In New Grenada, pontaneous resistance to new viceregal edicts coalesced into one of the most serious rebellions of the Spanish colonial era — albeit one that aimed at reform, not revolution.
Shouting demands for tax reductions and greater local autonomy, a force of 10,000-20,000 rebels marched on Bogota in the spring of 1781, routing a column of government soldiers sent to disperse them and forcing authorities to terms that the latter had no intention of honoring. This is one of the oldest ploys: offer concessions to end the rebellion, then declare the concessions null and void as obtained under duress when the rebels are safely out of arms.
An illiterate mestizo peasant, our man Galan (the cursory English Wikipedia entry | the much more satisfactory Spanish) was not the principal captain of this rebellion but he seems to have exceeded them in foresight — for Galan and his more radical followers continued the revolt even after the main body of Comuneros went home satisfied with the government’s specious pledges. North of Bogota, Galan threatened a more Tupac Amaru-like experience, attracting a multi-racial lower-class force* which he turned against hacienda landowners.
Captured in October of that same year after reinforcements arrived at Bogota to begin laying down imperial law, Galan was so popularly admired that no free blacksmith would accept the contract to forge his irons — all the more reason for his exemplary sentence:
We condemn José Antonio Galán to be removed from jail, dragged and taken to the place of execution, where he is hanged on the gallows until dead; when lowered, his head is to be cut off, his body divided into four parts and passed through the flames (for which a bonfire will be lit in front of the scaffold); his head will be taken to Guaduas, theater of his scandalous insults; the right hand placed in the Plaza del Socorro, the left in the town of San Gil; the right foot in Charalá, place of his birth, and the left foot in the place of Mogotes; his descendants are declared infamous, all his goods are confiscated to the treasury; his house is to be pulled down and sown with salt, so that his infamous name may be lost and consigned to such a vile reputation, such a detestable memory, that nothing remains of him but the hate and fright that ugliness and crime inspire.
Despite the sentence, it’s said that an unskillful executioner not knowing how to hang his man shot him dead instead, so that he could proceed to the butchery.
* The main insurrection that had so meekly disbanded itself was heavily led by Creole local elites with a clear inclination towards deal-making.
On this date in 1785, two of the three leaders of Transylvania’s great peasant uprising were broken on the wheel in the city of Alba Iulia — the third having cheated the executioner by hanging himself in his cell.
Left to right: Vasile Ursu Nicola, known as Horea; Ion Oarga (Closca); and, the suicide, Marcu Giurgiu (Crisan).
The Revolt of Horea, Closca and Crisan (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed Romanian) featured the usual grievances of feudal serfs, who in this case were Orthodox Christians governed by a Hungarian Catholic nobility. The heavier exactions of the region’s magnates in this period had led to several peasant delegations petitioning for relief from the Habsburg crown, among whose rosters appear this day’s eventual executees, Horea and Closca.
Those grievances were transmuted into rebellion, paradoxically as it might seem, by the 1780 death of Maria Theresa and the consequent ascent to sole rulership of Emperor Joseph II. Remembered as one of history’s great progressive “enlightened despots,” Joseph would surely have thought himself a friend to the peasantry with measures like rolling back serfdom and a broadened mandate for education.*
But the careless injuries his modernizing edicts visited on a precarious dominion of his polyglot empire would help beat ploughshares into swords in the regions of present-day Romania.
Imperial demands for fresh (rationalized, as the empire saw it) cash taxation had excited the countryside’s nobility and peasantry alike, since little specie flowed through their traditional agrarian arrangements, and an attempted census had met widespread resistance as a likely harbinger of the revenue man; but, these rebels from the soil still mostly hated their traditional local overlords and in due course would direct their blades and torches accordingly. Demands they presented to a besieged city on November 11 of 1784 underscore their perspective:
The nobility should be abolished; each noblemen, if he could get a job in the imperial administration, should live on that income.
The noble landlords should leave once for all their nobiliary estates.
The noblemen should pay taxes like any common taxpayer.
The noblemen’s estates should be divided among the common people
The most immediate spark to set all this tinder ablaze would be the apparent prospect of widespread military recruitment — a desideratum for the peasantry, as it offered the prospect of social mobility and an escape from the magnate’s lash — which was then apparently withdrawn or blocked, a cruel trick to put the servile class in mind of its many abuses. In early November, beginning in Zarand, thousands of peasants Romanian, Saxon, and Hungarian alike rose in arms and began putting manors and churches to the sack.
“Letters from Transylvania continue to talk of excesses committed by rebels there,” one bulletin reported.
Not content to kill the feudal lords, they set fire to the habitations of their vassals if these refuse to embrace the party of the insurgents. At Kerespaya they broke into the coffers of the royal treasury and took away all the money. The evangelical pastor of that place, after having seen the throats of his wife and children cut, was taken to the church and decapitated at the foot of the altar. Some Franciscans met the same fate, those who had taken refuge in the bell towers were strangled and thrown into the streets. But they respect the officials of the emperor, as long as they are not nobles … Major Schultz asked one of them the motives for their cruel conduct, he answered: “Do not believe, Sir, that we have joined this party without reason; we were forced into it by the most pressing necessity. Here are authentic copies of several royal orders given out for our benefit that have not been carried out. All our remonstrances in this matter have been useless, and we have been sent away without receiving justice. It is thus only to break the yoke of the most insufferable slavery that we have resolved to vindicate ourselves. We know well that our conduct will be disapproved of, but we pride ourselves at the same time that it will serve to force examination of the conduct of those who have so cruelly deceived us. At any event, we prefer death to a miserable life, and will die content so that our example might guarantee the rights of humanity to our descendants and give the state contented subjects.”
The tragic aspirations of this rebellion — which lasted only two months, but had managed to assume a proto-national character** — were amply fulfilled once it was crushed and its three principal leaders betrayed to the government. The two who faced the horrors of the breaking-wheel, and Crisan as well, had their corpses quartered and their limbs distributed to the major thoroughfares by way of intimidation. Dozens of others of less eternal fame were also put to death during this period, to add to the innumerable killings in the course of suppressing the rebels.†
Above: detail view (click for the full image) of an 18th century print illustrating the execution. Below: another take on the scene.
But there was, too, that examination they desired forced upon the emperor, who promulgated a decree abolishing serfdom in 1785, eliminated noble control over marriages, and expanded the peasantry’s grazing rights. These reforms were at best only partially successful (the true end of serfdom still lay decades in the future) but they betokened on parchment just as the rebels had done in fire and blood the crisis striking at the ancien regime — for, alongside condemnations of the peasantry, there were during those revolutionary years also vindications of them, written in the language of the Enlightenment:
The Walachian uprising is an important lesson for sovereigns. It confirms the observation that the human spirit is mature for a general ferment, that it yearns for laws that respect equality, justice, and the order corresponding to its nature. How could it have been that under the most beneficent and mild government in the world, that of Joseph II, such an event could occur? It is because the principles of liberty, justice, and equality are woven into our hearts; they are a part of our natural destiny.
† “I will leave you to judge the excesses they committed. Among others twenty-seven peasants were arrested, whose heads were cut off by nobles in one day without any kind of procedure.” One reported decree — we hope never effected in reality — threatened to impale a random citizen of any town that gave sanctuary to the “villainous low people.” (Both nuggets from Venturi, op. cit.)