Causes of the Latin American Revolution

Portrait Of Simon Bolivar
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As late as 1808, Spain's New World Empire stretched from parts of the present-day western US to Tierra del Fuego in South America, from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. By 1825, it was all gone except for a handful of islands in the Caribbean—broken into several independent states. How could Spain's New World Empire fall apart so quickly and completely? The answer is long and complicated, but here are some of the essential causes of the Latin American Revolution.

Lack of Respect for the Creoles

By the late eighteenth century, the Spanish colonies had a thriving class of Creoles (Criollo in Spanish), wealthy men and women of European ancestry born in the New World. The revolutionary hero Simon Bolivar is a good example, as he was born in Caracas to a well-to-do Creole family four generations of whom who had lived in Venezuela, but as a rule, did not intermarry with the locals.

Spain discriminated against the Creoles, appointing mostly new Spanish immigrants to important positions in the colonial administration. In the audiencia (court) of Caracas, for example, no native Venezuelans were appointed from 1786 to 1810. During that time, ten Spaniards and four creoles from other areas did serve. This irritated the influential Creoles who correctly felt that they were being ignored.

No Free Trade

The vast Spanish New World Empire produced many goods, including coffee, cacao, textiles, wine, minerals and more. But the colonies were only allowed to trade with Spain, and at rates advantageous for Spanish merchants. Many Latin Americans began selling their goods illegally to the British colonies and after 1783, U.S. merchants. By the late 18th century, Spain was forced to loosen some trade restrictions, but the move was too little, too late as those who produced these goods now demanded a fair price for them.

Other Revolutions

By 1810, Spanish America could look to other nations to see revolutions and their results. Some were a positive influence: The American Revolution (1765–1783) was seen by many in South America as a good example of elite leaders of colonies throwing off European rule and replacing it with a more fair and democratic society—later, some constitutions of new republics borrowed heavily from the U.S. Constitution. Other revolutions were not as positive. The Haitian Revolution, a bloody but successful uprising of slaves against their French colonial owners (1791–1804), terrified landowners in the Caribbean and northern South America, and as the situation worsened in Spain, many feared that Spain could not protect them from a similar uprising.

A Weakened Spain

In 1788, Charles III of Spain, a competent ruler, died and his son Charles IV took over. Charles IV was weak and indecisive and mostly occupied himself with hunting, allowing his ministers to run the Empire. As an ally of Napoleon's First French Empire, Spain willingly joined with Napoleonic France and began fighting the British. With a weak ruler and the Spanish military tied up, Spain's presence in the New World decreased markedly and the Creoles felt more ignored than ever.

After Spanish and French naval forces were crushed at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Spain's ability to control the colonies lessened even more. When Great Britain attacked Buenos Aires in 1806–1807, Spain could not defend the city and a local militia had to suffice.

American Identities

There was a growing sense in the colonies of being separate from Spain. These differences were cultural and often a source of great pride among Creole families and regions. By the end of the eighteenth century, the visiting Prussian scientist Alexander Von Humboldt (1769–1859) noted that the locals preferred to be called Americans rather than Spaniards. Meanwhile, Spanish officials and newcomers consistently treated creoles with disdain, maintaining and further widening the social gap between them.

Racism

While Spain was racially "pure" in the sense that the Moors, Jews, gypsies and other ethnic groups had been kicked out centuries before, the New World populations were a diverse mixture of Europeans, Indians and blacks brought in as slaves. The highly racist colonial society was extremely sensitive to minute percentages of black or Indian blood. A person's status in society could be determined by how many 64ths of Spanish heritage one had.

To further muddle things up, Spanish law allowed wealthy people of mixed heritage to "buy" whiteness and thus rise in a society that did not want to see their status change. This caused resentment within the privileged classes. The "dark side" of the revolutions was that they were fought, in part, to maintain a racist status quo in the colonies freed of Spanish liberalism.

Final Straw: Napoleon Invades Spain 1808

Tired of the waffling of Charles IV and Spain's inconsistency as an ally, Napoleon invaded in 1808 and quickly conquered not only Spain but Portugal as well. He replaced Charles IV with his own brother, Joseph Bonaparte. A Spain ruled by France was an outrage even for New World loyalists: Many men and women who would have otherwise supported the royalist side now joined the insurgents. Those who resisted Napoleon in Spain begged the colonials for help but refused to promise to reduce trade restrictions if they won.

Rebellion

The chaos in Spain provided a perfect excuse to rebel and yet not commit treason. Many Creoles said they were loyal to Spain, not Napoleon. In places like Argentina, colonies "sort of" declared independence, claiming they would only rule themselves until such time as Charles IV or his son Ferdinand was put back on the Spanish throne. This half-measure was much more palatable to those who did not want to declare independence outright. But in the end, there was no real going back from such a step. Argentina was the first to formally declare independence on July 9, 1816.

The independence of Latin America from Spain was a foregone conclusion as soon as the creoles began thinking of themselves as Americans and the Spaniards as something different from them. By that time, Spain was between a rock and a hard place: The creoles clamored for positions of influence in the colonial bureaucracy and for freer trade. Spain granted neither, which caused great resentment and helped lead to independence. Even if Spain had agreed to these changes, they would have created a more powerful, wealthy colonial elite with experience in administering their home regions—a road that also would have led directly to independence. Some Spanish officials must have realized this and so the decision was taken to squeeze the utmost out of the colonial system before it collapsed.

Of all of the factors listed above, the most important is probably Napoleon's invasion of Spain. Not only did it provide a massive distraction and tie up Spanish troops and ships, it pushed many undecided Creoles over the edge in favor of independence. By the time Spain was beginning to stabilize—Ferdinand reclaimed the throne in 1813—colonies in Mexico, Argentina, and northern South America were in revolt.

Sources

  • Lockhart, James, and Stuart B. Schwartz. "Early Latin America: A History of Colonial Spanish America and Brazil." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
  • Lynch, John. Simón Bolívar: A Life. 2006: Yale University Press.
  • Scheina, Robert L. "Latin America's Wars: The Age of the Caudillo, 1791–1899." Washington: Brassey's, 2003.
  • Selbin, Eric. "Modern Latin American Revolutions," 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2018.