Two Hundred Years of Sarmiento: Looking Backwards and Forwards

As President (1868-74), advocate of educational reform, and author of one of the most widely known and discussed essays of nineteenth-century Latin America, Facundo o la civilizacion y la barbarie (1845), Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888) was an enormously influential figure in Argentine liberalism. The bicentenary of Sarmiento’s birth provided the inspiration for this symposium, which sought to interrogate the historical, political, scientific and cultural legacy of this important Argentine state-builder of the nineteenth century. Three speakers gave short papers on different aspects of Sarmiento’s role in public life and how subsequent scholarship has interpreted his legacy, and a particularly animated discussion between the speakers and the audience followed. Abstracts of the three papers can be downloaded here.

Richard Gott (The Guardian) opened the symposium with, “Sarmiento: Ideologue of White Settler Racism,” which contended that the historical consensus routinely portrays Sarmiento as a progressive statesman and educationalist, glossing over or ignoring altogether his role in providing intellectual justification and political support for the military conquest and extermination of indigenous groups during the Conquest of the Desert in the 1870s. Gott argued that Sarmiento’s advocation of immigration of white Europeans, in order to promote the economic, political and cultural development–or “civilisation”–of Argentina was twinned with an increasing belief in the need to bring about the extinction of the indigenous population of the hinterlands who, Sarmiento believed, were holding back Argentina’s advancement and modernisation. In addition, Gott argued that this aspect of Sarmiento’s philosophy–ultimately, his racism–cannot simply be dismissed as “of the time,” since many of Sarmiento’s contemporaries advocated for the education, or, to a lesser degree, the autonomy, of the Indians, rather than their extermination.

In “The Metaphor and the Prototype: Figures of the “Urban” in Sarmiento’s Imagination,” Adrián Gorelik (Simón Bolívar Chair, Centre of Latin American Studies, Cambridge) also discussed the “Desert” into which the Argentine nation expanded in the late nineteenth century, in terms of the desert’s metaphorical function and relationship with urban space in Sarmiento’s prose. Outlining two major ways in which Sarmiento used urban images in his works–as metaphor and as prototype–Gorelik explained that the desert acted as a kind of blank canvas onto which images of the emergent nation and its evolving future as a more civilised nation could be projected. Within this figurative framework, the city could function as an experimental prototype of the national: the urban landscape and its architecture act as agents capable of creating and shaping civic practices and communities of citizens. In the second figurative trope–city as metaphor–Sarmiento used the materiality of urban life and urban space to reflect on the moral character and universe of the Argentine people and nation.

In the final presentation, “Sarmiento and Science in Argentina,” Eduardo Ortiz (Imperial College) gave a detailed overview of the early institutionalisation and solidification of the Argentine scientific community during, and in the wake of, Sarmiento’s term as President (1868-74). Sarmiento promoted scientific research as part of his general program of modernising reforms designed to improve educational levels in Argentina and to attract a high calibre of immigrants from Europe. Within this overall picture, Ortiz traced the careers of some prominent scientific figures, including Santiago Cáceres, and gave a fascinating insight into the international networks and connections involved in this process.

The first questions from the audience picked up on these transnational and international dimensions to Sarmiento’s activity and legacy. In particular, his ideas about the tensions between urban and rural communities within the nation, and about the competing forces of “civilisation” and “barbarism” in Argentine history, had great resonance with intellectuals and politicians across Latin America in the nineteenth century. Moreover, Sarmiento’s own travels throughout Europe and the United States, as well as the growing involvement of Argentine scientists in international networks, were instrumental to the development of his programme for educational reform, immigration, and modernisation.

The discussion became particularly animated when dealing with the issues raised by Richard Gott’s paper. Several members of the audience, as well as Adrián Gorelik, disagreed with Gott’s contention that the darker side of Sarmiento’s administration and legacy was rarely discussed by scholars of nineteenth-century Argentina. Some also took issue with the idea that Sarmiento actively supported and provided justification for a campaign of ethnic cleansing, while others argued that the demographic picture of indigenous decline was complicated by miscegenation, both biological and cultural, in this era. Gott remained unconvinced by the alternative points of view put forward regarding Sarmiento’s role in the Conquest of the Desert: namely, that Sarmiento did not systematically endorse genocide; and that the “elimination” of the indigenous population was not solely achieved through violent force, but also through cross-cultural marriages and cultural change, which meant that people with an indigenous heritage ceased to be identified or to self-identity as Indian. However, a greater degree of consensus was reached that the topic of Sarmiento’s racial ideology and policy had been given a considerable degree of attention by scholars. The interested reader might like to pursue this topic further, through the following works:

Jens Andermann, “Argentine Literature and the ‘Conquest of the Desert’, 1872-1896,” Relics and Selves: Iconographies of the National in Argentina, Brazil and Chile, 1880-1890. Web exhibition, London 2000.

Elizabeth Garrels, “Sobre indios, afroamericanos y los racismos de Sarmiento,” Revista Iberoamericana, Vol. 63, no. 178-79 (1997), pp. 99-113.

Álvaro Kaempfer, “Lastarria, Bello y Sarmiento en 1844: Genocidio, historiografía y proyecto nacional,” Revista de Crítica Latinoamericana, Año 32, No. 63/64 (2006), pp. 9-24.

 Are there any other useful sources that could contribute to the debate? Please let us know your thoughts about Sarmiento, the event, and ensuing discussion!

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