“[W]hy must I always suffer every misfortune which happens”: An eyewitness account of revolution in the streets

The quotation in the title of this post is from a letter about an 1890 revolution in Buenos Aires known as The Revolution of the Park. High inflation, corruption, and electoral fraud drove a revolutionary group to take control of the city’s Artillery Park, although government forces quickly crushed the rising. The letter, however, is less interesting for what it says about the political and military events of these days, than for what it conveys about the fears felt by one immigrant woman for her family. It serves as a reminder both that in a time of crisis people are concerned for their loved ones above all else, and that these are the histories of ordinary people’s lives.

The opening of the letter
The opening of the letter, Eyewitness Account of the “Revolution of the Park,” 1890, MS SC00042

The letter was written (in French) by a woman named Hortense to her sister, Olympia, in France only a few days after the revolution. Hortense had been walking to her job, teaching French, when she and her husband, François, parted ways; everything was normal. However, soon after she started the lesson, shots began to ring out from the direction her husband had gone. As she raced home through the streets, the firing continued, and she passed armed police and bodies in the road. At home she found her daughters, but not her husband, and she did not see him from Saturday morning until Monday. As she wrote to her sister: “I often ask myself this question, why must I always suffer every misfortune which happens, and why is François always the one most exposed?”

The beginning of Hortense’s account of the revolution itself
The beginning of Hortense’s account of the revolution itself, Eyewitness Account of the “Revolution of the Park,” 1890, MS SC00042

The revolution makes up a large part of the letter’s contents, but Hortense expresses a firm belief that the whole will come to nothing:

Juarez Celman, our President, whom everyone hates, has not resigned, and I strongly believe that the bloodshed will produce nothing, given that everything is as normal; that is to say that gold will rise to unaffordable heights, that business will become more and more impossible and that we will all die of starvation, all due to the greed of these gentlemen of the government who it seems are not rich enough. Meanwhile, many houses are in mourning, those near the place of combat are riddled with bullet holes, the plazas and streets are ripped-up. One cannot get either bread or meat.

Celman did fall, resigning only a few days after the letter was written, but whether Hortense’s life improved is unclear. Victorious revolutions are often presented as the work of great heroes striving for noble aims, defeated revolutions as tragic lost causes or treasonous violence, but we should always remember that for the people who live through them they are cause for anxiety about death and the break-up of families. Documents like Hortense’s letter to her sister remain in the archives to testify to the experience of those who experienced revolution in their own lives – for every Washington, Robespierre, or Lenin, there are always millions of Hortenses.

The final page of the letter.
The final page of the letter. Here, in an effort to save writing paper and postage, Hortense has finished the page and then turned it 90 degrees and written across her other words, leaving her signature partly visible on the left-hand side. Eyewitness Account of the “Revolution of the Park,” 1890, MS SC00042


NB: All quotations have been translated from the original French.