July 28, 2022

San Martín Liberates Peru

San Martín Liberates Peru

July 28, 1821, The Legendary Military Commander, José de San Martín, liberates Peru and proclaims its independence from Spain.


Cold Open

It’s November 17th, 1780, in a small village in southern Peru.

High in the Andes mountains, an indigenous tribal leader named Tito Condemayta squats low to the ground, scanning the mist-shrouded foothills for signs of the enemy.

But Tito's concentration is broken when a young shepherd boy rushes up to her his face flushed with panic. He tells Tito that while tending his flock on the mountainside, he caught sight of a contingent of Spanish soldiers marching from the nearby town of Cuzco. 

Tito asks the boy: “How many soldiers did he see?”

The boy shakes his head. He doesn’t know but guesses maybe eight hundred.

Tito nods gravely, her mind racing.

Along with other indigenous Peruvians, Tito recently joined a rebellion against the ruling Spanish colonists, who have imposed extortionate levels of taxation on the native population. And after hearing reports of the Spanish force mobilizing in Cuzco, Tito prepared a battalion of warriors and established a garrison here, in this remote village.

Now it seems, the Spanish are on their way.

Tito looks up at the sky. A cold front is rolling in and clouds are gathering. Tito’s ancestors have dwelled on this high plain for millennia. She knows this land and its climate better than any Spaniard, and she knows something the Spanish don’t… a storm is coming.

Later that night, freezing winds howl through the steep valleys, driving a blizzard of snow and sleet. Tito and her battalion leave the village and establish camp halfway up the mountain. From this vantage point, they watch the valley – and wait.

At around midnight, the Spanish arrive. Tito watches closely as the eight-hundred enemy soldiers take shelter from the storm inside the village church. Tito’s expression is hard and resolute. Her grip tightens around her spear. 

As soon she and her battalion descend the snow-dusted mountainside, they creep back inside the village and surround the church. 

Tito approaches the building with a flaming torch.

She hurls in through an open window.

Seconds later… there’s a loud explosion and the church is engulfed in a raging fireball. The torch has landed in the Spanish gunpowder supplies. And within seconds, the church is ablaze, deep red flames and jet-black smoke billowing from the windows and doors.

The Spanish soldiers try to escape the burning building – but the flames are too high and the heat too intense. Tito stands back and watches, her eyes gleaming, as the despised colonists are reduced to bone and ash.

Despite the victory of Tito and her battalion, the Peruvian uprising of 1780 will ultimately be crushed by the Spanish. Tito Condemayta will be arrested and executed, along with the uprising’s indigenous leader, tribal chief Tupac Amaru II. 

But the uprising will make one thing clear: the winds of change are blowing in Peru. Forty years later, those winds will carry the ships of a new liberating navy, commanded by an Argentinian general named José de San Martin, who will declare Peruvian independence from the Spanish on July 28th, 1821. 


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is July 28th, 1821: San Martín Liberates Peru.

Act One: Argentina

It’s March 1812 off the coast of Argentina, nine years before Peru declares its independence.

A triple-masted frigate lurches across the heavy swell. Standing on deck, the briny spray clinging to his long sideburns, is the Argentinian military officer, José de San Martin. A reserved and modest man, José rarely shows emotion – preferring to express himself on the battlefield. But as the South American coastline appears on the horizon, José can’t help feeling sentimental. After thirty years in Europe, he’s finally coming home.

José was born in Argentina but spent most of his childhood in Spain, where his father was stationed in the army. When he was old enough, José followed in his father’s footsteps, joining the Spanish army and fighting for Spain during the Napoleonic Wars. 

But although he served under the Spanish flag, José remained an Argentinian at heart. When he heard that a revolution was underway in Argentina to topple the Spanish colonial government there and establish independence, José didn’t think twice. He switched allegiances and boarded a ship bound for South America, intent on liberating his homeland.

After landing in Buenos Aires, José presents himself before Argentina’s revolutionary government. Its leaders are suspicious of José at first. They fear having served in the Spanish Army, he might be a saboteur, an agent of the Spanish Crown. But José eventually convinces them of his loyalty to Argentina. The revolutionaries – also known as Patriots – are in need of capable military leaders. So they appoint José lieutenant colonel and entrust him with the protection of Buenos Aires.

José sets to work immediately. He whips his soldiers into shape – versing them in the latest techniques developed during the Napoleonic Wars. And before long, he commands a well-drilled unit of mounted grenadiers. José knows he will need a first-rate army because the enemy he’s facing controls one of the largest empires in human history…

By 1812, Spain’s colonies stretched from the present-day United States in the north, through to the southernmost reaches of Argentina. The Spanish Americas are divided into four colonies, or viceroyalties: New Spain, New Granada, Peru, and the Rio de la Plata. Each viceroyalty is ruled by a representative of the Spanish monarchy – the viceroy. 

But recent political changes in Europe have left many people in South America questioning the authority of these viceroys.

In 1808, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, the King of Spain was defeated and replaced by Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother. A crisis of sovereignty loomed over the New World. If the viceroys derive their authority from the Spanish King – what becomes of them if the Spanish King is gone?

This uncertainty fueled a wave of revolutions across the Spanish Empire. But these revolutions are led not by working-class firebrands or indigenous rebels, instead its members of the social elite known as criollos. Of Spanish descent, but born in South America, these upper-class, highly-educated revolutionaries feel a profound sense of national identity and no longer wish to take orders from unelected representatives of a recently-deposed monarch.

Two years ago, a group of criollos ousted the viceroy in Argentina. Now, José de San Martin has arrived to advance their cause. 


Less than a year after arriving in Argentina, José learns that a Royalist force is preparing to raid the village of San Lorenzo, twenty miles upriver from Buenos Aires. Heeding the warning, José rides north with his regiment, arriving in San Lorenzo just before dusk. They spend the night in a nearby convent, but José can't sleep. He climbs to the top of the bell tower and studies the battlefield by telescope. As dawn approaches, José catches sight of the Royalists’ ships docking by the riverbank. He rouses his men, and the cavalry guard rides out to meet the enemy.

José’s men are outnumbered, but they are meticulously organized, and the Royalists’ formation collapses in the face of the Patriots’ cavalry charge. Amid the melee of clashing bayonets and cannon fire, José’s horse falls to the ground pinning him beneath the animal’s flank. He looks up to see a Royalist officer bearing down on him, his saber raised.

But as José braces for death, one of his corporals hurls himself between José and the on-rushing Royalist. By the time José is able to wriggle free, both the Royalist and the young corporal are dead.

Still, the Patriots will claim victory at the Battle of San Lorenzo. Three years later, following a series of similar military triumphs, the revolutionary government will declare Argentinian independence in 1816.

But José knows that the war is not yet over. So long as Spain retains control over most of South America, Argentinian independence will not be safe. So, in 1817, he will embark on another bold journey, intent on liberating another country: Argentina’s neighbor, Chile. But to enter Chile, José, and his army will first have to complete a daring crossing of one of the world’s most formidable mountain ranges.

Act Two: Crossing the Andes 

It’s January 19th, 1817, four years before Peru declares independence.

On a bitterly cold morning, in the foothills of the Andes mountains, a revolutionary army marches across the scrubby terrain. Riding at the vanguard is José de San Martin. José’s lean, handsome face is tilted upward toward the mountains, assessing the scale of the challenge looming ahead of them.

After Argentina declared independence last year, José turned his attention toward another part of the Spanish Empire: Chile.

The independence movement in Chile is well-established. Support for the colonial government is at a new low. And José is confident he can defeat the Royalist army and help build the revolutionary wave surging across the continent. But there remains one obstacle standing in the way, the Andes mountains.

José leads his army along a dusty track, approaching an elevation of almost 10,000 feet. Riding by his side is a rosy-cheeked man with dark sideburns. Bernardo O’Higgins is an army captain and the leader of the Chilean independence movement. After being driven out of Chile by Royalists, O’Higgins arrived in Argentina, where he immediately sought out José de San Martin. Upon meeting, the two men promptly began planning this audacious invasion.

But the journey to Chile is not easy. The army slowly climbs the mountain, making endless switchback turns on their dangerous ascent. They skirt the narrow edges of deep ravines, navigate gaping chasms and scramble up steep slopes. At night, temperatures plummet well below freezing. During the day, the soldiers bake, thousands of soldiers perish during the crossing, killed either by the extreme weather or by losing their footing and plunging to their doom. 

By the end of a grueling three-week journey, one-third of José’s army is dead. But despite it all, José remains stoical. He knew that many wouldn’t survive the journey. But he also knows that sacrifices are necessary to achieve their ultimate goal of freedom.


On February 13th, 1817, José, Bernardo O’Higgins, and their surviving troops march into the Chilean capital of Santiago. But they won’t have time to rest and recover.

Waiting for them outside Santiago is a Royalist force of around 1,200 men. They’re ready to defend their colony with everything they have. So José swells the ranks of his army with Chilean patriots, and the two sides clash in the valley of Chacabuco outside Santiago.

It’s a fierce and bloody skirmish. The Royalists mount a spirited defense, rousing themselves with cries of “long live the King!” But José and his army greatly outnumber the Royalists who are eventually forced to surrender. Following their victory at the Battle of Chacabuco, the Patriots have all but wiped out the remaining Royalist defenders in Chile.

So after leaving Bernardo O’Higgins in charge of the Army, José returns to Argentina, where he spends the next two years drumming up the resources required to launch the next stage of his liberating mission – an invasion of Peru.

At first, the members of the Argentinian government are reluctant to approve the mission. Peru is a Royalist stronghold. The invasion will be dangerous – and costly. The Argentinian ministers argue that Peru’s independence is not Argentina’s concern.

But José is insistent. He assures them that Argentinian independence will not be secure until Peru has also ousted its Spanish rulers. Eventually, the ministers agree to finance José’s invasion.


On August 20th, 1820, a force comprising 5,000 Argentinian and Chilean Patriots sail north from Chile toward Peru. José stands at the helm of a battleship, his expression grave. He knows that Peru’s Royalist force is much larger than any he’s yet faced. He is hoping that his liberating cause will sweep through the countryside, and legions of ordinary Peruvians will join his army.

But things do not turn out the way José hoped.

After landing in Peru, the Patriots advance north toward the capital, trying to amass support from the countryside along the way. But the additional men they muster are still not enough to fend off the Royalist counter-attacks. By the time José and his men reach Lima, they are beleaguered and dispirited, believing they are on the verge of defeat.

But then, a remarkable stroke of luck occurs. The viceroy of Peru decides to retreat from Lima. He orders the city’s Royalist soldiers to fall back. Viceroy senses the tide is turning the way of the Patriots, so he decides to evacuate the city, believing that there are still enough Royalist troops stationed in the Peruvian provinces to return to Lima at a later date and oust the troublesome revolutionaries.

So, José and his army march into the capital without resistance. And, on July 28th, 1821, before jubilant crowds in Lima’s central plaza, José declares Peruvian independence. He announces to the assembled Patriots: “From this moment, Peru is free and independent! By the general will of the people and by the justice of its cause that God defends. Long live Freedom! Long live independence!”

But amidst all the jubilation, trouble is looming. After liberating Peru, José will effectively become the leader of the newly independent country… but he wasn’t born to be a head of state; he’s a soldier and not a politician. So soon, José will decide to call on a man with whom he has little in common, but who shares his liberating zeal, the man known as “the Liberator”... Simon Bolivar. 

Act Three: The Liberator

It’s July 26th, 1822; one year after Peru declared independence.

Beneath a blazing summer’s sky, José de San Martin disembarks his ship, docked in the harbor of Guayaquil, a city in Ecuador. The great Argentinian commander looks tired and drawn. His relentless liberating spirit hasn’t waned, but his energy and vitality have been sapped by a long and turbulent year.

After declaring Peruvian independence, José wanted to return to Argentina. But unlike in Chile, where Bernardo O’Higgins took power and cemented independence, there weren’t any obvious candidates to take the reins in Peru. Lacking a suitable Peruvian leader, José remained as Protector of Peru, implementing liberal reforms and fending off military threats from the residual Royalist forces.

But the Royalist resurgence proved too strong. And by now, Royalists have regained control of the entire country – with only Lima remaining as a Patriot stronghold. José is concerned that soon, even the capital city will fall, and Peruvian independence will be a dream extinguished.

But José is tired. After liberating Argentina, Chile, and Peru, he believes the time has come to take a step back, and to leave the future liberty of South America in the hands of somebody younger, somebody better suited to the limelight.

José and his entourage walk toward a state building in Guayaquil. Waiting outside, decked out in glittering military regalia, is the Venezuelan commander and general, Simon Bolivar.

Nicknamed “The Liberator”, Bolivar boasts a military resumé just as impressive as José’s. He has ousted the Spanish Royalist forces from Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. But, unlike José, Bolivar is a swaggering, arrogant ladies man, known to take great care in his personal appearance. While José prefers to go quietly about his business, Bolivar loves nothing more than riding into newly-liberated cities, loudly proclaiming his greatness before cheering crowds.

Today is the first meeting between these two generals. And despite their numerous differences, the men embrace warmly and walk arm-in-arm to a private salon. Once they’re alone, José tells Bolivar about the difficulties he’s having with the Royalist troops in Peru. Bolivar listens carefully, one plucked eyebrow raised, his floral cologne filling the room.

And once José has finished speaking, Bolivar agrees to help defeat the Royalists in Peru. He envisions a South America comprising various independent republics. And even though José favors constitutional monarchies, he agrees to Bolivar’s vision – knowing that their cooperation is in the best interest of the continent.

After leaving Guayaquil, José sends Bolivar a pair of ceremonial pistols, along with a horse to carry him forward on his liberating campaign. He also includes a note: "Receive, general, this remembrance from the first of your admirers, with the expression of my sincere desire that you may have the glory of finishing the war for the independence of South America."

Shortly after the Guayaquil conference, José will retire from military duty. And then in 1824, Simon Bolivar’s army will defeat the Royalists at the Battle of Ayacucho in Peru, heralding the fall of the last bastion of Spanish authority on the continent. 

Throughout his career, José de San Martin was driven by the desire for South American independence, a goal for which he was always willing to sacrifice personal glory. And even though he entrusted the final act of the war to another man, it was José who struck the first blow for Peruvian freedom, when he marched into Lima and declared Peru independent on July 28th, 1821.


Next onHistory Daily.July 29th, 1954. After years of struggle, J.R.R. Tolkien publishes the first installment of The Lord of the Rings.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.