Thursday, May 10, 2012

How Argentina Came About

This is an essay on the origins of Argentina. Latin American history is still a subject of intense controversy, and there is scarcely a line of this account that would not be disputed by someone. It is a hazard of the attempt. I have avoided entering into a discussion of the Falklands - Malvinas question which has long resembled a dialogue of the deaf. My modest hope is that readers unfamiliar with Argentina will gain an idea of how, in the light of their history, Argentinians may feel about their territorial integrity; and that Argentinians may accept that Brits are not necessarily the ignorant and unsympathetic neocolonialists sometimes depicted in their national media. I have used the expressions “Indian”, “native”, “indigenous” interchangeably. We lack an adequate vocabulary to refer to the original inhabitants of lands usurped by foreign, usually European, invaders so must fall back on collective descriptors, all of which seem to this writer more or less dehumanizing. I employ them for lack of alternatives.

Borders are more than mere tracings on a map. They are the means by which we identify where we belong, and who we are in relation to others. They define the territory we call our own and within which we share common myths about ourselves with our compatriots. To understand how Argentina acquired her present size and configuration and what these signify to her population, therefore, we need a little history; and we need to season that history with the flavours bestowed by her colonial past, her struggle for independence, and the fate of the peoples who lived there before the first Europeans set foot on her shores.

Like all of South America, Argentina came into being in consequence of a decision made thousands of miles away in Southern Europe. The story begins in 1493. Columbus had just returned with the exciting news that he had come across large islands far to the west of the known world. Immediately, Spain and Portugal began squabbling about rights of possession. In those far off days, territorial disputes between catholic countries went to the Vatican. Pope Alexander VI found a simple solution. Drawing an imaginary north-south line a hundred leagues west of the Azores, he divided the “New World” into two parts: lands east of the line belonged to Portugal and lands west of the line to Spain. John II of Portugal thought this unfair and argued successfully for the line to be shifted further west so that he could enjoy a piece of what we now know as the Americas. Both crowns set their seal on the agreement the following year at the Treaty of Tordesillas and Julius II, the next Pope, confirmed the arrangement in 1506. No one bothered to ask the local habitants if they approved the deal. At the time, no one even knew that the South American continent existed.

The Treaty of Tordesillas underwent several modifications mainly to accommodate Portugal’s success in pushing well beyond her allotted meridian line into the region that became Brazil. Not until the Treaty of San Ildefonso of 1777 was the question of who owned which part of South America finally settled between the two countries. By that time, Spain had organized its American possessions into administrative regions, one of which was the Viceroyalty of the River Plate with its capital of Buenos Aires. Breathtaking in size, it covered all of present-day Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay, as well as parts of Bolivia and southern Brazil, and the Falkland Islands (Las Malvinas).

For over two hundred years after the Conquest, Spanish America slumbered under an indolent if rather stifling colonial regime. Wealth extraction dominated the imperial agenda, and Spain grew rich on imports of precious metals, timber, and agricultural products from the colonies while sending manufactures in return, many of which were no longer made in Spain but bought elsewhere and re-exported to South America at inflated prices.

The Bourbon Fist

Though never formally part of the Habsburg empire, Spain had been ruled by Habsburg kings who on the whole governed with a light hand. Then, in the early 1700s following the War of the Spanish Succession, the Bourbons took possession of the Spanish throne. More absolutist and authoritarian than their predecessors, they began instituting reforms - increasing the taxation of the colonies and demanding higher revenues for the Spanish coffers. They also assumed tighter political control. Fresh administrators came out from the motherland. Measures were enacted to reduce the power and privilege of the church and the elite. New legislation relieved the “Indians” of some of the worst aspects of their bondage - an initiative in keeping with European values of the time but unpalatable to local mine and land owners. In 1767, the Jesuits - wealthiest of all the ecclesiastical groups in Spanish America - were expelled - not on account of their financial success but because they had promoted education, and social and political awareness among the indigenous population - qualities that were not convenient to the maintenance of colonial control.

Bourbon restrictions and demands for increased revenues stirred much resentment among the privileged classes; and though little could be done about the expulsion of the Jesuits, the new administrators from Spain were made to feel unwelcome by criollos (Latin-Americans of European heritage) who had grown accustomed to organizing their own affairs.

In 1780, a descendent of the old Inca rulers of Peru, who styled himself Tupac Amaru - meaning ‘the Gifted One’- launched a rebellion, but within a year he was captured and made to watch as his wife, children and closest friends were hacked to death. He was then tied by the limbs to four horses and dismembered. A rebellion in New Granada (Colombia) put the Viceroy in Bogotá to flight, but it was repressed without much difficulty, and the political landscape returned to normal. Would-be revolutionaries were cowed into silence by the ferocity of Spanish reprisals.

The sparks that eventually ignited Spanish American revolutionary fervour and that were to lead to the creation of independent states came once again from Europe.

Revolution from Afar

In 1808, the French invaded Iberia. Ferdinand VII of Spain fell into Napoleon’s hands and was despatched to France; and Napoleon placed his own brother, Joseph, on the Spanish throne. Spanish Americans were outraged and rebellion broke out at first, not against the old imperial power, but against the usurper Napoleon. So, at least, the rebels claimed; although some doubtless already had outright independence in mind. In the Viceroyalty of the River Plate, a second incitement to rebellion came in 1806 and 1807 when British forces - anticipating a warm welcome - occupied Buenos Aires and Montevideo under the pretext of defending them from French imperialism. They were quickly repulsed thanks to the efforts not of the Spanish army but of local militia. “We don’t need to swap one master for another” ran one news sheet headline, a remark originally attributed to General Manuel Belgrano, a hero of Argentinian independence. (The battleship torpedoed by a British submarine during the Falklands war, originally the USS Phoenix that survived Pear Harbour, was renamed after this celebrated soldier and scholar when it was acquired by Argentina). This isolated occurrence, scarcely noticeable amid the political and military struggles then taking place in Europe, afforded the people of La Plata a sense of their separate national identity.

Between 1808 and 1810, revolution erupted throughout Spanish America. In Buenos Aires, the revolutionaries overthrew the viceroy and established a ruling junta. Anxious to secure the mineral wealth of Upper Peru, the junta at once sent an army under General Balcarce to eject the Spaniards from the region. After some initial successes, Balcarce was routed and chased from the plateau down to the foothills of Salta, a defeat that resulted in the overthrow of the junta and ushered in a period of confusion and jostling for power in Buenos Aires.

The regime that eventually emerged claimed to govern in the name of the “United Provinces of the Río de la Plata”; but the provinces were not united and the right of Buenos Aires to leadership was far from obvious to local provincial leaders. Several provinces broke away - two of them permanently.

On March 9, 1812, in the midst of the political maelstrom that followed Balcarce’s defeat in Upper Peru, José de San Martín landed in Buenos Aires. A British naval vessel, the George Canning, had given him passage - a small demonstration of British encouragement of independence. Evidently the clashes of 1806 and 1807 had been quietly buried. San Martín was a native of the small town of Yapeyu which lies on the banks of the Uruguay river, but he had spent much of his adult life as an officer of the Spanish army. He had fought for Spain against Napoleon, an experience that earned him the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel when, on arrival in Buenos Aires, he joined the revolutionary army. A successful early action against Spanish shipping on the River Plate was enough to give him promotion and prestige - to both of which he added by helping to foment a peaceful coup against the incumbent government, an unelected body whose dictatorial style had already alienated the public.

From Belgrano to San Martín

The new government believed that independence would not be safe until the mountainous region of Upper Peru (Bolivia) - now controlled by the Viceroy of Peru - had been wrested from the Spanish crown. Accordingly, in September that year, General Manuel Belgrano, who commanded the Argentinian “Army of the North”, was instructed to launch a fresh campaign. Like Balcarce before him he enjoyed some early successes, taking Tucumán immediately and Salta early in 1813; but by October he had followed his predecessor to defeat. The mountains of Upper Peru formed a seemingly impregnable barrier against assault as well as an ideal launching-pad for counter-attacks. Disheartened by his failure, Belgrano resigned his command; and Buenos Aires appointed San Martín to take his place.

Travelling with a 2,000-strong division over the wild spaces of the Argentinian pampas, San Martín took over a month to reach Tucumán where Belgrano had installed the remnants of his defeated army. At once, the new commander set about re-training the troops according to the standards of discipline he had learned during his years in Europe. He talked extensively to Belgrano about the military situation before the outgoing general retired to Buenos Aires, and he reached the conclusion that the struggle to push Spain out of South America could not be won overland through Upper Peru. The terrain was too difficult and too easy to defend. Instead, he set about building a solid defence force in Tucumán against Spanish incursions, while relying on a local gaucho leader, Martín Guemes, to keep the royalists on the defensive by launching guerrilla sorties on Spanish outposts and lines of communication. Guemes and his band of irregulars fought efficiently and cheaply - forcing royalists and rich local criollos to pay for the war effort.

Before his departure, Belgrano had also reminded San Martín of the need to seek the support of the local people - most of whom were circumspect about the revolution and dubious about the motives of the revolutionaries. Many were devoutly religious and respectful of the divine right of kings as taught by the church. “You will not have to make war solely with arms, but also with public opinion,” Belgrano told him.

“...our enemies have made war against us by calling us heretics, and by this means have been able to call the uninformed to arms, telling them that we were attacking religion... I assure you that you would find yourself in much greater difficulty if they should see in the army under your command that you are opposed to religion.... Do not forget that you are a Christian, apostolic, Roman general... remember not only the generals of the people of Israel, but also those of the pagans, and the great Julius Caesar who never neglected to invoke the immortal gods and for whose victories Rome decreed prayers.”

Once the front line had been stabilized and the Spaniards held to the highlands, San Martín did something entirely unexpected. Pleading ill-health, he retired to Córdoba, some 500 kilometres to the south, to recuperate. In fact, he had no intention of returning to Tucuman. To a confidant he explained: “Our country will not make any progress in the north, for here only a defensive war is feasible and for this the brave gauchos of Salta and a couple of squadrons of veterans suffice. To attempt anything else is to throw men and money down a bottomless pit.”

While in Córdoba, he indicated to Buenos Aires that, being too indisposed for military action, he would be happy to accept the governorship of Cuyo, one of the remote Andean provinces of Argentina. Quiet, sparsely-populated, distant from the upheavals of revolution, Cuyo was an outpost - the kind of place where a moderately distinguished but aging politician might be content to spend his final years in public life. Its capital, Mendoza, sat tranquilly amid vineyards and palm trees, a country town still small enough for the most of the citizens to know each other by name. For a soldier of the revolution, it seemed an odd choice, a form of retirement from worldly affairs, almost an admission of defeat. Again San Martín confided his reasoning. The long-term key to defeating the Spaniards, he asserted, was for a “ small, well-trained army to cross over to Chile and finish the Goths there...” and afterwards “...allying our forces, to go by sea to Lima. This is our course and no other.” Mendoza was to be the launching pad. If Lima could be captured then the whole of Spain’s South American empire would fall.

Despite San Martín’s show of confidence, the concept of transporting an army equipped with guns and baggage overland to Chile must have seemed dangerously risky. Only pack-mules, refugees and the occasional hardy traveller journeyed over the southern Andes. The trails were poor and the climb arduous. Some of the paths were so narrow as to afford room only for marching in single file. Chile - the remotest region of the Spanish empire - looked more like a detour than a direct route to Lima and to defeat of the Spaniards. Moreover, San Martín’s natural reticence and austerity combined with his suspect health gave little cause for supposing him capable of visionary exploits.

The new Governor of Cuyo soon dispelled doubts about his health and energy. His prime concern was to build a fresh army, and to seek the necessary funds both locally and from Buenos Aires; but he took to heart the advice he had received from Belgrano and worked equally at the business of government. He began by putting the province’s finances and public services on a sound footing; and he also played a role akin to that of Azdac in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle in the administration of justice. Tales of his eccentric but wise decisions abound. A farmer who spoke against the revolution was ordered to deliver ten dozen pumpkins to the army canteen. Having issued an instruction forbidding officers to enter the gun-powder plant in boots and spurs, he was himself refused entry by a guard - whom he promptly rewarded with an ounce of gold.


The years 1815 and 1816 constituted a dark period for the independence movement throughout Hispanic America. In New Granada (Colombia), the Spanish were carrying all before them; an earlier Chilean revolution had collapsed; and Morelos, leader of the Mexican uprising had been executed. Further south, the situation looked equally bleak. Towards the end of 1815, the Argentine Army of the North under San Martín’s replacement, General Rondeau, suffered a massive defeat at Sipé-Sipé; and it seemed probable that the Spaniards would now push forward into the rest of the country. Unable to respond militarily, San Martín opted for ruse. He set up a network of agents in Chile and Upper Peru whose role was twofold: to obtain intelligence on Spanish movements; and to disseminate stories of the size of the rebel army stationed in Mendoza and the imminence of a major counterattack.

On the Spanish side, General Osorio, who had won back Chile for the Spanish cause, was replaced by Francisco Marcó del Ponte, a pompous aristocrat who styled himself:

Don Francisco Casimiro Marcó del Ponte, Diaz y Mendez, Knight of the order of St James, The Royal Military Order of St Hermenegildo and the Fleur-de-Lys, Member of the Royal Equestrian Order of Ronda..... Field Marshal of the Royal Armies, Supreme governor, Captain-General, President of the Royal Audiencia .....etc. etc.

Marcó’s grandiosity was matched by his incompetence as a political and military leader. He ruthlessly suppressed the Chilean population, jailing and torturing all sections of society indiscriminately and thereby alienating the sympathies even of Chilean royalists. At the same time, he became a prey to every fabrication that it pleased San Martín to feed him. As a result, plans for a Spanish invasion of Río de La Plata from Upper Peru and Chile were constantly postponed and in the end failed to materialize.

Meanwhile, in Buenos Aires, Juan Martín de Pueyrredón was elected Supreme Director of the United Provinces of Río de La Plata and, unlike his predecessor, he backed San Martín’s proposed strategy of invading Chile by way of the Andes.

San Martín was already busy with preparations. He placed the province on a war footing, forming even children into regiments who performed military exercises and carried their own flags. Foreign residents were encouraged to enlist. The English, who were numerous, raised a company of light infantry at their own cost. Under his orders, weapons and gun-powder factories, iron foundries and a textile mill sprang up, the latter to make cloth for uniforms, which the women of Mendoza were engaged to sew. He founded an army medical corps under the command of two military surgeons, one English, the other Peruvian, another of engineers, and so on. Countless requests for materials went to Pueyrredón in Buenos Aires who responded as well as he could:

"The 4,000 blankets from Cordoba are on their way, but I could only get 500 ponchos... an order has gone out to send 1,000 arrobas (11,500 kilograms) of jerked beef for December delivery... Herewith the clothes and shirts you requested... forty saddle blankets... two bugles sent separately in a small box - the only two I’ve been able to find. In January you’ll get another 1,387 arrobas of jerked beef... 2,000 sabers are on their way. Also 200 tents… Here is the World, the Devil and the Flesh... How will I ever pay off the debts incurred for all this… Maybe I’ll just declare bankruptcy, repudiate all the bills and run off to Mendoza so you can feed me on the beef I’m sending you. For heaven’s sake don’t ask me for anything else, unless you want to hear I’ve been found hanging from a beam in the fort.”

Thirty-thousand shoes were made for the horses, without which they would not have been able to cross the rocky mountain passes. Vast quantities of charquicán were prepared - an iron ration consisting of powdered beef mixed with fat and dried chile pepper. Each soldier received enough of this to provide nourishment for eight days.

Not least amongst San Martín’s resources was Father Luís Beltrán, a locally-born mendicant friar. Self-taught scientist, mathematician, engineer and a born innovator, Beltrán took charge of the arsenal and soon had three hundred workers under his orders. He cast cannon, melted down church bells to make guns and bullets, taught workers how to make saddles, horseshoes, knapsacks, bayonets and swords, built special wagons and pulleys for conveying artillery across rivers and canyons, and even made portable suspension bridges.

San Martín’s young wife, Remedios, threw herself into fund-raising - and no well-to-do Cuyo family escaped her request for a donation. The entire province - no more than 50,000 strong - transformed itself into a military-industrial enterprise and, as so often happens, acquired a sense of purpose and unity as well as prosperity in the process. San Martín’s popularity grew along with his reputation as an inspiring leader.

Independence declared

On July 9, 1816, after a congressional meeting in Tucumán, the United Provinces of the River Plate formally declared their independence from Spain. San Martín sent his aide-de-camp, Alvarez Condarco, overland to Chile with a copy of the declaration for delivery to Marcó del Ponte. San Martín’s instructions to Condarco were typically succinct and not without macabre humour: “You are to go via Los Patos which is the longest road. If they don’t hang you, they’ll send you packing at once, in which case you’ll return via Uspallata which is the shortest path. Without taking a note, you are to memorize both routes so that you can make a map on your return.” As expected, Marcó had the document burned in public - but he released Condarco thereby allowing him to complete his mission.

In September, San Martín invited the Pehuenche Indians, who occupied part of the eastern slopes of the Andes, to a conference at the fort of San Carlos, south of Mendoza. San Martín’s first biographer, General Bartolomé Mitre, describes the scene:

“With the invitation, San Martín sent them many mules laden with spirits and wine, with sweetmeats, cloth, and glass beads for the women, horse gear and clothes for the men. In savage pomp they came; the warriors, followed by their women, rode up to the fort on the day appointed in full war costume, flourishing their long lances. Proceedings commenced with a sham fight in the Indian fashion, whereby they dashed at full speed round the fort, from whose walls a gun was fired every five minutes and was answered by Indian yells. Then the chiefs entered the fort and were told by San Martín that the Spaniards were foreigners who intended to rob them of their lands, their cattle, their women and children; and that he desired to pass though their country with an army, to go by the Planchon and Portillo passes to the country on the other side of the mountains, there to destroy these Spaniards. The Indian chiefs listened to his request and granted him the permission he required, after which they, with their warriors, gave themselves up to an orgy which lasted eight days.”

San Martín had no intention of taking the routes confided to the Pehuenches, who owed allegiance to neither side in the war of independence, but he anticipated, rightly, that they would sell the information to the Spaniards.

By mid January 1817, San Martín pronounced the Army of the Andes ready for action. On the 12th, the soldiers - 5,000 in total - marched through the streets of Mendoza to the sound of drums, while the citizens cheered and waved flags. In the main square, the soldiers gave a ceremonial salute to the Virgen del Carmen - patron saint of the army. San Martín formally accepted a special flag embroidered by the women of the city. Clutching the flag, he ascended a platform and addressed his troops.

“Soldiers, this is the first flag of independence to be unfurled in South America.” Cries of “Viva la Patria” rang through air as the troops hailed the flag and swore fidelity to the principles for which it stood. Next came a twenty-five gun salute followed by a bullfight and a rodeo, with gauchos, regular cavalry and even some native riders vying with each other in splendour, exuberance and skill in the saddle. San Martín looked on. “These are the madmen our country needs,” he remarked.

Up and Over

A week later, the army set out. The vanguard and rearguard under generals Soler and O’Higgins (future leader of an independent Chile) were to take the long route over the mountains through the pass of Los Patos. General Juan Gregorio de Las Heras was appointed to lead the second division through Uspallata - the only pass suitable for heavy guns and ammunition. Other, smaller detachments were sent further north and south. As befitted the commander-in-chief, San Martín took the more arduous Los Patos route. All rode mules which were more sure-footed than horses on the mountain paths.

Despite San Martín’s careful preparations, the ascent proved more taxing than even he had expected. Of the 10,500 mules, 16,000 horses and 700 head of cattle taken on the march, only 4,300 mules and 511 horses survived the journey, all in poor condition. On the Los Patos route, five mountain ranges had to be crossed, and the trail led between some of the highest peaks of the Andes. Some soldiers died from cold and lack of oxygen; others became sick with fatigue and exposure. Half-way through the march, at eight thousand feet, in the midst of a violent hailstorm, San Martín came close to despair. As night fell, the marchers settled as best they could in the freezing temperature, San Martín taking refuge in a cave where the combination of cold and fear that he might have launched his army on an impossible mission deprived him of sleep. By morning the storm had blown over, but San Martín sensed that he must make a gesture to revive the flagging spirits of his soldiers. He ordered his band to play anthems of the revolution over breakfast; and for an hour the music echoed through the barren landscape of ice and rock.

Though the struggle was far from straightforward, San Martín succeeded in fulfilling his main objective which was to secure his homeland from any possibility of a return to its former colonial status. Eventually he also reached Lima with his army as he had planned. He did not, however, manage to drive the Spanish army from Peru nor liberate Upper Peru which is probably one of the principal reasons why Argentina’s borders do not include areas of present-day Bolivia that were formerly part of the Viceroyalty of the River Plate. It was left to Simón Bolívar and his great lieutenant José Antonio Sucre to complete the task of freeing South-America from its colonial yoke.

While the war against Spain was still underway in the west and the north of South America, civil war broke out between the Argentine provinces and the capital, Buenos Aires, with declarations of independence coming, at various times from Santa Fé, Entre Ríos, Tucumán, Santiago del Estero, Catamarca, Córdoba, La Rioja and the Banda Oriental (Uruguay). Paraguay fell into the hands of a local caudillo, José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, a morose, sinister dictator who closed his country to the outside world ostensibly to protect it from economic and political subservience to Buenos Aires. In 1816, Uruguay was invaded by Portuguese/Brazilian forces and subsequently annexed and renamed Cisplatina (literally ‘this side of the River Plate’). José Gervasio Artigas, a charismatic Uruguayan gaucho, led campaigns against both the centralists of Buenos Aires and the Portuguese invaders. After a prolonged struggle, the Portuguese prevailed and Artigas was forced to seek asylum with Francia in Paraguay. Nevertheless, he laid the foundation for Uruguay to become an independent state, and he is remembered as the father of the nation. After his departure, Uruguayan irregulars continued the fight against the Portuguese and although neither side prevailed, statehood was finally achieved in 1828 at the Treaty of Montevideo, which was partially drawn up and diplomatically fostered by Great Britain. By this time, Bolívar and Sucre had completed their mission to free the rest of Spanish South America of colonial rule.

Not yet Argentina

Argentina was now fully independent, but not yet Argentina. Two obstacles stood in the way of a settled nation: a lack of internal unity between the provinces, and the fact that huge swathes of the country, including virtually the entire region south of the Province of Buenos Aires and a large area of the north bordering Paraguay and Bolivia were marked on maps of the time as “Territorio Indígena” (lands belonging to native peoples).

The intermittent civil war and struggle for power between centralists and federalists is a complex tale, made more convoluted by war against a short-lived confederation of Peru and Bolivia, and by periods of interference from foreign powers, notably France and Great Britain, which included prolonged naval blockades of the River Plate. A visitor to the region as late as the 1850s would not have known for certain which nation she had reached nor how it was governed. Not until 1862, when Bartolomé Mitre was elected president, did Argentina emerge as a more or less unified country.

Border stability took a little longer. In 1864, Argentina entered an alliance with Brazil and Uruguay in a savagely destructive war against Paraguay. The Paraguayan War lasted for six years and ended in a devastating defeat for Paraguay whose losses amounted to fully sixty percent of the population and, according to some estimates, up to ninety percent of adult males. Argentina’s share of the post-war spoils amounted to significant chunks of Paraguayan territory, which today make up the Argentinian provinces of Misiones and Formosa.

Once the Paraguayan War drew to a close, the authorities in Buenos Aires turned their attention to the “territorios indígenas”. During the colonial period, where there were mines to work or haciendas to run native peoples had been enslaved or indentured; but in areas of no obvious profit to Spain or to the local criollo elite, they had often been left alone or had defended themselves with enough vigour to discourage attack. Hence why San Martín felt it necessary to requested permission from the Pehuenches for the Army of the Andes to pass through their land en route to Chile.

After independence, hostility between the two very different populations began to grow as the “Europeans” pushed into native lands, and the native peoples pushed back. Some became adept at conducting raids or “malones” on criollo communities for the purpose of carrying off goods, cattle and women. Nevertheless, the native peoples gradually gave ground in the face of increasing determination by central government to occupy every corner of the land inherited from Spain. In the late 1870s, the Conquest of the Desert - as the campaign in the south became known - hardened into a programme that some (though not all) historians have called genocide. Native tribes of the south were broken up and their populations reduced or dispersed. Contrary to a widespread belief, however, many survived and their descendants continue to live in small groupings, though often in very poor circumstances.

By 1890, it was all over. Native resistance had ended and Argentina had stamped her presence throughout her mainland territories.

All that remained to clear up was a dispute with Chile over land at the southernmost tip of the continent. It took nearly a century and was resolved in 1984 under the auspices of the same authority that awarded the continent to Spain and Portugal in 1493: the Vatican.

And Las Malvinas (The Falkland Islands): a thorn in the side of a nation whose founding myths are about the struggle against European colonialism and the defence of territory awarded in perpetuity by God’s representative on earth. Whoever has flown into Ezeiza, the international airport of Buenos Aires, will have seen on their way into town a large billboard with the words: “Las Malvinas son Argentinas” (The Falklands belong to Argentina). No one is going to forget.

Sources on the period and geographical area addressed in this piece are vast though many of the best and most enlightening are in Spanish. Among the best readily-available works in English are those of Professor John Lynch, in particular: The Spanish American Revolutions 1808-1826, London (various editions), San Martin: Argentine Soldier, American Hero (New Haven 2009), Spanish Colonial Administration 1782-1810: The Intendant System in the Viceroyalty of the Rio De La Plata (New York 1958), Spain under the Habsburgs (Oxford 1964). A fascinating contemporary source in English is The Memoirs of General Miller (London 1828) available in electronic format from Google. Among countless works in Spanish, Bartolomé Mitre’s Historia de San Martín y de la Emancipación Sudamericana (Buenos Aires 1938) is indispensable despite being controversial in many respects. For the colonial period, an excellent general survey is Henry Kamen’s Spain’s Road to Empire, London 2002 which covers all Spanish colonial possessions, including those of the far east. Material specifically on the La Plata region is harder to come by. A superb if highly opinionated view of how Argentinians think and feel about themselves and others is Marcos Aguinis’ Un país de novela - Viaje hacia la mentalidad de los argentinos (Buenos Aires 1988).

Note: This article was first published in Open Democracy

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