garcia Pizarro refused to step down until, at dawn on the 26th, his guards finally surrendered and he was imprisoned.
The members of the Audiencia set up a new government with Juan Antonio Alvarez de Arenales at its head, sensing that they would need his military expertise to defend it. So they did. He organised 1,000 men to face off the governor of Potosi, who, upon hearing of the revolt in Chuquisaca, began a march towards the city to restore order. He was successfully persuaded to turn back.
In conclusion, the Spanish authorities in Buenos Aires could be convinced to accept the new order, but demanded that a man of their choice, Vicente Nieto, was made president of the Audiencia. Following the tragedy of the 16th of July in La Paz, the Audiencia had no choice but to accept. Nieto subsequently launched a careful investigation of the events of the 25th of May, but despite his expulsion of several key figures, the seeds of rebellion had been sown.
Another sixteen years would pass before they bore fruit.
Sonja Van Renssen