Argentina // The Northwest //

The Calchaquí wars


After the European invasions of this region in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the indigenous tribes who lived along the Valles Calchaquíes, stretching from Salta Province in the north, down to central Catamarca Province, steadfastly refused to be evangelized by the Spanish invaders and generally to behave as their aggressors wanted; the region around Belén and Londres proved especially difficult to colonize. Even the Jesuits, usually so effective at bringing the “natives” under control, conceded defeat. The colonizers made do with a few encomiendas, and more often pueblos, reservations where the Indians were forced to live, leaving the colonizers to farm their “own” land in peace. After a number of skirmishes, things came to a head in 1630, when the so-called Great Calchaquí Uprising began. For two years, under the leadership of Juan Chelemín, the fierce cacique of Hualfín, natives waged a war of attrition against the invaders, sacking towns and burning crops, provoking ever more brutal reactions from the ambitious new governor of Tucumán, Francisco de Nieva y Castilla. Eventually Chelemín was caught, drawn and quartered, and various parts of his body were put on display in different villages to “teach the Calchaquíes a lesson”, but it took until 1643 for all resistance to be stamped out, and only after a network of fortresses was built in Andalgalá, Londres and elsewhere.

War broke out once more in 1657, when the Spanish decided to arrest “El Inca Falso”, also known as Pedro Chamijo, an impostor of European descent who claimed to be Hualpa Inca – or Inca emperor – under the nom de guerre of Bohórquez. Elected chief at an impressive ceremony attended by the new governor of Tucumán, Alonso Mercado y Villacorta, amid great pomp and circumstance, in Pomán, he soon led the Calchaquíes into battle, and Mercado y Villacorta, joined by his ruthless predecessor, Francisco de Nieva y Castilla, set about what today would be called ethnic cleansing. Bohórquez was captured, taken to Lima and eventually garrotted in 1667, and whole tribes fell victim to genocide: their only remains are the ruins of Batungasta, Hualfín and Shinkal, near Londres. Some tribes like the Quilmes, whose settlement is now an archeological site near Amaicha, were uprooted and forced to march to Buenos Aires. Out of seven thousand Quilmes who survived a long and distressing siege in their pukará, or fortress, despite having their food and water supplies cut off, before being led in chains to Buenos Aires, where they were employed as slaves, only a few hundred were left. These few remaining survivors, however, were wiped out in a smallpox epidemic at the end of the eighteenth century.

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