Stories of South America - E. C. Brooks

The Age of Tyrants—
How a Cowboy Became Dictator

The progress of the South American countries for the first few decades after independence was won was such as to give the world a poor opinion of South American capacity for self-government. Often a people will fight heroically for freedom and exhibit all noble virtues until independence is won. But it requires the greatest possible patriotism and unselfishness to use that freedom wisely. The problem confronting the United States immediately after the War for Independence was to set up a representative government that would guarantee freedom and. equality of opportunity to all. It should be remembered that the monarchical countries of Europe had little faith in the power of the thirteen colonies of North America to govern themselves. These were, however, finally able to unite and produce a national government that has out-lived most of the monarchies of Europe. Success came because of the capacity of the people for self-government.

The governmental difficulties in South America after independence had been gained were tremendous. In the United States the free population, as was said before, consisted for the most part of one race and one language. Negroes and Indians remained apart from the white race. Therefore, the leaders in North America belonged to the same race, spoke the same language, and had similar ideas of government, so that it was not difficult for them to unite in a common cause.

In South America it was very different. The European races had intermarried with negroes and Indians and their descendants had again intermarried, so that there were several different races: Spaniards and Portuguese, other Europeans, creoles, mulattoes, negroes, Indians. Leaders from each of these races desired to head factions or to rule provinces. No one wished to be second to others. An example of this may be observed in the enmity of Carrera for O'Higgins. The former was a Spaniard, the latter a creole. When the common enemy had been defeated, the patriotic leaders in many instances became bitter enemies of each other. A defeated candidate for president would not accept the result of an election, and civil war was chronic. This, therefore, was the age of tyrants. The leader with the strongest following would drive out his opponent and reign as an autocrat until he was himself deposed. As a result, the more progressive nations of the world put little faith in the governments of South America.

Such conditions existed in all South American countries except Brazil. The great patriots Simon Bolivar, San Martin, and O'Higgins saw the storm rising and abdicated. The example of the United States, therefore, could not be followed at first in South America—the example of obedience to the Constitution. For instance, many of the political leaders in the United States resented the election, in 1828, of Andrew Jackson as president, but they accepted the result of the election and continued to work for a greater nation. In no South American country at that time would the leaders peacefully accept the outcome of a bitterly contested election. Even in the United States the leaders disagreed over the question of states' rights and finally went to war. But this was the only case of civil war. In South America, on the other hand, one tyrant after another usurped authority, and for more than half a century civil war was the rule rather than the exception. It was rare that a tyrant held his power more than a year or two.

Since government in South America in this period was insecure, foreigners visited that continent but little. Few emigrants from European countries settled there, while millions came to North America. Trade developed slowly, and the various countries were so weakened financially by incessant war that their credit in the markets of the world was low. This was preeminently the age of the military chieftain, selfish in his ambitions, merciless in war, and ruthless in his rule over a rebellious people.

One of the most spectacular tyrants of this period was Juan Manuel Rosas of Argentina. Argentina is more like the United States in soil and climate than any other South American country and has made wonderful progress within the last generation. But in the age of the tyrants it, too, was torn by civil war.

Juan Manuel Rosas was a product of the pampas, the immense prairie lands of Argentina. He was born in Buenos Aires in 1793 and was so neglected by his parents that he did not learn to read and write until after he was married. It seems that his parents thought only of making money, and the boy was sent away from them very early and reared on the pampas, being cared for by the cowboys, or gauchos, on one of his father's ranches or estancias  (cattle runs) , as they were called.

One writer describing the pampas in 1820, when Rosas was a young man, said that the number of wild animals was such that all Europe did not contain so many horses, cattle, sheep, ostriches and game of all kinds as wandered over the plains of Argentina. The fertile lands, almost treeless, produced a luxuriant native grass that grew as high as a man's head and was very nourishing to animals. The Spaniards who first came to that country brought over the horses, cattle, and sheep and turned them loose on the pampas; these multiplied so rapidly that by the nineteenth century millions of their descendants roamed the plains.

The pampas also produced a type of man whose story is as romantic as that of the cowboys on the prairies of North America. In Argentina those cowboys, or gauchos, were the offspring of European colonists and Indians. The gauchos have practically disappeared today, just as the cowboys of the United States have about passed away. If we believe the stories told of them, they were the most skillful horsemen in the world and created just the right kind of an environment to produce a daring leader such as Rosas. It is said a circus once went to Buenos Aires and advertised that it had the best riders on earth. Before the circus had ended its performance a group of gauchos rushed into the ring and completely outdid the circus men at every one of their tricks.

The gauchos were not only very skillful in the use of the lasso, but they also used equally well the bolas, which consists of a leather thong from eight to ten feet long weighted at each end with a small ball of stone or iron. The gaucho, in hunting, swings the bolas around his head until it attains great velocity and, riding at full speed, hurls it at the legs of the game. Wrapping quickly around the legs, it throws the animal to the ground and enables the gaucho to capture it. This was the favorite method of hunting the ostrich.



The gauchos did almost everything on horseback—hunt, fish, carry water, and even attend church; they refused to march or fight if they could not ride. Children were taught from infancy to use the lasso. They practiced on chickens and dogs and then tame cattle. By the time a child was five years old he could ride horseback. Within another year he was sent out to hunt, and from then on he lived in the saddle and was taught that it was a disgrace to walk.

In those very troublous times, the gauchos were the fiercest warriors in Argentina, and they were constantly at war. If they were not defying the government, they were fighting bands of robbers or Indians. The government needed their aid in keeping the Indians at a distance, and then it needed troops to keep the gauchos from defying the government. Such were the people who received among them Juan Manuel Rosas, the creole, when a very small boy.

Rosas was quick to learn, and the gauchos trained him as they did their own young. He was so apt that, by the time he reached manhood, there was nothing the gauchos could do that he had not learned to do better. One writer says of him: "He would mount a horse which had never been ridden before and, with a gold piece placed under each knee, let the enraged pony buck under him without displacing the coins."

A favorite performance of his was to suspend himself by his hands from the crossbar in a corral filled with wild horses: at the moment when the wildest of them dashed beneath him, Rosas would drop down on its back and, without saddle or bridle, ride off over the plains until the beast was tamed. Sometimes he would have a gaucho lasso the hind legs of his horse while at full gallop, and as it was thrown forward, Rosas, pitched over its head, would land gracefully on his feet.

Naturally the half-civilized gauchos of the plains worshiped a man who could lead their life so surpassingly well as to excel them in almost everything. While he was a mere boy he began the management of his father's cattle farms, and wherever he went the gauchos flocked to him, asking to serve under him. But Rosas was more than a leader of cowboys. He saw very clearly, perhaps more so than any other man of his day, the possibilities of the pampas. The gauchos led an idle, careless life. In order to keep those on his father's estates busy, Rosas introduced the cultivation of corn and wheat on a vast scale. This was the beginning of the agricultural development of Argentina, and today seas of wheat, corn, and alfalfa take the place of the wild grass of a few years ago. It was Rosas's youthful genius that pointed to the immense possibilities of wheat and corn production, an industry that has since made Argentina famous as one of the world's great food-producing centers.

Not only the gauchos but the Indians came under Rosas's influence. The latter were so loyal to him that no man dared to speak a word against the "White Chief," as they called him. It is said that an Indian walking the streets of Buenos Aires heard same one criticizing Rosas. Immediately the savage drew his knife and stabbed the speaker to the heart.

Life on the pampas in those earlier days was hazardous. There was little law save what a man could himself enforce. Because of these conditions, Rosas organized the gauchos on his estate and exacted from them the most severe discipline. So complete was his organization that he was ready and able at a moment's notice to repel attacks from bands of roving Indians or hostile groups of gauchos roaming the plains as cattle thieves. His iron rule taught both the gauchos and Indians the meaning of law and order, a lesson that all classes needed to learn.

When Rosas visited his parents in Buenos Aires, his faithful band would follow him until ordered back; and his return after a long absence was celebrated by fiestas and dances lasting two or three days, on which occasions, it is. said, from ten to twenty oxen were roasted in their hides.

Rosas's life was interrupted by a strange incident. His mother accused him of taking money belonging to the family. This so enraged the youth that he left his father's ranch and worked as a cowboy or overseer on another estate. He taught the people how to salt beef and prepare it for exportation. Until that time the country had derived little profit from the great cattle industry. By means of the trade in beef and hides, Rosas made money enough to buy a cattle ranch lying about one hundred and fifty miles south of Buenos Aires in a wild section of the country. Here he formed another army of devoted gauchos. He dressed them all in red uniforms, which pleased them very much. He also organized the Indians who lived near him. Indeed, he was the only man in the province who had any considerable influence over the Indians. Consequently, when a fierce tribe of savages revolted and even threatened the capital of Buenos Aires, the government, which was weak because of the many civil wars, sent for Rosas. He charged upon the Indians and scattered them over the pampas. Then he and his faithful gauchos quietly rode back home.

The government in Buenos Aires was very unstable. One bitter conflict after another broke out. The people in distress called frantically for somebody to relieve them of these internal feuds. Suddenly Rosas at the head of a band of faithful gauchos rode like a cyclone one morning into the city and took it by storm. When the contending factions had been silenced, the administration called Rosas "The Liberator of the Capital," and he was made commander-in-chief of the fighting men of the southern part of the province of Buenos Aires.

Much damage in the meantime had been done to the farms. Cattle had been stampeded. Some had been slaughtered and carried off. After the war Rosas raised a fund to repay the farmers for their losses. This, of course, made him very popular with the agricultural classes. By 1830 he had become the leading man in Argentina. He decided matters between contending parties, and revolutionists consulted him before making an outbreak. Between 1810, the date of its declaration of independence, and 1835, at which time Rosas became dictator, Argentina had thirty-six changes of government, an average of one for about every nine months. Naturally life and property were insecure under such conditions.

Rosas was born in the midst of revolution and brought up on it. He was the most skillful soldier in South America after San Martin. Because of his immense power and as a reward for defending the capital, he became governor of Buenos Aires for a term of three years. He began at once to rule with an iron hand and to demand the same severe obedience of the inhabitants that he had exacted of the gauchos. Those who rebelled were promptly shot without trial. He was so successful that in 1835 he became dictator of Argentina. At that time lawlessness, bloodshed, and murder were commonplace. Rosas restored order first. Then he whipped the rebellious people in line and organized the first substantial government in Argentina. He excited the admiration of San Martin, who, watching the civil strife from afar, out of admiration presented him with his sword.

Rosas loved his country and was exceedingly jealous of foreign interference. When a French admiral threatened to bombard Buenos Aires, he replied: "For every ball that falls into town, I will hang a French resident." The English minister was bound for the capital in order to issue an ultimatum. "When he comes put him to pounding the maize for my breakfast porridge," Rosas said, with a sneer.

A conspiracy was hatched to murder the dictator. On the night when the conspirators were to carry out their plans he invited them all to a great reception; the last guest had hardly reached home before every conspirator was arrested and executed on the palace grounds. These were the methods of a tyrant. Such a reign as this could not last. The people would not suffer it to continue. Rosas had welded the nation together, but his grip was about to break. He had a spy system which developed into a most formidable secret society. Men suspected of plotting against the dictator were ruthlessly put to death. He had conflicts with Uruguay, Paraguay, and Chile. By 1851 the opposition to his tyranny had become so serious that the little nation of Uruguay, always hostile to Argentina, was besought by the Anti-Rosastos to head a war against the tyrant. A large Brazilian army was also employed to break his power.

The next year, on February 3, 1852, Rosas was overthrown. His own tyranny had at length destroyed his usefulness. Even at the height of his power many of his former friends could not endure his tyrannical reign, which had transformed him into a human fiend. He saw his power crumbling away. His army was beaten almost in sight of the capital. Rosas slipped aboard an English vessel, disguised as a sailor, and quietly left the country forever.

He was the last of the tyrants in Argentina. He was the most bitterly hated man in his native country and it is said that even today the people celebrate the date on which he was finally driven from the government.

Two years later, on May 1, 1853, a constitutional convention, called for the purpose of framing a government, met and adopted a constitution mainly copied from that of the United States. This constitution, with a few amendments, has continued to be the fundamental law of the Argentine Republic. However, it required a tyrant's reign to make the people appreciate representative government.

Rosas fled to England at the age of fifty-six and there he again became a stock-raiser. For twenty-five years he lived the quiet life of a country gentleman. A writer describing him in his old age said, "No one would have thought that the singularly handsome old gentleman who lives quietly and unobtrusively on a little farm near Southampton, England, was the once-famous despot of Argentine."

The life of Rosas covered a period when all of South America was struggling through civil wars to more stable government. His example of tyranny and bloodshed was reproduced in every South American country. But the second half of the nineteenth century has a different story to tell, and in that period Argentina, Chile, and Brazil set an example in good government which the other nations of South America are following to their advantage.