Saturday, July 20, 2013

How Important Really Was That Flowerpot?

Nicolás Pernett and a historian friend in the Casa de la Historia.
The Casa de la Historia,
in Teusaquillo.
What triggered Colombia's revolution against Spain? According to the common story, on July 20, 1810 a Spanish-born seller refused to lend a flowerpot to a group of criollos, who proceeded to smash the pot and run into the street screaming in protest. Thus, the 'Grito', or Cry of Liberty. (It sounds silly, but then so does a tea party in Boston.)

The incident, which the criollos had staged in order to trigger a rebellion, is usually credited with generating the anger which started the revolution against Spain.

A few of the CD's history produced by Diana Uribe.
But that's not the real story, says historian Nicolas Pernett, who gave a talk today in the Casa de la Historia in Teusaquillo. The Casa was founded three years ago by famed historian Diana Uribe, an author and popular radio personality whose historical talks range across continents and centuries.

Tucked away on a side street in Teusaquillo, the Casa houses a bookstore, holds talks and shows films. On July 20, the Casa and some of the neighborhood's many other theatres, cafes and bookstores held events related to the Grito de Libertad.

But historian Pernett doesn't swallow the idea that the Grito was really such a seminal event. Instead, he argues that Colombia has experienced various protests and rebellions against both the Spanish empire and later against the Colombian republic's power structure. The first major revolt was the 1780 Rebelion de los Comuneros, in which much of present-day Colombia and part of Venezuela took up arms against sudden tax increases. The Spanish rulers betrayed and then viciously supressed the rebels, sowing hatred and suspicions which probably contributed to the revolution of 1810.

But the Comuneros demanded lower taxes, not independence from Spain. And, in fact, the
Where it all began? La Casa del Florero,
or House of the Flowerpot, on Plaza Bolivar.
Colombians who rebelled in 1810 initially did not want independence, either - but just the opposite. At that time, Spain was occupied by neighbor France, and the American rebels claimed they only meant to govern the country until Spain's legitimate rulers were restored.

Interestingly, both the 1780 Comuneros rebellion and the 1810 rebellion were driven by middle class economic conerns rather than yearning for liberty - as is the case for many of today's protests, rebellions and 'revolutions' - whether in Brazil, Turkey, Myanmar or the Arab World. In 1810, the criollos - Spanish descendants born in the New World - felt constrained by the economic and social privileges enjoyed by the Spanish born. Liberty and civil rights received, as usual, less importance than did bread and butter.

Has Colombians post-revolutionary history also contained a series of would-be revolutions? Historian
The famous fight over the flowerpot. (
Pernett doesn't think so. I suppose it's debatable - and impossible to say - since therebels, whether the Liberals in the wars of the 1800s and 1950s, the Gaitanistas of the 1948 Bogotázo and Colombia's many guerrilla groups have all been defeated by conservative state forces.

Perhaps the sole, partial exception were the M-19 guerrillas, who lost the violent battle, but achieved many of their progressive goals by helping to rewrite Colombia's Constitution in 1991. Today, the FARC guerrillas, who on the battlefield have accomplished little but cause suffering, are negotiating peace with the government in Havana, Cuba. Perhaps they too will accomplish more revolution through talk than force of arms.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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