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Rosas, Juan Manuel (1829-52)

    He was born of a prominent family in Buenos Aires as Juan Manuel Ortiz de Rozas but he simplified his name to Juan Manuel de Rosas. His family was successful in cattle ranching. As he grew up, he developed an affection for gauchos (cowboys) and they for him. Like them, he was an excellent horseman and brave and hearty. Rosas engaged in derring-do just as they did. They saw him as one of them even though he was from an upper-class family. In his political career, he would have gaucho support and would also tame them for the other cattle ranchers.
    He became rich not only through cattle ranching but also from the ownership of saladeros, meat salting plants. The small beef export trade was composed of salted meat sent to Brazil, where it was fed to slaves.
    In politics, he was parochial, more concerned with Buenos Aries than with the rest of what had been the Viceroyalty de la Plata (the Plate). As a youngster, he had fought with Jacques de Liniers against the 1806 British invasion of Buenos Aires city. At age 27, he fought the centralizing unitario (unitarian) tendencies of men such as Bernadino Rivadavia. He had built a private army, Los Colorados del Montes. He fought as a federalist, wanting to preserve Buenos Aires provincial autonomy. Rivadavia was president of what was called the United Provinces, but which was really limited to Buenos Aires city and province and, in uncertain fashion, neighboring provinces. Rivadavia and the unitarios were cosmopolitan and oriented towards Europe. They engaged in a war with Brazil over the Banda Oriental (Uruguay)  from 1825 to 1827, a war which led to a blockade of the River Plate and caused financial crisis in the city. The United Provinces lost. Rivadavia resigned. The Federalist leader, Manuel Dorrego, was deposed and executed in 1828; Rosas and friends defeated Juan Lavalle, the unitarian leader. In 1829, he was elected the governor of Buenos Aires province with power over the so-called the Confederación de la Río Plata. His rise to power represented the ascendancy of the commercial cattle ranchers, the estancieros, who would play the dominant role in Argentine politics until the middle of the twentieth century.
    In 1829, he was chosen for a three-year term of governor of Buenos Aires province. As governor, he:

  1. gathered the federalist party around him;
  2. defeated all resistance attempts by unitarios (who argued for a strong central government);
  3. cultivated the Church; and
  4. enacted laws for advancement of education.
    The country was divided into two camps, the Liga Unitaria (the provinces of Córdoba, Santiago del Estero, Catamarca, La Rioja, San Juan, San Luis, Tucumán, Salta y Mendoza) and the other camp, headed by Rosas, the Pacto Federal (the provinces of Buenos Aires, Santa Fe, Entre Ríos y Corrientes). From the beginning, Rosas was vehement in attacking the Liga Unitaria, calling its members "savage." He was supported by the bourgeoisie, conservatives, reactionaries, the Catholic Church, discontented gauchos, Indians, urban workers, and some of the rural population. He was anti-European and anti-civil liberties. He particularly restricted the press. Although he ruled as a centralist in the Federal Pact, he did not want a government which combined all of the Argentine provinces. In the areas he controlled , his rule was absolute. As Francis Baylies, United States chargé d'affaires in Buenos Aires wrote in July, 1832,  "but the,  tremendous power with which he [Rosas] is clothed would transform a patriot into a Tyrant and an angel into a demon." 1Rosas conducted summary executions and deportations. 
    When his term ended in 1832, he left office. He wanted absolute power but could not get it. So he took his army South to fight Indians. As he conquered Indian lands, he doled the out to supporters, thus cementing their support of him. And his reputation soared as a brave Argentine who was successfully defending the fatherland against the "savages." It was during his campaign against the Indians south of Buenos Aires, that the famous English naturalist, Charles Darwin, met him. He described his camp thusly:

It consisted of a square formed by waggons, artillery, straw huts, etc. The soldiers were nearly all cavalry; and I should think such a villaneous, banditti-like army was never before collected together. The greater number of men were of mixed breed, between Negro, Indian and Spaniard. I know not the reason, but men of such origin seldom have a good expression of countenance.2

Darwin saw him as popular with his men, a fine horseman, and enthusiastic.
    Meanwhile, in the 1832-35 period, trouble became endemic in Buenos Aires and no one could keep the peace. This was partly caused by wife, Encarnación, and the Sociedad Popular Restauradora, called the mazorca. The mazorca (más horca or more hangings) operated as a secret police in addition to having bully boys who physically attacked the opponents, real or imagined, of the Rosas faction. The Rosas forces made it clear to everyone that only General Rosas could restore order. Encarnación and the mazorca staged a coup d'etat against Governor Juan Ramón González de Balcarce. According to Darwin:

This revolution was supported by scarcely any pretext of grievances ... seventy men left the city and with the cry of Rosas, the whole country took arms. The city was then blockaded, no provisions, cattle or horses were allowed to enter; besides, there was only a little skirmishing, and a few men killed daily. The outside party well knew that, by stopping the supply of meat, they would certainly be victorious. . . . The warfare on both sides was avowedly protracted till it was possible to hear from Rosas ... on the bare reception of his views, the Governor, ministers, and part of the military . . . fled the city. The rebels entered, elected a new governor.... From these proceedings it was clear that Rosas ultimately would become dictator.3

    When the caudillo Juan "Facundo" Quiroga of La Rioja was assassinated, the leaders of Buenos Aires invited Rosas in 1835 to take a five-year term as provincial governor. He demanded that a plebiscite be held to ratify his demand for absolute power. Perhaps he had Quiroga killed: As Rosas later while in exile in Southampton, England, "They say I ordered the assassination of the illustrious General Quiroga. But have they proved it?" The plebiscite passed and he stayed until he was overthrown in 1852. It was a tough dictatorship with exiling, murder, and imprisonment of vocal opponents common. He made an effort to make sure that teachers taught what he and the other conservatives wanted and that books and curricula reflected conservative values and praised Rosas. the Church had portraits of him placed on altars. He demanded complete fealty. His partisans used the cries "Long live the Federation!" and "Death to the Unitarian savages!" People avoided wearing blue and white, the color of the Unitarians, for fear of being bashed or killed. On ceremonial days, shades of red were advisable. People shut up or went into exile. J. Anthony King, writing in 1846, described Rosas' tyranny. He said that the central marketplace in Buenos Aires was where "all popular rejoicings, gatherings and executions were held. It was in the market place that Rosas hung the bodies of his many victims; sometimes decorating them in mockery, with ribands of the unitarian blue and even attaching to the corpses, labels, on which were inscribed the revolting words 'Beef with the hide.'"4 William A. Harris, chargé d'affaires, wrote in 1846:

Such is the terror-the crushing fear-which is inspired by one man over that multitude, which now submits to his decrees with a zeal, apparently as ardent, as it is certainly abject and submissive. There is not a complaint heard. The calm and dark waters of despotism are never disturbed by the slightest ripple. Not a breath of free thought or manly speech passes over them, but they lie dead and deep, into which every vestige of the people's liberty and freedom has sunk and disappeared. Yet Gen'l. Rosas is the only man who could keep them together for twenty-four hours; and this he does by the extraordinary energy of his character, and the unqualified fear with which he has inspired them.5

     Although he ruled Buenos Aires with an iron fist, there was considerable opposition to him. Secret revolutionary groups, such as Joven Argentina (Young Argentina, more commonly known as the Asociación de Mayo, founded by Esteban Echeverría, were formed. He created opposition among some of the finest minds in Argentina, men such as Juan Bautista Alberdi, Bartolomé Mitre, and Domingo F. Sarmiento; these men would lead the intellectual opposition to him and be intimately involved in his ouster. Berón de Astrada led a rebellion in Corriente province in 1839, which Rosas suppressed. That same year, Colonel Ramón Maza, whose father was president of the house of representatives, and a group from the Association of May made an unsuccessful plot against Rosas. Maza's father was killed in the hall of the legislature and Colonel Maza was caught and executed. Also in that year General Juan Lavalle led a liberating army from Montevideo towards the island of Martín García but then turned towards Entre Ríos province instead of Buenos Aires. Backed by French agents, his movement was supposed to be coordinated with a rebellion south of Buenos Aires but his deviation left the rebels in a jam. Their rebellion which began October 29, 1839 was crushed by November 7th. 
        His economic policies served people like himself, big landowners and salted meat plant owners. He was xenophobic towards Europeans and reversed Rivadavia's efforts to encourage immigration. Argentina's population remained about 600,000 persons during his regime. Immigrants would have found it difficult to acquire land because Rosas sold or gave large chunks to the rich and those who supported him.  He tamed the gauchos where he could, making them a tame labor force. He used the power of the port of Buenos Aires on the Río de la Plata to tax the imports and exports of the interior provinces. He imposed additional tariffs on any goods carried by ships which had docked in rival Montevideo. 
    Part of his ability to stay in power was diverting attention from domestic affairs to foreign affairs. In 1837-1840, he went to war against Bolivia and its dictator, Andrés Santa Cruz, who had conquered Peru and installed puppet rulers in the two Peruvian states he created. Although Britain, the United States, and France recognized the Peruvian-Bolivian Confederation, Chile and Rosas' Argentina did not. Chile went to was from 1836 to 1839 and beat the Confederation, dismembering it. Rosas went to war in 1837 in support of the northern province of Tucumán and lost. He had gotten involved because he wanted control over Bolivia, which had been part of the Viceroyalty de la Plata.
    He constantly intervened in Uruguay, for he refused to accept its independence. At times, he blockaded Montevideo, Uruguay. He supported the conservative Uruguayan leader, Manuel Oribe, against the liberal leader, who was supported by Brazil, Paraguay, Britain, and France. In 1838, the French blockaded Buenos Aires. They stopped in 1840, and Rosas claimed victory. He controlled much of Uruguay except Montevideo until 1842. The northern provinces on Argentina rose in revolt and were beaten with difficulty. From 1842 to 1851, Rosas blockaded Montevideo by sea while his Uruguayan ally, leader of the Blancos, laid siege by land. In 1845, the French and British blockaded  Buenos Aires.  Rosas had to increase taxes, an unpopular move. The blockade also angered upriver caudillos who were losing revenue. French, British, and Uruguayan troops occupied the island of Martín García and took over Colonia, Uruguay across the river from Buenos Aires. The British withdrew from the region in 1847, followed by the French in 1848.
    His rule, however, had been alienating more and more people. Exiles dreamed of throwing him out. Uruguayans were increasing tired of his interference in their affairs and the Colorado (liberal) faction joined the anti-Rosas army. In 1851, Justo José de Urquiza of Entre Ríos made an alliance with Colorado faction of Uruguay, Brazilians, and Argentine exiles to push Rosas out. Urquiza knew that the British and French would support him. In the Battle of Monte Caseros in 1852, Urquiza's army of 24,000 [the largest in South American history to that time] easily beat Rosas' army. The dictator went into exile to Southampton, England, where he became a farmer.
    Rosas left Buenos Aires, city and province, separated from the other provinces. He had a lot of some influence in the Federal Pact provinces but never fully controlled them. Other provinces were not part of Rosas' Argentina. The hope that a nation would be created by Urquiza and the provisional governors when they agreed to meet in Santa Fé to write a national federation constitution. Urquiza was named provisional director of the federation. Buenos Aires rebelled against Urquiza, seceded from federation, and declared itself the independent Argentine nation. 
    Rosas had not helped either his province or "Argentina." He had not even been willing to defend  Argentina's claims to the Islas Malvinas/Falkland Islands.


1. Francis Baylies, Twenty Four Years in the Argentine Republic (New York: D. Appleton and Company; 1846), pp. 241, 323.
2.    P. P. King, Robert Fitzroy, and Charles Darwin: Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle (London: 1839-40), Vol. III, p. 166.
3. Ibid., p. 83.
4.  William R. Manning, ed, Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States; Inter-American Affairs, 1831-1860 (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1932). Vol.  I, pp.132-3.
5. Manning, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 400.

Donald J. Mabry