Skip to main content

Central America, Independence of

Central America, Independence of

At the end of the eighteenth century the captaincy general of Guatemala, also known as the Kingdom of Guatemala, encompassed the five modern-day Central American republics as well as the state of Chiapas y Soconusco, today part of Mexico. At the time, the area had a population of about 1 million. Its urban centers did not boast large populations. Among the most important were Guatemala City, with approximately 20,000 inhabitants, and San Salvador, with fewer than 15,000. Communications among the provinces was difficult. Compared to New Spain and Peru, the captaincy general of Guatemala was of peripheral importance. The chief sources of wealth for its colonizers were land and Indians. Natural dyes were its chief exports.

The turn of the nineteenth century marked the beginning of events that would determine the destiny of the entire captaincy general of Guatemala. First, the Bourbon reforms gave political power to several cities, San Salvador among them, through the creation of Intendancies. Second, Napoleon's invasion of Spain in 1808 broke the economic connections necessary for the commercialization of Central America's prime source of revenue: indigo. Third, there was political upheaval, which brought about the revolt led by Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and José Morelos y Pavón in Mexico.

During this period, rash attempts to secure independence occurred in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras from 1811 to 1813. In 1814 a conspiracy against Spanish power arose in Guatemala City, but the authorities managed to quell it at its beginning. An important figure in these events was Field Marshal José Bustamante y Guerra, who from 1811 to 1818 fought any separatist attempts with a firm hand.

The political atmosphere in Guatemala City began to change in 1820, with the restoration of the liberal Constitution of 1812. On one side, radical professionals, educated at the University of San Carlos and led by Pedro Molina, attacked the old colonial system. On the other, a more conservative group, led by José Cecilio del Valle, kept hope alive for the continuation of Spanish power. Members of the Guatemalan elite sought to break the Spanish commercial monopoly that had brought them serious economic problems.

In 1821 events in Mexico changed the panorama. The Mexican criollos, under the leadership of Agustín de Iturbide, managed to move without major violence from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. News of Mexican independence and the Plan of Iguala spread rapidly throughout Central America. Chiapas joined the movement in September of that year. Field Marshal Gabino Gaínza yielded to demands for a meeting of the different institutions on 15 September. That day, after a stormy session, Guatemalan political independence was declared. Although control of the government remained in the hands of the Spanish bureaucracy under Gaínza, through a maneuver by conservatives, Guatemala was annexed to the Mexican Empire of Iturbide on 5 January 1822. In July of that same year, Iturbide sent Vicente Filísola to take possession of the captaincy general.

Rejection of the annexation by several Central American cities resulted in war, particularly against San Salvador. With the destruction of the Mexican Empire, Filísola convoked a constituent assembly that began 24 June 1823. On 1 July 1823 the assembly declared Central America free and independent, adopting the name United Provinces of Central America. This put an end to Spanish domination and the annexation to Mexico, and was the definitive beginning of independent life for the region.

See alsoCentral America; El Salvador; Guatemala; Guatemala City; Honduras; Iturbide, Agustín de; Molina, Pedro; Morelos y Pavón, José María; Nicaragua.


Mario Rodríguez, The Cádiz Experiment in Central America (1978).

Julio César Pinto Soria, Centroamérica: De la independencia al estado nacional (1800–1840) (1989).

Carlos Meléndez, La independencia de Centroamérica (1993).

Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr., Rafael Carrera and the Emergence of the Republic of Guatemala, 1821–1871 (1993).

Additional Bibliography

Dym, Irene, and Christophe Belaubre, eds. Politics, Economy, and Society in Bourbon Central America, 1759–1821. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2007.

Hawkins, Timothy. José De Bustamante and Central American Independence: Colonial Administration in an Age of Imperial Crisis. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 2004.

                                 Oscar G. PelÁez Almengor

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Central America, Independence of." Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture. . 18 Jan. 2019 <>.

"Central America, Independence of." Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture. . (January 18, 2019).

"Central America, Independence of." Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture. . Retrieved January 18, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.