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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:
Darwin saw him as popular with his men, a fine horseman, and enthusiastic.
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
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:
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.
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
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