Creole Nationalism

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Creole Nationalism

The concept of Creole nationalism is increasingly employed in studies of nineteenth-century nationalism, most notably with reference to the independence period of Latin American history (1808–1826). The precise genealogy of the concept is unclear. While the term nationalism had long been employed, often loosely, to describe the creation of the Latin American republics, Creole nationalism appears to derive from the more familiar Creole patriotism. John Leddy Phelan had linked the "first glimmerings of a Mexican national con-sciousness" (1960, p. 760) to the late colonial Creole neo-Aztecism, but it fell to D. A. Brading to bring Creole patriotism to the forefront of Latin American historiography in his study of the emergence of Mexican nationalism, whence it found its way into the wider historiography on Latin America.

Brading locates the transformation of Creole patriotism into Creole nationalism at the Congress of Chilpancingo in 1813, at which the first Mexican Declaration of Independence was framed: "Creole patriotism, which began as the articulation of the social identity of American Spaniards, was here transmuted into the insurgent ideology of Mexican nationalism" (1991, p. 581). However, the concept's widespread presence in studies of European nationalism and of nationalism as a discrete field of study dates from the publication of Benedict Anderson's seminal Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983).

To a degree, the emergence of Creole nationalism depended upon the enormous expansion of the public sphere after 1850, above all the increasing availability of newspapers and other printed materials. The spread of literacy was reflected in literary output. Scholars have followed Anderson in focusing on fictional literature as a site for exploring nationalism, though most would locate the beginnings of a mature nationalist sentiment only from the last decades of the nineteenth century; indeed, the best example of a Creole nationalist novel comes not from Latin America but from the Spanish Philippines—the martyred José Rizal's (1861–1896) Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) of 1887.

Anderson's contribution to the study of nationalism generally was to focus attention on American political projects and relate these to debates on the origins and nature of European nationalisms. His thesis had in certain measure been adumbrated in Hugh Seton-Watson's Nations and States: An Enquiry into the Origins of Nations and the Politics of Nationalism (1977). Historical and political science writings on nationalism had assumed that it was a European innovation—whether "primordial" or of post-1789 genesis—thereby blithely discounting the possibility that nationalism might have emerged outside of Europe.

Anderson challenged this assumption. As he put it, the "close of the era of successful national liberation movements in the Americas coincided rather closely with the onset of the age of nationalisms in Europe" (1991, p. 67). The qualifier implies that American nationalism was solely a Creole ideology and movement(s), and is commonly used with reference to elite rather than subaltern Creole groups; indigenous, casta (mixed-race), and "free black" and slave groups are thus excluded from nationalist projects, whether incipient or consummated. This raises the conundrum of how a valid nationalism can be said to exist when it excludes the vast majority of the putative "nation." Accordingly, historians have sought alternative neologisms to describe a relatively sophisticated, sometimes radical, elite Creole yearning for a greater measure of authority and control in the affairs of each respective viceroyalty—something akin to dominion status appears to be the ruling assumption.

Historian Eric Van Young views the Mexican insurgency of 1810 to 1821 as the "first great war of national liberation" (2001, p. 7)—albeit embracing two wars, anticolonial and internecine—while Alan Knight prefers the rubrics of "proto-patriotism" or "proto-nationalism" to describe the same events, arguing that Creole nationalism "was far from requiring the establishment of a Mexican nation: it sought, rather, a relaxation of metropolitan control, a greater measure of home rule" (2002, p. 284). It is clear that in the well-studied case of Mexico, a great popular insurgency in the countryside, studded with messianic and "naive monarchical" features, was largely independent of alternative political projects by elite Creole groups in Mexico City and other large urban centers.

That the terms Creole patriotism and Creole nation-alism are so often used interchangeably reflects a very real ambivalence on the part of historians both about the inherent vagueness of the concept and its applicability to the foundational histories of the Latin American republics. Some historians interpret the palpable Creole awareness of their distinct identity, and their raft of grievances via-à-vis American-based peninsular Spaniards, as a Creole conciencia de sí (awareness of self) or a maturing "American identity" that was strongly cultural in expression. This seems altogether different from Anderson's formulation of nation as "something capable of being consciously aspired to early on, rather than a slowly sharpening frame of vision," (1991, p. 67) though his definition approximates more to the concept of "amor a la patria y pasión nacional" (love of fatherland and nation and passion for one's nation) developed by the influential Spanish Benedictine Fray Benito Jerónimo Feijoo (1676–1764)—who also defended Creole talents—in his encyclopedic Teatro Crítico Universal (Universal Theater of Criticism, 1753–1755).

Certainly, the roots of Creole nationalism lay deep, the product of the three-century-long rivalry between Creoles and peninsulars over the latter's preferential access to jobs in the upper reaches of colonial government and the judiciary; indeed, over their arrogant bearing and dismissive view of the Creoles as feckless and morally and intellectually inferior to peninsular Spaniards (a view that implied that the Americans' very environment rendered them ipso facto decadent and unfit for high office). This pejorative view of Americans was actively countered in the public sphere, with Creole intellectuals mounting a spirited defense not only of the innate personal qualities of Creoles but also of all things American.

These Creole-peninsular tensions were especially marked in Mexico, and it was there that Creole worth found its staunchest defenders, most notably the historian and statesman Carlos María de Bustamante (1774–1848) and Fray Servando Teresa de Mier (1765–1827)—especially against radically anti-Creole Spanish publicists like Juan López de Cancelada. More impartial judges, such as Feijoo and Humboldt, buttressed Creoles' pride in their achievements, although it was Humboldt who also averred that Creole identity was predicated on Spanish foundations, because "the colonies have neither history nor national literature … [and] … have lost their national individuality" (Brading 1991, p. 519). Elsewhere, the writings of the Italian Jesuit Francisco Javier Clavigero (1731–1787) and the abbé Dominique de Pradt (1759–1837) served to combat the disparaging observations of Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon (1707–1788), Guillaume-Thomas Raynal (1713–1796), Corneille de Pauw 1739–1799), and William Robertson (1721–1791), who had all disseminated disdain for Creole achievements, character, and capacities.

North American independence offers a different vision of hemispheric nationalisms. It is clear that the formation of the United States represents a case of nationalism in action, but one that excluded the numerous indigenous and slave populations in a manner similar to the exclusion of indigenous, mixed-race, and African descendants from the process of Mexican independence. If the patriot movement in the thirteen American colonies may be regarded as genuinely nationalist, why then not the "war of national liberation" in Spanish America?

By the same token, if the Spanish War of Independence (the Peninsular War, 1808–1814) from French occupation is conventionally seen as a nationalist endeavor, why not the coeval, Spanish-American wars of independence from Spain itself? The United States exemplifies the way in which an imagined national community could be expansionist. The thirteen colonies at independence approximated the size of Venezuela, but burgeoned as a national bloc with the addition of French Louisiana, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Alaska, and Hawaii. Creole nationalism carried within it the seeds of expansionism.

Nevertheless, the concept of Creole nationalism contributes little to an understanding of the several transnational political projects of the Latin American independence era. Creole elites were behind both the formation and destruction of the short-lived, failed states of Greater Colombia (1819–1830) and the Central American Republic (1823–1830). Moreover, the political imaginaries of Simón Bolívar (1783–1830) and Francisco de Miranda (1750–1816) embraced a continent (South America), while a project for a New Peruvian Empire that would unite southern Peru and the regions that became Bolivia and Argentina emerged in the course of the failed Cuzco Revolution of 1814 to 1815.

Moreover, Mexican independence eventually came in the form of a short-lived empire (1822–1824), and Brazil remained an independent empire from 1822 until 1889. Indeed, some Creoles had aspirations to a constitutional monarchy, notably those of Miranda and the Argentine "liberator" José de San Martín (1778–1850). Insofar as "Creole nationalism" has any utility as an explanation of national formation in Spanish America, it surely underscores also the weakness of Creole nationalist endeavors and the innate impracticality of alternative Creole political imaginaries.

Within Spanish America, Creole patriotism seems at certain times and places to be robust, elsewhere to be paper-thin, opportunistic, and transitory. Many historians therefore would argue that, at independence, the state preceded the nation and the onset of nation, and nationalism is to be found in the late nineteenth century. Argentine nationalism seemed like an expression of the aspirations of Buenos Aires Province, as with so much of Argentine history. The sense of being Uruguayan or Paraguayan seemed hedged by localism, and nationalistic aspirations were defined more by antipathy to the Creole expansionism of Argentina and Brazil than by dissatisfaction with Spanish rule per se. In Brazil, an emerging Creole patriotism tended also to be subservient to regional identity, thereby precluding much in the way of a widespread identification with nation.

As Anderson puts it, that "well-known doubleness in early Spanish-American nationalism, its alternating grand stretch and particularistic localism" (1991, p. 62), was evident in all Latin American nationalist movements during the Atlantic revolution. Manifestly lacking in most Creole nationalist projects was a sense of social cohesion and inclusiveness, of cross-class and cross-racial horizontal solidarity. Only the failed Cuzco "Revolución de la Patria" of 1814 to 1815 witnessed an alliance that cut across all social categories, a somewhat rickety political bridge between elite and subaltern Creole, caste, and indigenous groups.

In Anderson's view, Creole nationalism provided the missing ingredient in forging an imagined community that allowed colonial subjects to defend themselves against empires and anciens régimes. However, in federal or poorly integrated republics or "empires," Creole nationalism was a fragile plant with shallow roots that sprouted unevenly. It flowered for a few decades and, having served its purpose, wilted with the onset of republican rule, which provided more fertile ground for Creole identity and self-interest.

see also Empire in the Americas, Spanish.


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Brading, D. A. The First America: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots, and the Liberal State, 1492–1867. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

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Van Young, Eric. The Other Rebellion: Popular Violence, Ideology, and the Mexican Struggle for Independence, 1810–1821. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.