This week is Bicentenary week in Buenos Aires. As I sit here sucking my Guaraní tea (mate) from a straw/bombilla, I reflect on the bombastic inventiveness of history. I now have the good fortune to be present at my second such party.
Back in the eighties I spent my first Bicentenary in Sydney, Australia. Contrary to many myths, neither America nor Australia were ?empty? before their ‘discovery’ by ‘us’. In Australia the Indians / Autochthonous / Native Peoples / Aboriginals or simply the non-white folk that the white folk had to remove, were impolitely but descriptively referred to as the “Black Fellas”. Here the tribes are collectively referred to as ?originals?, “indigenous” but it is more common to hear the non indigenous refer to these americans as ‘Negros’ in Buenos Aires ‘Porteño’ slang.
I ask myself: “Who am I to decide their name”? ‘We’ brought our languages and our religions from Europe, re-labeling and revaluing all things! Here river water had more value than a Gold mine, it still has but not in the European economy. Spanish and Portuguese replaced the language of the Incans and the Aztecs and the labels and the religions changed to support the export trade.
Buenos Aires, Sydney and Dublin all had the dubious pleasure of being the seat of empire for an occupying imperial force. For a couple of hundreds of years their function was to impose control over the land, the resources and the workforce to extract, extract, extract sending the ?valuable? stuff to London and Madrid. Not much has changed. A trip to the European clubs in Buenos Aires might leave one with the question as to why exactly they bothered having a revolution at all?
In Sydney the exports were gold, wool and coal. Dublin too exported sheep but possibly more important was a steady supply of poor Irish men, adventurers and thugs to feed the armies, navies and later the air-forces of the British Empire. We like the Scots and the Gurkas fed the regiments to fight the wars with the other empirical powers and to subjugate the rebellious indigenous who didn’t want to be British slaves. I lost some of my family, loyal soldiers of Empire, in World War I, not to mention an uncle in the British air force in the 1950?s.
Buenos Aires, the ‘Porteño’ capital: a port facing north and east to Europe accomplishing its role, sending a steady stream of exports in exchange for debt forgiveness. The Spanish conned the immigrants like the Danes with the “Green”land. They called the river twelve blocks from my house ?Plate or Plata” implying that it lead to some wondrous mountains of silver which it did not. In fact there was little silver to sent ?home? but the Pampa was, and still is, a grand resource, on of the world’s largest fertile plains which was exploited for meat! Before coal-fired ships, the meat was dried and sent North to feed the Portuguese African Brazilian slaves. Their work too was in export but they specialized in the smaller more portable stuff like the gold from the mines of Minas Gerais or sugar and coffee. Beef was later sent to Europe, refrigerated or canned to feed (and win) European wars. “Bully” was the name given to the canned stuff fed to army troops. It came from Fray Bentos, a small Uruguayan town just across the river plate not far from here which is still famous for its slaughterhouses.
So the calendar declares that is time to celebrate the separation of Argentina from Spain. Well sort of! Back on the 25th of May (1810) some declarations were made in the Buenos Aires Plaza de Mayo which proclaimed allegiance to a new King: Ferdinand II, of Spain. Napoleon had taken out the Bourbon kings and sent the Portuguese crown (accompanied by a British naval escort) across the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro. The Spanish-speaking parts of Mexico, Central and South America are now celebrating a plethora of Bicentenaries. Napoleon?s invasion gave the managers of empire a free hand to expel the Inquisition and reduce taxes while the land of their mother tongue was at war. Later the same families invented nations to consolidate or legitimate their power and built their own armies to exterminate and consolidate the all-important ownership of land.
We Irish had similar tactics. We too took advantage of an even more disastrous Imperial war in 1916. It stuck in the throats of our founding fathers to pledge allegiance to the British King. So even after partial victory (and even more defeats) our patriots were shot to a man –all but one, that is, the one with the US passport. The invention of the Irish nation like that of Hungary is also somewhat false an incomplete. In Argentina in 1810 the patriots or proceres –a kind of founding father Latin style– signed allegiance to a Spanish King. Not much of a revolution, 1810 was, at best, a partial declaration of post-colonialism; an attempt to stabilize what was at best an incomplete national idea, the profitable business of maintaining control of the vast Pampa lands by the River Plate Rio de la Plata in the hands of a few ‘old’ families. Goodly King Ferdinand was a self-proclaimed liberal so the Argentine-Spanish families championed him, he had declared himself a non-absolutist and a liberal which made him more palatable. Ferdinand later changed his mind re-establishing absolute control which prompted the real wars of ?independence? in South America and the eventual defeat of the Spanish in Ayacucho (now Peruvian territory) a town named after an Incan rebel to the Spanish crown. We can celebrate that one in a few years time. The Spanish armies were finally defeated by the Masonic warlords: San Martin and Bolivar, the latter with the help of an Irishman to lead his forces.
Latin America is free “and she shall be British” as one wag British ambassador was to put it. In the case of Argentina he was “not half wrong”. So let’s leave the last words to the original people whose bad luck it was to be wiped out by the muskets and the plagues brought by the smelly invaders from Europe: a motley crew of professional killers, diplomats, priests and vagabonds.
In Sydney, back in the 80’s, the Aboriginals reminded the English that they had been in the same territory for two hundred bicentenaries –2002 or 40,000 years of continuous culture. The aboriginal tribes of South America haven’t been quite so long on this continent but it is fair to say that they have been here much longer than the Iberians, the British and much much longer than this Irishman who sits here sipping his mate. And here they shall remain when we are all gone.
As the Indian and mestizo movements march on Buenos Aires from La Quiaca in the North close to Bolivia I bid my Argentine Spanish “Felíz cumpleaños, América” or should I say? Happy Birthday “Abya Yala.”