HIST 325 Independence


European Roots of Latin American Independence Movements

Late 18th century Spain experienced financial and political instability (wars with England and misrule) which led to higher taxes, the sale of high offices, the end of lending (and discontent).

Then the Napoleonic Wars swept Europe (1799-1815) and greatly affected Spain and Portugal (differently).  The French Revolution (1789-1799) was based on the idea of liberalism, popular sovereignty, the end of hereditary monarchy and inherited privilege.  Enlightenment ideology inspired the French Revolutionary creed: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.  Liberalism was also a force in England since the 17th century Civil War and Glorious Revolution limited the power of monarchy and established an elected legislature, the House of Commons.  England saw French reforms as too radical (especially when Napoleon declared himself emperor and sough to “liberate” all of Europe in the name of liberalism) so England went to war to limit Napoleon’s expansionism.  Thus all involved in the Napoleonic Wars were nominally fighting for “liberalism” or popular sovereignty.

In 1808 the Spanish king was imprisoned by Napoleon who forced Carlos IV and his heir Prince Fernando to abdicate, and then crowned his own brother, Joseph, the king of Spain.  This angered both Spaniards and Spanish Americans and may be seen as the start of Latin American independence.  Here’s why: Spaniards who resisted the Napoleonic king sent representatives to a national resistance committee in Spain, the Central Junta.  They represented Spaniards but not Spanish Americans.  In Latin America, disgruntled Spanish Americans formed their own juntas, open town councils called cabildos abiertos.  Thus “the Napoleonic crisis led Spanish American patriots to invoke the principle of popular sovereignty against Spain itself….[they formed] their own juntas to rule locally in Fernando’s name….The Spanish liberals who led the resistance in Spain now called for a constitution to be written by elected representatives from both Spain and Spanish America.” But the while their Constitution of Cadiz was “truly a liberal document” it was never fully implemented because before it was completed anti-Spanish rebellion had already broken out in Latin America. (Chasteen 96-97)

Brazil had a different experience.  England (a longstanding ally) helped the Portuguese Prince Joao and his 10,000 person entourage flee to Rio de Janeiro for a decade. In 1815, the year Napoleon was captured at Waterloo, (now King) Joao declared Brazil a kingdom (juridically equal to Portugal) rather than a colony.  When he finally returned to Portugal in 1821, he left his heir Prince Pedro in Rio.  In 1822 Rio’s Creole elite formed the Brazilian Party claiming to represent Brazilians against the Portuguese (Pernambuco had recently had a failed liberal revolution perhaps inspired by all the British and French trading in Brazilian ports).  The Brazilian Party included everyone except slaves, including Prince Pedro.  “If Pedro himself declared Brazil independent, the monarchy might be preserved, and Brazil could at least be kept in the Braganza royal family.  When the Portuguese assembly demanded that Pedro too return to Portugal, the prince publicly announced his refusal from a public balcony, and the people of Rio celebrated deliriously in the public squares.  By year’s end, Pedro had officially declared Brazil an independent constitutional monarchy…A mass mobilization would have certainly threatened the institution of slavery of Brazil where over half the potential fighters were slaves….By the end of  1823 the Brazilian Party had achieved its goal.  It had made Brazil independent while maintaining the social hierarchy that kept slave-owning elite in charge…. the cloning of a legitimate monarchy had provided Brazil with a political unity that contrasted starkly with Spanish America” (Chasteen  105-106)


Spanish American Rebellions 1810-1824

Late 18th century Latin American Creoles had tensions with Peninsulares.  The vast majority of the population, repressed by the caste system, did not identify with these elite tensions and likely resented Creoles more than Peninsulares.

In northern Mexico, Creole priest Manuel Hidalgo, inspired by France, gathered masses (80,000 at one point) against the (tiny) Peninsular elite with propaganda.  They killed thousands of Peninsulares (and Creoles) until Hidalgo was executed. 

In southern Mexico, Mestizo priest Morelos sought to end slavery, the caste system, and indigenous tribute.  He saw all as “Americanos” and declared independence 1813 but was executed 1815 leaving behind guerilla bands “gnawing away at colonial rule.” (Chasteen 100).

Elites were worried from the example of the 1780s uprising of Tupac Amaru II in the Andes re mobilizing indigenous people. So Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador were relatively peaceful during the early 1810s as crises erupted in other regions.

Venezuela and Argentina
Both abounded in cowboys (good for military mobilization) and both sough to lead Creole revolutions “from above.”  “Gradually, however, they shelved their protestations of loyalty to the king, embraced the liberal revolution, and moved toward full independence.”  (Chasteen 101)

In Venezuela the first republic was destroyed almost immediately by an earthquake in Caracas but the bigger problem was the large population of darked skinned llaneros who resented the elite and continued to defend the Spanish king, Fernando VII.  “As long as the llaneros opposed them, the patriots would never win in Venezuela.” (Chasteen 101)

In Argentina’s provences, royalists and patriots alike resented the airs of the Buenos Aires elite.  They all had militias which had been recently activated against England and now fought amongst themselves. 

“By 1815, with the execution of Morelos in Mexico, royalist victories in Venezuela (and elsewhere, such as Colombia and Chile), Peru still firmly in Spanish hands, and patriots fighting among themselves in Rio de Plata, the wars for Spanish-American independence stood at a low ebb.  The patriots had not yet succeeded in getting enough people on their side.” (Chasteen 102)

So what made the difference?  “The winning strategy for independence-minded Creoles was nativism [which] glorified an American identity based on birthplace.” (Chasteen 103)

Nativism fit well with liberalism’s popular sovereignty, but elites sought popular support not social equality.  Yet tides turn with Napoleon’s 1815 defeat and the ideological ascendancy of nativism in Spanish America. The rise of Venezuelan patriot general Simon Bolivar (“the Liberator”) and his first victory in 1817 was crucial.

Morelos’ guerilla followers had been struggling against the Creole royalists but when liberal Spaniards forced Fernando VII to restore the Spanish constitution in 1820 many Mexican Creoles stopped being royalists.  When Creole army commander, Iturbide joined forces with Mestizo man of the people, Guerrero, “the independence of Mexico was at hand….[declared by Iturbide in 1821, but when] Iturbide closed the newly formed congress…military leaders ejected him and ushered in a republic.” (Chasteen 107)

Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela,  Bolivia/Chile, Argentina/ Peru
Boliver used nativism to attract Venezuela’s llaneros and when they switched sides  “momentum moved to the patriot cause.”  In 1819 Bolivar’s army surprised Spanish forces in the Andes and Bogota fell; in 1822 they captured Caracas and Quito, thus controlling all of northern South America.

To the south another patriot general, San Martin, had trained a Chilean-Argentine patriot army in Argentina and led a similar surprise attack in the Andes that defeated Chilean royalists followed by a victory in Lima.  “A year after capturing Lima and declaring Peruvian independence his army had bogged down, unable to finish the job.  At this point, Bolivar invited San Martin to a personal meeting…” (Chasteen 108) in Guayaquil, Ecuador, after which San Martin resigned from the army, left for Europe, and Bolivar finished the job and the final assault on Spanish power in South America—the independence of “Bolivia” and, after the last battle of the wars for Spanish-American independence, the Battle of Ayacucho in 1824, Peru.  Only Cuba and Puerto Rico remained under Spanish control as they would for the rest of the century.