Wars of Independence, South America

views updated

Wars of Independence, South America

By the end of the eighteenth century, there were increased complaints in colonial South America against Spanish rule: the restrictions on direct trade outside the empire, the discrimination against American natives in appointment to high office, and other grievances real and imaginary. The dynamic economies of Caracas and Buenos Aires were more inconvenienced by Spanish commercial policy than were silver-mining Peru and Upper Peru (modern Bolivia), where economic growth was slower. Likewise, there was awareness of the American Revolution and, among the educated, familiarity with the liberal and democratic political ideas emanating from France and the Anglo-Saxon world. But in the two Perus, for example, the dominant Hispanic minority, its fears of the Indian majority heightened by memory of the Túpac Amaru revolt of 1780–1781, was hesitant to set in motion a process of change that it might not be able to control.

Prior to the Napoleonic invasion of Spain and the deposition of the Spanish royal family in 1808, there was little interest in outright independence; indeed there was widespread support for the Spanish Central Junta formed to lead resistance against the French.

Some of the colonists would have preferred to set up autonomous juntas to rule in the king's absence. But the first efforts to create such juntas were thwarted by colonial officials who remained loyal to the Spanish junta. Indeed, the first junta actually set up in America, at Montevideo in September 1808, was an ultraloyalist body whose leaders doubted the fealty to Spain of the French-born acting viceroy of the Río de la Plata, Santiago de Liniers y Bremond.

By contrast, juntas in La Paz in July and Quito in August 1809 were the work of colonists who were determined to take control into their own hands, even though still professing allegiance to Ferdinand VII. In Quito, such professions were perfectly sincere. There the junta was led by members of the local nobility who wished to preserve existing social structures yet were convinced of their own right to a greater voice in political affairs. To exercise regional power in the name of a distant monarch seemed a perfect formula for achieving these objectives. It was not acceptable, however, to the viceroy of Peru, José Fernando Abascal, who dispatched forces to Quito as well as to La Paz to suppress the juntas.


In the first half of 1810 the continuing decline of Spanish fortunes in the war against Napoleon inspired colonial activists to try again. On 19 April leading Creoles in Caracas established a junta to take the place of the Spanish captain-general of Venezuela, and on 25 May a similar junta emerged in Buenos Aires. Santa Fe de Bogotá followed on 20 July with a junta that initially included the viceroy of New Granada but soon dismissed his services. Santiago de Chile obtained its junta on 18 September, while Quito set up another of its own on 22 September. Peru conspicuously held aloof, but in Upper Peru by the end of the year a revolutionary army sent from Buenos Aires had introduced a new political order.

All the new governments initially pledged allegiance to the captive Ferdinand VII, but they lost no time in asserting their own powers. They dismissed officials suspected of disloyalty and suppressed outright opposition by force. They opened ports to neutral trade, decreed changes in the tax system, and enacted other miscellaneous reforms. At Caracas the new leadership moved quickly to abolish the slave trade, though not to disturb the institution of slavery itself.

The more radical supporters of the new governments, such as Mariano Moreno, one of the secretaries of the Buenos Aires junta, used the press and political agitation to prepare Spanish Americans for more sweeping changes, publishing the first Latin American edition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract. In Caracas Francisco de Miranda joined Simón Bolívar and other revolutionary activists in founding the Sociedad Patriótica to promote public improvements and gain support for independence. The campaign succeeded when on 5 July 1811 Venezuela became the first of the Spanish colonies to declare outright separation from the mother country.


Well before the Venezuelan declaration, it had become clear that not everyone was prepared to accept the creation even of juntas ostensibly loyal to Ferdinand. The Buenos Aires junta had to cope with a counterrevolutionary conspiracy only weeks after it seized power, and its forces also met resistance—at first easily overcome—in their occupation of Upper Peru. Nor did Paraguay and Uruguay, both integral parts of the same Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata, accept its claim to rule.

Likewise, outlying Venezuelan provinces such as Maracaibo and Guayana refused to accept the leadership of Caracas and its junta, which proceeded to use force in a not very successful attempt to win their obedience. Guayaquil and Cuenca (in what is now Ecuador) rejected the establishment of the second Quito junta, exactly as they had rejected the first in 1809. The junta of Santa Fe de Bogotá faced the defiance of local juntas in places such as Cartagena that insisted they had as much right as anyone in the colonial capital to exercise the power of deposed royal officials, as well as the defiance of certain areas that wanted to maintain as far as possible the colonial status quo. Peru, moreover, continued to stand apart, despite miscellaneous plotting and a minor uprising (quickly suppressed) in June 1811 at the southern town of Tacna, inspired in part by the presence of Buenos Aires forces nearby in Upper Peru.

One source of opposition to the unfolding new order was the peninsular Spaniards, who included most top colonial bureaucrats and churchmen as well as many of the wealthiest merchants. These by and large opposed any alteration in the formal relationship between America and Spain, preferring to obey whatever rump government continued to hold sway in some part of Spain. However, the Spanish element was nowhere numerous enough to control events unaided, particularly as creole officers and other Spaniards already integrated by marriage and other ties were heavily represented in the military command structure.

Among the creoles some remained distrustful of change. Others were alarmed by the efforts of the Buenos Aires forces invading Upper Peru to enlist support, for tactical reasons, of the Upper Peruvian Indian majority. The Indians, however, distrusted the intentions of the newcomers from the south and generally avoided entanglement. Black slaves and pardos (free blacks) in Venezuela looked askance at a revolution led by slave-owning, race-conscious creoles and were often susceptible to the appeals of loyalist opponents—even though the new government had outlawed the slave trade and in its December 1811 republican constitution outlawed discrimination on racial grounds.

The best predictor of alignments for and against the revolution was regional rivalry. It was no accident that Maracaibo and Guayana, whose political subordination to Caracas dated only from 1777 and were still not wholly reconciled to it, refused to follow the orders of the Caracas junta; nor that distant Paraguay, whose mostly mestizo population spoke more Guaraní than Spanish and felt few cultural or other ties with Buenos Aires, failed to accept the revolutionary authorities in the port city as successors to the viceroy. Guayaquil in Ecuador resented the domination of Quito and felt greater attraction, economically and otherwise, to Lima; it therefore collaborated with Peru's loyalist Viceroy Abascal.

Similar divisions of sentiment on regional lines could be seen in Peru itself. Still mindful of past Indian revolts, even reform-minded creoles in Lima generally continued looking for change to come within the imperial system. Yet in the Peruvian high-lands resentment of Lima's hegemony was sufficiently intense for groups of disaffected creoles and mestizos to throw support to sporadic Indian uprisings over concrete local abuses, as at Huánuco in 1812. Two years later, creoles and mestizos in Cuzco who resented Lima and chafed under the rule of the local audiencia launched an uprising and enlisted the support of the Indian leader Mateo García Pumacahua (see Pumacahua Rebellion), until then a staunch loyalist. The more successful he was in recruiting other Indians, however, the more the original supporters of the rebellion had second thoughts. In the end, all highland uprisings were put down.

The resources at the disposal of the Peruvian viceroy not only proved capable of quelling outbreaks in Lima's Andean hinterland but (as in 1809) effectively defended the legitimist cause in neighboring colonies. Quito autonomists were again bested by forces from Lima—though not until 1812, by which time they had got around to a half-hearted declaration of independence. Peruvian armies supplemented by local levies similarly rolled back, in 1811, the Buenos Aires forces that had occupied Upper Peru the year before; and they repelled new invasions from the same direction in 1813 and 1815. Finally, the viceroy's forces restored Spanish authority in Chile in a campaign of 1813–1814 whose successful conclusion led to an exodus of Chilean patriots seeking refuge on the eastern side of the Andes.


Revolutionary authorities in what is now Argentina went through a series of transformations from junta to junta, from first to second triumvirate, and finally a succession of "supreme dictators," in the course of which they enacted measures to limit the power of the church, expand individual liberties, and promote ties with northern Europe, but not formally declaring independence until 1816. They managed to hold the northwestern provinces against counterattacking loyalists from Upper Peru, who in 1812 penetrated as far as Tucumán. Yet after an unsuccessful campaign early in 1811 to bring Paraguay into obedience, they watched as Paraguayans in May 1811 set up their own junta, in practice independent of both Spain and Buenos Aires.

Argentine forces became bogged down in Uruguay in a confusing contest among pro-Spanish loyalists, local Uruguayan patriots, adherents of Buenos Aires, and Portuguese troops sent from neighboring Brazil in the hope of winning a foothold for Portugal in the Río de la Plata. In the short term the victor was the Uruguayan leader José Gervasio Artigas, to whom Buenos Aires forces turned over the city of Montevideo in February 1815, a year after they had wrested it from the Spanish. In 1816 superior forces from Brazil made a clean sweep and annexed the entire area.


Fortunately for those loyal to Spain, Venezuela was closer than the Río de la Plata not just to Spain itself but, more important, to Cuba and Puerto Rico, where colonial rule was not yet seriously challenged. With reinforcements from Puerto Rico as well as Venezuelan recruits, the Spanish commander Domingo de Monteverde in March 1812 launched an offensive against Venezuela's republican government and almost immediately received the fortuitous help of a major earthquake that wreaked havoc on Caracas and other patriot-held centers. Republican morale as well as material resources suffered, but the new regime was already weakened by internal dissension. Appointment of Francisco de Miranda as dictator in April could not stave off defeat. Soon after the patriots' loss of the strategic coastal fortress of Puerto Cabello, Miranda capitulated, on 25 July 1812. Taken prisoner in violation of the surrender terms (when a group of former associates prevented his escape), Miranda was shipped to a Spanish prison, where he died in 1816.

This loss was by no means the end of the fighting in Venezuela. Early in 1813 a group of patriots led by Santiago Mariño, who had early taken refuge in Trinidad, began carving out a base of operations in the east, and later in the year Bolívar, who had fled first to Curaçao and then to Cartagena, crossed into Venezuela from the west, with backing from an independent government established in New Granada. After a successful whirlwind campaign, Bolívar reentered Caracas on 6 August; however, he did not restore the 1811 Venezuelan constitution but ruled in effect as military dictator.

Earlier on his way to Caracas Bolívar had issued his decree of "War To the Death" that promised execution for any Spaniard not actively supporting independence. This measure did not initiate but rather formalized the increasing brutality of the war in Venezuela. It was never uniformly applied in practice. However, the harshest phase of the struggle was about to come, as royalist guerrilla leaders exploited not just regional but ethnic and social tensions to build up irregular forces of devastating effectiveness. Especially damaging to the patriot cause were the llaneros (plainsmen) of the Orinoco Basin, skilled horsemen of generally mixed race and recently threatened in their way of life by the attempt of creole landowners (for the most part now patriots) to convert the previously open range of the region into large private estates. Recruited by the royalists, they helped chase Bolívar and other revolutionary leaders into exile or hiding once more by the end of 1814.

Bolívar again made his way to New Granada, where since 1810 the revolutionists had contained royalist forces in certain regional enclaves but became enmeshed in their own internecine disputes. The most important of these quarrels pitted Santa Fe de Bogotá, which under the leadership of Antonio Nariño aspired to bring together all New Granada under a centralist form of government, against other provinces that wanted a loose federation. Lacking any effective general organization, the provinces of New Granada declared independence in piecemeal fashion—Cartagena as early as 1811 and Santa Fe two years later. But the patriots proved unable tomaintain their independence. Nariño was taken captive in mid-1814 while on a campaign against one of the royalist enclaves and shipped to prison in Spain like the Venezuelan Miranda.

The return of Bolívar later that year did not save the situation. Weakened by their disunity, New Granada's patriots were no match for the veteran troops that Spain was able to send to America following the final defeat of Napoleon and the restoration of Ferdinand VII. An expeditionary force led by Pablo Morillo reached Venezuela in early 1815, after the patriot regime there had collapsed, and proceeded later that year to New Granada. Morillo took Cartagena after a bitter siege in December; a column dispatched to the interior entered Santa Fe in 1816.


By mid-1816, the one part of Spanish South America where the revolutionists clearly had the upper hand was present-day Argentina, where formal independence was at last declared on 9 July 1816. Moreover, the first indication of a definitive turning of the tide was the successful crossing of the Andes early in 1817 by a joint army of Argentines and displaced Chilean patriots under the command of Argentina's José de San Martín. Coming out into the Central Valley of Chile, San Martín defeated the royalists in the battle of Chacabuco on 12 February. San Martín suffered one serious defeat before his second major triumph in the battle of Maipú on 5 April 1818. Meanwhile, however, he set up a revolutionary government in Chile, which he entrusted to his Chilean collaborator Bernardo O'Higgins, and that government finally issued Chile's declaration of independence in February 1818.

A few royalist enclaves remained after Maipú, but San Martín could now start preparing for an expedition northward to Peru, which had all along been his ultimate objective. He landed in Peru in September 1820 and consolidated a coastal foothold while hoping for either a general uprising in his favor or a negotiated peace with the Spaniards. Neither one occurred, but the royalists did withdraw their forces to the highlands, allowing San Martín to occupy Lima, where he proclaimed Peruvian independence on 28 July 1821. He organized a government and decreed various liberal reforms but was still avoiding a frontal assault on the royalist armies massed in the Andes when in July 1822 he traveled to Guayaquil to confer with his Venezuelan counterpart, Bolívar.

In the north the fortunes of war had changed even more radically. Bolívar had left New Granada slightly before Morillo restored it to royalist control, spending time in the West Indies. In 1816 he returned to Venezuela, ultimately joining forces with José Páez and other llaneros. Bolívar failed to dislodge the royalists from the Venezuelan highlands, but with Páez's help he created a patriot stronghold in the Llanos and in the east, organizing a government at Angostura on the lower Orinoco River.

In mid-1819 Bolívar scored his greatest military triumph by turning westward from the llanos to the heart of New Granada, where the royalists faced mounting discontent and a rise in patriot guerrilla activity. Bolívar's army climbed the Andes and on 7 August 1819 won a crucial victory in the battle of Boyacá. After that, resistance quickly collapsed in the central core of the colony, including Santa Fe de Bogotá which Bolívar entered three days after Boyacá.

It took three more years to expel the royalists from all outlying areas of New Granada, but meanwhile Bolívar and Páez liberated Andean Venezuela, where the definitive engagement was fought at Carabobo in June 1821. Panama fell into Bolívar's hands later the same year through a local uprising. Another spontaneous revolt had earlier deposed the royalist authorities at Guayaquil, and Bolívar commissioned his trusted lieutenant Antonio José de Sucre to proceed there to organize a campaign against Quito. Sucre's efforts culminated in victory at Pichincha, 24 May 1822, on the very outskirts of Quito, which sealed the liberation of the Ecuadorian highlands.

In July 1822 Bolívar pressured Guayaquil into joining the Republic of Colombia—formally established by the Congress of Cú cuta of 1821 to comprise all the former Viceroyalty of New Granada. He also conferred with San Martín on what still remained to be done. The details of their discussions remain a matter of controversy, but the upshot is known: San Martín resigned his command in Peru, clearing the way for Bolívar in 1823 to accept a Peruvian invitation to come and take command. Bolívar had the difficult task of combining his Colombian forces with the Chileans and Argentines left behind by San Martín and local recruits; and the Peruvian patriot leader proved fickle. The royalist armies still holding the Peruvian Andes were larger than any he had faced before. Eventually, however, Bolívar mounted a campaign that resulted in Sucre's victory at Ayacucho on 9 December 1824. It was the last major engagement of the war in South America. Royalist resistance in Upper Peru crumbled soon afterward, and the last Spanish fortress in South America, at the Peruvian port of Callao, surrendered in January 1826.


The Wars of Independence had uneven effects. Venezuela, where population may even have declined slightly, was hardest hit, while Paraguay was affected hardly at all. Agriculture was frequently disrupted and livestock herds decimated by passing armies, but in most cases the recovery of grazing and crop farming needed little more than time and good weather. Mine owners, however, suffered widespread destruction of shafts and equipment, and merchants had seen their working capital diverted to military expenses on both sides of the struggle.

The conflict left the newly independent governments with a burden of domestic and foreign debt, as well as a class of military officers, many of humble background, who were often unwilling to accept a subordinate peacetime role. Others who backed the losing side suffered loss of positions or confiscation of assets, but there was little change in basic social structures. One of the few exceptions was a sharp decline in slavery due to (among other factors) the drafting of slaves for military service in exchange for freedom.

Additional changes flowed not from the nature of the fighting but from the breakdown of imperial controls resulting in expanded contacts with the non-Spanish world and elimination of barriers to trade with countries outside the empire. Foreign ideas and customs likewise found penetration easier, mainly among the educated and more affluent upper social sectors.

See alsoBogotá, Santa Fe de; Nariño, Antonio; Quito; Río de la Plata; Sucre Alcalá, Antonio José de.


The best overview in any language is that contained in the pertinent chapters of John Lynch, The Spanish-American Revolutions, 1808–1826, 2d ed. (1986). Valuable monographs on specific regions include Tulio Halperin Donghi, Politics, Economics, and Society in Argentina in the Revolutionary Period (1975); Simon Collier, Ideas and Politics of Chilean Independence, 1808–1833 (1967); Timothy Anna, The Fall of the Royal Government in Peru (1979); Stephen K. Stoan, Pablo Morillo and Venezuela, 1815–1820 (1970); Charles W. Arnade, The Emergence of the Republic of Bolivia (1957); and John Street, Artigas and the Emancipation of Uruguay (1959).

Additional Bibliography

Archer, Christon. The Wars of Independence in Spanish America. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2000.

Guerra, François-Xavier. Las revoluciones hispánicas: Independencias americanas y liberalismo español. Madrid: Editorial Complutense, 1995.

Rodríguez O, Jaime E. The Independence of Spanish America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Terán, Marta and José Antonio Serrano Ortega. Las guerras de independencia en la América española. Zamora, Mexico: Colegio de Michoacán, 2002.

                                        David Bushnell