Latin America, Colonies To Nations

From Colonies To Nations

Author: Various

By the late 18th century, the Creole elites expressed a growing

self-consciousness as they began to question the policies of Spain and

Portugal and the very necessity of remaining in a colonial relationship. At

the same time, these elites were joined by the majority of the population in

resentment of the increasingly heavy hand of government as expressed in the

new taxes and administrative reforms of the 18th century. But the shared

resentment was not enough to overcome class conflicts and divisions. Early

movements for independence usually failed because of the reluctance of the

colonial upper classes to enlist the support of the Indian, mestizo, and

mulatto masses who might later prove too difficult to control. The actual

movements were only set in motion when events in Europe precipitated actions

in America.

Causes Of Political Change

Latin-American political independence was achieved as part of the general

Atlantic revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and

Latin-American leaders were moved by the same ideas and influenced by the same

trends as those seeking political change elsewhere in the Atlantic world. Four

external events had a particularly strong impact on political thought in Latin

America. The American Revolution from 1776 to 1783 provided a model of how

colonies could break with the mother country. George Washington and Thomas

Jefferson seemed to be examples of "Creole" leaders, and the revolutionary

ideas of Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and the Declaration of Independence were

eventually smuggled into Latin America. The French Revolution of 1789 provoked

great interest in Latin America, and its slogans of "liberty, equality, and

fraternity" appealed to some sectors of the population. As that revolution

became increasingly radical, it was rejected by the Creole elites who could

not support regicide, rejection of the Church's authority, and the social

leveling implied by the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

The third external event was really an extension of the French

Revolution. Torn by internal political conflict during the turmoil in France,

the whites and free people of color in St. Domingue - France's great island

sugar colony in the Caribbean - became divided. The slaves siezed the moment

in 1791 to stage a great general rebellion. Under able leadership provided by

Toussaint L'Overture and other blacks, various attempts to subdue the island

were defeated and in 1804 the independent republic of Haiti was proclaimed.

For Latin-American elites, Haiti was an example to be avoided. The spectre of

general social upheaval and of slaves becoming their own masters so frightened

them that they became even more unwilling to risk political change. It was not

accidental that neighboring Cuba and Puerto Rico, with plantations and slaves

and acutely aware of events in Haiti, were among the last of Spain's colonies

to eventually gain independence. For slaves and free people of color

throughout the Americas, however, Haiti became a symbol of freedom and hope.

What eventually precipitated the movements for independence in Latin

America was the confused Iberian political situation caused by the French

Revolution and its aftermath. Portugal was invaded by the French in 1807, and

in 1808 Napoleon placed the king of Spain and his son Ferdinand VII under

arrest and forced them to abdicate in favor of his brother Joseph Bonaparte

who then sought to rule Spain backed by French bayonets. A general

insurrection erupted in 1808 and was followed by a long guerrilla war. During

the fighting a central committee, or junta central, ruled in Ferdinand's

absence, in opposition to Napoleon's brother who also claimed to be king.

Who was the legitimate ruler? By 1810 the confusion in Spain had provoked

a crisis in the colonies. In a number of places such as Caracas, Bogota,

and Mexico, Creoles pretending to be loyal to captive Ferdinand set up juntas

to rule in his name, but they effectively ruled on their own behalf. "The mask

of Ferdinand" fooled few people and soon the more conservative elements of the

population, those still loyal to Spain and royal officials, opposed the

movements for autonomy and independence. A crisis of legitimacy reverberated

throughout the American colonies.

Spanish-American Independence Struggles

The independence movements divided into three major theaters of

operation. In Mexico, a conspiracy among leading Creoles moved one of the

plotters, the priest Father Miguel de Hidalgo, to call for help from the

Indians and mestizos of his region in 1810. He won a number of early

victories, but eventually lost the support of the Creoles who feared social

rebellion more than they desired independence. Hidalgo was captured and

executed, but the insurgency smoldered in various parts of the country.

Eventually, after 1820 when events in Spain weakened the king and the central

government, conservative Creoles in Mexico were willing to move toward

independence by uniting with the remnants of the insurgent forces.

Augustin de Iturbide, a Creole officer at the head of an army that had

been sent to eliminate the insurgents, drew up an agreement with them instead,

and the combined forces of independence occupied Mexico City in September,

1821. Soon thereafter, with the support of the army, Iturbide was proclaimed

emperor of Mexico.

This was a conservative solution. The new nation of Mexico was born as a

monarchy, and little recognition was given to the social aspirations and

programs of Hidalgo and his movement. Central America was briefly attached to

the Mexican Empire, which collapsed in 1824. Mexico became a republic, and the

Central American states, after attempting union until 1838, split apart into

independent nations.

In South America and the Caribbean the chronology of independence was a

mirror image of the conquest of the 16th century. Formerly secondary areas

like Argentina and Venezuela, slowest to be settled in the 16th century, were

among the first to opt for independence and the best able to achieve it, while

the old colonial center in Peru was among the last to break with Spain. The

Caribbean islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico - among the first of Spain's

American possessions - fearful of slave rebellion and occupied by large

Spanish garrisons, remained loyal until the end of the 19th century.

In northern South America, a movement for independence centered in

Caracas had begun in 1810. After early reverses, Simon Bolivar, a wealthy

Creole officer, emerged as the leader of the revolt against Spain. With

considerable military skill and a passion for independence, he eventually

mobilized support, and between 1817 and 1822 he won a series of victories in

Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. Until 1830 these countries were united into

a new nation called Gran Colombia. Political differences and regional

interests led to the breakup of Gran Colombia. Bolivar became disillusioned

and fearful of anarchy. "America is ungovernable," he said, and "those who

have served the revolution have plowed the sea." To his credit, however,

Bolivar rejected all attempts to crown him as king and remained until his

death in 1830 firmly committed to the cause of independence and republican


Meanwhile in southern South America another movement had coalesced under

Jose de San Martin in the Rio de La Plata. Buenos Aires had become a booming

commercial center in the late 18th century and its residents, called portenos,

particularly resented Spanish trade restrictions. Pushing for freedom of

trade, they opted for autonomy in 1810 but tried to keep the outlying areas,

such as Paraguay, under their control. The myth of autonomy rather than

independence was preserved for a while. By 1816, however, the independence of

the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata had been proclaimed, although the

provinces were far from united. Upper Peru (Bolivia) remained under Spanish

control, Paraguay declared independence in 1813, and the Banda Oriental

(Uruguay) resisted the central authority of Buenos Aires.

In Buenos Aires, Jose de San Martin had emerged as a military commander

willing to speak and act for independence. From Argentina his armies crossed

the Andes to Chile to help the patriot forces in that colony. With victories

there, the patriot forces looked northward. Peru, the seat of the old

viceroyalty and the scene of the Indian rebellion of Tupac Amaru in the 1780s,

remained under Spanish rule. Its upper class was deeply conservative and

little attracted to the movements for independence. San Martin's forces

entered Peru and Creole adherence was slowly won. With victories like the

battle of Ayacucho in 1824, royalist forces were defeated. By 1825 all of

Spanish South America had gained its political independence. Despite various

plans and programs to create some form of monarchy in many of the new states,

all of them emerged as independent republics with representative governments.

The nations of Spanish America were born of the Enlightenment and the ideas of

19th century liberalism.

Brazilian Independence

Although the movement for independence in Brazil was roughly

contemporaneous to those in Spanish America and many of the causes were

similar, independence was achieved by quite a different process. By the end of

the 18th century, Brazil had grown in population and economic importance and

had clearly become the dominant part of the Portuguese colonial system. The

expansion of European demand for colonial products, such as sugar, cotton, and

cacao, contributed to that growth and also to the intensification of slave

imports to the colony. While Brazilian planters, merchants, and miners

sometimes longed for more open trade and fewer taxes, they feared that any

upsetting of the political system might lead to a social revolution or, even

worse, a Haitian-style general slave uprising. Thus incipient movements for

independence in Minas Gerais in 1788 and Bahia in 1798 were unsuccessful. As

one official said, "Men established in goods and property were unwilling to

risk political change."

The Napoleonic invasions provoked a different outcome in Portugal than in

Spain. When in 1807 French troops invaded Portugal, the whole Portuguese royal

family and court were able to flee the country and, under the protection of

British ships, sailed to Brazil. A new court was established at Rio de

Janeiro, which then became the effective capital of the Portuguese Empire.

Brazil was raised to equal status with Portugal, and all the functions of

royal government were set up in the colony. As a partial concession to England

and to colonial interests, the ports of Brazil were opened to world commerce,

thus satisfying one of the main desires of the Brazilian elites. Unlike

Spanish America, where the Napoleonic invasions provoked a crisis of authority

and led Spanish Americans to consider ruling in their own name, in Brazil the

transfer of the court brought royal government closer and tended to reinforce

the colonial relationship.

From 1808 to 1820 the Portuguese king, Dom Joao VI, resided in Brazil and

ruled his empire from there. Rio de Janeiro was transformed into a capital

city with a public library, botanical gardens, and other improvements.

Printing presses began to operate in the colony for the first time, schools

were created, and commerce, especially with England, boomed in the newly

opened ports. The Brazilian elite were given noble titles and offices in order

to win their loyalty to the government, but the arrival of many Portuguese

bureaucrats and nobles with the court also created jealousy and resentment.

Still, during this period Brazil was transformed into the seat of empire, a

fact not lost on its most prominent citizens.

Matters changed drastically in 1820 when, after the defeat of Napoleon in

Europe and a liberal revolution in Portugal, the king was recalled and a

parliament convoked. Jo Atao VI, who loved Brazil, was reluctant to leave,

but realizing that his return was inevitable, he left his young son Pedro as

regent, warning him that if independence had to come, he should lead the

movement and not some "adventurer." Although Brazilians were allowed

representation at the Portuguese Parliament, it became clear that Brazil's new

status was doomed and that it would be "recolonized." After demands that the

prince regent also return to Europe, Pedro refused, and in September 1822

declared Brazilian independence. He became Dom Pedro I, constitutional emperor

of Brazil. Fighting against Portuguese troops lasted a year, but Brazil

avoided the long wars of Spanish America. Brazil's independence did not upset

the existing social organization based on slavery nor did it radically change

the political structure. With the brief exception of Mexico, all of the former

Spanish-American colonies became republics, but Brazil became a monarchy under

a member of the Portuguese ruling house.

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