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The Revolution of the Sabanas.

Popular Loyalism
in the Estado de Cartagena, 1812.

Anthony McFarlane
University of Warwick.

The so-called revolution of the sabanas took place between September and
November 1812 and was apparently aimed at overturning the newly-independent state
of Cartagena in 1812 and reinstating royal government in the coastal provinces. It is
perhaps best known for its association with the invasion of a small contingent of the
Spanish army sent in from the province of Santa Marta, and is thus usually regarded
as an episode in the wars between independent Cartagena and loyalist Santa Marta.
Indeed, historians are unsure whether the rebellion was sparked by the Spanish
invasion or vice versa. What is clear, however, is that the rebellion affected a large
space in the recently-independent state of Cartagena, stretching over the extensive
plains between the lower course of the River Magdalena beyond Lorica in the west,
over an area that encompassed the Sabanas del Tol and the Valle del Sin. At its
peak, the rebellion affected a region of some 30,000 people and mobilized up to 2,000
men for combat, divided roughly equally between the competing sides. It was a
serious challenge to the authority of the Cartagenas new government not only
because the rebels rejected that government, but also because the rebellion seemed
part of a royalist resurgence on the coast. The first independent republic in Caracas
had fallen in July 1812, a putative viceroy of New Granada was installed in Panama,
and neighbouring Santa Marta seemed to readying itself for an assault on Cartagena..
The rebellion was, however, quite brief. Cartagena responded to the threat by sending
a military expedition into the Sabanas and after only a couple of months in the region,
the Spaniards retreated back across the River Magdalena. The state of Cartagena then

turned from defending its rule within in its hinterland to extending the attack on
loyalism in the Lower Magdalena Valley and across the river into Santa Marta.
This rebellion remains a relatively little-known episode in Cartagenas history. It is
sometimes, but not always, remarked by historians interested in the revolution on the
coast, and is occasionally mentioned in the historians of independence in New
Granada as a whole.1 It is perhaps best known to historians of warfare and the military
during the independence period because of its corollary: the invasion of Antonio
Fernndez de Rebustillo with Spanish veteranos of the Albuera Regiment. However,
military historians tend to pass over the rebellion without much comment, treating it
as a minor episode in the larger war against Santa Marta and the Spanish Regency,
and without much concern with its political and social meaning.2
The reasons for this neglect are twofold. First, the rebellion was over quite quickly
and did not involve any great clash of arms. Second, rural rebellion within the
Cartagena region has been overshadowed by other events and issues. It came at a time
when the politics of the city was in turmoil and when the conflict east of the River
Magdalena was increasingly important. In this context, the rebellion of the Sabanas
has been easy to overlook in a period which is dominated by events in the Caribbean
regions main cities of Cartagena and Momps, Santa Marta and Riohacha. Nor does
it fit easily into the two main preoccupations of historians of independent Cartagena.
Traditionally, historians of the city during the period 1810-20 have focused on the

The rebellion is briedly mentioned in Aline Helg, Liberty and Equality in Caribbean
Colombia, 1770-1835, Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press,
2004, p. 143. Roberto Tisnes makes passing mention of the military action in his
book, La independencia en la Costa Atlntica, Bogot: Ed. Kelly, 1976, p.92; 206.
Adelaida Sourdis de la Vega, Cartagena de Indias durante la Primer Repblica,
1800-1815, Bogot: Banco de la Repblica, 1988, concentrates on the city and its
relations with Santa Marta and Momps. There is no direct documentation of the
rebellion in the major collections of documents from the period made by Manuel E.
Corrales, (ed.) Documentos para la historia de la provincial de Cartagena de Indias,
2 vols., Bogot: Imprenta de Medardo Rivas, 1883, and Efemrides y anales del
Estado de Bolvar, 4 vols., Bogot: Ed. J.J. Prez, 1889.

Camilo Riao, Historia Extensa de Colombia, vol. XVIII: Historia Militar, tomo 1,
La independencia (1810-1815), pp. 201-2. In his history of the wars of independence
in New Granada and Venezuela, Thibaud makes fuller reference to the rebellion but
says little about its character or impact: Clment Thibaud, Repblicas en armas: Los
ejrcitos bolivarianos en la guerra de independencia en Colombia y Venezuela,
Bogot: Ed. Planeta, 2003, p. 224.

struggle for power among members of the citys elites and their efforts to impose the
authority of Cartagena on its hinterland and neighbouring regions. More recently,
historians have increasingly focused on analysis of the social character of, and the
social actors in politics, and have paid particular attention to the political participation
of the gentes de color. This has tended to tighten the historiographical focus on urban
rather than rural politics, on the social and political history of cities rather than the
Nonetheless, the revolution of the sabanas is a subject worth exploring for a number
of reasons. First, it is an unusual episode in the history of Cartagenas politics during
the first phase of Colombias movement towards independence. Most political
conflict within the cities and province of Cartagena was between those who favoured
one form of autonomy or another, whether under the overarching authority of Spain or
as a fully independent polity. Spanish loyalism was rarely overt, and the rebellion of
the Sabanas was the only popular armed rebellion that called directly for the
restoration of royal government. It was, moreover, taken very seriously by the
Cartagena government. Seen from a contemporary perspective, the combination of a
Spanish incursion and the rebellion of the pueblos of the Sabanas was a considerable
challenge to Cartagena. It affected a region with a population of some 30,000 people,
which was quite a substantial segment of the population when the city of Cartagena
had some 16,000 inhabitants and Momps had about 7,000. The rebellion was,
moreover, decidedly dangerous. This was not a rebellion of the backlands that was
irrelevant to the state and could be left to run its course. On the contrary, it threatened
to cut off essential food supplies and, because it combined with Spanish forces,
presented the even worse prospect of becoming a platform for a royalist assault that
might overthrow Cartagenas republican government and cut short the revolution on
the Caribbean coast.

Notably in Helg Liberty and Equality; Alfonso Mnera, El fracaso de la nacin:

Regin, clase y raza en el Caribe colombiano (1777-1810), Bogot: Banco de la
Repblica, 1998; Marixa Lasso, Haiti as an Image of Popular Republicanism in
Caribbean Colombia: Cartagena Province, 1811-1828, in David P. Geggus, (ed.) The
Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, Columbia, South Carolina:
University of South Carolina, 2001, and Race and Nation in Caribbean Gran
Colombia, Cartagena, 1810-1832, American Historical Review, 111:3, 2006, pp.33661.

Another interesting aspect of the rebellion is its rural and popular character. As a
small rural uprising, it offers us a glimpse of the micro-history of Cartagenas region
outside the urban centres which have dominated historical study. Because it was a
popular rebellion which recruited from the diminutive pueblos, caseros and Indian
communities of an agrarian society, it provides a chance to see something of the
values and behaviour of common people who lived in the small agricultural
communities that were the basic cell of coastal society and are usually hidden from
view. Equally interesting is its loyalist character. As a rebellion undertaken in the
name of king Fernando VII, it may tell us more about popular loyalism in Colombia, a
phenomenon which historians usually associate with Santa Marta, Popayn, the Valle
del Pata, and especially to Pasto, with its very substantial Indian peasantry.4
The purpose of this paper is, then, to try to throw some new light on the rebellion as
an episode in the history of Colombias, and particularly Cartagenas, movement to
independence. My first aim is to give a reasonably detailed account of the rebellion
and its context, and to examine the character of its participants. My primary questions
concern how and why the rebellion took place and who was involved, and I also aim
to relate it to the bigger picture of cartagenero politics in the first phase of
independence. Was this a rebellion against the city or an extension of its politics?
What were the ideas which moved it; what was the language for their expression;
what were the grievances stated and the solutions proposed? How do rural and urban
politics compare? What does the rebellion tell us about loyalism and its social roots?
What does contemporary discussion of the rebellion add to our understanding of the
the history of independence in Cartagena? Before considering these questions, we
need a clearer picture of what the rebellion was: when, where and how did it start and
The Revolution of the Sabanas: The First History
Telling the story of the rebellion is facilitated by a contemporary document that seems
to have been overlooked by historians of the region. This is the Memorias sobre la

On popular loyalism in Pasto and the Pata, see Rebecca A. Earle, Spain and the
Independence of Colombia, 1810-1825, Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000,
pp.47-53. On Santa Marta, see Steinar A. Saether, Identidades e independencia en
Santa Marta y Riohacha, 1750-1850, Bogot: Instituto Colombiano de Antropologa e
Historia, 2005, pp.197-207.

revolucin de las Sabanas, written by Fr. Joaquin Escobar and published in Cartagena
de Indias in 1813.5 The Memorias are presented in the form of a pamphlet, although at
a length of 80 pages, divided into ten chapters, the document is closer to being a short
book. It is an intriguing text. The author presents his work as a history, written, as he
thought good history should be, not only to record the facts of the rebellion but also to
provide un cuadro de instruccion, en que el hombre aprenda a precaber los males y a
poner los medios de evitarlos, a procurar el bien general e individual por el
conocimiento de todas las causas que pueden influir en el uno, y en el otro. His
didactic approach was, he argued, especially important in time of revolution, which is
usually el resultado de un conjunto de causas muchas veces ocultas y quasi siempre
Escobar informs the reader that his history will proceed through three stages: the first
addresses the causes of the rebellion; the second sets out the events of the rebellion;
the third examines its effects and consequences. This was an unashamedly
teleological strategy. Having told us the causes and commented on the rebellions
lamentable implications, the author then provides a narrative which confirms these
causes and draws the political lessons that stem from the authors political position.
Here we see all the hallmarks of the Enlightenment view of history as a discipline
which, while based in a scientific etiology, also had pragmatic political and moral
purposes. This was a view that penetrated Spanish America during the later eighteenth
century and, of course, lent itself to the essentially Enlightenment project for social
and economic reform which Spanish American liberals inherited from the Bourbon
period and, after independence, bent to the purposes of a reformist republican states. 7

Memorias sobre la revolucin de las Sabanas sucedida el ao de 1812: sobre sus

causas y sus principales efectos, escritas por Fr. Joaquin Escobar que se hall en
ella, Cartagena de Indias, en la Imprenta del C. Diego Espinosa, Ao de 1813.
Archivo de la Real Academia de Historia, Madrid: Coleccin Pablo Morillo, Conde
de Cartagena, Signatura 9/7649, fols. 225-70. In my references below, I use the
original pagination of the Memorias.

Ibid., p.3.

Renan Silva, Los Ilustrados de Nueva Granada, 1760-1808: Genealoga de una

comunidad de interpretacin, Medelln: Banco de la Repblica, 2002; Jorge
Caizares-Esguerra, How to Write a History of the New World: Histories,
Epistemologies, and Identities in the eighteenth century Atlantic World, Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 2001.

The Memorias are, then, essentially a long political tract. They are the product of a
clearly-revealed political position; they have a clearly-stated political purpose and are
unashamedly patriotic in its language and intent. The work is, indeed, an interesting
object for analysis in itself, as a palimpsest of the Enlightened, republican picture of
the world, on which Escobar inscribed the principles of the revolution in Cartagena.
My information on the author, Fr. Joaquin, is limited to what he reveals in his
Memorias. There he states that he was an eyewitness to the revolution of the Sabanas
because the Presidente de Cartagena had given him a delicada comisin to fulfil in
that region. He does not reveal what the mission was. However, his comments suggest
that he was in the Sabanas in order to disseminate propaganda for the new regime in
Cartagena and to identify its opponents. Escobar was evidently a political activist and
was politically well-connected: he frequently refers to his correspondence with the
presidente, recounts his role as a leader of the armed forces sent to repress the
rebellion, and, at the end of the document, tells us that the presidente recalled him to
Cartagena in order to participate in the sessions of the legislature.8
Rebellion and the Spanish Invasion
Although we should not regard Escobars narrative as an objective, accurate account,
one of the valuable features of his Memorias is that they permit us to reconstruct a
picture of the rebellion and of the military activities that followed from it. He claimed
to give a true account because he was an eyewitness and participant in many of the
events reported, but his personal position, political commitment and his physical
location during the rebellion undoubtedly influenced his record of events, not to speak
of his interpretation of their meaning. Nonetheless, it is worth paying attention to his
chronicle of the rebellion because it gives us a sense of its timing, distribution and

The only additional datum that I have found on Escobar is a copy of a letter that he
wrote from the Convento de San Francisco to the Presidente Governador del Estado
de Cartagena in 1813, in which he provides a brief account of the contribution made
by the pueblo del Carmen in the fight against the forces that invaded from Santa
Marta. It is reproduced in Roberto Arrazola (ed.), Documentos para la Historia de
Cartagena, 1815-1819, Cartagena: Ed. Hernndez, 1965, pp.69-72. The appears as
part of the correspondence of General Pablo Morillo, to whom it was sent in 1816 by
Francisco Montalvo to, to advise him of the side taken by El Carmen during the past
war. Montalvo wrongly names the author as Gregorio Escobar -who, he says, had died
in Jamaica - despite the fact that it is plainly signed by Joaquin Escobar.

scale, and the character of military activity in these early campaigns between royalists
and republicans, none of which are found in histories of the period.
Escobar tells us that the rebellion started in Sincelejo on 15 September 1812, when
the pueblo of Sincelejo, convoked at the sound of un fututo, collectively swore
loyalty to the King and opposition to the government of Cartagena. This was imitated
shortly afterwards by the pueblos of Sampues, San Andrs and Chin. Corozal, where
Escobar resided, was initially loyal to Cartagena and the sincelejanos soon threatened
to burn it down. Escobar left for El Carmen, apparently to raise forces to combat the
sincelejanos, but in his absence the alcalde of Corozal, ciudadano Jos de Florez,
was forced out by a riot of 100 men who insisted that he swear loyalty to king or be
deposed from his office. Florez resigned and the community proceeded to elect two
new officials. Escobar noted the irony: here was a defence of the old system, which
had no such elections, using the methods of the new, which had recently introduced
Corozal became a centre for the rebellion. On 22 September 1812, rebel forces moved
in from other settlements and came together in a show of strength. Led by their selfstyled generalsimo Padre Pedro Martir Vasquez, 500 Indians from the pueblos of
San Andrs y Sampues arrived first, carrying their leader in a hammock. They were
joined by 200 sincelejanos led by Pedro Paternina. Father Vasquez then entered the
church to proclaim a Te Deum which, after a raucous altercation with the parish
priest, was followed by festivities which involved drinking the contents of the local
estancos stores. On the following day, 23 September, the exrcito del Chin made a
solemn entry into Corozal, led by Manuel Betin.10
These four pueblos were, in Escobars account, the platform of the rebellion of the
Sabanas. Others within their vicinity remained loyal, at least for a time. When
Escobar went to El Carmen and neighbouring Oveja to raise forces to oppose the
rebels, he secured the cooperation of their officials and the support of their people.
Sinc was also loyal and when Escobar travelled between El Carmen and Barranca on
the River Magdalena, he found that none of the settlements along the route - San
Jacinto, San Juan, Guamo and Yucal - had joined the rebellion. Further west,

Memorias, pp.16-20.


Ibid., p.21-2.

however, el contagio de la rebellion habia comunicado con la velocidad de un rayo

to all the pueblos de Sabanas; it passed from one to the other and en un momento se
hizo general. 11
Little more than a week after the rebellion started at Sincelejo, Spanish forces invaded
Cartagenas territory. The rebels of Corozal, Chin, Sincelejo and Sampues called on
the Spanish forces on the River Magdalena to support them, and on 24 September
1812, Antonio Fernndez Rebustillo, the comandante de la vanguardia espaola at
Tenerife led 70 Spaniards of the Regimiento de Albuera, together with 10 creoles
from the militias of Santa Marta and Panama, into Cartagenas territory. These troops
stopped first at Corozal, at the invitation of its people, and there they were joined by
the pueblos de Sampues, San Andrs, Chin and Sincelejo, whose people went to
Corozal to meet the Spaniards and make common cause. The revolution of the
sabanas was, then, a combined operation. The rebel towns made the first move by
declaring for the king and removing officials who opposed them; they were then
joined by Spanish forces who, Escobar tell us, came at the invitation of the
Spanish forces also made gains on the Magdalena. Yat, a fortified point on the River
Magdalena was lost when Cartagenas troops there heard that their pueblos in the las
Sabanas and Sin had changed sides. Without supplies of food or money, they
deserted, leaving the comandante Manuel Guerrero to abandon Yat after salvaging
only some of its artillery. San Juan, close to the Magdalena, was also lost to the
Spaniards, who took it on 28 September and carried its arms away to Tenerife. Shortly
afterwards, El Carmen also fell to the rebels, leaving open the route to the gates of
Cartagena. 13
With these gains, Rebustillo could feel more confident that he would not attacked
from the rear, and he turned his attention to reorganizing local government in the
Sabanas conforme a las practicas de su sistema.14 He received the priests who led
their pueblos to present themselves to Rebustillo at Corozal, made various

Memorias, p.28.


Ibid., pp.28-30.


Ibid., pp.35-6; 39; 43.


Ibid., p.32.

appointments, including making parish priests into comandantes, and re-established

the cajas reales,. He also spent ten days inspecting his new domain. He started with
the sitios de Sampues y Chin; then went to Sahagn and Cinaga de Oro; then
returned on the Sin river to Chima, Momil, La Concepcin and Lorica. He was, we
are told, recibido en todas estas poblaciones con repiques de campana, capas de coro
y Te-Deum Laudamus. From Lorica, he visited the fortaleza de Zispata, and from
there embarked for Tol. At Tol, he met with Pinzon, a Spaniard who had been
appointed comandante of that plaza by Cartagena, and agreed las medidas de sangre
que se vieron despues en toda la costa. From Tol, Rebustillo returned to Corozal, 12
leagues away, to what was now his headquarters.15
At this stage, Rebustillo -who had titled himself Gobernador civil y militar de las
Sabanas y Sin - apparently believed that he was in control of the Sabanas and that
Santa Marta would send further forces via Barranquilla and Soledad against
Cartagena. But his control of the Sabanas was soon challenged by forces which
arrived from Cartagena in mid-October, and Rebustillo was forced onto the defensive.
He called on his clerical commanders to exhort their parishioners to destroy the
insurgentes, and lead their pueblos in preparations for war.16 When the republicans
sent word to the pueblo of Oveja to warn its people to change sides before they were
attacked, Rebustillo promptly moved his headquarters to Oveja and began to build up
its defences with stakes, stockades, barricades and covered positions for his men and
artillery. He had a substantial force at his disposal in Oveja, of some 1200 men. Of
these, some 200 had firearms escopetas y fusiles- while the rest had machetes,
lanzas, hondas y flechas. 17
Rebustillos decision to dig in at Oveja was evidently determined by the advantages
that it offered as a defensive position on the route into the Sabanas, and it was thus
near Oveja, at Mancomojan, that the military encounter between the forces of Spain
and Cartagena took place. Throughout October, Escobar had been moving from place
to place, trying to organize resistance and to bring artillery pieces into the area. He did
not have sufficient forces to attack Rebustillo, however, and awaited the arrival of


Ibid., p.44.


Ibid., pp.45-6.


Ibid., pp.46-8.

troops sent by the government of Cartagena. These finally arrived on 17 October,

under the command of Comandante Manuel Cortes y Campomanes, and encamped at
San Juan. Escobar does not state how many men Campomanes brought with him, but
notes that when they left San Juan, Campomanes had built up his forces with local
recruits, and had a compaia de patriotas and two companias de linea and some
cavalry. They also had artillery, in the form of two caones montados y armados en
violentos (one de a 6, one de a 4, and 2 de a 2 que iban en hombros). When they
arrived at El Carmen on 25 October, Escobar counted 300 infanteria and 20
caballeria. The main force then encamped at El Carmen for the two weeks from 25
October until 11 November, and more men were recruited from El Carmen and from
among the milicianos of San Juan and San Jacinto, making up a company of 130 men
which became the 4th company. Mr Basen who had recently arrived was appointed
as Captain of the new company. A new cavalry company of 80 men was also added,
recruited among vecinos of El Carmen who brought their own horses.. Comandante
now turned attention to training these men, showing them to use their firearms, while
a teniente de dragones montados de Barlovento trained the cavalry which had
increased to 110 men.18 Two foreign officer, Captain Smith and the Varon de
Samburg, subsequently took command of the cavalry.19
Having put together a force of about 530 men, the republicans set out in military order
from El Carmen on 11 November with the object of attacking Rebustillo at Oveja.
Their march took almost two days, with a night spent at the Arroyo del Carbajal, 2.5
leguas from El Carmen. On 12 November, they reached the outskirts of El Carmen
and began to advance on the enemys forward position at Mancomojan. On the
following day, they moved on Oveja and found that the Spaniards had retreated, so
that there was little resistance. 20 When it came, the war for the Sabanas was, like
much of the conflict in New Granada in this first phase of independence, more a war
of words than actions.
From this point, the Spanish occupation of the Sabanas began to collapse. Rebustillo
left men in various positions to cover his retreat, but as soon as the Spaniards


Ibid., pp. 52-5.


Ibid., p.55, p.65 for mention of the foreign officers.


Ibid., pp.55-8.

withdrawal began public knowledge, the rebels surrendered. Sincelejo and Chin, the
first to rebel, were now the first to change sides, asking for pardon. The Sin, Lorica
and Tol remained in rebellion, but seem to have given up without much violence
when Cortes forces arrived. The forteleza de Zispata was taken by another force,
brought in by sea from Cartagena by Miguel Carabao. Rebustillos force did some
damage on its exit, firing the pueblo of Zambrano on its retreat to Tenerife, but by the
end of November, the whole region was back under Cartagenas control and the war
moved into the Magdalena Valley and beyond. 21

The rebellion and its repression seem to have attracted little publicity. Fr. Escobar
observed that the commander of the expedition and the officers and soldiers who had
taken part han tenido el dolor de no haber visto siquiera sus nombres en los papeles
publicos, y que no se haya hablado una palabra de una accion tan memorable.22 He
acknowledged that the absence of public recognition was probably due to the larger
profile of other offensives that took place close to the same time. He is of course
referring to the two famous military campaigns that took place in late 1812 and early
1813, in which Cartagena not only took the war to its enemies but also expanded its
territory. One was Bolvars campaign on the River Magdalena, which removed
Spanish garrisons from Tenerife and forced the Spaniards to release the grip on
communications along the great river; the others was Labatuts offensive in the
province of Santa Marta, which culminated in the capture of the city of Santa Marta
and the evacuation of royalists to Portobelo and Panama. Nonetheless, Escobar
suggests, the campaign in the Sabanas was an important moment in the history of
Cartagenas first republic, for several reasons. First, because the other campaigns
could not have taken place without first clearing the Spaniards out of the Sabanas and
the Sin; secondly, victory there restored to the State una de las partes mas floridas
de su territorio el Sin que surte a esta Plaza de granos y carnes saladas; y las
Sabanas de ganados de cerda y bacunos; thirdly, defeat in the Sabanas so discouraged


Ibid., pp. 70-6.


Ibid., p. 63.

the enemy that he abandoned his fortified points on the Magdalena from Santa Ana to
Seen in a longer historical perspective, the rebellion in the Sabanas and Sin also
remains of interest to the historians for what it might tell us about Cartagenas
relationship to its hinterland, about the politics and political culture of this rural
society, and about the ways in which these rural communities were drawn into, and
affected by the larger processes of conflict and war among the provinces of the
Spanish empire. Who was involved in the rebellion; what were their motives and
beliefs; how did they mobilize and organize as an armed force; and what was their
impact of their armed challenge to the government of Cartagena?
Origins and Participants
The question of how many people engaged in the rebellion is difficult to answer.
Escobar gives the impression that support was very widespread. He recalled that the
rebellion spread through the Sabanas con la velocidad de un rayo, and he argues that
a small number of Spaniards could not have taken control in a region with a
population of some 30,000 people unless that population had mostly welcomed them.
Escobar also suggests that this support was active and supplied the main body of
Rebustillo forces. Rebustillo had entered with only about 80 men, but when at Oveja
had, by his own account, a force of about 1,000. This was not an insignificant number.
If we assume a population of about 30,000 in the Sabanas, of whom probably about a
third were males of an age eligible for fighting, then 1,000 men represents about 1 in
10 of the eligible male population. We dont how precisely who these men were, but
it seems that Indians were disproportionately represented. According to Escobar, the
largest group which joined Rebustillos forces at Corozal were 500 Indians from
Sampues and San Andrs. The others were 200 sincelejanos and an unspecified
number from Chin, most of whom were no doubt drawn from the populations of
libres who were the majorities in those settlements.24
The numbers who joined Rebustillos forces do not, of course, give a complete picture
of support for the rebellion. Escobar tells us that many pueblos, led by their priests,
came to Corozal to pledge support for the Spaniards, and he refers to the strong

Ibid., p.62


Memorias, pp.21-2.

support for the rebellion at Lorica and in the Valle del Sin. The Cartagena authorities
evidently believed that support for the rebellion was widespread, as it later decreed
the suspension of all those who held military and administrative posts when
rebuilding Cartagenas government after the rebellion. Escobar insists, moreover, that
contrary to the common belief that the Spaniard invasion was not the cause of the
rebellion but its result. The Spaniards were able to invade and occupy the territory and
bring it back under royal government because they were invited by the rebels and
enjoyed extensive regional support.
Escobar provides scant information on the body of people who actively joined the
rebellion. In defining the rebels, he focuses first on the pueblos and sitios with which
he was in closest contact and between which he travelled. His initial base in the
region, where he began his delicada comisin, was Corozal and from there he
reported on the rebellion of Sincelejo until he moved to El Carmen, and from there
moved around the area between El Carmen and the River |Magdalena, organizing
resistance to the Spaniards and seeking to bring in men and artillery from the river. He
makes very few references to the ethnicity of these people, apart from his mention of
the indios from Sampues, his assumption that Indians from other pueblos were
involved, and a very brief reference to a piquete de palenqueros who joined
Cartagenas offensive force after its victory at Mancomojan.25 Fortunately, the late
colonial census data provide some data on the communities of las Sabanas, and these
are set out in Table 1.


Ibid., p.70.

Table 1: Population in the Sabanas Region26

San Carlos
San Tero
San Onofre
San Gernimo
San Pelayo
San Bernardo
Cinaga de Oro
San Antonio Abad
San Benito Abad
San Juan Sahagn
San Jacinto, San Carmen
& San Francisco
San Juan , San Cayetano
& San Agustn
San Andrs
Tol Viejo


















Freemen of
all colours





If we assume that these data are broadly indicative of the social composition of the
pueblos involved in the rebellion, then it seems likely that the rebellion drew from
from the libres de todos colores and Indians who made up the majority population in
the Sabanas.27 From what we can tell, communities acted together, behaving as
corporate bodies that confronted an external government rather than dividing into
class or racial groupings. What is clear, however, is that Sampues and San Andrs,
two pueblos that played a leading part at the start of the rebellion were Indian
settlements with very few whites or libres. .


AHNC, Censos de varios departamentos, vol. 6. Padrn hecho en el ao de 1778..

en esta Provincia... Cartagena de Indias, November 26, 1778.

For a detailed breakdown of the 1779 and 1780 censuses, see Hermes Tovar et al.,
Convocatoria al poder del nmero: Censos y estadsticas de la Nueva Granada,
1750-1830, Bogot: Archivo General de la Nacin, 1994, pp.470-503.

To explain the popular mobilization against Cartagena, Escobar stresses the role of its
leaders, while giving the impression that such leaders were drawn from among men
who either held local authority or aspired to do so. He mentions three or four men as
the principal cabezas of the rebellion: the priest Pedro Martir Vazquez (who gave
himself the title of Generalsimo), Pedro Paternina of Sincelejo, and Manuel Betn of
Chim. Later, he names other individual priests who had been drawn into the
rebellion, and he depicts priests throughout the region as leaders of their pueblos. He
has less to say about the secular authorities. In some places, they were simply forced
out and replaced by new men. The alcalde of Sincelejo, for example, was displaced
the month before the rebellion started by a crowd of men who disliked his honest
administration of the estanco de aguardiente. Another example was alcalde Florez of
Corozal: when confronted by a mutinous crowd who demanded that he swear an oath
of loyalty to the King and against the government of Cartagena, Florez choose to
stand down from his post and left Corozal to take refuge elsewhere. However,
Escobar implies that most of the secular authorities turned against Cartagena, and that
the jueces throughout the area were invariably involved with the rebellion once it
got started.
Most interesting is Escobars allegation that the parish priests of the region were key
leaders of the rebellion. Their ignorancia y fanatismo was to blame. Faltos de los
conocimientos elementares de nuestra religion y de los principios mas obvios del
derecho natural, creian que la libertad es incompatible con el cristianismo y que era lo
mismo no ser vasallos de un rey imaginario que no ser cristianos. They not only
preached against the government of Cartagena but put themselves at the head of
pueblos which had taken up arms:
Los Pueblos acostumbradas a creer todo lo que les ensean sus Pastores
no dudaron un momento de alistarse baxo las Vanderas de la rebellion
que veian enarboladas por manos de las mismas Curas, y los seguian a
todas partes con tanta mas confianza quanto que veian en ellos a un
mismo tiempo sus Comandantes y sus Prrocos. 28.
Worse still, according to Escobar, was that these priests acted not just from ignorance
but also from malice, for they falsely declared the constitution of Cartagena to be

Ibid., pp.7-8.

irreligious, telling their parishioners that the Constitution of Cartagena decreed that la
fornicacion no es pecado, que el Bautismo no obliga hasta el uso de la razon, y que la
confesion Sacramental es una invencion de los eclesiasticos para saber los pecados de
sus penitentes.29
While Escobar was ready to blame rejection of republican values on ignorant priests
and a credulous popular piety, these were not the only sources of sedition. He also
found other agents and issues underpinning the rebellion. First among these was the
determination of the people of Sincelejo to persist with their illegal trade in
aguardiente. The sincelejanos had dedicated themselves to the cultivation of sugar
cane, and desde el tiempo inmemorial had distilled their own aguardiente. Since the
imposition of the estanco de aguardiente, this had become illegal and consequently
criminalized those who operated outside the estanco. People had thus become
accustomed to criminal activity and impunity, and whenever any measure was taken
against them, echaban mano de las armas, y muchas veces resistieron con ellas a la
Justicia. Indeed, in the month before the rebellion, Sincelejo had tried to depose its
alcalde because he tried to curtail illegal distillation of aguardiente.30 The man who
sought to take his place, Pedro Martnez, was a member of the local faction led by
Pedro Paternina who, in September, rebelled against Cartagena in the name of the
Here, then, we have evidence of popular political activity of a characteristically
colonial kind: motines within the community to force local officials to apply the law
in ways that were acceptable to the local community, at the risk of expulsion or the
forfeit of their offices. Examples of such behaviour abound in eighteenth century New
Granada.31 Indeed, the pueblo of Chin had seen a protest of this kind in 1798, when
the villagers banded together to resist an alcalde and capitan aguerra who tried to
make open a trail, expelled the alcaldes delegate, and rioted when some of
community members were arrested. 32 Thus, when the sincelejanos rioted against
their alcalde in August and then forced him out in September, the primary concern of

Ibid., p.8.


Ibid., pp.4-5.


Anthony McFarlane, Civil Disorders and Popular Protests in Late Colonial New
Granada, Hispanic American Historical Review, vol. 65, 1989, pp. 283-330.

Ibid., p.

many was with the issue of the estanco, rather than the broader question of who ruled
the Spanish empire, or for that matter, who ruled the province of Cartagena. The
rebels also seemed to have behaved with restraint, with their violence directed against
property rather than persons. Crowds and leaders bonded with the rituals of religion
and festivity frequently found in colonial riots and rebellions, reflecting the traditions
of a long-established political culture of extra-legal action. Thus, for example, when
the rebels from Sampues converged on Corozal, the priest Vasquez led them to the
church for a Te Deum and afterwards they celebrated with a general borrachera, using
aguardiente from the estanco.33 Neither here, nor in any of the other pueblos involved,
was there any suggestion of violence within the communities. Moreover, when the
rebels joined the Spaniards, they did so in an orderly fashion, marching out in their
communities. The only dispute was between the leaders, over who should take
precedence in the parade.34
The rebellion seems, then, to have been shaped by the traditional politics of the old
regime, in which opposition to the estancos had been a frecuent theme in local
politics, and where riots and small-scale local rebellions aimed to change local
officials or policies rather than the system of government. Indeed, it seems likely that
rejection of the estanco de aguardiente (which the Estado de Cartagena had kept in
place despite espousing economic liberalism) was the key political motive for
rebellion, rather than any sense of sympathy for the royalist regime. Opposition to the
estanco was, as Escobar points out, a useful way to engage the people in rebellion for
leaders who harboured the larger political design of overthrowing the government of
Cartagena and reinstalling Spanish rule.35
Political Contexts
What were the bases of Spanish loyalism in the province of Cartagena? Escobar
suggests two types of leader who stood in the first rank of the rebellion and actively
engaged in the armed uprising with the explicit aim of overthrowing the new state.
While he dismisses most priests as ignorant, misguided men, he identifies four clerics
as key leaders of the armed rebellion. They were Pedro Martr Vasquez, the parish

Memorias, p.22.


Ibid., p.31.


Ibid., p.13.

priest of Sampues, who took the title of Generalsimo and was carried about in a
hammock by his Indians; Andrs Ruz, cura de Colos, who took the title of
comandante de los pueblos unidos; Jos Saturnino Sotomayor, the priest of La
Concepcin, who called himself capelln del ejrcito real; and Jos de Murcia, a
capuchino who was appointed as the same armys medico y cirujano.36
Another species of loyalist identified by Escobar were citizens who were in contact
with the loyalists of the province of Santa Marta. In particular, he accused several
soldiers who were in the pay of the government of Cartagena of making contact with
the enemy and aiding them in various ways. One of these men was Jos Guerrero
Cavero, the comandante de armas of the whole province. Guerrero had been loyal to
Cartagena when fighting against Momps in 1811 and had been rewarded with
promotion, but during 1812 he came under suspicion of communicating with the
enemy. Indeed, it seems that Escobars comision delicada, when it started in June
1812, involved the investigation and arrest of Guerrero for treason: Escobar states that
he knew from mid-June 1812 that Guerrero had agreed with the Spanish commander
at Tenerife to provide him with arms and men, and that when the Supremo Tribunal
de Justicia called Guerrero back to Cartagena, he simply accelerated his preparations
for a rebellion, visiting Chin, Sampues and Corozal to plot with his accomplices. 37
Other soldiers changed sides after the rebellion began. Diego de Castro, appointed by
the Cartagena government as comandante del departamento de Lorica with
instructions to pacify the Sabanas, was one. Another was Pinzn, the Spanish
comandante of the plaza del Tol, who, together with the soldiers of the forteleza de
Zispata, joined the Spanish side. Frias, the veteran sargento at San Juan, also
abandoned his post to the enemy, agreeing that he would allow a Spanish raiding
party from Tenerife and helping them to carry its arms back to their base. 38
Both these groups of men sought to overthrow Cartagena for reasons of personal
loyalty to Spain and desire to reinstate the old regime. In addition, there were
probably men at the lower level of the leadership whose political objections to the
Cartagena government related to issues within the internal politics of Cartagena and


Ibid., pp. 45-6.


Ibid., pp. 6-7.


Ibid., pp. 32; 37-8; 44.


Cartagenas governance of the province. Escobar observes, for example, that one
cause of rebellion was el odio quasi general in the Sabanas for the new Corregidor,
Ignacio Muoz. Such dislike of officials imposed by provincial capitals, particularly
when they brought reform and change, was nothing new in the political life of
colonial New Granada. On the contrary, it was a frequent cause of riot and rebellion
during the eighteenth century. However, in this case there is reason to believe that
dislike of an intrusive corregidor had another dimension, linked to politics in the city
of Cartagena.
Ignacio Muoz, historians tell us, was an important figure in Cartagena in these years.
A young lawyer from Corozal, he was the son-in-law of Pedro Romero, the rich
mulatto who played a key role as an intermediary between white radicals and the
pardos who supplied their power in the streets, and he was closely connected to the
pierista party which controlled the city in 1812.39 Escobar evidently regarded him as
a political actor to be treated cautiously, for he explicitly refused to discuss Muozs
conduct or explain why the pueblos hated him: such details would, he said, be better
done en otro Pais o en otra epoca. Escobar nonetheless suggests that Muozs had
made enemies in the Sabanas because he had played a key role in the revolution of 11
November 1811, which had overthrown Jos Mara Garca de Toledo, a person who
todos los habitantes de Sabanas amaban y respetaban.40 Escobar thus implies that
the rebellion of the Sabanas owed something to the influence of supporters of the
toledistas, following the overthrow of Garca de Toledo by the pierista party in late
Although Escobar does not attribute any direct responsibility for the rebellion to the
toledistas, the suspicion that the citys factional politics might have influenced politics
in the countryside is reinforced by knowledge that Garca de Toledo had a residence
in Turbaco and an hacienda in Corozal, where he spend two years in a kind of internal
exile after the 9 November revolution in Cartagena and, like his supporters, engaged
in building an opposition movement.41 Years later Garca de Toledo, when seeking to


On Romero and his role in the politics of Cartagena, see Muera, El fracaso de la
nacin, pp.173-215; on Muoz, p.197.


Memorias., pp.8-9.


Helg, Liberty and equality, p.135.


display evidence of his innocence during his trial for treason, mentioned this
connection. Referring to the time when Rebustillo had invaded with troops from Santa
Marta, he stated that se deca que aquellos habitantes yo los haba conmovido porque
me estimaban, a causa de que por haber tenido en ellas una Hacienda haba estado
algunos aos en aquellos lugares42 Here, then, we have a hint that the politics of
urban Cartagena, where the faction of Garca de Toledo competed for power with the
independentistas led by the Guterrez de Pieres brothers, reached out into the
countryside and interacted with grievances about the estanco to produce a rebellion
that was not just against the city but against the government at the time.
This attack on the city from the countryside needs some further explanation, however,
given that the majority population of the Sabanas counted by the colonial censuses
was made up of gente libre de todos colores. As these no doubt included a substantial
number of people of mixed African descent, we must ask why the free coloured
population sided with the royalists who failed to offer full political rights, rather than
joining with the republicans of Cartagena who had proclaimed equality for the castas.
Escobar is not helpful on this issue, since he treated the question of popular rebellion
against the new regime in a disingenuous manner. He observed that people in the
Sabanas had no reason to oppose the government of Cartagena, which had done them
no ill; on the contrary, Cartagena had given them political rights of the kind they had
never previously had. Nonetheless, ellos renuncian todos estos privilegios, someten
de nuevo su cuello al pesado yugo del despotismo y en un instante restablecen el
antiguo sistema de opresion como por un instinto simultaneo. His explained this by
their grocera ignorancia, their opposition to the new, and above all their misguided
defence of religion, based on a deliberate tergiversation of the Constitution of
Cartagena by their priests.43
There are of course other possible and more plausible explanations. It might be, for
example, that those who rebelled against Cartagena were expressing their dislike for
any forms of outside interference and their preference for local self-government. They
might also have been expressing, in the different social context of the Sabanas, the


Alegato del Seor Garca de Toledo, 11 February 1816, in Roberto Arrozola, Los
mrtires responden, Cartagena: Ediciones Hernndez, 1973, p.19.


Ibid., p.28-9.

racial tensions that fuelled politics in the city of Cartagena de Indias, where the pardos
backed republicans who promised equality. There is a parallel for such popular
loyalism among Indians, blacks and libres in the chrysalis of Colombia: in the Valle
del Pata, free blacks, slave runaways, vagabundos and other social marginals
aligned themselves with the loyalists during these years; so, too, did the llaneros of
Venezuela, whose first rebellion was led by the Spaniard Boves on the side of Spanish
loyalism, and against the creole city and republic.
Escobars Memorias do not illuminate these issues, however, for nowhere does he
seek to explain the rebellion in terms of racial tensions, nor does he identify political
positions with racial status. In fact, Escobar makes no direct allusion to racial
identities apart from his references to the Indians of specific communities. When he
refers to these Indians, he says nothing about what being Indian meant in the context
of the society of Cartagena, but merely implies that Indians were simple people, easily
led astray by their priests and equally easily pacified. He does not ask whether the
Indians of the Sabanas might have had good cause to support the royalist cause, as
they did in neighbouring Santa Marta, because royal government offered a more
stable and protective relationship than an independent government that represented
those who encroached on their lands. There is also the possibility that the Indians
were aware that the Constitution of Cadiz offered them rights of citizenship that were
at least as good as those offered by the estado de Cartagena, a fact which Escobar
simply ignores.
These omissions perhaps tell us more about Escobars thinking than about the Indians
themselves, for, in treating Indians in this way, he employed a trope common to
republican literature of this period: that Indians were opposed to independence
because of their ignorance and their long-established subordination under Spanish
rule. Indeed, by ignoring reference to race more generally, his writing contributed to
the emerging republican discourse in which the cause of independence was
considered coterminous with notions of racial equality and racial harmony.44 Racial
difference and contention could not be admitted, since all men were now legally equal
and their duty was to unite in the republics defence.


Marixa Lasso, Race and Nation in Caribbean Gran Colombia, Cartegena, 18101832, American Historical Review, 111:3, 2006, pp.341-53.

Significance of the rebellion

In this paper, I have given a preliminary account of the rebellion of the Sabanas,
based on one contemporary source. Clearly, there are possibilities for further
exploration. There are, for example, other possible sources worth investigating in
Colombian archives: the press of Cartagena for 1812, the reports and correspondence
of administrative and military personnel of the Estado de Cartagena during the same
year. In addition, reports from the Spanish side might be located in the Archivo
General de Indias at Sevilla, or other Spanish archives. However, before further
investigation, we can draw some conclusions about the historical significance of the
rebellion and its relevance to the history of the revolution in New Granada and
The significance of the rebellion is best seen within the broader context of the
political life of Cartagenas first republic of 1811-1815. It was the first loyalist
uprising within the province and, though brief, exposed the new regimes
unpopularity in its rural hinterland. Coming at a time of intensifying conflict within
the city and conflict with loyalist enemies outside the city, the rebellion of the
Sabanas helped to accentuate the militarization of Cartagenas politics. In late March
1812, the pierista party that had tried to tighten its control of government with the
election in the Convencin General of Manuel Rodrguez Torices con la plenitud de
facultades de un dictador para la salud de la Patria y con el ttulo de Vice-Presidente
Dictador. 45 It was, however, the rebellion in the Sabanas which forced Rodrguez
Torres to take a harder line towards Cartagenas royalist opponents, and his tougher
response was reinforced by the arrival of military men among the refugees who fled
Venezuela after its royalist reconquest and the collapse of Caracas republican
government in late July 1812.
In the context of royalist advance in Caracas and danger of royalist invasion from
Santa Marta, the rebellion of the Sabanas posed an unmistakable threat to the stability
of Cartagenas government. It allowed royalists in Santa Marta to move into
cartagenero territory and thus to push forward the frontier of a war that had been
confined to skirmishes along the River Magdalena. The prospect of a royalist
occupation of the Sabanas was, moreover, a nightmare for Cartagenas government:

Quoted by Tisnes, Independencia en la costa, p.92.


not only would it tighten the royalist grip on the River Magdalena and thus exacerbate
the citys problems of communication with the interior, but it also threatened to
deprive the city of an important source of food supplies and raised the risk of a
military encirclement.
It is difficult to gauge how much economic damage the rebellion actually inflicted on
Cartagena. It has been suggested that the rebellion was instrumental in forcing
Cartagena to turn to the use of paper money, a policy which did nothing to enhance its
reputation.46 Escobar, on the other hand, suggests that the adoption of paper money
was a cause rather than a result of the rebellion. Whatever the case, the disruption to
trade and revenues among the towns and villages of such a large area of the province
was undoubtedly damaging to Cartagena, particularly in undermining government
income from the taxes that went unpaid and uncollected during the period of the
rebellion and its aftermath.
The rebellion was also significant in the countryside where it occurred, for it took war
into territory that had not yet suffered from the passage of arms and its consequences.
According to Escobar, the royalist forces inflicted considerable damage. Rebustillo,
Escobar tells us, deposed the administrador de aguardientes, put his agents in office
and began to demand supplies and money. He forced vecinos to bring maize and
women to make bollo for his soldiers; he seized their cotton and made them spin it in
mechas for his guns, all without payment; he forced vecinos to donate or accept low
prices for iron, and made blacksmiths manufacture it into lances and machetes; he
made demands for livestock and for money a su capricho. Those who resisted were
harassed, imprisoned and threatened with whippings.47 However, it is unlikely that the
damage ended with the Spaniards expulsion; cartagenero troops remained within the
region and no doubt imposed similar demands on the pueblos.
In military terms, the rebellion and Spanish invasion did not create an important new
theatre of war on the coast. While there was a threat of encirclement, it was never
realized. Indeed, Rebustillos invasion, which lasted 53 days, was more a prolonged
raid than a serious occupation. His rapid retreat from cartagenero forces, scarcely
without a fight, suggests that he had little confidence in his ability to hold the

Helg, Liberty and Equality, p.143.


Memorias, pp.33-4.

province with the local forces available to him. This might have been because they
were insufficiently armed or because he judged them unreliable, or because Santa
Marta refused reinforcement. Whatever the case, the rebellion in the Sabanas
evaporated quickly after the evacuation of Rebustillos forces following the first
armed clash at Mancomojan, and did not last much longer further west at Lorica and
the Sin. After its brief appearance in the lands west of the Magdalena, war moved
back across the river after November 1812, into the province of Santa Marta.
The rebellion was militarily significant, however, in an indirect way, because the
incursion from Santa Marta provoked the government of Cartagena into taking the
offensive against its royalist enemies on the River Magdalena and in the province of
Santa Marta. Indeed, the attack against Rebustillo can be seen as part of a threepronged counter-offensive against royalist Santa Marta that was driven by the needs
of Cartagena to strengthen its authority and facilitated by the arrival of experienced
military officers from Venezuela, forced by the fall of the First Republic in Caracas to
seek exile in Cartagena. The rebellion of the Sabanas was thus an episode in
Cartagenas war with Santa Marta in 1812-13, when armed conflict was renewed in
offensives led by soldiers from Venezuela under the command of Cartagena. Manuel
Cortes Campomanes led Cartagena forces into the Sabanas; Simn Bolvar led them
on the Magdalena, where he regained Tenerife and other important fortified points on
the river; and Labutut led them into the province of Santa Marta in an attack that
culminated, early in 1813, with the fall of the city of Santa Marta. Here we see the
first military fruits of the partnership between republicans of Caracas and Cartagena,
and the adoption of a new, military tone in political life.
With the offensive east of the River Magdalena, the region of Sabanas receded from
the conflict and the region seems thereafter to have remained in peace, at least until
Morillos arrival in 1815. Power in the city of Cartagena moved definitively into the
hands of the independentistas, war on the coast shifted into a persistent conflict with
the royalists of Santa Marta, and war against Spains loyalists also moved into the
interior, where in 1813 Nario, Presidente de Cundinamarca, launched an offensive
against Popayn and Pasto. Meanwhile, in Venezuela, war became increasingly
intense and bloody, as the conflict with the royalists moved to a climax even before
the arrival of General Morillos expedition for pacification.


However, while the rebellion of the Sabanas was obscured by the larger conflicts
within New Granada and in neighbouring Venezuela, it has one curious echo in
Colombias history, sounded in the lives of two army officers who figured
prominently in the campaign of the Sabanas. In 1812, Manuel Cortes Campomanes
from Venezuela was the commander of Cartagenas force in the Sabanas, and Jos
Baron de Schambourg from Germany was one of his officers. In the following year,
both were employed in Antonio Narios campaign in the south and here they reentered the historical record in less respectable circumstances. In the course of
Narios campaign, they were accused of plotting to depose, possibly even to
assassinate Antonio Nario. Schambourg aroused suspicion over their loyalty when,
after drinking a great deal of ponche and aguardiente, he publicly defamed Nario as
a disastrous military leader and, in a spectacular bout of drunkenness, supposedly
divulged a plan to kill him. He implicated Cortes Campomanes and others, and they
duly arraigned in courts-martial. 48 It seems unlikely that there was a serious plot.
Several witnesses testify to Schambourgs extreme state of drunkeness, and his
defence attorney described him as un joven fogoso de fibra ardiente que con
cualquier trago de licor eleva sus fuegos hasta el extreme de batirse con un Ejrcito.49
Having started his military career in Colombia by repressing a rebellion motivated by
the desire freely to produce aguardiente, Schambourg seems to have ended it because
of his excessive consumption of aguardiente. Indeed, in a final irony, it was probably
to defend the honour of these officers that Escobar wrote the Memorias which provide
us with the most complete contemporary history of the revolution of the Sabanas.50


Papers from the consejos de guerra are transcribed in Sergio Elas Ortz, (ed.)
Coleccin de documentos para la historia de Colombia (Epoca de la Independencia),
Tercera Serie, Biblioteca de Historia Nacional vol. CVII, Bogot: Ed. ABC, 1966, pp.

Ibid., p.188: Jos Arce and Jos Baron de Schambourg, La Plata, 16 December

Escobar refers to the need to disipar las calumnias que se han imputado a este
expedicin, o por mejor decir al xefe que la dirigi y algunos de los oficiales que han
servido a sus rdenes: Memorias, p.80.