Author:Brudney, Edward

This article reexamines the legacies of Argentina's Conquista del Desierto (Conquest of the Desert, 1878-1884) by analyzing these expansionist campaigns through the lens of the ideology of manifest destiny in the United States. Using the racial, religious, and nationalist concepts constructed in the United States as part of the broader discourse of manifest destiny, I examine both the history of the Conquest of the Desert, focusing on how official narratives from the period created and sustained a notion of alterity, and more recent controversies over claims of "ownership" of the pampas and Patagonia, especially as they relate to ideas of originality and autochthony. The article draws on first-person accounts of the military expeditions of the late nineteenth century and situates these descriptions using literatures on whiteness, ethnicity, and nationalism in Argentina and the United States. I suggest that as a physical, discursive, and even religious space, the frontier became a critical site for national production in both countries. Further, "divine providence" played an integral role in justifying both the need for and the moral imperative of the state's expansionism. This combination of religion and territoriality raises questions about the place of the Indian/el indio in the future imagined nation. I argue that reading these cases together provokes new conversations about historical perspectives on the Conquista and contributes to debates on indigenous autochthony and authenticity and to the broader discussion of understandings of Argentine nationalism.


When John O'Sullivan coined the term "manifest destiny" in 1845 to promote the annexation of Texas and the Oregon territories, the westward expansion of the United States had already been under way for decades. Still, the articulation of this idea gave form to a belief that provided the ideological underpinning for the nation itself: that Providence had chosen the United States of America to establish a single country stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, a beacon of civilization and liberty shining like a city on a hill for the rest of the world to follow. This acquisition of physical territory went hand in hand with the ongoing construction of a new national identity, which in the mid-nineteenth century reflected the dominant Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture. (1) Founded on a set of racial and religious hierarchies, manifest destiny indisputably located the white male at its pinnacle, marginalizing or even negating any competing identity that might threaten the nascent production of a uniform national character.

This article uses the concept of manifest destiny as a point of departure for analyzing a similar expansionist project, using parallel discourses on race, religion, and civilization that was occurring at virtually the same time some 10,000 miles south. Under the leadership of General Julio Roca, the series of military campaigns that took place from 1878 to 1884, known as the Conquista del Desierto (Conquest of the Desert), sought to fully integrate the vast expanses of the pampas and Patagonia into the recently unified Argentina. I suggest that the conquest served two vital purposes for the new nation. First, these conflicts facilitated the consolidation of the national territory, stretching south and west from the urban centers along the Rio Parana; and second, the process helped define and solidify a new national identity, a necessity in the aftermath of the civil wars that had racked the country in the previous generation. For both objectives, the figure of "el indio" acquired enormous significance as the embodiment of alterity against which the idea of argentinidad could be constructed. I argue that rereading the Conquest of the Desert through the lens of manifest destiny opens a productive conversation between the histories of expansion in Argentina and the United States in the nineteenth century. Further, the discursive violence associated with the portrayals and erasures of indigenous peoples from official accounts in both countries illustrates the links between the actual bloodshed of the 1800s and the relegation of indigeneity to a foreclosed past in the twentieth century.

The article proceeds in four sections. The first examines the justification for territorial expansion in both the United States and Argentina. In the United States, the concept of manifest destiny demanded the westward growth of the nation; Argentines expressed a similar sense of divine obligation regarding the southward extension of their own dominion. Second, I consider the construction and reconstruction of national identities vis-a-vis the frontier and the notion of territorial acquisition. Specifically, I trace the significance of the parallel figures of the frontiersman and the gaucho in the United States and Argentina. In each case, these identities became part of a mythic past while the figure of "the Indian" was effectively erased, helping support claims of "whiteness" as the foundational element of the national character. The third section addresses the relationship between violence and the concept of the "Indian/mdio." (2) This violence encompasses both the physical violence committed during the Conquest of the Desert in Argentina and the Indian Wars of the United States and the discursive violence of official narratives as indigenous populations were systematically removed from the historical record. While I briefly discuss the "winning of the West" in the United States, this section focuses on primary documents from and official accounts of the Conquest of the Desert in order to highlight the value of manifest destiny as an analytical tool. Finally, I explore the legacy of this Argentine expression of manifest destiny in the present, looking at the situation of indigenous populations in Patagonia and the pampas. Using scholarship on the consequences of manifest destiny for First Peoples in the United States, I examine how the invisibilization of el indio has impacted the ability of Argentina's indigenous groups to gain recognition today.


In the introduction to his seminal work on race and manifest destiny, historian Reginald Horsman posits that despite O'Sullivans original language, by the mid-nineteenth century, "American expansion was viewed... less as a victory for the principles of free democratic republicanism than as evidence of the innate superiority of the American Anglo-Saxon branch of the Caucasian race." (3) This evolution from republican ideal to race-based hierarchy reflected and shaped the changing attitudes related to the United States' rights to the North American continent. If Providence, in its divine infallibility, had not intended for Anglo-Americans to establish dominion from sea to sea, how had it come to pass? The successful assimilation of the West into the nation, from the first mass migrations into the Great Plains in the 1830s-1840s through the conclusion of the Indian Wars in the 1880s, became post facto justification for the expansionist project. In an example of circular logic that proved foundational to the development of US national identity in the nineteenth century, the "victory" was evidence of its innate morality and historical inevitability. The predominant narrative of a white Christian triumph over wilderness and savagery underscored the religious and racial aspects of manifest destiny and demonstrated how the discursive production of the nation depended on the rhetorical elimination of challenges to a hegemonic Anglo-American Protestant identity.

Meanwhile, a hemisphere away, the Argentine government used remarkably similar notions of religious and racial superiority to celebrate the annexation of millions of square miles of previously unincorporated territory into the nation. During an 1889 speech, Vice President Carlos Pellegrini declared:

The fertile and immense deserts of our continent are not ours in the sense that we are able to keep them from human demands; they were placed by the hand of the Creator to serve all humanity, and if it is our duty to rule them, it falls to us, our children and all the men of the world who wish to cultivate them with their work, under the protection of our liberal laws. (4) Speaking just five years after the culmination of the Conquista del Desierto, Pellegrini highlighted the divine will that had bestowed these lands on Argentina. His speech overtly echoes Genesis, in which God gives man dominion over all living things with the condition that man be fruitful and multiply. Although his welcome was nominally open to "all the men of the world," Pellegrini made it clear that this hospitality was reserved for those who were able to labor "under the protection of our liberal laws." This qualification may not have been an overt racial and religious litmus test for future citizens. However, in 1889 only naturalized males of a certain economic status who overwhelmingly lived in Argentina's cities and who overwhelmingly understood themselves as "white" enjoyed the rights of full citizens, and it is not a stretch to suggest that Pellegrinis invitation extended to a limited subset and excluded those who did not fit this implicit ideal.

The statement's inherent presumption about a "real" Argentine identity reflected a longer history of interaction between the "civilized" descendants of certain European immigrants and the "barbarous" peoples of the country's interior who existed outside the reach of modernity. Domingo Sarmiento's 1845 novel Facundo: O civilizacion y barbarie established this dichotomy, laying out the stakes for the battle of words and arms over Argentina's national character. Sarmiento criticized the savagery of the untamed peoples of the interior, including their refusal to adopt the trappings of civilization and their lack of faith in God. Sarmiento believed that the combination of formal education and...

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