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Manuel Belgrano (1770-1820)

Biographical Information

Manuel Belgrano was born in Buenos Aires at the dawn of his country's transition from a small backwater colonial trading post to a republican nation. As with many well-to-do Creoles, he studied in Spain at the universities of Salamanca and Valladolid, receiving a law degree. Belgrano returned home in 1794 with an appointment as the permanent secretary of the Consulate of Buenos Aires. Inspired by European liberal political and economic ideas, he used this administrative post to put these new concepts into practice. Belgrano proposed numerous projects for developing agriculture, business and commerce. He introduced new industries, improved the transportation system, bettered conditions of navigation, and established trade schools. Unfortunately, his ambitions were partially foiled by elements, particularly royalists, who opposed his plans. He did have his supporters including Creole merchants, intellectuals schooled in the more liberal ideas of enlightenment, and scientists. Convinced that his country could never progress under Spanish rule, he came to support independence.

This peaceful existence came to an end with the British invasions of Buenos Aires in 1806-1807. Belgrano served as a captain of the urban militia and rallied the citizens to defeat both invasions. Resigning from the Consulate in early 1810 due to ill health, he returned to serve with distinction during the May revolution of 1810. Highly regarded as an officer and official at this time, he became a member of the first patriot government that emerged from that revolution.

The new administration moved quickly to bring the entire viceroyalty under the patriot government. Belgrano led the new liberating army into Paraguay where, meeting fierce opposition, his forces were defeated at Paraguarí and Tacuarí in 1811. Realizing that Paraguay would not remain an Argentine province, Belgrano signed a ceasefire and withdrew. Although criticized by many for this apparent capitulation, it was soon clear  that Paraguay would only stand alone as a new nation.

Belgrano moved his troops to the city of Rosario in 1812 to construct a battery to control the Paraná River. Here he designed and raised a light blue and white flag for the patriots. Initially, the banner was not recognized by the government, but in 1816, the Argentine National Congress meeting in Tucumán voted to accept it as the national flag and it remains so to this day.

His stay in central Argentina was interrupted by orders to lead the Army of the North against the Spanish forces who were massing in Upper Peru (now Bolivia). Belgrano's forces advanced with victories in Tucumán and Salta. From here he proceeded into the mountains of Upper Peru where he was defeated at Vilcapugio and Ayohuma (1813). Upon his retreat, Jose de San Martín replaced him as commander.

No longer responsible for the defense of the nation, Belgrano joined Bernadino Rivadavia on a diplomatic mission to Europe to find royalty in order to return Argentina to monarchical rule. Upon his return to Buenos Aires, Belgrano was invited to the National Congress of Tucumán (1816) to weigh in on the appropriate form of government for the emerging nation. Here he presented lectures arguing for the restoration of a monarchy in favor of an Inca. While his arguments did not persuade the assembly, he did see his flag accepted as the national banner, and the declaration of the independence for the new republic.

He returned to command the Army of the North. Learning from his previous experiences, he constructed a defensive position against the royalists, rather than enter the mountains of Upper Peru to fight them. Increasingly ill by 1819, he was seized by the leaders of a revolutionary movement that controlled Tucumán. He was permitted to return to Buenos Aires where he died on June 20, 1820. That day is designated as “Flag Day” to memorialize his achievements.

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Description of Archival Collection (MSH/SCH 1005-1 to 1005-16)

The archive contains eighteen items, including governmental documents, autograph letters, and notes dated 1794 to 1818.

The administrative items consist mostly of a series of documents from the Real Consulado de Buenos Ayres and the dispute between Diego Agüero (backed by Belgrano) and the Government Board of the Real Consulado over the collection of fees. There is also a document establishing settlements for the surviving Indians of the Jesuit missions and arrangements for their housing and relief from taxation.

The letters and notes are dated 1810 to 1817 and concern mostly personal affairs. Two letters addressed to General Jorge Pacheco in 1810-1811 discuss Belgrano's activities in Paraguay, his pending trial for misconduct there and his acquittal, as well as his negotiations with José Artigas, the Uruguayan leader, and the Spanish bombardment of Buenos Aires.

The final document is an unsigned manuscript in Belgrano's hand laying out for the Battalion of the Province of Jujuy military strategy against the Spanish before the battles of Tucumán and Salta.

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