Wars of Independence: South America

Article excerpt

During the next fourteen years, sixteen different nations of the Americas will commemorate the bicentennial of their independence. The succession of celebrations will mark the removal of the Spanish king by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Portuguese king's escape to Brazil, and civil wars and guerrilla struggles against the armies of the French. These events, and many others, occurred between 1810 and 1824, destabilizing the colonial regimes and eventually leading to the convulsions that brought forth new nations from Mexico to Buenos Aires.

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Americas magazine will accompany the bicentennial celebrations in the upcoming years by presenting a number of articles on the history of the independence period. They will cover a range of topics including specific national rebellions, leaders, and ideological conflicts, as well as the changes in society engendered by these wars. The history of this period is replete with stories that have determined the identity of our nations, and they all deserve to be told. Americas hopes that our selection of articles will be a starting point that will stimulate more interest and study by our readers.

The following is an article by Professor David Bushnell, a preeminent historian of the Latin American wars of independence in Spanish South America. Professor Bushnell's work is an overview focused on South America and so it does not include the many stories from Mexico, Central America, and Brazil. But stay tuned; subsequent issues will include tales of New Spain, the social revolution led by Father Hidalgo and Jose Morelos in Mexico, Mexican independence, and the formation of five independent Central American nations. They will also tell of the arrival of the Portuguese royal family in Brazil; Rio de Janeiro's shift from being the capital of a colony to the center of an empire; and of the final declaration of an independent Empire of Brazil by royal Prince Pedro.

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By the end of the eighteenth century, the number of complaints against Spanish rule in colonial South America had increased considerably. Restrictions on direct trade outside the empire and discrimination against American natives in appointment to high office were high on the long list of grievances, real and imaginary. The educated class in South America was aware of the American Revolution in the north and familiar with the liberal and democratic political ideas emanating from France and the Anglo-Saxon world.

While talk of separation from Spain was growing, however, the desire for independence was not unanimous in the colonies. The dynamic economies of Caracas and Buenos Aires were more inconvenienced by Spanish commercial policy than were silver-mining Peto and Upper Peru (modem Bolivia), where economic growth was slower. And in the two Perus, the dominant Hispanic minority--its fears of the Indian majority heightened by memory of the Tupac 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 (governing council) 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. In fact, the first junta actually set up in the Americas, at Montevideo in September 1808, was an ultra loyalist body whose leaders doubted the fealty to Spain of the French-born acting viceroy of the Rio 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, while still professing allegiance to Ferdinand VII. …