Independence in Latin America

Independence movement in Latin America
Independence movement in Latin America
The period from the 1770s to the 1820s has been aptly called the Age of Revolution. In North America and Europe, the successful independence struggle of the United States in the American Revolution was quickly followed by the French Revolution and, soon after, the Napoleonic Wars, transforming the political map of Europe.

The American and French Revolutions also reverberated across the southern part of the Western Hemisphere, first in Saint-Domingue (Haiti), where slave and free mulatto rebels seized on the French revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity to launch the only successful large-scale slave rebellion in the history of the Americas.

The events of the Haitian Revolution, in turn, reverberated back across the Americas and Europe. Subsequent events unfolded in rapid succession, such that by the mid-1820s all but a handful of American colonies had gained their independence from Spain and Portugal.

The long and medium-term origins of Latin American independence movements can be traced to Enlightenment notions of republicanism and the contractual basis of government; the unintended consequences of the Bourbon reforms, which sparked a growing sense of Creole nationalism; the examples of the United States and France (in contrast to the Haitian Revolution, which horrified elites across the Americas, especially slave owners, and served as a cautionary tale in unleashing the tiger of popular discontent); and related factors. Their short-term trigger was the Napoleonic invasion of Iberia in 1807–08.

The forced abdication of King Ferdinand VII created a crisis of authority in Spain, which in turn generated a crisis of authority in Spain’s American colonies. In the absence of royal authority, who would exercise and wield it? From whence would the authority to govern derive?

Creole Moves Toward Independence

These were the questions that prompted the formation of cabildos abiertos, or open town councils, from 1810 in Spanish America’s largest cities: Caracas, Buenos Aires, Cartagena, Cali, Bogotá, Santiago, Mexico City, and elsewhere. While each followed a distinct trajectory, in essence these cabildos abiertos represented Creoles’ seizure of political authority from, or in the name of, the deposed king.

In most such cabildos, opposing camps quickly emerged: conservatives, who favored continued obedience to royal authority, and autonomists, who favored moving toward independence. If middling positions, factions, and ambiguities abounded, the major tendencies, like the overall direction of change, were clear.

Most Creole elites understood that independence ultimately would be achieved. The more pressing questions were when would independence be achieved, and how would the Creole population go about attaining it.

Creole elites desirous of independence soon found themselves walking a tightrope: The struggle for independence must not undermine existing relations of privilege and power within the Americas. The lessons of Haiti, and of local traditions of popular discontent and rebellion, resounded loudly throughout the halls of the cabildos abiertos and beyond.

Soon, opponents of moving quickly toward independence could invoke another powerful object lesson: the massive uprising led by the Creole priest Miguel Hidalgo in Mexico, beginning in September 1810.

The specter of Hidalgo’s ragtag army of upwards of 100,000 dirt farmers and unemployed mestizos and Indians looting granaries, slaughtering Spaniards, and standing on the outskirts of Mexico City before dispersing and its remnants being crushed by the Spanish army, sent shock waves throughout the colonies, much as the Haitian Revolution had done.

Creole revolutionaries would thus seek to achieve a political revolution from above—formal independence—without sparking a social revolution from below. Knowing that war is a powerful solvent of existing social hierarchies, Creole rebel leaders strove to prevent long-standing relations of power and privilege from dissolving in the cauldron of armed conflict. On the whole they succeeded.

Another major influence on the course of events was the profound regionalism in Spanish and Portuguese South America—a consequence of the continent’s historical development as producer of primary export products, the coastal orientation of major population centers, a rudimentary transport and communications infrastructure, and major geographic barriers (especially the Andes and the Amazon Basin). Independence movements thus assumed very different characters in different parts of the empire.

Severing Links to Europe

The first region to sever the link with Spain was Río de la Plata, the youngest viceroyalty and furthest removed geographically from the metropole. Creole elites in Buenos Aires and Montevideo actually began their fight for national self-determination in 1806, two years before Ferdinand VII’s abdication, in their battle against a British invasion of Buenos Aires.

The Creoles’ resounding defeat of the British expeditionary force in 1807 demonstrated to them the weakness of Spain’s defenses and their own power to influence events. Peninsular Spaniards tried to put the genie of independence back into the bottle, but events had overtaken them. “The great victory of Buenos Aires,” wrote the Argentine statesman Bartolomé Mitre years later, gave Creoles “a new sense of nationality.”

In what was later called the May Revolution, on May 25, 1810, a Creole-dominated cabildo effectively assumed political control of the province of Buenos Aires. There followed a complex series of struggles and intrigues among Creole factions, and between the interior provinces and Buenos Aires, which lasted through the 1810s and after.

In the process, Río de la Plata lost control of Upper Peru (Bolivia), a major source of income by virtue of the silver trade. While the political entity called the Republic of Argentina did not come into existence until 1862, the upshot was clear: The Río de la Plata region was the first to gain independence from Spain. It was quickly followed by Paraguay in May 1811, under the leadership of José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, who ruled the country as an autocrat until his death in 1840.

Independence Movements

To briefly summarize the complex sequence of events that followed, from this point the independence movements in South America basically developed from two main centers and under two principal leaders: from northern South America under Simón Bolívar, and from Chile under José de San Martín—the latter a Creole from Corrientes in the north of present-day Argentina, educated in Spain, who returned to Buenos Aires in 1812 to join the fray.

The overall course of their military campaigns can be conceived as a kind of giant pincer movement, with Bolívar first liberating the region of Venezuela-Colombia in the years 1810–1821 before moving southwest to Peru, and with San Martín first crossing the Andes and liberating Chile in 1814–1818 before moving north, with the help of the British Lord Cochrane and linking up with Bolívar in Peru.

The final battles took place in Peru in 1824, with Bolívar’s able commander General Antonio José de Sucre delivering the final blow against the remaining Spanish forces in the Battle of Ayacucho on December 9, 1824. Henceforth, all of Spanish South America was independent.

In subsequent years, patriotic narratives about the liberation leaders’ courage and heroism became the stuff of myth and legend, as in Bolívar’s epic crossing of the Andes in May–August 1819, or San Martín’s fabled January–February 1817 march across the Andes into Chile, where he joined forces with the Chilean patriot Bernardo O’higgins.

Similarly lauded were the exploits of the illiterate llanero (plainsman) José Antonio Páez on the llanos of Venezuela, who outfoxed the Spaniards time and again and went on to become Bolívar’s ally, the first president of the republic of Venezuela in 1830, and one of the country’s wealthiest landowners.

These and other events have spawned a vast literature. An especially memorable moment came in the storied meeting between the two giants of liberation, Bolívar and San Martín, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, in July 1822.

No one knows what was said at these meetings, only that two months later San Martín resigned his position as protector of Peru, withdrew from the struggle, and, a year later, departed from South America, never to return, leaving Bolívar the uncontested title of liberator of the continent.

Political and Economic Legacies

The legacies of the independence movements were no less complex. If political independence had been achieved without sparking a major conflagration from below, one consequence was the persistence of profoundly unequal relations of power and privilege: between the propertied and unpropertied, lettered and unlettered, light-skinned and dark-skinned, male and female.

Social mobility increased by degrees, as mestizos gained in power and came to rule most of the emergent nation-states. The institution of African slavery came through the independence period intact, if weakened by virtue of slaves’ participation in the liberation armies. In Venezuela, for instance, the slave population diminished by about one-third.

The structural subordination of Indians and Indian communities persisted throughout the period of independence. The Catholic Church largely retained its economic, political, and much of its moral power, becoming a bastion of conservatism after the dust of war had settled.

The patriarchal family, patriarchy, and ideologies of honor and shame came through the struggles wholly intact. The endurance of preindependence social hierarchies bequeathed a legacy of inequality and racism that would continue to bedevil the continent into the 20th century and beyond.

The economic destruction wrought in the independence struggles was immense. Many regions took decades to regain their preindependence levels of production and commerce. The legacy of militarism was also profound, as the caudillo (political-military strongman), of which Venezuela’s Páez is emblematic, became the key locus of political power in the newly independent nation-states.

Liberal democracy remained for many a foreign concept, in a place that for nearly 300 years had seen the formation of no substantial democratic institutions or traditions of power sharing.

In these and other ways, the political independence of Latin America was both a revolutionary break with the past and a profoundly conservative process; with the reins of power switching hands, new nation-states created, and the nexus between Europe and the Americas growing denser, the vast majority remainied as poor and as disempowered as under Spanish rule.

Yet if continuities with the past were many, much had changed as well, as the reality of independence and the integration of the Atlantic world created the possibility of broader social, political, and economic transformation.

Brazil’s Peaceful Revolution

In Brazil, in contrast, independence came not with war but with the solemn cry “Independence or Death!” of Prince Dom Pedro, the son of Portuguese King João VI, as he drew his sword while striding along the banks of the Ipiranga River on September 7, 1822. This famed Cry of Ipiranga, a popular mythology of Brazilian independence, obscures a far more complex sequence of events.

In brief, as Napoleon’s armies approached Lisbon in November 1807, Prince Regent João, his wife Princess Carlota, his mother Queen Maria I, his sons Dom Pedro and Dom Miguel, and the entire royal family and court—some 10,000 to 15,000 people all told—climbed aboard the ships of a combined Portuguese-British convoy and set sail for Rio de Janeiro, where they arrived in March 1808, after a brief stop in Bahia, and reestablished the Portuguese government.

Portugal’s largest and most important colony, in essence, suddenly became its own metropole; the exile of the House of Braganza in Brazil from 1807 to 1821 is the only instance in which European monarchs ruled an empire from a colony.

The arrival of the royal family and court transformed Rio de Janeiro and Brazil. Mercantilist commercial restrictions were lifted, leading to a boom in commerce and trade, mostly with Great Britain.

Manufacturing restrictions were abolished; a royal bank was established; Brazil’s first printing press and first newspaper began operation in 1808; and soon after libraries, schools, military academies, medical colleges, and cultural institutes were founded. With the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the clamor mounted in Portugal for the royal family’s return.

Rather than hasten back to Portugal, on December 16, 1815, João VI proclaimed Brazil a kingdom on equal footing with the metropole, the “United Kingdoms of Portugal, Brazil, and the Algarves.” João finally did return to Portugal, in April 1821, in response to a major revolt, leaving his son Prince Pedro behind.

Impetuous and romantic, Dom Pedro soon found himself at loggerheads with the Côrtes in Portugal, which sought to return Brazil to subordinate colonial status. It was his receipt of an order from the Côrtes to return that prompted Dom Pedro’s famous “Fico” (“I will stay”) on January 9, 1822, and in September of that year, his Cry of Ipiranga.

Brazil’s peaceful path to independence has been interpreted as a prudent strategy on the part of the colony’s dominant groups, especially its slave-owning planter class. It was a way to gain political independence without risking the tumult and disorder of war.

Brazil had the largest slave population in the Americas, with nearly 2 million in 1820, a white population of around 1 million, and total population of less than 4 million. The lessons of Haiti were still fresh on the minds of slave owners, not only in Brazil but in other slave-holding colonies, especially Cuba.

Brazil’s elites chose a path to independence that left existing relations of power and privilege intact. Cuba’s elites, in contrast, opted to remain under Spanish dominion rather than risk unleashing the wrath of the enslaved.

In these and other ways, the specter of violence from below profoundly shaped the timing and nature of independence struggles in Latin America. The extent to which these Latin American revolutions were truly revolutionary remains a matter of debate, though the broad consensus is that continuity, not change, was the predominant tendency, at least in the short term.

Perhaps the major interpretive challenge confronting scholars of this period lies precisely in disentangling these changes and continuities, while at the same time situating the Latin American historical experience within the broader framework of the entwined social, political, economic, and cultural transformations that marked the birth of modernity and the Age of Revolution in the Atlantic world and beyond.