As I was walking from Flyingnorthblog International Headquarters in the South Village of New York City toward Canal Street in Tribeca, I followed Sixth Avenue south, also known as the Avenue of the Americas. The avenue’s official name was changed to Avenue of the Americas in 1945 by the City Council, by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who signed the bill into law on October of 1945. The intent was to honor ‘Pan-American ideals and principles’ and the nations of Central and South America, and to encourage those countries to build consulates along the avenue. It was felt at the time that the name would provide greater grandeur to a street that was not the most picturesque in the city, and to promote trade with the Western Hemisphere. After the name change, round signs were attached to streetlights on the avenue, showing the national seals of the nations honored. Some of these can still be seen today.
On the Avenue of the Americas, at Soho Square, I came across a statue I had never seen before. Since I had just returned from a trip that included Uruguay and an exploration of Montevideo, I did a double take. There in front of me was José Gervasio Artigas Arnal a national hero of Uruguay who is also called “the father of Uruguayan nationhood,” and someone whose statue I had just seen at the Plaza Independencia in Montevideo.
Artigas was born in Montevideo on June 19, 1764. His grandparents fought in the War of the Spanish Succession and moved to the Americas to escape from poverty, settling in Buenos Aires in 1716. At the age of 12, he moved to the countryside and worked on his family’s farms. Once he had come of age, he distanced himself from his parents and became involved in cattle smuggling. This made him a wanted man among the owners of haciendas and with the government in Montevideo. A reward was put out for his death.
Things changed with the opening of the Anglo-Spanish War, and the threat of a British attack upon the viceroyalty. The viceroy Antonio de Olaguer y Feliú negotiated a pardon with his family, on the condition that he joined the Corps of Blandengues with a hundred men, to form a battalion. Thus, he began his military career in 1797, at the age of 33, with the rank of lieutenant. The attack finally came in 1806, when William Beresford invaded Buenos Aires, in the first of many British invasions of the Río de la Plata. Although Artigas’s unit was tasked with patrolling the frontier with Brazil, he requested to take part in the military expedition that Santiago de Liniers launched from Montevideo to drive the British out of Buenos Aires. His request was granted, and the British were defeated. After the liberation of Buenos Aires, he was tasked with returning to Montevideo and informing the governor Pascual Ruiz Huidobro of the result of the battle.
A second British attack aimed to capture Montevideo, which was captured in the Battle of Montevideo. Artigas was taken prisoner, but he managed to escape and returned to the countryside. He organized groups of gauchos and began a guerrilla war against the invaders. The British tried to capture Buenos Aires a second time, but were defeated by the local armies, and returned Montevideo to Spanish control as part of the terms of capitulation. Artigas was promoted to captain in 1809.
Spain declared Buenos Aires a rogue city, and appointed Montevideo as the new capital, with Francisco Javier de Elío as the new viceroy. The city had financial problems, and the measures taken by Elío to maintain the royalist armies were highly unpopular in the countryside. This allowed Artigas to channel the popular discontent against the colonial authorities. A hundred men met near the Asencio stream and made the cry of Asencio, a pronunciamiento against the viceroy. They captured many villages in the Banda Oriental, such as Mercedes, Santo Domingo, Colla, Maldonado, Paso del Rey, Santa Teresa and San José. They also captured Gualeguay, Gualeguaychú and Arroyo de la China, at the west of the Uruguay river. Elío sent some soldiers to kill Artigas, who failed. Then, he sent Manuel Villagrán, a relative of Artigas, to offer him the pardon and appoint him general and military leader of the Banda Oriental if he gave up the rebellion.
Montevideo was soon surrounded by Artigas’s forces. A Montevidean army tried to stop the patriots at the Battle of Las Piedras, but they were defeated, and the city was put to siege. José Rondeau, commanding forces from Buenos Aires, joined the siege. Artigas wanted to attack the city right away, but Rondeau thought that there would be less loss of lives by establishing a blockade and waiting for the city to surrender. However, the besiegers did not consider the naval forces of Montevideo, who kept the city supplied and enabled them to endure the blockade.
In 1811, José Gervasio Artigas launched a successful revolution against the Spanish authorities, defeating them on 18 May at the Battle of Las Piedras. In 1813 the new government in Buenos Aires convened a constituent assembly where Artigas emerged as a champion of federalism, demanding political and economic autonomy for each area, and for the Banda Oriental in particular. The assembly refused to seat the delegates from the Banda Oriental however, and Buenos Aires pursued a system based on unitary centralism.
As a result, Artigas broke with Buenos Aires and besieged Montevideo, taking the city in early 1815. Once the troops from Buenos Aires had withdrawn, the Banda Oriental appointed its first autonomous government. Artigas organized the Federal League under his protection, consisting of six provinces, four of which later became part of Argentina.
In 1816 a force of 10,000 Portuguese troops invaded the Banda Oriental from Brazil; they took Montevideo in January 1817. The Portuguese forces captured Artigas and his deputies and occupied Montevideo on 20 January 1817, but the struggle continued for three years in the countryside. Infuriated by Buenos Aires’s passivity, Artigas declared war on Buenos Aires while he was losing to the Portuguese. His subordinates managed to defeat the centralism of Buenos Aires. But hope for a new nation was short-lived; both commanders entered agreements with Buenos Aires that went against the principles of Artigas. They rebelled against him and left him to be crushed by the Portuguese.
Without resources and men, Artigas withdrew to Paraguay in September 1820. In Paraguay, Dr. Francia, the dictator, banished him to Candelaria. He then disappeared from the political life of the region. After a long exile, he died in Paraguay in 1850, at age 86. It is said that Artigas, feeling himself to be near death, asked for a horse and died in the saddle, as a gaucho.
After nearly four more years of struggle Portuguese Brazil annexed the Banda Oriental as a province. The Brazilian Empire became independent from Portugal in 1822. In response to the annexation, the Thirty-Three Orientals, led by Juan Antonio Lavalleja, declared independence on 25 August 1825 supported by the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata [present-day Argentina]. This led to the 500-day-long Cisplatine War. Neither side gained the upper hand and in 1828 the Treaty of Montevideo, fostered by the United Kingdom, gave birth to Uruguay as an independent state. The nation’s first constitution was adopted on July 18,1830
The remains of Artigas were buried and then re-interned at the Panteón Nacional in 1855 and on the June 19, 1977, his remains were transferred to the Artigas Mausoleum in the center of the Plaza Independencia in Montevideo.
The statue of Artigas in Soho Square in Manhattan is a second cast of an original by José Luis Zorrilla de San Martín [1891-1975], which has stood in Montevideo, in front of the Uruguayan National Bank, since 1949. Zorrilla served as Director of the Uruguayan National Museum of Fine Arts, and was then considered his country’s outstanding sculptor. His father, Juan Zorrilla de San Martín, was both a poet and Uruguay’s Ambassador to Spain. This replica was fabricated by Vignali and Company, and placed on a Uruguayan granite base designed by architect Maria Cristina Caquías. The statue was a gift from Uruguay to New York City in 1997.