Latin American Wars of Independence

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LATIN AMERICAN WARS OF INDEPENDENCE (1808–1826). The wars of independence in Latin America were watched with considerable interest in North America. Apart from the prospective commercial benefits that might flow from the end of Spain's trade monopoly, U.S. sympathy for an independent Latin America was grounded in the view that the wars of independence reflected the same republican ideals of freedom and liberty that had animated the creation of the United States.

Historians looking for long-term causes of the war of independence usually start in the middle of the eighteenth century with a series of reforms launched by the Spanish Bourbons aimed at gaining greater administrative control over, and increased tax revenue from, its possessions. By this period most of the positions in the Spanish bureaucracy in the Americas were held by Creoles (people of Spanish or European descent born in the Americas). However, under the Bourbons, Creole officials were increasingly replaced by Spanish-born (peninsulares) administrators.

Almost all layers of society in the Americas were antagonized by the Bourbon reforms. However, the colonial pact between the Creoles and the Spanish, which rested on a mutual wariness of the Indian, mestizo, and African majorities, ensured that a number of major revolts, such as the Tupac Amaru Rebellion of the early 1780s, came to nothing. Furthermore, the example of Haiti in the early 1790s, where a full-scale slave revolt had overthrown the French government and the planter elite, made many Creoles in Spanish America even more wary of calls for independence. Nonetheless, liberal, republican, and antimonarchist ideas, which would underpin the full-scale wars of independence in the early nineteenth century, were gaining ground by the end of the eighteenth century.

The more immediate origins of the wars of independence in Latin America are usually traced to the 1807 alliance between the Spanish crown and Napoleon Bonaparte, who placed his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne the following year. Spanish nationalists opposed to his ascendance responded by setting up a Central Junta in Seville. The Central Junta decreed that the Spanish territories in the Americas were free, and representatives from Spanish America were invited to Spain to participate in a reformed Cortés (parliament). However, the Junta collapsed in 1810, sowing confusion in both Spain and Spanish America.

Local and regional juntas in the Americas had initially aligned themselves with the Central Junta, and they took over the Spanish colonial administration in the name of Ferdinand VII. In 1810 the junta in Caracas (in the Captaincy-General of Venezuela), still claiming loyalty to Ferdinand, went a step further and rejected the authority of the Spanish Council of Regency that had succeeded the Central Junta in Cádiz. Similar revolts in Chile, Argentina, and New Spain came in the wake of events in Caracas.

The most socially progressive movement for independence at this point was one that was emerging in the Viceroyalty of New Spain, and was led by the priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla. Hidalgo succeeded in mobilizing the Indian and mestizo population of central Mexico, killing at least 2,000 peninsulares. The specter of a "race" war quickly united the Creoles and the Spanish authorities, and Hidalgo's revolt was brought under control. The leadership mantle then passed to another priest, José María Morelos, who organized a particularly effective military force, outlined a political program that included major political and social reforms, and managed to hold out against Spanish forces until 1815.

The death of Morelos highlighted the fact that, within a year of Ferdinand VII's restoration to the Spanish throne in 1814, Spanish military forces in the Americas had put down virtually all resistance. However, Britain and the other main powers in Europe were worried that Spain's repressive measures would make things worse in the Americas and also stimulate republican revolution in Europe. As a result Spain was encouraged to make political and economic concessions to its possessions. The latter were particularly favored by Great Britain and the United States because of the anticipated commercial opportunities that this might open up. At the same time, the loosening of Spanish control only encouraged those, such as Simón Bolívar, who were advocating complete independence from Spain.

By the beginning of the 1820s, Britain's foreign secretary, George Canning, and U.S. President James Monroe were competing in an effort to give support to, and gain influence in, an increasingly independent Latin America. This rivalry was symbolized by the promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, under the terms of which the United States warned Britain and the other European powers to stay clear of Latin America; however, its significance for much of the region was minimal until the twentieth century. This was particularly apparent, for example, in the case of the move to independence in Portuguese-ruled Brazil. The movement for independence there was a relatively brief affair that led to the establishment of a monarchy in 1822 under Pedro I, the son of the Portuguese king who had been exiled in Brazil from 1807 until 1821. This particularly conservative transition to independence attracted limited U.S. interest, while Britain was a key player in Brazil throughout this period.

While Brazil had emerged as an independent monarchy by the 1820s, the Spanish empire in the Americas had fragmented into a number of independent republics. These new nation-states were often connected economically more to the expanding world market than to each other. England's thirteen colonies in North America, for geographical and commercial as well as political reasons, had earlier managed to break the bonds of British rule while remaining united as a political unit. However, politics, economics, and geography were not conducive to the emergence of the united polity in Spanish America that had been envisioned by Simón Bolívar, the region's most prominent leader.


Graham, Richard. Independence in Latin America: A Comparative Approach. 2d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994. The original edition was published in 1972.

Kinsbruner, Jay. Independence in Spanish America: Civil Wars, Revolutions, and Underdevelopment. 2d rev. ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000. The original edition was published in 1994.

Langley, Lester D. The Americas in the Age of Revolution 1750– 1850. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996.

Lynch, John. The Spanish American Revolutions 1808–1826. 2d rev. ed. New York: Norton, 1986. The original edition was published in 1973.

Rodríguez O., Jaime E. The Independence of Spanish America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. The original edition was published in Spanish in 1996.

Mark T.Berger

See alsoColonial Administration, Spanish ; Republicanism .


1700: The Habsburgs are replaced by the Bourbons on the Spanish Throne.

1776: The Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata is established.

1778: The system of monopoly ports is brought to an end in Spanish America following the "Decree of Free Trade" (comercio libre).

1780–1781: Tupac Amaru Rebellion in Peru.

1789: The Portuguese bring an end to an independence conspiracy in Brazil.

1806: Francisco de Miranda launches an independence bid for Venezuela; first British defeat in Buenos Aires.

1807: Second British defeat in Buenos Aires; Napoleon Bonaparte invades Portugal; the Portuguese monarchy and government flee to Brazil.

1808: Ports in Brazil are opened to British trade; Joseph Bonaparte ascends the Spanish throne; Central Junta of Seville coordinates anti-French effort; the members of the elite in Montevideo (Uruguay) organize a junta loyal to the Central Junta; the Viceroy in Mexico leads an attempted revolt.

1809: Juntas established in Bolivia and Ecuador are defeated.

1810 (January): Central Junta of Seville defeated and replaced by the Spanish Council of Regency.

1810 (April): Junta in Venezuela assumes power and overthrows the Captain-General.

1810 (May): Junta ousts Viceroy in Buenos Aires.

1810 (July): Junta takes power in Paraguay and in Colombia.

1810 (September): The Hidalgo Revolt begins in Mexico; junta becomes the government in Chile.

1811: Congress in Venezuela declares independence; Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla is captured and executed in Mexico; a triumvirate assumes power in Buenos Aires; the United Provinces of New Granada is established; José Gervasio Artigas retreats from Uruguay following a threat of Portuguese invasion from Brazil.

1812: A new constitution is promulgated in Spain; Spanish forces crush the independence movement in Venezuela.

1813: The French Army is driven from Spain by the British Army and Spanish guerrillas; José Gervasio Artigas reinvades Uruguay.

1814: Ferdinand VII is restored to the Spanish throne; Montevideo is occupied by insurgents fighting for independence; Spanish forces defeat insurgents in Chile.

1815: José María Morelos is captured and executed by Spanish forces; Simón Bolívar writes the Jamaica letter that lays out his political philosophy.

1816: Bogotá is occupied by Spanish forces; the Congress of Tucumán is convened in Argentina; a new Viceroy arrives to reconsolidate Spanish rule in Mexico.

1818: José San Martín decisively defeats the Spanish army in Chile.

1819: Simón Bolívar is victorious against the Spanish army at Boyacá.

1820: Liberal revolts in Spain and Portugal; Agustin Iturbide unifies independence forces in Mexico around the Three Guarantees.

1821 (April): John VI transfers control of Brazil to his son, Pedro, and returns to Portugal.

1821 (July): Independence leader José San Martín takes control in Lima.

1821 (August): Mexico becomes independent.

1822 (July): An independent Gran Colombia is established under Simón Bolívar's leadership; Ecuador is formally decreed to be part of Gran Colombia.

1822 (September): Brazil is declared an independent empire by Pedro I.

1823: Portuguese forces are driven from Brazil.

1824: Battle of Ayacucho leads to an independent Peru.

1825: Bolivia liberated by José Antonio de Sucre.

1828: Uruguay gains independence from Brazil.

1830: Simón Bolívar dies; Gran Colombia breaks into Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador.

SOURCE: Adapted from Graham, Independence in Latin America, first edition, pp. 137–138.

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Latin American Wars of Independence

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