Spanish American Independence

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Spanish American Independence

The humiliating defeats suffered by Spanish forces during the Seven Years War (1756–1763) included the capture by British forces of Havana, one of the economic and strategic jewels in the imperial crown. In response, the administration of Charles III (1716–1788), who ruled from 1759 to 1788, sought to increase the rate of the reform of colonial government in order to secure its grasp on its overseas possessions in the second half of the eighteenth century. José Gálvez (1729–1787) came to epitomize these Bourbon reforms; he was appointed minister of the Indies in 1776. New administrative territories were created (such as the viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata and the captaincy-general of Venezuela) in order to increase efficiency and hence revenues. The new position of intendant was established in order to centralize power and increase accountability to Spain. In addition, measures were introduced to facilitate colonial trade, and to increase mining output and taxation yields. The Bourbon reforms were aimed at maintaining and reinforcing colonial America's economic dependence on Spain; they were essentially a program of modernization within the established order.


The reforms were generally successful in bringing about growth in colonial commerce and income from taxation. They also brought to a head simmering tensions about taxation and identity in the colonial world, particularly in the Andean regions that saw themselves as benefiting less from imperial rule than coastal urban centers. This contributed to some major rebellions against colonial rule. Tax increases fostered resentment and, often, a desire to return to the colonial consensus when imperial officials and their local alliances had enjoyed considerable autonomy to interpret official laws in accordance with local circumstances. Two major rebellions seriously threatened the colonial project in the Andes. The 1780 and 1781 rebellions in Andean Peru and Upper Peru (now Bolivia), headed by the indigenous leader Tomás Katari in the latter and José Gabriel Condorcanqui (1742–1781), a Creole noble of indigenous heritage who renamed himself Túpac Amaru II, in the former, were particularly violent and memorable expressions of the resentment and bitterness that lurked beneath the predominantly peaceful Spanish rule in the region.

In 1781 the Comuneros of New Granada physically protested against the increased tax burden and demanded the king to remedy the bad policies being enacted upon them by his representatives in America. These rebellions (eventually contained by the imperial authorities and, particularly in the case of Túpac Amaru, harshly repressed) were staged in defense of identity and interests, although they later became seen as stages on the road to the development of national self-awareness. The late eighteenth century saw a series of political uprisings against Spain evoking freedom and independence and causing anxiety about the consequences should such sentiments spread among indigenous peoples, slaves, and freed people of color. The shadow of the Haitian Revolution was never far away, particularly in the Spanish circum-Caribbean where slavery was most prevalent.


As historian F. X. Guerra argued, the absolutist vision of imperial rule collapsed among Creoles after Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821) imposed his brother Joseph (1768–1844) as king of Spain in 1808. Old forms of representation such as cabildos (town councils) and municipios (municipalities) continued to be important, but loyalty to the king as the supreme representative of the pueblo (people) was destroyed. During 1808 to 1810 cities and towns across Spanish America declared their own autonomy and sovereignty while they awaited the return of the legitimate king, el deseado Ferdinand VII (1784–1833). Creoles filled the political vacuum in order to safeguard their own lives and property, and to preserve their positions at the top of the colonial social and racial hierarchies. The juntas formed on the basis of these fears and these colonial institutions, and the limited autonomies they represented became pathways toward independence during the subsequent extended period of confusion regarding the Spanish metropolitan political situation. But once the ties to Spain had been broken, they would never be fully repaired. In the words of historian John Lynch (1994), Spanish America could not remain a colony without a metropolis, or a monarchy without a monarch. In addition, the often violent and unsympathetic policy pursued by Spanish officials in their attempts to reconquer the rebellious colonies contributed to the disintegration of the colonial world.


In the decades preceding 1808, the Americas were a zone of conflict between Britain, France, and Spain for imperial control and influence, just as they had been in preceding centuries. Around 1796 Spain lost economic control of its American colonies, which increasingly convinced Creoles that they had been abandoned to their fate by a weakened, incapable, and indifferent imperial power. The Bourbon reform innovation of comercio libre did not mean the free trade of Adam Smith (1723–1790), but rather a protectionist policy of freedom for Spaniards to trade within the confines of an empire that was supposed to shelter them from economic rivals such as Britain. Nevertheless, the destruction of the Spanish fleet at Trafalgar in 1805 represented only the confirmation of a process that had developed over several decades in which British merchants became the principal agents for the import and export of goods to and from Spanish America. Repeated warfare between Spain and Britain disrupted official trade between the metropole and colonies and shifted large sections of trade into the hands of smugglers and those who dealt with them.

In addition, the wars surrounding Haitian independence entailed massive loss of life, and their geopolitical consequences were also considerable. Britain asserted itself further by taking Trinidad from Spain and Tobago and St. Lucia from France: All three were important staging posts toward influence on the Spanish American mainland. The constantly shifting geopolitical situation in the Western hemisphere between 1756 and 1808 meant that moves toward Hispanic American independence fully embraced contemporary Atlantic currents of ideology and commerce. In the subsequent attempts to establish republics independent of Spanish rule, Creoles repeatedly angled for the support and assistance of major foreign powers. They attempted to play off one against the other by offering commercial concessions and promises of future support. Diplomatic missions were repeatedly sent to London, Paris, Washington, and the Vatican. Receptions were almost always guarded and cautious with the powers, anxious not to offend Spanish sensibilities by explicitly supporting independence movements that in private they often welcomed or encouraged. British diplomatic recognition was predicated on the abolition of the slave trade by the new republics, something that each government promised to do with varying degrees of reluctance, depending on the importance of that trade to their economy. (Cuba, not coincidentally, was the most reliant on slave labor, and remained both a colony of Spain and a trader in slaves.)


From the beginning, farsighted Creoles saw that the fate of independence in their own locality would depend upon the success or otherwise of revolutions elsewhere in Hispanic America. There were two continental movements for liberation coming out of Buenos Aires and Caracas. In 1806 a British force operating somewhere between its official orders and own initiative in the South Atlantic attacked Buenos Aires, an event that was reported in newspapers across Hispanic America. Initially successful, the British were repelled within weeks by a Creole militia under Santiago Liniers (1753–1810) responding to the complete incapacity and inaction of the colonial defense forces. The British returned a year later and were again denied, and the seeds of independence were planted in Buenos Aires.

In 1810 the viceroy was deposed but the ambitions of the new Buenos Aires political and commercial elite to rule over its hinterland as the viceroy had done were to be frustrated. Upper Peru, Paraguay, Santiago de Chile, and the regions of present-day Argentina all refused to be ruled from Buenos Aires, triggering a decade of warfare for control of the new independence, and the establishment of several new republics outside of Buenos Aires' sphere of influence. Nevertheless, in 1814 the revolutionary government in Buenos Aires chose José Francisco de San Martín (1778–1850) as its military leader, and he went on to form the Army of the Andes and defeat Royalists in battles in Chile, most famously at Maipo in 1818. San Martín planned to assure the independence of Buenos Aires by expelling the viceroy of Peru from Lima—this he did in 1821.

The other movement toward independence, led by Simon Bolívar (1783–1830), came out of Venezuela, one of the first areas to declare independence from Spain. Patriotic declarations of independence and worthy and wordy constitutions were little defense, however, when a Spanish expedition under Pablo Morillo (1778–1837) finally arrived in Venezuela to begin a reconquest in 1814. The expedition encountered a population that had been ravaged by civil war and that had by no means irrevocably cast off its adherence to the Crown. Many people were easily persuaded to show allegiance to the reconquerors. Exploiting considerable differences between the patriotic factions, between rival towns, and between groups of diverse ethnic loyalties, by the end of 1815 virtually all of Venezuela, New Granada, and Ecuador was back under imperial rule, along with all of the viceroyalty of Peru that remained faithful to the Crown.

Forced into exile by the reconquest, Bolívar took up residence in Jamaica and then Haiti, where he wrote long letters justifying the struggle for independence and prepared new expeditions of liberation. In 1816 he sailed for Venezuela and began a long but eventually successful military campaign, building on the successes of other regional caudillos who had remained in Venezuela resisting the reconquista. Bolívar was successful in attracting over 7,000 European (mainly Irish) mercenaries to his cause between 1817 and 1820. In 1819 at the Congress of Angostura, in a small town on the side of the River Orinoco, Bolívar and his allies formally declared the Independence of the Republic of Colombia, encompassing the territories of Venezuela, New Granada, and Ecuador, where over the next three years Bolívar's armies would formally take control from the disintegrating and increasingly demoralized Royalist armies.

In Mexico, wherein uniquely Spanish American substantive ideas about national identity had developed during the colonial period, events took a different course. The symbol of the Mexican Virgin of Guadelupe was adopted by rebels in their struggle against Spain: the priest Miguel Hidalgo (1753–1811) took the Virgin of Guadelupe as his emblem when he declared an uprising with his Grito de Dolores on September 16, 1810. The situation in Mexico was made worse by drought and high food prices, which brought the hunger and despair of the rural poor more fully into the equation. Popular insurgency was essentially local, social, and agrarian rather than national or utopian, however, despite the Creole patriotism and belief in a Mexican identity, which united many intellectuals.

The uprising was eventually quelled by force and both Hidalgo, and his successor as leader José María Morelos (1765–1815), were executed. Spanish rule continued in Mexico, albeit weakened, until 1821. It finally fell when Agustin de Iturbide (1783–1824), a former Royalist soldier turned revolutionary leader, articulated plans for independent nationhood in his Plan de Iguala. In this appealing compromise, Mexico was to be an independent constitutional monarchy, closely linked to the Catholic church. Iturbide was independent Mexico's first emperor but he was powerless to overcome the economic, regional, and political problems that continued to beset the region and he was executed upon his return from an early exile in 1824. In the rest of Central America independence was a more fractured process, in which local power centers fought successfully to establish autonomy from Spain, from Mexico, and from Guatemala.


The two separate trajectories of military movements for independence in Hispanic South America, symbolized by their respective leaders Bolívar and San Martín, met in the coastal port of Guayaquil in 1822. The latter went into exile, whereas Bolívar orchestrated the Andean climax of the independence movements, leading his forces to victory over Royalists at Junín in 1824 and then retiring to Lima while his young general Antonio José de Sucre (1795–1830) finished the job at Ayacucho on December 10, 1824. Royalist resistance was finally defeated in the highlands during 1825, and in coastal strongholds such as Callao and Chiloe in 1826. (The Caribbean island colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo remained loyal to the Crown for several decades more.)

In the same year of 1826 Bolívar unveiled his constitution for the new republic of Bolivia, to be administered in the old colonial jurisdiction of Upper Peru, named after its great liberator. Bolívar's democratic ideals had been tempered by years of experience of popular protest, race conflict, and elite factionalism, and his constitution aimed to provide stability and authority for lands whose futures he feared would become ungovernable. The failure of Bolívar's constitution prefigured half a century in which elites sought to build nations, safeguard property and avoid bloodshed while remaining true to at least the rhetoric of liberty that had catalyzed their struggles for independence.


Lynch (1994) has argued that political independence had a demographic inevitability. The increasing numbers of Creoles and their consequent desire for influence became a constant and pressing thorn in the side of imperial policy. The ideological effects of intellectual innovations reverberating across the Atlantic world in the first quarter of the nineteenth century were also important in maintaining the conflict. Many of the Creoles involved in the juntas and the subsequent military and political struggles for independence formed part of the same liberal Atlantic world of the Enlightenment that fostered the 1812 Constitution of Cádiz in Spain. Bolívar, San Martín, Iturbide, and many others had traveled to London, read widely, and interpreted new ideas of freedom and equality in terms of what they saw as the unique circumstances of Hispanic America.

Nevertheless, the tipping-point toward inevitability had certainly not been reached by 1808. It was metropolitan crisis that combined with new colonial articulations of the revolutionary Atlantic in the wake of the American, French, and Haitian examples to create a unique Hispanic American (and not, at least initially, anticolonial) revolution and then independence. Despite fears of informal imperialism, and the shackles of debt and unfavorable trading relationships that beset the new republics in their early years, the events between 1808 and 1825 set into motion both short and long-term changes in social arrangements and relationships that would have been impossible under Spanish rule.

see also Empire in the Americas, Spanish; Haitian Revolution; Túpac Amaru, Rebellion of.


Fisher, J., A. McFarlane, and A. Kuethe, eds. Reform and Insurrection in Bourbon New Granada, and Peru. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.

Guerra, F. X. Modernidad e independencias, Madrid: Mapfre, 1992.

Kinsbruner, J. Independence in Spanish America: Civil Wars, Revolutions, and Underdevelopment. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994.

Lynch, J. Latin American Revolutions, 1808–1826: Old and New World Origins. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

Rodriguez, J. E. The Independence of Spanish America. Cambridge, U.K. and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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Spanish American Independence

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