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Conquista Del Desierto Part 1: Why It Happened

By | [email protected] | May 11, 2016 4:08pm


“Our self-respect as a virile people obliges us to put down as soon as possible, by reason or by force, this handful of savages who destroy our wealth and prevent us from definitively occupying, in the name of law, progress and our own security the richest and most fertile lands of the Republic.”

— Julio Argentino Roca, 1875.

In the 1870s, Roca, who was the War Minister (that’s Defense Minister, pre-newspeak) launched a military campaign that killed or expelled as refugees most of the indigenous people living in what we now call Argentine Patagonia, claiming their lands for the Argentine State in the name of progress.

Conquest of the Desert, by Juan Manuel Blanes. Look familiar? Image via

Roca was following previous campaigns led by similar men for similar reasons. The persecution and drip-feed ethnic cleansing of people of indigenous descent was de-facto State policy in Argentina during the mid and late 1800s.

During the campaign, more than a thousand Mapuche of all ages are estimated to have been slaughtered by Roca’s men, often by firing squad executions, while up to 15,000 others were forced to flee the mechanized violence into neighboring Chile.

It was one of the most notorious and tragic instances of genocide in modern Latin American history. Why did it happen?

Wild Tales

After Argentina won independence in 1816 and inherited the lands previously ruled indirectly by the Spanish monarchy, it was already big. Huge, in fact, compared to many of the other independent nations that slowly began to ossify after decades of internal strife even after the Spanish and Portuguese had been kicked out.

Most of Patagonia, including the parts where many indigenous people including communities of the diverse Mapuche tribes lived on either side of the Andes, was not yet part of the State. This meant Argentina had a frontier, in much the same way the United States did at the same time (if you’re looking for a Gif of Leonardo Di Caprio and a bear demonstrating what that was like up North around the same period, you’re in luck).

In the nineteenth century US, people like Hugh Glass, the frontiersman played by Di Caprio in The Revenant, were helping to open up the vast interior spaces of the continent not technically part of the official nation state just yet, with the help of private capital and the US government. There was a lot of resources and land, and therefore money to be made in doing this. Bears too.

The same, minus the bears (there were pumas), was true in Patagonia, although the state didn’t get heavily involved until much later, gradually becoming more interventionist as the unionist-federalist wars post-independence petered out.

What made the government want to extend the frontier for itself?

What helped Roca as the Minister for War get the approval to send in the troops in extension of this frontier in the late nineteenth century and, in doing so, kill so many people?

A variety of different pressures on the Argentine state, sprinkled with healthy doses of racism and futurist sentiment among Argentina’s political leaders help explain why what they (and the old 100 peso note) called the Conquest of the Desert happened.


As we can see from the Roca quote at the top of this article, the extermination campaign against the Mapuche — the groups who made up most of the indigenous population south of the Pampas — was carried out in the name of “progress”.

“Progress” was the vogue word of the nineteenth century conquering bourgeoisie. If you called something “progress” that meant it was good.

So cartography, the scientific revolution, the extension of voting rights, the building of the modern nation state, these all counted as progress in the 1800s.

The child-labor-powered cotton mills of Britain’s industrial revolution, the Indian “coolies” dying to build railways on the subcontinent, the racist imperial colonization of continental Africa, these were also examples of nineteenth century progress, at least according to their architects.

Similarly warped views of progress were evident in Latin America, as superhero historian Eric Hobsbawm discussed:

“In the republics of Latin America, inspired by the revolutions which had transformed Europe and the USA, ideologues and politicians considered the progress of their countries to be dependent on ‘Aryanization’-i.e. the progressive ‘whitening’ of the people through intermarriage (Brazil) or virtual re-population by imported white Europeans (Argentina).”

So “progress” not only meant supposed advancement of an economic or political kind (see below). It also meant a sinister form of development Roca and his contemporaries hoped to extend to the wild places: ethnic.

When we study the words of the Argentine political elite during the period, it becomes clear that, unlike most of us today, they believed in a world where not all races had equal rights: A hierarchical view of humanity, which put some ethnic groups — Northern Europeans, for example — higher than others, like the Mapuche.

This logic seems strange to us today, but was reinforced during the nineteenth century through such lovely concepts as scientific racism — popular with the great European empires of the age — which justified the domination of white people over so-called “lesser” races.

This in turn led inevitably to a political agenda and policies based on such a view. As one team of Argentine historians put it: “Argentine indigenous policies — the hostile as well as the disciplinary — were grounded on the idea of Aboriginal extinction.”

“Both federal and provincial governments constructed their policies from a conceptualization of Indigenous peoples as ‘a few survivors,’ ‘the final remains of an ending culture,’ and so on. On the one hand, this omitted naming the causes of this supposed extinction. On the other hand, these policies of invisibilization enabled various forms of repression such as land expropriations, potential forced labor, and, at the same time, massacres.”

Discourse in Argentina about the indigenous people who lived beyond the frontier was often coated in racism. It had helped justify previous military interventions against indigenous people in Argentina before Roca’s Campaign, and would also help him “bring progress” the lands South of the Pampas by ethnically cleansing them in favor of European-descended settlers.

‘Security’ — The Chilean Equation

The Mapuche lived on both sides of the Andes, including in modern-day Chile. Unlike its neighbor, Chile was going about concretely colonizing the lands of the deep South before Argentina.

In the years preceding Roca’s campaign, the Chilean military conducted a series of wars and domestic campaigns to expand the Andean sliver that was its territory. They beat Perú and Bolivia and permanently stole the latter’s coastline, forever hamstringing its economy.

This made Argentina nervous. If the equation Chile > Peru +Bolivia had staying power, how long before Argentina’s number was called?

The flashpoint for both countries looked like being Patagonia. Chile was already expanding into Southern Patagonia by the mid 1800s. It founded what became the two oldest permanent settlements in the region, including Punta Arenas, in the 1840s. It was also helping crush its own Mapuche neighbors in a protracted military campaign, euphemistically known as the Pacification of Araucanía (1860s-1880s).

After that, Chile and what Mapuche remained courted more cordial relations in time, based on trade. This also made Argentina nervous, since the Mapuche often raided Argentine settlements and traded what they stole — cattle, for example — in Chilean towns for weapons or other goods.

Chile was beating Argentina in the frontier race down South and beating all its neighbours on battlefields up North.

The Battle of Arica by Juan Lepiani. Chile beating up it’s neighbours in the War of the Pacific encouraged Argentine leaders to look to their own borders and frontier. Image via

What could the Argentine government do? He of (old) 50-peso note fame, ex-President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento actually considered joining Perú and Bolivia in their ultimately disastrous War of the Pacific against Chile (1879 – 1883). Fortunately for the Argentine government, this was nixed after they realized it was probably not a viable or winnable plan to consider.

Instead, a comparatively straightforward military campaign against people who didn’t have ironclads or many guns was in order. A land grab in the vast spaces at the bottom of the Southern Cone, to put a lid on Chilean expansionism without actually challenging the country directly….

This reason for launching the Conquista was confirmed after the massacres and expulsions took place: Argentina and Chile signed the Boundary Treaty of 1881 after Roca’s campaign essentially brought most of Patagonia into the Argentine fold and put a lid on potential conflict in the region between the nations.

‘Wealth’ — The Slump

Despite all the wars the Unitarians and Federalists fought each other in Argentina’s post-independence, the national economy had been purring along nicely in the 1800s, spurred by massive immigration to the River Plate zone around greater Buenos Aires and favorable export markets.

Nonetheless, the immediate prelude to Roca’s Campaign in the 1870s painted a different picture.

Former President Nicolás Avellaneda (1873-1879) began his tenure, like most presidents, swamped by a thousand and one different issues all requiring his immediate attention.

Somewhere near the top of the list was the global financial crisis.

Bankers panicking in New York City during the first Great Depression c.1878. Image via

The market bust, and the subsequent depression in the global economy from 1873 onwards hurt Argentina and her classic agricultural exports. It was the first properly global and properly capitalist slump (it was even known as the Great Depression until 1929 came along).

Argentina’s reliance on selling farm produce to Europe and America hurt her when realities of a globalized world economic system vulnerable to market fluctuations came to bite. It functioned like today, through cyclical booms and busts. In this particular bust after 1873, trade retreated for a time, and this hurt Argentina’s economy.

How to respond to the crisis? Argentina was still unstable in terms of its territory, of where its borders started and finished.

What about a land grab? It stood to reason that more land should, in theory, equal more wealth, since Argentina used the already vast open spaces of its “interior” to act as the engine room of its export-driven economy.

Jose Toribio Martínez de Hoz The Elder was economy minister during the Avellaneda presidency. Roca was the War Minister. Martitnez de Hoz’s children and grandchildren would later be economy ministers and advisers during the last military dictatorship (1976-1983). Roca would later get his face on the 100 peso bill.

Martínez de Hoz bolstered new private investment for the frontier, and had been an enthusiastic advocate of the previous military campaigns against indigenous people of the frontier prior to Roca’s campaign.

He was the Argentine equivalent of the super-rich robber barons from the northern superpowers like Britain and the US — carving open the frontiers of the world, including Argentina, in fact, in the name of progress and profit.

As economy minister, Martínez de Hoz enthusiastically funded the Conquista del Desierto directly.

This made sense. As one of several vastly rich land-owning families in the country, he stood directly to gain from it, which he and the family did. The Martínez de Hoz’s were rewarded with thousands of hectares of land after the massacres as a gift from the government for their “patriotic contributions,” as Bayer, Mariano Aiello and Kristina Hille documented in the unmissable film Awka Liwen: Rebellion At Dawn.


Finally we come to the pretext Roca actually used for launching the campaign, which as we shall see in part II to led to mass executions, ethnic cleansing and the expulsion of Mapuche families as refugees from Patagonia by the thousands.

European-descended settlers on the Patagonian frontier moved there in the hope of starting a new and economically more prosperous life in the vast, “unclaimed” expanses of the South. They were encouraged by wealthy businessmen like Martínez de Hoz, who considered much of the land his own property (it soon would be on paper), to move onto Mapuche land and place themselves in danger of raids from people who had in some cases already been living there for centuries and weren’t particularly keen on recognizing the vast sell-off of land in the region Martínez de Hoz and the other rich and powerful families were orchestrating in Buenos Aires.

Mapuche family, Chile c.1908. Image via

Already squeezed out of the more temperate middle zone of Argentina (modern-day Buenos Aires, Santa Fe, La Pampa and Mendoza provinces) by regularly violent Argentine expansionism after 1816, the Mapuche peoples in Patagonia carved out livelihoods through subsistence farming, cattle herding.

They had a very long history of warrior traditions and culture, as historians Matt Restall and Kris Lane described:

“Mapuche culture appears to have valued military skill long before the arrival of the Spanish, and successful warriors could expect to gain great status. Mapuche boys were raised to fight and take captives from an early age, and girls were taught to prepare and stockpile food and other supplies.”

Much like what happened on parts of the North American frontier in the 1800s, creeping settlement expansion of “European” pioneers onto land lived and farmed and called home by indigenous people instigated conflict between different ethnic groups.

In this way, Argentine settlement further and further South from Buenos Aires and the Pampas backed up by military campaigns previous to Roca’s (like that of Juan Manuel de Rosas, 1833-4) provoked violent reactions from indigenous people whose land was being encroached upon. These reactions were then used by Roca et al to justify killing the indigenous people.

Without doubt, on the Patagonian frontier, violent raids by Mapuches on settlers were common. Cattle would be stolen, fighting would happen, terrified captives would sometimes be taken because, like we have seen, Mapuche men were raised to do this stuff. What was loosely called the Mapuche Confederation had been fighting for its existence and place in the world since the Spanish, whom they beat repeatedly, had arrived in Argentina. New mainly-pink-skinned settlers with armies at their backs didn’t seem so different from how it had been for centuries before Roca and his predecessor Adolfo Alsina and Rosas led armies against them.

As reports of the “savages” raiding on Argentine settlements filtered back to Buenos Aires, Roca persuaded President Avellaneda to approve another military campaign against them, but this time to eradicate their nuisances once and for all. The die for the climax of a protracted genocide was cast.