Juan Antonio Lavalleja (1778-1853) was a Uruguayan independence leader. He led the "Immortal Thirty-three," a patriot band that initiated Uruguay's successful move for independence in 1825.
Juan Antonio Lavalleja was born in Minas in western Uruguay. He was a member of a locally prominent family and lived the life of the typical young Creole. In 1811 he joined the move for independence from Spain by enlisting in the service of José Gervasio Artigas, Uruguay's first great national hero.
First Attempt at Independence
Showing himself to be a soldier of considerable talents, Lavalleja continued in the service of Artigas until 1818, when he was captured by the Brazilians. He remained a prisoner until 1821, when the end of fighting in the region of Uruguay prompted the Brazilian officials to declare an end to hostilities and to free all the prisoners.
No sooner had they been released than Lavalleja and other Uruguayan patriots began plotting to renew the struggle against Brazil. Initially, it appeared that there was some chance of success because of quarreling between those Portuguese loyal to Portugal and the Brazilians loyal to the newly proclaimed Brazilian Empire. Such hopes were cut short when the pro-Brazilian faction triumphed and actively started rooting out all patriotic feeling in Uruguay.
In October 1822 Lavalleja was identified as one of the principal conspirators and forced to flee to exile in Buenos Aires. From 1822 to 1825 Lavalleja remained in exile. During this period he continued to plot for the eventual freedom from Brazil for his native province. In 1825 plans began for the launching of a small force into Uruguay which would rely on the immediate uprising of the people to sustain the struggle against Brazil.
On April 19, 1825, Lavalleja and 32 men landed on the east bank of the Rìo de la Plata in Uruguayan territory, raised the old standard of Artigas, and proclaimed themselves committed to the struggle for "liberty or death." Within 20 days the countryside had joined the revolt; once again warfare had come to the east bank of the Plata. In October, Lavalleja achieved his greatest military victory by defeating the Brazilians at the battle of Sarandì. This victory, coupled with a similar defeat of the Brazilians by Gen. José Fructuoso Rivera at the Rincón de Haedo, gained recognition and support for the rebellion from Buenos Aires.
This assistance proved to be the undoing of Lavalleja. Political maneuvering due to the insertion into the Uruguayan struggle of the conflict between centralists and federalists in Argentina greatly weakened his position. Lavalleja allied himself with the Buenos Aires faction and, with their aid and British pressure, saw the fulfillment of his dream in the independence of Uruguay in 1828. In the new government he was in command of the armed forces and successfully concluded a civil war instigated by Gen. Rivera. The end of the war was not victory, as in 1832 a pro-Rivera faction revolted and seized the government. Once again, Lavalleja went into exile, this time to Brazil.
Lavalleja returned to Uruguay in 1837, offered his services to the government, and was given a small military command. He lived in comparative obscurity until 1853, when he was invited to return to the forefront as a member of a new triumvirate pledged to the reestablishment of constitutional government. In this capacity he reconciled his differences with his old rival Gen. Rivera and thus averted more civil strife. On October 22, soon after this rapprochement, Lavalleja died in Montevideo.
Lavalleja's meaning to his country is best illustrated by the inscription on his monument: "At the head of thirty-two compatriots he landed in the Arenal Grande, April 19, 1825, in order to liberate his country then controlled by 8,000 enemy soldiers. He served his country 43 years; he was at the head of the first government; he won the battle of Sarandi; he occupied at various times elevated positions in government; and he died poor."
Further Reading on Juan Antonio Lavalleja
Information on Lavalleja in English can be found in John Street, Artigas and the Emancipation of Uruguay (1959).