Pedro Antonio de Olañeta, the irreducible absolutist of South American independence

On July 12, 1825, Pedro Antonio de Olañeta reached the peak of his professional career: King Fernando VII had just named him viceroy of the Río de la Plata. Unfortunately, the winner was unable to enjoy his new position; in fact, he didn’t even get to assume it because when the news reached America he had been more than three months dead.

Added to this curious circumstance was another: Olañeta had fallen in the battle of Tumusla against the United Liberation Army of Peru of Carlos Medinaceli Lizarazu and both chiefs had followed opposite trajectories, the first beginning with sympathies for the revolutionaries and then defending the royalist cause while the second evolved just the other way around.

Pedro Antonio de Olañeta was of peninsular origin: he was born in elgueta (Guipúzcoa) in 1770 and at the age of seventeen he emigrated with his parents to America, settling between Potosí and Salta. She was a merchant family who managed to make his way and make his fortune, becoming part of the social elite of Tucumán, especially when the young Pedro married his cousin, who was also the sister of Juan Guillermo Marquiegui, a soldier from Jujuy who would later make a name for himself in the coming wars. The couple had a high standard of living, running a stay (ie, a hacienda or ranch).

The May Revolution (Francisco Fortuny)/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In reality, Olañeta had also joined the ranks of the army, in the local militias; for this reason and because he was used to directing his gang of workers, when in 1810 the May revolution he did not lack command experience.

During the month of the same name, after receiving the news of the fall of the Central Supreme Board in Spain, an open town hall and a congress were called from which a patriotic boardchaired by Cornelio Saavedra, who proclaimed the independence on the 25th, decreeing free trade and sending armies under the command of Generals Antonio Balcarce and Manuel Belgrano to liberate other areas of the Viceroyalty: Upper Peru (Bolivia) and the so-called Banda Oriental (territories east of the Uruguay River, that is, Paraguay and Uruguay), still loyal to the Spanish Regency Council as well as suspicious of Buenos Aires centralism.

As I said before, at first Olañeta welcomed the movement thinking, like so many others at the time, that it was a simple reaction against the Napoleonic rule in defense of the Spanish crown, whose legitimate depositary should be Ferdinand VII.

However, when it became clear that this was going to have a much greater significance, that independence was aspired to and that in this, as a peninsular Spaniard, he would see his properties endangered, he openly sided with the realistic side.

Making good that saying that the conquest was the responsibility of the Americans themselves while the emancipation was carried out by the Spaniards fighting among themselves, the war spread like wildfire throughout the continent. Olañeta joined the general’s troops as commander Jose Manuel de Goyenechewho had been plenipotentiary representative of the Supreme Junta of Seville for the American territories and in whose name he proclaimed Fernando VII as sole monarch.

Goyeneche operated in the province of Jujuyterritory adjacent to Upper Peru and whose capital, San Salvador, came to occupy in 1817.

On Jujuy land there was a curious confrontation of gauchos against gauchos, since those commanded by the Spaniards faced those led by Martin Miguel de Guemesone of those soldiers sent there by the Junta.

In fact, Güemes was the one who achieved the only victory against the royalists (in Suipacha), prevailing in the other battles by the troops of Goyeneche, who earned the title of count of Guaqui for the victory in that place. However, hostilities continued several years and fate foresaw a direct confrontation between Güemes and Olañeta.

It was in jump, a province south of Jujuy, whose capital, fed up with the taxes ordered by the revolutionaries, demanded the presence of the royalist army. Olañeta sent Colonel José María Valdés, who occupied the city and when Güemes went to recover it, he ambushed him.

Guemes had to flee badly wounded with the aggravating circumstance that he was a hemophiliac, dying a few days later. He posthumously won the victory, as weeks later his men liberated Salta. But, meanwhile, Olañeta had achieved great prestige and rose to Brigadier General.

Meanwhile, things had changed in the metropolis. The liberals had forced the king to swear the constitution and, consequently, they sent a new viceroy to the Río de la Plata: Jose de la Serna e Hinojosa. A bad thing for an unconditional absolutist like Olañeta, who nevertheless placed himself under his orders for a couple of years until in 1824 when he rebelled against his authority.

The Olañeta insurrectionas it is historically known, occurred earlier that year, on January 22, after a series of tug-of-war with the liberal military leadership and the induction of his nephew Casimiro, who was also his secretary. This was a prestigious jurist from the Royal Court of Charcas, an ex-combatant in the ranks of the former viceroy José de la Pezuela.

Casimiro convinced his uncle to launch a coup when he found out that, first, the Urgell Regency Council encouraged them to revolt and, later, that the Holy Alliance, through the One Hundred Thousand Sons of Saint Louis, had returned the absolute power to Ferdinand VII.

The Olañetas officially disowned La Serna and took the royal funds deposited in Potosí, as well as all the ecclesiastical treasures they found to finance their movement and form their own army. The division between Spaniards favored the work of Bolívar, who advanced on Jauja and on August 6, 1824 defeated in the bloody Battle of Junin Lieutenant General José de Canterac, who had had to divide his forces to pursue Olañeta.

And it is that he had taken to the mountains with four thousand soldiers, being also supported by Francisco Javier Aguilera (governor of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, who took another thousand troops) and his brother-in-law Guillermo Marquiegui, among others. to the cry of «Long live religion, the King and the nation!the rebels had no qualms about establishing contacts with Bolivar and apparently negotiate the distribution of the territory.

Apparently, Casimiro Olañeta’s idea was that Upper Peru, already considered indefensible for Spain, would at least remain independent of the rest of Peru and the Río de la Plata with his uncle as viceroy. In fact, the absolutists spread the rumor that this was La Serna’s intention. In any case, the inflexibility of Olañeta uncle in conversations with the Liberator prevented the deal.

The viceroy sent the general Jerome Valdes, a recognized liberal who proposed an agreement in Tarapaya giving in to absolutist demands; in reality he was only trying to buy time for Canterac to dismantle the revolutionaries in El Callao and Lima. Once this was achieved, the campaign against Olañeta was resumed in June.

The absolutists had managed to gather five thousand men and defeated the liberals in tarabucillo while they managed to escape while keeping their distance. Most of the actions were minor, but when the balance began to tip in Valdés’s side, the news from Junín arrived and with it the order to return to Cuzco.

In this way, Olañeta was owner of Upper Peru, receiving congratulations from Bolívar. At the end of the year the royalist army was defeated in ayacucho despite the fact that both Spanish sides temporarily put aside their differences to face the common enemy: Olañeta had sent reinforcements but the liberal commanders lacked motivation, knowing that Fernando VII had triumphed in Spain and councils of war were awaiting them, so that disaster meant, in practice, the end of effective Spanish rule in Peru.

Anonymous representation of the battle of Ayacucho/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In January 1825 Casimiro Olañeta accompanied Sucre on his entry to Upper Peru; he would be elected a member of the National Assembly in Chiquisaca and would become one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence that summer. What’s more, she would come to Minister in several governments and would be a fundamental piece in the legislative work of Bolivia, dying as president of the Supreme Court of Justice.

Meanwhile, his uncle rejected the offer made to him by the liberators to join the construction of the new country. There was peace for four months, but evidently the nascent government could not afford a hostile army operating on its territory.

On April 1, 1825, the Battle of Tumusla, in the current Bolivian department of Potosí, in which Carlos Medinaceli went over to the opposite side, leaving his former superior alone and defeating him; Olañeta, wounded in combat, died the next day. He did not get to know that Fernando VII had named him viceroy.


General history of Spain and America (Luis Suárez Fernández)/Contemporary History of Latin America (Tulio Halperin Donghi)/Neither with Lima nor with Buenos Aires. The formation of a national state in Charcas (Jose Luis Roca)/The complex process towards the independence of Charcas (1808-1826). War, citizenship, local conflicts and indigenous participation in Oruro (María Luisa Soux)/Gallery of famous contemporary Spaniards (Nicomedes Pastor Diaz)/History of the independence of Bolivia (Jorge Siles Salinas)