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The two regions
Inca gold
Independence movements
     Ripples from Europe
     Colonial society and change
     First stirrings of independence

Bolívar & San Martín
Peru, Bolivia, Mexico
20th century

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Ripples from Europe: 1791-1808

In most of Latin America, isolated within the Spanish and Portuguese empires, the upheavals in France in 1789 have little immediate effect - other than as a talking point of great topical interest. But the French islands in the Caribbean are more directly linked with these distant events. As early as 1791 the slaves in Saint Domingue, the western half of the island of Hispaniola, conclude that revolution has its attractions for them too.

Their uprising rapidly succeeds, being protected by the British navy from French retaliation. By 1801 the whole of Hispaniola is under the control of the first revolutionary hero of Latin America, Toussaint L'Ouverture.


If events during the French wars have little effect elsewhere in Latin America, it is partly because Spain and Portugal play at first relatively minor roles in the conflict. But this changes abruptly in 1807-8, following an unexpected act of aggression by Napoleon.

It is unlikely that Napoleon could predict the domino effect which results, on the other side of the Atlantic, when he sends French armies into the Iberian peninsula and usurps the Spanish crown. But with his passion for upsetting the old order, the self-appointed emperor could only be delighted by the way the dominoes tumble.


Colonial society on the eve of change: 1809

Never has lasting political change occurred so rapidly over such a large area as in Latin America in the sixteen years from 1809. Moreover this sudden transformation is entirely unforeseen. These are regions which have lived without major upheaval for three centuries under authoritarian Spanish rule. Recently the heady ideals of the American and French revolutions have led some (particularly among the Creoles) to dream of change. But there has been little sign of active rebellion.

In the Spanish-American social hierarchy, an exceptionally well-defined pecking order based on birth, the Creoles come second.


At the top of the social tree are Spaniards born in the Iberian peninsula who have come out to America to take up an official position in government or church, or else to make their fortunes; they are known as peninsulares or gachupines (a local word for Spaniards).

It has always been Spanish policy to favour the peninsulares, in terms of appointments to high and profitable office, above the Creoles - the term for people of pure European origin born in the American continent. As the local aristocracy, with an ancient stake in the region, the Creoles profoundly resent being discriminated against in this way. If there is to be a nationalist rebellion against Spain, its leaders will come from their class.


Lower down the social scale are four other equally specific groups. Next in esteem are the mestizos, people of mixed European and American-Indian ancestry; since there were few Spanish women in America in the early decades of colonization, many mestizo familes are of long standing. Below them are a more recent phenomenon, the mulattos, of mixed European and African blood.

At the bottom of the social heap are two racially pure groups: the American Indians, the indigenous people of the continent surviving as peasants and poor labourers; and the African-Americans, most of whom at this stage still have the status of slaves.


The event which sparks a conflagration among these people of Spanish America has nothing to do with the continent itself. In 1808 Napoleon invades Spain, secures the abdication of the Spanish king Ferdinand VII, and places on the throne his own brother Joseph Bonaparte.

This unexpected circumstance provides two good reasons for independent action in Spanish America. With no Spanish government in Spain, it can be argued that the provinces overseas must look after themselves (a theme implying long-term independence, attractive to many Creoles). Equally, and more acceptable to the peninsulares, it can be said that interim local governments should now be set up on behalf of the deposed Spanish king.


First stirrings of independence: 1809-1811

The first two outbreaks of rebellion occur high in the Andes during 1809. In May in Chuquisaka (now Sucre, the capital of Bolivia) the governors of the university defy the Spanish authorities, proclaiming instead their loyalty to Ferdinand VII. Their example is soon followed by other groups in the province, some of them demanding independence.

Three months later in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, patriots rise in a bid for independence. In both Bolivia and Ecuador these first rebellions are soon put down and their leaders executed. But the theme is infectious, and the following year sees a positive rash of rebellions through south and central America.


On 19 April 1810 Venezuelan officers expel the Spanish governor from Caracas and form a junta to run the province. On May 25 a regional government takes over in Buenos Aires, in Argentina, on behalf of Ferdinand VII.

Next it is the turn of Bogota, the capital of the Spanish viceroyalty of New Granada, where on July 20 the royal officials are thrown out and a local regime is established. Again the new government's stated allegiance is at this stage to the deposed king, Ferdinand. Only somewhat later is complete independence claimed (and it takes nine years more to secure it), but 20 July 1810 is the date commemorated in Colombia as independence day.


In Mexico there is the first unsuccessful attempt at rebellion on September 16 (a date also taken now as the nation's independence day). Two days later in Santiago, the capital of Chile, an open town meeting (cabildo abierto) accepts the peaceful resignation of the Spanish governor and appoints a local junta to run the province.

This completes the revolutionary changes of 1810, but 1811 adds similar events in two other regions. On May 14 the settlers in Paraguay expel their Spanish governor and declare independence. And during this year, further south, the cowboy leader José Artigas besieges the Spanish garrison in Montevideo and begins the long struggle for Uruguay's independence.


Two of the most important regions of south America are missing from this account of the revolutionary years of 1809-11. One is Peru, the most conservative and stable of the Spanish viceroyalties. It becomes an accepted fact among the liberation activists that there is no chance of a home-grown revolution here. So the region, vital in the broader campaign against Spanish imperialism, becomes the target of San Martín's famous invasion.

The other is Brazil, part of the Portuguese rather than the Spanish empire. Brazil secures internationally recognized independence in a more peaceful manner than anywhere else in the subcontinent - but not until 1822, long after the main story begins with Bolívar in Venezuela.


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