Why did Spain's New World Colonies Rebel and Declare Themselves Independent?

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Why did Spain's New World Colonies Rebel and Declare Themselves Independent?

As late as 1808, Spain's New World Empire stretched from parts of the present-day US west to Tierra del Fuego, from the Caribbean to the Pacific. By 1825, it was all gone except for a handful of islands in the Caribbean. What happened? 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 points.

No Respect for the Creoles By the late eighteenth century, the Spanish colonies had a thriving class of creoles: men and women of European ancestry born in the New World. Simon Bolivar is a good example: his family had come from Spain generations before. Spain nevertheless appointed mostly native-born Spaniards to important positions in the colonial administration. For example, in the audiencia (court) of Caracas, no native Venezuelans were appointed from 1786 to 1810: during that time, ten Spaniards and four creoles from other areas served. 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 took to selling their goods illegally to British and American merchants. Spain was eventually forced to loosen some trade restrictions, but the move was too little, too late as those who produced these goods 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 was seen by many in South America as a good example 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 US Constitution). Other revolutions were negative: the Haitian Revolution 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.

Spain Weakened 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. Spain 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 1808, Spain could not defend the city: a local militia had to suffice.

Americans, not Spaniards There was a growing sense in the colonies of being different from Spain: these differences were cultural and often took the form of great pride in the region that any particular creole belonged to. By the end of the eighteenth century, the visiting scientist Alexander Von Humboldt noted that the locals preferred to be called Americans and not Spaniards. Meanwhile, Spanish officials and newcomers consistently treated creoles with disdain, 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 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: your status in society could be determined by how many 64ths of Spanish heritage you had. Spanish law allowed wealthy people of mixed heritage to "buy" whiteness and thus rise in a society which did not want to see their status change. This caused resentment with 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 free of Spanish liberalism.

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 Spaniards who resisted Napoleon begged the colonials for help but refused to promise to reduce trade restrictions if they won.

Rebellion The chaos in Spain made the perfect excuse to rebel and yet not commit treason: many said they were loyal to Spain, not Napoleon. In places like Argentina, colonies "sort of" declared independence: they claimed that they would only rule themselves until such a time as Charles IV or his son Ferdinand were put back on the Spanish throne. This half-measure was much more palatable to some who did not want to declare independence outright. Of course, there was no real going back from such a step and Argentina formally declared independence in 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. But had they 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 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.

Revolutionary Actions

Simon Bolivar, a creole (1783-1830), led the revolutions in Venezuela. He had spent time in both Europe and the newly independent United States, giving him first hand exposure to Enlightenment ideas and revolution. He teamed up with Jose de San Martin, and the two conducted campaigns throughout South America to liberate the areas from Spain. Bolivar was most active in Gran Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, while San Martin began his campaigns in Argentina and Chile before moving north to Peru as well.

Bolivar successfully adapted policies to attract new allies and build coalitions while leading the revolution. He led a volunteer army that suffered numerous defeats, even forcing Bolivar into exile twice. The turning point occurred in August 1819 when over 2,000 soldiers marched through the Andes into present-day Colombia, taking the Spanish army in Bogota by surprise and won a decisive victory. Further helping Bolivar’s cause, military revolt in Spain in 1820 weakened Spanish resolve to maintain the colonies. Venezuela won independence by 1821, which prompted Bolivar to march south into Ecuador where he met with Jose de San Martin, and together they would decide the future of the revolutionary movement in South America. Together, they would move to liberate Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia in 1824.

Jose de San Martin (1778-1850) spent much of his youth in Spain as a military officer, and even fought against Napoleon! He returned to Latin America to be part of its liberation from Spain, becoming the liberator of Argentina, Chile, and Peru. Discouraged by political infighting after the revolution, he returned to Europe and died on French soil in 1850.

Results of the Revolutions

Several new states formed in the aftermath of the revolutions. Gran Colombia became Venezuela, Ecuador, and Colombia, united together. Unfortunately for Bolivar, he died before having united all of South America, but was successful in uniting these three areas; attempts at unification were defeated due to geographic factors and cultural differences. Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Bolivia, and the United Provinces of Central America also emerged thanks to Bolivar and San Martin. These newly independent countries struggled with civil wars and military leadership often characterized their early governance.

Many of these countries were ruled by caudillos – military leaders. They overthrew governments and took away basic human rights. While some attempted to make improvements, most cared about themselves, their families, and their friends. Struggles for power resulted in coup d’etats. The lack of smooth transition of power left South American countries disadvantaged for years in comparison to the West.

Furthermore, problems from the colonial era persisted despite independence. Leaders feuded with one another, geographic barriers prevented unification, and conservatives – often in power – favored the old order while liberals desired land reform. The social hierarchy of New Spain persisted with whites at the top, followed by mixed races, and natives or blacks left at the bottom of society. New states were also dependent on foreign nations for capital and economic investments; unfortunately, the profits from trade that could have benefitted the new countries were usually exploited by the rulers and not put to use in welfare. The US would come to dominate affairs in the Americas, culminating with the Monroe Doctrine, Roosevelt Corollary, and ultimately the construction of the Panama Canal.


  1. Why did Spanish colonies desire independence from Spain in the early 19th century?

  2. How did the Enlightenment and other world events influence the Latin American revolutionaries?

  3. How did Latin America change as a result of the revolutions?

  4. How did Latin America remain the same as a result of revolutions?

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