The patriot José Gervasio Artigas (1764-1850) is of ten referred to as the father of Uruguayan independence. While such a title is somewhat misleading, certainly Artigas is unchallenged as the greatest hero of Uruguay.
José Gervasio Artigas was born in Montevideo on June 19, 1764. He was a gaucho, or cowboy, until 1810, when he was attracted to a patriotic cause. A revolutionary junta in Buenos Aires desired to take the region of the viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata out of the jurisdiction of Spanish control. From 1810 to 1811 Artigas commanded Uruguayan patriots in this war of independence against the Spanish. He conquered almost all of Uruguay except for the city of Montevideo. Then Artigas became the spokesman for those who were disenchanted with the leadership of Buenos Aires and wanted more autonomy for the provinces.
In 1813 Artigas-supporting delegates to a constitutional assembly in Argentina were rejected by the Buenos Aires government, and a civil war between the Artigas faction and Buenos Aires began. The differences between the two were fundamental and thus difficult to resolve. Artigas favored a limited federalist government that would leave a great deal of power to the local government. Buenos Aires essentially favored little provincial autonomy and a strong central government located in Buenos Aires.
Militarily, Artigas and Buenos Aires were well matched. He had the support of the region that would become Uruguay and, after 1815, the support of four river provinces that made up the Liga Federal, a confederation of provinces. Buenos Aires, in addition to the population of the province and city, had the revenue of the port facilities and the allegiance of some interior provinces.
Artigas participated in the successful siege of Montevideo, which the Spanish still held, and in 1815 entered Buenos Aires in triumph. But in 1816 he faced ultimate defeat when the Portuguese, hoping to add the provinces around the Rio de la Plata to Brazil, invaded Uruguay. Buenos Aires refused to support him, and after a 4-year struggle Artigas's forces were defeated. From then on Artigas lived in exile in Paraguay, no longer participating in Uruguay's struggle for independence. With the proclamation of Uruguayan independence in 1828, he was invited to return by his victorious followers, but he declined. He died in Asunción on Sept. 23, 1850.
Artigas's significance crossed national boundaries. In Uruguay he is most accurately remembered as the architect of a feeling of uniqueness and regional pride that eventually led to independence. He never favored independence for Uruguay, preferring always the concept of a confederation of all provinces making up the former viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata. For Argentina he first articulated the principles of federalism in the "Instructions of 13," which were incorporated in the Constitution of 1852. Under this constitution Argentina finally achieved a measure of stability, enabling it to grow into a position of real power in South America.
The most complete work on the life of Artigas is in Spanish. John Street, Artigas and the Emancipation of Uruguay (1959), is an excellent treatment in English. See also Simon G. Hanson, Utopia in Uruguay: Chapters in the Economic History of Uruguay (1938), and Clarence H. Haring, The Spanish Empire in America (1947). □