Uruguay and the memory of the Charrúa tribe

March 28, 2011 3:44 am 1 comment

The 11th of April will mark the passage of 180 years since the genocide of the Charrúa people, carried out by the then president Fructuoso Rivera, in a place known as ‘Salsipuedes’ (literally meaning ‘get-out-if-you-can’)

Wilfredo Alayón

The Charrúa were a group of American Indians who lived in the area currently known as the country of Uruguay and the Argentine provinces of Entre Rios and Santa Fe. According to a detailed study by the MP  Edgardo Ortuño, they lived on these lands long before the Europeans first set foot in the area; they ruled sovereign over their dominion and they were its natural defenders.

Historical documents record that at different times they were involved in battles with the Spanish, English, Portuguese and Brazilian empires; this defence of their dignity and independence lead to the soils of the territory becoming soaked in their blood. These same documents affirm that they were a collective of many different groups that were in turn linked to other smaller bands, hence the uncertainty surrounding their origins.

Historians and specialists maintain that they were born of a fusion between two large collectives – the caingang and the patagones – and that their languages could have been related to the mataco-guaicurú family; meanwhile, the origins of their name is still being discussed, its indigenous roots are currently doubted in favour its origin being Galician (a language spoken in the North-West of Spain). It is known that their abilities with the bow and arrow brought them relative success compared to other small tribes living on the Eastern coast, allowing them to survive from hunting, gathering and fishing.

President Rivera actually maintained good relations with the Charrúa initially, however, hostilities developed as the power of the whites advanced and the response was to attack small settlements and isolated houses.

The massacre

On the 11th of April of 1831, in “Puntas del Queguay”, the massacre known as the Slaughter of Salsipuedes took place. The banks of the Salsipuedes creek, between the departments of Tacuarembó and Rio Negro, were home to Fructuoso Rivera’s headquarters. Source documents state that Rivera convened the main Charrúa chiefs – called  Polidoro, Rondeau, Brown, Juan Pedro and Venado – and their tribes, for a meeting to discuss the protection of the State’s borders.

According to recorded accounts, after being pampered and plied with alcohol, the natives were attacked by a troop of 1,200 men under the command of Bernabé Rivera, the president’s brother. The figures given in the official history of events are 40 dead Indians and 300 prisioners – some of whom escaped and were then pursued by Bernabé Rivera – whilst nine were injured and one died amongst the attackers.

The persecution did not end with this slaughter, and particularly Bernabé Rivera had a special determination to hunt down and exterminate those who managed to escape. Four months later, in Mataojo, close to the mouth of the river Arapey in the northern part of the region of Salto, he surprised and attacked a group commanded by the chiefs El Adivino and Juan Pedro; this resulted in 15 dead and more than 80 prisioners.

According to the history professor and journalist Lincoln Maiztegui Casas, “the disappearance of the Charrúa people was a gradual process that took more than 200 years, and the root cause was territorial occupation by Europeans”.

In his writing, Maiztegui maintains that whilst the Guarani adopted a process of adaptation, the case was different for the Charrúa, who gradually disappeared.

Thousands died, thousands more escaped to the North-East of Brazil, and the rest remained as slaves where they lost their culture and interbred with whites, according to the academic. Current calculations suggest that Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina are now home to somewhere between 160 thousand and 300 thousand people descended from the Charrúa, all of whom are of mixed blood and some groups have undertaken a process to recover their indigenous identities. PL.

(Translated by Patrick Jones – Email: patrick@patrickjones.eu)

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