Q&A with Slavery and Utopia author Fernando Santos-Granero

In the first half of the twentieth century, a charismatic Peruvian Amazonian Indigenous chief played a key role in leading his people, the Ashaninka, through the chaos generated by the collapse of the rubber economy in 1910 and the subsequent pressures of colonists, missionaries, and government officials to assimilate them into the national society. In Slavery and Utopia, Fernando Santos-Granero reconstructs the life and political trajectory of the leader known as José Carlos Amaringo Chico. The people called him Tasorentsi, which is the name the Ashaninka give to the world-transforming gods and divine emissaries that come to this earth to aid the Ashaninka in times of crisis.

Santos-Granero demonstrates that, despite Tasorentsi’s constant self-reinventions, the chief never forsook his millenarian beliefs, anti-slavery discourse, or efforts to liberate his people from white-mestizo oppression. Slavery and Utopia thus convincingly refutes those who claim that the Ashaninka proclivity to messianism is an anthropological invention. We asked Fernando Santos-Granero a few questions about his book, the continued murders of Indigenous leaders in Guatemala and Brazil, and the evolution of Indigenous resistance.

Describe the self-reinventions of Tasorentsi, the messianic Ashaninka leader that is the focus of your study.

José Carlos Amaringo Chico, also known as Tasorentsi, or “all-powerful blower world transformer,” lived during a tumultuous period in the history of Peruvian Amazonia, from the beginning of the rubber boom era, around 1875, to the beginning of the mass colonization of the region in the late 1950s. Throughout this period, Tasorentsi went through multiple and dramatic changes, sometimes in response to external events and sometimes as the result of an inner, moral conversion. In all these instances, he was able to reinvent himself in such a way as to maintain a leading position as either a secular chief or a divine emissary, or a combination of both.

As a young boy, he began working as a debt-peon for a local rubber extractor. During that time, he learned Spanish, became acquainted with the ways of white people, and acquired his Christian name. At around eighteen, he escaped from his boss and begun acting as an intermediary in the slave trade that was promoted and controlled by white rubber extractors and their Indigenous partners. Later on, he was directly involved in the capture of Indigenous slaves and was feared as a renowned warrior chief and shaman. In his mid-thirties, however, he experienced his first moral conversion and quit his slaving activities. Combining an anti-slavery and anti-white discourse with millenarian promises, he inspired a widespread Ashaninka movement that changed the region’s social landscape in the aftermath of the rubber era (1912–1914). 

Conibo group, Ucayali River, 1900s
Conibo group, Ucayali River, 1900s. Known as “Lords of the Ucayali” for the dominion they had historically exerted as pirates and raiders along the Ucayali River, the Conibo together with the Shipibo played an important role in the 1915 uprising and were harshly persecuted. Some of their leaders were captured and sent to prison in Iquitos. Source: A. Miles Moss, A Trip into the Interior of Peru (Lima: Printed by Charles F. Southwell, 1909), 106. Courtesy of the Biblioteca Nacional del Perú.

A year later, in 1915, he expanded his influence throughout the region, becoming the paramount leader of a multiethnic uprising of the Ashaninka, Conibo, Yine, and Amahuaca, who until then had been bitter enemies. This feat was only possible through a millenarian discourse that promised liberation from white people, a deep transformation of the world, and the attainment of immortality. With the help of former Indigenous slavers, whom he convinced to join him, he managed to expel most rubber extractors from the region. In time, the government crushed the uprising and Tasorentsi had to hide, but for many years the region was free of white slavers. In the 1920s, having heard of the arrival of a “white god”—Adventist missionary Ferdinand Stahl– Tasorentsi experienced his second moral conversion, adopting an indigenized version of Adventist doctrine, abandoning violence as a means of fighting for the rights of his people, and becoming a very active “people-gatherer” on behalf of the Adventist Church. He never agreed to baptize, for this would have interfered with his shamanic activities and, particularly, with the ayahuasca séances he led to speed up Christ’s second coming.

Although the region’s white landowners pursued, imprisoned, and tortured him, Tasorentsi never stopped fighting for his people’s rights. During the remainder of his life, he promoted the nucleation of people in small settlements to await the arrival of Christ, while at the same time supporting peaceful coexistence with white people. At the same time, however, he encouraged Indigenous economic autonomy, strongly opposed debt-peonage, and endorsed formal schooling as a means of leveling the playing field with white people.

How has the field of anthropology contributed to the “historical amnesia” apparently surrounding the struggles of the Ashaninka?

On the contrary, anthropologists have been crucial in highlighting the long history of Ashaninka resistance against white oppression. Stefano Varese, Eduardo Fernández, Michael Brown, Soren Hvalkof, and Mariella Villasante, to name but a few, have written extensively on Ashaninka past and present-day struggles. Ashaninka people remember their struggles, which are often the main subject of their oral histories. For various reasons, however, in Ashaninka oral tradition there has been less focus on Tasorentsi’s struggles than on other confrontations with white people. I believe the main reason for this “historical amnesia” is that Tasorentsi was not a doctrinally pure Adventist, and the Adventist hierarchy therefore regarded him as somewhat suspect and left him out of their historical narratives; thus, many present-day Ashaninka Adventists do not remember him. This has been compounded by the fact that, for various reasons, Tasorentsi’s political activities have escaped the notice of Amazonianist anthropologists and historians. The main reason for this omission has been the fact that Franciscan missionaries, with the Jesuits, were Peruvian Amazonia’s main early historians, and they had no presence in this region at the time of Tasorentsi’s uprisings. My main objective in writing this book has been to draw attention to this remarkable individual, reintroducing him into Ashaninka historical consciousness and opening the subject to academic scrutiny.

Can you describe the immense body of original materials that you researched for this book? What were the most surprising discoveries to come out of those archival documents, oral histories, musical recordings, and visual works?

I did research in numerous archives and libraries in Peru and the United States. One of my first surprises was learning that the regional and national press had amply covered Tasorentsi’s Ashaninka movement of 1912–1914 and the 1915 multiethnic uprising. Not only that, it also brought to national attention the plight of Amazonian Indigenous peoples under the oppressive labor conditions of the rubber era, generating a heated debate about the causes of Indigenous hostilities. What surprised me was that many journalists and personalities justified Indigenous violence as being the direct result of the oppression and slaving activities of white rubber extractors. Also surprising was the amount of documentation generated by the conflicts between Adventist missionaries and their Indigenous supporters, on the one hand, and white landowners and regional authorities, on the other. The fact that Adventist missionaries were often US citizens of German ancestry meant that every time they were harassed, they informed their consulates. The latter pressured the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which, in turn, prompted regional authorities to investigate the matter. A great amount of information on Tasorentsi’s activities as an Adventist people-gatherer was preserved through this means.

Score of Tasorentsi’s song
Score of Tasorentsi’s song. Tasorentsi’s song does not resemble any of the known styles of Ashaninka songs, but it has some of the gravity of beshiriantsi worshipping songs. It betrays elements of both the Andean huaynos of the neighboring highland peoples of Pasco and Junín and the ancient Catholic hymns sung in Franciscan missions during colonial times. Courtesy of Bernd Brabec de Mori.

Yet another surprise was the realization that anthropologists who had worked among the Ashaninka in the 1960s and 1980s, such as John Bodley and Jeremy Narby, had collected much information about Tasorentsi’s activities and were generous enough to share it with me. Especially important was a song composed by Tasorentsi and recorded by Narby, provided by someone who had learned it when he was a child. In this song, the charismatic leader encourages his listeners to seek their Father, the solar divinity; announces that the divinity is coming, that he is near; and reveals that he awaits his people in the Sky River of Youth and will make them immortal. I never expected to obtain such a direct testimony of Tasorentsi’s millenarian discourse: one that allowed me to understand the appeal that he had for the region’s Indigenous peoples.

Equally surprising was the fact that I managed to find not one but three photographs of Tasorentsi—a remarkable feat given that they were taken in the 1920s. My greatest surprise, however, was to meet Tasorentsi’s youngest son. I knew that Tasorentsi had had many children and that his descendants lived somewhere along the Pachitea River. One day, an Ashaninka leader, Alcides Calderón, told me that he knew one of Tasorentsi’s nephews and that he was willing to accompany me to interview him. After a long boat trip, we arrived in Segundo Arroyo’s home. As it happened, he was not Tasorentsi’s nephew, but his youngest son. What he shared with me about his father’s last years and death, about which I knew little, helped me finish my book. But, more importantly, knowing him allowed me to perceive Tasorentsi, who until then had been only a historical figure to me, as a real, flesh-and-blood person with many gray areas, like any human being.

Could a figure like Tasorentsi emerge today, and how might the Peruvian authorities and transnational entities respond?

We know of many charismatic Indigenous leaders –whether Ashaninka or not—who, through a millenarian and anti-white discourse, managed to mobilize the Ashaninka against white domination. The best known of these leaders was Juan Santos Atahualpa, a man of Andean origin who, in the mid-eighteenth century, managed to unite the Ashaninka and their Amazonian neighbors to fight the Spaniards. But there were others in the 1890s, the 1910s, the 1940s, and the 1960s, and even as late as the 1970s. So it is quite possible that a figure like Tasorentsi might emerge once more. In fact, a few years ago, during a time of fast and aggressive expansion of extractive activities (oil, gas, timber, and gold) in Ashaninka territory, all kinds of rumors began to spread about how white people intended to exterminate the Ashaninka by abducting people using mysterious flying machines. This created the kind of frenzy that characterizes the early stages of Ashaninka world-transforming movements.

I imagine that if a Tasorentsi-like figure appeared today, the response of the State, extractive companies, and regional authorities would be similar to that of their peers in past ages—to wit, they would attempt to silence him or her through whatever means possible. The only advantage that such a figure would have today is that communication is so fast and widespread that it would be difficult to suppress him or her without generating national and international outrage. Yet the killing of Indigenous leaders continues in Guatemala and Brazil, to name just a few examples, and nothing much happens.

Tell us what you are working on in your role at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

At present, I am engaged in a new research project titled “The Reconquest of Chanchamayo: Frontier Expansion, Modernization, and Nation-Building in Postcolonial Peru, 1847–1891”. The reconquest of Chanchamayo, the Amazon region closest to Peru’s capital, took place in the context of the rapid expansion of internal frontiers that swept the Americas in the second half of the nineteenth century. It overlapped the conquest of the West in the United States (1848–1881), the occupation of Araucania in Chile (1861–1883), the conquest of Patagonia in Argentina (1872–1884), and Brazil’s march toward the west, which began in 1864 and has not ended yet.

The reconquest of Chanchamayo—a region that was free from white presence from 1742 to 1847—was seemingly prompted by President Ramón Castilla’s vision of a more modern, civilized, and territorially integrated country. There is evidence, however, that the economic interests of Andean landowners and miners and the civilizing agenda of Franciscan missionaries may have lurked in the background, prompting the State to “reduce” the local Yanesha and Ashaninka populations and occupy their lands. The objective of this project is to disentangle the relative weight of these various social actors in achieving these goals. At the same time, it seeks to examine the position of these actors with regard to what was then called “the Indian problem,” and assess how their goals and actions shaped the evolution of Indigenous resistance. Combining archival materials with oral sources, I intend to bring back to life the voices of these diverse actors and, especially, to rescue from oblivion the will, agency, and creative thinking of the Yanesha and Ashaninka peoples.

Fernando Santos-Granero is a senior staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, Panama, and a specialist on the Yanesha of Peruvian Amazonia. His books include Vital Enemies: Slavery, Predation, and the Amerindian Political Economy of Life.