The War of the Supremes (1840-1842), a series of regional rebellions that escalated into a national conflict, reflects the growing pains of the nineteenth-century Colombian state. At the time, due both to weak institutions left by colonialism and lack of infrastructure, the Bogotá-based central government did not rule evenly across Colombia’s culturally and geographically distinct regions. Furthermore, the rivalry between Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Paula Santander over defining Colombia’s political institutions continued to fuel dissension across the country. Santander and his followers espoused a federalist model, which gave municipal and provincial institutions more power and autonomy, while Bolívar favored a centralist framework, which would concentrate power in the hands of the Bogotá government. Outside the city of Bogotá and its surrounding provinces, most elite families favored federalism and viewed centralism as a threat to their economic and political power.1 José Ignacio de Márquez Barreto, a follower of Bolívar, assumed the presidency in 1837. While he made concessions to the Santanderistas, pressure from his fellow ministeriales prompted him to name followers of Bolívar to all major government positions.2 Although all of the Supremes who led regional rebellions had their own agendas, they were united in their hatred for Márquez and the ministeriales.3 The Supremes never formed a coherent political alternative or order, leading to their downfall in 1842.
The War of the Supremes was concentrated in the Cauca Valley and the Atlantic Coast, Antioquia, and the Magdalena Medio. Provincial and regional political tensions fueled the start of many of the rebellions, giving each a unique character and trajectory. The first rebellion took place in Pasto, an economically important town in the Cauca region, known for its autonomous political organization, resistance to independence in the early 19th century, and a unique culture deeply tied to Catholic theology. While most historians date the beginning of the war in Pasto to 1840, others argue that it began with an Indian revolt on June 9, 1839.4 Many factions of Pasto society – from landholding elites to Indians – rejected the Márquez regime as a threat to their culture, political autonomy, and economic prosperity. When Congress approved a measure to repress small monasteries with fewer than eight priests, the people of Pasto saw this ruling as an attack on their religious beliefs and social resources. A small rebellion broke out in December 1839 when the government attempted to enforce this measure. Instead of negotiating with the rebels, the government appointed Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera as Secretary of War. Many in Pasto, including José María Obando, a loyal follower of Santander and a well-respected general, distrusted Mosquera. In June 1840, Obando officially declared himself the “Supreme Director of War” in Pasto, and organized a campaign against Mosquera and his forces. Obando successfully recruited slaves, free blacks, and Indians to fight in his cause, pushing for measures such as abolition, recognition of Indian lands, and greater political participation, alongside demands for regional autonomy and federalism.5
Obando’s defiance against the Márquez regime influenced other regional caudillos (strongmen) to declare themselves “Supremes” and rebel against the government. Caudillos of the Atlantic Coast already had a long history of supporting separatist movements, including prior demands to become an independent state. Francisco Carmona of Santa Marta was the first caudillo to rebel, and like Obando, he recruited soldiers from diverse ethnic and class backgrounds, including Indians who fought to reclaim control over their lands. Other Supremes in Barranquilla, Cartagena, and Panamá (which was still part of Colombia at the time) soon joined him. The Atlantic Coast quickly became a rebel stronghold. Losing both the prosperous Cauca Valley and the shipping ports of the coast was disastrous for the central government. In response, Mosquera and General Pedro Alcántara Herrán Martínez organized a brutal military campaign to retake both regions.
Non-traditional soldiers participated in both sides of the war. In the battle of Salamina of 1841, near Sonsón, Antioquia, writer Ana María Martínez de Nisser insisted on enlisting in the pro-government forces to defend her native town from rebels. She wrote and published a book about the event in 1842 and the government recognized her service with a gold medal.6
By 1841, the War in Cauca had grown more violent. By March, Obando and his allies succeeded in taking over Popayán, Cali, and Buenaventura as well as continuing to hold Pasto. However, the government forces had grown stronger, and many landholding elites had come to oppose Obando due to his takeover of their land and slaves. Pro-government forces took back both towns in May of 1841.7 On April 1, 1841, Márquez stepped down as president, appointing General Herrán to take over. A year later, government forces finally succeeded in reclaiming the Atlantic coast, ending the war in March of 1842 in Barranquilla.8 The regional specificity and power of each Supreme was also the downfall of the rebellion; the Supremes never had a united cause, nor formed a cohesive alternative political order.9
The War of the Supremes left a lasting impact on Colombia’s political system. Most importantly, the divisions between centralists and federalists hardened to form distinct political parties. The Bolívar-following centralists went on to form the Conservative party, while supporters of Santander and federalism established the Liberal party.10 In response to the social disorder left by the war, Herrán was a more repressive and conservative president than his predecessor. Using his prowess as an experienced military leader, he established a government monopoly over arms, installed bases throughout the rebelling provinces, and instituted the first draft.11 He also undertook authoritarian measures to control regional political order: he handpicked new leaders for provincial governments that had rebelled and increased restrictions on the already limited voting rights.12 The Conservative-controlled congress passed a new, highly centralist constitution in 1843.
The War of the Supremes proved that the most marginalized sectors of Colombian society – including Indians and slaves – were capable political actors. Conservatives, who feared further subversion, passed measures to restore moral order and pacify the rural masses.13 In 1842, Herrán reintroduced the Jesuits to Colombia, instructing the order to form new missions in rural areas to educate Indians and the growing mestizo (mixed race) population that had fought for the rebels during the war. Despite the government’s official denial of voting and private property rights to racial minorities, those who had fought alongside the Supremes did not forget the taste of freedom they had experienced. Indians, slaves, and mestizos continued to rebel, pushing for land rights, abolition, and incorporation into the new nation state.14 Liberal leaders like Obando continued to fight for more participatory Colombian politics, which would cause further political frictions not only between Liberals and Conservatives, but also within the Liberal Party in later years.
1Luis Ervin Prado Arellano, Rebeliones en la Provincia: La Guerra de Los Supremos en las provincias suroccidentales y nororientales granadinas, 1839-1842 (Cali: Departamento de Historia, 2007).
2Eugenio Gutiérrez Cely, “Márquez y La Guerra de Los Supremos | Banrepcultural.org,” accessed August 6, 2015, http://www.banrepcultural.org/blaavirtual/revistas/credencial/septi1993/septi1.htm.
3María Teresa Uribe de Hincapié and Liliana María López Lopera, Las palabras de la guerra: un estudio sobre las memorias de las guerras civiles en Colombia (Medellín: Carreta Editores, 2006).
6Heriberto Zapata Cuencar, “Martínez De Nisser, Ana María,” Gran enciclopedia de Colombia (Bogotá; online: Círculo de Lectores; Banco de la República, 1991), http://www.banrepcultural.org/blaavirtual/biografias/martanam.htm.
7Uribe de Hincapié and López Lopera, Las palabras de la guerra, 85.
8David Bushnell, The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 99.
10Gutiérrez Cely, “Márquez y La Guerra de Los Supremos | Banrepcultural.org.”
10Bushnell, The Making of Modern Colombia, 100.
11Uribe de Hincapié and López Lopera, Las palabras de la guerra, 96.
13Prado Arellano, Rebeliones en la provincia.
14Uribe de Hincapié and López Lopera, Las palabras de la guerra, 99.